Category Archives: research

Announcement: Jessica Yeung Wins Postgraduate Bursary of the British Comparative Literature Association

Jessica Yeung

In May this year, Jessica Yeung submitted an application to the British Comparative Literature Association Postgraduate Bursary scheme for attending the conference “World Literature and Global Core Texts”, to be held on 26-27 June 2017 in the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). She applied for this scheme because she was encouraged by another bursary (SGD 500) offered by Dr J. Casey Hammond (SUTD) and the organising committee of the conference to present her paper “Inter-Asian Comparison and the Future of World Literature” in February 2017.

The Postgraduate Bursary scheme of the British Comparative Literature Association is designed to support attendance at conferences or research trips by BCLA members registered for a postgraduate degree (MA, MRes, MPhil, or PhD). Each award is for up to a maximum of £250 per student. The judges of the 2017 Summer scheme were Dr Emily Finer (St Andrews) and Professor Naomi Segal (Birbeck). Jessica shares the award (GBP 200) with another student from Northumbria University (GBP 200).

Jessica Yeung is currently a PhD student at the Centre of Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her most recent publication is “Remaking Obscure Lives as Prosopography in Blogazine” in a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32:2 (2017). She was an MPhil graduate of the HKBU English Department in 2015.

June 2017


Announcement: The Seventeenth Workshop on Cantonese

Workshop on Cantonese.jpg

日期: 2017 年 4 月 22 日 (星期六)
地點: 香港浸會大學, 思齊樓, 719
主題: 粵難粵學

Date: April 22, 2017 (Saturday)
Venue: David C. Lam Building (DLB) 719, Hong Kong Baptist University
Theme: The Teaching and Learning of Cantonese as an Additional Language

“The Seventeenth Workshop on Cantonese” will take place on April 22, 2017 (Saturday) at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

The theme this year is “粵難粵學” (“The Teaching and Learning of Cantonese as an Additional Language”) and the speakers include 桂雯 (筑波大學), John Wakefield (ENG, HKBU), Daniel Tszhin Lee and Hintat Cheung (Education University of Hong Kong), Lian-Hee Wee (HKBU), Stephen Matthews (HKU) and Virginia YIP (CUHK), 何丹鵬 (HKBU), Chaak Ming Lau and Peggy Pik Ki MOK (CUHK), Raymond Pai (University of British Columbia), Shin Kataoka (Education University of Hong Kong) and Cedric Siu-lun Lee (CUHK). The programme can be found here.

The workshop is jointly organised by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong (John Wakefield, from the ENG Department, is its President), the Faculty of Arts (HKBU), and the Department of English Language and Literature (HKBU). All are welcome and no registration is required.

(April 2017)

“The Broken One” by Naterlie Ip, by Christy Leung, Leo Lau and Charis Yeung

GlassEditor’s note:
This is an excerpt
from a longer adaptation
of Tennessee Williams’s
The Glass Menagerie (1944).


(Laura stands at the centre of the stage. Tom and Amanda enter the stage and stand at either sides of Laura. All three solemnly face the audience. Amanda is spotlit.)

Amanda: It was the first and last time Tom swore and erupted… with such piercing hatred in his eyes that sliced right through my heart (places her hands upon her chest as she speaks). And he left (pauses to stifle the onset of tears)—as how I always knew he would. But never had I envisioned such an abrupt and disheartening departure. Gone like a tornado, leaving behind an old, dying soul… and his helpless sister—oh my poor Laura. What have I done to deserve this? A broken marriage and a broken family. Dreams – they can be intoxicating like a drug, clouding our priorities. (To an imaginary Tom and her absent husband) Why do you dream such brutal dreams? Why—oh why isn’t a wholesome family, a lovable companion worth dreaming for? What is more tormenting than having to live a life without company and die a lonely death?

(The spotlight on Amanda goes off. Tom is spotlit.)

