The new Cha also features my review of László Krasznahorkai’sDestruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Semi-fictional reportage about Krasznahorkai’s travels through China, it features transcripts of discussions with Chinese poets–which I elaborate on in my review:
My own reading experience was one of being amazed at the representative resonances with those whom I know among the book’s characters—critic Tang Xiaodu and poets Yang Lian and Ouyang Jianghe as well as Xi Chuan—while also being enwrapped in the dramatic tension of its various frustrations.
I also take a look at whether the book is fictional, and how Krasznahorkai plays with central questions in Chinese literary studies to
While those trained in European literature are equipped to believe that writing is in itself a fictional act, others have argued, “In the Chinese literary tradition, a poem is usually presumed to be nonfictional: its statements are taken as strictly true.” But this statement is itself at the core of further debates in Chinese literary studies, such as about Orientalism and the mental sequestering of China as an object of study that comprises much scholarship in Chinese literature.
These debates play out implicitly in the pages of the book, I say:
This is the game Krasznahorkai plays. His self-aware presentation of his Westerner’s vision is embodied and embedded in his structure. In Hungarian, Stein’s name is Dante. Changing it to Stein invokes Aurel Stein (1862–1943), the Hungarian-British archaeologist who discovered the grottoes at Dunhuang and removed four cases of relics and paintings and twenty-four cases of medieval manuscripts to the British Museum in London, where they are preserved, or to which they were stolen. But the moniker Dante also implies Destruction and Sorrow‘s knowing Eurocentrism: the book’s three-part structure proceeds through the hell of the narrator’s exasperation to the utopia of the Suzhou gardens … By positing his China as a passage through the hereafter, Krasznahorkai acknowledges his enclosure within the Western tradition. Not that all narratives in Western literature are fulfilled: from Exodus to Ulysses, heroes have failed in their journeys, too. Or that unfulfilled narratives are the only Chinese authentic: don’t the pilgrims in Journey to the West reach Buddha’s Western Heaven?
Tim Lantz at the LA Review reviews Phoenix 凤凰, by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 as translated by Austin Woerner:
It’s not hard to see why Ouyang Jianghe considers Phoenix his magnum opus. The book-length poem, at once difficult and exciting, feels like somehow watching the brain and musculature of an in-motion animal. Juxtapositions, short narratives, and allusions to the Chinese literary tradition—these disparate parts are surprising with their motion. With this combination, Ouyang critiques the constant ad hoc of globalization, especially as it speeds China through demolition to buildup. “The forest is gone now; a cement world looms. / Flightless, we build homes in the sky, / adding brick and tile to the ecology of the birds.” Even one’s speech and writing require pieces from the other side of the world, Ouyang points out.
Their rural existence was no idyll, and it ended in tragedy: in 1993 Gu Cheng killed Xie Ye with an axe before hanging himself. By that point Hai Zi and Luo Yihe were also dead: Hai Zi committed suicide in 1989 by throwing himself under a train (leaving his copy of Walden in his bag alongside the tracks); Luo Yihe died from a brain haemorrhage just a few months later, apparently from the strain of his editorial efforts to secure Hai Zi’s poetic legacy. Wei An died from liver cancer in 1999.
Their untimely deaths seem to have sealed these poets behind the curtain of history – but many of their contemporaries are still with us, and still producing poetry that engages with the same themes. Last year Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河) published Phoenix, a 400-line mini-epic in which the spiritual and environmental strains of China’s feverish development are embodied in the vast avian sculpture of artist Xu Bing (徐冰). The polymath writer, artist, editor and filmmaker Ou Ning (欧宁) is perhaps the closest thing contemporary China has to a Thoreau figure, having founded his own rural commune in Bishan, Anhui, as part of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. Xi Chuan (西川) was a classmate of Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, and after the deaths of his friends he switched from lyric poetry to a looser, prose-poem style, in which nature is seldom idealised.
Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human … The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.
— from “Exhor[ta]tions” by Xi Chuan – translated by Lucas Klein
As Jennifer Kronovet observes: “This is not nature poetry and yet it is.”
The new issue of Pathlight is available, featuring translations of poetry by Hai Zi 海子 (translated by Eleanor Goodman), Cai Shiping 蔡世平 (translated by Canaan Morse), and Luo Yihe 骆一禾 (translated by Karmia Olutade), plus an interview with Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 by Shu Jinyu 舒晋瑜 (translated by Eleanor Goodman).
Click the image for the full table of contents and free download link.
Chinese poet Wang Guozhen, who was quoted by President Xi Jinping in his public speech, passed away in Beijing on Sunday.
