POETRY IN COMMUNIST CHINA
Influential poets if the Mao era include Guo Moro, whose work is regarded as scholarly “ yet dry and perhaps subservient’ and Wen Yiduo, the Westernized and decadent poet who was assassinated in 1946 by Nationalist agents. Wen was the author of an immensely influential collection of poetry, Dead Water, which inspired the meng long (murky) poets who rekindled non-political poetry in China in the 1980s. [Source: Francesco Sisci, the Asia Editor of La Stampa, form the Asian Times]
Modern poets like Zhai Yongming, Ouyang Jianghe, Wang Xiaoni, Wang Jiaxin and Xi Chuan are not widely read but are respected by scholars both inside and outside China. Al Qing, one of China's best known poets, was purged by the Communist in 1957. He died in 1996 at the age of 86.
Wu Huaiyao, compiler of a annual ranking of rich writers, wrote in the Changjiang Times, “Over the four years that the rankings have been drawn up, it has never seen anyone who was purely a poet. Poets and wealth seem to be entirely insulated from each other. Poetry is snubbed, and poets pursue an existence on the margins where they are forgotten or even looked on with disdain. This is an era in which poets have been ‘made lonely.’” [Source: Wu Huaiyao, Changjiang Times, Danwei.org, November, 30, 2009]
“Through the course of our many interviews we found that in the mind of most people, poets are ‘destitute, divorced from reality, shabby, irresponsible, boring,’ and even ‘mentally disturbed.’ And they believe that there are only a few people writing poetry today. Is this truly the case? After our extensive investigation we wish to announce the truth: these days, poets are undercover right beside you!” [Ibid]
“Our incomplete statistics reveal that in the past few years, the Internet alone is host to roughly 5 million people writing poetry, and whose lives are intimately connected to poems. The poets we interviewed included a rich businesspeople and successful politicians. Even more thought-provoking is that in spot-interviews across the country, we found that as many as 85 percent of people have dreamed of becoming a poet. In light of this fact, we dug up four poets ‘hiding’ in various fields and had them tell the story of their encounters with poetry.” [Ibid]
Communist Slogans in China
Eliminating the Four Pests Perhaps Communist China’s greatest contribution to literature has been its slogans. Slogans in big Chinese characters are painting in almost every village and town, urging people to support the Communist Party, pay taxes, limit the number of children and support government projects. Some the characters are big enough to cover a whole mountain sides.
There are thousands of Communist party functionaries who write slogans for the Propaganda Department and other government agencies. Good slogans are short, to the point, easy to chant and convey the Communist's party ideology of the moment. One slogan writer in Shanghai's Propaganda Department told the New York Times: "Slogans require the writing techniques and rhythms of classical poetry to make them palatable to the people."
There are special slogans for certain groups of people. Teachers and students are expected to shout "Value knowledge!" and "Reinvigorate the nation with science and technology!" Government workers are urged to psyche themselves up with chants like "Strengthen the legal system!" "Serve the people whole heartedly" and "Stick to the principal line of the Communist Party and never waver for 100 years."
Among the dozen or so slogans released by the Propaganda Department to celebrate China's 50th anniversary in 1999 were: 1) "Unite as one, fear no difficulties, struggle hard, be persistent, dare to win!"; 2) "Rely on the working class wholeheartedly." 3) "Develop public health and physical culture and improve people's physique."
Mao is considered the greatest slogan writer who ever lived although many of the slogans attributed to him were written by Lin Biao. During the Great leap Forward.Mao's followers were expected to chant, "Long live the people's communes!" and "Strive to complete and surpass the production responsibility of 12 million tons of steel!"
Little Red Book A poem from The Little Red Book that produced a several slogans went:
A revolution is not a dinner party
Or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing
It cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle,
So temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and
A revolution is an insurrection,
An act of violence by which one class overthrows
The three main "Rules for Discipline" for soldiers and party workers in The Little Read Book were: "Obey orders in all your actions; Do not take a single needle or thread from the masses; and Turn in everything captured." Loyal Communists were also urged to "speak politely; return everything you borrow; don't swear at people; and do not take liberties with women."