Tom: (relieved, finally breaks free) Looking back, I have realised I lived, lived as if I were a mannequin, lived how Mum had wanted to shape me, lived in what she’d always wanted me to do. Yeah! I’ve lived for her… twenty-fucking-one years! I’d lived as if I had been some sort of walking dead, praising, pleasing whatever Mum desires. Sometimes, I question “where has my voice gone? Where has my lost soul been?” (Pauses) I didn’t go to the movies—I went much further. And now I get to see the world, without it always coming upon me unaware, taking me altogether by surprise… Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, Laura. (pauses) Break through Laura… Break through! Go search what you desire! … So goodbye… Laura… goodbye…

(The spotlight on Tom goes off. Laura is spotlit.)

Laura: (her face lights up with a glimpse of hope, subtle but unmistakable) I tried, I really did try—though ultimately failed to make Mum proud. (Pause with silent remorse, but quickly dethroned by hope) But I am thankful. Thankful that all these had happened. Thankful that Tom has finally set himself free. Mum says he is selfish—“like father, like son” she says. But I reckon he has found his inner voice—a voice buried deep in the hefty folds of his subconscious, a voice that sings the invigorating tune of ambition. I might have one too—I think I do. It is soft and delicate, unlike Tom’s. But it speaks, as unapologetically as can be, of the dreams I have, and of the wishes I make. Ppp… perhaps—maybe one day, this lovely melody that I have been composing in my head—one that I have been rehearsing hundreds and thousands of times, will just be loud enough—just loud enough to be heard. To be heard by somebody—absolutely anybody… (turns off cell phone)

(Lights on)


The Broken One_Members


Natalie.jpgNaterlie Ip is a BA ENG and BEd ELT Student.
Leo.jpgA self-proclaimed ‘ethnic minority activist, Leo Lau is completing a BA in English & BEd ELT. [Read all entries by Leo here.]
Christy Leung is a BA ENG and BEd ELT Student.

Charis.jpgCharis Yeung is a BA ENG and BEd ELT Student.

“Comics and Graphic Narratives; or, The Art of the Matter” by Jason S Polley

The fourth-year English course “Comics and Graphic Narratives”, a title as ambiguous as, say, “Short Stories and Novels”, and even the more equivocal “Prose Fiction”, is organised into several unstable thematic groupings: underground comics (or comix), revisionist narratives within the mainstream, memoirs & confessionals, new journalism, and auteur comics. The texts most recently selected for the course are based on historical impact, verifiable influence, and general popularity with readers worldwide, as well as with an eye to comics that experiment and expand the boundaries of the medium. So, while students do recognise some familiar names and titles, less well-known texts and artists too are represented.

In the fall semester of 2016, we read the following texts, texts I’ve loosely qualified in terms of blurred or blending genres, for each destabilises subgenre conventions, not to mention the traditional (artificial) boundary between ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’.

  • Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (auteur memoir, 2006)
  • Crumb, R. The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 3 (auteur comics, 1965)
  • DeLisle, Guy. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (auteur new journalism, 2006)
  • Zwigoff, Terry. Crumb (quasi-mockumentary film, 1994)
  • Seth. It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (auteur faux memoir, 2011)
  • Liew, Sonny. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (auteur revisionist memoir, 2015)
  • Matsumoto, Taiyo. Tekkon Kinkreet (auteur revisionist, 2007)
  • Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen (mainstream revisionist, 1987)
  • Yang, Gene Luen and Sonny Liew. The Shadow Hero (auteur revisionist, 2014)

Tellingly, the critical text for “Comics and Graphic Narratives” similarly resists classical categorisation. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994) is at once a comic and a textbook. Understanding Comics is a self-reflexive critical comic that simultaneously traces the history of graphic representation and presents an analysis of different graphic strategies as it legitimates the graphic medium by deconstructing the comparatively recent historical privileging of words over images while expounding on the processes of closure or the invisible art of connecting discrete images. McCloud places a graphic version of himself in the text, thereby, among other things, elucidating the roles of the artist, educator, critic, and student: he’s in the text discerning, evaluating, and creating.

