Haysom’s Hermits and butterflies: nature writing in China

article imagePathlight managing editor Dave Haysom’s “Hermits and butterflies: the resurgence of nature writing in China” has been published on China Dialogue, covering the range of contemporary Chinese literature–and even mentioning Xi Chuan:

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.”

Click the image for the piece in full.

Sound & Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation

IMGP0652As 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.

Video of Birds of Metal in Flight Readings

collage by Tara Coleman

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.

Birds of Metal in Flight

Birds of Metal in Flight: An Evening of Poetry with 5+5

Readings by

Bei Dao 北岛 • Charles Bernstein • Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Pierre Joris • Marilyn Nelson • Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河
Afaa Weaver • Xi Chuan 西川 • Zhai Yongming 翟永明 • Zhou Zan 周瓒

with remarks from
Xu Bing 徐冰

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Reception to follow

Cathedral of St. John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10025

This event is free and open to the public.
Registration Required


Asymptote write-up of Ouyang Jianghe’s Phoenix

Dylan Suher for Asymptote writes 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 “” (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.

Click on the image for the full write-up.

Video of Ouyang Jianghe reading from Phoenix

The write-up from Paul Manfredi’s China Avantgarde blog:

Ouyang Jianghe’s 欧阳江河 poem was inspired by a sculptural work of the same title by Xu Bing 徐冰. Xu Bing’s sculpture, actually two sculptures–a male “feng” 鳳 and female “huang” – is comprised almost entirely of objects found on worksites in Beijing … Ouyang’s poem was also a two-year project, extending between 2010 when he saw Xu’s sculpture in New York, and 2012, when the work of 19 stanzas was finally published. At roughly 400 lines, the poem was first published in 2012 by Oxford (Hong Kong), and then re-published by Chinacitic Press this past July. The recording of the poem in the video took place on July 5, at the Central Academy for Fine Arts in Beijing where Chinacitic was promoting Ouyang’s book…  Xu Bing was also present at the event.

As Manfredi’s first feature in his Visual Poets series, the reading is preceded by close-ups of Ouyang Jianghe’s calligraphy of poetry by Bei Dao 北島 in different styles. Subtitled translation by Austin Woerner. Available for order from mccm creations.

Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground

Here’s something I missed the first time around. The Asia Society has a write-up of the most recent project of Xu Bing 徐冰, titled Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point 地书. Here’s an excerpt:

His groundbreaking work, Book from the Sky, looked like Chinese calligraphy, but was actually nonsensical characters. Square Word Calligraphy, on the other hand, looked like Chinese but was actually English, while A Case Study of Transference was two live pigs — one inked with fake English and the other with fake Chinese — copulating in a book-strewn pen.

Now, after years creating art that explores, and upends, the power of the written word, Xu Bing has authored a novella, which was published in early summer. Formally titled Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point, the tale recounts 24 hours in the life of a young white-collar worker in a major metropolis.

The man, who remains unnamed, seeks to advance his career and find love, but, like many of us, spends most of his time tending the minutiae of daily life: he battles constipation, burns his breakfast, dreads his boss, drinks too much beer, and spends too much money. The main prism through which he experiences the world is electronic — he compulsively checks Twitter, Google, and Facebook, spends his day making PowerPoint presentations (when not surreptitiously checking email), and searches online for romance. At night, characters from video games populate his anxious dreams. This prosaic existence is interspersed by a few device-free moments of genuine humanity, as when he contemplates marriage, yearns for nature, visits a friend who is sick, comforts another who is heart-broken, and brings a bouquet of roses to a blind date.

Indeed, if this plot summary sounds slim, consider this: From Point-to-Point is “written” without a single word — at least as they are traditionally defined. Instead, it is composed with hundreds of icons, or pictograms, that Xu has been collecting for years. Where Book from the Sky can be read by no one, Book from the Ground can be read by any one. It is, in other words, a remarkable effort to create a universal form of written communication that transcends cultural, linguistic, class, and educational backgrounds. In Xu’s words, “The illiterate can enjoy the delight of reading just as the intellectual does.”

Click the image above for the full article.