On the topic of violence and revolution: 1) "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun." 2) "In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." 3) "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed." 4) "When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars." 5) “Fight no battle you are not sure of winning.”
Other famous sayings from The Little Red Book include, 1) "Modesty helps one go forward, whereas conceit makes one lag behind;" 2) "Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve." And, 3) "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all the running dogs...Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed."
Mao Zedong once said, There is no construction without destruction. Destroy first, and construction will follow. He extolled their Chinese peasantry for the blankness, observing that one can write beautiful things on a blank sheet of paper. On the matter of equal rights, Mao said "women hold up half the sky." In regard to population growth, Mao said, "every mouth comes with two hands." The population of China doubled under his leadership.
Mao reportedly once said that a loud fart is better than a long lecture. He shocked Kissinger by jokingly informing him that China was planning to send 10 million Chinese women to the United States. Mao told Nixon, "People like me sound a lot of big cannons. For example, things like, 'the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries and establish socialism.’” He then broke into a fit of laughter.
Modern Slogans in China
Maoist slogans at exhibition at 798 Space Slogan writing changed dramatically after Mao died. Things like "Class struggle is the guiding principal" were changed to "Economic development is the central task." One slogan writer told the New York Times, "We stopped using expression like 'down with' and exclamation marks were dropped." Deng most memorable slogan was, "To get rich is glorious." To urge his comrades to leave Maoism behind he exorted them: "Emancipate the mind, seek truth from facts and firmly promote the future.”
Many painted slogans now convey capitalist messages like “Build the World’s Biggest Supermarket, Construct an International Shopping Heaven!” Others offer advice on family planning (“Marry Late and Have Children Late”), encourage environmental awareness (“Make the Green Mountain Even Greener”) and address poverty (“Use the World Bank’s Opportunity Wisely/ /Help the Mountainous Area Escape Poverty”)
Chinese Communists like slogans with number. Top issues at a one party congress were the “Three Rural Questions” to bring about better conditions in the countryside and the “Two Guarantees” for the urban poor. A sign for the railroad in Tibet reads: “Maintain the One Center of the Two Musts Roadmap, Study the Three Represents, Emphasize the Three Feelings, Overcome the Three Big Challenges and Realize the Three Big Goals.” The “Two Musts” by the way are “to preserve modesty and prudence” and “to preserve the style of plain living and hard struggle.” [Source: Los Angeles Times]
Jiang Zemin’s doctrine was the “Three Represents.” Deng Xiaoping describe his policy towards Hong Kong as “One Country, Two Systems.” Under Mao there were “Sinking Number Nine” and the “Five Red Categories,” and who can forget, kill the "four pests" (sparrows, rats, insects and flies).
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2009 fifty new slogans were rolled out. Among them was ‘Warmly celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China!’ [Source: Guy Raz, New York Post]
Another went: ‘Adhering to and improving the system of regional autonomy by ethnic minorities, so as to consolidate and develop socialist relations among different ethnic groups based on equality, solidarity, mutual assistance and harmony.’ This seemed to be a response to Xinjiang riots that left 197 dead three months before.
