Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Letters from the Ming Dynasty” (1977) stands out among his work for its prominent Chinese theme. This essay considers the poem against the background of some distant European precedents in order to situate it in the history of world literature. It explains what the poem does, how it does it, and how it connects with the main themes of Brodsky’s poetry. To further contextualize “Letters from the Ming Dynasty” in twentieth-century literary history, the essay compares it with uses of China by European modernists before concluding by briefly looking at examples of the mirror phenomenon, Chinese writers who “borrowed the voice” of Westerners. The relevance of Brodsky’s example to present-day debates on “cultural appropriation” becomes apparent.

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