Martin Winter (October 2014)

The Nobel prizes are being announced. Literature hasn’t come out yet. Yi Sha 伊沙 says something like “you people probably don’t follow the Nobel, only Chinese have this obsession.” Just a few days ago another Foxconn worker has jumped to his death in Shenzhen. They used to do that in droves a few years ago. Then there were strikes and negotiations and conditions improved somewhat, or wages did, at least that’s what you heard. They installed safety nets. This time it was a poet, Xu Lizhi 许立志. Born in the 1990s! Xu Lizhi could be Yi Sha’s son, or mine. So many young poets are migrant workers, Yi Sha says. They have it harder than he and his friends in the 1980s. Yi Sha had presented Xu Lizhi on his daily platform New Century Poetry Collection (or Poetry Canon) 新世纪诗典 some time before, with a poem about a delivery guy who couldn’t find the speaker’s address, so the flower vase bought on-line a year before arrived a little late at a grave. I didn’t like the story very much at first. Suspense Story 悬疑小说. Told by a dead person. Seemed too familiar, American Beauty etc. Now Yi Sha posted Xu Lizhi’s New Century poem again, and this time I liked it. MYSTERY NOVEL, in my translation.

Xu Lizhi

the vase I bought online last year
arrived only last night
but in reality
it’s not the fault of their delivery
you have to say
it’s not that easy to find my place
and so when he finally stood in front of me
all dripping with sweat
I did not tell him off.
I even showed him
a friendly smile
out of politeness
he bowed and scraped
to express his regret
he even delivered a bunch of flowers
in front of my grave

Tr. MW, Oct. 2014

Yi Sha’s writing studio neighbor is the Tibetan poet Bhuchung Sonam. He left Tibet for India with his parents when he was small. Bhuchung writes in Tibetan and English. Some of his poems have been translated into Chinese.

What are we going to read? How to catch them? What are we doing here? Yi Sha is getting up at four in the morning. He has to post his New Century Poetry on the Chinese Internet. Of course it’s jet lag, too. So many poor young migrant workers writing poetry, without New Century they would have no platform, we are the only ones who are so close to ordinary people without any literary or academic ties, Yi Sha says. And when I catch him at seven or after, Yi Sha keeps holding on to his smart-phone. Sometimes I suspect he is too much over there, not enough over here. Although this jumping back and forth is exactly what we are doing anyway, this is why we are here, what we are here for. Poems are short, most of the time, good for jumping. That jumping worker. I had translated and reposted a poem about a jumping worker before, nobody noticed him, not like on TV where suicides were held back and subcontractors who held back wages were held responsible. That poem was forwarded by veteran avant-garde critic Xu Jingya 徐敬亚, wasn’t it?. So maybe New Century wasn’t the only platform for very young working-class poets? Poetry is good for catching attention, just like a suicide.

Ist second: mouth barn-door open
2nd second: wooden-chicken stiff
3rd second: couldn’t believe it
4th second: it must be true
5th second: what a great fire
6th second: well they deserve it
7th second: this is retribution
8th second: these buggers have guts
9th second: must be their religion
10th second: before I realize
my own little sister
lives in new york
I need a telephone
long distance call!
can’t get a connection!
I go storming for a computer
where is the internet
typing out characters
writing an email
shaky fingers
“sister, sister!
are you alive?
your elder brother is worried sick!”

This is the first poem that Yi Sha is reading in public in the US. I have translated it just a few days before. Visiting poet Olga Broumas helped with the first two lines and other details. This is one of three texts having to do with Yi Sha coming here. We want to do all three on stage at our first reading, but every writer has only 10 minutes. So we read the above 9/11 REPORT FROM THE COUCH, then CHINA AT THE BOTTOM and SEX EDUCATION, finally HAVING MY VISA REFUSED AT THE AMERICAN EMBASSY.

Only the third “America” poem has not been translated before (it is brand-new, about going through customs). So if I know that, why don’t I go and look the other two up and give the translators credit? Sorry, it didn’t work that way. Wasn’t sure what to read until two days before. But I do know I can read my own text. My own translation. Can I do these two poems?

9/11 REPORT FROM THE COUCH. The original title is “9/11 psychological report”. If you go word-by-word, or character-syllable by character-syllable, 9/11心里报告 is “9/11 mind-in(side) report“, or “heart-in report”. 心 means heart or mind, 里 is ‘inside’, also written like this: 裡. I have translated this poem into German before. After our discussion at a translation workshop in Yunnan in early December 2013, I made a final version. Why REPORT FROM THE COUCH? Because it can mean “psychological report” and still sound very informal. In German I have 9/11 AUF DER COUCH. Not everyone liked this at the workshop in 2013. Isn’t it a little too far from the original? Maybe “psychological report” would work, too. Titles are often rendered very freely. “Mouth barn-door open” and “wooden-chicken stiff” are Olga’s suggestions. I had “mouth open barn door” at first. “Wooden chicken” comes directly from the original. I try to stay as close as possible. As many syllables as the original, or not much more. Not everyone liked “wooden chicken” in German at the workshop. But reading the first few lines aloud again brought some positive feedback. “What does it say, word by word?”, Olga kept asking. “Dazed like a wooden chicken, that’s why I had ‘stiff wooden chicken’ for this line”, I told her. She liked “wooden chicken”, even though, or maybe because it sounds strange in English.

De-familiarization, that’s what the original form does in Chinese – four syllables, as in the Book of Songs compiled 2500 years ago, as in the ubiquitous classical or classical-sounding sayings in modern Chinese. Now in a completely different, bewildering usage. In 1991, Yi Sha wrote a poem called something like S-SSTTUTTERR, stuttering all through the poem. In the same year, he wrote a few other de-familiarizing modernist poems, like this one supposedly DOCUMENTING AFRICAN CANNIBALS’ FUNERAL RITES, with every line in classical Chinese.

o-ur wombs thine caskets be
thou art reborn in our frames

thine flesh my fill be
my tribe hath been blessed

thine death be tragedy
floweth our earnest tears

thine flesh so sweet be
we partaketh, feeleth bliss


Tr. MW, 2013-2014

It should work if the English sounds like the King James Bible. Again, every line in the original has a fixed number of syllables- every stanza begins with seven times “li”, hope I got it right every time. Then comes another seven syllables line in classical language, rhyming with “li”. Actually, each second line in every stanza ends with the syllable “xi” – an exclamation, somewhat like “ah”, suggesting pathos. I haven’t tried to do that in my spontaneous translation above. It would be nice to match the number of syllables in every line.

Yi Sha has been translated into English at least since the mid-1990s. Denis Mair and Ouyang Yu, Simon Patton with Tao Naikan, Heather Inwood, Maghiel van Crevel. Michael Day participated in translating POLICE CAR, POET, SNOW (2006, tr. 2008) – my first love among Yi Sha’s poems, the first one I translated into German. The original title is something like “several kinds of things on a snowy day”. You can find the text in English and Chinese on Poetry International Web. As for AFRICAN CANNIBALS’ FUNERAL RITES DOCUMENTATION, right now I don’t know if there’s an earlier English translation. Denis Mair and Ouyang Yu’s book of Yi Sha’s poems appeared in Hong Kong in 2003, it has more early works than Simon Patton’s collection from 2008.

