To Touch the Border and Cross it
An Interview with Yang Lian
Yang Lian, at the end of 70s you were a representative of the ménglóng poetry, judged to be the first significant ‘emergence’ of Chinese contemporary poetry. May you describe those years? How do you remember them?
I agree with you, the ménglóng shī 朦胧诗, the so-called misty poetry, was the first phenomenon of poetry since 1949. And the importance to me is that it was the first time poetry came out from the political propaganda -whatever from the governement or from the so-called anti-government side- and came back to a personal, or individual thing which, in my own words, is “to express ourselves in our own language” -“yòng wǒmen zìjǐ de yǔyán biǎo de zìjǐ de gǎnjué 用我们自己的语言表得自己的感觉”.
Actually it took a long time to finish that process from the communist language. I learned the meaning of my own feelings about life, what they meant to my own language, as I have already talked about in my books. When I started my poetry writing in the countryside where I had been sent, my mother died in 1976 and that was, let’s say, the worst year I experienced in the countryside.
So, were you away from Beijing while she was ill?
Actually, my parents had been sent to another place in the countryside, because they were intellectuals –professors. They had been sent to the countryside in 1970, so my family, let’s say, almost finished at that time, but my younger brother and I stayed in Beijing and after my high school, in ‘74, I had been sent to a countryside village just at north of Beijing, Changping.
Anyway, until ‘76 I felt as though that quite painful life was just my own experience and I actually realized that my own tragedy was just a small part of the huge tragedy of China and Chinese people only after I’d come back to Beijing city in ‘77. Especially when, in ‘78, the Democracy Wall Movement started and all the people came from all over the country to Beijing, somehow, to complain what troubling experiences they’d had during the Cultural Revolution: suddenly the angry voice of the people was in the streets of Beijing.
Among them there were other young Chinese poets: Bei Dao, Mang Ke, Gu Cheng, Jiang He and the so-called ‘later misty poets’group’. That was the first time I found that what I tried to do, or what I’d experienced before, was shared by so many people, there was also a great energy that actually came to each poet and to myself, too. Since then I feel my poetry is not only my voice on my own behalf, but also of the whole wounded or destroyed tradition, history, culture, people…
So this is the very basic foundation of our poetry, but, on the linguistic level, the reasons because we had been called misty or ménglóng to me was very simple: because, as I have said, we tried to use our own language to express our own feelings, but an ‘our own language’ means to use the words and the language we can feel, which we can understand, which we feel is linked to our real experience. In this sense, all those huge political empty words like “socialism”, “capitalism”, “history”, “materialism” and so on are empty concepts not real feelings. So we can clearly see all those ménglóng poets came back to the very basic words like stone, earth, wather, moon, sun, life, death, pain, or others like these.
But you were more than others linked to tradition. I think you had a different culture, too, a different experience or upbringing…
Yes, but these are like two different layers. We basically came back to the very basic language, which in classical, modern and contemporary poetry always has existed.
So this is the link you all had one with the other, isn’t it?
Yes, this was the very common ground we had. And this was the reason because, those people who experienced the political propaganda language suddenly felt so hard to understand us, actually to understand this ‘real language’.
Yes, as you’ve said, I am different from the others since the beginning, maybe partly because of my countryside life. Because in the countryside, in a village of farmers, you cannot only feel the modern China; actually they have a way of living and a way of thinking -even a way of dying- simply linked to the whole history, which can go back to so many years ago. I talked quite a lot of times about the experience of carrying coffins and how I suddenly realized that the way of burying dead people in my village was the same as 6000 years before. And that was the time that suddenly made me discover the meaning of time, the meaning of the ‘changes’, and their meaning in the Chinese history.
So, this actually gave me a strong feeling on Chinese history, which is so different from other people’s common understanding on history. Because we normally understand history as an evolution, as a period by period evolution, but in China, through my very real experience, I feel that history has not existed. And there is something even more painful than the pain of time, which is ‘the pain of the timeless’, or the pain of ‘no-time’. So, to me, the history is only a layer of reality, or a way of understanding the reality. This is why I actually started with my poetry, which is a link with history, tradition and so on. But mostly because I do not actually trust the so-called ‘surface’ of the reality, I want to touch the dead.
...so you want to go inside, deeper...
Yes, so in that sense my case is a bit different from others’.
Now, I answer to the second part of the question.
So, when I look back to the ménglóng period, let’s say, I still think that was a great beginning for me and my poetry and also for all contemporary Chinese poetry, because it was based on some very real life experiences. And we started, since then, to question ourselves and our own writing all the way until today.
So, should we say that you, again, began from the self? It was something very personal and then you found that the others, somehow, had the same feelings, the same need to express something, which, by the end, was similar.
It was a bit more complex because, on the social level, somehow we were quite similar. That means, of course, we all hate the communist party and we all hate this control from the government, we all hate the propaganda language, I think, but to me there was another feeling, and the problems also came from here. There were some other poets, especially the poets living in Beijing, and if we look back to the poems they wrote at that time, the poems actually were very romantic, a bit like the romantic way to do social criticism. It’s actually quite that kind of heroism, but that heroism is almost like an echo, or shadow, of the official heroic propaganda.
Yes, but there, there is a single individual expressing himself, not “the hero of the people”.
Yes, it’s true, you’re right. But basically misty poetry was based also on this question: “What was the reason for the disaster of Cultural Revolution?”
When you do that kind of heroic social resistance in poetry, you know, fankang 反抗 , and when you, let’s say, ‘heroically’ use your poetry against the government, then you quite easily put yourself as a poet’s self in opposition to the official power. But, in that case, it’s like black and white, the Communist is black and you are white, but actually if you question a bit deeper, then you will think: “how can only a small group of communist leaders have made millions and millions of people become victims?” And what’s actually the role that yourself played in the disaster? Are you guilty? Or actually are you simply a clean victim?
Actually, since I questioned not only politics but also history and tradition -a tradition even based on the Chinese language-, I can say in that case that I myself no longer became only ‘opposition’.
...you were part of...
...yes, part of the ‘killers’, let’s say. Because somehow I shared the program: I am part of the reasons for the disaster. Yes, everyone was.
Maybe we didn’t understand that, maybe we were unconsciously joining the trouble, but we were among the causes of the trouble, not only its victims. So, in that case, I think that thinking about the -let’s say- ‘Chinese case’, I will never actually agree that’s a simply ‘political case’, but always a ‘cultural case’. It is in this sense that each individual has to reflect upon himself. It is in this sense that today, when I look back at the ménglóng poetry, I feel somehow it was still a bit too simple, or maybe you can say too young. Yes, by the end it was just a beginning.
Have you been a red guard?
I was, yes, but when I was, at the beginning of middle school, everybody was. So it was not a special thing like at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
At first it depended on class, didn’t it?
