For Maghiel van Crevel's essay on Xi Chuan's poetry


More poems and contributor notes in Chinese feature



Xi Chuan

Xi Chuan

Close Shots and Distant Birds


Birds are the highest creatures we can see with our naked eyes.
Now and then, they sing, curse, fall into silence. We know
nothing about the sky above them: that is the realm of irrationality
or of huge nihilism. Thus birds create the boundary of our rationality
and the fulcrum of cosmic order. It is said that birds can
behold the sun: whereas we will feel dizzy in one second, and six seconds later
go blind. According to mythology, Zeus presented himself as a swan
to fuck Leda; God occupied Mary in the semblance of a dove.
There is a line from the Book of Songs: “Heaven let its black
bird descend, and the Shang dynasty thus came into being.” Although
some experts argue that this black bird is nothing but the penis, still
let's forget it. Coming to own the world as a bird is a god's
privilege; as is an emperor's disguising himself as attendant
to pay a private visit. Hence we may say, God is used to condescending. Hence
birds are the mediators between earth and heaven, counters between man
and God; and the stairs, passageways, that form quasi-deities. Duckbills
copy the appearance of birds; bats fly in a birdlike way; and clumsy fowls
could be called “degenerate angels.” The birds
we are singing for — their gorgeous feathers, their light bones —
are half-birds: mysterious creatures, seeds in metaphysics.


Here is the rising of a city: at the beginning there is trade;
there are people exchanging salt, leather, grain and luxury goods.
Those who came from distant places set up the first block
of shanties; then more shanties with streets, cellars, squares,
toilets and sewers between and under them. Some find
work for themselves right there, in manufacturing and processing.
When dusk comes, restaurants and brothels shoot up out of man's
desire for entertainment. This results in city-civilization.
The rise of cities is different from that of villages: people
inhabiting one village usually come from one family, regarding
the father as king (sometimes a certain village may develop
into a “city”, but actually it is a village enlarged). But a real
city is a choice freely made by man and woman, originating from
different families and tribes. A mixed inheritance brings ideas
and virtues which divide into schools later; the same brings crime
and conflict which require courts of justice and jails. People
have to compromise to preserve their existence as
a whole. Then one day, a stranger arrives. He sets down his small
valise, walks from the inn to the square blowing a bugle, and
proclaims to the baffled audience that he has come to be
the head of the city as per heaven's intention; and people should show
respect, protect him and pay him taxes.


Fire cannot illuminate fire; what is illuminated by fire is not fire. Fire
illuminated Troy, fire illuminated Emperor Qing Shi's face; fire illuminated
the crucible of the alchemist, fire illuminated leaders and masses.
All these fires are one fire — element, passion — predating logic.
Zoroaster only gets it half right: fire has to do with the bright
and clean, as opposed to the dark and foul. But he neglects the fact
that fire is born of darkness, mistakenly opposing fire to death. Because
fire is pure, it is faced with death; because fire is exclusive, it tends to be viewed
as cold-blooded and evil. People usually see fire as the spirit of creation,
not knowing it is also the spirit of destruction. Fire is free, paternal
and holy: without form, without mass, it neither spurs the growth
of any life, nor supports any standing object. Just as those full of ambition
must give up hope, those who accept fire must accept great sacrifice.


As I grow up, I begin to have a shadow. I cannot ignore it, unless
it merges into another, greater shadow — night. But whose shadow is
night? The earth casts its shadow on the moon, hence the lunar eclipse:
the moon casts its shadow on the earth, hence the solar eclipse. All of us
live in shadow. On the other side of the shadow lies fire; and shadow
gives us our only basis for measuring the sun. In daily life, because
there is only one sun, nothing can have multiple shadows; as for our souls,
the shadow is the sum total of desire, selfishness, fear, vanity, jealousy,
cruelty and death. Shadow endows things with reality. To strip a thing
of its reality, one only needs to strip it of its shadow. The sea has
no shadow; therefore it feels like an illusion. Objects in our dreams
have no shadow; therefore they form another world. Thus people have
every reason to believe that ghosts have no shadow.


