I FIRST HEARD of the poet Mang Ke when I visited Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, China, in December 1990 at the invitation of Wang Shouyi, a poet and critic as well as Dean of Foreign Languages at that university. During that year, I was a Fulbright lecturer in American literature at the People’s University in Beijing, and had begun a series of collaborative translations — with Jin Zhong — of the poetry of Moi Fei, Wang Jia-Xin, and Duo Duo. Jin Zhong, who was living then in Beijing, happened to be from Heilongjiang Province, and was a former student of Wang Shouyi.
During my week at Heilongjiang, I not only came to know and to begin translation work with Wang Shouyi, but he also introduced to me to the poetry of Mang Ke — though not to the poet himself. This was not surprising. There at the end of 1990, the Tiananmen massacre had taken place just 18 months before. As is often true during times of political unrest in China, many Chinese intellectuals and artists seemed to adopt an almost instinctive avoidance of Westerners. Thus, on my return to Beijing, I unfortunately found that Mang Ke was living in relative isolation — according to Jin Zhong, he was keeping a decidedly low profile. I didn’t know at the time, and still don’t know, whether his seclusion was self- or officially-imposed. But, although many other prominent poets of his generation — Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo — were in exile, Mang Ke remained.
Although I was never able to meet with Mang Ke personally, some five and a half years later I finally began to work on translating his poetry, thanks, once again, to the Fulbright program. From 1990-1996, Wang Shouyi and I kept touch by phone and by mail. Then, in 1996, I was able to bring Shouyi to Ashland University as a Fulbright Scholar in Residence. Part of our proposal for Shouyi’s Fulbright year involved working on a book-length manuscript of Mang Ke and Gu Cheng translations. Before leaving China for the U.S., Shouyi even traveled to Beijing to meet with Mang Ke and to pick up a copy of his collected poems. Then, throughout the 1996-1997 academic year, with Shouyi living close at hand in Ashland, Ohio, he and I worked slowly, and through many revisions, on some forty pages of Mang Ke and Gu Cheng translations.
To a very large degree, Mang Ke’s low-profile in contemporary Chinese poetry (that is, from the perspective of the West) is in keeping with his earlier post-Tiananmen Square isolation. Although many Mang Ke translations have appeared in American anthologies of Chinese poetry, Western translators and editors have yet to recognize Mang Ke’s work in a way comparable to his status in China. There, however, his place is well known. As well as serving as its managing editor, Mang Ke with Bei Dao co-founded the Chinese literary journal Today, a magazine centrally important to the Democratic Wall Movement in China in the late 1970s. But Bei Dao has become far better known in the West than Mang Ke, in part because Bei Dao learned to speak English and went abroad, and in part because he continued to commit himself to poetry. Word was when I returned to Beijing for a second Fulbright year in 1997 that Mang Ke had now turned to writing mainly fiction, as the market had opened up for fiction writers and he was trying to bring some money home for his family.
Finally, a few words about my poem “Willow,” which I wrote as a sort of celebration of the place that poetry enjoys in China. Poetry is king of the arts in China, in part because it combines so many aspects of the artist’s sensibility (the ear, the eye, the other senses, and the mind). Poetry combines also within one aesthetic many elements of other disciplines (music, religion, history, art history, philosophy). Traditionally, poets were not only expected to be well educated, but also to be calligraphers and musicians. In a sense, poetry in pre-modern China was the art form that unified all the other arts.
In many parts of modern China, the spirit of poetry is celebrated in urban parks. Possibly because Du Fu and Li Bai, two of China’s most famous poets, lived in the Chinese Southwest where bamboo and willow trees flourish, the Chinese consider the spirit of poetry to be present wherever these two plants grow near each other. In the same vein, my poem assumes the willow to be a sort of Chinese national tree. And, for better or worse, given the American tendency to sexualize everything, the willow in my poem embodies the female principle, the bamboo the male principle. The erotic union between them creates poetry, giving birth to a sort of heaven on earth. —Ashland, Ohio, December 14, 2002
Translating Gu Cheng
ALL SIX POEMS appearing here were translated during 1996-1997, when Wang Shouyi came to Ashland University as a Fulbright Scholar. I had met first met him in China in 1990-1991, on a Fulbright fellowship of my own. Though my host institution was the People’s University in Beijing, Shouyi invited me to come to Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, China, to give a series of readings and talks on American poetry. I arrived in Harbin, in Northeast China, on Dec. 24, 1990, some 20-30 degrees C below zero. Shouyi had arranged a Christmas party for me, complete with his students singing Jingle Bells and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Each student also had to perform a joke in English, or sing individually, or present a skit. I was required to recite two poems. My ex-wife played the piano. All this ended up on the five o’clock news, in a city of more than two million people.
