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EZFM Salon x Inside-Out Art Museum (I) Poetry Workshop

Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum


EZFM Salon x Inside-Out Art Museum (I)

Poetry Workshop

'A war of Our Very Own': Transcontinental Witnesses to the Chinese War

Poetry Reading in Chinese and English, close reading of W. H. Auden's war sonnets and Bian Zhilin's wartime poems

Moderated by: Shen Ting (Host of Radio EZFM), Xu Xiaofan (lecturer in English, Beijing Foreign Studies University)

Time:14:30-16:30, 2019.7.27

Venue: Conference Room, Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum 

Number of participants: 15

For those who are interested in participating in this workshop, please call us at (010) 62730230 or email us :

In 1938, British poet W. H. Auden and novelist Christopher Isherwood came to China during its anti-Japanese war. Their travel diary and poetry created based on their experience in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Hankou, Shanghai and the Yellow River area later went into the collection entitled Journey to a War (1939). Being of the popular genre of travel literature, this book also importantly bears witness to the Chinese war the way George Orwell watched the Spanish Civil War in his Homage to Catalonia (1938), and such practices—of political witnessing through travelling—became a pattern in the literary world in the west throughout the 1930s.

Not out of sheer coincidence, however, in the same year, Bian Zhilin—among other Chinese poets and intellectuals—travelled to the communist western China in Shaanxi and Shanxi. He documented through poetry the life at the anti-Japanese front, adopting a nonetheless utopian manner. The act of witnessing importantly yet differently underlies both Bian and Auden/Isherwood’s travel poems. Isherwood and Auden’s witnessing operates more from the outside, as Isherwood puts it, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’. Auden, in the meantime, reminds Isherwood of the symbolic significance of the Chinese war: China would be ‘a war all of our very own’. It is here where the spatial palimpsest of Chinese and western realities took place: ‘And maps can really point to places | where life is evil now. | Nanking. Dachau [the first concentration camp in Germany]’. Starting from Auden’s fruitful connection between the eastern and western spaces and history, this reading session sets out to compare Bian and Auden’s travel poetry created in China during 1938 and 1939, and seeks to work out how the act of witnessing can be empowering during the war time.