Chinese Feature

The Modern Poetry of China: Introduction

By Michael Day

     This collection is a gathering of poetry from China and its Diasporas. A reader unacquainted with any one part (or more, as is quite possibly the case) will find here a stepping-stone into a poetry culture that is not only distinguished by its extraordinary longevity and continuity (at least 2,500 years) but its extraordinary depth and breadth, in both subject matter and geographic reach. The inclusion of poets who write in English or other languages in Hongkong, Macau, Singapore, and non-Asian locations, indicates that the concept of Chinese-ness in poetry moves writers well beyond China and the Chinese language. Conversely, most of the non-Han or minority nationality poets collected here use the Han Chinese script when they write. That said, Chinese poetry, in any language, travels with the Chinese people as a readily portable part of their cultural heritage to every corner of the earth and attracts admiration, if not as universally as Hollywood movies, fast food restaurants, and localised-versions of Italian and Chinese food.
      There is the possibility of an argument here claiming that this is an effect of Chinese cultural imperialism, especially with regard to minority nationality poets resident in areas of China in which, until recent decades, they made up the majority population, particularly with regard to Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and the Turkish-speaking Arabic-writing peoples of Xinjiang. This mirrors arguments applied to the impact of the English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese languages in majority immigrant cultures of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, but does not fit the paradigm beyond China's borders, as it may in the former colonies of England, France, Spain, and Portugal.
      The truth is that the millions of Chinese people who live outside of China are similarly bound together as much by language and poetry as by racial and regional characteristics, such as food. However, this does not mean the same forms and topics of classical pre-twentieth century Chinese verse are still utilized today as they were 100, 1000, or 2000 years ago. The Chinese modern world and modern issues are present in the poetry here, just as life and culture not-of-China acts as a backdrop to many poems. This modernity, and in particular the use of colloquial speech in the writing of much of the poetry of the past eighty-five years, still proves an obstacle to lovers of the classical forms, both within and without China. Here comparisons with the reception Dante's poetry initially received in renaissance Italy are most apt, or even that of Luther's vernacular Bible — although in this case any resultant warfare has been, and still is, entirely intellectual.
      China has one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. And, until late in the twentieth century, the written character was at the centre of it, with the art of poetry at its apex. While this may no longer be the case, after the rapid rise of the more populist and popular art forms of the novel, cinema, and TV soap opera in more recent times on the back of near-universal literacy and modern media, poetry arguably still attracts far larger numbers of serious practitioners than any other art.
      Between 1949 and 1979, officially published poetry in China was under the firm control of the Chinese Communist Party's [CCP] cultural establishment and served the ever-changing party line, or “the people”, in the parlance of communist parties everywhere. By the late 1960's, however, growing numbers of the people, in particular the youth, were increasingly disenchanted with the CCP line on the arts. A policy requiring students who had completed their secondary education in the cities to go down to the countryside and to continue their education at the feet of the nation's farmers had the secondary effect of providing a hotbed for the creation of a “second world of poetry”, one relatively free of CCP aesthetic strictures. To some degree, all of these “educated youths” had participated in the Red Guard Movement that had swept the country during 1966-1969, and were then forcibly dispersed throughout the land, the more culturally inclined carrying books of literature, not a few of which had been previously 'liberated' from the libraries of 'bourgeois' households. The most famous of the poetry circles that developed in China's countryside and in secret literary salons in cities first publicly appeared in the form of the unofficially circulated journal Today in Beijing during 1978-1980. The now iconic poem “The Answer” by Bei Dao (b. 1949; recent work collected here) symbolizes the struggle for independence of mind and a new aesthetics among these nonconformist poets:
. . . I tell you, world
I — do — not — believe!
Even if there be a thousand challengers at your feet,
Then consider me the thousand-and-first. . .

