Towards Sinophone Poetics: Andrew Huang and his Musical Poetry
Editor's note: Click here to view selected musical poetry from Andrew Huang's Master Tribute Songs Album
Shijing 詩經, commonly translated as The Classic of Poetry and The Book of Songs, is believed to be the oldest collection of poems in human history. Allegedly compiled and edited by Confucius, the anthology contains 305 poems that can be dated back to the Zhou dynasty, as early as the 11th century. Anchored in human relationships within ancient Chinese society, the content of Shijing is categorized into Airs, Odes, and Hymns, and points to interpersonal, sociopolitical, and spiritual connections collectively. A timeless masterpiece, Shijing captivates Chinese readers with a variety of themes that speak to an overarching folk culture: love, war, royalty, bureaucracy, and deities. The most significant feature of Shijing is its combination of poetry and melody in a musical form. It is the reason that traditional Chinese poems are usually named shige 詩歌, which literally means “poetry songs.” The musicality of Shijing undoubtedly paved the way for the further development of Chinese poetry, going under different names at different times. The musical rendition of Chinese poetry is well exemplified in the Han dynasty’s folk songs (yuefu 樂府), Tang poetry, and Song Ci poetry, among others. According to Michelle Yeh, poetry “was traditionally regarded as the most elevated art and the most prestigious form of writing” and “occupied a central position in Chinese culture and society.”1Michelle Yeh, “Frontier Taiwan: An Introduction,” in <em>Frontier Taiwan</em>, eds. Michelle Yeh and N. G. D. Malmqvist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 3.Initiated by Shijing, the so-called Old Poetry dominated the literary arena of traditional China for thousands of years until the New Poetry was introduced by Hu Shi (1891–1962) in the 1910s, followed by the publication of his A Collection of Attempts (Changshiji 嘗試集, 1920), which was the first collection of New Poetry in Chinese history.
Under Hu Shi’s groundbreaking design, modern Chinese poetry, with a focus on new language and form, provokes a direct confrontation with classical Chinese poetry and represents a symbolic departure from shige—the essential form combining poetry and song. Despite skepticism and criticism from hardcore traditionalists, modern Chinese poetry took shape in mainland China and spread to other Chinese-speaking communities like Taiwan in the following decades. It is important to consider that the literary divergence of modern Chinese poetry has been further intensified by the political divide between Communist China (the People’s Republic of China) and the alternative China (the Republic of China, or Taiwan) from the mid-twentieth century onward. Ruled variously by the Spanish, the Dutch, the Late Ming’s Koxinga, the Imperial Qing, the Japanese, and the Kuomintang (KMT) over the past four hundred years, Taiwan has witnessed a distinct historical trajectory of colonization and recolonization and thus has created its own cultural and literary heritage, unlike that of others in the modern world. As Michelle Yeh argues, “The history of modern Taiwanese poetry tells the story of how the periphery has transformed itself into the frontier” when it comes to the development of modern poetry in the Chinese language.1Yeh, 2.In mid-twentieth-century Taiwan, modernism gradually became the “mainstream of the New Poetry,” with an emphasis on the unprecedented exploration of “repressed desire” and “emotional imagination,” thus separating Taiwanese poets from “the lyrical tradition since China’s May Fourth Movement.”1Fang-ming Chen, <em>Taiwan Xin Wenxue Shi Xia </em>台灣新文學史-下 [A History of Modern Taiwanese Literature 2] (Taipei: Lianjing chuban gongsi 聯經出版公司 [Linking Publishing], 2011), 416.While some may argue that music has lost its traditional status in the formulation of modern poetry, notable efforts from poets and poetry lovers have been made in Taiwan to prove otherwise.