When I translate Yi Sha’s newest poems from 2012, 2013 or 2014, I can be reasonably sure I’m the first one. Yi Sha and I each had ten minutes on stage at Vermont Studio Center. I brought his poetry onto the stage in America, and he did the same for me. On the stage, under Olga Broumas’ critical eyes and ears, before our fellow writers and other listeners in Vermont. Yi Sha has another reading in Arizona after our departure from Vermont, organized by Olga Broumas, Rebecca Seiferle and the Tucson Poetry Festival, with Tucson poet laureate Rebecca Seiferle reciting my translations. On stage at our first reading in Vermont, we only get to do four of Yi Sha’s poems. Even though we are already at 12 minutes. I have eight minutes left, but for my first two poems, Yi Sha and I continue to act out the translator and the translated, only in reverse. Yi Sha reads my poems in Chinese, after I read them in English. He has suggested to put the most forceful and shocking poem first, in both cases. In Yi Sha’s case, after his 9/11, there was something like a murmur of approval when I announced his HAVING MY VISA REFUSED AT THE AMERICAN EMBASSY.

Back in Austria, I am invited to a celebration of the Austrian PEN’s 90th birthday. They ask if I would like 3-5 minutes of stage time. I write back and say yes. What am I going to recite? Something from America – THE SUN ALSO CRASHES? “so what is the problem?/ the rich getting richer/ the poor getting poorer/ no matter what” Fits very well with the US mid-term elections, unfortunately. I have recited it at our poetry night, our last night at Vermont Studio Center. Our reading on the big stage has been rather early in our residence, on the first weekend after we arrived. Ryan Walsh taped it, we had a good crowd. But some crucial people interested in writing weren’t there, like Nandi Corner and Gary Clark. In the end, we got to do Poetry Night in the library – bring your own poem. Just one poem? Nandi’s poem was very powerful – in the manner of Ai, a big haunting figure in American poetry. Ai took her name from Japanese, it’s the same word in Chinese. Native American and Asian roots. Gary Clark’s cow. What was her name, Lucy? Walking the family cow to the slaughter. At least as relevant as my own political poem just mentioned before. Other harrowing and beautiful pieces. Bhuchung Sonam! John Fitzpatrick, writing patron and co-originator of the collaborative project in the corridor of Wolf-Kahn, the biggest studio building. Yi Sha participated in that project with two poems, both presented in a visually striking way. One is OLD FOX 老狐狸 from 1991, more or less a visual poem in the first place, maybe even more classically avant-garde than SS-STTTUTTTERR and AFRICAN CANNIBALS. Sorry, went off along the long corridor in Kahn, the big painter’s building. Back to the library, to Poetry Night. Too bad I can’t go on about some other things on that corridor. Anyway, Poetry Night. Short prose by Lisa Tallin. Very powerful. A poem from the First World War. By Anneke? Family history. Got us to talk about language, poetical form, modernity. Unbinding your feet.

Yi Sha got to read three pieces on Poetry Night. One in classical Chinese. Also SADDAM THE SMOKER. Moderation, a nice and quiet environment – imagine you have over 50 new artists and writers every month. Why do you come all the way to this most beautiful spot? Charles Bukowski lived here. Kowalsky House, next to the library. Yi Sha has translated two of Bukowski’s books.

Ok, which poem should I read at the PEN event? They did an anthology for this anniversary. One of my poems is in there, with one of Yi Sha’s. I don’t have an English version for either of them that I find satisfying.

Yi Sha

In my gaze far ahead
a white pigeon flies
through fire sky-high.
Goes on flying
changed into black
– maybe her shadow
her soul
flying. Maybe the ashes
keep the form of a dove
sailing on.

Tr. MW, 2014-2015


Yi Sha

in meinem blick nach vorn in die ferne
segelt eine weiße taube
durch ein himmelhohes feuer
sie fliegt weiter
als schwarzer vogel
vielleicht ist es nur ihr schatten
ihre seele
die fliegt.‭ ‬vielleicht kann die asche
die form einer taube bewahren
und weiter segeln

Übersetzt von MW in Jänner‭ ‬2013

If you read Chinese, take a look at my Chinese blog. My poem HEUTE (‚today‘) is there in Chinese and German, together with the poem above:

Not everything can be translated. Sometimes I make something clear in Chinese, and cannot do it in English. HEUTE is very off-hand, very colloquial. Everyday language, everyday scenes. Nothing abstract. Ducks in the Stadtpark in Vienna. My little boy. Walking, observing. Street, café, canal, people. Puerile observations, some of them. Sirens. Going off. Into the sky, there’s room enough. Today it’s an exercise. Quoting Hölderlin and Celan. Stumbling into it. Yi Sha’s PIGEON has a quality in my German version that doesn’t come out in English. Sometimes it’s the other way. I write something in English and know this is it. Many times I don’t translate it, and if I try, it doesn’t work. Other times something changes, there are different versions, though at the beginning it was the same poem. Maybe there is an extra line.

In his article Sound and Sense in Yi Sha (2010), Maghiel van Crevel emphasizes Yi Sha’s “rejective” quality. I think he is right, it is a notion that goes a long way. Yan Li 严力 and Han Dong 韩东 are Yi Sha’s most important older friends and forebears. New Century Poetry is his most significant project. Comparable to Yang Ke’s 杨克 big anthologies of current avant-garde poetry, with a similar inclusive, anti-elitist bent, but coming out every day instead of every year. Heather Inwood categorizes Yi Sha as a Lower Body poet. This isn’t Yi Sha’s trademark in China. And Heather Inwood concedes that Yi Sha dealt with bodily functions long before Shen Haobo 沈浩波 etc. invented Lower Body in 2000. She makes many good points about Yi Sha and current poetry in China, both in Chinese Literature Today (2012) and in her new book VERSE GOING VIRAL (2014), on the current status of Chinese poetry online and offline. I wish I could do such an overview, or one like Maghiel van Crevel gives in his books. But my interest isn’t scholarly, not first and foremost. I write like Yi Sha. Not every time, but the attitude is very close. Long before I met Yi Sha, or even heard of him. There are characteristics in my HEUTE (2008) that could be used to describe Yi Sha’s poetics. This closeness is an advantage for translation and collaboration. On the other hand, I am in Yi Sha’s camp – I’m not objective.

Chun Sue’s 春树 DREAMING OF LIVING INSIDE A DREAM  is featured in the brand-new issue of EPIPHANY magazine, Epiphany #14. Curated by Nick Admussen. Chun Sue is in Yi Sha’s camp, she writes colloquial poems in a very irreverent and thereby avant-garde mode. In China and abroad, she might be more famous than Yi Sha, over all. Her poems are strong and surefooted. She has a large following online. Chun Sue keeps writing poetry and posts her poems online long before they are printed, like everybody does nowadays. In the early 2000s, she became famous for her autobiographical novel Beijing Doll. I have translated four of her poems in New Century Poetry, among them MORNING, AVENUE OF ETERNAL PEACE. At the end of DREAMING OF LIVING INSIDE A DREAM, in the last two lines, I thought I had a great translation. “Going round gushing feelings/ or gushing blood”. But in the original, it was trying to hold in gushing feelings or gushing blood. Isn’t that similar? Well, go and buy the magazine and check it out. Great issue, really. You can find the original on the Internet, on my blog for instance, together with MORNING, AVENUE. There is one thing about Chun Sue that Yi Sha objects to. He mentioned it when he promoted one of her poems. She joined the Chinese Writers’ Association, along with many other poets born in the 1980s. After all the sacrifices Han Dong, Yan Li etc. made for not belonging to these bodies. Yi Sha didn’t say that last part. Epiphany #14 is great for discovering new Chinese literature. Even for specialists. Check out Mu Cao 墓草! He has been publishing his queer poems for a while. Very much on the fringes, but it is often surprising how much is happening in China’s literary world after all. Nick Admussen passed me a few links – here are two poems by Mu Cao in English, here is a Poemlife page, and here is his book. Maybe he has even appeared on Yi Sha’s New Century Poetry? Have to check, there are over 500 authors by now.

