A Survey on Controversial Issues Regarding Contemporary Chinese Poetry
There have been many debates over the years concerning the poetry scene and status of poets in China and there have been many questions or confusions about these issues from people outside China. The purpose of doing this survey is trying to clear up some of the issues for the readers outside China. Of the 25 poets with diversified background selected for the survey, a few declined it politely, two rejected it in anger, and 16 responded either briefly or in long essays. The following is an excerpt of the different opinions from these 16 poets in the order their responses were received when Poetry International's China editor was conducting the survey in February 2016.
1. The underground/independent poetry emerged in the 1970s in China with a rebellious gesture against the mainstream or the “official” literature. Is there still a division between “official” and “unofficial” in the 21st century China? How do you define “official/ government官方” or “institutional/ system体制”? You can name your favorite poets from both inside and outside that system.
Jing Wendong 敬文东 (poet and critic from Minzu (Ethnicity) University of China): China is a country of magical realism and self-contradictions. No one really understands it, not even Chinese. Everyone has multiple identities. “Who am I” has troubled all the Chinese people, not just the poets. There is no clear cut between the government/official poets and independent outlaws. It’s a pure fantasy if one tries to imagine himself staying away completely from the government system. To draw a line in between is cruel. However, there is no other way more effective for discussion today. Basically, I don’t think there are good poets on the government side. Some people appear on both sides in order to get quick success. We have to remember that some years ago (post the success of the underground poetry) certain poets self-claimed to be popular (of people, non-governmental 民间) in order to look superior than others ethically and morally but they worked so hard to climb the ladders in the official system.
Zhang Qinghua 张清华 (poet and critic from Beijing Normal University): The social status of poets is not definitively meaningful, and the cultural status is ambiguous, which caused the namely boundary and many doubts. Since the 1990s, the bordering line has been blurred. Most of the grass-root writers are no longer grass-root. For example, Zheng Xiaoqiong is not a factory worker any more but a literary editor for the magazine run by the Guangdong provincial writers’ association. I think we should judge by the writing, not by the position a poet may hold.
Li Heng 黎衡 (young poet from Hubei, currently a journalist in Guangzhou): Things are complicated in China. On one hand, there are indeed members from the China Writers Association and China Federation of Literary and Art Circles who produce mediocre poetry or even non-poetry and they basically follow the styles of the July Group, Guo Xiaochuan, He Jingzhi, and the popular New Countryside Poetry. On the other hand, many poets try to stay away from this Soviet Union style of organizational system for writers, especially its ideologically correct but shallow stuff. But it doesn’t mean there is no blurred zone. Some use their official positions for social connections, not for poetry writing. The “system” in a bigger sense would include universities, news media and publishing houses. But to work in those places is a way of surviving. “Official writers” are those fully supported by the system of the Writers Association, the Federation and their local level agencies. Even so, some of them are good poets, such as Lan Lan, Lei Pingyang and Zhang Zhihao. “Unofficial poets” are those marginalized, lacking resources, keeping a distance from the official awards. Nevertheless, most poets are self-defined as independent poets regardless of their official affiliations.
Zhu Yu 茱萸 (young poet and critic from Shanghai): The position a poet holds is not to be used to judge his writing. In this sense I don’t think there is a division of official and unofficial, governmental and independent. But there is a division of poets and non-poets. Some “poets” don’t even deserve to be judged by literary standards. If there is a government or institutional system for writers, I think it’s not for literature. In fact its existence is anti-literature.
Yang Xiaobin 杨小滨 (poet and critic currently working in Taiwan): There exists a division but the cut off line is not that clear. Lu Xun Literature Award is run by the government and most winners have caused suspicions but I don’t think it’s given to the government writers exclusively.
Liu Waitong 廖伟棠 (poet from South China, currently living in Hong Kong): I think those who have joined the China Writers Association or hold actual positions in the Association or other government agencies are “inside the system”. Some of them are good poets, such as Chen Xianfa, Yu Jian, Lei Pingyang, and Zhang Zhihao. What’s considered “outside the system” are those who are not supported by that system, who don’t live on writing, who don’t teach in the universities, and who don’t hold positions in government institutions.