“The Answer” was also one of the first of this new poetry to be officially published in 1979 during one of the CCP's politically inspired bouts of liberalism (other such periods were 1986, 1988-1989, and most of the past 12 years).
     The poems of many of these former educated youths spoke directly to the millions who had sacrificed years of their lives in the countryside. Another of the Today poets who found a large readership was Gu Cheng (1956-1993), whose short poem “A Generation” spoke for them all: “Black night gave me black eyes / yet I use them to search for light.”
     These youth were in some ways like explorers rediscovering the world, or discovering a world and a self they had never known before:
. . . — I don't know what else there might be
only me, leaning against that sunlight
standing still for ten seconds
sometimes ten seconds can be longer than a quarter of a century

At last, I charge down the stairs, heave open the door,
and run in the spring sun.....

     Here in “I Feel the Sun”, the woman poet Wang Xiaoni (b. 1955; recent works anthologized here) luxuriates in a sunlight that is no longer synonymous with glories of Mao Zedong and the revolution, but is redolent of the promise of life. This repossession and renaming of previously over-politicized poetical imagery by poets was a common feature of this new poetry and opened up new vistas to poets and readers alike.
     The poet in the guise of a cultural hero was also a common feature, most markedly in the work of another Today poet, Jianghe (b. 1949), who took upon himself the burden of reinterpreting Chinese history. One of his most famous poems is on “The Memorial Stele” to the martyrs of the revolution in Tian'anmen Square:
. . . I think
I am the memorial stele
My body is piled full of stones
However heavy the history of the Chinese nation
I am that weight
However many wounds to it
I have bled that much blood
. . .

     Another highly influential Today poet to move off in this direction of searching for roots and reclaiming Chinese culture from the CCP was Yang Lian (b. 1955; recent works collected here). One of his poems — “The Big Wild Goose Pagoda” — called forth a response from the Nanjing poet Han Dong (b. 1961; recent work collected here) in 1982 that has come to mark the rise of a younger generation of poets who have very different ideas about the directions serious poetry can take.
About The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

What more can we know
about the Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Many people hasten from afar
to climb it
to be a one-time hero
Some still come to do it two
or more times
The dissatisfied
the stout
all climb up
to play the hero
then come down
and walk into the street below
gone in a wink
Some with real guts jump down
leave a red bloom on the steps
That's really being the hero
a modern-day hero

What more can we learn
about the Wild Goose Pagoda
We climb up
look around at the scenery
then come down again

     This mood is indicative of a difference in experience between the poets. For the most part, the younger poets had only been passive witnesses of the Red Guards and later educated youths. Unlike the older poets, they were among the first students in the reopened universities in the late-1970's, and their bonding experiences were limited to what they made for themselves there. The 1984 poem “The Chinese Department” by the Sichuan poet Li Yawei (b. 1963) is indicative of this very different attitude towards life and poetry:
The Chinese department is a great well-baited river
in the shallows, a professor and a group of lecturers are casting nets
the netted fish
when brought up on the bank become teaching assistants, later
they become secretaries for Qu Yuan, the retinue of Li Bai
and kings in tales for children, then
go to cast their nets again

. . .

The Chinese department also studies foreign literature
primarily Baudelaire and Gorky, one evening
a flustered looking lecturer raced out of the toilets
he shouted: Students
disperse immediately, there's a modernist inside

. . .

Sometimes the Chinese department flowed in dreams, slowly
like the waves of urine Yawei pisses on the dry earth, like the disappearing
then again rising footprints behind the pitiful roaming little Mianyang, its waves
are following piles of sealed exams for graduation off into the distance

