More poems and contributor notes in Chinese feature

Matter over Mind—On Xi Chuan's Poetry

By Maghiel van Crevel

Shall we not read the map? At sorrow lies the first crossroads, with a road to song and a road to bewilderment; at bewilderment the second crossroads, with a road to pleasure and a road to nothingness; at nothingness the third crossroads, with a road to death and a road to insight; at insight the fourth crossroads, with a road to madness and a road to silence.

         The above passage, stanza 25 of Xi Chuan's WHAT THE EAGLE SAYS, comes from the closing years of an astonishingly turbulent century in the history of Chinese poetry. In the years following the 1911 collapse of the last imperial dynasty, champions of “literary revolution”forcefully argued for literary expression in the vernacular. A New Poetry was to replace age-old classical forms whose rigidity and elitism were felt to thwart the development of a modern literature, and by implication of a modern society. Over several thousand years of recorded history, it was neither the first time nor the last that the marriage of Chinese literature and politics was uneasy—in the public sphere, however, its fundamental validity was rarely questioned. The 1920s and 30s saw foreign-influenced experiment and heated debate on the New Poetry, but its practitioners could hardly stand aloof from the ugly realities of their surroundings: colonial aggression, crippling social problems and a civil war.
         As did Chinese leaders through the ages, Mao Zedong set great store by the political potential of literature and art. In 1942 he laid down the law for writers and artists in Communist-controlled areas, subordinating their work to politics in so many words. This meant a ban on many types of literature—including that of the “individualist” kind—as well as the encouragement and commission of politically correct works to advance the war effort. In 1949 the war came to an end, but wartime rules for literature and art remained in force in the newly established People's Republic of China (Hong Kong and Taiwan were, of course, worlds apart from the Chinese mainland). Many writers abandoned their craft for safer occupations. Those who continued to write but failed to toe the line suffered terrible punishment. This ranged from simple harassment in one's private or professional life to domestic exile, house arrest, incarceration and mental and physical violence, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). For the famed novelist and short-story writer Lao She, it led to his alleged suicide—or, effectively, his murder by Red Guards. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, there had still been a regular production of literary texts, albeit monotonous and predictable, with much heroic battling of sinister landlords, banner-waving and harvesting of bumper crops. But by the late 1960s, literature in China came to a virtual standstill. In what little poetry was left, one might have happened upon a crossroads, and perhaps sorrow, song and death, as long as they were of the politically correct kind—but definitely not on bewilderment, pleasure, nothingness, insight, madness or silence.
         Ideological repression was now at a fever pitch. China's schools and universities were closed, and urban youth were sent away to learn from poor peasants and factory workers instead. At that very time, in a quirk of history, Red Guard razzia's of private “bourgeois”libraries inadvertently exposed many of these “young intellectuals”to foreign literature in translation, ranging from Baudelaire to Kafka, Kerouac, Salinger, Solzhenitsyn and more. Disillusioned with the orthodoxy of Socialist Realism, they began to meet in underground salons for reading and writing that were to become the breeding places of the Chinese poetry we know today. Their members included Bei Dao, Mang Ke, Gu Cheng, Duoduo and Yang Lian, to name the best-known poets of the first generation that ventured beyond the Maoist pale. When the madness of the Cultural Revolution had passed, they took underground poetry above ground, and in the early 1980s drew domestic and international attention to their art. Their nom de guerre was one of “Obscurity”, a critical label inspired by a type of imagery that was considered incomprehensible under the circumstances؏the circumstances being, of course, a painful dearth of non-propagandesque poetry that would allow for things like original metaphor.
         Now, twenty years on, the Obscure Poetry once attacked by the establishment for wanting to be non-political is dismissed by younger authors for being too political. In the mid-1980s, the Chinese avant-garde in literature, rock-n-roll and the visual arts exploded into pluriformity and abundance. Literary associations mushroomed and for a few years, every other journal in official and samizdat circuits would feature a new manifesto announcing the latest Ism and its bearing on he nature of Art. Then came the bloody suppression of the 1989 Protest Movement around the Square of Heavenly Peace, and its initial, paralyzing effect on the life of the mind in the People's Republic. In the 1990s, poetry was “marginalized”by media like TV and the Internet, by the rise of popular culture and consumerism and, more generally, by the rapid and all-pervading commercialization of Chinese life. Marginalization, however, has arguably benefited the avant-garde. Poetry recitals no longer draw the crowds of starved readers that came to listen in 1979 or 1980—but by and large, poetry is being left alone by political authorities, too. It is in that atmosphere that new, intensely personal voices have matured and made themselves heard: Yu Jian, Wang Jiaxin, Zhai Yongming, Xi Chuan, Ouyang Jianghe, Tang Yaping, Sun Wenbo, Shen Haobo and many others.
         Xi Chuan (pseudonym of Liu Jun, 1963) graduated from university with a thesis on Ezra Pound's encounters with classical Chinese literature, with some attention to fruitful mis-understanding in that famous instance of cross-cultural production. He now teaches foreign and Chinese literature at the Central Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing. Since 1985, he has published widely—mostly poetry, but also essays and translations (Borges, Pound and others)—and become a major presence in contemporary Chinese poetry. In 1995, he made his first of several trips abroad to read at the Rotterdam Poetry International festival, and in 2002 he participated in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program; Dutch, English, French, Japanese and Spanish translations of his work have appeared.