Chen Jiaping 陈家坪 (poet from Chongqing currently in Beijing): The misty poetry challenged the government discourse in the 1970s. Then the third generation of poets rose in the 1980s. Since then, anything good published in independent magazines, the government magazines would publish too. Each side wants to have good poetry. I would define “official poets” as those inside the China Writers Association or Federation who make a living in those organizations; and those working in the government publishing houses, government journals or other government controlled agencies. “Unofficial poets” refer to those who don’t make a living in any government institutions. More importantly, the “official poets” are those who follow the government policies and aesthetic standards. “Unofficial poets” are those who challenge the country’s mainstream values. The earlier official poets such as Ai Qing and Zang Kejia maintained the left wing ideologies and the Romantic Realism. The later official poets are even less worthy. Most of the resources are controlled by the government. The rebellious spirit, like what Bei Dao displayed, no longer exists. Some earlier underground poets such as Shu Ting have become government official writers.
Sen Zi 森子 (poet and artist from Henan Province): It seems to be easy but actually difficult to define “official or institutionalized poets”. Nobody will admit being an “official” poet or representing the official poetry. Those who have high ranks in the Writers Association and Federations or their journals may be powerful and have many resources but nobody trusts them. But on the other hand, “system” can mean the system of China. In that sense, most people live within the “system”. However the “system” will not acknowledge everyone as “official poet”. For us, the only way to judge is to see what he writes and how he writes it.
Qin Sanshu 秦三澍 (young poet and graduate student of comparative literature): Despite the fact that the boundary between the official and unofficial is not completely dissolved, it is getting blurred. If we need to define the “official poets”, they refer to those employed by the Writers Associations, the Federations, and their regional Writers Institutes. I hesitate to include news media and government publishing houses. Among the official poets there are many who write good poetry. But in my mind, all the good poets are from the unofficial side.
Zheng Xiaoqiong 郑小琼 (poet, migrant worker from Sichuan, now an editor in Guangdong): Since the beginning of the 21st century the boundary between the government “official” and non-governmental “independent” has become blurred or faded away, especially with the booming of internet media. The traditional paper magazines controlled by the government are losing the influence. Many government magazines have showcased the independent journals. However, the government has maintained its routine practice when giving out literary awards. The awards have no influence in the poetry world any way. China Writers Association is a bureaucracy for the writing profession in China and therefore has a system of administrative ranks and positions, but so are the universities. I think both sides are part of the system whether you praise it or oppose it. I think what we need is individual independence.
Sun Wenbo 孙文波 (poet from Sichuan, currently living in Shenzhen): To separate one’s social status from his writing is cynical. Many writers with government background would deny their status and claim to be independent. Just to think, if some people get along so comfortably in a government machine like fish in the water, it indicates their writings have not offended anyone in that machine or even make them happy. At least those people are following the rules of the game in that machine. To find out who are the “official poets” today, just to look at the social status and positions they hold. In China, there is no official vs unofficial poetry but there are official vs unofficial poets. And this is the reality of the present day China.
Jiang Hao 蒋浩 (poet from Chongqing currently in South Island): There is no standard definition of “official” and “unofficial” in China. The two terms are exchangeable. For instance, people like Yu Jian became famous for being “unofficial”. But after obtaining the fame, they started to get all the official benefits and won all sorts of government awards including the Lu Xun Literature Award and People’s Literature Award. On the other hand, some people outside the government institutions are more and more leaning toward the government standard because it’s difficult to write poetry and they are tempted by the government benefits. Their poetry has been streamlined and “institutionalized”. I have not found any good government poets. Some poets appear to be on both sides, as illustrated above. To me, only the poets without official affiliation nor official value judgement can represent Chinese poetry.