The new set of 50 slogans was painted on walls, written on placards and flags and carried by people during the PRC's birthday celebrations. One that seem to deal with potentially destabilizing social trends, such as the growing wealth gap, official corruption and abuses of power by officials, one read: ‘Safeguarding the overall situation of reform andopening up and stability, and striving for long-term security and stability.’ [Source: Wu Zhong, China Editor, Asia Times September 23, 2009]
Another—‘Salute workers, peasants, intellectuals and cadres all over the country!’—angered some of China's netizens. China's problem with graft has led many to equate the term ‘cadre’ or official, with corruption. ‘Do they want us to salute the corrupt? No way!’ one blogger wrote. “ [Ibid]
Analysis of China's Slogans
Jeff Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in China, and founded the blog China Beat, told the New York Times that some people take the slogan seriously but says there's still a lot of snickering. ‘One reason is because slogans will often be promoting things that in fact, the government is quite worried about.’ For example, he says, ‘the government will trumpet the need for a harmonious society, acting as if it's already been achieved — when in fact it's something they'd very much like to achieve.’ In volatile ethnic areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet, he said, ‘I think what they're trying to do is to get people back in line in those areas to settle down and be more accepting of the central government's rule.’ [Source: Guy Raz, New York Post]
Wasserstrom told the New York Post that, mostly, the slogans determine talking points for official media, providing a sense of the things that are acceptable to talk about. Chinese view the slogans sort of like advertisements, he said. ‘Propaganda is simply making the case for the kind of product you have to sell — whether it's a candidate or it's a policy, or whether it's something to buy,’ he said, adding there aren’t that much different from American public service announcements or the ‘Courage, pass it on’ billboards that sprouted around the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. “ [Ibid]
Wasserstrom said that the slogans definitely sound better in Chinese, but they still don't trip off the tongue. ‘You can't imagine anyone memorizing [them],’ he said. Instead, these slogans might show up on banners or placards to be carried through the streets. Perhaps only a single character might be promoted — a kind of shorthand for the larger concept. “ [Ibid]
Lei Feng poster Shunkouloi, or “slippery jingles,” are rhythmic verses or sayings full of puns and clever wordplay that often have a satirical bite that make fun of Communist slogans and take aim at the government or problems such as corruption and censorship. They are passed around by word of mouth and via text messages and on blogs which are next to impossible to censor. Some regard them as the freest and arguably the liveliest medium in China. [Source: Washington Post]
One called the The Flour Clears and the Four Unclears goes:
Why hold a meeting?—Unclear
But who sits in what seat?—Very clear
Who bought which gifts?—Unclear
But who bought no gift?—Very clear
Whose work has been good?—Unclear
But who will not be promoted?—Very clear
Who went to bed with leader?—Unclear
But what was done there?—Very clear
There is a whole subgenre of slippery jingles that makes fun of the “Four Basics”—1) the socialist road, 2) the dictator of the proletariat, 3) the Communist Party leadership and 4) Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought—one of the most repeated but ignored government slogans. One jingle that responded to problems that occurred and were revealed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 goes:
Reinforcement bars basically absent
Transportation basically by foot
Communication basically by shouting
Excavation basically by hand
One that appeared before the Olympics went: The Olympics arrive...Beijing alive!...Of course were are moved...That the food has improved...And no beggars no riff-raff...No petitions you see...Who cares if the locals...Are kicked and repressed...So long as the world...Is duly impressed?...When the Olympics are done... We’ll be back to square one;...Corruption and privilege...Won’t that be fun?
Poetry in Post-Cultural Revolution China
A poetry reading in 1980 The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “The 1980s were the heyday of modern Chinese poetry. Poetry was like pop culture then—it played the role karaoke has today. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as karaoke, and every small city or town would have a place where people would get together after dinner and read poetry. It was such an everyday thing, so lively. Every night was like a mini-poetry carnival. These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities—art, film, literature—but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development.” [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China July 15, 2011]
Contemporary Chinese literature only really has about a thirty-year history—from 1978 or 1979 on. Within these thirty years poetry has held a relatively special position because compared with novels, drama and film, it was the first to start to develop after Mao’s restrictions on art. The modern Chinese novel only really only began around 1980, but modern poetry had already started before 1978.
This is why so many people read poetry in the early 1980s—because poetry had had a head start, and had played an important role in liberating people’s ways of thinking after the Mao period. So when you look at the contemporary poetry scene in China today, its readership might be small, but it still has great historical significance. Bei Dao, Duo Duo, Wang Ke—these poets of the 1980s all have this role of the cultural hero.