ONE DAY, CROSSING THE SQUARE (1998) is a very good example for Yi Sha’s poetic concerns. The original title is 某日经过广场 Mou Ri Jingguo Guangchang. This title is very similar to Ouyang Jianghe’s 欧阳江河 CROSSING THE SQUARE AT DUSK 傍晚穿过广场 (1994, English translation in Kenyon Review Online Fall 2010).  The two poems are poles apart. You can look up the links and see for yourself. Yi Sha writes about a square in Xi’an, not about Tian‘anmen Square in Beijing. Still, although there are nothing but concrete, everyday observations in Yi Sha’s poem, combined with a childhood memory, the poem becomes very broad and representative.

Yi Sha

nothing to do
nothing to do, he stands in the wind
dazed, nothing to do
takes off his chin
his left arm, the right
it’s not so easy to take off his thighs
though he tries
he cannot express
this feeling of disassembling himself
into eight pieces
he is caught inside
in the wind
he has something to do
and he tries

Tr. MW, 2013

Yi Sha often reminds me of Ernst Jandl. How can you revive the language, after decades of intense political manipulation? Translating Paul Celan has been very popular in the last 25 years or so, mostly from English, Chinese poets hardly speak German well enough. Celan’s response to the corruption of German under the Nazis is very important. But there were many other post-war poets in German, with many different languages, or kinds of responses. Ernst Jandl’s poetry was as political as Erich Fried’s. But Jandl was a modernist. He wrote many kinds of texts. Some of his verse are not remarkable through special language or form. In others, like in the famous WIEN, HELDENPLATZ (Vienna, Heroes’ Square), every word is his own invention. But it becomes very clear we are in the crowd welcoming Hitler to Austria in 1938. Not all of Jandl’s poems are political in this way. But if you explore your own kind of language, in disregard of how poems are supposed to be written, or in your own regard, so to speak, you can write a love poem and it becomes a statement. In this way, long-time companions Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayröcker are connected through modernist avant-garde poetry, although their work is very different.

Xu Lizhi’s poems are intensely political. All migrant worker literature is about status, displacement,conditions. Migrant workers’ poems aren’t slogans, and they are not directly used in getting organized. But something comes out that would not come out otherwise. Readers are drawn into a world that may not be their own daily world. But they know this is reality.

NOTHING TO DO is reality. People standing around. Sometimes carrying tools, walking on certain streets, showing they are for hire. The man in this poem stands in the wind. Dazedly, he begins to take himself apart. In Chinese, this occupation becomes connected to administrative violence, through an ancient form of mutilation in capital punishment. 卸掉下巴 xiè diào xià ba, the fourth line of the original, literally just means “take off chin”. 下巴 is ‘chin’ or ‘lower jaw’. 卸掉 xiè diào is a common verb and could be used for “take off”, “take apart” in any workshop or factory. 掉 diào means “off”, “down”, “to drop”, as in Xu Lizhi’s A SCREW DROPS TO THE GROUND. 卸 xiè  is both an ancient verb and a modern one. 卸掉 xiè diào sounds perfectly colloquial. But 大卸八块 dà xiè bā kuài refers specifically to cutting a prisoner into eight pieces, or cutting off eight pieces from his body, usually after he has already been put to death. According to dictionaries. 卸 is the main verb, and after you hear it in everyday working life use in 卸掉 xiè diào take down, unload, take apart, disassemble, the 卸 xiè in 大卸八块 is not as remote from everyday language as you would think if you don’t speak Chinese. But how do you translate all that? How can you make the connection between 卸 xiè, 卸掉 xiè diào and 大卸八块 dà xiè bā kuài in your translation? I am still not completely sure of my own solution.

Now I have just translated Yi Sha’s story of first sex in an abandoned female students’ dormitory in Beijing in the days after the massacre of June 4th, 1989. This poem is also from 1992. In WETTING MY BED 尿床, the collection of Yi Sha’s poems that appeared 2009 in Taiwan, edited by Huang Liang 黄梁, the two texts are side by side. 2014 means 25 years after 1989. The anniversary is being celebrated in Europe, especially in Berlin. In Chinese, if you want to be able to print your text in mainland China, or at least mention it on the Internet, 2014 is pretty much like 1992. It is relatively safe to say “that year” and “those days” – everyone interested at all knows you are referring to 1989 and to the protests, or to the crackdown, in this case.

Yi Sha

Our campus that summer,
an empty city;
like after an air-raid alarm.
Game over, the children are gone.
Empty classrooms,
empty dormitories
and freedom for lovers like never before.
My girlfriend and I, we didn’t leave.
Behind the curtains in the girls’ student quarters,
history weighing on us, we made love.
My gentle girl became brave.
I suddenly had resolution and charm.
Red virgin blood on a white sheet,
our flag for the souls
outside in the wind.
History’s edge and the pain
came through me to stay in your heart.
We have brushed with death in those days.
The sun rises up like before.
In our days after that year,
knowing what’s real,
we’re eager to live.

Tr. MW, Nov. 2014

There are unwritten rules for what can and what cannot be printed. This poem only appears in Yi Sha’s books that came out in Hong Kong, Taiwan and England – not in mainland China. It cannot be found on the Internet, at least not at first glance. But there are hints – in an essay by Shen Qi 沈奇 (2003) and in a preface by Tang Xin 唐欣 to Yi Sha’s second book of poetry in Taiwan (2011). The poem came out in Hong Kong (2003) in a bilingual edition with Denis Mair’s translation.

The foreword by Tang Xin I just mentioned has a sentence that made me think of the “rejective” strain, coming from Han Dong and others, that Maghiel van Crevel has pointed out in Yi Sha’s work. I’ll show what I mean after this poem.

Yi Sha

the bourgeoisie
brings us down
at least in theory

in fact
aren’t gullible
kids either
we lie on top of
huge sugar bombs
through the thick coating
licking them
then we scatter

and then
we watch from afar
the naked
innocent thing
and wait for the sound

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

“Going forth from a paradox, cutting in from a mistake – I don’t know what to believe, but at least I do know what I don’t believe. I don’t know what I am for, but at least I do know what I am against” – this is how Tang Xin characterizes the poem IN FACT <事实上>, and Yi Sha’s attitude. For a preface to a book in avowedly capitalist, one-time militantly anti-communist Taiwan, this poem is the perfect provocative example. And at the end of the foreword, there is the poem about the SHAPE OF THE SOUL:

have you seen the shape of my soul
it looks a little different from me
have you seen it? it’s like a pig
like a strange beast
have you ever touched it
and felt its muscles
my soul has grown little hairs
with big thick pores. not at all smooth
go on, touch it further
till you scream when you discover
it has a huge reproductive organ


SHAPE OF THE SOUL – 灵魂的样子. One can see where Heather Inwood gets her Lower Body classification from. But against I WRITE WHAT HISTORY CANNOT WRITE, many other poems seem a little harmless. 1989 is not explicitly mentioned, still there is something about WHAT HISTORY CANNOT WRITE that makes the author hide it from view in mainland China.

This make me think of migrant workers again. A Yu 阿煜 (born 1994) wrote that poem about a suicide jump that was introduced by Xu Jingya in 2013. A Yu began to write poetry after reading Yi Sha, and he was discovered by Yi Sha’s New Century Poetry.

