In my Spring 2020 English 1B course (a required course for non-majors that is supposed to introduce students to the art of writing critical essays about 3 different genres of literature; short stories, plays, and poetry), I noticed a change in demographics for the first time in 12 years. While previously, most of the students were either Black or Latino/Latina, this was the first semester my class was mostly Chinese and Chinese-American. I realized I had to change my syllabus, and quick. After class, one student who I’ll call M (for I fear the specter of persecution he faces in China for his outspoken interests and views, as well as by MAGA Americans who were ramping up violence against Chinese, and Asians in general, who they were blaming for the “Kung Flu” as well as for “taking our jobs”), met with me one and one and told me he reads a lot of contemporary Chinese poetry.
I told him I am extremely ignorant; I read a few Misty Poets in translation back in the 1980s/1990s and am aware of Xu Lizhi. He was impressed that I knew Xu Lizhi and mentioned that the Chinese authorities consider his work dangerous and don’t encourage reading him, but that he does. I decided to, in addition to the “Break Beat Poets,” include Ming Di’s recently published New Poetry from China anthology (Black Square Editions, 2018), and I’m really glad I did, because it became a vehicle to learn from my students about a subject I know almost nothing about. Not surprisingly, it was the contemporary poets, many much younger than I, who resonated most with the other students as well, especially political dissidents jailed or killed, and the importance of “worker poetry.”
Ming Di’s anthology was/is an eye-opener to me, as she engages in a clearly daunting task. How does one create an anthology of under 250 pages to introduce English speaking Americans to a diverse range of poets spanning a century (1917-2017) from a country with a population of over a billion, while also translating the majority of them? Though she keeps her commentary minimal, she frames the book with a discussion of the origins of the New Poetry in 1917.
Hu Shi (1891-1962) is generally acknowledged and acclaimed as “one of the most influential figures in the May Fourth New Cultural Movement, which demanded democracy and freedom,” and for his seminal essay “On New Poetry” (1919), which argues for the use of the contemporary vernacular in poetry (similar perhaps to William Carlos Williams here). Di argues that Hu Shi’s long-debate in verse from his diary dated July 22, 1916, “Reply To Old Mei—A Poem in Plain Speech,” should be considered his first attempt at New Poetry,” even though Hu Shi himself came to believe it failed (25):
“By today’s standards, it may seem as hybrid writing with some poetry and some prose (as poetry can only be lyrical and/or narrative but not a debate or an argument, which belongs to the essays, according to the old definition). He even puts footnotes into the poem by using parenthesis, which looks exciting today.” (236)
Di is considered controversial for this 21st reassessment of Hu Shi; Chen Ju, for instance, scoffed and referred to this poem as doggerel. Di also introduced me to the work of Chen Hengzhe (1890-1962), the first woman scholar, professor and writer in modern Chinese history (238). Because her two translations of Chen are short, I will include them here:
Thru’ a thin cloud a new moon climbs
then fades out, a cold falling leaf;
but its radiant face reflected in the creek
stays in the clear water and won’t leave
At night I hear the rain on my window.
I get up and see the moonlight, a waterfall.
Leaves fly around, soaring, and batter
The pine trees. The young cones fall.
Hu Shi praised these poems, but although they are written in the ‘new language,’ unlike “Reply to Old Mei,” they are still constrained by how many words should be in each line and how many lines in each stanza, the regulared 5-word quatrains of the High Tang Dynasty (618-907). Later poems such as “People Say I’m Crazy” (1918, not included in this anthology), a dramatic monolgue with irregular lines, no rhymes, about an elderly patient rambling in a hospital” could be considered New Poetry.
Regardless of whether Ming Di’s anthology is considered “representative” (she herself writes, “omissions are not accidents,”), it has achieved a more profound goal which is giving Americans like me, hitherto mostly ignorant of Chinese contemporary poetry, a sample of amazing poems and suggestions for writers to search for book length English translations of (if any such yet exist).
Some of the selections that most resonated with me and/or my “students” were:
1. Duo Duo (1951), one of the founding Misty Poets along with Bei Dao, who lived in exile for 15 years, from 1989 (after Tiananmen) to 2004.
2. Gen Zi (1951), whose “March and Doomsday” (an intense excerpt of which appears in the anthology) and lead him to be censored, in part because of its relentless attack on the promises of “Spring” (which Mao demanded). He became an opera singer when his poetry was censored.