Underground, self-published books and events that became known as “zines” were driving forces in the poetry movement in the 1980s. Hu told Artspace China, “These have been huge in China. One reason poetry has played such an important role in China these last thirty years is because it began as this kind of zine. Contemporary Chinese poetry began around 1978 in these kinds of underground openings and events. Beijing University, for example, had a particularly important publication called Today—or Jintian—but they couldn’t distribute it. They just made a small number of copies and distributed them amongst their friends and peers. Before that, from 1949 to 1979, there was absolutely nothing like this; for thirty years, anything that was going to be printed had to go through the government authorities. So when this phenomenon emerged it went crazy and was extremely popular.
“People had their own equipment—very simple rolling machines, a very ancient method. I printed on these myself. While I was at university everybody could operate this thing. And so later it became a massive phenomenon. Everywhere—anywhere that had a university, and a group of people who liked literature—people would get together and make these books. Throughout the “80s, it was common for a university to have up to hundreds of these zines, all circulating among friends and peers. But then after 1989 it all ended. Not simply because of political pressure, but because especially around 1992 China had its 'accelerated reform', Deng Xiaoping conducted his “tour of the South’, and the economic changes that resulted had a big impact on cultural activities.
Hu Xudong is Associate Professor at the Institute of World Literature at Beijing University. He’s also a poet, and was one of China’s first internet technicians, co-running an early website called New Youth (Xin Qingnian) which innovated with technology and language. What better person to give a lowdown on contemporary Chinese poetry, its origins in an “80s zine scene, and its internet iterations? Read on for a bird’s eye view.
Underground Poetry in Deng Era
The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “A lot of historians break recent Chinese history into stages with June 4 1989, but it was actually 1992 where things really changed. There were still a lot of ideas after 1989—they continued—but there was just no way of expressing them. So for example an oppositional stance, or some kind of dissatisfaction—after 1992 the very basic foundations through which you might express this started to change. Between 1989 and 1992, there were still many emotions and dreams, yearnings and hopes. But from 1992 the whole structure of society was replaced by economic reform. Things became more Westernised, more commercialised, and you saw fewer and fewer of these zines.
In the 1980s the zines were huge, like a massive newspaper—the bigger the better. But in the 1990s they became tiny, a very elegant. I was still collecting them then, but some were only as small as a napkin. We called these little “xiao zazhi’, or “little magazines’, and they were mostly poetry. After 2000, when the internet became popular, they really began to dwindle. You still see them, but there are fewer and fewer these days.
The Chinese poet Haizi (1964-89) committed suicide in March of 1989, only months before many others died on June 4th of that same year. A relatively obscure poet at the time of his death, Haizi is now hailed as the epitome of the “hero of poetry” whose writings represent the idealistic 1980s. Three aspects of Haizi’s texts contribute heavily to his acclamation. the literary theme of minjian contesting the official narratives of “history” and “nation;” the writing of epic aiming at creating a national canon; and the rhetorization of Christian symbols and motifs which shares ideological grounds with the “Mao style” in their prescription of a “sublime” poet-hero.
Chinese Poets in with Allen Ginsberg in New York in the 1980s and 1990s
Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,” In the late 80s and early 90s, American beat generation writer Allen Ginsberg set up reading events with mainland poets in New York. Ginsberg organised visits to the US by several Chinese poets he called "heretic". They were to take part in a conference with American poets. The invited writers were Gong Liu and Li Gang, from Sichuan province, as well as Bei Dao, Jiang He, Gu Cheng and others from Beijing. Yan and I were already in New York. We had a sort of underground status in the mainland, because Public Security kept tabs on us, so we couldn't be part of any official Chinese team, but Ginsberg let us tag along. The American-Chinese poetry conference took place in a posh building in downtown Manhattan. Because they had grown up in "the New China", the Chinese poets couldn't speak English. Ai Weiwei was called in by his friend Ginsberg as interpreter. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]
Every one of the poets, Chinese and American, sat erect around the large conference table as Ginsberg made a serious opening speech. Then came a recitation; it was Gong, reading a prepared thank you note from the National Chinese Writers' Association. And then the conference began. Every poet got his chance to say a few pleasantries to one or all of the poets from the other country. Hardly anybody understood what anybody said, but Ai started to translate everything seriously.