A Yu

he jumped from the top of the building
he was dead
it wasn’t like he had seen it
on tv
on tv
the contractor who owed migrant workers
when he heard someone would jump
right away he came out with his pay
but this time
no-one held him back
that’s how he died

Tr. MW, 2013

I learned about this poem in late May or early June 2013. Most sensitive time of the year on the streets in China, and on the Internet. Anyone who could be thought of commemorating the massacre in Beijing in the night of June 3rd to June 4th, or the protests before all over China, maybe even the disturbance in Tibet in early 1989 – anyone, Tian’anmen Mothers 天安门母亲, lawyers, artists, rights activists, even if they weren’t born before 1989. Round up the usual suspects.

In May 2013, we had a workshop at University of Vienna’s East Asia Department. Organized by Lena Springer, who researched issues of Chinese medicine. For this inter-disciplinary workshop, she brought in Cheung Shing Kok 張成覺 from Hong Kong, who specializes in documenting China’s Anti-Rightist campaign in 1957-1958, just before the Great Leap Forward campaign along with the famine of 1959-1961, when tens of millions died all over China. Felix Wemheuer researched the Great Leap famine at the University of Vienna. Daniel Fuchs researched conditions for and actions by migrant workers. Agnes Schick-Chen researches Chinese law and contemporary discourse, including film and some aspects of literature. At the workshop, almost everyone presented something about literature in connection with censorship. Two researchers of Japanese literature and printing culture presented topics from the 1930s and 1980s. Prof. Weigelin-Schwiedrzik introduced a close reading of Mo Yan’s 莫言 novel Big Breasts & Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 with other texts by the same author, all in connection with hunger and famine. Before and after he won the Nobel prize for literature, Mo Yan has been attacked in China as well as abroad for being a prominent member of & collaborating with the literary and political establishment. Perry Link criticized the way famine comes up in Big Breasts & Wide Hips, he thought Mo couldn’t deal with this issue in a serious way. Weigelin-Schwiedrzik documented the crucial importance of famine in Mo Yan’s fiction and in autobiographic texts. She showed how Mo Yan’s collaboration with the system comes from growing up hungry and joining the army as a way out of a poor village. Weigelin-Schwiedrzik made it clear that those who say Mo Yan has not written on famine in a serious way have probably not read very much of Mo Yan’s work.

When we spoke about the upcoming Nobels in early October at Vermont Studio Center, Yi Sha showed me a photo of Bei Dao 北岛 that was making the rounds on the Chinese Internet. Bei Dao was a candidate for the literature Nobel in 2000, along with Gao Xingjian 高行健. They had both been translated and introduced to the Nobel committee by Göran Malmquist. All Chinese authors who have been in serious consideration for the Nobel in literature in the last 30 years or so have been translated into Swedish and introduced to the Nobel committee by Göran Malmquist, including Mo Yan. Bei Dao appeared on the Internet in early October 2014 in a red neck scarf, saluting the red Chinese flag together with a group of Young Pioneers. He was in Hangzhou, promoting his anthology of poetry for children. Bei Dao, whose poems had been posted on walls and carried as banners by students in 1989, with Yi Sha among them. Bei Dao, who had written “here I stand” 我站在这里, to represent Yu Luoke 遇罗克, a young civil rights proponent who had been tried and executed in 1970. Bei Dao, who had been banned from coming back to mainland China after 1989 for over 10 years. Incidentally, Bei Dao was my favorite author when I began reading contemporary Chinese poetry in the late 1980s.


At the same time when Yi Sha showed me Bei Dao dressed up as Young Pioneer, Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 sent me emails about his conflict with Göran Malquist. The veteran Swedish professor defended his protegé Mo Yan, who had been criticized by anti-establishment figures in China in spring 2012, before he won the Nobel, for hand-copying part of a famous speech by Mao Zedong 毛泽东 from 1942.

Yi Sha


at first I hadn’t fallen in love with your mother

she was nice to everyone

kind as a lamb

surrounded by wolves

I was afraid they would tear her apart

felt if I wouldn’t intervene

her days on this earth

could be few

I thought about this night after night

until I had to get up and act

when they said on the radio

a snowstorm was coming

a naked lunatic

ran on the river bank

“a movement is coming!”, “a movement is coming!!”

he was screaming

there was no time to loose

I put in a hand

before the political storm broke out

and brought home your mum


Tr. MW, 2014/1

Yi Sha was born in 1966. Movement – campaign, political movement. “运动来了!运动来了!” This is what the lunatic screams in the original. Perhaps continuing an old tradition of political protest in China, Liao Yiwu and his friends ran naked through the snow in Stockholm in 2012 and 2013. Göran Malquist had pointed out Mo Yan had only copied those lines by Mao at the request of a publisher, together with 100 other prominent authors in China, who had all copied their lines as well. And while it was true that the speech had been used against scores of writers and artists throughout the decades, what the chairman said wasn’t all bad, because he promoted a few interesting authors, who would otherwise not have become famous. Malmquist wrote this in an email to Liao Yiwu. Mao’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum in 1942 have received very much attention since then, both in China and abroad. Bonnie McDougall, who translated Bei Dao’s early work and made him famous outside of China, has documented different versions and editions of the Talks. In his book THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE (1981), Jonathan Spence showed how Mao’s taking charge of literature and art in 1942 immediately resulted in persecution, including the trial, incarceration and eventual beheading of the writer Wang Shiwei 王实味. In a recent op-ed for the Chinese edition of the New York Times (Nov. 5), Zhang Lifan 章立凡 gives a very detailed account of what happened in Yan’an before and after the Talks. Taking charge of literature and art was an important part of the Rectification campaign, a precursor of many other political movements, often in prominent connection with literature.

Yi Sha has a poem called PAPER TIGER (1995). It starts and ends with praising the chairman. You have to read very carefully to figure out who is the paper tiger. Yi Sha uses classical language going back to Confucius and Mencius.

Yi Sha

modern china’s greatest
classical poet mao zedong
pioneer of buried armies
of revolutionary realism
and revolutionary romanticism
director of mountains and rivers
inspired the language
left us innumerable
immortal articles
and the most beautiful
image he ever used
is not in his poetry
but in his prose
he said soviet revisonists
reactionaries of every feather
were all paper tigers
this was construction
and deconstruction
I think if you
translate this into
english and russian
into any old twitter
I think this image
will not loose its beauty

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

In 1995, “twitter” didn’t mean something on the Internet. But the language of this poem does make it clear, I think, how well Yi Sha’s kind of poetry fits into what has developed since then.

Why would Göran Malquist want to defend Mao’s Talks of 1942? Because once upon a time he translated Mao’s collected poems, says Liao Yiwu. Who cares? Well, the current chairman has just held his own Talks in Beijing, in front of selected personel from art and literature, theatre, film, even blogging. No mention of poetry, it seems. Yi Sha is full of stories from the poetry scene. Everything is about how you remain your distance from the system, or fail to do so.

Is this about cultural capital? In Yi Sha’s case, yes. He works for autonomy from the literary and political system, for everybody he introduces in NPC (New Poetry Century?), as well as for himself. Thereby he accumulates cultural capital – a textbook case for Bourdieu’s theories? On the other hand, Yi Sha is the epitome of an ordinary person. Soccer is more important than literary theory, he seems to proclaim.