         WHAT THE EAGLE SAYS (1999), or THE EAGLE for short, is the latest in a series of long prose poems that became Xi Chuan's trademark in the early 1990s. Like its predecessors SALUTE (1992) and MISFORTUNE (1996), it is an enigmatic text that invites and yet resists interpretation. It strikes something of an expository pose, in eight separately entitled sections and 99 stanzas that unfold in eminently civilized, sometimes archaic syntax. Its deliberate, aestheticized repetition of certain sentence patterns is reminiscent of ancient philosophical-literary texts from East and West, such as Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) and Heraclitus—suitable for analogy and contrast, mirror image and opposition. And true enough, THE EAGLE has thought-provoking, serious things to say about identity, language and the human condition. But crucially, upon closer inspection Xi Chuan's words often turn out to flout the rules of narrative and other logic, to celebrate ambiguity, paradox and downright contradiction, to be pseudo-philosophy: irreverent, playful, down-to-earth and generated by its own musicality as much as anything else. As the insistence of the text's syntactic patterns can be reproduced in any language, its translation may hope to retain the primacy of the poem's actual texture, the materiality of its language: matter over mind, as it were. In THE EAGLE, images must capture words, just as much as the other way around.
        Of course, that distinction—call it one of form and content—is anything but absolute. Content-wise, THE EAGLE treats of a wealth of subject matter, and its imagery draws on sophisticated literary mechanisms. One is that of metamorphosis:
Thereupon I shun my flesh, and turn into a drop of perfume, actually drowning an ant. Thereupon I turn into an ant, drilling my way into an elephant's brain, upsetting it so that it stamps all four of its legs. Thereupon I turn into an elephant, my entire body exuding a great stench. Thereupon I turn into a great stench, and those who cover their noses when they smell me are men. Thereupon I turn into a man, and a plaything of fate.
But metamorphosis does not quite cover what is going on here. “I”appears to be a mental-linguistic agency, autonomous but without a home of its own. Roaming from one body to another, be it man or beast or thing or god, “I”can occupy divergent points of view:
Thereupon I turn into my posterity and let the rain test if I am waterproof. Thereupon I turn into rain, and splash upon the bald head of an intellectual. Thereupon I turn into that intellectual, detesting the world and its ways, pick up a stone from the ground and hurl it at the oppressor. Thereupon I turn into stone and oppressor at the same time: when I am hit by me, that sets both of my brains roaring.
In addition to metamorphosis, then, we may speak of metaphor, in its literal sense of 'transfer'. Apparently, others can do that as well as “I”:
I need but feign to be an eagle, and a man will feign to be me.
In its closing stanza, the poem intimates that the chain—or the poetic spell—of metamorphosis and metaphor can be broken:
So please allow me to stay in your house for an hour, because an eagle plans to reside in a chamber of my heart for a week. If you accept me, I will gladly turn into the image you hope for, but not for too long, or my true features will be thoroughly laid bare.
These are some of the things we learn about the narrator. What of the eagle itself? The poem's title suggests humanization, for the Chinese word for 'what. . .says' is inseparably linked to human language, and cannot be used in phrases like The cat says miaow. Now the eagle does not say a word, but in Chinese, as in English, what the eagle says can also mean 'what the phenomenon / story of the eagle has to tell us', or indeed 'how one could speak of the eagle'. This ambiguity extends into the eagle as it appears in the body of the poem, reiterating clichés only to subvert them. If the eagle is a sign that does not carry the weight of thinking—a curse befalling man in section One—that evokes an intuitive animal, determined of itself and untroubled by any existential doubt. But immediately afterward, the eagle is called shy, a characteristic that, for all its unlikeliness, brings the animal closer to the human reader. As such, it is akin to Marvin, a robot suffering from depression in Douglas Adams' The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and, closer to home, to a mysterious Monster in Xi Chuan's SALUTE, that is said to have no sense of humor and hate the narrator's hairdo.
        There is a regular alternation, then, of a sovereign, clichéd eagle, abstracted into Eaglehood, and an individual animal. The cliché flies on high, flying of itself, like its own shadow; it even becomes a point of calibration in the universe, for when it spreads its wings. . .it is the earth begins to fly. Our shy eagle of flesh and blood, however, neglects to eat and is too weak to get off the ground. It dies—the cliché is of course immortal—and falls prey to maggots, and its feathers end up in the living room of a white-collared beauty. In the context of present-day China, that might well refer to the New Rich, unimpressed by Eaglehood but happy to pay for an eagle hide as a piece of interior design. This dismantling of the lofty image by vulgar, material reality once more takes us back to SALUTE, written at the onset of a decade with more time for money than for ideology: again, matter over mind. There, a poet falls to his death from a high-rise, unsaved by Heine's wings of song, and we read that the death of others makes us guilty. In THE EAGLE, Xi Chuan expands this observation to include the animals:
not metaphysical death but death of the flesh: wounds festering, the body rigid. That is death of the flesh, and we partake in it.
Subsequently, in a poetical statement—the naming of things in order to neutralize them—we read that if I describe an eagle, it is in order to cut off its head. The same stanza contemplates the possibility of the eagle's biblical rebirth, and takes us back to the cliché. Any temporary death of Eaglehood would of course be strictly metaphysical, and only have a use for festering wounds and so on as stage props.
        But metaphysics lose. In the end, what weighs heaviest is feathers, festers, the identification of man and beast and their trading of places. The poem's final section, with a shockingly sombre, unadorned heading that reads Of My Meaningless Life, starts thus:
Among men there are men who are not men, just like among eagles there are eagles that are not eagles: there are eagles that are forced to pace up and down the alleyways, and there are men who are forced to fly through the air.
Some eagles are really men, and some men eagles. That must be why “I” earlier cautioned against putting eagle meat on the menu. That to be an eagle is not nearly as exciting as the cliché would have it is another one of Xi Chuan's inferences from the blurring of the boundaries between man and beast. For if man does not revel in his walking, why would the eagle revel in its soaring?