Yes, it was that if you, let’s say, were a kid from the ‘high official leaders’, who at that time became enemies, you were not allowed to be a Red Guard. But when my high school re-started again, which was 1972-73, the very beginning of this very passionate Cultural Revolution had just passed.
You were from a younger generation...
Yes, I was. In ‘72-’73 Nixon already visited China and the things became...not normal, but not as crazy as before...
Well, I was just asking because somedays ago I read on the internet that your sister [Rae Yang] has published a book in U.S.A. , in which she describes the years she was a Red Guard...
Yes, she was one from the first group of Red Guards.
I think that book is quite good to show what happened inside people at that time. Because, again, as I’ve said before, quite often others thought that all the Chinese people were simply incited by few leaders. But it was not that easy, because people actually were like my sister. Somehow when she held the revolution in the army of the school against our teachers, actually they were firstly ‘political teachers’- teachers of politics- who actually tried very hard to control them, so that was a kind of ‘real resistence’. And, yes, of course, since they got the permission from Chairman Mao they believed they did ‘the real revolution’, but, again, the passion and the energy also somehow were real and against the control.
So things were actually quite complex, but, of course, even when my elder sister looks back, she also feels that kind of regret. This is why she uses the title Spider Eaters, because you have to taste the spider and know the taste is terrible, and even maybe the poison, and only then you get the experience. So, somehow I think to me it was the same thing.
In those years you were one of the few poets of your generation who had had a traditional education; your father had imposed it on you. What did this kind of traditional learning represent for you and your poetry?
This thing is very interesting. This happened actually almost by chance, because my father loves classical Chinese poetry and, well, for him maybe that was just an enjoyment. He made me read the poems by heart...
... did he teach literature or something like that?
No, he’s professor of English, so he liked the English but also the classical Chinese; when he himself was young he was educated in both ways.
So did you read English Literature at that time?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t even learn any English word from him! My English was totally self-educated after I came out from China.
But the thing is that when I was only about seven, or maybe even younger, and he made me read by heart Du Fu’s poems or something else quite easy to remember, I hated that! Yes, of course! Only by now, actually, I understand this classical way of Chinese education, which is before the kids start to understand any literature. To read those poems by heart –or even prose, too- to catch the rhythm and the music of the language, that’s like putting the seed inside the children’s heart and, in the future, when they’ll learn Chinese, this seed of the rhythm will always be there to judge, in the texts they’ll read, whether there’s music or actually no music.
Only now, as a poet, I think more and more of how the Chinese language works on poetry, or even prose. Especially when I realise that each Chinese poem is not one only poem, it’s at least three levels: the visual images on the surface, the music energy hidden behind the visual and the level of the meaning, which is only when the text has been made, then this meaning’s actually fixed -before the meanings of the characters are always shaking. So, there are these three layers after the visual images.
It is very different from all the European languages. For example, in the Chinese characters you cannot see the music, the pronunciation, you can only know the music: you can only listen to music in silence. As for my name -杨炼 Yáng Liàn- in English: in the latin letters I can see “Yang Lian”, the sounds of words, but in characters there’s no sound, so the music only came out from the depths of your heart. And, in that case, I found out that these old Chinese way of education was so important.
It sounds similar to the theories about traditional painting and the way they used to start copying the old masters...
I have to say that when I look at the Chinese poetry written by all the Chinese poets until today -quite often written by the so-called misty poets- I can clearly see quite many poems that have no music. There are simply dry visual images and the music, which should be the soul of the poetry, does not exist. In that case, to me, those poems are dead. It’s dead, dead, dead, you will see no blood, no soul, they’re just, at least, images.
I have to say that when I write I have always to read aloud- of course not too loudly- but to read in order to make the music as a real, even secret, energy of the language.
It’s interesting because some time ago I read that Gao Xingjian also had the same thought about the Chinese language and its music.
Yes, I think in his language there’s music somehow...
...in a different way.
At that time ménglóng poetry was considered ‘modernist’ in China, a concept totally different from the Western concept of ‘modernism’. Could you explain your view about it, mostly your current opinion on ‘modernism’?
Yes. I’ve to say that ‘modernism’ [xiàndài zhùyì 现代注意] is a very complex concept in the Chinese context. Actually in China has been called ‘modernist poetry’ almost all the poetry written since later 20s. Xu Zhimo and all those from 30s and 40s as Dai Wangshu, Xi Zhi, Ai Qing, Feng Zhi, Bian Zhilin, they all have been called ‘modernist’, but clearly, as in the case of Xu Zhimo, they were ‘later romantic’ poets.
When the ménglóng shi started we had been called ‘modernist’, but if today we carefully look at the poems, especially at the contents, at the concept and technique of poetry, then we can see that actually the subjects and the contents were mainly social criticisms, a bit like the russians’style. It’s like Russian romantics, like Cernicevskij and those against socialist system. That was very clear.
And the concepts of poetry, only in the little part, are a bit like “Imagism”. But, again, because of those romantic contents, quite often you can call that poetry ‘romantic poetry’. So, for example, there was no real experimentation on the language and the forms. There was basically ‘free verse’ and this free verse was somehow linked with this kind of ‘imagism’. But, basically, if you say ‘modernism’ or ‘modernist’ that has nothing to do with these concepts of poetry. So, to me, the ménglóng shi should mainly be called “romantic resistance poetry”, which means mainly the imagism. Because imagism is a kind of originally Chinese technique found by Ezra Pound.
So, as I’ve said before, our language actually was somehow going back to the roots of Chinese language. So, since the Chinese poets learned that the images were very interesting, were more than fashionable things, suddenly they were played so much.
To me, technically, it was a mix of imagism and some kind of surrealism. So, from one side, they provided something new for Chinese poetry because of those Western origins. In those poems, especially those by Bei Dao and Gu Cheng, you can clearly see the influence by Garcia Lorca and others like him. But the new thing for the Chinese poetry was that these ‘image games’, let’s say, were played very freely, more freely than in the poems before. In old days the poets were, on one side, limited by the Chinese tradition and, on the other side, they were limited by their knowledge of the Western language and poetry. So, if you hadn’t a better knowledge of both the sides, somehow all these forms and the tradition came back to you and limited you. But when the Chinese poets actually learned to understand foreign languages and they learned the way to play the game, there was no limit. So, for them, the game could be played widely and, in that case, it was good, especially for that moment: we needed to open our minds. So, the new was the opened, whole view.
I think that was the most important thing. But, again, I have to say that, the real poetry and the individual poetry, as concepts, were not developed yet. The ménglóng spirit was still a very basic beginning; just simple social resistance is not deep enough as a concept, as image games are not interesting enough, as it was for the poetic technique and the poetry concept. So they were starting points and were waiting for real development.
