The sky over Beijing on an October morning in 2008 was the color of a bruise, a livid yellow-brown that, my friends explained, was a sandstorm off the Gobi Desert, plus inversion, plus smoke from the coal that heats and powers the city, plus automobile exhaust. Visibility was minimal. You could make out cars going by in the street and barely make out figures walking on the opposite sidewalk. They looked like people wading through morning haze in a T’ang dynasty poem. It seemed a metaphor for contemporary China: the Gobi desert for the vastness of it, the coal smoke for the industrial revolution, phase one, and the carbon dioxide for the industrial revolution, phase two.
By the next morning a wind had come up, a light rain had passed through, and the sky was pure azure. From our slight elevation in the north of the city we looked out over crisp blue air and high clouds, the sprawl of endless neighborhoods, and, hovering over them, a forest of cranes—Beijing transforming itself. In the interim, I’d sat in an auditorium listening to a poetry reading, in Chinese and English, and seen the premiere of a new Chinese film. Both were so surprising that they made the suddenly transformed weather also seem like a metaphor.
The film, 24 City, directed by Jia Zhange Ke and written by him and a poet named Zhai Yongming, tells the story of the closing of a factory in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. The factory, a dinosaur of the planned economy, was situated in an immense, paternalistic company town where thousands of people had worked at jobs and lived their lives, performing the tasks involved in fabricating airplane engines and refrigerators. The combination of long, slow pans of empty buildings, the animated faces of the storytellers, the way their stories made a fifty-year history of their country, the sudden, meditative cuts to spaces of silence in which objects spoke, made for a sense of elegy and wonder at the shapes lives take and the way people live inside the worlds given to them—a mix which also gave the film a terrific sense of aesthetic risk and surprise.
Zhai Yongming, the poet who had cowritten the film, was born in 1955 in Chengdu, so she was writing about a world that she was familiar with. I knew that she had been sent away for two years of rural reeducation during the Cultural Revolution, and that she had published her first book of poems, a work about the lives of women, in 1984. That was about the time that a new generation of poets appeared in China who had broken with the official aesthetic line of the Communist Party. Critics, disapproving of their militant subjectivity, labeled them the “Misty School,” and many of them went into exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But they were a clear sign that Chinese poetry had come alive, and settling in to hear another generation of poets, I had no idea what to expect.
The reading consisted of one live and surprising voice after another. The poets, men and women, ranged in age from their late thirties to early fifties. They belonged, as did Zhai Yongming, to what critics were calling the New Generation. All of them seemed to me interesting, and—the most surprising thing about them—interesting in different ways. Over the years I’d attended a few international literary gatherings at which Chinese poets had read their work. In those years, in the 1980s and 1990s, you did not, in the first place, know whether the poets you were hearing were the actual poets, given the People’s Republic’s tight control of its public culture, but you did know that, if they were the actual poets, they were nevertheless writing in some utterly opaque code. Poets from around the world—from Vietnam and the Netherlands and Brazil and Canada, quite different from one another, coming from quite distinct literary traditions—were part of the same conversation. They were trying to invent in language, trying to say what life was like for them, to bear witness to it, to find fresh ways of embodying the experiences of thinking and feeling and living among others. That was what I was suddenly hearing in Beijing—that familiar, exhilarating sound, not so much of poetry, but of the power of the project of poetry. It felt like something very alive and new was stirring in China.
Later I did a mental scan of the history of the People’s Republic. October 1949: the founding. July 1957: the first anti-rightist campaign, involving a crackdown on independent-minded writers. May 1966–October 1976: the Cultural Revolution, a second, more brutal crackdown on “bourgeois elements.” September 1976: the death of Mao Zedong. December 1978: the beginning of economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping, which also happened to be the year in which a group of young poets issued the first non-official literary journal, Today, helping to launch the so-called Misty School. June 4, 1989: the massacre at Tiananmen Square, after which a number of poets, notably Bei Dao and Duo Duo, lived abroad for some years. It was through the translations of these poets’ work that writers in America and Europe began to pay attention to contemporary Chinese poetry.
