Liu Xun introduces The Crane, Selected Poems of Yau Noi (Dedalus Press, 2022), translated by Liu Xun and Harry Clifton
Chinese literature has always been almost too immense to talk about, for myself or for many lecturers working in institutions outside of China. It’s a literature that has witnessed more than five thousand years of social, political, as well as historical change. If a lecturer chooses to lecture on the subject, what must be included on the syllabus? Mythology, classical poetry from ancient times to the 1900s, essays by literates of all dynasties, vernacular novels, modern poetry, contemporary novels? Fortunately, the present project offered a clearer path, as there is no need to scope out such immensity but only to focus on four decades of time.
That said, to offer some context on modern Chinese poetry, I would like to elaborate on its historical evolution and how it relates to classical Chinese poetry, that is poetry written in Classical Chinese and typified by certain traditional forms and genres. As modern Chinese poetry was part of the language evolution, I will begin with a brief introduction to classical Chinese poetry. Classical Chinese poetry is traditional Chinese poetry written in Classical Chinese and typified by certain traditional forms and genres. The existence of classical Chinese poetry can be traced back to 1100 BC, which can be documented by the publication of Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry). Over the ages, various forms and genres have been adopted. Today, the most well-known forms are Han Fu, Tang Shi, and Song Ci (folk ballads, romantic poetry, and poems intended for singing, respectively). Modern Chinese poetry, including new poetry or modern vernacular poetry, mostly refers to post Qing Dynasty poetry. Modern Chinese poetry became increasingly popular with the New Culture and 4th May movements. As an alternative to the traditional poetry written in classical Chinese, experimental poetic styles and ‘free verse’ were adopted by many poets.
On one hand, four decades of time counts as nothing in the grand history of Chinese literature. On the other, four decades can be incredibly important to the story of modern Chinese literature. During these four decades, not only was a country’s destiny reshaped but also millions of destinies were totally redirected. Our poet Yau Noi was one of those millions.
Yau Noi, also known as Wa Lan (a former pseudonym) comes from a small village in Jiangsu Province, Southern China. He was born in 1965; his birthplace, a farm in Linhai, was several hours’ bike ride from the nearest bus station. During his years in junior high school, he fell in love with poetry and excelled in Chinese; the school principal encouraged him to represent his county by participating in the national writing contest. However, this did not change his fate. After graduating from high school, Yau Noi, like all his classmates, was not admitted to a university. Instead, he returned to Linhai and began to help his father to support the family by working on the family farm. He contracted 13 acres of rice fields and raised 8 black pigs. He picked two large buckets of pig food and walked a mile and a half to feed the pigs every day. Despite the exhausting and repetitive labour, he did not give up his dream of becoming a poet and read eagerly anything that could be accessed from an isolated farm. Under heavy manual labour, he was not giving up his dream to become a poet. He was eager to read anything that could be accessed from an isolated farm.
In 1984, Yau Noi finally had the opportunity to escape from farm life to work in a county town. In 1985, he read ‘the Misty poets’ (*1) for the first time. Drawn by the fascinating world of poetry, he decided to quit his job to write. Later that year, Yau Noi went to Beijing. In Beijing, he joined the circle of poets and met Xuedi, Xing Tian, and Wei Mang, the main members of the ‘Yuanmingyuan Poetry Society’ (*2). His encounters with the Beijing poets during this period had a profound impact on him.
In terms of poetic content and aesthetic tendency, Yau Noi’s poetry preserves the temperament of ‘Misty Poetry’, as well as the seeking of an ideal world. He also claims that he has been deeply influenced by Paul Celan. It was Celan who encouraged him to draw strength and poetic inspiration from suffering. This influence can be seen when we read his poetry recalling his childhood memories, especially from the lines talking about freezing winters and deformed body parts. Besides, from Celan’s introduction, Yau Noi became interested in ‘Russian poetry from the Silver Age’ (*3). He once revealed his love for Osip Mandelstam. After leaving Beijing, Yau Noi met Cheng Shang in Nanjing. Under the influence of Cheng Shang, his poetry gradually developed a surrealist style, as we read nowadays.
For myself, I did not directly witness those great changes. When taking on this poetry translation, I felt I had to travel back with our poet to the winters of rural China, then to the exciting years in Beijing of the ’80s and after, following a solo cosmopolitan wanderer to explore his world.
I often worked late into the night. Yau Noi is a poet of the emotions, but always grounded or earthed in his work. We have divided the poems of The Crane into three sections which, loosely, follow the three main ‘movements’ of the poet’s writing life, ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’, the ‘During’ section inspired by and describing the profound changes that took place in China during the poet’s early years. For me, the intensity of the emotions evoked was almost beyond my experience, especially in the poems from his early period. The three periods together describe a journey from ‘the unbearable heaviness of being’ to ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’ From the perspective of Yau Noi, life can be as suffocating as the dense wintery fogs or as light as the cooking fumes above a heated pan.
In this sense, for me Yau Noi’s The Crane is a history book. I was not so much a translator of words as a storyteller charged with retelling history for a new generation. I am obliged to my co-translator Harry Clifton for his help in ensuring that these stories are well retold.
1. The Misty Poets (Ménglóng Shīrén) are a group of 20th-century Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions on art in the 1970s. They are so named as their works were officially denounced as “obscure”, “misty”, or “hazy”.
2. Yuanmingyuan Poetry Society, a modern poetry society founded in 1984, Beijing.
3. The Silver Age of Russian poetry is an artistic period, it dates from late 19th century to the 1920s. It implies a wide range of poets, genres, and literary styles. It was an exceptionally creative period in the history of Russian poetry.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS
LIU XUN is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree in linguistics at Trinity College Dublin; her research mainly looks at cognitive metaphors in Chinese vernacular novels of the 18th century. She is a freelance literary and academic translator in her free time. Her interests lie in Chinese modern poetry and academic publication on Chinese classical literature. Xun is also engaged in giving public lectures about Chinese vernacular novels and the literary history of the High-Qing period.
HARRY CLIFTON is one of the best-known of his generation of Irish poets. The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974–2004 was published in 2014, and Ireland and its Elsewheres, his lectures as Ireland Professor of Poetry, in 2015. More recently, he has published Portobello Sonnets (2016) and Herod’s Dispensations (2019). He teaches at Trinity College Dublin and is a member of Aosdána, the affiliation of creative artists in Ireland.