Yi Sha 伊沙 (Xi’an) and Xu Jiang 徐江 (Tianjin): Independent avantgarde poetry since 2000 and notions of dream in collective and individual ventures of texts, performances and publications

Yi Sha 伊沙 (Xi’an) and Xu Jiang 徐江 (Tianjin): Independent avantgarde poetry since 2000 and notions of dream in collective and individual ventures of texts, performances and publications.

Presented at the conference THE CHINA DREAM at Stockholm university, August 2016

Martin Winter (Vienna)

Dream – what does this word mean? I want to speak of three different notions, or functions. Then I want to see what these three meanings of the word “dream” have to do with some phenomena in today’s poetry in China. Thirdly, I want to see if these dreams in today’s poetry in Chinese can have anything to do with the recent political concept of The China Dream.

Firstly, to speak of dreams means dreams like in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Humans, also some animals,  dream when they are asleep. People have probably always tried to interpret their dreams – there are ancient records of dreams and their significance in many cultures. Through analysis of his own and his patient’s dreams, Freud came to formulate and develop his theories of the subconscious and methods of psychoanalysis. “Man is not master in his own house” (1) – notions like this have exerted influence around the globe, including Chinese-speaking areas. Traces of Freud’s emphasis on recording dreams and the limits of conscious perception can be seen in today’s Chinese poetry. The poet Yi Sha 伊沙 from Xi’an has written and published a series of poems called 《梦》 mèng, i.e. DREAMS, since 2011. For Yi Sha himself, this is a continuation of experimenting with long forms, as opposed to his usual practice of writing shorter poems of around ten lines each or less in great proliferation. Perhaps the most important feature of DREAMS  for Yi Sha himself is that he cannot know what he will dream and remember. He is not master of his own dreams, although he uses his particular skills to record and present them. This absence of control, at least to some degree, has been noted by Yi Sha himself and many commentators as a driving force and essential factor of this venture.

DREAMS consists of individual installments, individual dreams remembered, written down and brought into the form of a poem. Yi Sha has made over 800 such installments of the series accessible by now. Two books have been published, a third is in the process of publication. The contents of the dreams in the poems touch on various events in real life in China and beyond. However, there seems to be no discernible connection to the political concept of The China Dream. The series began in 2011, whereas the political concept was formulated and made known mainly since 2013, as far as I know.

The second meaning, notion or function of dreams, of the word “dream” in Chinese, as well as in English and maybe any other human language, has to do with imagination. The third one also. Both these meanings are removed from the prime meaning of “dream”. They are not primarily about what people remember experiencing in their dreams when they are asleep. The difference between the second and the third meaning is between individual imagination and collective imagination. Individual imagination of one man, woman or child, or within one story, one piece of music etc., versus collective imagination of a venture or goal shared by a group. The political concept of The China Dream mainly belongs to the third meaning of “dream”. But schools or factions of poetry, or collective ventures of poetry, e.g. around a magazine, are also about collective dreams in this third meaning of the word.

When I differentiate between individual and collective imagination, I don’t mean that the imagination or imaginations of one person or inside one text are necessarily unique in every way. On the contrary, individual imagination has very much to do with collective social phenomena. Still, individual imagination is produced either by an individual person or within an individual, clearly limited text, piece of music etc.

Xu Jiang’s 徐江 poem 《想象 (IMAGINE)》is such a particular work. I am going to introduce it in detail, as well as other poems by Yi Sha, Xu Jiang and other poets in their circles. Actually I think I will have time to discuss only poems by Xu Jiang and Yi Sha, although there are other very interesting works by their friends that feature dreams. Both Yi Sha and Xu Jiang often react to current events in China and beyond. For example, Xu Jiang has a poem about the attacks in Brussels on March 23rd, 2016, connecting collective and individual imagination and reality between Europe and Tianjin.