This was during a time in the mainland when the official writers' association was very powerful. Any poet or writer who was invited abroad had to be vetted. You had a better chance of being allowed to travel if you held any kind of office in the writers' society. And if they let you go abroad, you had to remain disciplined, you could not go anywhere alone during the day and had to return to your hotel by nightfall. And once you returned to the mainland, you had to write an official report. So the Chinese poets at the conference kept very calm and chose their words very carefully.
Ginsberg had eyes only for Bei. The whole conference became a dialogue between these two writers while the others made polite faces, like distant relatives at a wedding. Ai had to translate every question and answer between them. After a while he started to add some spice. When Ginsberg asked Bei about a deeper topic in his poems, Ai began to add the word "sex" into every sentence. "What is the deeper sexual topic in your poetry?" The Chinese poets were dumbstruck and started to whisper among themselves. Maybe this was the famous decadent spirit of the beat poet coming out into the open.
Bei was embarrassed. He started to explain in Chinese: "Sex is not the main topic, not the deeper topic in my poems ..." He had not yet finished when Ai began to translate: "Sex is essential for poetry, everything in my poems points towards sex." When the American poets heard this, their eyes lit up. They were all in agreement about the power of the poet and his poetry. So Ginsberg was even more interested. Now Ai didn't even have to add anything to the question: "In what way do you let sex appear in your poetry?"
The Chinese poets looked at each other. Bei finally muttered: "My poetry ... has nothing to do with sex." Ai kept a serious expression and translated this sentence into something completely different that made Ginsberg and the other American poets even more curious. Several of them asked him something in English.
Without blinking an eye, he said in Chinese: "The American poets would like each of you to recite two poems on the topic of sex. I will try to translate them into English." The invented request left the Chinese side speechless. Gong and Bei went pale. But everybody in the audience was laughing. Ai had succeeded in turning a serious international conference into a travesty. Then the poets noticed what had been going on. They didn't know if they should laugh or cry. Ai was laughing out loud; he was proud to have brought about the first Chinese-American poetry sex-exchange.
In the Southern Weekend interview, Ai said: "Bei Dao was the most boring person. Sometimes he would pass by New York, then he told me he wanted to see Allen Ginsberg. So I went with him and we all had a little chat. But, [for the rest of the time,] Bei was at some American university, [as part of] his bread-winning efforts." In the autumn of 2000, I was deported to the US from a Beijing prison. For the next few years, every time I set foot in the East Village, I would imagine running into Ai again, although he had returned to the mainland several years earlier. I would look for his basement on East 7th Street, between First Avenue and Second Avenue, and walk back and forth around the entrance, expecting him to come out. In my mind, he was a fixture of the place: without that guy in his Chinese army coat it just wasn't the East Village any more.
Bei Dao is an exiled Chinese poet who lives in Paris. He has been suggested as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Describing Chinese history, he once wrote, "Cast on a shield of bronze/She leans against a darkening museum wall." Bei was born in 1949. In 1989 he wrote an open letter urging the release of political prisoners. Since Tiananmen Square, he has not been allowed in China. He teaches at the University of Michigan and is a board member of the New York-based Human Rights of China organization.
Bei Dao, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai, pioneered a new genre of Chinese poetry in the early 1980s. One of his best known poems is "The Answer," which was written in the 1970s, and in it he says "Debasement is the password of the base, Nobility the epitaph of the noble." [Source: China Daily August 13, 2011
In 1994, Bei attempted to return to China through Beijing. He was questioned and detained for 12 hours at the airport before being deported. In December 2001, he was allowed to visit China for the first time in 11 years to visit his ailing father. In August 2011, the China Daily reported, “The 62-year-old poet Bei Dao surprised nearly everyone when he appeared at the Qinghai Lake Poetry Festival in Xining as he has been absent from the Chinese mainland for more than 20 years, except for a brief stay for his father's funeral in Beijing in 2001.
