Born in 1965 in Henan Province, China, Tian Yuan first came to Japan as a government-financed student early in the 1990s. In 2003 he received a Doctorate in Literature for his study of the poetry of Shuntarô Tanikawa. He now teaches in Tôhoku University in Japan, and is chiefly engaged in the translation of contemporary Japanese poetry. His books of translation into Chinese so far include Selected Poems of Shuntarô Tanikawa (two volumes) and An Alien: Selected Poems of Takashi Tsujii. He has also translated poems by Ryûichi Tamura and Katsuei Kitazono.
He has published six volumes of his own poetry in Chinese and English, and has been awarded literary prizes for poetry in China, America and Taiwan. In 2001 he was awarded the first Japanese Literary Award for Foreign Students. His book of poetry in Japanese And So the Shore Was Born (Sôshite Kishi ga Tanjôshita) was published in 2004. He is the editor of the three volumes of The Selected Poems of Shuntarô Tanikawa (Shûeisha, 2005). The second poetry anthology, The Memory of Stone (Ishi no Kioku), was awarded the 60th H-shi Prize (2010). Tian Yuan also edited the Japanese version of The Anthology of Chinese New Generation Poets translated by Shin Takeuchi. Last year, Selected Poems of Tian Yuan (Renmin Wenxue, 2007) in Chinese was published.
So here is a young Chinese poet who came to Japan as an exchange student, accidentally came across the poems of the national poet of Japan, Shuntarô Tanikawa, and fell in love with them so much that he started to write poems in the same language as his master’s, eventually establishing himself as one of the leading poets of Japan. This is certainly unusual in the long history of Japanese poetry, though there is a similar case from about thirteen hundred years ago, only the inverse: Abeno Nakamaro, who was originally sent to the Tang Dynasty as a member of the government envoi, dedicated his life to writing poetry in Chinese, and gained the literary recognition as a “Chinese poet”. At one point he decided to go back home and boarded a ship to Japan, only to be washed back onto a Chinese shore by a sea storm. Li Bai dedicated a requiem to Nakamaro, based on a false report that he had perished in the storm, but in fact Nakamaro continued his career as a poet in Xian for 53 years until his death. Today, when reading Tian Yuan’s Japanese poems, Japanese readers cannot help but think of the associations with Nakamaro and the history of poetry exchanges between the two countries over the centuries.
Although it may not be so obvious from the English translations, the Japanese language in Tian Yuan’s poems is not always so ‘natural’. The poems sometimes look and sound like the Japanese translations of poems originally written in Chinese, with their excessive use of Chinese characters (as opposed to the indigenous Hiragana characters) and the contrapuntal expression, which is one of the characteristics of the traditional Chinese poetics. For example, the following lines in ‘A Steam Engine Before Dawn’ – which are translated as “ . . . reminded me of one person and many other persons, of one accident and other accidents, of one voice and other voices, of one time and, also, of other times” – are in fact more repetitive and laborious in the original Japanese. A literal translation might be read “ . . . of one accident and accidents other than that accident, of one voice and voices other than that voice, of one time and times other than that time”.
I suspect that it is this slight touch of oddity about the Japanese language in Tian Yuan’s poems which strikes a chord with the Japanese readers: not only because of its exotic charm as poetic expression, but because, more importantly, we can feel through it that Tian Yuan wears the Japanese language the way one might wear a pair of new shoes while walking along a familiar path – in this case, the path of poetry. Tian Yuan writes his poems in Japanese not because he loves the language, but because he wants to reach a new place, a new shore, which would not be possible by his native language alone. And come to think of it, is this not the case with any poet, regardless of his or her choice of language? Because poets always struggle with language, trying to express something beyond words, we recognise in Tian Yuan’s Japanese poems the archetypical image of a poet . . . perhaps in the same way as the Tang Dynasty readers did in Nakamaro’s Chinese poems.
One poem introduced here, however, is distinctly Japanese in terms of its poetic sensitivity: ‘Death of a Butterfly’. It deals with death only with the small details of actuality (e.g. a butterfly on the street) without resorting to any conceptual big words, almost in a typical haiku approach. The contrast to ‘Dreaming of Death’, another poem dealing with the same topic, is striking. While the latter tries to capture (and hopefully overcome) the moment of death by the magical power of poetic language, ‘Death of a Butterfly’ talks about the powerlessness of language in the face of death, and makes a silent reconciliation with death in doing so:
The death of a butterfly brings to mind many beautiful words.We can almost hear the familiar voices of Shuntarô Tanikawa through those lines, and witness once again the exchange of poetry between China and Japan, an exchange which continues through the unique poetic voice of Tian Yuan.
Yet words however beautiful
cannot fully explain its death.
Sôshite Kishi ga Tanjyôshita (And So the Shore Was Born), Shichosha, Tokyo, 2004
Ishi no Kioku (The Memory of Stone), Shichosha, Tokyo, 2009
The Anthology of Chinese New Generation Poets Vol 1, Shigakusha, Tokyo, 2004
The Selected Poems of Shuntarô Tanikawa (in 3 volumes), Shûeisha, Tokyo, 2005
The Anthology of Chinese New Generation Poets Vol 2, Shigakusha, Tokyo, 2006
Tanikawa Shuntarô Ron (Thesis on Shuntaro Tanikawa), Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo, 2010
Selected Poems of Tian Yuan, Renmin Wenxue, 2007