What is the most compelling aspect of this course (for students and instructor) is what I simply label on the syllabus as “Final Project”. I ask the students, in the mode of McCloud, or of any or all of the authors we study, or that students have introduced in their group presentations, to come up with their own creative final work. I offer only a few key—if also indefinite—caveats: the creative final project should be as time consuming as a 10-12 page research paper, should address texts and themes germane to the course, and should include a critical self-reflection of the project itself. In short, the projects ought to combine art and criticism, not at all unlike all worthwhile theoretical, literary, and artistic production/activism.

As when I first instructed a version of this course in Fall 2015, assessing my students’ final projects left me, well, uncommonly moved, if I may be as understated as possible. I decided to photograph what I saw as the most compelling portions of these pieces. These submissions, not unlike our genre-blending course readings, arrived in multiple forms, including, memoir, appropriation, adaptation, auto-fiction, poster, board game, and blog. References to Hong Kong will be obvious to most local readers; references to the works listed above will be more familiar to contemporary comics readers. I realise that the images below offer only single snapshots of the work of my students. I hope, however, that these brief glimpses help to convey the academic, critical, and creative possibilities of the comics medium—and how BU’s senior undergraduate students can exploit this and other media.

Student contributors of the selections that follow (in no particular order) are Blue Bell-Bhuiyan, Stephanie Chan, Brenda Cheng, Ariel Fang, Fenton Fong, Erin Fong, Tiffany Ku, Aaron Kwok, Blaine Lam, Pansy Lam, Xanthe Lau, Cecilia Lee, Isabella Lui, Christy Ngan, Crescentia So, To Chang, Sampson Tse, Liz Wong, and Katie Wong.

































jspJason S Polley is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by JSP.]

“A Secret About a Secret About a Secret” by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

JSJo Shapcott’s poem “Myself Photographed” begins with an affirmative statement: “So this is me.” This line draws our attention to the subject of the photograph, although it does so with a slightly wry, or perhaps uncertain, tone provided by the word “So.” The next line, “In the field after we got lost,” continues this tone, and from there onwards, the poem reveals a subject uncertain about the self portrayed in the image. For example, Shapcott describes the physical attributes of the person in the image—her eyes are “turned up to the right,” her mouth “is a little open”—as though she was looking at an image of a stranger, not of herself. She is, in essence, objectifying herself, unsure even of her own appearance and the meaning of her facial expressions, an experience common to many people when looking at pictures of themselves from a different time in their life. Likewise, with the slight embarrassment that many of us feel when looking at our own photographs, she writes, “my mouth is a little open. / Perhaps I always look like this. / Perhaps it is an expression of surprise.” The sense of uncertainty is strengthened by the repetition of “perhaps,” and in these lines, we get the impression that the persona is almost asking “Is this me?” instead of stating “This is me.”

Throughout the poem, the persona describes something, only to immediately and hesitantly revise her depiction—”this wrong turning resulted in an oak / (I want to say leaf, leaf),” “high grass (I want / to say hay tickle),” “my dodgy ankle (I want to / say friendly old pain)”—as though she lacks confidence in her authority to recall an experience that she herself has had and which is documented in the photograph. Everything the persona in Shapcott’s poem wants to say is ironically only half said, contained in parentheses. The only constant of that day, it seems, is not “So this is me” but the heat: “O the weather there / which was hot, so hot, so hot, so hot that day.”

However, if we take into consideration some of the biographical background of the poem, we might begin to understand why “Myself Photographed” is composed in this way. The poem is included in Shapcott’s collection Of Mutability, written after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shapcott survived the disease, and the poems in the collection are all in one way or another a celebration of life. The persona’s hesitancy and revisions in “Myself Photographed” can thus be seen as a confirmation that there is more time left for her to revise, to ponder, to wonder. One is reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions.”

