More than twenty-five years of economic reform in the People’s Republic have undeniably enhanced the material well-being of millions of Chinese people. Jun Er reminds us, however, that outward prosperity has tended to undermine cultural and spiritual health.
Many of us feel it from time to time: a mournful, melancholy alienation. Jun Er, a new voice on the fringe of China’s sprawling contemporary poetry scene, has embraced the character of the social misfit and imbued it with her own very gentle idiosyncrasies. “I am an onlooker,” she writes, “I am unable to fully participate in the life of this world / I am half human in my actions . . .”. Rather than angst over her misfit condition, she turns to poetry to explore and to make real for us that hidden other half of life with its curiosities, attractions, visions and occasional bursts of affection.
Born in 1968 at the height of China’s insane Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Jun Er is a graduate of the Chinese Department of Shandong University. Perhaps for this reason, the occasional reference to classical Chinese poetry finds its way into her work, but what will probably strike you most about her language is its spareness. Jun Er’s pared down lines seem determined to keep a low profile, avoiding anything flashy or showy. Apart from basic elements such as repetition, parallelism, image and the occasional simile, she generally avoids the use of stock poetic devices. I suspect she does this to set up a start contrast between plain expression and the quirky situations she is fond of evoking in her poems, together with the odd emotional auras that accompany such situations. The poem ‘The Shuffler’ is a good example of this strand in her work:
on my left foot: a shoe
my right foot: bare
yes, you’ll often find me this way
not because I’m a shoe short
but because I can’t be bothered looking for it
sometimes I push it under the bed or a cupboard
with an outstretched leg
so when one foot winds up higher than the other
I’ve only got myself to blame
the shoe on my left foot strolls into the living room
my unshod right foot sneaks off into the bedroom
the two of them co-ordinate to get me to my study
after reading and doing some writing
I put my feet up on a stool or on the desk
and if the elements pay me a visit then
and the whole room gets cold
the bare foot is the first to know it
And yet, despite this emotional quiet, you will also find occasional moments of disquiet in Jun Er's generally funny, deadpan lyrics. In ‘Spider Web’ (not translated for this selection), for example, she complains about her talent for gloominess and likens herself to a spider “passing its lifetime silently weaving / death in its very own web”. Rage, referred to my name in two poems, is for Jun Er something akin to an impersonal cosmic force whose wavelength she is particularly attuned to: “while that brisk wind that comes down from the sky / brings storms, thunder, a rage that will never shatter” (‘Remembrance of Things To Come’). Moreover, a furious rejection of the spurious ideal (delusion?) of romantic love seems to be at stake in the poems ‘Do You Believe’ and ‘A Hundred Percent’. ‘Do You Believe’ is openly sceptical. With freezing irony ‘A Hundred Percent’ equates society's notion of female “availability” with complete existential vacancy. This pseudo-visibility of women as embodiments of homogenized male fantasy is another factor that contributes to Jun Er's sense that she only half exists in ordinary reality: the half that evades the skin deep image—“here is my vague smile / it has no real connection with what's happening inside”—is utterly invisible as far as economics and materialism are concerned.
On the whole, there is nothing strident about Jun Er: she prefers above all her low-key approach. (Tellingly, her first collection was entitled Quiet in a Tumultuous World.) Decide for yourself, but I think I can sense a certain calm tenacity in the way the poet responds to her predicament. She is no self-conscious “outsider”, no agitated rebel, no dedicated deviant at war with the way things are. No, Jun Er just tries in her understated way to let things be. At times, especially in the poem ‘Demolition’, she registers her dismay at the ways things are going in Chinese society today, but most of the time she endears herself to her readers by the way she celebrates neglected, ephemeral moments of life, a life lived largely beyond the reach of conventional, plasticated standards of success and happiness.
Chenmo yu xuanhua de shijie (Quiet in a Tumultuous World), 2001.