Letter from Beijing: New Poets and New Trends in China
From Ming Di
Chinese New Poetry started as a literary revolution a hundred years ago influenced by the new poetry that appeared in Poetry magazine in Chicago. Hu Shi was a student in the US from 1910 to 1917. He wrote the first Chinese free verse in vernacular speech in July 1916, published “A Tentative Proposal of Literary Reform” in the New Youth journal in China in January 1917, followed by eight free verses in the same journal the next month, and returned to China in July to promote the New Poetry. This literary revolution was preceded by the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and reinforced by the May Fourth Cultural Movement in 1919. Poets in China today are celebrating 2017 as the one hundred year anniversary of New Poetry. But how do we re-evaluate Hu Shi and the other earlier modernists in China? How do we re-evaluate our New Poetry tradition? There are still over two million people in China writing the rhymed metrical verses. Many people have criticized the free verse as “degrading the classical tradition”, “not an artistic form [because it is] without meters and rhymes”, despite the fact that the avant garde poetry has moved forward and split into many different schools and trends.
- Foreign influence vs revival of Chinese tradition
While some poets continue to integrate foreign influences in their writing, others try to revitalize traditional elements. “Seabirds” by Xi Du (西渡 1967-) is a nice example of the new efforts. The poem sounds very classical but it’s in contemporary free verse:
by Xi Du
Sometimes the sea roams to the land, folded as a seagull.
Sometimes the land walks to the sea, hiding in a boat.
The sea and land go deeper to each other through rain and lightning.
In the clouds seagulls measure things.
In the waves boats too.
When it’s quiet and calm, the sea stops on your fingertips
looking at you,
and then flies away like a cup of water poured
but retrieving itself when you start to care, even just slightly, about worldly matters.
Seagulls gather their wings, boats their sails.
With the rise and fall of tides, the nobleman’s gray hair gets long
and the beauty’s mirror gets thin
while crowds of white robed monks rush to the sunrise
and flocks of black whales to the sunset.
Here the “nobleman” and “beauty” may sound cliché to Westerners, but the archaic words serve as a timeframe of when and where this poem is situated. The story comes from the Yellow Emperor Chapter of the Han dynasty book Liezi (列子．黄帝篇) and there have been many ancient poems about it throughout the centuries. The contemporary moral lesson is that only when you are unconcerned about worldly matters, such as fame or awards, will seabirds fly to you and even stay in your hands. When you have motivations and intentions in the earthly world, life will be difficult, you might as well do nothing for as the Daoist saying goes, “the utmost doing is doing nothing” and the modern irony is that everyone is trying so hard to do things and their hair grows gray.
Look how the rhythms are built into the poem. It starts with a slow pace with the repetition of “sometimes” and moves faster with the symmetrical corresponding pairs as in typical classical couplets: sea and land, seagull and boat, wings and sails, white and black, etc. It moves faster and faster as the stanzas get shorter: they hurry and try to get the most out of life, as suggested by the “rush” towards the end. Even the white-robed monks (the imagery of waves) rush to the sunrise. They have forgotten that the more you want the less you get. But there is no preaching in the poem. The job is done through the allusion of the classical “seabird” story and a series of rhetorical strategies. The mirror is getting “thin” instead of the beauty’s face. The object becomes the subject. You watch the mirror and the mirror becomes you. As you notice you are getting thinner, the mirror shrinks (镜子瘦了). As you observe, the seagulls and boats become subjects too. It’s still the same seaside, but the perspective is changing and moving, which is typical in Chinese classical poetry.
The most interesting part is the first line. In Chinese, “sea some(times)” (海偶(尔)) and “seagull” (海鸥) sound similar in such an unusual way, like echoes to each other, hai ou, hai ou, which makes them interchangeable. As the sea roams, it folds itself as a seagull. Therefore in line 6 “the sea stops on your fingertips” and in line 8 “(the sea) flies away”. Notice the amazing zoom-in: “like a cup of water.”
Modern Chinese has changed over time. Words evolved from monosyllabic to multisyllabic, unable to fit into the fixed metrical scheme or else the poem will sound like a doggerel. But the ancient outlook of life, the poetics and rhetoric can all be used today and
used better. Even in the seemingly Westernized poem “Late Supper” by a younger poet Qin Sanshu (秦三澍 (1991-)), one may think of the “Last Supper” immediately, but it also embodies ancient Chinese references such as “lotus” and contemporary imagery such as “net”:
LATE SUPPER 晚餐
by Qin Sanshu
Come through the narrow door where I speak
For three months my memory has lingered
on this oiled table, now incinerated.
