CCCH9043 China: Culture, State and Society
Chinese Poetry as Social Critique


Course Description

Throughout the span of Chinese history, politics and poetry have been intimately if contentiously intertwined, as individuals have communicated their opinions and critiques of the status quo through the indirect medium of poetry. The Confucian Chinese state relies not just on a virtuous monarch, but also on the consultation and criticism of the people. Poetry, therefore, is an essential tool for mediating between the authority of the government and the needs of the people. It has been a means for scholars to sway the mind of the king; for women to re-examine their own place in society; and for citizens to debate the meaning of nation and patriotism.

This course introduces students to fundamental social and political issues at different periods in Chinese history through the primary source of poetic texts. As the relationship between the populace and the state has changed throughout history, so, too, have poetic forms. Our sources range from poems in the Book of Songs that protest the decadence of kings to contemporary avant-garde poets resisting political and cultural conformity. We explore the power of poetry and how it can convey radical messages obliquely, through symbolic imagery and imagined speakers, hence evading censorship by the regime. Students will also be given the opportunity to experiment writing their own poetry in different forms and genres.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an appreciation of the cultural relevance and ideological importance of poetry to Chinese society, both traditional and contemporary.
  2. Develop a critical awareness of how poetry operates specifically as a mode of political critique in traditional Chinese society.
  3. Understand and examine the relationship between poetry and contemporary intellectual developments in the Greater Chinese region.
  4. Analyze poetic texts with reference to the sociocultural and geopolitical contexts of their production and reception.
  5. Clearly articulate and present their critical views about the efficacy of poetry as a mode of social critique in the Chinese context.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

Second Semester (Wed)


Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 10
Reading / Self-study 56
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 40
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation) 20
Total: 150

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Group presentation 30
Critical writing 50
Participation in tutorials and discussion forum (Moodle) 20

Required Reading

  • Cai, Z.- Q. (Ed.). (2008). How to read Chinese poetry: A guided anthology. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • van Crevel, M. (2008). Chinese poetry in times of mind, mayhem and money. Leiden: Brill.
  • Yang, B. -B. (2012). Disruptive voices: Three cases of outspoken ‘exemplary women’ in nineteenth-century China. In Nan nü: Men, women, and gender in China, 14(2): 222-61.
  • Yeh, M., & Malmqvist, N. G. D. (Eds.) (2001). Frontier Taiwan: An anthology of modern Chinese poetry. New York: Columbia University Press.

Recommended Reading

  • Abbas, A. (1997). Writing Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Culture and the politics of disappearance. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. [pp.111-140]
  • Ho, E. (2010). Chinese English, English Chinese: Biliteracy and translation. In Louie, K. (Ed.), Hong Kong Culture: Word and Image (pp. 55-73). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
  • Holzman, D. (1976). Poetry and politics: The life and works of Juan Chi, A.D. 210–263. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Knechtges, D. (1975). The Han Rhapsody: A study of the Fu of Yang Hsiung (53B.C.E. –A.D. 18). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Li, W. -Y. (2014). Women and national trauma in late imperial Chinese literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Lupke, C. (Ed.). New perspectives on contemporary Chinese poetry. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Waley, A. (1937/1996). The book of songs (with additional translations by Joseph Allen). London: Allen & Unwin. Rpt. New York: Grove Press.
  • Wang, D. -W. (2014, May). From Mara Poet to Nobel Laureate: On modern Chinese literary culture. Opening Humanitas lecture delivered as part of the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge. From https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYK8QrddXaA

Recommended Website


Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr T.K. Lee
School of Chinese, Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 7290
Email: leetk@hku.hk
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr N.M. Williams
School of Chinese, Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 1954
Email: nmwill@hku.hk