New Poetry from China 1916-2016
January 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the New Poetry movement in China. We are joining the celebration by presenting excerpts from a new anthology edited by Poetry International’s China editor Ming Di, New Poetry from China 1916-2016.
Hu Shi 胡适 (1891-1962)
Generally considered as the first poet of New Poetry in China, Hu Shi started promoting free verse in vernacular language while a student in the U.S. He returned to China in 1917 to teach at Beijing University. He was ambassador to the U.S. from 1938-1942, chancellor of Beijing University from 1946-1948, and president of the Academia Sinica of Taiwan from 1957-1962.
Days are getting cool, people are less busy,
Old Mei starts a fight and accuses Hu Shi
of being too ridiculous in saying
that "Live literature is what China needs"
that "Writing must be in vernacular speech!"
Who says there are live and dead words?
Isn’t the vernacular too vulgar?
Old Mei complains, while Hu Shi laughs out loud.
Cool down comrade, how can you talk so loud
with such an out-dated tone?
Words may not be old or new, but definitely dead
Ancient people say Yu, we say Yao (to desire).
Ancient people say Zhi, we say Dao (to arrive).
Ancient people say Ni, we say Niao (to pee).
Same words, a little change in the sound.
Why call it vulgar?
Why even argue?
Ancient people say letters, we say characters.
Ancient people hang on poles, we hang on beams.
Not only words, but also texts.
Dead or alive.
A living text is what you know and can speak about.
A dead text is what you have to translate.
Texts of three thousand years, up and down, living or dead,
who knows how many have been hijacked.
Look at the Shangshu.
It becomes fiction.
Look at Songs of Qingyun.
It becomes drama.
Look at the texts of Han Tang,
same as the Latin that you’re learning.
How can there be people so stupid
as to not in love with the living beauty
but hugging the ice-cold skeleton.
Old Mei jumps up: This is absurd!
If what you say is true,
all peasants are poets.
Days are getting hot, people are busier.
Old Mei plays with ink, becoming angrier.
But revolution of texts involves both of us.
I dare not argue, nor dare to ignore.
I have to speak out. Not speaking out is not a way out.
Don’t you dare laugh
at a poem of plain speech. It beats
a hundred books of South Society texts.
(1916) (excerpt from a longer poem)
Li Jinfa 李金发 (1900-1976)
Known as ‘Baudelaire in China’, Li Jinfa was born in Guangdong, went to France in 1919 to study art and returned to China in 1925. He sent two collections of poems to friends in China in 1923, which were highly praised and became very influencial. He worked as a diplomat in Iran and Iraq in 1940s and spent his later years in the U.S.
If fallen leaves are splashed blood
on our feet, life is a smile
on the lips of our death.
Under the half dead moon you drink
and sing with a cracked throat,
your voice howling in the north wind—
—and comfort the one you love.
Open the doors and windows,
and let the dust cover your loving eyes.
Are you shy
or angry with life?
Feng Zhi 冯至 (1905-1993)
Feng Zhi published his first poem in 1924 while a college student in Beijing. He then went to Germany to study art, literature and philosophy, and returned to China in 1936. His well-known 27 Sonnets came out in 1941 during the wartime in China, and he was regarded as a follower of classical poet Tu Fu (712-770), with a deep concern of the society. He was honored with many awards in his later years for his translation of German poetry.
I often see in the wilderness
a village boy or a peasant woman
cry toward the silent sky.
Is it for a punishment, or
a damaged toy?
For the death of her husband
or illness of her son?
They cry, non-stop,
as if their whole life were constrained
in the cry, no other life
or anything else outside.
They cry, and it seems they’ve cried
from ancient times, their tears flow endlessly
for a world of despair.
Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910-2000)
A poet that bridged the modern to contemporary, Western influence to Chinese tradition, Bian Zhilin started poetry writing while in college in 1930s. He was a research fellow at Oxford University from 1947-1949, taught at Beijing University 1949-1952, and later worked at the Academy of Social Science, becoming vice-chairman of the Shakespeare Society in China. He won the ‘Lifetime Achievement in Poetry’ in 2000.
You stand on the bridge to watch the view,
a viewer upstairs watches you.
The moon decorates the window with its beam,
while you decorate the other’s dream.
Zheng Min 郑敏 (1920- )
Zheng Min published poems in the 1940s while a student of the Southwest United University in China and then went to study literature and philosophy at Brown University. She returned to China in 1955 to teach. In 1993, she criticized New Poetry, the free verse that she’s been engaged with since early on, as something not mature and caused a nationwide debate that’s still going on today.
Golden rice stands in sheaves
in the newly cut autumn field.
I think of many exhausted mothers,
I see rugged faces along the road at dusk.