Wendy Cope

Unlike Shapcott’s poem which depicts a photograph of the self, Wendy Cope’s poem “On Finding an Old Photograph” addresses a photograph from which she is entirely absent. It is a picture of her father taken before she was born. The poem offers a relatively straightforward description of the image in the first two stanzas, giving us the location, the year, a sketch of the people portrayed (although the persona’s father is the only figure identified) and even a sense of the fashion of the time: the stylish trousers, the soft white blouses, the skirts that delicately brush the grass.

The second half of the poem, on the other hand, is saturated with a sense of guilt. Susan Sontag believes that “Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Seeing a version of her father in this photograph that is far different than the man she knows, the speaker is “privileged” to see his true likeness: a man who is free, happy, flamboyant, stylish. The final sentence of the poem says it all: “There he is, happy, and I am unborn.” The persona in Cope’s poem realises that her father could have been content, if, as she heartbreakingly suggests, her birth and the responsibilities of fatherhood had not put an end to the happiness immortalised so vividly, so obviously, in the old photograph.

While the two poems discussed above can be appreciated and understood without the presence of their photographic referents, I believe the availability of an inspiring photograph can add an additional layer of interpretation to a poem. Indeed, in some cases, having the chance to see the original photograph may be the only way to fully comprehend the text. Below I am going to share and discuss two such poems and the images that inspired them.

The first, titled “A Trick of the Light,” is a poem I wrote about an old family photograph of my father and his cousins when they were young. Crucially, it was taken just before one of my dad’s cousins was disfigured when tragically struck by lightning. The effect that this event had on her life is the subject of the poem.

A Trick of the Light

That night, lightning knitted her a new face.
When the thunder slapped her ancestral home,
the current traced the floor to her teenage feet.
She was darning socks on the corner chair.

Six days earlier the family photo
had preserved her still pretty face
in one flash. Brothers and sisters wearing
matching pyjamas and borrowed shoes,
posed with red books, which appeared black.

Today, when she looked at her aging siblings
and their offspring, she did not see herself.
She was the constant stranger whose face
did not belong. Their relentless kids
hid and sought in the shadows
of the antique house, while illuminated
pigeons pecked at bread crumbs she left
in the courtyard.

There were rare moments, when the sunlight shone
on the tip of her nose. The only part that
was not utterly changed, they said. In those
seconds, she no longer felt estranged,
as if given back her youth.

Old Family Photograph.png

The second poem is Ricky de Ungria’s “The Luminous Politics of Travel,” inspired by a photograph of me taken at the Hong Kong pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale. I chose this poem because it shows how a photo can take on a different meaning in light of subsequent historical events. The umbrella in the image—which was part of Lee Kit’s installation ‘You (you)’—was intended by the artist as a means of exploring space and the quotidian. For de Ungria, however, it inspired a poetic response to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014, a pro-democracy campaign that got its name from the umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves against natural elements, such as the rain and the sun, and from police tear gas.

The Luminous Politics of Travel

She sits on the edge of light
looking away with the ten thousand things
in her mind. This is Venice, 2013.
And the yellow boat across her in the Rio de Miracoli
pinned by the morning rays to its moor
has sped off already to the ponte Santa Maria Nova
trailed by quiet spumes of forking waves.
Behind her in the dark and narrow landing,
a colourful but unused beach umbrella
brought in to measure the distance
between opposite walls, has multiplied
itself already into thousands of hand-
carried and handmade yellow umbrellas in Hong
Kong a year later where it remains unfolded
and is shield and symbol both at once,
sheltering new and hidden suns
with its thousand shades
behind barricades and barbed wires
on unpassable and untrodden roads.

1 December 2014


As de Ungria captures in his poem, the umbrella in the image, like those in Hong Kong, had moved from part of daily life to a political symbol.