Modern Taiwanese poets have started to extend their literary writing to “vocal performance” that relies on rhythm and flow at public recitals, which was already a popular practice under martial law.1Chen, 416–417. Entering the twenty-first century, modern Taiwanese poetry is intriguingly fueled by an artistic collaboration between language and music that not only elevates the New Poetry but also emulates the remarkable feats of Shijing from ancient China. The most influential event spotlighting such a synergy of poetry and music is the Taiwanese Festival of Poetry and Music (Taiwan shige yinchang hui 台灣詩歌吟唱會), which is an annual event held by the Yanshuei Tianliao Community Development Association and the Tainan City Yuejin Literature and History Community Development Association since 2000.1Wan-chun Liu and Edward Jones, “A Festival of Poetry and Music under the Cotton Trees 木棉樹下吟詩 鹽水詩路醉人 - Taipei Times,” <em>Taipei Times</em>, March 26, 2016. For over two decades, the Taiwanese Festival of Poetry and Music has established a high reputation for gathering poets and devoted poetry readers from around the island to appreciate poetry recital and musical poetry under blooming cotton trees in Yanshuei, Tainan. A comparable effort can be seen in the launch of the Formosa International Poetry Festival in Tamsui (Danshui Fuermosha guoji shigejie 淡水福爾摩沙國際詩歌節) of New Taipei City, which offers a platform to facilitate cross-cultural exchange between local Taiwanese poets and international poets in the hybrid form of poetry and music. Importantly, these two events promote a profound blend of music and poetry and include Taiwan-focused subjects and Taiwanese-language songs, thereby echoing the evolving literary trend of nativism on the island in contact with different cultures and realities. In a translocal sense, musicality has become one of the most vital features of the public performance of modern Taiwanese poetry, beyond the traditional scope of cross-Strait politics and Chinese diaspora.
To unpack the aforementioned musicality embodied in modern Taiwanese poetry, this essay surveys Andrew Huang’s (黃安祖) career as a poet/singer-songwriter/painter and examines his poetry and music albums, including Master Tribute Songs (2021), through a Sinophone lens. Though born in Keelung, Taiwan, Huang grew up and received his education in Canada and the United States. Huang’s latest award-winning album has been labeled an innovative tribute to selected master poets in response to the artist’s deeply personal background, in a border-crossing way. Blending poetry and music, Huang does not conform to the stereotype of New Poetry but explores the synthesis of languages and forms as an epoch-making endeavor. The analytical approach of this essay is twofold. First, it pivots around Huang’s transcultural performativity with regard to the shifting borders of homeland, identification, and citizenship. In a new light of diaspora and migration, Huang, now back in Taiwan, undertakes a reassessment of modern Chinese poetry and modern Taiwanese poetry. The second part of the essay extends Huang’s performativity by adopting a translational reading of his poetic and musical practices. The artist’s translational act is not only charged with the interlingual translation from one textual source to another, but it also realizes the cultural translation and transformation of modern poetic art into contemporary music, thus expanding the scope of Sinophone poetics.
Living in North America for twelve years, Andrew Huang worked as a journalist for English-language news media such as Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post, and Taiwan News. In 2012, Huang debuted as a poet-painter with his collection of poetry and paintings—Love Odes from a World in Ruins (Laizi benglie shijie de qingshi 來自崩裂世界的情詩). Huang’s debut work featured fifty poems (in both Chinese and English) and twenty-five paintings under four different subheadings: Yearning, Desire, Memories, and Rebirth. Huang’s versatility is further endorsed by his bilingual capability and transcultural sensibility, as he can freely translate, or re-write, his Chinese poems into English and vice versa. Seeking understanding from his readers, the author-painter offered the following comment on his first collection of art: “I treat creating poetry and painting as the same as writing my diary. I use them to record and interpret my past and future.”1Andrew C. C. Huang, “Seeking Redemption through Poems and Paintings,” <em>The Taipei Chinese PEN: A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Chinese Literature from Taiwan</em>, no. 163 (2013): 98. In this light, Love Odes from a World in Ruins functions as a nuanced account exploring various aspects of life, including love, death, and rebirth, and, more importantly, makes possible the author-painter’s self-redemption in art. With his interdisciplinary and avant-garde style, Huang quickly received critical acclaim in literary circles. In the spring of 2013, Huang made it to the cover of The Taipei Chinese PEN: A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Chinese Literature from Taiwan (formerly known as The Chinese PEN). Additionally, he was awarded the National Outstanding Young Poet’s Award by the New Poetry Society of the Republic of China in the same year.1Hong-ting Gui, “Zhonghua Minguo Xinshi Xuehui Jin Ban ‘Quanguo Youxiu Qingnian Shiren Jiang’ 中華民國新詩學會今頒"全國優秀青年詩人獎" [New Poetry Society of the Republic of China Gave Away ‘The Best Young Poet Awards’],” <em>New Net News</em>, June 12, 2013, https://newnet.tw/Newsletter/Comment.aspx?Iinfo=5&iNumber=6251.