The new generation had been born between 1951 and 1971, making them teenagers or young adults in the years of the Cultural Revolution. The oldest would have been thirty-five or forty at the time of Tiananmen Square; the youngest would have been eighteen. They grew up in a period of what looks from the outside like extraordinary change. The first anthology of Chinese poetry—it may be the first anthology of poetry ever assembled—was commissioned by an emperor who sent scholars out to collect and transcribe folk songs because he wanted to know how people were living. I found myself listening to the new poets in the same spirit, curious about what kind of poems they were making, but also about what they had to say about their lives, and the tumultuous times they had lived through.
Yu Jian (three of whose poems follow this essay) is one of the most powerful of the emerging poets. Born in the southwest province of Yunnan in 1954, he was five years younger than the People’s Republic. However, the first drama of his life was personal, not political: A childhood illness left him with severely impaired hearing. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in Yunnan, he was twelve; his schooling was interrupted, and his parents, who were intellectuals, were sent to the country for reeducation. At sixteen, Yu Jian went to work in a factory as a riveter and a welder. A brief biography of him in the journal Poetry International reports that, “influenced by his father’s interest in Chinese poetry and aided by frequent power failures in the factory,” he became a voracious reader. It was in those years of adolescence and exile from his education that he discovered Walt Whitman (in the Chinese translation, of course), who became a decisive influence. At the age of twenty-six—that is, after the death of Mao, during the reign of Deng Xiaoping and the economic reforms—he returned to school to study Chinese language and literature. At the age of thirty-two, two and a half years before the Tiananmen demonstrations, he published his first poem in a prestigious and official poetry journal. The poem couldn’t be plainer. A few lines go like this:
no. 6 Shangyi Street
yellow French-style houses
Old Wu’s pants hung out to dry
on the second floor
. . .
the big public toilet next door
the long queue outside first thing
usually with the onset of twilight
we open packets of cigarettes
open our mouths
turn on lights
(translated by Simon Patton)
Later, in 1992, he published a sequence of poems, “Two or Three Things from the Past,” about the years of the Cultural Revolution. Here is the beginning of the first poem from that series, “So Hot Then”:
So hot then
red trucks loaded with
adults’ burning tongues
forward forward again
disappearing down to the core of
escaped schoolchildren pinching
screaming sparrows rolling
Ah the summer of the era
theaters closed weeds in parks
loudspeakers hanging over
a revolution full blast in
(translated by John A. Crespi)
There are bits of this that one doesn’t get without knowing the landscape. The red trucks are presumably the ones that hauled off people like Yu Jian’s parents to be reeducated. The children torturing sparrows may or may not be a reference to the lingering effects of Mao’s Four Pests Campaign, an effort made during a famine in the late 1950s to encourage people to kill all the sparrows in China because they ate grain. (It is reported that on one day in 1958 the people of Beijing killed 83,249 sparrows. As it turns out, sparrows eat locusts and their disappearance intensified the food shortages.) But what amazing writing! The breakthrough for Yu Jian, according to the various narratives I was patching together, came in 1994, when he published a long poem called “File Zero.” The title makes reference to the dang’an—or dossier in the form of a life history—kept for every citizen of the People’s Republic. A section of it, related to the period of his schooling, reads like this:
appraisal: respects teachers cares for his classmates opposes
individualism never comes late
abides by discipline delights in hard work never quits early is
no foul mouth bothers no women
tells no lies fights the Four Pests is hygienic takes not needle or
thread from the masses trims his fingernails
(Translated by Maghiel van Crevel)
The three poems suggest something of Yu Jian’s range and concerns: the attention to ordinary life, the antiheroic language, the sardonic attitude toward the authoritarian state, and the pure poet’s leap to metaphor.