On the day of harvest, a full moon hangs
atop the towering trees,
and in the twilight, distant mountains
approach my heart.
Nothing is more quiet than this, a statue,
shouldering so much weariness –
you lower your head in thought
in the autumn field that stretches afar.
Silence. Silence. History is nothing
but a small stream flowing under your feet.
And you stand over there,
becoming a thought of humanity.
Chang Yao 昌耀 (1936-2000)
Chang Yang was born in Hunan and moved to Qinghai Province in 1955, where he was exiled to the countryside in 1958 during the Anti-Rightist Movement in China and then reinstated in 1979. He began publishing poetry in 1954 and committed suicide in 2000. He is newly ‘discovered’ and widely praised today.
An eagle plucks up leaden wind
and flies from the peak of an ice-mountain.
Cold air shakes free
from its drumming wings.
In the gray-white mist,
the flying eagle disappears,
while shepherds on the prairie bare their arms,
lift up their swords,
and taste the first snow.
Duo Duo 多多 (1951- )
Duo Duo was born in Beijing and was sent to the Baiyangdian farm for reformation in 1966. Incidentally, Baiyngdian became the cradle of contemporary poetry: Shi Zhi, Gen Zi, Mang Ke and Duo Duo himself, along with many other earlier poets, spent their youth and early writing careers there. He lived in exile from 1989-2003, returned to China in 2004 and was awarded ‘The Poet of the Year’ by the South Daily. Since then he has been teaching poetry at Hainan University in southern China. He won the Neustadt International Literature Prize from Oklahoma University (U.S.) in 2010.
I looked down from the high toilet
of my childhood
and there was my uncle eye to eye with a bull.
In their eyeball-to-eyeball I saw
one purpose: when the light comes in,
let the shadows come out!
When a soccer ball flies over
the school ground, reality broadens
my uncle's vision
toward the sun
that’s frozen in the high North Pole.
And he wants to tweeze it back into history.
So I believe that the sky is a sky
that can move, and my uncle, in his frequent returns from there,
is still my uncle, in his own shoes,
which convinces me that he is going to cut himself off
by telling his story in a flashback.
He wanted to repair clocks
as if he had a premonition
to correct a mistake
that had already been fixed by time:
We had all fallen
into the holes called ‘the liberated’.
Up to this day, the tobacco from those clouds still chokes me.
I walk in the direction where the railways disappear
and see my uncle's beard growing in a wheat field,
though with a red neckerchief
he has long run off the earth –
Wang Xiaoni 王小妮 (1955- )
Wang Xiaoni has been writing since 1974 and ‘gets better with age’. With over a dozen volumes of poems, essays and short stories credited to her name, she is regarded as one of the best women poets in the country.
Here you are, just in time to invade my territory.
Half my desk receives your warm reach –
inventor of happiness, the tenured professor.
You come only to offer yellow heat,
leave behind ripening fruits, budding flowers,
cotton and grain bursting out – your luster
manifests in the earth’s bright abundance.
But under this undergrowth there’s sweat,
coughing, gasping, and blackened cracks –
don’t think that I can’t see this.
I refuse to be bathed in you again. Winter is trembling;
I won’t accept your light.
Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 (1956- )
Jianghe began to publish poetry in 1979 and emerged in 1985 as one of the ‘post-misty’ poets. He also has published critical reviews of music and film. From 1993-1997 he lived in the US and currently lives in Beijing, as poet-in-residence at Beijing Normal University.
A handgun can be taken apart
as two unrelated things,
a hand, and a gun.
A ‘long gun’ can be a powerful party.
A ‘black hand’ can become another party.
Things can be taken further apart
until each becomes completely the opposite
of the other.
Our world splits endlessly in deconstruction
People look for love with one eye
and the other pressed against a gun.
Bullets flirt around,
noses in alignment with the enemy’s living room.
Politics is tilted to the left.
One opens gunfire towards the east,
another falls down in the west.
Black-Hand party Mafia puts on white gloves
while the Long-Gun party carries short guns.
Venus stands among the rocks,
her hands denying humankind.
Out of her chest are two drawers pulled out,
and inside them are two bullets and one gun.
When you try to shoot, it becomes a toy
murder, a misfire.
Zhang Shuguang 张曙光 (1956- )
Zhang Shuguang lives in Heilongjiang, the northeast corner of China, but has been known nationwide since the early 1990s. He has translated Dante and Milosz (from English). He won the grand prize of the Poetry Construction Award from eastern China in 2014.
Where is your face? Flooded by what?
New York streets?
Your head, tilted to one side, your neck
can’t hold the weight of ideas.
Where's your face? You are so clumsy
driving in Brandeis, your wife is
making souvenirs for who? A company?
and your son? In China? Why
you chose this damned
career of a poet,
I can't say . . .
