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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies

Liu Cixin's The Poetry Cloud and the Utopian Role of Literature


Prof. Dr. Wendy Larson (University of Oregon)

Date and Time

ATTENTION: Starting time changed to 10 o'clock

October 03, 2018, 10:00 am - 12 noon


Published in 1997, the novella The Poetry Cloud 诗云 by acclaimed science fiction writer Liu Cixin 刘慈欣 (1963-) revolves around the creation of a poetry cloud that combines literature in its purest form with technology. One interpretation of the novella analyzes it as an imaginary meeting of two strands of modern knowledge - science and the humanities - and an attempt to solve the contradictions of objective and subjective knowledge. The conviction that advanced technology must drive an advanced society paralleled the victories of Western militaries during the late Qing dynasty, making this topic historically relevant. Another interpretation looks at the imaginative resources associated not with literature in general, but with the rich tradition of Chinese literature. This line of discussion brings out a lyrical and poetic core as the most essential aspect of the Chinese literary tradition. It also asks the question whether Chinese culture over the long durée can provide resources for those living in contemporary society, and the contemporaneous question of how the Chinese cultural body can produce a modern identity. This conversation brings in a connection with the debate on poetry that occured in China in the 1990s, along with the wide-ranging 20th and 21st century arguments about the role of Chinese culture in the world. And finally some critics argue that the novella expresses nostalgia for a more humanistic life-world that has vanished in our technologically superior age.

By focusing less on the characters and more on the cloud of poetry itself, my paper will bring out another aspect of The Poetry Cloud: the special role played by literature in the building of imaginative aesthetic sensibilities with the capability of thinking through the problems of social life. The humans in the story are distinguished from non-humans through their understanding of poetry, a fictional meta-move that centers literature as a main topos. Yet because the human being must have a material existence to deeply understand literature, a contradiction is embedded within the literature/physical world relationship. Once formed into a cloud that encompasses all poetic form, poetry gobbles up the entire solar system, raising the issue of what happens to literature once it gains material form. I interpret these developments as Liu's investigation into the limits of the use of literature as a tool through which to craft an ideal or utopian society. It is no coincidence, I argue, that Liu fixed on a problem so central to the Maoist enterprise: the tendency of Marxism and its descendants - whether in China or other countries - to assign a deterministic and secondary role to literature. This tendency connects literature to the material world in a calculated way, robbing it of the potential of literature to educate readers to think deeply about social, aesthetic, and moral complexity, and to develop creative interventions. As Joseph North (2017) argues in his recent study, such logic appears contradictory, because leftist approaches to the creation and study of literature have long emphasized its ability to nurture progressive ideals and transform culture. The Poetry Cloud, therefore, suggests that a materialist approach to literature would sever the deterministic connection between literature and society.


University of Zurich, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Room ZUB 416, Zürichbergstrasse 4, 8032 Zürich


Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies - Sinology