Paradoxical paradises: The poetic and lived utopias of James K. Baxter and Gu Cheng

Author: Sun, Zexuan

Date: 2020

Publisher: University of Otago

Type: Thesis

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University of Otago


This thesis develops a framework for understanding modern utopianism as both a literary and life practice. The thesis advances and tests this framework through readings of the writings and lives of the New Zealand poet James K. Baxter and the Chinese poet Gu Cheng. Both established their alternative utopian communities in New Zealand, and both also delineated their poetic utopias in writing. The thesis examines Baxter’s widely known yet still contentious Jerusalem community and Gu’s notorious and controversial life on Waiheke Island, as well as examining the poems that depict their respective lived utopias. I argue that the poetry and the lives of these two poets are two equally significant components of their utopianism and that their heterodox ways of living and writing illustrate a form of modern utopianism that is both transcultural and paradoxical. Both Baxter and Gu attempted to anchor their dream worlds in New Zealand, but each looked to other cultures for a cure for their immediate reality. Baxter attacked an individualistic and capitalist New Zealand society by drawing on what he saw as the collective spirit of Māori and Indian communities. Gu sought to escape what he viewed as the collective communist nightmare of China and gazed hopefully at New Zealand as a symbolic site of personal freedom. Their poetic imaginations and real-life practices mixed multiple cultures and traditions, including Chinese philosophy and European utopian thought, white settler utopianism, the Māori tradition, Marxism, communism, Maoism, and the rise of Western intentional communities in the late 1960s and 1970s. Seen in this light, the utopias they established can be understood as spaces of cultural encounter and exchange. This study also identifies a contradiction between asserting and renouncing authority common to Baxter’s and Gu’s utopian practices and poetries. Both argued that self-negation was the prerequisite for their utopias, but their utopias were designed in such a way that their authority and power were left unchallenged. Baxter’s disavowal of his Pākehā identity and his advocacy of racial and gender equality were undermined by his actions, as is evident in his rape of his Māori wife and his alleged sexual assault of one of the female members of the Jerusalem community. Similarly, Gu’s disavowal of his masculine identity in his writing contrasts sharply with his murder of his wife and his alleged rape of Li Ying, whom he viewed as his second wife. Both Baxter’s and Gu’s utopias are thus marked by a brutal return to the dystopian reality that they sought to escape. Baxter and Gu have generally been read within their national literatures. The framework of utopianism mapped out here through my comparative reading of the two poets enables an alternative understanding of each writer beyond these conventionally conceived national canons. The proposed framework also offers a new analytical perspective on world literature—a window on a key cultural response to the larger global forces that shaped mid-to-late twentieth-century modernity.

Subjects: comparative literature, utopian studies, James K. Baxter, Gu Cheng, New Zealand

Citation: ["Sun, Z. (2020). Paradoxical paradises: The poetic and lived utopias of James K. Baxter and Gu Cheng (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved from"]

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