Mu-dan, the peony, is a flower of hedonism: it differs from the rose
which has a double nature, flesh and spirit; whereas the peony has only
flesh, just as the chrysanthemum has only spirit. Because of this,
the peony doesn't exist before it blossoms or after it fades away.
Liu Yuxi's line: “The peony is the only national beauty that gives sensation
when it opens.” It is the sort of plant that can hardly be redeemed,
its fleshy glamour hardly rejected. Those of aristocratic families
love its secular beauty, whereas ordinary people enjoy
its exuberance. In the novel The Lost Voice of the White Snow it is said
“the peony flower represents property during springtime.” Along with this sentence
is also: “being pricked by an emerald hairpin, the peony blossom becomes
more beautiful.” Obviously, the peony here must be taken as symbol
of female genitalia. Peony, mu-dan, means male; dan in the ancient syntax
was a mined red stone. Etymologically, mu-dan, the peony, is a male flower.
Its sexual genre was changed purely because of its natural suggestiveness.
In order to enforce the identity of “king of flowers” upon the peony,
and to inject spirit into its flesh, someone invented the story
that Empress Wu Zetian once ordered all flowers growing
in the Upper Garden of Changan City to be forced to blossom in winter,
and the peony was later banished and exiled to the city of Luoyang
for its disobedience. It's a pity that the peony didn't change into a rose
under the magic of this legend. It is the nature of the peony to despise
the rose. It seems a flower that would be part of the Renaissance,
but actually was not.


Things poisonous are beautiful and dangerous. We may transpose
this sentence into, beautiful and dangerous things are poisonous. Both
sentences consequently produce the concept of beauty/snake. Usually
poisonous things themselves are not evil: datura, oleander, cobra,
are parts of nature, but since their toxin has been extracted
by pharmacists, some bad eggs succeed in realizing conspiracies
and some good eggs succeed in dying. Let alone the practical
use of poison — it usually divides people into poison throwers
and victims, or people in front of the curtain and the ones behind it.
It also prods politicians with a stick evolved from fairy tales. As a result,
murder cases take on aesthetic meanings. Poison takes a skull
as its token. It has the potential to change the environment
and human psychology: a room with poison deposited in it is different
from other rooms; and a man who has poison in his pocket could be either
a devil or an accomplice. As for those who commit suicide with poison,
I almost have nothing to say except for one thing: that is, before
they take poison, each of them has flawed, becoming transformed
into two persons. One has become a poison thrower at oneself. Thus
we may say that all suicides committed by means of taking poison
are essentially conspiratorial.


The essence of inventing a game is to invent a set of rules
and to leave room for contingency in which to entertain the players.
So far as playing cards is concerned, people actually play with
the unknown, according to the rules. They are mysterious, the diamonds,
hearts, spades and clover, and it is impossible that they stand for nothing.
I guess those figures, the Caesar, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great,
King David, Jacob's wife Rachel and the heroine Judith, do want
to say something to the players. Each time when cards are shuffled again,
history is again fabricated; and who dares to say that history
is not a made-up story? Constant changes take place during the process
of fabrication. Thus cards are also obtained to practice
divination. Intellectuals take card-playing as the lowest game among
games of intelligence, since it requires little intelligence
and good luck is far more important. There are times when you win;
your opponents do not praise the good work you have done, but
the good luck you seem to have. That they are not convinced
makes you unsatisfied. So you play again, and this time
you might fall into the trough from the wave's crest. Isn't it the cards'
entertaining themselves by making vengeful mockery of the players?


The mechanism of a bicycle works in a simple way, but it is not
inferior to any other advanced means of transportation in displaying
the beauty of mathematics and physics. Its roller chain and cranks
have become plundered possibilities through people making brand-new designs
built upon bicycles and resorting to other principles. This is nothing
but the fulfillment of an idea. We are ready to take it as a lively body
with a soul in it, since it is fatally connected with our view
of the world, and even defines our way of living. It reminds us
of some interesting figures, like the late-Qing dynasty prostitute
Sai Jinhua, and the socialist hero Lei Feng. The developing level
of our social economy, culture and political system is marked
by the bicycle. Explanations of the word “bicycle” in dictionaries
should be enlarged by adding self-reliance, self-transportation. Two wheels
and a framework might compose another machine, yet the bicycle
coalesces our random thoughts: sometimes when I am riding
my shabby bike down the crowded street, I feel I am going to take off —
with everyone watching — into the azure of the sky, if
I speed up a little bit.


Do you know silver has been humiliated? It was unimaginable
that it would be used for purchase, investment, compensation and gambling.
People humiliate it by underestimating its value, as if it were not
a touchable moon, the solidity of waves, the roof of our dreams or
a village for us to feel nostalgia within. Ancient Egyptians were more clever
than we when they showed their respect for silver. During the years
between 1780-1580 B.C., Egyptian law stipulated that silver
was two times more valuable than gold. But it doesn't mean that
silver was not humiliated by being treated like this. The fact is
that silver has nothing to do with gold. If we say that gold is hot
with hubbub, then silver is cool with silence. There are blood relations
between silver and copper and iron. In Sanskrit, the word “silver”
means “brightness,” so when people humiliate silver, they do the same
to all bright things. Silver is healthful because it is good at
killing germs; silver is generous because it functions
to conduct electricity. Yet it has been humiliated. People do not
understand it at all; and silver in its loneliness fells shy
about sighing with the interjection: oh!