In 80s you travelled a lot all over your own country, discovering forgotten places, peoples and traditions. Today, after eight years of life in exile you can frequently go back to P.R.C., do you believe such folk customs are still alive in China? By now what is Chinese identity for you?
Firstly, of course, I love to travel, I love to see new things also today, it is still great. But even more interestingly the travel, let’s say, has three layers. Firstly, especially in the late 70s and at the beginning of 80s, as I’ve said before, when so many Chinese people came to Beijing and talked about their painful experience during Cultural Revolution, actually I found that I, myself, was only a small part of this huge experience. So, travel meant: “I don’t wait for them to come to me but I go to them”. I went to them to see what real life was in China, especially in the far-away Chinese areas and this knowledge brought a huge, deep energy to my writing. Well, I didn’t keep those early writings in my books because as poetry they were too young, but as a life experience they were huge, deep and rich. This is the first layer.
On the second layer, I basically grew up in Beijing, so the structure of politics and society was very much fixed, somehow this communist society was also linked with a kind of confucianist idea of society, so, I needed new energy to break through that kind of fixed structure and I didn’t think such new energies should have come from the part of the society which I already knew. So, I wanted to take them directly from nature and those far-away cultures, still not too destroyed by the political structure, like Tibet, Mongolia, like, you know, Heilongjiang, Fujian, Guizhou, Sichuan...all these places, where I actually could touch the real world and touch a culture deeply linked with nature and the real life.
That was also important when I went to the Yellow Earth, like Shaanxi and so on, to touch the death, the dying world, there was another great energy, which came from the ghosts, the great ghost-world of China. And that actually made a very big difference from the daily society I lived in. So that was an important energy to break through the control of the socio-political structure.
On the third level, all the new knowledge I learned from the far-away, actually, were also a return to myself, as I later wrote in the last line of my Where the Sea Stands Still : “this shore is where we see ourselves set sail”. That means that we stand on the coast and see ourselves in the vault that travels away. I mean that all those distances were the ‘inner distances’, all those journeys were the ‘inner journeys’ that were making my own literary and spiritual world bigger and richer. So that was actually the real reason, and even today, based on that experience of travel in China. I think the exile life that brought me to many other countries was not that much different from my earlier travellings; even if it was more difficult, because I had no language in the beginning, I had no way to make a living and the material life was extremely poor and, of course, sad as I was an exile poet, but this didn’t actually make me feel the difference in the nature, you know. I can say that almost since 1989 I continued this ‘inner journey’.
Now, of course, I can go back to China.
I cannot say that I myself have been changing that much, but China has changed so much! I can see so many places that when I went there were so wild, but now are so commercial. Even where there was wildness now they ‘have built’ the ‘wildness’ to attract tourists! So, yes I didn’t do those travels in China anymore.
In one of my articles I actually denied the ‘Chineseness’, the Zhōngguó xìng 中国性. I meant the nature of China is an unreal concept. I did agree with the nature of the Chinese language, which in English you can still call ‘Chineseness’, but in Chinese it’s Zhōngwén xìng 中文性. Because Zhōngwén 中文, ‘Chinese language’, is a special phenomenal existence, it’s a language and it is arranged by the nature and by the form, like grammar and so on. But Zhōngguó xìng is a very artificially made idea, because we even have no clear idea of what Zhōngguó 中国, ‘China’ is. Does it mean ‘mainland China’, which is the People’s Republic of China? Does it mean Taiwan, or Hong Kong and Macao, or those people like myself -the overseas of the Chinese diaspora- or Tibet, Xingjiang, Inner Mongolia, those actually ‘occupied’ parts of China? This concept of Zhōngguó xìng is so artificial and, to me, can be used only by the political game, but it’s not for poets, at least, never for me.
At the beginning of the 90s you lived a very painful period, linked to the happenings of Tiananmen and the beginning of your exile. In what you named as your ‘second creative phase’ you only wrote very short poems and sǎnwén . May you make clear the motivations that made you write the collection of sǎnwén named Guǐhuà《鬼话》[ Ghost Talk ]? Why did you choose to write sǎnwén ? Why did you choose this literary genre?
Well, Guǐhuà is very interesting. If in my poetry writing I didn’t have that huge turning point when the Tiananmen massacre happened -there was an almost continuous development in my poetry writing- then Guǐhuà, my prose writing, was a brand new phenomenon. I didn’t write those kinds of things when I was still in China. Guǐhuà was a totally new start.
Do you talk about the sǎnwén genre or about the themes?
Yes, I talk about sǎnwén.
…well, personally I didn’t think about this question often, so you’ve challenged me with something new, which is like “why did I start with the prose writing?”
I see you’ve cited the title of my introduction in the Chinese translation of the question: “为什么一定是散文? Wèishénme yīdìng shì sǎnwén?” (“Why is it certainly sǎnwén?”). That title was a question to myself. Let’s go back to the very original beginning...
There was a conference in Sweden, when we all Chinese writers in exile met for the first time, we wanted to get together and to restart Jintian 今天 (Today), the magazine. We were meeting in Norway and then in Sweden and they did ask me to write an essay on exile, because there would be a kind of conference.
I thought: “O.k., it is a very painful experience, but what is the difference between the ‘Chinese exile’ and the lives in exile of all russians, eastern europeans and even earlier exiles going back to World War II or before?”. Well, I thought that it was not so much a special thing! Yes, because exile is a common experience, not only for Chinese writers in exile, not only for Western writers in exile, not a stranger to every good writer, actually.
If you are a good writer, of course, you are ‘in exile’. If you are not supposed to leave your own country, then you have to greet your own writing and to throw your successes and your readers and your market behind of you, in order to create a new direction, a new distance: to be stranger and to ‘create your exile’. So that means the exile is not only a thing which has been forced to be, the exile is an actively creative thing. But what’s the meaning of that ‘real creative’? Then I come back to the Guǐhuà writing.
I think that exile is not only on the realistic surface but in the language. Actually the “exile” means to break through the limits of the language, to force ourselves, to touch the border and cross it. That is actually the original form of exile and by that nature we somehow make the surrounding reality come to prove our exile, by the way of political troubles, by the way of loneliness (because nobody understands you) by the way that maybe you will be forever in difficulties. But those are also the proofs of your ‘active exile’. So I decided not to write an essay but to write a prose, not to talk about exile but to express the exile in language.
The sǎnwén is an ancient tradition in China, as old as poetry. The very interesting thing is that the beginning of the poetry tradition was the Shijing [诗经(詩經) Shījīng The Book of Songs], which is more like a fossil, like a collective writing with no writer’s name; but the sǎnwén since its very beginning was individual. Lao zi, Zhuang zi, Kong zi, they were individual writers, individual thinkers, they had their own idea of the nature, of the world and the society and they actually had their clearly special style of writing.