NPC (New Poetry Century?) is a private venture, but the hosting Internet portals Tencent and Sina have to enforce self-censorship to protect their fortunes. Obviously, Yi Sha cannot feature poets who are famous dissidents. Woeser 唯色, the Tibetan poet, would be an ideal candidate for New Century, Yi Sha says. At the turn of the new century, she was well-known for her poetry and had a job at a state-sponsored literary institution. But now she is mostly known for blogging and civil rights activism. The same poems that were published and praised for their evocative beauty over ten years ago are taboo now, Yi Sha says. Not for the contents at all, just because of the author. In this respect, Woeser reminds me of Liu Xia 刘霞 and Li Bifeng 李必丰. In early June 2013, I organized a reading of Li Bifeng’s texts in Vienna. His poetry and prose were printed by the German FAZ and other newspapers. Outside of China, you can be printed because you are in jail or under house arrest in China. If you look at the texts, you discover they could very well be published in China, under a different name. Even if they are about life in prison, as in Li Bifeng’s case. Liu Xia is married to Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, who won the Nobel prize for peace in 2010. Liu Xia has a poem about drawing a tree and being the tree, like a child. Another poem is about Charlotte Salomon, the young Jewish painter in WWII who finished over 1000 pictures in one year, but was betrayed in France and put on a train to Ausschwitz, where she was killed. Liu Xia’s poems and her other art work can be startling, but not for overt political content refering to the Chinese government. Nevertheless, her artistic work can hardly be separated from her position as a persecuted enemy of the state by association.

Bei Dao’s texts were taboo in China from 1989 until the early 2000s. Some of his poems are still missing from books printed on the Chinese mainland. At the workshop on censorship in May 2013, Richard Trappl talked about Bei Dao, Shu Ting 舒婷 and Gu Cheng 顾城, all famous poets in the 1980s. He favours Shu Ting’s position, epitomized in her poem THE CRY OF A GENERATION “一代人的呼声“ and its most famous line “I demand truth!” “我要求真理”.

FEI (Sex 13)

under the system
you learn to compromise
the system
is a huge condom
never let no-one pierce it
you might get pregnant
being pregnant
means all sorts of things
you could get aborted
you could be induced
and end up dead
the english word
you make a promise
a common promise
collective promise
“tuŏxié” in mandarin
“xié” like in “xiéshāng”
“tuŏ” like in “tuŏdang”
suitably done

Tr. MW, April 2014

Qin Fei 秦菲 is in Mexico, while we are in Vermont. She has many names. Fei and Liu Chang 刘畅 were invited by the Mexican Poetry Festival and the Confucius Institute. I translated some of their poems into English. Liu Chang is a painter, well respected and connected.

Liu Chang

alone at the hospital with my iv
hungry, a little cold
could use a jacket around my shoulders

several times I‘ve seen my mother
come to my side
she had raven-black plaits
when I grew up, I stopped to tell her
about my pain

there is a woman
brings a toy for her grandson
she works at my place at certain hours
in half an hour she’ll go to my flat

the guy in a chair half-closing his eyes
he seems like my lover
we look at each other. he has an iv
keeps sitting across from me, we cannot leave

Tr. MW, Sept. 2014

Fei was worried before going to Mexico. They had demonstrations in several cities during her stay. Over 40 students abducted and killed, with participation of a city major. I thought of Fei’s COMPROMISE poem a lot recently, in connection with the deaths of unarmed black people, even a 12-year old child at the hands of the US police in many places. On Facebook, people have quoted a passage from the film The Matrix, where “the system” is invoked in a similar way to how the word occurs in Fei’s COMPROMISE.

Why am I ready to take out the time and translate all these poems? Even now, in Vermont – there is one by Ma Lan, for example. I have translated her poems and other works into English and German since 2006, including ACCIDENT AND THE REASON 事故与理由. My German version of HOW WE KILLED A GLOVE 我们如何杀了一只手套 was published in 2010. Ma Lan belongs to the Chinese independent literary scene, although she has been living in the US since the 1990s. Her stories and poems are more experimental than those of Han Dong and Zhu Wen 朱文, for example. Since 1995, Ma Lan ran a magazine called Olive Tree 橄榄树 for about ten years. It was a pioneer literary platform on the Internet, bringing together independent authors writing in China and overseas.

When I translate Yi Sha, most of the time I don’t look for particular poems. I never know what I am going to write myself, after all.

Yi Sha

along one street
walking forward
open your eyes
look for the sun
it’s everywhere
for all to see
raise up your head
stretch out your hand
and the point is
I also see
what they don’t see
dust in the sky
just like the sun
dust going down
from early on
covers my poems
sticks to my stories
this indispensable quality
in this city and in china
between there and gone
in a piece of writing
determines its worth

Tr. MW, May 2013

CHINESE QUALITY. 中国的质感. Texture of China. Or what is it exactly? THE CHINESE SENSE OF REALITY. In a different poem, this is how these five characters appear in translation, on Poetry International. That other poem is about sex and corruption. Failing in both. The poem above is a little more subtle. I like both very much. When I presented my German translation of the second poem at a meeting of translaters in Vienna, these professionals were quite surprised. What kind of poetry is this? Ernst Jandl would have smiled, I think. Look up his poem WHAT YOU CAN DO WITHOUT VOWELS – there are audio and video versions to be found via the Internet.

I like the music of CHINESE QUALITY. In any poem by Yi Sha, in any poem by any author, I am interested in how it sounds. I don’t separate the sound from what it says. You can’t, really. Sometimes you can’t hear the sound, and you can’t see the text, and you don’t know at all what the poem contains. This is the case in a famous controversy in the literary world of South Korea in 1968. The poet Kim Suyong (also Kim Soo-young, 金洙暎) and the critic Yi O-Ryong, who later became minister of culture, both published articles about writing and freedom of expression. Andreas Schirmer presented a paper on this at the above-mentioned workshop in May 2013 at University of Vienna’s East Asian Department. The controversity also comes up in the entry on Kim Suyong in the Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature (ed. Kirk Denton et al.) by Brother Anthony of Taize. The conservative Yi O-Ryong lamented the incompetence and incapacity of current Korean literature, “incapable of transforming political freedom into true cultural creativity”. According to Schirmer, Kim Suyong responded by saying he had a poem he didn’t dare to publish, and many of his friends also had written stories, essays etc. they didn’t dare to publish, because these texts could be considered “destabilizing” 不穩性, i.e. subversive. The critic did not believe this. He said he knew Kim was not a writer of pamphlets and slogans, his writing was not about politics. So why would he have to hide a poem? But Kim argued the political climate would make him and many others think twice about trying to publish anything that could affect their long-term ability of writing in peace.

According to Schirmer, the poem in question was never revealed, let alone published, although Kim Suyong is considered a modern classic of Korean literature. This reminds me of Yi Sha’s I WRITE WHAT HISTORY CANNOT WRITE and more broadly of the situation for writing in China today. You often hear there is a lot of freedom, compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Some go on to say that Chinese writers have been incapable of using this freedom to write great works. In this context, I like to point out the example of a poem from 1987, written by a local writer in Taiwan, a poem that is entirely about a local event and does not mention China at all, but still cannot be printed in China today – although I have no official evidence for that, just private conversations and correspondence with poets and people in the publishing business.

Li Khin-huann
AFTER MARTIAL LAW WAS LIFTED – In Commemoration of Lifting Martial Law in Taiwan on July 15th, 1987

Please click on the link. Li Khin-huann  李勤岸 wrote this poem on July 15, 1987. I put my translation on my Sina blog and showed it around. It is a powerful poem. No matter where you read it. Much has changed in Taiwan since then. But even in Taiwan this is a very special text. I like many details – every relevant political issue is brought up and dealt with in only one or two verse, in a very evocative, personal way. To say it again, nothing in this text is about mainland China – except what you might associate in your head. No history – except “locked in the cage of martial law for 39 years”. I like the lines about the love letters and the telephone calls, the magazines apart from the Party. Political prisoners are just rebellious criminals. No wonder this cannot be printed in China. But my favorite lines are these two:

Only the electronic toys wagging their tails in the news and on TV
Are wagging more furiously than before

I don’t want to interpret these electronic tails. Yi Sha would like them, I am sure. Yan Jun 颜峻 has many details like this. In many kinds of poems, most of them not about any recognizable political issue.