Wang, whose poems became a sensation in the 1990s, died of liver cancer at the age of 59.
His passing has brought him back into focus across the country’s traditional and social media, with people mourning and also debating his place among China’s contemporary poets.
“There’s no mountain higher than a man, and no road longer than his feet,” Xi had quoted from one of Wang’s poems during a speech at the 2013 APEC CEOs’ summit in Indonesia, to emphasize China’s determination on economic reform.
“Wang’s writing had an impeding effect on Chinese poetry,” Ouyang Jianghe [欧阳江河], a renowned poet of the school of “misty poetry” that flourished in the 1980s, says.
“If we judge the quality of a poem only by its number of readers, then it is a shame for poetry. What represents Wang’s poems? The spirit of the time and motivational aphorisms … These are what I think makes a poem fake.”
As part of the “Birds of Metal in Flight” event, Columbia University hosted a panel discussion with Bei Dao 北岛, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Xi Chuan 西川, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Zhou Zan 周瓒, and Xu Bing 徐冰, as moderated by Lydia Liu 刘禾 and John Rajchman and introduced by Eugenia Lean, titled “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing.” Click the image above for more information & photos, or here to stream the discussion via iTunes.
Readings by Marilyn Nelson, Bei Dao 北岛, Afaa Weaver, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Pierre Joris, Xi Chuan 西川, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Zhou Zan 周瓒, Charles Bernstein, and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, followed by remarks from Xu Bing 徐冰, introduced by Lydia Liu 刘禾.
For Xi Chuan reading my translation of “Bloom” 开花, jump to 49:21.
For pictures and more information on the reading, click here. For recordings of the readings, visit PennSound.
Dylan Suher for Asymptotewrites on Austin Woerner’s translation of Phoenix 凤凰, by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 (after a sculpture by Xu Bing 徐冰) (Zephyr, 2014):
This excellent Zephyr Books edition packages the poem together with pictures of the sculpture, and, in what happily seems to be becoming the norm, places Woerner’s translation alongside the original. The bilingual reader can thus fully appreciate that the translation, rather than aiming to fix the quicksilver of the original, is a piano four-hands between two talented writers. From verse 14:
Ransacks the void till no emptiness remains, while prestidigitating truths from thin air;
Woerner translates “掏” (tao), “to pull out” or “to fish out,” as “ransack” in the first line and “prestidigitate” in the second. These words do not quite come out of thin air, but—to borrow from the language of finance—it is a leveraged interpretation, and its yield is spectacular. The Zephyr books edition of “Phoenix” is therefore poetry truly suited to this age of globalization: two poets from opposite sides of the world collaborating to illuminate the way of life that unites them both.
In the new Chinese Literature Today, editor Jonathan Stalling interviews Wolfgang Kubin about his life and the poets and poetry he’s known.
Zhang Zao and Ouyang Jianghe wanted pure poetry and new vocabulary, whereas the vocabulary of Bei Dao before ’89 is quite conventional and comes close to what the Spanish poets of the ’30s and ’40s made use of. Bei Dao writes short poetry, but the so-called post hermetic poets prefer the longer form and their outlook is quite different. They are not politically naïve anymore; they do know how complicated a society can be. The poetry of Bei Dao or the poetry of the ’80s, however, always believes in a future that will be good and that will be coming tomorrow. You won’t find this kind of naiveté in Ouyang Jianghe … Zhai Yongming’s starting point is so-called hermetic poetry, and her first cycle about women is so complicated that it drives you crazy as a translator. I translated her work into German and published a book of it very early. I translated much more of her poetry, and actually I should have produced another book, but she’s very modest and always asks me to translate others before editing a new volume of her poetry. But before long she left this kind of hermetic poetry. During her second phase, she dealt with a history of women in her mother’s generation in China before and after ’49. She chose a very plain language and she preferred the long poem. The poetry of her second phase is very easy to translate into a foreign language; it’s not complicated at all. During her third phase, when she started criticizing men, when she started making fun of male protagonists, then her language changed again—it was not hermetic, it was not plain, it was something in-between. Nowadays she prefers a very plain language for social critique. This is her fourth phase, so she’s the only Chinese poet about whom we can say that she went through three, no, four phases of different kinds of poetry. Bei Dao has only two phases; Yang Lian, I think you would say he has one phase and has never changed. P. K. Leung the Hong Kong poet—in some respects he’s always good, always the same. Zhang Zao, the same. Ouyang Jianghe has made changes, perhaps with his last long poem. Xi Chuan, he’s riper now, so he’s different, but concerning his form, I do not see much difference. He’s now more philosophical and he’s more sophisticated, he has humor, he makes fun.