In this kind of prose you can use all the different layers of your very autobiographical materials, in the way of surrealism. You can paint, you can write, you can talk about society, write lyrics, you can think philosophically, you can write of ghosts, you can write the immagination, the pure fantasy, as surrealist layers and all those layers of material have to be held by a special reason, a literary reason, a literary form, in order to make all the things become one piece of pure creative literary writing. So this is why I wrote this piece of the Guǐhuà for the conference, not only because of its contents –what’s the feeling of exile- but also for the form of the prose of the sǎnwén. This form is the form of exile, this form itself is a kind of exile and it shows my spiritual exile in language.
So actually, if you study that piece, you can see that there were a lot of crossing borders between the images and the philosophical thinking, between the very realistic details and some ghost-like talking, between the very clear pictures and the wild, surrealist expressions. But all these layers directly question the language, the limits of the language and, by this way, question the limits of life and existence. So, to feel those limits, to me, means exile.
So the piece of sǎnwén is an exiled existence (tā shì yī gè liúwáng de cúnzài 它是一个流亡的存在). This is the difference with the other essays that talk about exile.
Yes, I think that to me that was the point of Guǐhuà.
Well, I think it’s very visionary sometimes, don’t you think? And it also sounds like an inner dialogue...
The interesting thing, I say, is that when I started writing sǎnwén I was in New Zealand and that was 1990 and I had no English, clearly, so I walked alone in Auckland city and the only thing I could do was to talk to myself.
It sounds like that! Also in Where the Sea Stands Still, sometimes it sounds like someone’s walking and thinking, talking to himself...
Yes, exactly, even in the poem Yī gè rén de chéngshì 一个人的城市 [One Man’s City] there was that city, of course, with its many people, but actually only me!
...yes, and whenever there is someone, or a bird, or something else, it’s just a grey figure...
...yes, they’re passing by just like the landscape, like the house.
But they sometimes seem to give you the rythm...
I just noticed that sometimes they gave a rhythm to your reflections. So when there comes a child, or a bird, or whatever else you change a little direction, or it seems like you’re awakening from your thoughts...
You can think actually that I myself was the structure, the order of the external things and, yes, they’re coming into me but because my body, or my mind, is a kind of structure, so I give the order and let them into me. But the very interesting thing in the Guǐhuà is also that the only person was “you” – Nǐ 你- but not “I”. There were maybe only one or two pieces in which I did use the first person, almost all were in the second person. Actually when we talk to ourselves we quite often use “you”. “You are so silly!”, “Don’t be so silly!” you know, like this. So it is a kind of form of ‘inner dialogue’.
It is also interesting in the book Guǐhuà maybe the only one piece in which I use the first person: Yízuò 遗作 (‘Posthumous Work’ ), which in English is like ‘you’ will write something that only can be read after you’ll be dead’.
Guǐhuà means “ghost speak”, but also “lies”. Why did you choose this title?
Here you’re right, Guǐhuà is not only the ghost’s speaking but also ‘lie’. If you read my poems there’s one called Huǎngyán yóuxì《谎言游戏》(‘The Lying Game’), which to me is the language.
There was a friend who opened my book and, just by chance, read these lines: “In this world the ones who trust the writing least are poets” and he said “Why?” I said that it was because you can question something deeply only when you really know that.
The lie -the limits of the language- is always a very strange fact to me. So when I used Guǐhuà as the title, on one side I felt that my inner world was so great, complex, noisy and full of feelings but, on the other side, I thought the things I could put out were so limited! Everytime, when you write you kill the real feelings, maybe you select one of the possibilities, but you leave all the other possibilities in the silence. So this is why Guǐhuà, as a ghost, is the things that have been hidden.
So it’s about what language is leaving out, it’s about the fact that it can’t express things, because it always limits everything.
It always limits everything.
Actually one of the interesting, secret reasons that made me write sǎnwén maybe was the very strong limit of poetry. Poetry is a very limited way, even if it uses a lot of blank spaces - kòngbái 空白. Emptiness, or blankness, is very important for poetry, you don’t talk about that but you use all the images, metaphors...
...to fullfill somehow...
…yes, to show that in the imagination. But, if compared with the feelings inside of me, that kind of blankness and emptiness is on one side very rich, but on the other side very weak. So the prose provided that kind of special possibilities to me, and let me talk more but, again, in the very poetic way.
But the limit is still there, the limit is always there -like Buddha- they’re words that “bù kěyǐ shuō 不可以说” [“cannot be said”, “cannot be expressed”]. When you asked what was Buddha they used to say: “bù kěyǐ shuō”. Of course, if I could be a monk I would simply keep silence, but I am a poet, I want to use the language, the transilient language, to approach, maybe, not me but that layer of understanding.
Simply, I want to use my voice to approach the silence. But that is very, very difficult; there is a very narrow gate!
…yes, at every step you just go toward that ‘soundless meaning’.
Yes, yes. As I said always, the poet is like those people who tried to jump the Berlin Wall. Even when you had jumped over the wall, in one poem, and then you were trying to start the next one, you suddenly found the wall was still there and was also moving!
This reminds me something in the Guǐhuà. I was very curious about the men dressed in blue and their meaning.
Ah, that was in Bàn gè yōulíng 半个幽灵 (‘Half a Ghost’ ). Well, that one was actually very political. I wrote it in Germany when the neo-nazists had just started. They always dressed with these blue shirts, as their uniforms. It was ‘91 and they actually hadn’t given me any problems, but it was a very unconfortable feeling! Not simply anti-nazist or something like that, I felt just like... Well, we are already ghosts, but the problem is that we’re actually worst than ghosts, because we have a body. And if we could have been real ghosts we could be free. So, the body is already a terrible limit for all those ghost-like people, and they still want to give these troubles to all those half-ghosts and then make all these half-ghosts have really nowhere to hide. So those blue shirts were not only neo-nazists but just all those very ordinary, no-nature, no-personality crowds of people. They’re almost like machine made staffs.
You’re so individualist in everything, no?
Yes, exactly. I think the ‘individual’ means ‘the limitless’. The ‘individual’ means that I can be in the East and the West, I can like the East, the West and the South and the North: I can criticize everything. I myself am a piece of sǎnwén and I can bring all those materials into myself and build up my own world: I don’t have to belong to any other world.
This sounds like ‘meditation’ sometimes.
Absolutely. That is the correct way to understand it.
You wrote a sǎnwén titled Kū wàng shū 哭忘书, “The Book of Crying and Forgetting” . Inside it you comparate your own vision of the ‘forgetting of exile’ with Milan Kundera’s ideas about it expressed in The Book of Laughing and Forgetting. Why do you state that it is crying that makes people forget?