If time and history can change our interpretation of a picture, the act of taking a photo can affect how we remember and interpret the events we are capturing. The psychologist Linda Henkel once said, “When people rely on technology to remember for them […], counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves—it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.” While it is common to argue that when we are taking pictures we are not fully present in the moment, Henkel’s study goes further, arguing that the act of modern photo-taking has become so mindless that we may not even remember the actions we are recording. This condition is closely related to what some psychologists have termed the “photo-taking impairment effect,” which suggests that when we take a photograph of something, we are less likely to remember it than if we had experienced it directly with our own eyes.

Perhaps aware of the effect the camera has on our memory, the photographer Antonio Olmos tries to get his students to become more conscious of what they are recording. “When I do street photography courses,” he says, “I get people to print pictures—often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make—not just take—photographs.” Poems that describe photographs serve a similar purpose: to slow things down, to linger on particular moments that are stilled but not dead, to verbalise them and give them new textures and interpretations. Through a translation from a visual representation to a verbal one, photographs are given another lease on life in poetry—often a life much different than the one the photographer thought she was capturing.

The photographer Diane Arbus remarked, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” If this is the case, then a poem about a photograph is a secret about a secret about a secret.

Editor’s note: This was adapted from a talk given at the 54th Silliman University National Writers Workshop and part of this was previously presented at an Eminence – HKBU English Language and Literature Society 1415 Academic Week lecture. This post is also the editorial for the March 2017 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.


hlmTammy Ho Lai-Ming is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is the editor of Agora. [Click here to read all entries by Tammy.]

“Who Speaks?: From Self-Fictionalising Authors to Empowered Readers” by Janet Lau

Girl Reading.jpg
Picasso, “Girl Reading”

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.
― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
―David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Exploring the relationship between text and reality is an important theme in postmodern texts. These are often regarded as metafictions―fictions about fiction which expose the artificiality of their fictional worlds and encourage reflection on the supposed authenticity of reality. Mark Currie defines a postmodern novel as ‘one that involves metalepsis, which is usually defined as frame-breaking, a crossing of some uncrossable boundary between different orders of reality or being […]’ (3). Different devices of frame-breaking are found in postmodern texts, such as highlighting the presence of an author or an author’s intrusion into the fictional world to interact with other characters—devices which blur the line between reality and fiction. Patricia Waugh suggests that ‘[a] metafiction draws attention to the fact that life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and that it is finally impossible to know where one frame ends and another begins’ (29). Postmodern metafictions, in this sense, aim to destruct the illusion of authentic reality and question the fundamental differences between reality and fiction.

Author’s self-fictionalisation

Postmodern metafictions’ frame-breaking can be achieved by the author appearing as a character in their own text, for example, having a character or characters share their name. This intrusion not only leads to reflections on the authenticity of reality, but also undermines the authority of the author, as Brian McHale remarks:

As soon as the author writes himself into the text, he fictionalises himself, creating a fictional character […], while the author himself withdraws to a further remove from the world of the text […] The penetration of the author into his fictional world is always, as Umberto Eco has put it, trompe l’œil: this ‘author’ is as fictional as any other character. (215)

When an author inserts themselves into their fiction, it is not merely to cast doubt on the notion of reality, but also aims at decreasing their influence over the fiction itself. Through depriving themselves of their own authority, the author intends to lessen the ontological difference between their authentic self and the fictional entities.

Self-conscious narrator as a fictional author

Pale FireApart from the author’s self-fictionalisation, another device of frame-breaking is the author’s creation of another fictional author, that is, when a ‘self-conscious’ narrator claims the ownership of a text. One example of such a fictional author is the narrator in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Charles Kinbote, who states in his foreword, ‘In my notes to the poem the reader will find these canceled readings […] I must now explain how Pale Fire came to be edited by me’ (13). The narrator, in this case, explicitly declares his authorship of the narrative, asserting that the editing of the poem is his effort instead of Nabokov’s. The existence of a fictional author brings forth the question of ‘who speaks?’, which can be exemplified by the narrator in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Borges and I” (1960), who states at the end of the narrative ‘I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page’ (702). More importantly, a narrator who seems to have authority makes the readers wary of the subjectivity of their narration. Currie comments on the claimed authority of the narrator in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969):