Jiang Tao 姜涛 (poet and critic from Beijing University): The boundary between the official and unofficial used to be the internal structure of contemporary Chinese poetry. It’s concerning the different esthetic standard, not just the social status. On the official side, it’s political lyricism, Romanticism, dramatic and easy to understand, promoting the socialist values. On the avant garde side, the consciousness is to oppose everything that the official side endorses. With the economic booming, the boundary is collapsing. The “official” is not the same “official”, it’s the combination of capital, power, the central and local government, those who control more resources, and poetry activists.
Sang Ke 桑克 (poet from Harbin): The whole political system is the biggest institution in China. All the poets, except the opportunists, long to transcend our present reality, and for this reason I respect all of them.
A Xiang 阿翔 (poet from Anhui): There is no clear cut between the official/government and unofficial/independent poetry in the internet age. I think the least one can do is not to help the evil, not to sing for the party.
Ya Shi 哑石 (poet from Chengdu, professor of Mathematics): On the surface, there isn’t much difference between government magazines and independent journals. But on a much deeper level the boundary still exists. The difference is not in the terms or labels but in the poetics and therefore the “same kind” always gathers as “like attracts like”. It is simple and clear: essentially, the totalitarian system determines the standard of values and aesthetics of the government controlled literature which serves the government, and therefore anything from that literary institution with or without a hidden agenda to serve the political system or its values can be called “official” or “government” or “institutional” no matter how honest it claims to be and whether it has spent taxpayers' money.
2. The “official” “institutional” system of writers association established in 1949 still exists today. How do the insiders and outsiders each promote the poets they favor? What’s the esthetic difference between the two camps? Why do some poets appear on both sides? If the boundary is disappearing, when did it begin to happen? Are there any poets who embrace the official establishment but remain independent in their writing?
Jing Wendong: Since the 1980s, the mainstream aesthetics has been eroded by the avant garde poetry. The government poets have learned to steal the imageries, the tones, and even the breathing from the avant garde. Even the top government newspaper, People’s Daily, try to steal from the outlaw poets. What’s published in government and independent journals are not very different today. The tricky part is, they can publish your work and even praise your work but they only give the awards to their own people. Government awards and prizes are huge enterprises. But the Lu Xun Literature Prize, the national government prize, is something one has to apply for personally. People’s Literature awards are given by the magazine with the same name to the authors published. The decision is based on personal connections and political correctness. If you get one of those top awards, you will be promoted with many other profits. Since the government awards are so ridiculous, people tend to forgive the small errors in the independent awards. On the other hand, the division between “independent” and “government” is getting more and more blurry because poets are humans and some have the social instinct of benefiting from both sides so they can be promoted or get various kinds of benefits.
Zhang Qinghua: Nowadays many independent journals are published officially and beautifully, such as the Poetry Construction, Poetry and People, Women’s Poetry Paper, etc.
Li Heng: In a similar way, people inside or outside the “system” promote their poets by giving awards and publishing their work plus media coverage. Government magazines such as Poetry try to promote new faces from the grass-roots as well.
Zhu Yu: Real good poets don’t need to be “promoted”. Some people may seem to have occupied authoritative platforms but real poets don’t give a shit.
Yang Xiaobin: I don’t read the official journals from the government, so I don’t know much about them. Most of the high quality journals are independent ones.
Liu Waitong: There’s no such a thing as “good government journals” or “good government awards”. There are many good journals and awards outside the government system. Some important poets appear in both because the government journals need some decorations, otherwise they become complete trash.
Chen Jiaping: The government promotes the poets they trust by publishing their work in the government controlled magazines. The unofficial camps promote the poets they trust in their independent journals and on the internet. Certain poets are promoted on both sides, Xi Chuan, Yu Jian, Yang Jian, Pang Bei, Shen Wei, etc. It was a big deal to be published in government magazines but many poets didn’t give in. In the current era of commodity economy, poets experience transitional phases, loss, self-redefining, and attempting to survive.
Sen Zi: I have very vague differentiation between the institutionalized and the outlaws. I think A envies what B has and B envies what A has. I don’t think being published in the official magazines makes one an official poet. I don’t care about those who are favored in both camps. I don’t pay attention to that.