The question is interesting. Recently I have actually talked a lot about this. After the Tiananmen massacre happened I saw those people crying, surprising and shocked by the killing and, of course, I understood them, but on the other side, to me, an even more shocking fact was the forgetting. Where were all the dead before Tiananmen?
Since ‘49 there were so many tragedies in China and all over the world. Since the beginning of the 60s until today 30 million people died of hungher...hunger! That is not including all the people dead in the Cultural Revolution. How could the people be so shocked because people just killed people in front of the T.V.? That was the only difference!
This is why I wrote ‘1989’ , which ended with the line: “this is only a perfectly ordinary year”. To me, Tiananmen is not an ‘event’ but a ‘situation’ -this is what I always point out. ‘Situation’ means that it’s never been passed and also that it’s never been in another place: it is always here and now.
Well, by chance I knew Milan Kundera and his book, The Book of Laughing and Forgetting, so for that reason I wrote this ‘The Book of Crying and Forgetting’. But secretely I didn’t know that Milan Kundera’s book always has seven chapters and – who knows by what chance?- my “The Book of Crying and Forgetting” also was seven chapters. There must be something somewhere!
In the Chinese translation of this question you use these words: “shǐrén wàngquè yīqiè bù měihǎo de shìqing 使人忘却一切不美好的事情” [it makes the people forget painful events]. Did I, myself, use them before?
No, these are not your words…
Because with bù měihǎo de shìqing [painful events] it doesn’t exactly mean what I wanted to express...
...I just wanted to say that it’s just crying that makes you forget.
Exactly. So without bù měihǎo de shìqing 不美好的事情 [painful event] you express what I wanted to say: “The crying can make you forget”.
Because it’s not only bù měihǎo de shìqing [painful event], it’s everything. Because to me the tears actually wash the memory away and, to me, actually it’s terrible. I want the memory; I don’t want the memory to be washed away. But the crying seems to have washed it away and, therefore, they will cry again.
It was because they forgot all the deads of the time before that they were crying in ‘89 and because they’ve cried so much in ‘89, this crying’s actually preparing them for the next forgetting, in order to allow them to cry again.
This is to me a terrible circle –crying and forgetting-, this means that there will be nothing left in human history.
Well, it is horrible, but it is happening now, again.
In Beckett’s movie –Film -, the main character (Buster Keaton) was supposed to say: “The essence is that I always come from nowhere, that I am nowhere.” Do you think this phrase expresses someway the essence of exile?
Well, you know, this is quite a common complain of exile –“I am nowhere”, “I come from nowhere” and so on. After all, I have to say maybe I have been in that situation at first, but the important thing in that case is to transform yourself into another layer. Which means: I am everywhere, I include the everywhere, and I don’t care about anywhere. So in that sense even the Chinese language, even my own language, is not that important, because I can keep the silence -as I’ve said I could be a monk and go over the limit of the language.
The common complaint on exile has always started from that ‘I have to have an identity’, ‘I have to belong to a somewhere’, ‘I have to’, but I really don’t like that. I really think that we should ‘build’ ourselves, turn all the negative elements into something positive. We should build up ourselves.
But, someway, did this displacement help you to arrive to this?
Terrible situations always don’t let you turn your head away from the difficulties. You have to face them. If you don’t want to face it, the situation remains to you. So in that sense, actually, it is a big test to the personality and to your spiritual world. So, to me, the nature of the exile is to break the limits of everywhere and to bring them into yourself.
Someway you remember me something you already described in Yi in the 80s. Maybe nowadays you’re more adhult, older, but I can see that travel, that piāobó 漂泊( “lead a wandering life”; “drift aimlessly”) –kěyǐ yòng zhège cír ma 可以用这个词儿吗 [may I use this word]?- inside yourself and something like a fluctuation... Is what I see in Yi something real or is it something I just sense because I’ve read it after your later works?
Well, this sentence I read on your papers -“shīrén tōngguò zài zìshēn zhōng de bùduàn yǔnluò chéngwéi yī gè bāoróng le shìjiè de guǐhún” - is a great sentence about Yi; it’s just what I wanted to say .
It’s yours. It’s just what you wrote.
Yes, but if you say like that it means that you understand very well. I think actually this is almost like a formula, and I am still on that way. I don’t think I have actually changed myself. These are only ‘concentric circles’ that can only become bigger and bigger.
When I say that I cannot be ‘a complete ghost’ or something like that, somehow that is linked with the special period of time in the beginning of the 90s. When I myself understood the exile reality that was happening; it was a kind of proof of the reality to my spiritual nature, to my creative thinking. So my poetry, or my poetic thinking, made me an exile. I mean that even at that time, somehow, I was not surprised that I had become an exile poet, because of my poetry writing in China, because of my individual thinking in China, because of what I did to the government. All these things came from my heart, I wanted to do them. So after that my books were banned, that I had to be in exile was like a proof of reality, I was not surprised. But, at the same time, beeing suddenly in a strange world with no language to communicate with the others, to not know where the end of the road is and not know the direction -this actually very physical feeling- and the raining inside the house because of the many holes in the ceiling, it was physically so strange.
So again, like when I was in Germany, I think that was the ‘uncomplete ghost’. Maybe if the ghost also has to grow up I am still on the half way to growing.
...but do you make a difference between ‘spirit’ and ‘ghost’, yōulíng 幽灵 and guǐhún 鬼魂?
The ‘spirit’ (yōulíng 幽灵) is very positive.
Well, even in Yi I did give a meaning or concept to ‘ghost’. I said: “guǐhún jiùshì huó zài jìyìlì de nàxiē rén 鬼魂就是活在记忆力的那些 人”, which means: “ghost is the persons who live in your memory”. In memory there is somebody that doesn’t really exist but someway exists, like a ‘ghost’. I also said in Yi: “zhèlǐ dōu chù shì zāinàn de zhōngxīn 这里都处是灾难的中心” -everywhere are the centers of the disasters; so that every person, every innerworld of a person, is the center of the disaster or of disasters of human beings and of the world. So, in that sense, I think that the ghost is to me, since the beginning, the inner world of each person; there are so many people in there, there are memories, there is forgetting, there are the life and death happening every second, because they are not only at end of your life, because every second there is a beginning and an ending.
…but today you have become a “happy ghost” Xìngfú guǐhún 《幸福鬼魂》 . What does make you feel happy?
I was happy for that title, Xingfu guihun《幸福鬼魂》because, of course, it’s a contraddiction. You could be in happiness only because you are a ghost, but when you are a ghost what’s the meaning of happiness for you? Actually it’s so contraddicting.