You’ve put on fake flames to show how you love me
and you’ve broiled me. I feel hard and hot.
The half cooked soup rejects my tongue,
the guilty organ, and forgives
me that’s shrinking inside my atrophic body, a kernel
of rainforest. The unformed storm
touches my tears, then the thunders. I do not ask for mercy –
Vegetable leaves, the almighty, come to cover me.
But stop. My one-sided body is unable
to finish the net shaped supper,
torn between grief and loving. My face is
sliding into the water, eaten by the fish, so thin.
Stop when you reach the pond. The rain
seems to be falling upside down to bring back the dead lotus.
The poem sounds biblical and current at the same time. The “one-sided body” may suggest a painting, but “rainforest”, “water” and “fish” point to Jesus Christ Lizard, a tropical creature that walks on water. It’s a mysterious poem with a high lyrical tone and many dramatic details as if the small creature is a big god, big enough to talk about sins and human enough to have supper. What’s a net shaped supper? Fishing net or internet? The poem starts from far, but ends near, “the dead lotus”, a Chinese image. Whether “dramatic monologue” is a Western technique developed by Robert Browning, Yeats and T. S. Eliot or a Chinese ancient poetic tool used by Li Bai is arguable today. What contemporary Chinese poets are doing is navigating between Western and domestic, ancient and current like what Qin Sanshu does here.
2. Spoken language vs intellectual writing, total body writing or holistic writing
There is a strong revival of spoken language poetry after the Misty poetry in the late 1970s through early 1980s and the “Intellectual Writing” in the mid 80s and 90s. Qin Sanshu, whose poem is above, is a graduate student of comparative literature at Fudan University in Shanghai, who may be regarded as a new generation of the “intellectual writing”, while Xi Du from Beijing and Qinghua University is one of the senior “culprits”, but making a new transition in the new century. The spoken language side has a huge mass of poets nowadays, while the intellectual writing side has attracted a nice swarm of younger poets. What’s interesting in contemporary history is that those who were against the intellectual writing used to claim to be “common people poets” (non-governmental) implying that only the other camp was associated with the official government establishment, which was not quite true because some of the top “common people poets” were and are on government salary. Even Bei Dao’s Today magazine has changed its name to The Moment and is being published inside China officially as of 2016. Independent Poetry has ended in China. Everyone is equally official and equally “guilty”. The difference lies in the aesthetics, whether your writing is cutting edge and experimental or mediocre and old fashioned in a boring way.
The best part about spoken language poetry is it is funny and witty with plain language and simple form, down to earth idioms, and sometimes surprising endings. There are at least two hundred poets writing in the spoken language fashion in China.
Within the handful of good ones Xuanyuan Shike (轩辕轼轲 1971-) stands out. But as everywhere else, literary camps are formed out of friendship, not necessarily out of aesthetics. So it’s not surprising to see twisted ideas and long winding speech in spoken language poetry.
A UNIVERSE THAT COMES LATE 迟宇宙
by Xuanyuan Shike
There is another universe
outside ours, half a beat slower
where babies are born late
and trees grow slowly
No high-speed trains. No freeways
To visit a neighbor, you need to carry some food
Marathon? Might as well walking
Walking? Might as well pacing around
The second hand of a clock moves like the sun
taking a long time to move a step
There’re never queues before windows
Things are done slowly, might as well not be done at all
so that no one will need a document
You can easily go abroad but never reach a border in your life
You can easily go astray but can never get out of your family circle
There is no smog in the sky
Smoke gets exhausted before climbing out of the chimney
People speak slowly
Their brains don’t make sharp turns
If you see a friend and say hello
you can then go to a slow food restaurant on the road side
When you finish eating and come out
you will hear the response
Of course the slowest person is the prime minister
His inaugural speech is not drafted
until his term is almost over
If he is going out to meet his people
he will have to personally hold a loud speaker to yell three days
until he can get his
What’s good about spoken language poetry is that when a poem is good, it’s clearly good and no explanation is needed. What I’m saying now is extra information. Mu Xin (1927-2011) had a poem “Old Time Slow” about how slow things were in the good old times. The poem was set to music and performed on national TV after he passed away and many people wrote about “slow”, but most of the slow poems sounded kitsch including Mu Xin’s original poem. Xuanyuan Shike twists the conventional “slow” and makes fun of it, criticizing the inefficiency of civil services in China that do not have solution for the air pollution problems. In the title he uses the word late rather than slow indicating that the ultimate result of being slow is that everything will be late and you will never get anything in your life. But there is no anxiety in the poem. It’s calm and funny.