China Dail reported, "Bei Dao covered his thin body with a brick-red jacket and grey pants as he made a short speech at the opening ceremony before being surrounded by fans clamoring for his autograph and hoping to be photographed with him. Away from admirers, he looked introspective, as he gazed into the distance or wandered alone, sometimes snapping photos. "I wish to convey my meditation on the world after years of travelling through poetry," he said in his baritone voice. "My wandering life of 20 years is precious to me, and my life and poems run in parallel lines -- sometimes crossing," Bei Dao told Xinhua. He said he seldom recites it these days, unless a friend requests it. "For a poet, it's hard to pick a favorite among all your works, but I've always believed my best poem should be the next one," he said. "Poets should always challenge themselves."
Bei Dao said he's currently writing long poems and still considers poetry "the most important and challenging artistic expression" in his writing career. But "the paradox of writing poetry is that you have to utter the unutterable, and it's the only way to the heart of all that matters," he said.
Bei Dao said he greatly enjoys his life with family in Hong Kong, and his six-year-old son has brought him "irreplaceable comfort." "He often indulges himself in his own fantasy, loves painting and can appreciate literature," he said. He's currently working on two international poetry projects, apart from teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The first project, "International Poets in Hong Kong," invites two world renown poets to visit Hong Kong every year, carrying out poetry activities and publishing a bilingual poetry collection for each poet. The other project, the annual International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, started in 2010. It aims to make quality poetry teaching universal.
Bei Dao on Chinese Literature Today
In Bei Dao’s eyes, compared to the prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s, today's Chinese literature is uninspired. "It's true not only in China but also across the world, and it's related to many factors, like materialism oriented by consumption, the nationwide trend of seeking entertainment, information dissemination brought by new technologies. All these things are making bubbles in language and literature," he said.
He pointed out that previously a clear-cut division existed between "vulgar" culture and "serious" culture, but today vulgar culture is swallowing serious culture like a black hole, and unfortunately, many writers are forced to lower their writing standards to cater to vulgarity in today's society.
There are other reasons for the devolution of Chinese poetry, Bei Dao said, such as the absence of a system of construction. "Poetry needs good guides, and a good critic is a good guide who can lead or shape a group of well-educated readers through unscrambling and analyzing poets." He said that college students and scholars who used to read poetry have lost their enthusiasm for it amid China's social transformation, and now poetry only evokes nostalgia for them.
Meanwhile, the poet noted, the young generation of readers who grew up in the era of commercialization could not escape the impact of the times on them. "In such a populous country, it would only take a niche audience to reignite the development of poetry, so it's a pity that such reader groups have not yet formed," he said. "Modern education kills young people's imagination and creativity, so we need to promote poetry instruction to sharpen their awareness of literature," he added.
Bei Dao’s Poetry
Although Bei's poetry isn't overtly political it has inspired people with political intentions. The poem The Answer has been particularly embraced. It goes
Let me tell you, world
If a thousand challengers lie
beneath your feet,
Count me as number thousand and one.
Another famous poem by Bei Dao goes:
I do not believe that the sky is blue,
I do not believe that thunder has echo,
I do not believe that dreams are false,
I do not believe that death defies retribution.
Poetry in Modern China
The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “China is still very influenced by traditional ideas of what poetry is. Our best poets are more concerned with the issues of high modernism. In other countries, you can just have a normal department of literature, your mission as a writer is simply to express your spirit, your thoughts, to express your perception of the world. In other countries there’s been a period of transition—a time where poets could adjust and explore the role of poetry, and through that investigate the visual effects, or the vocal effects of poetry. But in China we’ve only recently dropped from this position of the hero, and are not quite used yet to our new role. It’s a question of stability, or having the right foundation. [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China July 15, 2011]
On whether Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers still seem to feel a sense of responsibility towards society, Xu said, “They’re less likely to think that making art is a matter of play, of fun. They feel a sense of pressure—even a sense of burden. So contemporary Chinese poets are in an awkward position. One the one hand, they’re not respected at all, but on the other, they can remember just how powerful they were so recently. Together these positions make for a tension In real life, the poet is a bit of “loser’, while in our minds the poet is still a star. Every new generation has its own force. But if you compare them to contemporary Chinese novelists, filmmakers, and artists, China's contemporary poets are currently kind of out on their own.