In my poems I am, as I’ve said before, starting from the impossible, or starting from the end, or starting from the death -it’s ghost actually starting from death. It means that when you’ve broken those limits and there are no more people and no more understanding, suddenly you are on another layer. When I can accept that in the normal world and then I can see the world including myself from another layer, like a Buddha, in that case I can think “I am happy”.
It sounds like descriptions of Taoist immortals...
It’s a bit like this, because when they understand that nature of life is actually emptiness...
So you’re a sage...
Oh, I’m like Zhuang zi so wild and glad, he was so happy singing and so on... which is true, somehow was true! Of course, my singing is not that simple, but I would like to say that, yes, you should understand things always from different layers and then you’ve made the things be different.
In the very beginning of Yi I wrote about the sun, especially the sunset. For the whole human being it’s when sun sets, but actually sun never sets, the sun is there, in the universe the sun is forever at noon, it’s forever shining. So, when you change the layer, or the point of view, the world is different. Actually the structure of Yi was also of ‘concentric circles’, starting from this very first poem to mark these layers of the understanding and then all the poem, from nature, history, self, language surrounding and growing from the center. This is why later I wrote another poem, Concentric Circles (tóngxīnyuán 同心圆): there is not difference actually between ‘in China’ or ‘outside of China’, ‘others’ and ‘myself’, ‘another language’ and ‘Chinese language’, actually we all share the same nature. This is the way in which I think that xìngfú 幸福 and guǐhún 鬼魂 play this contraddiction.
In Liúwáng de sǐzhě《流亡的死者》(The Dead in Exile ), you wrote: wǒmen yě zhǐnéng yuǎnyuǎn de kàn 我们也只能远远地看(“we can only look from afar”). How did your exile life modify your relation with Chinese language?
Actually it’s quite good to understand this sentence in relation with the language. I guess it’s your invention…
I wrote that based on my feeling in exile, but this feeling -to see what we know or where we were from the distance- has changed actually a lot of things. Actually I have to say I understand Chinese language much deeper since I’ve moved out from China and especially since I have learned a little bit English and other languages, especially about their nature -the linguistic nature of language- and this comparative knowledge made me understand, somehow, Chinese language and even understand my own works which were written in China. For example, I quite often selected in a part of Yi, which is In Simmetry with Death (Yǔ sǐwáng duìchèn 与死亡对称), some figures from the Chinese history and made the poem in three kind of layers of language: the kind of the story-telling, for example in the case of Qin Shihuang, the first Chinese emperor -there was a part about his history -which was a bit like story-telling; then there was another part more lyric, from my point of view, and another part which is directly taken from the classical Chinese writing. In Qin Shihuang there was, I think, something from the Shiji [The Classic of Poetry] and this directly collaged those three layers of fragments together, and made them one poem.
When I was in China I just felt it was very interesting to make these different reasons and languages work together and make a kind of ‘little theatre’ inside one poem, like three voices from three different times: the Shiji was from the Han dinasty, Qin Shihuang’s story, sometime in the past, but the contemporary lyric language was from the present time.
But only when I learned English and its most difficult things to learn, its tenses -that the verbs have to be changed when the time is changing- while the Chinese verb is always in the same form- I suddenly realized why my ‘little theatre’ was not crashed in little parts. Because of the form of the verbs, they were always in the same form whatever the time, so they became a glue to hold all those fragments together. As a pure voice, actually it washed their time differences away and made them into ‘one timeless space’. But this was understood by myself only a long time after I wrote that piece –outside of China.
So this answers to your question, this yuǎnyuǎn de kàn [‘look from afar’] is so necessary to get the awareness, the “countryness” on what we are actually doing. That is also provided by the understanding of the Chinese language, I can say I do not do simply a nèixīn dúbái 内心独白 (‘inner monologue’), because nèixīn dúbái is a happening inside of my heart which before has been caught by the language. So I don’t want to talk about what didn’t exist in language yet; I want to talk about my understanding of the time in Chinese language, then I build up my nèixīn dúbái in Chinese language, in order to wash out the external time difference and build up that timeless space in language.
So, when they translate it into English it becomes something really limited, doesn’t it?
It’s always terribly limited, but on the other side it’s terribly exciting.
For example, I talked about this poem, 1989, there were two English translations: one was translated into the past tense, which was correct because 1989 was passed, but the other one was translated into the present tense, which is also correct, but in a deeper way because he understood that, for me, 1989 was not an ‘event’ but a ‘situation’, an endless situation. By the very end of the poem you see that actually that poem will never be passed. So I, of course, personally prefer much more the one in the present, but just to see how much we can do with that dialogue, that discussion through the translation. That actually helps to see how much deeper we can get into the understanding of the original text. So that is, as I’ve said, terribly exciting, compared to the boring delivery job from one language to the other, that is not interesting.
It seems you really like Brian Holton’s translations...
Yes. Well, he was lucky, firstly because he didn’t try to translate something ‘mad’ like Yi. I would find so difficult to discuss about Yi, so actually I leave that book to Mabel Lee. I didn’t even want to hear anything about that book, it’s hers.
But Brian started with short poems, actually while my English was growing up, so we could discuss a lot. I enjoyed the discussions a lot and if you could see how much I’ve changed on his drafts...there were four pages of writings! So, let’s say I had a much more serious discussion with him: he sent the drafts to me, I checked every line, and sometimes I even gave him some ideas for the English translation so it got more interesting.
But, just recently, Mabel started again to translate some of my new short poems, Lee Valley Poems . Simply because of the title - Lee Valley Poems-, and her name is Mabel ‘Lee’...so I told her: “You have to translate this; this is ‘your poem’and ‘your valley’!”
Well, to be serious, she told me many times she wanted to translate something more and, also if I prefer Brian’s translations, I thought “Why not?” Translation is a dialogue; a poem can be translated so many times.
Now, I think it’s also interesting to answer to this question:
“What does happen when you write about places and things that are so far in the distance from China? How can you manage with Chinese language when you use it in a totally different context?”
I don’t think that I actually changed the Chinese because, as seen in the title of Yi, when I was in China I think I already had a quite complete idea of what the poetry could do to language.
Is this because you’ve always had a great dialogue with the language, a great desire to modify it in order to express yourself?
Because between the language and the poet there is not a fixed relationship, it’s a moving relationship. Language has an older life than the poet, of course. It already exited there, with its limits and so on. But, as a poet, if you believe you have something which is special and you even think that you want it to be expressed, that means that you’re also giving your demands to the language. So you try your best to fold the language, to move toward it. So, sometimes language can move and it’s quite often when you use a structure or something else that can build it up.