     New subject matter and diction is also reflected in experimentation with form. Indeed, a bifurcation in the ranks of avant-garde poetry dates from this time and runs through to this day. Generally speaking, the upholders of the Today-inspired line are more interested in the traditions of western high modernism as defined by Elliot and the later Pound (of the poets collected here Chen Dongdong, Wang Jiaxin, Sun Wenbo, and Ouyang Jianghe may be included in this tendency); while the younger, somewhat reactionary line takes a greater interest in what Christopher Simons [The Liberal, London, July/August '05, Issue V: 36] terms democratization, although the poets themselves might describe it as an intense interest in life and an attempt to reflect it in forms and language that speak to more than just poets (in this collection this tendency is represented by Han Dong, Yu Jian, Li Sen, and Yin Lichuan).
      There has also been a great increase in woman poets delving into subject matter that can be termed woman-specific, as well as new, more direct approaches to the topics of love and sex, previously taboo in both traditional Chinese culture and in the new'puritan culture the CCP has attempted to inculcate since 1949. Zhai Yongming (b. 1955) has been one of the most influential poets of the woman's poetry trend since the mid-1980's, while Yin Lichuan is one of the most prominent of recent years.
     In fact, this 'younger'line of poetry cleaves to the thoroughly earthy nature of Chinese folk arts and humour that are still very much alive among the general populace —a tradition that even Mao appreciated and incorporated into his classical-form poetry, even if others were not allowed to emulate his practice (see Xiao Kaiyu's for a poetical comment on this subject). Since the late 1980's, this trend in poetry has also featured attacks on capitalism that are often linked to western and Japanese imperialism of recent Chinese memory. One of the earlier examples of this is the 1989 poem “Slaughter” by the Sichuan poet Liao Yiwu (b. 1958):
. . .
The real you is refused entry to a hotel because of your accent, stares eagerly at
'Tailang', 'Gangcun', 'Songjing' embracing your sisters as they climb the steps
and enter a room, loosen clothes and undo belts, cherry blossoms and ancient
rhythms induce dreams, and your sisters call out softly “Thank you for your
attentions” after being seduced and raped by foreign currency, jewelry, furniture,
and top-quality woolen fabrics

Now three hundred thousand bitter souls in the War of Resistance Against Japan
Museum shout in alarm 'the devils have entered the city', in our hallucination
three hundred thousand bars revolve, run wild, shatter, like horse hooves sweeping
past amidst gun smoke ..

     Begun in the spring of 1989, the two concluding sections of the four-part poem dealt with the very real slaughter that occurred on June Fourth:
. . .
Another sort of slaughter takes place at Utopia's core
The prime minister catches cold, the people must cough; martial law is declared again
and again
The toothless old machinery of the state rolls toward those who have the courage to
resist the sickness
Unarmed thugs fall by the thousands! Ironclad professional killers swim in a sea of
blood, set fires beneath tightly shuttered windows, wipe their regulation army boots
with the skirts of dead maidens. They are incapable of trembling
These heartless robots are incapable of trembling!
Their electronic brains have only one program: an official document full of holes
. . .