Zheng Xiaoqiong: Government channels promote poets by publishing their work and inviting them to the official events. It’s interesting to see that many independent poets have been invited to the government events too. As to the awards, none seems to be satisfactory because the government awards reflect its mission while the independent awards are given to the people within the same circles. On the whole, the non-governmental independent poetry has promoted poetry in China and independent journals have played a vital role and have more freedom while the government magazines are more conservative.
Sun Wenbo: Publications are controlled by the government’s economic power. Powerful people can buy ISBNs. Money speaks more than the quality of poetry. Therefore today’s publications can be misleading, and misguiding the readers. No awards in China are worth the attention, governmental or independent. Even the awards I received before. There have been so many scandals about the government awards. Outside the government, some wealthy people set up awards as stepping stones to enter the poetry world. There are also some well-hearted patrons who rely on people with poor judgement.
Jiang Hao: The government system is an endless black hole. I don’t see any good literature coming out of there because they believe in literature’s function as serving a political purpose, i.e. serving their institution and serving the party.
Jiang Tao: Since the late 90s, some avant garde poets have become entrepreneurs in the second channel of the publishing world (they are big independent publishers that buy ISBNs from the government). They are more powerful than the government poets. On the other hand, a self-claimed independent poet would be a laughing stock if he writes in cliché language.
Sang Ke: The government has money and unlimited resources and therefore will promote what they value most. If someone insists that there are two opposing camps, then Lei Pingyang and Yang Jian got more attention from both sides. They are good poets. The boundary of two sides is fading out ever since money has become more powerful. However, the institutional system is more powerful than money. It’s unreasonable but it’s the reality.
A Xiang: Government magazines are more conservative but they try to imitate independent journals. Because of the confrontation of government vs independent, there’s a kind of interaction and communication resulting in the blending of the two which enriched poetry in general.
Ya Shi: Completely outside that system or any circles, I don’t know how each side functions. Circles, circles. Everything works within circles. That’s the situation in China’s poetry world.
3. Is there a separation of “elite” and “grass-root” in contemporary Chinese poetry? The official literary policy in China as stated by Mao Zedong and restated by Xi Jinping in 2014 emphasizes that “Literature should serve the working class” and the literature about and by the working class has been in the media's focus. When worker-poets and peasant-poets become popular among the mainstream literati and mass consumerists, do they try to maintain independence and grass-root nature?
Jing Wendong: “Grass-root” was invented by Li Shaojun when he was editor of Tianya magazine in South China. It’s been adopted by many people. It refers to the working class. It refers to the tradition of Du Fu writing about the bitter life and wandering. The reality in China is that the working class once get into the establishment will have a better life to enjoy and so it’s reasonable to set that as a goal. But would they still need poetry? Du Fu held a tiny position given by the emperor for three months. I hope the contemporary ones will get small positions too and will hold them much longer.
Zhu Yu: I think “elite” means a strong and broader mind literally, it’s not a social term. The socially grass-roots can also possess an elite mind.
Yang Xiaobin: Those completely outside the institutional system can hardly be “elite”. But they can be elite spiritually and therefore being “elite” and “grass-root” at the same time is not contradictory. Take Wu Niaoniao and Guo Jinniu for example. Guo has long lost the status of “factory worker” but is still very low in the social ladders within the official system, which doesn’t interfere him from writing the kind of poetry far superior than those holding higher positions inside the system.
Liu Waitong: I like grass-root poets but I don’t think they should be separated from other independent writers. But once they enter the government “system” it’s hard to maintain independence. Yu Xiuhua and Zheng Xiaoqiong are the only two exceptions I know of.
Chen Jiaping: It’s the imagination of the official side about the other side: poor grass-roots. It doesn’t hold any truth. Yang Jian and Yu Xiuhua are labeled as “grass-root” but soon become “elite” when they become famous. So this is the failure of the mainstream labels.
Sen Zi: These social terms have no effect in poetry. I can’t tell who is elite or who is grass-root.