Your father curses you, your father
I don’t know, writes
in a cursive that's yours,
since you are his son and
are in America, and Allen Ginsburg
and John Ashbery
are also there and are beautiful, and you
are hot, but I don’t know why
you chose this damned career as a poet.
Wind on your face, poet’s face, is
blurry and strange, I don't understand how these lips
eat steak in a restaurant.
If I see you I’ll punch you and say Hey Buddy don’t lick
your fingers, speak better Chinese, boy,
and I will drag you
from your wife's angry eyes to City Lights,
City Lights, my Charlie Chaplin. City lights.
Xiao Kaiyu 萧开愚 (1960- )
Xiao was born in a village of Sichuan Province, trained as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine but was interested in literature from his early years. He started writing poetry seriously in 1980s and moved to the metropolitan Shanghai and Beijing. After spending six years in Berlin, he has returned to China to teach in Henan and Shanghai.
By cutting off excessive colors and shapes
the Great Man makes the content clear.
He prefers the silver of clouds – the azure blue
of the sea – the grandeur of things
in tidy appearance. He loves this kind of a country.
The sun is fixed like a badge on the forehead
above an ocean of people.
Forged in steel, a vast reality
weaves the infinite into a finite but illusive square
built around the tower, made not of purpled gold but clay.
Newspapers cheer the ideal victory,
the unruly tide rises.
A hurricane of a hundred million hearts lifts the drooping banners
and sweeping waves sail the seawater to a new height.
The sea has only wrecks and submarines.
He lies in his study, a converted swimming pool
full of ancient books, staring into the air,
speaking short cryptic phrases, in a thorny voice, riddled
with indecipherable meanings, a soldier's language
from an unseen battlefield, who can understand him?
Sen Zi 森子 (1962- )
Sen Zi, born in Heilongjiang, moved to Henan at age 16, went to college to study art and became an avant-garde poet in the 1980s. He founded an independent magazine and promoted many local poets and made them known nationwide. At present he works as an editor for a newspaper and continues to write and promote poetry.
First, we inquire about the wild appearance
of the rose-wife
when the leopard is taking a nap in our bodies.
We gather around a bonfire one night,
under a low constellation, our lips
sense the enemy listeners.
The leopard wakes up and walks to the village
knocking on the wrong door: nobody’s there, just old clothes
on the bed.
In fact, there is no bed, only the imagination of creatures
with four feet.
A savage mountain man looks into the well and tries to fish
for his own reflection. The wall without a door
We walk in. The mountain man has been waiting
for the encounter – he jumps on you, and stabs your chest.
Pieces of yellow clothes scatter on the floor.
What sounds impossible spreads through poems. But
we’ve missed the wild rose-wife.
So we wait for opportunities with optimism.
But disappointment seems to be replacing hope.
After all, we’ve been looking for what’s not
in our bodies.
(2013, for ZD)
Yang Xiaobin 杨小滨 (1963- )
Born in Shanghai, Yang Xiaobin eventually received a Ph.D. from Yale University (1996). Yang is now a Research Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.
I brought a Chinese clay pot to Tennessee,
smashed it, and the aroma of fish soup bloomed,
lifting and wafting like flower petals in the spring air
before settling onto the muddy pond of a grocery store.
All the catfish grinned. So happy, they almost devoted
themselves to the broken pieces – with another pot of noodle soup
their kisses still would only reach the lady-boss’s rosy cheeks
with a seal of the Overseas Chinese Association.
An unpatriotic clay pot cannot grow into a mushroom cloud,
nor has the time to nurture a nation’s fine taste through small talk.
I lie down in Tennessee, kneading the fish lips that are licking the clay,
as if only through breaking can a pot’s fragrance become strong.
Zang Di 臧棣 (1964- )
Born in Beijing and currently teaching literature at Beijing University, Zang Di started writing poetry in the early 1980s and became well known in the 1990s for his fresh voice in poetry and insightful critical essays. He has won numerous awards in the new century.
The news came on the radio
when I was in the kitchen
slicing cucumbers. Two
cucumbers, skin scraped off,
and cut into round flat pieces –
This is just one outcome.
To soak the slices in the small world
of sesame oil, salt, and rice vinegar,
is to be tied to another outcome –
How many people are coming to dinner?
Any unexpected guests?
How many real ingredients will conflict?!
Or, equally related to the outcome,
why does it make me happy
to hear someone announce on primetime
that the universe is flat?
Wonderful! Or, is it really that wonderful?
My intuition might not be accurate,
but it's strong like the tides of light,
the same way as when I look around the kitchen
for a brief moment –
the chopping board is flat, the knife is flat,
and all the lids, large or small,
are flat. Only the plates are not just flat
but vividly patterned.