Following the success of his artistic hybrid of poetry and painting, Andrew Huang advanced his career by releasing a trilogy of poetry music albums: Troubadour (Yinchang shiren 吟唱詩人, 2015), Those Who Don’t Believe in Love Have All Died (Buxiangxin aiqing de dou sidiaole 不相信愛情的都死掉了, 2017), and Heaven and Earth (Tianshang renjian 天上人間, 2017). Andrew’s achievements straddling poetry and contemporary music remind his readers and listeners of Hsia Yu 夏宇 (b. 1956), one of the most celebrated Taiwanese poets. In addition to her poetry writing, Hsia Yu is well-known for her alternative identity as Katie Lee (or Li Gedi 李格弟)—a pop song lyricist.1Yu Hsia, “夏宇/李格弟官網,” Hsia Yu’s official site, accessed August 3, 2022, https://www.hsiayu.org/. Since the 1980s, Hsia/Lee has been writing song lyrics for Taiwanese pop singers like Louise Tsuei 崔苔菁, Michelle Pan 潘越雲, Lily Lee 李麗芬, Zhao Chuan 趙傳, Christine Hsu 許景淳, Chyi Yu 齊豫, Chyi Chin 齊秦, Sandee Chan 陳珊妮, Yoga Lin 林宥嘉, Hebe Tien 田馥甄, Waa Wei 魏如萱, and Wu Tsing-Fong 吳青峰, to name a few.1“Li Gedi 李格弟 [Katie Lee],” Wiki Liu Xin Music, accessed August 3, 2022, <a href="http://www.tpmw.org.tw/index.php/%E6%9D%8E%E6%A0%BC%E5%BC%9F">http://www.tpmw.org.tw/index.p...</a> Notwithstanding a comparable adoption of poetry and lyrics, Huang differs from Hsia/Lee in two essential respects. First, Huang is consistently dubbed an avant-garde artist as his lyrics or musical poems are much less pop compared with Hsia/Lee’s. Huang’s viewers and listeners can easily observe his departure from such mainstream genres of Mandopop as ballads, R&B, and hip hop. Second, Huang, as the poet/singer-songwriter, completes the musical production of lyrics/poetry, composition, and vocals by himself, thereby carrying out a profound performative agency beyond the reach of other Taiwanese poets. In his 2019 album, In Quest of Love (Xun ai 尋愛), Huang further stretches and reshapes his artistic form by linking ten audio segments of a love story and ten poetry songs, thus creating an experimental artwork of poetry, music, and fiction.
For his most recent album, Master Tribute Songs, Andrew Huang was awarded the Chinese Writers’ Association Award for Poetry Song in 2021 and the Bronze Medal of the internationally renowned Global Music Awards in 2022. Huang’s consecutive wins convincingly affirm the quality of his innovative poetic and musical art. The release of Master Tribute Songs marks a new milestone in Huang’s career, as he has made a bold attempt to blend modern poetry and various contemporary musical styles. As the title of the album indicates, Huang pays tribute to master poets by adapting their poems into songs. The first five masters he chose are Taiwanese poets: Yu Guangzhong 余光中, Zheng Chou-yu 鄭愁予, Chou Meng-tieh 周夢蝶, Chen I-chih 陳義芝, and Chen Ke-Hua 陳克華. Huang also extends his selection by including legendary Tang poet Li Bai 李白, Chinese romantic poet Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, and Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Paying homage to a wide range of masters, Huang’s music album aptly revitalizes Chinese-language poetry and western opera and, therefore, unfurls their artistic potential across national, cultural, and linguistic borders. Connecting well with his earlier products of musical poetry, Huang’s tribute to Taiwanese, Chinese, and western masters in his latest album resonates with the artist’s border-crossing identity. Drawing from the title of his first album, Huang is nicknamed “Troubadour,” a term which originally referred to French poets and singers in Medieval times, many of whom would travel from place to place. In a similar vein, Huang can be cast as a complex subject of diaspora and migration in a cross-cultural context that involves China, Taiwan, and the West. While Taiwan is the birthplace for Huang, China and the West represent the destinations he physically and metaphorically travels to. The notion of homeland is thus deconstructed in Huang’s universe of musical poetry.