Xuanyuan Shike used to belong to the Lower Body school that started in the beginning of the 21st century which was part of the spoken language camp against intellectual writing. “Lower body” is a very interesting term, but unfortunately they stopped adhering to the concept and practice. It’s supposed to be anti-cultural, anti-metaphysical, anti-intellectual, and anti- all the established norms. But they have since become intellectual and less physical. Some of their early poems were sexy, but not erotic. Some of the Not Not camp and Macho poets are much more physical. I’m not against the Lower Body at all. In fact, I love the concept and wished I had invented the term myself, but Shen Haobo did, whose poetry is sometimes completely plain speech and sometimes extremely mental, more intellectual than intellectual writing, which makes me think that Chinese poets like to fight for fightings sake, keeping Western sinologists busy recording the fights. (At this very moment the Dutch sinologist Maghiel van Crevel is touring China with his book Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money, which details all the dirty laundry of the poetry movements and fights in the 1990s’ and early 21st century. It’s so well documented that things look ugly: the poets discussed appear to be conspirators fighting with each other to have a better career and international fame. The original intellectual poets are middle school graduates. The so called common people/non-governmental poets have been on government salary since the 1980s. What’s worse is that every famous poet has a foreign model, lacking originality. The most interesting thing is that Maghiel van Crevel meets many of the poets, gets to know them well and became friends with them, but remains critical of them in the name of praise. He may really be praising them, but I see lots of irony because he has portrayed those heroes as hypercritical and of course he has done it in a subtle way. The problem is that people automatically regard those discussed in the book as “major” poets without reading between the lines and without considering that conducting case studies is not establishing a cannon. And that’s exactly the danger of dealing with contemporary poetry.)
Song Wei (宋炜 1964-) has escaped notice until critic Jing Wendo re-discovered him recently. Song Wei and two other poets started a Holism trend in 1984 in the Chengdu, Sichuan province. As a visual poet, I see the Chinese words for Holism 整体主义 as Total Body or Whole Body, that is, it includes the upper body and lower body, metaphysical and physical, at the same time like meditations involving both mind and body. However, the poem I chose below is not to illustrate this point, but to show Song Wei’s unusual language and style in today’s China except that I can’t make it half as good as his original poem.
POEM OF THE BODY 身体之诗
by Song Wei
– In mid spring of the year of wood, I posted myself in the back hill of Red Silk Clouds, meditating. This poem came to me during the meditation.
Tomb-sweeping Day is over, but the body is still feasting.
Internal organs open like a grocery store: welcome guests.
Guests are the wind, master is the air: they interexchange.
Liver is the God on duty today, his hangover
finally gets over. A sudden epiphany in the eye:
eucommia trees and pears are non-trees but medicine and fruit.
To all of these I turn a deaf ear.
I’m not surprised that the organ vessels swept by the airflow
release a dim light.
In between, the lung is so simple. It exhales a crude breath,
and gets self-refreshed repeatedly.
Let the dust settle at the tailbone. Leaves emit a
clapping sound, an echo of the hunger?
Are there hungry intestines hiding in my bulging belly?
Are my hungry intestines carrying waste matters?
Look, it’s more than fart. My pees and golden shits
are food resurrected (they left me and found their way out.)
Stomach is yellow earth, shaped into a device
but empty: between the holes, gods of the internal organs
are leaving one by one. In this sparse interior,
even the careful thoughts, or seasonal ideas,
are nothing but small confusions, at most the internal drafts
of a poem. So a bird lands on my head to shit.
The bird thinks I’m transfixed like a wooden chicken,
paying no attention to what’s so ever beautiful around me.
No lush heart. Even my lusty bladder is in rest.
Not even a threat to myself.
When he says he is “not even a threat to [him]self”, he blows many people’s heads away with his agricultural style of writing, i.e. it’s as if it’s from the age of farming, to use the critic 敬文东 Jing Wendong’s words. Song Wei is perhaps the only one or one of the very few poets of this generation that has not published a book of poetry. A complete hermit, he has rejected many friendly offers for publication. Whether that’s merely a gesture or not is not my concern. I’m interested in his stubborn way of accumulating words to make a sentence and stubborn way of choosing aged vocabulary. The result is that it sounds raw and refined simultaneously. It’s a miracle how crude words sound so fresh and decayed and decadent. We have too much of fake Li Bai and Du Fu but here is a true Han Shan.