The masks, true or false, are flat;
the pills are flat; and when
the most beautiful woman lies down
even the gods are flat.
Yi Sha 伊沙 (1966- )
Yi Sha is a major representative of the ‘spoken language’ school of poetry in China. He graduated from Beijing Normal University and has been teaching Chinese literature in Xi-an City.
When the train was passing the Yellow River
I was in the toilet, pissing.
I know this shouldn’t have happened.
I should be sitting at the window
or standing by the door,
left hand on my hip,
right hand above my eyebrows
watching, like a great man
or at least like a poet
thinking about what’s going on in the river
or some old anecdotes of history.
Everyone was looking out
while I was in the toilet
for a long time.
That long moment belonged to me,
I had waited for a whole day and night.
It belonged to me. With my one pee
the Yellow River had flown far away.
Jiang Tao 姜涛 (1970- )
Jiang Tao studied biomedical engineering before moving to poetry and is now devoted to poetry full-time. One of the editors of the quarterly New Poetry Review, a prominent journal of poetry criticism in China, he is known as both a serious critic and one of the best poets of his generation in China.
A huge crowd of darkness –
how is it that I can so easily identify
male and female, decent and evil, insects and aliens?
Time indulges itself,
tongueing slowly from my left cheek to my right.
When it stops, the class ends, the platform descends
like a cliff.
So, this is the world, larger than I thought.
Under every leaf
hides a pair of students shoplifting kisses. On the famous lake
the color of pee (although not famous for that)
float large graves.
You don't need to be prepared,
just open your mouth and you’ll be transformed
– you're actually always ready. But
according to an incoming text message
my evolution, not so easy, needs to start from a winged insect
Xi Wa 西娃
Born in Tibet in the 1970s and then growing up in Sichuan, Xi Wa currently lives in Beijing as a poet and novelist, winning the Li Bai Prize and Luo Yihe Prize for poetry in recent years.
South China. We’re
having a huge pork tower,
shiny red (I prefer not to
rememberthe name of the dish.)
I just can’t take my eyes off it. All
the other dishes become its worshipers.
I become its worshiper too. Then I remember
in my birthplace, Tibet,
many believers would gather around a tower
kowtowing and burning incense. I was one of them.
Now I’m one of the many people here.
For years I’ve cherished the mysterious rituals for temples
and reserved many food taboos.
But now look at this red shiny tower
of pork –
this human appetite: people eat everything
or not eatable.
Now they are raising it, sharing the pork
in the shape of a tower, red,
Sound muffled, I only see
in the dusty smoke my faith is
filling the stomachs of
another mankind –
they’re swallowing it
into their bodies
Li Heng 黎衡 (1986- )
A journalist in Guangzhou, Li Heng’s poems have been widely published and anthologized. He won the DJS-Poetry East West Prize for poetry in 2014. He is also engaged in literary criticism and translation.
To get away from the heavy rain
on the emptied platform,
I run and squeeze onto
that’s going somewhere I have no idea of.
It speeds up, making a turn
across the bridge,
eager to prove that it’s got nothing to do
with the rain.
But the shadow of the stormy rain
has turned into a blind man
playing this underwater bus-piano,
striking the passengers – black and white keys
of various shapes,
and they (that is, we) will wake up
out of tune and tone
when the bus stops
Xu Lizhi 许立志 (1990-2014)
Xu Lizhi was a poet and migrant worker, born in Jieyang, Guangdong. He published poems while working in factories in Shenzhen from 2010-2014. He left 200 poems to his young legacy.
I’m swallowing an iron moon,
a screw they call it.
I’m swallowing industrial wastewater, unemployment,
People die young, who are shorter than the machines.
I’m swallowing migration, displacement,
skywalks and rusty life.
I can’t swallow any more. All that I’ve swallowed rush out
of my throat
spreading like a shameful poem
on my fatherland.
Qin Sanshu 秦三澍 (1991- )
Born in Jiangsu province, Qin Sansu is currently a graduate student of comparative literature in Shanghai, head of a student poetry club. He won the DJS-Poetry East West Poetry Prize (in the ‘Young Poet’ category) in 2015. He translates poetry from French and English and writes critical reviews for poetry magazines.
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, the me that’s shrinking inside my atrophic body
of rainforest. The unformed storm
touches my tears, then 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 supper of a net shape,
torn between grief and loving. My face is
slidding into the water, eaten by the fish so thin.
So stop when you reach the pond. The rain
seems to be falling upside down to bring back the dead lotus.
Note: Kerry Shawn Keys, Neil Aitken, Tony Barnstone and Katie Farris participated in the translation of some of the poems.