* * *

For an English translation of "What the Eagle Says," see Seneca Review vol xxxiii # 2 (2003). Part of the literary-historical summary in the above essay first appeared in “Det poetiske rum mellem det ophöjede og det jordnære: ti kinesiske digtere I Danmark” [Textscapes between the Elevated and the Earthly: Ten Chinese Poets in Denmark], in: Sidse Laugesen & Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg (eds), Kineserne kommer! Dansk-Kinesisk poesifestival [The Chinese Are Coming! Danish-Chinese Poetry Festival], Aarhus: Östasiatisk afdeling, Aarhus Universitet, 2004.

* * *

Maghiel van CrevelMaghiel van Crevel received his PhD (1996) in Chinese Literature from Leiden University. He lectured at the University of Sydney until taking up duty as Professor of Chinese language & literature at Leiden in 1999. Through regular fieldwork, with the help of authors, critics, publishers and literary activists, he has built an internationally unique collection of materials on contemporary mainland-Chinese poetry: journals, individual collections, multiple—author anthologies, correspondence, audio and video recordings and so on — with ample space for the underground and unofficial circuits that paved the way for todays avant-garde, and retain their importance to this day. Van Crevel has published extensively on mainland—Chinese texts (poems), contexts (their cultural and socio—political surroundings) and metatexts (discourse on poetry), in English, Dutch and Chinese. He has translated a number of poets in this issue.