Qin Sanshu: The popular topics about working class poet and peasant poets remind people that this country is built on the foundation of the working class. The exaggerated difference between the working class poets and non-working class poets have made the poetry of the former seem to be of a different kind. But I think we share the same poetic sources. However, if the labeling can make a group of poets known, it’s not a bad thing although we should be on guard.
Zheng Xiaoqiong: I don’t think there should be a division of elite and grass-root in poetry. The working class and working class writers are two different things though. The working class used to be a major theme for socialist proletarian countries. I don’t know why it’s been emphasized. Due to the household registration system in China, migrant workers from the countryside don’t have the right to stay in cities and therefore they have no guarantee of working hours, wages and health benefits. They don’t have the power to voice out either. All the labels such as worker-poets, peasant-poets, bottom class poets, and grass-root poets are given to them by the intellectuals without due respect. Very few migrant workers have been accepted by the mainstream establishment. Most of them still stay at the bottom of the society.
Sun Wenbo: “Grass-root poetry” is one of the terms some people invented which shows the state ideology in their mind. It has been the propaganda in this country: promoting the grass-roots to show the legitimacy of the state power. It divides people into classes. It negates freedom and equality. It shows the power of the ruling class.
Jiang Hao: Outside the official system, there are good poets who are at the bottom of society but there are also good poets who are wealthy. The government of the socialist proletarian country likes to promote workers and peasants. Once embraced by the government, the so-called workers and peasants gain a better life but lose the vitality in the writing. If they begin with imitating and pretending to be avant garde, once embraced by the government, they are so grateful that they can never write anything good but pretend to be concerned about the life of other workers and peasants.
Jiang Tao: To be spokesmen for the working class is the tradition of Chinese literature. Many poets in the factories or countryside are part of the contemporary Chinese poetry. Intellectual elites are powerless. The new elites are the people with power and money.
Sang Ke: A grass-root can be a court poet (I won’t give examples to get my hands dirty). A bureaucrat or civil servant can be an avant garde poet (such as Hou Ma).
A Xiang: Without the label of “grass-root”, a migrant worker can still be a good poet. I should mention Zhang Lian, a peasant in Ningxia, who has been writing poetry quietly since the 90s but is still not getting the attention he deserves.
Ya Shi: It’s not meaningful to group poets by their occupations.
4. There have been official poets being purged and oppressed by the government in China. Are there any former government poets now honored by the independent poets? Any good poetry between 1949 and 1976? When the underground poetry from the 1970s became mainstream in the 1980s, are there any good poets overshadowed or underrated from that period?
Zhu Yu: Chang Yao is an example. He had government official taste in his early writing career. After he survived the purge, his later writings earned respect from independent poets. Between 1949 and 1976, the pulse of modern Chinese poetry was beating in Taiwan.
Yang Xiaobin: The former government poets between 1949 and 1976 didn’t leave behind any legacy. There are poets from the 1970s being overshadowed. The first one is Gen Zi who didn’t produce much but was definitely a pioneer and landmark of the underground poetry from the 1970s. Comparatively, Guo Lusheng (Shi Zhi), although an underground poet, echoed He Jingzhi (government poet in the 1960s).
Chen Jiaping: Ai Qing and He Qifang were former official poets persecuted by the institution that made them famous. They were accepted by Bei Dao and Shi Zhi. Currently Liao Yiwu is the one that the state wants to block. Last year I met Lu Dong. He published with Bei Dao and Shu Ting but is completely unknown at the present time. He is hiding. I think his poetry will be re-evaluated one day.
Qin Sanshu: Literary legacy from 1949 to 1976: Chang Yao, Peng Yanjiao, Zheng Min, and Mu Dan. I care about the re-discovery of Zhu Yingdan and Hui Wa. Zhu Yingdan wrote many good poems in the 1970s. Hui Wa wrote amazing poetry. They are getting more attention now.
Sun Wenbo: Ai Qing, Mu Dan and Niu Han were persecuted but rehabilitated later. They made contributions to Chinese poetry. I’m impressed by the work of Mu Dan and Niu Han. As to the poets from the 1970s, Fang Han, Yue Zhong and Tian Xiaoqing have been forgotten.