Death is a private affair for the dead. It is the same thing for
the living when it acts upon one through ghosts. I am not talking
in the vein of metaphor-usage: it's an old idea that without ghosts
the concept of death would be void. Then, will we be lucky enough
to witness apparitions? Will ghosts die? If I turn out
to be a ghost, will animals experience their transformations? I
can hardly imagine that ghosts would like to be quiet, sit
for ten minutes or have a sleep. That we are afraid of ghosts means
childhood has been prolonged in our bodies. What makes us uneasy
is not the evil of ghosts (perhaps most of them are kind).
It's the unknown that frustrates us. We don't feel fearful
of ancient ghosts (Xiang Yu or Caesar). The dreadful ghosts compose
a portion of our lives. Anthropologists say that the total population
of humans who have gone is 79 billion, which could be interpreted
as our sharing the world with 79 billion ghosts. If
there were no ghosts then heaven and hell would be abolished; and logically
good people wouldn't be comforted and bad ones would go unpunished.
It's vulgar and unintellectual to say so, but we are afraid
that we will be disappointed by disappointing ghosts.


The only lifeless movement on the earth, thus an eternal movement,
is the wind. Strictly speaking, we can not see it; what we see is
the floating dust, the turbulent clouds and the waving leaves. Although
walking against the wind has nothing to do with evading death,
walking with the wind does make us feel that life is something great.
When we stop and stand in the wind, we can hear it skimming
past our ears and come to believe in the existence of an objective world;
but Buddhists that it is because of the movement of our hearts.
Our hearts move always; but why is it that sometimes we cannot hear
the wind? Between gusts of wind, the earth is silent, as if plants
have ceased to grow and time has been killed. Only when the wind rises
again, life glitters again. So it is reasonable to say that it is the wind
that promotes life. Paul Valery said, “The wind is rising:
you must try to live!” Alas, wind, windfall, windbreaker, windmill,
wind furnace, wind vane . . . all those have things to do with the wind,
also with us. But we are not the wind. Yet even without life,
the wind ought to blow until the last day, if there is such a day.


Eulogizing the sublime form of a ruin is the same as eulogizing
an atrocity, and looking with indifference at that lofty form is the same
as admitting that we lack the ability to be affected by it. The reason
we have these two difficult states of mind when facing a ruin is that
a ruin's existence is vastly greater than ours; between us and ruins there is
practically no proportion to speak of. Yet, even if we acknowledge
our insignificance, ruins still refuse to act as people and receive us:
a ruin is the home of phantoms, only they are qualified to loiter there,
so it changes all who enter into ghosts. A ruin is not the same as
a construction site: it has won the perfection and honor that things yet
to be completed anticipate. Its stones that once stood are far more
costly than stones that never stood; they collapse but in our minds
are prepared whensoever to stand again. Times has weight; history comes
at a cost. Ruins are the combining of roofs and the ground into one,
ever taller green grass covers the traces of fire, the marks of sunshine
and rainfall. Amid silent ruins, only the stone columns stand apart,
talking to themselves — that is the nature of a building, the essence
of creation, the nature of the spirit of mankind.


The refraction of sun-rays in air constructs a mirage,
which could be taken as the best example to explain the way in which
matter turns into spirit: look at spiritual houses, spiritual squares,
spiritual wild lilies, one hundred and eight heroes from the Water
Margins, thirty-six girlfriends of Jia Baoyu, etc. That's another
kind of life, like something we occasionally recall, like a lonely
city standing at the end of the road which we occasionally see.
The mirage —another way to put it is the castle in the air — ignores
laws and rules of the secular world, and drives people to
the position of waiting to be selected. It belongs neither
to the present nor to the past, nor to the future. Being a metaphor
of our homeland and Utopia, it is disassociated from time.
Its theological meaning: God has no bed in heaven. Its philosophical
meaning: a blink is eternity. Its aesthetic meaning: only qualified persons
are allowed to appreciate such distancing. Its ethical
meaning: to pay close attention to the word “happiness”
in your dejections and hesitations; that is happiness. A mirage
is suggested by all pictures, poems and books. If you have never seen
any mirage, you may imagine it via the rainbow.

Translated by Xi Chuan and Inara Cedrins