Xi Chuan, a decade younger than Yu Jian, grew up in Beijing. (Three of his poems also follow this essay.) His father was a soldier in the People’s Army, and he began high school at the elite Foreign Languages School in Beijing as the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution was subsiding. There he studied classical Chinese and English Romantic poetry and wrote a thesis on Ezra Pound. One of his first poems to catch my eye was “My Grandma”:
My grandma coughed, and woke one thousand roosters.
A thousand roosters crowed and woke up ten thousand people.
Ten thousand people walked out of the village, the roosters still crowing.
Then the roosters’ crowing stopped, but my grandma still coughed.
My grandma, still coughing, talked about her grandma, her voice
growing dimmer and dimmer,
as if my grandma’s grandma’s voice was growing dimmer and dimmer.
My grandma talked and talked and then stopped, and closed her eyes
as if my grandma’s grandma actually died at that moment.
(translated by the author and Bill Herbert)
This poem has a lightness and quickness of imagination that differs from most Western notions of Chinese poetry. Whether its magical realism and unnerving structure take a light or dark view of history, it’s hard to say.
In 1988, when he was twenty-five, Xi Chuan and some friends launched an unofficial literary journal, Tendency. At the time, he was translating Ezra Pound and Tomas Tranströmer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Jorge Luis Borges, and his own writing suggests a corresponding sophistication and aesthetic range. Here is a little of a prose poem called “Free Association”:
The bald man doesn’t need a comb, the tiger doesn’t need weapons, the fool doesn’t need thought. The person with no needs is practically a sage, but the sage needs to go and count the great big rivets on the iron bridge as a diversion. This is the difference between the sage and the idiot.
Nietzsche said a person must discover twenty-four truths every day before he can sleep well. First of all, if a person found that many truths, the supply of truth in the world would exceed demand. Secondly, a person who discovers that many truths isn’t going to want to go to sleep.
(translated by Lucas Klein)
I would read later that, in the late 1990s, Yu Jian and Xi Chuan would get into a tangle over the future of Chinese poetry—Yu Jian staking a claim for regional and vernacular Chinese and for a direct treatment of ordinary life, Xi Chuan defending a colloquial handling of Mandarin and freedom to draw subject matter from the whole range of human culture. Talking to them in Beijing, and listening to them and to other Chinese poets talk to each other, I sensed that they were only mildly curious to hear that they were beginning to receive some attention from the academy and in the literary magazines in the US and Europe. They were very much aware that the interest in the “Misty Poets” had been political as much as, or more than, aesthetic. There seemed to be a sense that they were judged for the political content of their work inside as well as outside China. They didn’t speak about this in terms of censorship so much as in terms of the high expectations that the historical reverence for poetry placed on their work. Meanwhile, they were trying to figure out how to slip the noose of both kinds of expectation and make an aesthetically fresh poetry in a very quickly changing cultural landscape.
Listening to their poems on that day two years ago, listening to them talk about the projects of their poetry, I was moved by their intensity and seriousness and playfulness and quick wit, and I found I couldn’t estimate what political and aesthetic valences their writing must have in China at this moment, any more than I could tell what role state censorship continued to play in what I was hearing.
But I could see that questions of this nature were part of what they found frustrating in their situation, and I began to understand why. For mirroring reasons, they must feel that both their own literary critics at home and the poets in the West are reading them for their ideological drift, which is exactly the expectation they are trying to find their way through, and around. The Chinese poets of my generation—the Misty Poets—had made a break with official literary culture by claiming inwardness and subjectivity. They had practiced the politics of antipolitics. This generation wanted that freedom, and they wanted to reclaim the right to register—to find the idioms in which to register—the social reality they were living in. They seem to be a generation for whom all the possibilities of poetry are up for grabs. That was the excitement I was hearing in Beijing that evening.
I think it was Tomas Tranströmer who said that poetry was like the notes kids pass back and forth in the classroom (now they are texting each other), while that teacher History drones away at the podium. We are going to be hearing a lot about China in the next decade, about its economy, its foreign and environmental policies. It’s going to be the work of translation that will give glimpses—human glimpses—at what’s going on.