Jiang Tao: The achievement in poetry between 1949 and 1976 is very limited but there are still some important poets such as Bian Zhilin and Mu Dan who continued their formal experiment from the 1940s. Chang Yao can be seen as another source of contemporary poetry. Niu Han and Zeng Zhuo maintained independent spirit not catering the mainstream literature at their time.
Ya Shi: There are many former government poets who were purged by the government. But none of them has been accepted by the independent poets collectively.
5. Has the poetry that’s neither official nor underground become the new center of avant garde poetry in China? Or multiple centers? How do poets outside the new center(s) make a breakthrough? Any anti-center poetics? Any poets completely outside any center? “Regional poetry” has been promoted in recent years but does it really have “local” features in the sense of geographical and linguistic differences? Anything major outside China?
Yang Xiaobin: There were too many schools of poetry in the 1980s, the Not, the Macho Men, etc. and they each formed a “center”. But poetry centers are shifting and changing over time. Since the 1990s, individual writing has become a more prominent feature. Regional or “local” features are hard to find except in the writings of a few poets: Pan Wei from Hangzhou and Chen Dongdong from Shanghai. Since all Chinese poets face the same social changes and same cultural background, it’s hard to see regional differences. I think poets in Taiwan made contributions to the development of New Poetry: Chen Li, Ling Yu, Xia Yu, Chen Kehua, Lin Yaode, Tang Juan, Ye Mimi, etc.
Zhu Yu: In my observation, the poets who are neither official nor independent have become the poetry center, even though I don’t go by the division of official vs unofficial. But if I belong to the outside world, I wouldn’t think of how to break through. I would only think about how to surpass myself. As for the “regional poetry”, I think that’s the strategy some people are playing with.
Chen Jiaping: It is true that the poetry that’s neither official nor underground has become the major force. But the so-called “regional” is the logic of the central government ideology.
Sen Zi: In the internet age, all the former circles and centers are dissolving. Most poets like to claim to be marginalized, which reflects the sense of “center” in their mind. The so-called “Regional poetry” is from a certain region, nothing more than a label, no special local characteristics. I’d rather consider Chinese as regional, so it will have temperature/climate, dialects, tones and styles.
Qin Sanshu: “Underground poetry” is a term that represents poetry from the 1970 as against the literary dictatorship in the Cultural Revolution. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, this binary opposition ended. What’s there today is the co-existence of the official center and many poetry groups outside that center.
Zheng Xiaoqing: In the 1980s there were poetry centers such as Beijing and Sichuan. In the new century there seem to be multiple centers but actually none, just one poet surrounded by his followers. In the internet age everyone is on the same platform.
Jiang Hao: The tendency is de-centralization. There will be more local poetry in each region eventually.
Sang Ke: “Regional poetry” has at least the local themes and elements of the local cultures.
A Xiang: There has never been a new center of poetry formed by poets, neither official nor unofficial.
Ya Shi: No poets would stay away from poetry but some choose to stay away from centers or circles.
6. In the dominance of the Han Chinese literature (汉语文学) in China, are ethnic “minority” writers being neglected or highly profiled? How do they maintain their native languages and cultures in their writing? Please name some prominent poets of non-Han nationalities in China writing in Chinese or even better in their native languages.
Jing Wendong: Of the 56 nationalities in China, I know of no poets who write in their native languages. Some people might be writing in their native languages (such as Luo Qingchun, the Han name for Aku Wuwu) but I’m unable to understand their work, so I can’t judge. There are special awards for minority writers. I’m not sure if it shows the government takes them lightly or seriously. I don’t think Ha Jin got an award that’s for minority writers in the US. I happen to know Jidi Majia’s poetry and I like it very much. But the funny thing is, what sounds sentimental in Chinese can be touching if written by ethnic poets. I guess every culture has something mysterious. There is no doubt that ethnic writers writing in Chinese have enriched the Chinese.