Why is that most of the serious poets in China aspire to revitalize ancient China in a modern or post-modern way? What really is Chineseness? What is Native poetry? Did Hu Shi call to get rid of the old cultures including everything from the far ancient time? It’s highly possible that we have misread Hu Shi for one hundred years. Reading his diaries I notice that he compared his literary reform to the Renaissance in the West. He was calling for a revitalization of the vernacular language from the ancient China. What he discarded were the ridged metrical frames of Chinese poetry, i.e. the cages for the free flow of ideas and words. As I see it, what some poets are doing today is not against the new tradition he set, but continuing that Renaissance and even starting a new one.
3. Internet Age
With self-publication online, grass-root peasant poets and ethnic minority poets have surfaced. The most notable one is Yu Xiuhua (余秀华 1976-), a woman from the rural area of the Hubei province in
Central China. She became well known overnight in 2014 with her online poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”. Her debut book came out in early 2015 and 15000 copies were sold in one day. Media grabbed her. “Each time a reporter came, one of my rabbits would die,” she wrote. Her personal story has been all over the internet: a handicapped countrywoman poet, born with cerebral palsy, unable to stand up until age 6, she had to be carried on back to school until she started walking, and she quit high school to become a peasant in her home village. At age 19, she married a migrant worker twelve years her senior. While raising rabbits to make a living, she spent her spare time reading and writing poetry.
A WOMAN ON THE ROOF 站在屋顶上的女人
by Yu Xiuhua
It’s an afternoon for water birds, white in the breeze
A pond of reeds wave nervously
A magpie stands on a poplar
An orange stays orange on the tree
It’s an afternoon for woman. She stands on the roof
watching small light float
She sees people come and go on the main road
No one sees her
She hears them talk loud, talk low
No one hears what she hears
She calculates the second when someone would come out of the crowd
and wave to her
No one knows what she expects
In the village where she’s spending all her life
she feels again
so close to the sky
Since Sylvia Plath was translated into Chinese in the early 1980’s, hundreds of women Chinese poets have been writing about “darkness” and “blackness.” “All I want is blackness. Blackness and silence” (Sylvia Plath). Yu Xiuhua seems to seek something else. “White” becomes a verb here, although an adjective in English, “white in the breeze” as if the water birds were whitened while sun-bathing in the breeze. It’s clear that she experiments with language. She also reads Rilke. There is certainly a Western influence in her poetry. But there is more Chineseness. The ancient way of looking at the universe and meditating on the passing of the day and night. But she doesn’t stop there. She blends her thoughts with rural reality. “On the Rice-Threshing Ground, I Chase Chickens Away” is a typical title of many of her poems about her daily life. Thinking in poetry, with a distant eye on her close surroundings, is part of her life. Without the internet she might not be writing as she can only use her left index finger to type, as suggested by her book title “Moon Falls on the Left Hand.” But the poet is disabled, not the poetry. Or she may be physically disabled, but not mentally. There are lots of conflicting comments about her writing among Chinese poets. Lots of uncertainty about what is good poetry at the conjunction of one hundred years of foreign influence and three thousand years of local traditions.
Throughout the past decades, “ethnic minority” is one of the most sensitive issues in China’s political and cultural life. Many of the folks have lost their native languages, but write in Chinese. There are distinctively different traditions in the ethnic traditional poetry, whether chanting, epics or ballads. With the “pollution” of second hand modernism, most of the primitive beauty is lost. But in the age of internet many things, surprisingly good, can be discovered.
WHILE SICK 病中
by Tashi Tentso
Stop your hands
Stop your eyes
Stop your ears
Stop everything fermented in your mind
Existing or non-existing
Chattering or muttering
Stop all of these
Take the moment
To remove the stains stagnated
With the fluids injected into your body
With half of the day of a floating life you have spared
Remove them carefully
Remove them painstakingly
Remove them devoutly
Your body will be unable to take
A flower of joyful soul
Tashi Tentso (扎西旦措 1970’s) is a Tibetan woman poet I found online. This is a poem from her newly published collection. “Half of the day of a floating life” is from Tang dynasty poetry. But what has attracted me is the final line. Like the phrases in English, a swarm of bees, a flock of geese, modern Chinese needs words like swarm and flock for the nouns representing things or people, even if we are talking about one item, one body. It sounds like this: one piece of tree, two pieces of trees. But we have numerous “measure words” for pieces, items, swarms, flocks, etc. almost one for each thing. Everything has a measure word, but tables and chairs have different ones. In the post-modern poetry, people like to use the wrong measure words deliberately to achieve a special double-meaning effect. In the final line, Tashi Tentso uses 朵 for the soul as if talking about flowers. A flowering soul. True joy. In line 8, the diphthong word Ranwu 染污 as reversed from Wuran (pollution) is from a Buddhist concept that souls can be stained by ideas, so one needs to empty the mind first. “Stagnate” is an interesting word in Chinese. When it’s a noun it means depression, anger, despondency, dismal, melancholy and all the negative feelings and emotions stagnated in your body. By cleansing the body, you cleanse the mind and soul. The title of the poem says even more. It resonates with the 鸥鹭 seabird story, but is expressed in a more direct way.