I’ve recently started to use the rhyme again -which means that I will give an even more difficult job to transators! But if you do want to make the language go a little bit beyond its limits, you have to be so experimental. Even in my Concentric Circles there is something I can call ‘conceptual’, it’s not a proper language, it is a weird thing. For example, I follow the very hard classical Chinese poetry forms but only following the law of the music of the tones, but I use the characters which perfectly feed into those tones but the words, when put together, have no meaning. So you could say you could improvisely create some meaning, but not my meaning. So in this case, it is made by characters but actually it’s a pure sound poetry. The poetry is invisible, only happens on the layer of sound. This is a very hard draft to translate!
But, again, I enjoy this kind of ‘deeper dialogue’, not only endlessly repeating myself, writing always similar things. So, I don’t want to say that kind of thing is only because I was influenced by the Western experience, but it is also related with this experience. I feel that poetry has so many open possibilities, open fields...
Aren’t you afraid that the kind of Chinese languages you and all the Chinese writers abroad are using by now could be one day too far from the idiom talked in Mainland China? Have you ever thought that it may in the future become quite similar to the traditional wényán 文言(“classical Chinese language”)?
Firstly I never felt that any good writer’s language is close to the people’s speech and the good writer never actually uses simply the speech of ordinary people, especially in poetry. This is why people when think about Du Fu or Li Bo say they were ‘great poets’. But what does it mean?
If you look at the qīlǜ 七律 in which Du Fu was the best master and how hard was the ‘law’ –you know, the fǎlǜ 法律- of the poem, the guīzé 规则 [rule] of the qīlǜ, the duìzhàng 对仗 [tonal contrapposition] and the tones, it is like a ‘composed’ poem and it’s just like locking you in the jail and it is the reason because he was so great. He wrote this poem’s scenes like a daily speech, but if you carefully study each line, it was unbelievably hard, there was nothing that could be called ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’ or even ‘natural’. It was purely artificial but it was done in the best way. So from this point of view your question to me does not exist. This is also why to me the problem of the distance from China and the Chinese people has no meaning to me, because I think that the language in literature does never work with that physical distance, it only works in the depths of the creative writing.
But, actually, I love your second question.
If my language one day, or maybe now, would become a kind of traditional wényán, well, actually that would be really great! Why? Because all the Chinese writing system, since the Qin dinasty and the opera of Qin Shihuang, was an artificial invention, as in Europe, based on the daily speeches. Those Chinese local dialects could have been developed as totally different languages, but there was this building of this unitary writing system above the local dialects and this writing system was the foundation of all the Chinese tradition. In that sense, actually, the wényán was the best mark to show the writing system and I am not against this, because this is the foundation of my own tradition. So I want to continue to develop that aspect in my own writing and I don’t care if the poetry has a distance from the daily speech.
So ‘your wényán’ would always be evolving, no?
Well, the wényán also in the traditional time didn’t stop its evolution. If we look at it from the fù 赋 of the Han dinasty, that was the first time actually that the beauty of the form of the language had been shown, then there was the start of the wǔyán poetry, wǔyánshī 五言诗 , and qīyánshī 七言诗 and qīlǜ 七律 , then cí 辞[song] and so on. So I don’t actually think there was a stop, it is just not so individually developed as we do now.
Actually our provenience, whatever we try to do, is more or less a kind of individual thinking and now the situation is so different from the time when the wényán was like a common ground. But our thinking, whatever great poetry or something else, is very hard to become a ‘common form’. So in that case it is like you created things, you built the judgement, you made a kind of study but it’s like your own castle.
So that one was different from the traditional wényán.
Nowadays you say you are an ‘international poet’. Could you explain your view about international cultural identity and poetry?
Well, if you’ve read my article about the relation between the ‘international’ and the ‘local’ in the little red book , you’ve seen that ‘the international’ is a questioned and problematic concept to me.
Because of my language, of course, this kind of identity somehow still based on the Chinese language, which still plays a very important role in my individuality, but I want to bring those interesting elements to the world as a kind of new inspiratin to be shared with the others, but somehow this has to be based on my very individual experience. So in that case I have a kind of target, a hope, that things could be shared internationally but it, again, has to be based on an, as deep as possible, individual job. So, in that aspect, ‘the international’ is a kind of utopic idea, because ‘the physical job’ is still very individual. But again, as I’ve said, my ‘individual’ is never a so-called ‘Chinese’ or ‘Western’, all these kind of limited definitions, my ‘individual’ is already a very mixed and international thing.
So it’s very hard to give a simple definition of this, but if you talk about exile -I recently gave a lecture on what is the real meeting point between me, as a Chinese poet, and the international poets- I always question that when people talk about China it always seems that they talk about this country in the far-away, which is still under communism, still in the Cold War ideology, but to me this is not to try to find the real meeting point, because, realistically talking, the matter of fact is very different.
Well, just few days ago I gave a talk here in London and I used that sentence from 1989; I said that after fifteen years, when I look at this sentence or this situation, I understand how hopeless the situation is. China has this very colourful, commercial economy in cities, but recently I’ve read this book called Survey on Chinese Peasants [ Zhōngguó nóngmín diàochá 《中国农民调查》] and it was a terrifying experience to know how those 900.000.000 peasants live today in terrible suffering and how these local governments now are becoming not ideological, they’re simply mafia. The peasants earn 400 yuán 元 a year and have to pay nearly 200 yuán 元 of taxes and in the cities people who earn 1000 U.S. dollars pay only 10 U.S. dollars a year of taxes. So I have seen how the government is becoming a ‘blood sucker’, just because the peasants have no work, they are helpless. Even this book –the first book about it- as soon as it was published it was banned.
But the question is that, o.k., I know the Chinese government, but what about the Western companies which made huge investiments and the Western governments (which now are in Iraq under the ‘brand name’ of ‘human rights’) that ran to China shaking the government bloody hands just because of the interest, because of the temptation of market, even more importantly because they’ve already put so many investiments in China? They need the Chinese goverment to protect their investiments. So, this unbelievable situation also depends on them.
As I wrote in Where the Sea Stands Still “现实再次贬低诗人的疯狂, xiànshí zàicì biǎndī shīrén de fēngkuáng”, “reality belittles the madness of poets again”. Because it is so difficult to imagine that the Chinese communists are part of the international capitalist system: is a communist party part of the capitalist system? How can the people understand this weird reality? But this is true and I pointed it out to the people at the conference as I said: “Actually everybody in the room cannot deny that we, including me, shared some of this bloody money, firstly sucked by the Chinese government from peasants and secondly shared by the Western big companies and governments and then shared by the jobs, salaries, the benefits system all the way to us. So the question is not ‘the authoritarian system’ in China, or the war in Iraq or something else, the question is if here, in the Western so-called ‘democratic system’, the double standard can be held by governments. Then we have to question of who actually has the power to select the different standards and to use them, and also, if we can do that, what about the basic priciples of the ‘democratic system’? And if we say there is no fixed principle it means that the Western democratic system today is becoming a dictatorship.