The unofficial literary magazine 《葵》Kuí (Sunflower), founded by Xu Jiang in Tianjin in 1991, and the meetings, readings etc. connected with the magazine are about a dream in my third sense of the word, a dream of collective imagination. The same could be said about Yi Sha’s daily poetry column in Chinese social media, 新世纪诗典 (xin shiji shi dian), literally new century poetry canon, abbreviated as 新诗典, or NPC. N stands for “new”, P for “poetry”. C is “canon”, though it could also stand for “collection” or “collective”. The abbreviation NPC in English in connection with China usually always stands for National People’s Congress, China’s national assembly which convenes in Beijing every year in early March. In contrast to this NPC that everyone knows, Yi Sha’s NPC is an unofficial, independent artistic venture, somewhat like Xu Jiang’s magazine. They are both not connected to the local or national Writers Association and other official bodies with their defined and declared political functions. Among people interested in today’s poetry in China, Kuí 葵 is a very well-known magazine. Information about it can be found in English online at the MCLC (Modern Chinese Literature an Culture) Resource Center, made available by Maghiel van Crevel, who has researched unofficial literary magazines in China since the 1980s(2) (See http://leiden.dachs-archive.org/archive/citrep/vancrevel2008/crevel_2007.html and http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/vancrevel2/ (both retrieved Aug. 2016))

Yi Sha‘s NPC has been going on since 2010. So it is slightly older than his own DREAMS series of poems. Yi Sha’s poetical activities have been available on Yi Sha’s accounts on Chinese social media platforms Sina Weibo 新浪微博 and Tencent Weixin (WeChat) 微信, as well as on Yi Sha’s Sina blog 新浪博客, throughout this time.

Yi Sha’s DREAMS is above all a form, a vehicle, or it could also be called a motor, as the late  Austrian poet Ernst Jamdl would have said. For Jandl, a new form always meant being able to write in a way that was not possible before, which would accelerate production and make it more attractive for the poet, as well as for readers. Jandl is famous for his experimental approach to language, although he often also wrote more conventional poems at the same time period.

Yi Sha’s poetry is always very directly informed by his social and political experience. There is not much beyond. No riddles, no intellectual realm, no big voice up there against the mundane. No opium for the educated few, so to speak. Short items. Day-to-day life. And the heritage of what was at stake in 1989. Yi Sha was there, and it shows through his poetry.

In the DREAMS, there is an added benefit of the speaker not being in control of what he dreams. And so the speaker cannot be held accountable for everything in every poem. There is not just a very personal “I” that is connected to the real author Yi Sha’s public and private personality. There is also and foremost the subconscious. You cannot know what it will come up with.

Prior to his DREAMS, Yi Sha had another series, another motor running, another motor that kept him running as a poet. That series is called NO TITLE, 无题 in Chinese. It began in the second half of the year 2008, and though it only appears here and there now, it is not completely finished. There are a few NO TITLE poems from spring 2016. And there is also an even newer motor than DREAMS, which is a series of short quips. Sometimes two lines, sometimes four. Anything that comes to mind. To Yi Sha’s expansive, but very, very down-to-earth mind. I am not sure how to call this new series in English. In Chinese, it is called 点射. Keep your finger down on the trigger, fire in bursts. Keep shooting. KEEP SHOOTING. Is that a good title? It is a new series, or actually it is a rediscovered series, a rediscovered motor, originally from 1993-1994.

Dreams as starting points for poems also come up earlier in Yi Sha’s work. In 2000, there is the DREAM OF THE UNDERGROUND PARTY 《地下党之梦》.  In this dream, the speaker
is in a revolutionary underground party. His younger comrade Li has been caught, but no matter what they do to him, he never betrays the speaker. the speaker sits at home and waits to be caught. He hears of the steadfastness of his comrade. What makes him scared most is Comrade Li’s loyalty. In 2002, there are MOTHER IN A DREAM 《梦里母亲》and FAMOUS WORDS IN A DREAM 《梦中名言》. In the first poem, the speaker’s mother hasn’t died, she is only blind. On the fifth Spring Festival after her death, she cooks in the kitchen. In the second poem, the speaker swims up in the atmosphere, then is caught by the hair and pulled up all the way, till he sees who has pulled him. “Oh, my great teacher, my master, the famous words you left in my dream, they are about my life in reality. You said, ‘the truth shall set you free.’”(3)

This is rather surprising from a poet who is famous for his irreverence, for disturbing propriety. But on the whole, if you know Yi Sha’s poetry well, it is not so surprising. Church buildings come up now and then, they are something special, and something to be valued. And speaking the truth must be important if you have been in the protests in Beijing in 1989.

