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Chinese Whispers

Toward a Transpacific Poetics

Chinese Whispers examines multiple contact zones between the Anglophone and Sinophone worlds, investigating how poetry both enables and complicates the transpacific production of meaning.
In this new book, the noted critic and best-selling author Yunte Huang explores the dynamics of poetry and poetics in the age of globalization, particularly questions of translatability, universality, and risk in the transpacific context. “Chinese whispers” refers to an American children’s game dating to the years of the Cold War, a period in which everything Chinese, or even Chinese sounding, was suspect. Taking up various manifestations of the phrase in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Huang investigates how poetry, always to a significant degree untranslatable, complicates the transpacific production of meanings and values.

The book opens with the efforts of I. A. Richards, arguably the founder of Anglo-American academic literary criticism, to promote Basic English in China in the early twentieth century. It culminates by resituating Ernest Fenollosa’s famous essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” exploring the ways in which Chinese has historically enriched but also entrapped the Western conception of language.

184 pages | 8 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Thinking Literature

Literature and Literary Criticism: Asian Languages


“An exile writer who fled the massacre of Tiananmen Square to begin a new literary life in American universities, Huang has a unique perspective on what he calls the ‘transpacific crossover’ between China and Anglo-America, particularly between our poetries, poetics, and translations. The Chinese Whispers of Huang’s title are those ‘inscrutable moments’ when poetry determines—and is determined by—political, national, and linguistic difference, dispelling all notions of universal intelligibility and global translatability. Indeed, Huang’s study details the ways our two literary cultures have in fact understood (and misunderstood) one another, using as test cases the works of I. A. Richards, Ernest Fenollosa, Lin Yutang, and Ezra Pound. Huang has produced a superb study that is theoretically sophisticated and yet also highly personal, witty, and deeply moving.”

Marjorie Perloff, author of 'Infrathin'

“Huang’s poetics and scholarship, relentless and original at their entangled core, have helped over these past decades to provide an expanded comparative vision of the American transpacific in its transnational, transcultural, off-center, writerly, and transcendental elements. Chinese Whispers continues this uncanny world-making project. Once again, we encounter timely transnational concerns with displacement, textual migrancy, cross-cultural translation, and stylistic experimentation, but here deployed in a quasi-surrealistic pattern of juxtaposition that gives Chinese Whispers imaginative force, eloquent engagement, professional edge, and staying power.”

Rob Sean Wilson, University of California, Santa Cruz

Table of Contents

List of Figures
Introduction. Serve the People, Read Them Verse: A Transpacific Journey in Poetics and Politics
1. Through the Looking Glass: Basic English, Chinglish, and Translocal Dialect
2. Listening to Marco Polo: Sound, Money, and Vernacular Imagination
3. Words Made in China: Ezra Pound as a Translational Poet
4. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Too Big to Fail: Wallace Stevens, John Cage, and the Poetics of Risk
5. Chinese Whispers: The Future of Meaning in the Age of Information
Coda: The Story of Mr. Shi Eating Lions

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