When Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan were on their reading tour of the US promoting the Copper Canyon anthology Push Open the Window, the BBC caught up with them and interviewed them about Chinese poetry. On the 3rd of November they posted the article and video, titled “When borrowing from China makes the US richer.”
While I’m all for contextualizing poetry in terms of international politics and economics–writing, after all, is about something, and it often refers, in its oblique ways, to current global realities–I have to say I found the BBC report pretty lame. The article’s brushstrokes are obstinately broad, saying nothing more nuanced than “China holds trillions of dollars in US debt and the eurozone countries are looking to Beijing for bailout cash, but not all international transactions come at a price. A cultural exchange is also under way between east and west.”
Meanwhile, the accompanying video–which, unfortunately, I cannot embed into this post–hits the only two notes about China the BBC expects will resonate with English-speakers: it starts out talking about censorship, and ends up talking about classical Chinese poetry as calligraphy pans by and a reed flute lulls in the background. To be clear, Xi Chuan’s writing engages with the classics of Chinese poetry in fascinating and unexpected ways, and as a teacher of ancient Chinese literature and former calligrapher, Xi Chuan enjoyed the chance to get a private tour of the Freer Gallery and some of the pieces not normally on display. But rather than exhibit how Xi Chuan draws on the Chinese tradition, the BBC video suggests he’s an Ancient Poet (albeit one who has to deal with Maoist censorship)! When Xi Chuan reads from my translation of “Exercises in Thought” 思想练习 (a poem that opens with a demand that we reevaluate Nietzsche) Chinese chamber music kicks in and the accompanying image is a scroll of calligraphy–as if that were the text of the poem!