In the first poem of the series DREAMS (from 2011), the speaker again dreams that his mother hasn’t died. He has written a letter to his uncle and wants to bring it to the post office. Before he leaves, his mother tells him to write their home phone number on the back of the envelope. He says that’s forbidden. On the way he wonders if there really is such a rule. Then he goes through an alley he knows from childhood, and he meets his uncle’s wife. But she ignores him, as if she doesn’t know him. So he realizes, she is already dead. She has died in 1997, a year of calamities for the family. He takes out his mobile phone to call home and tell his mother. His mother’s voice is very clear, “120 percent her real voice”, but she tells him she has also been dead since 1997. It is a very powerful poem, because of the emotion, and because of the everyday details that make it so real. Son, I am dead! How could you forget that! It is absurd, but you can imagine how she talks, it sounds perfectly feasible for this mother to speak in this way, like almost any mother would, if she could. (4)
Many DREAMS feature family members. Many others are about close friends, like the college classmates Xu Jiang 徐江 and Hou Ma 侯马. Very many poems are about poets and Yi Sha’s poetry ventures, like the NPC, New Poetry Canon or New Century Poetry Collection, 新世纪诗典.   Some are about sex. Some are about traveling. Every time before he crosses a border, Yi Sha dreams they won’t let him through. He has been forbidden to travel to Macau in the late 1990s, by his own university. And he has been refused visas for European countries and for the US, most recently he was refused a visa for taking part in a poetry festival in Romania. The first time Yi Sha traveled abroad was to Sweden, in 2002. In DREAM #412 《梦(412)》from May 2014, the speaker takes a spaceship to Mars, to a poetry festival. On the journey back the tower doesn’t let him land. His “planet citizenship” 球籍 has been revoked, 被

From the beginning of the series, Yi Sha’s DREAMS are very self-reflexive. The speaker tells you he has begun this series of poems, and he is worried it will become too much of an obsession. In DREAM #26, he lights an incense stick in front of his mother’s portrait and prays to her to protect him from becoming a soothsayer who forecasts the future from dreams. This sounds comical and is supposed to sound comical, but at the same time it is also very serious. In DREAM #18, the speaker’s wife has set foot on the moon, but “it’s not interesting anymore,
this chang’e goddess/ really not worth it/ the moon is tied up/ with wire fences/ and they have buried mines/ the moon is gray/ like people’s ashes”. This doesn’t sound funny at all, and it could even sound subversive, because when the poem was written in 2011, China had already launched two moon probes called Chang’e 嫦娥, in 2007 and in 2010. The spacecraft Chang’e 3 landed on the moon in 2013 and delivered the robotic rover called Yutu 玉兔, “jade rabbit”.

Yi Sha 梦(16)

three death candidates
hands tied on their backs
kneel in a trench
await execution
masked executioner
stands in front of them
knees bent in a stance
to warm himself up
then with a scream
suddenly goes into
“18 dragon subduing moves”
three condemned men
let out three cries
pitiful wails
then give up their ghosts
become three coils of smoke
go straight up to heaven

I am at the scene
I see everything
I am a priest
who prays for the souls
of the prisoners
and listens to their
right now
I am consoling a woman
from the next group
she has poisoned her husband
who had been abusing her for many years
she is leaving a son
“repent and confess
you’ll be born again
in your next life
you’ll meet your son”

“save your breath!
in your next life
who knows who becomes what”,
like she doesn’t care.
sharp face (looks like trouble to men)
now she’s lost in thought:
“if there is a next life
I want to become
a cricket
for my son to catch me …”

Tr. MW, 2016

Yi Sha’s poems can be subversive, but he is still more well known for comic irreverence, and he has been able to thrive in China’s poetry realm. There is some censorship, mostly self-censorship. Poems with sensitive words are simply not featured on the daily NPC 新世纪诗典  platform. “Mosque” 清真寺 can be a sensitive word, for example. Even if the poem in question is not about a mosque in China and has nothing to do with China at all, except that it’s written in Chinese.(5)
This is absurd, but not more absurd than many everyday things, and many things in Yi Sha’s poems. And there is a lot that gets through, even if it is plainly political. With Yi Sha’s DREAMS and his NPC, we have all three notions of the word dream as I have introduced them in the beginning. NPC is a collective dream, and all the participants dream individual dreams of becoming famous and “writing immortal verse”, like the speaker in DREAM #26.

Xu Jiang and Yi Sha are very different, although they are very old friends, they both graduated from Beijing Normal University 北师大 in 1989. Xu Jiang is more serious, although also irreverent. He is very much respected as the founder of Kui 葵 (Sunflower), an important unofficial poetry magazine that has been going since 1991. But maybe also because of this status, Xu Jiang’s own poems are very seldom published in official media, much less than Yi Sha’s poems, for example.  《想象(IMAGINE)》, dated 2001, is one of Xu Jiang’s most famous works. It has appeared in Yi Sha’s NPC 新世纪诗典 three years ago. I would like to quote my English translation in full. You can find the original on my blog and on many other Internet sites. But I have also copied it here for you at the end.