The narrator regularly interrupts his own recognisably Victorian tone with a narrative comment from the late twentieth century, or with an explicit declaration of the artificiality of the events being narrated: “The story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind.” […] The point here is that the poles of narration and narrativity combine to form a paradox, baring the device of impersonal omniscience on which the objectivity of historical narration depends by revealing it as subjective invention. (73)

The self-conscious narrator, intervening with their subjectivity and emphasising the artificiality of the narrative, renounces objective narration which is common in conventional Victorian fiction and crucial for historical narration. Hence, rather than making the narrator sound more convincing, the declared authority exposes their subjectivity in their narration to readers, drawing attention of the latter to the unreliability of their narration.

Unreliable narrator

Narrator’s subjective invention―to use Currie’s term―is often found to be unreliable in early postmodern texts. For example, in Pale Fire, ‘[w]e soon realise that Kinbote is mad, believing himself to be the exiled king of some Ruritanian country resembling pre-Revolutionary Russia. He had convinced himself that [John] Shade was writing a poem about his own history […] (Lodge 157). McHale argues that in Pale Fire, ‘[the] convention of narratorial unreliability has been pushed to the limit. Here we can be sure that the narrator is radically unreliable’ (18). The revelation about Kinbote’s madness contributes to the impossibility for all of his previous narrations standing up. Since the notion of truth is severely challenged, the narrator’s unreliability is foregrounded so as to deny any potential kind of objectivity or omniscience.

Diminished narrator

Nevertheless, the notion of the unreliable narrator is less prevalent in texts in today’s digital era, given the accelerated knowledge acquisition or even information explosion in the contemporary world. Alvin Toffler has coined the term ‘future shock’ to describe ‘the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time’ (4). He further points out that ‘[w]e have in our time released a totally new social force―a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionises the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we “feel” the world around us’ (18). Toffler argues that in the contemporary world, knowledge changes rapidly and capriciously and humans are prone to the ‘disease of change’. In the face of the rapidity of change and exchange of information, the objectivity and reliability of narrators, as well as the notion of truth, are no longer the primary focus in contemporary narrativity. Instead, in their place have sprouted a range of new and innovative styles. The entity of the narrator itself is interrogated in a different manner because of our different worldview, leading to the suspension of narrator’s domination over the narrative.

The reader’s increased subjectivity and the implied author

Rhetoric of FictionThe author’s decreased authority, the narrator’s unreliability as well as diminished influence lead to a high level of instability in narratives which in turn empowers the reader’s subjectivity. Matthew Francis states that ‘[w]ith so much instability introduced into the narrative, so many possibilities of going astray, it is hard for the reader to know what to believe, or, more accurately, what to accept and what to reject on the fictive plane of the text’ (164). As a result, the reader’s interpretations of the text become participatory. Rather than passively receiving details divulged in the narrative, readers need to decide which of them are trustworthy and which are misleading or even deceptive, since ‘[f]inding the solution, knowing the truth, is something we are mentally programmed to want to achieve, and we carry this instinct into the fictive world with us’ (Booth 366).

Wayne Booth suggests the idea of the implied author to examine the reader’s process of interpretation. The implied author is the product of the reader’s engagement in interpretation and can be understood as their imagining of an author-image who writes in that manner:

However impersonal [the author] may try to be, his reader will inevitably construct a picture of the official scribe who writes in this manner ― and of course that official scribe will never be neutral towards all values. Our reactions to his various commitments, secret or overt, will help to determine our response to the work. (Booth 71)

The implied author is the actual author’s ‘second self’ that is constituted during the act of reading. He is ‘responsible for the text’s ultimate verbal meanings, as well as for the value systems that undergird those meanings’ (Davis and Womack 56). Therefore, despite the varieties in influence on the reader’s interpretation brought by an unreliable narrator and a diminished one, the reader’s subjectivity is enhanced through making judgments about, but without being told, the intentions of the author in order to make sense of the narratives out of the instability.