Yi Sha has a poem about remembering the year 1987. It is called WATCHING THE BEIJING CAPITAL INDOOR STADIUM FROM A WINDOW OF THE JAPAN AIRLINES NEW CENTURY HOTEL (2014). In my mind, it is connected to my poem X & Y, because X & Y was inspired by politicians like Nixon and Kissinger, who were invited to the Beijing Capital Indoor Stadium at the time of the so-called Ping-Pong Diplomacy. But Yi Sha‘s poem is just about private memories. Badminton, bicycles, going out with a girl.

Xu Lizhi has many poems that are not about factory work. As I said, I wish he had received more attention before he killed himself. Southern Weekend 南华周末 had a big reportage about him in late November. They interview many people who had been in contact with Xu, mostly also workers or former workers writing poetry. Basically, the article says it is very hard to get away from the assembly lines through writing, and because there is only such a small chance, it is very dangerous to concentrate on this very thin hope. There is no doubt that Xu Lizhi had exceptional talent. When I translated five poems by Xu in early November and showed them around, I was surprised that the poems you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a migrant worker received the strongest and most positive reactions – see EMIGRATION and MEDITATION.

In China, trailers have been shown since early December for a documentary film on migrant worker poetry, directed by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇. There is a new article on Xu Lizhi from Dec. 11 in China Labour Bulletin. CLB also has poems by Xu in English, translated by Lucas Klein.

Xu Lizhi

standing along the line
Xia Qiu
Zhang Zifeng
Xiao Peng
Li Xiaoding
Tang Xiumeng
Lei Lanjiao
Xu Lizhi
Zhu Zhengwu
Pan Xia
Ran Xuemei
day and night
migrant workers are ready
fully dressed up
anti-static coats
anti-static hats
anti-static shoes
anti-static gloves
anti-static wrist bands
well-equipped at attention
waiting for orders
once bells are ringing
one and all report to the first emperor!

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014 Source: Southern Weekend 南华周末 Nov. 27, 2014

This is how the article in Southern Weekend begins. There is another poem towards the end of the reportage that evokes another image from about 2000 years ago, this time from the Han dynasty. Many poems are quoted throughout the text, several poets are mentioned, male and female – Zheng Xiaoqiong 郑小琼, Ran Qiaofeng 冉乔峰,Luo Deyuan 罗德远.

In March 2015, when Yi Sha came to Vienna, he came with Zheng Xiaoqiong. She is the most well-known migrant worker poet in China.


歷史越積越厚的游泥讓我沮喪    喑啞的
溶化了政治的積冰    夜行的火車
又怎麼能追上月亮    從秋風中抽出
綢質的詩句    柔軟的藝術包含著厄運
良民被擠得熱血洶湧    身軀的憤怒
升起    而我常感到莫名的悲傷
那些不可摧毀的聲音中    他們痛切地
觸摸到自身    積蓄的    分散的。。。


I thought fleeting time would bring truth to light
but history depresses me crawling deeper and deeper into the mud
in the mute throat is the fruit crystallized from silence: scorching words, sentences
melting political ice like a train through the night
catching the moon silken verse
pulled from autumn winds gentle art brings disaster
their names are still forbidden glaciers
pressed words are the salt of the earth
good citizens pressed till their blood gushes anger rising
in bodies but I often feel a strange kind of sadness
in these indestructible voices they feel on their bodies
in pain how it rises and scatters
deep in the mud becoming a gleaming candle of truth

Tr. MW, August 2013

She wrote this in October 2010 after she learned via SMS from a colleague that Liu Xiaobo had been selected for the Nobel Peace prize. I was there when she recited the poem in Guangzhou at the Pearl River Poetry Festival in 2013. She hadn’t told people how the poem came about. But she did in an interview this spring.

I have another early poem by Yi Sha that fits well with the debate in South Korea in 1967 mentioned above.

Yi Sha

I don’t know
how it should be
when a mental patient
suffers an outbreak
but what I have seen
in this country
in this city –
a mental patient suffers an outbreak:
up goes his arm
out come the slogans of revolution

Tr. MW, 2013-2014

This poem does not feature in every collection of Yi Sha’s work in mainland China, but it isn’t hidden like I WRITE WHAT HISTORY CANNOT WRITE. When I go through Yi Sha’s poems over the years, I am always surprised how many are clearly in some way subversive, and can still be distributed. The same goes for Yi Sha’s pet project New Century Poetry. Last week there was a poem that made fun of singing “red” songs in Chongqing – clearly a reference to the deposed politburo member and Chongqing governor Bo Xilai 薄熙来. Ok, he is deposed and sentenced to life in prison, so maybe it’s not surprising poems making fun of his policies are allowed. Except that singing “red” songs and evoking the Mao years is something that is also encouraged and practised by the current chairman. And then there is a poem about Zhou Yongkang 周永康, the deposed security czar, how he had represented the country and had been hailed as a shining example of everything that made the nation strong and powerful – making you think of the Great Helmsman. Another poem that makes fun of a well-known politician is this one:

Hou Ma

there are things we know, there are things we don’t know.
there are things everyone knows we know we know them.
there are things no-one knows we don’t know them.
and there are things we don’t know we know them.
the point is we know there are things we don’t know we don’t know them.

I memorized these lines and made a guy listen.
he was dying with laughter, tears in his eyes.
sometimes I think rumsfeld wasn’t bad after all.
made you laugh like a baby, laugh yourself silly.
made me say this world is actually nice
to make one person happy.

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

When I translated this poem, I looked up Rumsfeld quotes on the Internet. Apparently, Donald Rumsfeld tried to say something that would baffle the reporters, who were still asking for evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, when America and every reliable ally were already going to war. For example, Rumsfeld used the words “known unknown” – or is that one word? When you haven’t found evidence, there is still no evidence of the non-existence of what you proclaimed you were looking for. On the Internet, people are still arguing about how far Rumsfeld succeeded to baffle everyone. Was he talking the truth? Anyway, I did a search for testimonies and recordings of what the defense minister actually said,  and found out Hou Ma 侯马 had written something different.

While I am writing this late in the year 2014, torture is being debated in America. Torture used under Bush and Cheney. Basically, this was discussed already in 2003 and 2004, at the time when Rumsfeld was in office. Yan Jun and Yi Sha wrote very interesting poems around that time.
Yan Jun‘s AGAINST ALL ORGANIZED DECEPTION, translated by Maghiel van Crevel, is a contemporary classic. In the contexts of Hou Ma’s poem and my translation, I am thinking of philosophy and poetry. Adorno, Derrida, Celan. Zhuangzi 莊子 and the freedom of the fish. The poems of the Platform Sutra 壇經, quoted in the Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou Meng 紅樓夢). But let me jump back again.