Xu Jiang

imagine there’s no heaven
it’s easy if you try

imagine they had not thrown out everything
first aim, firm belief, freshness
before this summer before that spring

imagine good times no dusk is falling
I am in you all the time

imagine bear cubs smiling
dolphins deep in the sea nestling with mothers
a blacksmith learns to forge shackles, one rainy day

imagine a cup
clean and dirty within a glance

imagine hell
even if there’s no hell in your heart, think about it
bells of judgment strike in one moment

take away every high note in a choir
wipe water stains on every mirror

muddy tears are washing us clean
I say we’re not the only ones.
raise your hands, move your feet
time and space will be as one.

you can choose not to enter this line
it’s easy if you try

but I hear how you cry in your heart
which is not at all different from mine
so I say let’s believe in imagination

in a kindness that streaks through the night
for a perfect world will appear in front of our eyes

Tr. MW, 2016

”So I say let us believe in imagination” 所以我说还是相信想象吧. ‘Imagine’ and ‘imagination’ are both 想象. Let us believe in IMAGINE. Let’s believe “in a kindness that streaks through the night/ for a perfect world will appear in front of our eyes” 相信夜幕下奔跑的善良/ 因为完美的世界终会出现在你我眼前. Xu Jiang is much harder to translate than Yi Sha, at least for me. I always want to read the Chinese text again, even if I am sure of my translation. This is a very unusual poem, also for Xu Jiang. In contrast, see his recent poem AUTUMN EQUINOX 《秋分》from 2015 (Appendix).

A perfect world will appear one day- doesn’t this sound rather communist? The whole poem sounds very nostalgic for something that still exists in people’s imaginations, even if China has been called a post-socialist society for quite a while now. It is nostalgia for something that is very plainly there in John Lennon’s song. “imagine they had not thrown out everything/ first aim, firm belief, freshness/ before this summer before that spring” The summer is the summer of 1989, the spring is Beijing Spring of 1979 and 1980. It is not spelled out, but it is rather clear.

Now let us come to the question I have posed at the beginning: can these dreams in today’s poetry in Chinese have anything to do with the recent political concept of The China Dream? Basically, I have to say no. I have not found any trace of the political propaganda of the last few years, including The China Dream in any poem by Yi Sha, Xu Jiang and their friends and in their publications and Internet sites. Dreams and imagination are very important in current poetry, but they have nothing to do with current political concepts.

Xu Jiang’s magazine 《葵》 Kuí (Sunflower) and Yi Sha’s NPC 新世纪诗典 are collective ventures of imagination. These ventures are at odds with official culture policies. Political phenomena such as the parade in September 2015 for the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII in 1945 are ridiculed in poetry by and associated with Yi Sha and Xu Jiang. But the leftist heritage of today’s China is not abandoned or opposed in principle. On the contrary, the critical view of today’s society found in these poet’s circles goes along with discussing ideals and contemporary history. Strictly speaking, poems such as IMAGINE and DREAMS and the collective ventures mentioned above have nothing to do with The China Dream. They are alternative interpretations of current realities. As such, they have to contend with censorship. On the other hand, they are representations and formative parts of today’s culture. They put government concepts and slogans such as The China Dream in context and reveal complex realities in culture and society.

APPENDIX: Chinese texts of IMAGINE by Xu Jiang and DREAM #16 by Yi Sha, as well as AUTUMN EQUINOX 《秋分》by Xu Jiang in Chinese and English



初衷  坚信  新鲜




尽管它在你心里没有  但想想


举手投足  时空浩瀚

如果试  这会很容易













Xu Jiang

this is one special
day in the year
autumn splits up its path
one road to the past
one road to the future
it hands the remaining two fifths of the year
to cats and dogs, people
to trees and grass
clouds and smoke, water and wind
to the lips of
ten thousand things

Tr. MW, 2015-2016

(1)Actually “the ego is not master in its own house”, in A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis (1917)

(2)See http://leiden.dachs-archive.org/archive/citrep/vancrevel2008/crevel_2007.html
and http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/vancrevel2/ (both retrieved Aug. 2016)

(3)All translations are my own, if not otherwise noted.

(4) I have translated about 200 of Yi Sha’s DREAMS. Most of these translations are unpublished as of now (August 2016)

(5) This comes from personal conversations with poets in China (2016).

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