Even before I met Wang Shouyi, I was indirectly in touch with him, having spent much of the fall working in Beijing with one of Wang’s former students, Guo Zhong, on a group of translations of Duo Duo, Moi Fei and Wang Jia Xin (poems which appeared in American Poetry Review in 1993). But at the time I arrived in Harbin, in 1990, I had not heard of Gu Cheng. In fact, Duo Duo was the poet I admired most from the Chinese Misty School. But then I met Shouyi, who admired Gu Cheng and encouraged me to read him. We then began to discuss the possibility of translating together some of Gu Cheng’s better known poems, a project that ended up taking six years to get off the ground.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Misty School was one of the first Chinese literary movements to survive without sanction of the state. Beginning in the early 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was grinding to a close, the School was later centered around the literary journal Today. It developed even further during and after the Democratic Wall Movement of the late 1970’s. Bei Dao, one of the founding editors ofToday (Mang Ke was the other founding editor), is probably the best-known poet of the group. Gu Chen, born in 1956, was considerably younger than these other central figures of the School. The son of Gu Gong, a well-known Chinese poet who wrote with the approval of the government, Gu Cheng had a literary upbringing and was somewhat of a child prodigy. He began publishing poems in Today when he was still in his early 20s.
During the 1990s Wang Shouyi and I stayed in touch by mail. Plus, he sometimes traveled to the U.S. on behalf of his university (he also had two daughters attending American colleges). He would occasionally phone, and we would continue to discuss the possibility of translating Gu Cheng. But, given my utter inability to read Chinese, I knew from working with Guo Zhong that Shouyi and I would need to spend long hours with one another, and neither of us wanted to attempt this long distance-by mail, or e-mail, or by faxing versions to one another. Eventually we incorporated a proposal to translate Gu Cheng and Mang Ke into an application to bring Wang Shouyi to Ashland University as a Fulbright Scholar. The grant was funded. In August 1996 Shouyi arrived in Ashland, Ohio, and we began to work.
As the Chinese language is much more dense than English, with a few characters capable of conveying a far wider range of meaning than a few words of English, the lines and stanzas in the drafts of our English translations soon tended to balloon. Thus, as we continued to revise the translations, we kept trying to squeeze the oak trees of our English versions back into their original acorns. We wanted the finished versions to gesture not only toward the imagistic and conceptual sense of the originals, but toward their succinct, tight movement as well. Above all our primary commitment was to the image. The visual sense of Chinese poetry is probably more accessible in English than any cultural or mythological allusion embodied in the image. But, along with the musical effects of the original language, cultural and mythological allusions are often impossible to translate, though of course they are very much a part of the original reader’s experience. Any reference, for example, to “little bottles” in Chinese poetry after 1989 is probably a reference to Deng Xiaoping, whose personal name means quite literally “little bottle” (xiao: little; ping: bottle). When any cultural reference in the Chinese required, in the English translation, an awkward moment of exposition, our approach was nonetheless to emphasize the visual effect, to preserve in the English version as much as possible the musical and imagistic integrity of the original. In fact, because Gu Cheng, and the Misty School poets in general approach their literal subject matter only through indirection, any attempt to explain literally such references in the English translations would have seriously violated the imagistic compression of the originals.
The original text for these translations comes from The Collected Poems of Gu Cheng, edited after the poet’s death by his father. Gu Cheng committed suicide in New Zealand in 1995, a story long and controversial and tragic (though unrelated to the poems translated here). Before killing himself, Gu Cheng first murdered his wife. I know the account of his death only through hearsay — through conversations with Chinese poets during my second Fulbright year in Beijing from 1997-1998. Word was that Gu Cheng was constitutionally incapable of any sort of work other than writing poetry. He was living with his wife and son in New Zealand, eking out a living by raising chickens and selling eggs, occasionally traveling to the West on a grant or fellowship. On one such year in Germany, Gu Cheng’s wife took a German lover. Gu Cheng committed his murder/suicide the day his wife’s lover was to arrive by plane in New Zealand. —Ashland, Ohio, December 19, 2000