Zhang Qinghua: Ethnic minority writers are getting the support from the government, but the public readers don’t pay attention to their work. It’s a strange paradox. They write in Chinese language, such as Niu Han and Bayin Boluo (Mongolia); Jidi Majia, Fa Xing, Asuo Layi, Lu Juan, Aku Wuwu (Yi); Na Ye (Manchu); He Xiaozhu (Miao); and Liemei Pingcuo and Zhaxin Cairang (Tibetan).
Yang Xiaobin: The attention from the government to the minority writers implies “sensitivity” and “forbidden”. It’s dangerous to talk about it. I know a few minority poets, He Xiaozhu (Miao), Jimu Langge (Yi), but they all write in Chinese language.
Zhu Yu: Most of the “minority literature” that the mainstream media focus on is not worth to talk about. It has at most the social value, but not poetic value. I may be severely biased. As to poets writing in their native languages, my impression is that Aku Wuwu and a few others deserve attention.
Liu Waitong: Ma Yan was an excellent Muslim poet writing in Han Chinese. There are many good Tibetan poets writing in Tibetan but there is no translation available and a few of them are in exile.
Sen Zi: I only know Na Ye, He Xiaozhu and Jimu Langge but they write in Chinese.
Qin Sanshu: Assimilation is unarguable reality. But it’s hard to say an ethnic status would have a matching cultural lineage. I believe there are linguistic and cultural traditions that might be reflected mysteriously in their writing along with their religious beliefs.
Sun Wenbo: Chinese as the official ruling language in this country has invaded other languages. I sympathize with those people who had to give up native language writing. To name just a few “minority” poets who write in Chinese: Tai E and He Xiaozhu (Miao nationality) and Jimu Langge (Yi nationality).
Sang Ke: I don’t know how the minority poets can present their linguistic and cultural features in their writing. For example, Wu Yueming is Daur nationality to nobody’s knowledge because he writes in Chinese.
Ya Shi: Yes there are excellent poets from other nationalities writing in Chinese. For instance, Sun Qian (Muslim).
7. Is there censorship in contemporary China? What’s being censored out? How do poets deal with censorship and the situation that ISBNs are state controlled? Has censorship made poets more creative and imaginative so as to pass the censorship?
Jing Wendong: There is censorship under the table, even though our constitution talks about freedom of speech and freedom of publication. The worst thing is self-censorship from the publishing houses – they try to play safe by suppressing the books that don’t appear to be safe. If you are a writer in China, you have to be prepared for not being able to publish; but you have to write what you want to write and not to think about the possibilities of being published or censored. If everything you write can be published, I would be suspicious of your writing. One should be proud of being unable to be published.
Zhang Qinghua: Censorship is not an issue for poetry because there are no standard rules to measure poetry. Sometimes it’s a commercial strategy to say some books are being censored.
Li Heng: Yes there is censorship in China. Tang Buyu’s “On the Right Side of the World” had 20 poems cut from the book due to politically sensitive issues. However, censorship is targeted to the official publication with ISBNs. There are independent publishing in China without ISBNs plus there is new internet media making poetry easily published and circulated online. What’s worse is the individual self-censorship under the pressure from the system.
Yang Xiaobin: There is censorship but not systematically carried out. Usually people are self-censoring. Editors censor out works politically sensitive. I don’t think censorship could make poets more creative or more imaginative. The rhetoric devices of beating around bushes only make the writing more utilitarian. In other words, good poets are not more creative due to censorships.
Zhu Yu: Needless to say, there is censorship. But real poets should not think about it. What is terrible is that people think about it and practice self-censorship. I don’t think censorship produces good poets. If so, we would have better poets from the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty than the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty. If so, North Korea would have produced the best literature in the world.
Chen Jiaping: There is severe censorship. Many of my poems have been cut from the book when it’s published, usually those with sensitive topics or words. But my motivation for artistic innovation will not come from the censorship.
Sen Zi: What to write and how is up to me. To publish or not is not up to me. Poetry has the power to deal with the unspeakable situation. Ruan Ji, Tao Yuanming, and Du Fu did well in this regard.
