By Susan E. Wagner
Contemporary poetry has often been used as a means of expression for writers interested in the political world and the principles of freedom and self-determination. It is an art form of complexity and inspiration. As China has a long literary history and is now a major world power, even a brief examination may aid our understanding of Chinese culture.
Contemporary Chinese poet, Zhao Zhenkai or Bei Dao, presents us with poems layered with history and cultural nuance. He is known by many for his connection to the “Misty Poets,” an avant-garde group of poets in China. The “Misty” reflects the use of abstract language and obscure meaning during a time of increasing political pressure on writers across China. They challenged the social realism of the Maoist ideology with their commentary on political and social issues. The Maoists became more and more concerned that this new poetry was too critical of the government and might possibly incite rebellion. As this was not unknown in China’s history, the concern was well founded.
Poet, Li Po, mentioned in the last stanza of Bei Dao’s poem, Untitled, was a poet during the eighth century, the time of the Tang Dynasty in China. According to the Poetry Foundation website, Li Po’s “influence has spanned the centuries: the pure lyricism of his poems has awed readers in China and Japan for over a millennium.” It is not surprising then to see him mentioned in one of Bei Dao’s poems.
Li Po also lived during a time of political change. His extensive travels allowed him to meet important people which led to an appointment by the emperor to the famous Han Lin Academy. When a rebellion occurred in 755, he was arrested and sentenced to death, but was instead, banished to southwestern China where he continued to write poems both subjective and political.
Bei Dao, who was only 17 when the Cultural Revolution took place, found himself in the Red Guard. He was sent into the country to work in construction, a not unusual thing for educated class of China. He discusses this in an interview with Siobahn LaPiana in 1994, found in The Journal of the International Institute.
In the countryside, Bei Dao said he “discovered the poverty and backward conditions of the countryside, and how different it was from the propaganda we had been given about it.” He explains this as a turning point. “All of a sudden, we saw the bottom of society, the reality of most people’s lives, and it was a complete contradiction to everything I had experienced before.” It was after that experience that he went on to “study, read and to write.”
Through the seventies and eighties, Bei Dao wrote poetry, meeting in secret with other poets. It was during this time period that the “Misty Poets” came to life. In 1978, he co-founded the journal, Jintian. After two years, the journal was banned and by 1989, Bei Dao was sent into exile. It was believed his poetry had influenced the protests that ended with the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Besides Bei Dao’s allusions to Li Po and the similar historic conditions they wrote under, other commonalities can be found. In Bei Dao’s poem, Untitled, I also see a similar sensibility to Li Po. Their work has a poignant tone or sense of sadness and focuses on subjective experience. I felt this when reading the third stanza of Untitled, which includes this: “we take turns hiding beneath/ windows of endless light weeping.” Contrast this with Li Po’s poem, Sorrow Untold, translated by Cheng Yu Sun: A fair lady rolls up her pearl window-blind;/ Sitting deep within, she knits her moth eye brows. / One sees only the wet traces of her tears.”
Even without sharing their history or culture, a cursory examination of their work provides us the opportunity to connect them with one another and with the world at large. Politics and the problems of individuals and societies are universal, and poetry everywhere expresses our common humanity. What happened to Bei Dao is happening right now to some other writer somewhere else in the world. It is a reminder to us of the power of words.
An examination of cross-cultural understanding of literature must also include some understanding of and reference to the translator of the works. Translation is usually more than the literal word to word exchange and discussions about how best to translate continue to be debated. In a paper published in 2009 by the Asian Social Science Journal, three translation theories were presented. They are the hermeneutic, the comparative and the cognitive linguistic approaches.
Translations of Chinese works of literature are further complicated by the fact that the images in the works cannot be easily understood. Western culture does not have the long history of poetry and historical meaning assigned to images that the Chinese have. Much of a poem’s meaning can be lost if this issue is not adequately resolved.
David Hinton, who translated Bei Dao’s Untitled in the The ecco Anthology of International Poetry, studied both poetry and Chinese at Cornell University and continued studying the language in Taiwan. Subsequently, he has translated works of both poetry and prose and is well respected in his field.
In an interview he did with Leah Tonino for The Sun, he responds to criticism of his work like this:
“My response is that you can’t translate word for word and end up with anything of value. Direct English translations appear as chopped-up, strange, experimental texts with none of the precise beauty of the original. I’ve got to make the writing come alive in the language of this place, this time.”
Tonino then asked him if what he did was reinvention or translation. He responded:
“Maybe it’s best thought of as cultural translation … Chinese language has characteristics that I can’t put into English. I have to leave those behind in China.”
Upon reflection on the matters of time and place and, taking into account the inherent difficulties of translating from a civilization far older than our own, I am left with questions about Bei Dao’s poem, Untitled.
How sure can we be when discussing allusion and conditionality, even those to Li Po that seemingly are an easy connection? Or are we really discussing David Hinton’s poem, Untitled? Even assuming Hinton is close to at least the meaning of the original poem, how does that factor into any analysis of contemporary poetry, especially when the allusion being discussed is also a translation? Can we be sure about what it is we are really discussing?
It is a fascinating puzzle, but the effort to solve it is worth the time. As the world continues to grow ever smaller because of social media, understanding becomes even more important. The wide-ranging effects on political systems around the world is considerable. Poetry, with its levels of meaning and ability to inspire, remains a conduit for understanding. Poetry shared between China and the West has a power that may be immeasurable.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms: Sixth Edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985
Bei Dao, “Untitled.” The ecco Anthology of International Poetry. Edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris, harper Collins, 2010
Ratiner, Steven. “Reclaiming the Word: A Conversation with Bei Dao.” AGNI 54. 30 January. 2018
Davis, Paul. Harrison, Gary. Johnson, David M. Smith, Patricia Clark. Crawford, John F. editors. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Middle Period. St. Martin’s, 2004
LaPiana, Siobahan. “An Interview with Visiting Artist Bei Dao: Poet in Exile.” The Journal of the International Institute. Vol. 3, Issus 1, 1994 [pp. Unknown]
Li Po. “Exile’s Letter,” “Sorrow Untold.” Translated by Cheng Yu Sun. Poetry Foundation.Org.
Mingquan Zhang, Weiqiang Mao. “On Translating the Poetic Images from Chinese to English.” Asian Social Science Journal. Vol. 5, No 6, 2009 [pp Unknown]
Tonino, Leah. “The Egret Lifting from the River.” The Sun. June 2015
Susan Wagner is the author of Unmuted: Voices on the Edge, a collection of hybrid poetry on mental illness and families. A former therapist, Susan facilitated creative and poetry writing group therapies. She has published poetry, short stories and feature articles and taught both creative and business writing. Susan is an editor with The Pearl S. Buck Writing Center and currently finishing her second novel. Her next book of poetry, another in the Unmuted series, will soon be available on Amazon.