300 Modern Chinese Poems
Martin Winter wrote on his blog: Zhao Siyun, has a list of authors and poems on his Blog for a Chinese-English anthology of over 300 modern Chinese poems 300. Compiled by an institution called International Poetry Translation and Research Centre, IPTRC, it is very welcoming, diverse and expansive, including writers from Taiwan, and many young voices. Liao Yiwu is included, though not with his most representative work, probably. Lü Yuan is there. Bei Dao is well represented in this new effort, although I miss the mosquito. It’s very hard to include one or two significant poems from an author who is obviously politically significant. [Source: Martin Winter's blog, September 1, 2012]
Interesting to compare this with other anthologies, in Chinese and other languages. Zhongguo Xin Shi (Fudan UP 2000), ed. Zhang Xinying, has two poems by Zhou Zuoren , one against unnecessary water dams and a drinking song, both very impressive. Zhou Zuoren has not made it onto the IPTRC list. Of course it’s rather easy to come up with some of your favorites who are not represented, compared to shifting through many thousand poems and coming up with such a list. Huang Xiang is included, despite his dissident status, but he is already in Zhongguo Xin Shi. As usual, I am looking at newer people first, although I only recognize two from those born in 1970 or later. Zhou Yunpeng is there, the blind folk singer. But not Cui Jian . Woeser is there, which is great! But in general there are hardly any poets from minority nations in China. [Ibid]
Ha Jin is missing, but he writes in English. Gao Xingjian does not appear, but is mostly known for fiction and drama. So who else hasn’t made it? Yang Ze Hsiang Yang Hung Hung Mai Mang (Huang Yibing ), who sometimes writes in English and teaches at Connecticut (there is another Mai Mang in China, known for one-liners). On with the non-list: Sun Wenbo, Li Nan, Yang Jian, Zhu Wen, Yin Lichuan, Zheng Xiaoqiong, Ma Lan, Hong Ying, Pang Pei, Che Qianzi and Yan Jun. I would have included Yan Jun’s Against All Organized Deception(translated by Maghiel van Crevel) and Ma Lan’s The accident and the reason, maybe even combined with As If. And How We Kill a Glove, if it wouldn’t be too long. Hong Ying’s Hunger, also written abroad. And one of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s new female migrant worker’s portraits. [Ibid]
Then there would be others. Not compatible, maybe. Wu Yinning and Li Ch’in’an are very much from Taiwan. Wu Yinning is more well-known for her reportages. The poems contain many fascinating local expressions, hard to translate. I’ve only read two poems by Li Ch’in’an , in a three-volume anthology of about 100 years of poetry in Taiwan. One of these two poems is a personal favorite, After Martial Law Was Lifted – In Commemoration of Lifting Martial Law in Taiwan on July 15th, 1987. [Ibid]
Poetry in the Internet Age
The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities—art, film, literature—but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development.
Novels have their publishing houses, and are already relatively commercialised—and of course novels have a far greater readership. Then you have music, contemporary art. They have their dealers and agents, their galleries and labels. They have “real capital’.
But poetry only has symbolic capital. So it’s rare for poets to get a publishing house to take on their work. Very few people look after them. They need something like the internet to find their community. This community isn’t going to be like those of twenty years ago, where a group of people gather together in the one city—in a café, or in a university—it might be one person in the North of China, another in the South, another might be studying overseas. They’ll use a particular forum or internet group to make this tiny poetry community.
Image Sources: University of Washington, Ohio State University, Amazon.com, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Wikipedia, Achievement.org, Landberger posters
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013