Shen Haobo

all those so-called platonists
all those rotten at heart
all those taking themselves for judges and kings
all those dreaming of giving
directions to mankind
all those fat shining bugs
wagging their hidden poisonous hairs
banning lions and wolves
banning desperate youths
banning indecent wives
banning loonies and thieves
banning beggars and thugs
banning satan
banning contrary jesus
banning poets
banning me
without need
you don’t need to ban me
I was just passing by
just came looking to see how you’re doing at home
I have seen enough
your republic
holds no place for loonies and no place for me

Tr. MW, Febr. 2014

Shen Haobo’s REPUBLIC is the one poem in Yi Sha’s New Century Poetry that Yi Sha is most proud of. Of course, both Shen Haobo and Yi Sha are proud of many other poems. But REPUBLIC is an exception. Shen Haobo was and is still known for the Lower Body poetry movement of the year 2000. He has been very active in the literary scene since then, both as poet and as publisher. In 2013, he began to become known for poems that show a very personal take on politics. Many of these poems talk about fear. There are many palpable reasons for this fear. Yaxue Cao 曹雅学 has just summarized them very succinctly for the year 2014 on China Change. In September 2014, Ilham Tohti, economics professor in Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison by a court in Ürümqi. I have written about this on the MCLC list, and in a blog post called STRUGGLE AND SOCIETY: ILHAM TOHTI, WANG LIXIONG AND LONELYNESS. That post is also about my translation of Liu Zhenyun’s 刘震云 “1942“, the story that spawned the film “1942“, China’s official entry competing for the foreign language Academy Award of 2014.

When I compare Shen Haobo’s REPUBLIC to many others of his recent poems, some of which are available in translation on China Digital Times, I am struck by a kind of equilibrium that makes you enjoy the daring gesture, the music, the understatement. Politics and philosophy are very palpable, but they are being played with. And maybe it is this quality that made REPUBLIC fit for print. Two printed volumes of Yi Sha’s New Century Poetry have been published, and a third one is coming out very soon, maybe still in 2014.


Hou Ma doesn’t have to quote Rumsfeld correctly. He plays with him. A game of Chinese whispers, if you like. I hope I got the language right. It has to be colloquial. In Vermont, Yi Sha wrote the preface to his new anthology of Colloquial Poetry 口语诗. Han Dong, Hou Ma, Shen Haobo and Chun Sue are all prominently represented. It is important to distinguish between Yi Sha’s two projects Colloquial Poetry and NPC (New Poetry Century?). The former is exclusive, the latter inclusive. New Century Poetry is an attempt to encompass everything exciting written in Chinese since the year 2000, including many poets and poems far removed from Yi Sha’s own style. This is why Yi Sha gets very sad when there are people who have written remarkable poetry and he cannot include them like in the case of Woeser, discussed above. In contrast to New Century Poetry, Colloquial Poetry is an exclusive club. Kind of ironical, when you think of the anti-intellectual, anti-academic, anti-elevated, basically anti-exclusive attitude that Colloquial Poetry exudes. Sometimes I think Yi Sha gets the criteria for his two big ventures mixed up. When we were walking around in Johnson, Vermont, Yi Sha told me about new poems by his old friend and mentor Yan Li. Yan Li lived in New York city for many years, this is where he founded the Chinese literature journal First Line 一行, together with Ai Weiwei 艾未未 and other artists and writers. Yi Sha was presented in First Line towards the end of the 1980s, when he was still a student and not yet well-known in China. In the 1990s, Yi Sha represented and distributed First Line in Xi’an. Foreign-printed and independently printed literary journals were and are still illegal. Now Yi Sha was saying he wasn’t sure if he should bring any of Yan Li’s new poems in New Century Poetry. Yan Li’s new poems from 2014 had a peculiar language, Yi Sha said. Maybe Yan Li’s Chinese had been influenced by English too much, during his long stay in America. I wasn’t sure what Yi Sha was talking about. But two or three weeks later, I saw a new poem by Yan Li on New Century Poetry’s Sina Weibo 新浪微薄 microblog platform. Yi Sha had decided in favor of his old friend after all. When I finally read SONG OF THE VICTIMS, I found it similar to another poem by Yan Li that Yi Sha had posted in summer – GRIEF HAD TO GROW UP. So I guess it could be Yi Sha shouldn’t be seen to favor Yan Li too much and post him too often. Or it could be that both poems are about a certain year, 25 years ago.


I guess Yi Sha and his friends sometimes tend to speak about language when there are other prominent issues in the background. I get the impression that at the time of speaking, they really think it is about language. Anyway, this is where I come from, what I grew up with – Austrian avant-garde literature since the 1950s, Russian Formalism after 1905 and everything that grew out of it. Estrangement and de-familiarization. In China, estrangement was discussed intensely during the 1980s, when Yi Sha and Hou Ma grew up. Cheung Shing Kok, who spoke at the workshop in Vienna in May 2013, wrote a book about how this term was debated. It is about the possibility of open discussion about the rule of the Communist Party, how this possibility was finally denied and led to fatal decisions in 1989.

Hou Ma’s poem is a very private take on a rather universal and internationally popular topic. Talking about new Chinese literature in the context of contemporary society, it is very easy to get two kinds of wrong impressions. The first one is that exciting new literature has to be about concrete political issues, and the second wrong impression is that there has to be a fixation on China (or other places in the vicinity). Hou Ma’s poem shows how wrong the second impression is. Many of Yi Sha’s own poems prove both kinds of impressions wrong. PIGEON, quoted above in German and English, is one of many poems about Yi Sha’s mother. Theoretically, it is more complicated than that – Foucault has very rightly insisted that the “I” found in a piece of art is never to be equated with the originator(s), no matter how much autobiography is there in the book or the artwork. So I should say Yi Sha has many poems inspired by his late mother, who died rather early, although not as early as Ernst Jandl’s mother. If you go through Yi Sha’s poems from 1997 to 2000 and later (here is one example), you will discover PIGEON is about incineration – standing in front of the crematorium, watching the smoke come out of the chimney, and maybe seeing a dove.

Many of Yi Sha’s poems have to do with his sister, who lives in America. Many are very private. Some are dreams. DREAMS is a series that Yi Sha began almost four years ago, a while before the current chairman proclaimed the Chinese Dream.

Yi Sha
DREAM # 208

my sister and I
are homeless people
and sleep in the underground parking
on the cold concrete
in two sleeping bags …

I cannot sleep
not because of the cars coming and going
but in the car park
there are also two
lions patrolling

Tr. MW, 2014

Yi Sha
DREAM # 245

13 years abroad
little sister comes home
hasn’t grown fat
not like the photos

we are walking
in a small town
county center, my wife grew up here
we walk side by side

I ask little sister:
“where is your husband?”
she answers:
“he has an affair”

I ask little sister:
“why didn’t you bring the kids?”
she answers:
“they are too small”

we come to
a courtyard
my wife’s older sister’s
old courtyard house
from when she was young

little sister says:
“elder brother, please hug me now,
with sister in law
I’ll be embarrassed ….”

so I open my arms
and hug her close
thinking: “hug her closer,
in her heart
you are her country”

Tr. MW, 2014

Yi Sha

little yu, my american nephew
comes to china to study chinese
lives to the east of xi’an city
college of science and engineering
his grandparents’ place
on his father’s side
last week he came to my house
I took him to my study
let him light a joss stick
and do three kowtows
at his grandmother’s portrait
who died before he was born
this week I pick him up
to go to a wedding of another relative
he sees me and says:
“uncle, last week
I went back to my grandparent’s place
but my other grandmother
went also with me
did not say a word
to granny and grandpa
just looked at me playing
my game player”

Tr. MW, 2014

In 2001, at the time of Yi Sha’s 9/11 FROM THE COUCH, his sister lived in New York. Now she lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband, two sons and a daughter. Yi Sha has another poem from 2013 where all three children visit him in China.