Works Cited

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. ‘Borges and I’. In Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. London: The Penguin Press. 1999. pp. 702-704. Web.

Currie, Mark, 1962. Postmodern Narrative Theory. 2nd ed. New York; Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

Francis, Matthew. ‘A Prophet as Unreliable Narrator: Rewriting Arise Evans’. New Writing 7.2 (2010): 161-71. Web.

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir, 1899-1977, Pale Fire. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970. Web.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York; London: Methuen, 1984. Print.


JanetJanet Lau is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2016). [Click here to read all entries by Janet.]

“Mu Dan and Ambiguity” by Candy Wang

Mu Dan

Mu Dan’s (1918-1977) poems, while incorporating elements and sentiments of classical Chinese poetry, also exhibit characteristics of Western modernist aesthetics and thoughts. For example, his poetry was influenced by William Empson (1906-1984), and this influence partially ushered Mu Dan’s shift towards Modernism.

Perhaps the most significant impact of Empson on Mu Dan’s poetry was the concept of ambiguity, which Empson developed in his influential critical study, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). In a poem Mu Dan wrote and published in 1947 (at this point he had already taken some of Empson’s courses), “China in Hunger” 饥饿的中国, we can see ambiguity at work in one of its stanzas:

I see at every gate hunger
Or evil, his complacent brother;
Nowhere could we escape from his
Gazing eyes: we are thus taught to become.
(Wang, 147-148)[1]

The possessive pronoun ‘his’ in the third line can be interpreted in several ways. It can refer, most straightforwardly, to the ‘hunger’ or ‘evil’ of the first two lines. It can also refer to the hungry everyman—this depicts a vivid picture of China in early twentieth century where starving men stood by the roadside staring at passersby. It might even signify the personified China, the country itself, watching people starving on this land with pity or anger.

Another example of ambiguity can be found in the first part of Mu Dan’s famous poem “A Farewell Remark” 赠别:

Here so many youth are fanciful,
And then step in the crowded road,
Hazy is your tiredness, and clouds and rivers,
They lost their self and before long forget it,

For so many times your garden is open,
Your beauty, regained, your heart frozen,
A singing voice is so nice of all seasons
When the wingless dewdrops condense—

When you’re old, by the fire, alone,
You’ll be aware of a soul, quietly, approaching,
He was a lover of your infinite variation in youth,
Now dream broken, he loves the sorrows in youth.
(Wang, 99)[2]

W.B. Yeats

The similarity between “A Farewell Remark” and W.B. Yeats’s (1865-1939) “When You Are Old” is rather apparent. In fact, the last stanza quoted above is almost a rephrasing of Yeats’s poem. However, while Yeats’s poem conveys quite concrete ideas, the meaning of Mu Dan’s poem is perhaps much more obscure.

Wang translated the first line of this poem by starting with the location ‘here’, yet, throughout the poem, there is no specific description to locate ‘here’. It is possible that the word ‘here’ refers to the place where the poet bid his friend farewell, but it is also plausible to interpret ‘here’ as a certain temporal point during one’s life. In Chinese, the word 这 zhe can be understood as either a space term or a time term,[3] and the word 在 zai can be followed by either a location or a time period. If the word ‘here’ refers to a time period, then the phrase ‘the crowded road’ would be a metaphor of one’s life road after youth. The third line would be even more difficult to understand, however. While one might be able to comprehend the line ‘hazy is your tiredness’ by linking one’s own experience of how the feeling of being tired would gradually dwindle away, the hidden meaning of ‘the clouds and rivers’ is still rather vague. It might indicate past time and past experience, or it might suggest something precious in one’s youth. Yet, no matter what, the only definite answer provided by the poet is that they will all be forgotten ‘before long’.