Qin Sanshu: There is censorship over poetry. The consequence is the injury to the completeness of poetry. No matter how you deal with it, it’s useless.
Jiang Hao: There is censorship but only those who control the power of publishing would know the procedures. One can be motivated to be more creative, not just to pass the censorship, but to reveal the complexity and the incomprehensible hole of reality.
A Xiang: You can’t bypass censorship unless you publish a book without ISBN.
Ya Shi: There is systematic censorship. It filters out what it finds dangerous. However, if censorship creates creativity, put poets in prison then.
8. What’s the status quo of New Poetry (free verse in vernacular language)? After 100 years since Hu Shi started it in 1916, has it become the primary mode of poetry writing in China? What’s the relationship between classical poetry and New Poetry today? (Please address the different periods of ancient time when talking about “classical poetry.”)
Jing Wendong: Chinese modern literature has been heavily influenced by Western literature. Wen Yiduo tried to find new metrical system for the New Poetry. Dai Wangshu, Fei Ming and Lin Geng tried to find a way to connect to the Chinese traditional lyricism. But their efforts were half failures. Contemporary poets are trying to find new ways. Hermit Song Wei has some brilliant poems circulating among friends, very exciting poems. What Yu Guangzhong did in Taiwan is too shallow.
Zhang Qinghua: Although translation of Western literary has brought positive influences, contemporary poets are trying to bring the Chinese traditional elements back into their writing.
Yang Xiaobin: Contemporary Chinese poetry has undoubtedly opened up a variety of new paths. New Poetry has become the main fashion of poetry writing but New Poetry has not achieved the high status like the classical poetry. The poetry of our current time represents the best achievement of New Poetry with the vitality of classical poetry and modern taste.
Zhu Yu: If we have to make the comparison, I would say we don’t have Tao Qian, Shen Yue or Geng Xin in our New Poetry yet, not to say Du Fu, Li Shangyin or Huang Tingjian. However, New Poetry is so lively, open to endless possibilities.
Chen Jiaping: I think New Poetry is being neglected because it’s absent in the school text books. New Poetry is not competing with the classical poetry but to grow out of it.
Sen Zi: Without the New Poetry, it would be pointless to talk about the classical poetry. Whether New Poetry is mature or not is not that important. What’s important is that it has the power of self-generating and self-renewal. It’s making it new by itself.
Qin Sanshu: Since the 1990s, our New Poetry has speeded up its development. What’s lacking is sufficient criticism and research work. Regarding the debate, New Poetry and classical poetry have different traditions. Classical poetry is not a tradition for us to carry on but literary resources for us to use. This is the way to eliminate the anxiety.
Zheng Xiaoqiong: The beauty of the Chinese language is disappearing in the current New Poetry. Looking back at the poetry of the 1980s, poets like Zhang Zao, Bai Hua and Zhong Ming possessed traditional qualities. There are many people writing the classical form of poetry. It’s a completely different world, but there is interaction between the two worlds now. I think Fu style from the Wei Jin Southern and Northern Dynasties is very interesting with its rhetoric. The classical beauty is returning to the New Poetry slowly.
Jiang Tao: Writing in the classical form is continuation of Chinese culture and therefore there are a lot more practitioners and readers of classical poetry than New Poetry. New poetry (free verse) is a type of avant garde literature in China. It was the product of the cultural crisis in the 1920s. To take the Western influence or the classical heritage has been the tension within New Poetry. “New” should carry a wider meaning than the institutionalized poetry in China.
Sang Ke: New Poetry has very low social status. Mao was writing classical poetry. Many government officials practice the classical metrical form. Poetry magazine has a poetry award that gives 100000 RMB for New Poetry and 300000 RMB for classical poetry.
Ya Shi: Compared to the almost unified outlook of life in classical poetry (of any period of time), New Poetry embodies modern experience which is complexed. Compared to the unified judgment of good or bad in classical poetry, New Poetry is more intricate even though in free verse. I know it sounds like there are many gaps but the gaps nurture unimaginable possibilities for us.