Here are a few more DREAMS  and two other small recent poems:

Yi Sha
DREAM #474

one month in america
feels like one big dream
feels more like a dream
than any real dream
I ever dreamt
my whole life in china

Nov. 2014
Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

Yi Sha
DREAM #476

former lover
becomes your

she takes your
little son by the hand
to cross the street

you don’t worry

Nov. 2014
Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

Yi Sha

sister becomes an american citizen
I support her decision
for one simple reason
she has three american kids
of course she should be american
when she has taken the oath
if our two countries go to war
as a woman
she won’t be drafted
we won’t meet up as soldiers

Oct. 2014
Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

Yi Sha
DREAM #478

in the classroom
all over the blackboard
curses against me
“down with yi sha” etc.
must be the students
sitting in front of me
although I’m afraid
inside I am panicking
I might as well put up a front
bracing myself
I shout at them:
“what kind of fart is this?”
I hear one big “wah!”
they are all crying

Nov. 2014
Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

Yi Sha

in tucson
in front of my sister’s door
a cactus has grown
to a sky-scraping tree
maybe one hundred years
my sister says: “elder brother,
I want a picture of you with the tree,
he looks like you!”

Oct. 2014
Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

There is another recent DREAM very much like #478:

Yi Sha
DREAM #406

putting up posters
all over the street
portraits ofpoets
one poet
after the other
looking like
posters of wanted
criminals at large
also like propaganda posters
on the streets of pyongyang
Tr. MW, June 2014

Pyongyang and North Korea are often invoked on the Chinese Internet. Yi Sha‘s THANK YOU, FATHER (2003) is a comparatively early example of using such words in recent Chinese poetry.

I have translated many other DREAMS. Some are like the one with the sleeping bags in the car park. Some have to do with issues of Islam and other religions, also with violence perpetrated by Muslims in and outside of China. Yi Sha’s wife is from a Muslim family. One dream takes place in a TV studio.

Yi Sha
DREAM #122

outside of broadcasting studio #1
I’m holding on to a marten fur coat
stumbling about
I am holding the coat
for a #1 singer queen just like wang fei

to everyone
of the people who ask me what I am doing
I throw them one sentence
resounding and clear:
“I am a poet!”
“I am a poet!”
“I am a poet!”

finally there comes the day
of the last dress rehearsal
the director with pubic hair on his chin
is thinking of something
he’s calling me over:
“hey! you are a poet, right?”
how about a recital for our show?”

and so
with a girl from a village who sings under ground
and two migrant workers straining their throats
to tell you they’re old and alone
I am representing the downtrodden masses
the evening before the lunar new year
maybe because I’m a poet
I don’t look as nervous as the three others

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014
Another DREAM is about friendship and sex:

Yi Sha
DREAM #120

he is my brother
he says he did it
with my woman
I ask him: “you really did sleep her?”
he answers: “I really did her!”
he goes on to tell me
foreplay and afterwards
through the whole process
every single detail
I’m listening and it hurts
more and more
I’m growing bitter
and the worst thing is
I have to act like I don’t mind

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

Some of Yi Sha’s poems remind me of poems by Hans Raimund, another Austrian poet (born 1945). Raimund is very down-to-earth, and extremely dedicated to poetry at the same time. I think Yi Sha’s TASTE is a good example of what I mean here.

You can see from the recent examples above how the more private texts are mixed up randomly with those about bigger social and political issues. Compared to the 1970s or part of the 1980s in China, writing and sharing literature has become easier and freer, especially with the Internet. Yi Sha’s NPC (New Poetry Century?) is a good way to get an overview of what is going on, although if you want to look for stuff that isn’t necessarily allowed to be presented on an official micro-blog of a big Internet portal, you have to look further, including publications outside of mainland China, as in the above-cited cases of Woeser. And there are powerful exiled poets like Sheng Xue 盛雪, who lives in Canada. Sheng Xue’s poetry was recited at the PEN-event for women’s day in March 2013, conceived by the PEN centers of Austria and Brazil. The event was inspired by Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 2014.


There are also cases of poets in China where I think certain poets are especially relevant for a few poems about social and political topics, and Yi Sha doesn’t agree. I am thinking of Zhao Siyun 赵思运, for example.


For Yi Sha, experimental and avant-garde poetry is what he lives for. He believes it is best to avoid official Writer’s Associations, but he also respects many poets who have become members of official bodies, or even of the Communist Party. In an interview in 2008 in England, Yi Sha was asked how he would continue a sentence with “Poetry can ….” Yi Sha said: “Poetry can let me live like a human being!” When I read the reportage on Xi Lizhi in Southern Weekend, I thought this was what Xu had wanted out of writing and sharing poetry. The young migrant workers have it much harder than Yi Sha and his friends had it in the 1980s, Yi Sha says.

You often hear poetry isn’t relevant anymore. As far as poetry is connected with social and political issues, I think poetry is always relevant anywhere, just like other kinds of art. Relevant for politics and society, because it makes you sensitive. Sensitive for social justice. And relevant because there is something in it you cannot be sure of. Which makes art sensitive material, to be censored and suppressed.

Let us jump back again to Korea in 1968. In Kim Suyong’s poems, “the words love and freedom are virtually synonymous, and both are shown to be hard to find.” [Columbia companion, see above] Just like in China in the big Red classic, the Dream of the Red Chamber (or Dream of Red Mansions). Kim Suyong is known for introducing profanity into modern Korean poetry, and if you look closely into the Dream of the Red Chamber, or the Story of the Stone, you will find homosexuality and other potentially contentious issues.

As I said above, I grew up with reading Austrian avant-garde poets like Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayröcker. In the understanding of Russian Formalism, weeded out in China under Mao, but held again by Bei Dao and others under foreign influence, progressive art in relatively new, de-familiarizing forms has always been produced. I have translated Tang- and Song-dynasty poems into German, and Yi Sha has written a few poems in these 1000-year-old forms in Vermont. Du Fu 杜甫 and Bai Juyi 白居易, two of the most famous Tang dynasty poets, were very much concerned with issues like famine and social injustice.

When I translate these classic forms, I always count syllables. Not when I am writing a poem, when I translate a poem, but afterwards and in general and before. Translating is writing, it is the same as writing, only there is something written already, and you continue. It has to move you, you move along with the source, the source moves along through you. The source flows through you. May the source be with you. But this is just playing. You have to be moved, it has to express something you wanted to say, but couldn’t have said in any other way. Then you can play.

I don’t think every line of five or seven syllables in Chinese has to have five or seven syllables in English or in German in every case. But I am very much for treating Chinese poetry in a similar way to how Japanese poetry has been treated.

Li Bai (701–762)

why do I live in green peaks?
I laugh, my heart is at ease.
blossoms floating far adrift –
earth and sky, no people here.

Tr. MW, Nov. 2014

And now for something completely different – two poets presented on Yi Sha’s New Century Poetry. Xiao Wan 小宛  died in 2012. She was a woman, but Ru Ye 如也 isn’t, contrary to what you might think just from reading the poem. Zuo You 左右 has a very interesting essay on Xiao Wan. Zuo You is in Yi Sha’s circle in Xi’an, although his style is very different from Yi Sha’s.

Ru Ye

the doctor at the physical said
your IUD
is an old model
not easy to get it out
you fill out an application form at your work unit
get a stamp from the family planning bureau where you live
then come again and we’ll extract it
in your mind’s eye
you see the old elm tree for hanging the laundry
iron wire grown into the tree
scar looks like cutting a body in half
now you want the wire pulled out from your flesh
your knees getting weak
People’s Hospital corridor
you sit thirty minutes
and still can’t get up

Tr. MW, Dec. 2014

Xiao Wan

some call the night a hole in the sky
some call the day a corpse of the light

I wish both were true
just like I am a wound of the times
and truth is my scar

Tr. MW, May 2014

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