     Liao was later sentenced to four years in prison for his efforts. (Elsewhere in this collection, the Hongkong poet Louise Ho offers a different localized perspective on the massacre in .)
     All through this period, the example of Today as an unofficial (and thus illegal) publication has been emulated by hundreds of poetry groups throughout China. In fact, almost all avant-poetry is first published in this second world of poetry and only later finds its way into official publication, or not (such as Liao's Slaughter). Furthermore, since 2000, the Internet has also served as a major outlet for such poetry, as witnessed by the hundreds of websites, forums, and blogs that have sprung into being. A majority of the forums and blogs are associated with the younger, popular trend of the avant-garde, a situation that developed after a nationwide public polemic that occurred in 1998-1999. This polemic was between two broad camps of poets under the over-arching labels of “Intellectual Writing” and “Popular Writing.” The polemic still simmers on, but as shown above has been present in varying forms since the early 1980's.
     Contrary to what some may believe, such a polemic and the intense interest demonstrated by and the large numbers of younger poets born in the 1970's and 1980's is indicative of the continuing health of the art of poetry. While politically the country may be a dictatorship, the poets of China are in no mood to accept anything but plurality and vivacity in pursuit of excellence in their art.
     Of the minority nationality poets collected here, only the Yi poet Jimu Langge is a sometimes-active participant in these polemics. This participation dates back to 1986 and his involvement with the Sichuan-based Not-Not avant-garde poetry group and its unofficial journals. Originally written in Chinese, the poems collected here portray the continued strength of Yi traditions as well as a sense of difference from Han Chinese friends.
     Woeser, a Tibetan woman poet who also writes in Chinese and contributed to issues of Not-Not published during the early 1990's, writes of a sense of loss, centering on images of Lhasa and the Potala Palace in two of her poems. A stronger sense of nationalism can be found in the work of her compatriots Mei Zhuo and Yidam Tsering, the former making use of Tibetan Buddhist history and the latter strong political imagery to get their messages across. The Mongol poet Bai Tao also infuses his poetry with a strong nationalist message mixed with feelings of loss, while Ran Ran is a poet who uses Chinese to write of the life of the Tujia people in present day China.
     The poetry scenes in Taiwan, Hongkong, Macau, and Singapore do not closely mirror events on the Mainland China scene. The work of the poets collected here reflect their relationship with Chinese culture and the local environment, and it is understandable that poets in Hongkong and Macau may feel closer links and react more readily to events in China proper (especially since reunification in 1997 and 1999 respectively). The introductory essays to the sections that hold their poetry offer a better overview of poetical events in each locality.
      Many of the poets in the Overseas section are self-exiles from China. A founding member of the Today group together with Bei Dao and Mang Ke in Beijing in the 1970s, Duo Duo left China on 4 June 1989, but returned to live there again in 2003. Bei Dao, Yang Lian, Yan Li, and Ha Jin all left China before that date and, with the possible exception of Bei Dao, are at home with their overseas lives. Furthermore, their recent poetry seldom features themes of exile and loneliness, as some might expect it to, and as it once did. However, memory does feature prominently among some of the poets in this section.
     Given the lively and burgeoning nature of Chinese poetry on the Internet today, there are ready opportunities for overseas poets to continue to participate in the poetry scene on mainland China. Yang Lian is one of those at the forefront of this new trend: in early 2005, he participated in an open chat room discussion on one of the most popular avant-garde poetry websites in China (www.poemlife.net), and he and his novelist-life partner Yo Yo have recently opened a joint personal website. Since 1987 the New York-based poet Yan Li (formerly a member of Today and the Stars Art Group in Beijing during the early 1980s) has been editing the poetry journal One Line that is privately distributed in China, and both this journal and the reconstituted overseas version of Today (since 1991) operate websites, although neither features chat rooms. On the other hand, Yan Li occasionally participates in mainland China chat rooms and regularly contributes poetry to paper journals and webzines, both official and unofficial.
     Taken together, this collection offers the reader a unique insight into the global Chinese poetry scene over the past 25 years. Through their work these poets demonstrate the complicated, multi-faceted nature of what it is to be a present-day Chinese poet, whether inside or outside China.

* * *

Michael Martin DayMichael Martin Day
was born and educated in Vancouver, Canada. He received his BA in Asian Studies and the Chinese Language from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1985 and his MA in Modern Chinese Literature from the same university in 1994. Between the years 1982 and 1992, he spent seven years in China, first as a cultural exchange scholarship student at the universities of Shandong and Nanjing, then as a teacher of English language and literature in Zhanjiang and Xi'an, and later as a journalist and editor in Beijing and Hongkong. He began teaching the Chinese language as an assistant lecturer at UBC in 1986, and later served in the same position for courses in Modern Chinese Literature in Chinese and a General Introduction to East Asian History and Culture. In 1995 and 1996, he was lecturer in charge of the Chinese Language Summer Program at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Since 2000, he has worked at Charles University, Prague, as a part-time lecturer of Modern Chinese Poetry, Advanced Chinese, and Poetry Translation. In 2002, he entered the Doctoral program at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, as a long-distance student under the supervision of Professor Maghiel van Crevel. In September 2003, he was awarded a CCK Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, which made the writing of his thesis possible. He has published several English language translations of Chinese poetry and fiction in Canada, the USA, the UK, and the Netherlands, as well as articles on Chinese poetry and politics in the Czech Republic, Hongkong, and China (prior to 1989), and has given numerous public lectures and talks on Chinese literature, culture, and politics. His doctorate China's Second World of Poetry: The Sichuan Avant-Garde, 1982-1992 was published as an openly accessible e-book on the day of official graduation at the University of Leiden in October 2005. This, other internet-related work, and an anthology of translated poetry are available at http://www.sino.uni-heidelberg.de/dachs/leiden/poetry/index.html, the poetry page of the Digital Archive for Chinese Studies, a joint-project operated by the universities of Heidelberg and Leiden. Michael has recently emigrated to join his wife in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has translated a number of poets in this feature.