4. Identity: gay poetry, revival of feminist poetry
Closely related to what’s happening in the internet age, identity issues become increasingly prominent and urgent. I cannot forget how Mu Cao (墓草 1974-) stopped me and put his poetry book
in my hand two months ago when I walked into a reading event in Beijing with some Dutch poets. “Read me.” I saw that in his eyes. Actually, I read him quite some years ago, but never met him in person until then. The first word that came to my mind was “loneliness”. I don’t know any other gay poets like him trying so hard for so many years just to be heard. A singular voice in contemporary China. Sometimes painful. Sometimes surreal and beautiful, but even when it’s beautiful there is pain. And a huge ocean of indifference and ignorance and not wanting to understand.
WHAT YOU HAVE ZIPPED IS A WORLD OF SEA
by Mu Cao
He has killed the butterfly in the poem with a pencil
He moves out visually, through the wire fence
and becomes a neighbor with the bees
An ant unzips its pants
and pinches you with its needle
The harder the itchier, the harder the more you want…
Your lips are a shark’s lips
Never say goodbye
Never say goodbye
The sea trembles
The sea shakes…
Last, but definitely not the least, Dai Weina (戴潍娜 1980’s).
Actually, I put my favorite poet at the end because I don’t know when or how to talk about feminism. I think she is much beyond that -ism even though she likes to talk about feminist issues. A very outspoken young female poet with intelligence and beauty and courage and, above all, a unique poetic voice with a fresh combination of words and beyond-this-planet imagination.
OUTSIDE THE MOSQUITO NET THE DARKNESS FALLS
by Dai Weina
Too many stars are captured in the mosquito net
Their gleam bites the mortal men and women
So they dig a pond and lie around watching their sparkling descendants
You smuggle your newly invented gender
in your whispering long hair
And I give you my skin-deep shallowness, an offering to you
On top of the white net crouches a tiger of night
You and I, foot in foot, watch its curved back, black
(excerpt from a longer poem)
Crouch is an interesting verb for night. The night crouches on top of the white mosquito net. Furthermore, she gives the measure word for mosquitos and tigers of night as if a huge mosquito, as big as a tiger, is crouching above her. This tiger of night 一只夜 is similar to a flower of soul一朵灵魂 in the poem by the Tibetan poet above, both with unexpected measure words. As a matter of fact, every single line in this stanza has something beautiful. Imagine the stars from a mosquito net at night and you will feel so close to them or them close to you as if they are inside your net. Look at how the verb “bite” bites. And the sparkling fish descendants as if mermaids can be born out of stars. The “newly invented gender” is what I like most. The day of you are either a woman or not is over. A third gender is born. Dai Weina went to Oxford and then got a PhD from Renmin University in Beijing. No doubt she has absorbed a lot from foreign literature. But she keeps a balance between foreign and Chinese: foreign enough to have a fresh strangeness, Chinese enough to be true to Chinese. Most of the outstanding phrases in her poetry are made of archaic words, but once glued with the rest of the line, they are sweet and spicy. For instance, 抵足 foot in foot (I made this translation based on “arm in arm”, “hand in hand”) is a classical way of saying “two people sleep in the same bed with feet touched.” Very intimate. She cuts off the “sleep” segment of the ancient phrase and makes it sound new. This is just one stanza from her longer poem as it stands alone. What’s not shown here are the alternating stanzas, short and long, an internal dialogue.
Both Xi Du and Dai Weina have stopped their initial running of thought at Line 3. The abrupt pause is unexpected as classical poetry is very even: two lines make a couplet and two couplets make a quatrain. They experiment with new words and new forms. Form and Language are two major concerns for serious Chinese poets. At the one hundred year anniversary of our new tradition, “Chineseness” troubles many minds. How not to be too international, but clearly local? How not to be too foreign, but clearly native? How not to be Rainer Maria Pasternak, T.S. Shakespeare, Walt Lorca, William Frost, W.H. Eliot, Joseph Miłosz, Robert Yeats, or Wang Libaidufu Wei, but yourself? It’s tough.
*All the poems are translated from the Chinese by the author of this letter, Ming Di, a Chinese poet and translator living between Beijing and Los Angeles, author of six collections of poetry in Chinese and one in collaborative English translation, River Merchant’s Wife (Marick Press, 2012).