...this is the great contraddiction...
Yes, I mean, what do we think about this situation here and now?
And I said: “This is the real meeting point”. This is the hopeless situation we all are in. I also said that yes, I can talk about politics and poetry, I don’t talk like this “I’m a poet, I don’t talk about politics”. I can talk, but I want to talk about the ‘real subjects’ like this. And starting from this ‘real’ hopeless situation, then all the English poets, the Arabic poets, the Turkish, Norwegian or whatever Chinese and so on...we have to think about ourselves, really.
So that ‘come back to the international’, today it means this. To me it means that, since we pointed out this real situation we are in, we have to start from here. Just like when I started my poetry writing in Beijing at the end of 1978, when I saw so many Chinese people coming from so many different areas and places in China and then I found we all were in the same situation.
What does it mean ‘it is poetry that writes the poet’? And what’s the poet’s function nowadays?
Well, I’ve talked about the nature of the language which gives such limits to the poet. Quite often you find that finally the line of poetry that you’ve written maybe is already quite far from your original intention. But somehow you accept that line, because that line actually discovered something inside of you, which maybe you had not... yet, clearly...
...writing you’re discovering something new...
Yes, finally the language comes out someway to discover your inner feelings, which were still quite ignored by your own counsciousness. There is something more interesting about the last line of Where the Sea Stands Still –“this shore is where we see ourselves set sail”- because five years after I wrote that line I met Brian Holton’s twin brother, who is a poet. He writes only in the Scottish language. Then, in Edinburgh, he talked about his poetic experience and he said: “Well, I have gone to a writers’ residence on an island, in Scotland. There the people only speak Gaelic. I was on that island for one year. I could see the land where the people spoke Scottish but I could not write because I was not there, I was far-away from there.” So, I suddenly told him: “Harry, you’ve made me understand a line of a poem I wrote five years ago!” That was the very feeling: “I can see myself, it is just there, I can live there, I can write there and so on, but I come back right here, I cannot leave this place. You know, this inner distance and the link with the outside world was so interesting, that was also almost like a kind of limit of the language...
Where does the sea stand still?
Well, this is very simple. The sea only stands still in poetry, in the ‘discovery’ of the poet.
Since 1997 you are allowed to go back to P.R.C. again. Now that you frequently go to Mainland China what’s your feeling about your native country? Have you ever thought to go to live in China again? Why?
About China, I have to say that my own experience is very complex. The first time I went back to China it was very emotional. I took a train from Guanzhou to Beijing and, in the night, while the train was shaking, I really felt like ‘oh, this shaking is coming from the Chinese land!’ It was such a moving feeling. It was great, especially in certain moments, as when my father gave some beautiful things to me, and when I talked to him...all the feelings about the past, since 1989 until then, came out. For example, when I saw my father -because I love him a lot. I am sure he also knows how much time that we should have spent together has been lost. But now I have this way of living that actually replaced so many other possibilities, and one of those possibilities was to spend a lot of time with him, listening to my family stories and so on, because he is a man who’s a great understanding of life and knows almost about everything.
Always when I go to him and I sit there, I can feel how much I have lost. But, on the other side, even if China has been changing so much and has become so commercial, the political limits are still there, the commercial temptations are becoming so strong and finally the real victim is the individuality. A lot of my old friends gave up writing; the younger generation is becoming a kind of American modelled mass, with this kind of popular culture. Which is o.k., that’s their life-style, but the problem is in the structure of the culture, that’s far from beeing complete.
The Chinese government –with the aid, as I’ve said, of the Western governments- provided this very cynical attitude on life and culture. So, if in the West I’ve made so many good friends, like you, who think seriously, which is enjoyable for the spirit. But in China, since they have this kind of very cynical view, people long only for a good material life, but not for a whole life in the deepest spiritual layers. This is why today I don’t feel lonely anymore out of China, because now, internationally, I’ve found international individuals with whom I have so many wonderful discussions and people understand me, because they do the same things. But actually in China I’ve met many old friends who understand me quite well, but the younger generation simply seems not to want to think about something deeper like history, traditon and so on. They can easily accept the latest pop-stars from the U.S.A., but they just don’t want to think about their own language, for example, which they speak every day.
But this is a problem we also have here.
I understand, yes, sure, but I have to say that the structure of culture in the West is still much more completed by the critic writing, the academic world, the serious readers, one generation after the another, not a huge number but some people who are still there. But the Chinese situation doesn’t come from the tradition but from the Chinese communist party, because of the control and of the clear official will to destroy any resistance –I mean individuals’resistance against the government- immediately and destroys every individual voice -if it tries to speak out in China. Government almost don’t care if you publish something in Hong Kong or Taiwan, but if you want to do that inside of China immediately they will try to stop you, like the book we talked about before, that’s soon been banned. Any organized resistances, like Fan Lun Gong or like peasans’, workers’, students’movements are immediately destroyed.
But it is also because they – the government- feel confident, because the Western governments also support them. So they feel that, if they control the power, they can win the battle inside China and internationally. This is why the Chinese people actually cannot see any real hope or help in China or internationally.
Except those few very individual voices there are only two choices: continue to fight and die alone or to be cynical. And the most of people select to be cynical.
So this is why I didn’t feel that I wanted to move to China too quickly. Because I know I’d have to deal with that situation. I love them, but in a certain way I also hate them. But I don’t want simply to hate them because I know actually that the real reason was not made by them, but what could I do? To be a terrorist?
Since the start of the exile so many people told me: “Oh, your life now seems quite good, in the West do you still think you’re an exile?” I said: “ I do! You do not actually understand what I really feel”. Because of all these reasons I’ve just talked about, I have still to think that I am still an exile. Probably the final answer is that the sea only stands still when you are really in exile.
I’ve heard that now you are really appreciated in China, do you agree?
Well, there was someone who also tried to make me a ‘selling poet’...they did try. Now, my books have been published in three volumes in China and the first two volumes were just reprinted this year -the first 5000 copies were sold out since 1999, so I have sold quite well, also because there almost wasn’t any promotion at all. So, it means that books gradually find their readers.
So, I don’t believe that China has become totally cynical; there is a small group like myself. This is why I also push for changes, but it would be a very long and slow process. Is it good or bad? On the long run I believe it will be good, because I can look at any culture in the world and I see that, if not in that terrible situation, there must be the layer of serious literature, especially poetry –not just that kind of romantic, angry young men’s stuff- the deep poetry, complex poetry, experimental poetry. Because the energy of the language is the energy of the culture and without this energy the culture would be actually very poor. China has that kind of history and tradition and actually there is no reason because China or Chinese culture should not feel the need for this energy. Actually, I would like to build myself as a ‘far-away’ but ‘deeper’ layer of the Chinese culture.