The second stanza also contains many ambiguous symbols. For instance, in the first line, the poet writes, ‘for so many times your garden is open’; the ‘garden’ here certainly does not refer to a particular garden outside someone’s house. Instead, it is a symbol, signifying something else. Considering some lines from another poem by Mu Dan, “Spring” 春, in which the image of the garden also appears: ‘If you awake, push the window open, / Watch the beauty of desire overflowing the garden.’ (Wang, 65)[4], one might be able to perceive the idea of ‘an opened garden’ as a wonderland full of energy, enthusiasm, beautiful dreams, and perhaps even ‘desire’, mentioned in “Spring”. If this is the case, then the image of the garden in “A Farewell Remark” not only suggests the influence of Empson’s theory of ambiguity on Mu Dan, but also conveys the poet’s modern self-consciousness.

In Chinese, 欲 yu (‘desire’) is usually regarded as dangerous, immoral and shameful. Normally, yu is aroused by some evil temptation and without proper control. Even the beautiful ancient Chinese verse: “满园春色关不住, 一枝红杏出墙来”[5] gave rise to the idiom “红杏出墙”.[6] That is why most Chinese poets would avoid using the term yu so as to exclude personal intention in their works. In Mu Dan’s poetry, however, the concept of the opened garden, or desire, is justified as a positive idea.

Other than the ambiguous images discussed above, the rest of the poem is also veiled with uncertainty. While Yeats’s poem is more or less clear about its use of the personal pronoun ‘you’, readers of Mu Dan’s poem might find themselves a bit confused if they want to figure out whom this poem is addressed to. The word ‘you’ in Mu Dan’s poem can refer to a metaphysical person, which means the second-person pronoun is speaking directly to whoever is reading the poem, or the poem can be read as the poet’s inward soliloquy. It can even be read as a song to that period of history, to the nation, or even to an ideology.

William Empson

This kind of ambiguity is also in rapport with Empson’s opinion that poetry should be self-contradictory and let the readers decode or interpret by themselves. The function of this idea shares some similarity with many Western modernist writers’ intentional design of ‘story without ending’. And this also leads to another impact Empson had on Mu Dan’s writing, that is, to design poems with unresolved conflicts. As Zheng Min has pointed out, Mu Dan’s poems are full of conflicts as well as the self-torture any conscientious intellectuals should have had in the 1940s, Mu Dan has borne the responsibility of questioning himself with the conundrums thrown up by society in his time.


[1] The original lines in Chinese: 我看见饥饿在每一家门口,或者他得意的兄弟,罪恶;没有一处我们能够逃脱,他的 / 直瞪的眼睛: 我们做人的教育。 Translated from the Chinese into English by Wang Hongyin in Mu Dan’s Poems: A Chinese-English Version with Chinese Commentary (2014). All translations are by Wang.
[2] The Chinese version: 多少人的青春在这里迷醉, 然后走上熙攘的路程,朦胧的是你的怠倦, 云光和水, 他们的自己丢失了随着就遗忘, /多少次了你的园门开启, 你的美繁复, 你的心变冷, 尽管司机的歌喉唱的多好, 当无翼而来的夜露凝重—— / 等你老了, 独自对着炉火, 就会知道有一个灵魂也静静地, 他曾经爱过你的变化无尽, 旅梦碎了, 他爱你的愁绪纷纷。
[3] For example, the Chinese phrases 这天 zhetian (‘this day’) and 这时 zheshi (‘this time’).
[4] The original lines are: 如果你是醒了,推开窗子,看这满园的欲望多么美丽。
[5] ‘The colour of spring overwhelms the garden, and a red apricot grows beyond the wall’. This depict a beautiful spring scene with many flowers blossoming.
[6] A negative idiom usually referring to a woman who cheats on her husband.


candyCandy Wang was an MALCS (MA in Literary and Comparative Studies) student (2014-2015) at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is currently a PhD student at the Department.