Taking a closer look, Andrew Huang’s performative agency is realized via his mobility and in-betweenness, both geographically and culturally. His musical poetry champions the transcultural environment in which one’s national and cultural identity is contested and compromised as the self/subject interacts with and confronts the Other in the age of globalization. In a Sinophone light, Huang’s transcultural production of musical poetry transcends the conventions of modern poetry in both China and Taiwan and raises thought-provoking translational issues across borders. Huang’s music art begins with the literary translation of his own poetry between Chinese and English. Huang’s multilayered translation (or rewriting) involves the adjustment and conversion found in the process of cultural translation as it solicits exchanges between individual minds and between sociopolitical realities. In Sinophone studies, “translational” is a preeminent subjective topic that gravitates towards the trope of translocality. As E. K. Tan nicely argues, “… Nanyang writers are able to translate their experiences of cultural production and identity formation between the local and the global and to shed light on another dimension of the global politics of ethnic and national identity.”1E. K. Tan, <em>Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World</em> (New York: Cambria, 2013), 4. In conjunction with Tan’s translational reading, Tong King Lee provides an illuminating take on the topic:
“Translational”, however, is not merely a lexemic variant on “translation”. It is a site that is closely affiliated to translation, that is, the textual act of translating, but also exceeds the discursive domain, functioning as a semiotic trope that governs a wide range of textual and non-textual aesthetic phenomena.
In this case, the text is translational by virtue of being translingual and transcultural, not because it entails translating—though it is completely possible for translating to figure in such texts as a rhetorical strategy as well. This type of translational text contains cultural-linguistic movements within itself.1Tong King Lee, <em>Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics</em> (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 130.
Both Tan and Lee go beyond the semiotic transference across languages and texts and thus pinpoint the cultural and conceptual domain of translational transaction. Furthermore, the correspondence between two different media can be defined as a translational exercise. For instance, “a translational equation between text and music” is satisfied, as Lee indicates, “when semiotic boundaries dissolve, and the verbal poem and its musical translation fuse into a holistic text-continuum.”1Lee, 92. While interlingual translation is no longer the focus of translational politics, the subjectivity of the translator/artist/writer is loaded with a heavy weight. Consequently, it is impossible to leave out the dynamism of transculturality and intermedia in the Sinophone discourse, and Huang’s rise to fame in Sinophone Taiwan is worthy of investigation by applying the above theory. Although Huang is not a Nanyang writer, his in-between position and border-crossing experiment speak to the ubiquitous translational process and production in the entire Sinophone world.
According to Michelle Yeh, “The history of modern Chinese poetry is, in essence, an ongoing process of artists’ negotiation with these forces in the three mutually reinforcing binary oppositions: modernity and tradition, cosmopolitanism and nativism, and the individual and the collective.”1Yeh, “Frontier Taiwan: An Introduction,” 5. It is exhilarating to see how artists like Andrew Huang substantialize their “negotiation” between the past and the present through notable artistic breakthroughs in the new century. Avant-garde and experimental, Huang’s musical poetry is tasked to challenge and broaden the existing norm of modern Taiwanese poetry, thereby advancing his status as poet/singer-songwriter and inspiring his fellow artists. In 2022, the Dreamland Image Co., in partnership with Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS), Taiwan Television Enterprise (TTS), Vidol TV, and YouTube, presented an ambitious music program entitled Like a Rolling Poem (Gundong de shi 滾動的詩). This program features the documentary and musical adoption of fifteen modern Taiwanese poems adapted and performed by fifteen Taiwanese musicians and indie bands. Spanning from 1920 to 2020, the selected poems address diverse individual snapshots and cultural memories relating to modern Taiwan in the past one hundred years. Each episode pairs one famed poet with one musician/group and revolves around the recurring theme/question: “Can a (musical) poem change the world?” Through substantial rewriting, these Taiwanese poems are transformed into contemporary songs in genres like rock & roll, electronica, folk, and hip hop.1Cheng Yi-hsun, “Yinyue jishi jiemu ‘Gundong de shi’ 15 Taiwanese musicians/groups turned poetry into songs 音樂紀實節目《滾動的詩》 15組台灣音樂人以詩入歌,” <em>China Times</em>, June 9, 2022, https://www.chinatimes.com/realtimenews/20220609004973-260404?chdtv.
In a symbolic light, Like a Rolling Poem opens the dialogue between poets and musicians. While pointing to turbulent times and troubled minds from the past, this music series invites Taiwanese musicians and audiences to reflect on the timelessness of poetry and poetics across generations. Like a Rolling Poem is indeed a daring project of poetry songs that corresponds with Andrew Huang’s pioneering albums of the past decade. Still, Huang’s work deliberates a more complicated picture in a transcultural and translational sense. From this perspective, Huang leads his readers and audience to step into a world of poetic and musical wonder. Works of border-crossing composition, Huang’s musical poetry represents a laudable artistic pursuit that can be positioned within the framework of the ever-evolving Sinophone poetics of the twenty-first century.