3. Sun Wenbo (1956), born in Sichuan, one of my student’s hometown, a non-academic proponent of narrative writing. His poem “Nothing to Do With Crows,” is one of the best poems I’ve read of a man in his 50s looking back on the promises that writing seemed to hold as a youth, among other things.
4. The poems & the tragic story of the revolutionary couple, Liu Xiabo and Liu Xia also resonated strongly with some students. Many already knew their story, and they showed a video about her.
5. Wang Jiaxin (1957) is one of the Third Generation poets who began writing in the 1980s. He was a promoter of the Intellectual side of the Intellectual/Plain Speech divide. His poem “Diary”—with its pro-winter celebration of nature against civilization—could be interestingly compared to Gen Zi’s “March and Doomsday.”
6. Liao Yiwu (1958) who was imprisoned as a result of a long poem “Massacre” he wrote in June, 1989. He lives in exile in Berlin. His prose poem “Rhetoric” is a challenge to the reader.
7. Luo Yihe (1961-1989), he joined the hunger strike at Tiananmen, and was killed. He discovered Hai Zi who also committed suicide in 1989 (One of my students wrote a great paper on his “From Which Shoe Will I Wake Up Tomorrow”).
8. Yong Xiabin (1963) He did a hybrid book of abstract photos and poetry called “Palimpsest and Trace: Post-Photographism” that sounds interesting to my “avant” side. His “The Clay Pot in Tennessee” included is a hilarious send-up of Wallace Stevens and the xenophobic American fear of China’s “threat.”
9. Mo Mo (1964), a cofounder of the poetry school Sa Jiao, which means behaving like a spoiled child or a man moaning like a woman. He says it means “gentle resistance.” A whimper, not a bang. Was jailed in 1986 for his long poem “Growing up in China.” Such a description definitely whets my appetite to learn more about this contemporary.
10. Lu Yue (1963), a feminist writer, and the first woman I’m including on this list. A student read her “Poetry Doesn’t Know That It’s Dead” as a playful teasing of the patriarchy.
11. Song Wei(1964), whose “Poem of the Body” is a great example of the Holistic Poetry Group, and “Small Notes in My Old Age” (by which he means his 50s) could be interestingly compared to Sun Wenbo’s “Nothing To Do With Crows” for that retrospective glance I don’t expect to resonate with my younger students as much as me.
12. Xiao Xiao (1964) Women become more prominent as this anthology moves towards the present. “Speaker to my Soul” is a gentle, tender lyric of self help that can be very refreshing in certain moods.
13. Zhang Zihao (1965). His “Carpenter’s Unique Desire” could perhaps be usefully compared thematically with the poem by Qin Xiaoyu (1974) called “The Rock Artist” (is nature an artist? Or can art bring us closer to nature, in reverence?). Qin invited Xu Lizhi to be included in a documentary of migrant worker’s poetry (more on that later).
14. To these “American ears,” “Sunday” by Shu Cai (1965) seems influenced by Emily Dickinson’s “Some Keep The Sabbath,” or at least would be an interesting comparison topic. Cai was also a “Third Road poet.”
15. An Qi (1969), a feminist Third Road (& Middle Generation) poet who graduated teacher’s college in 1988; the poem “Me” (2008) may be a psychological meta-political account of this experience with the Chinese bureaucracy, a wry, retrospective glance?
16. Jiang Tao (1970). “A Homebound Guy” is also meta-political in its satire of contemporary society
17. Ni Zhijuan (1970), is a lyrical, “imagist” (in American terms) that one has to read on its own, out of context of the anthology (otherwise, it could get lost in the shuffle of the maximalism elsewhere). It does seem that quite a few of the women in this anthology are the most adept practitioners of this kind of imagism (perhaps it’s the legacy of Chen Henghzhe?)
18. Mu Cao (1974) is one of the very few gay writers in contemporary China
19. Shen Haobo (1976) “wrote a critical essay as a college student that started a huge debate in 1999, known as the Panfeng debate, between spoken language poets and the intellectual writing group.” Ming Di doesn’t specify what his argument was, but adds that he has been a major advocate and representative of the Lower Body Poetry since 2000 even though his recent writing seems to have shifted from body to mind.”
20. Yu Xiuhua (1976) Two of the women students wrote about “Crossing Half of China To Sleep With You,” as a celebration of feminine desire. Yu has cerebral poetry and is very popular. Students showed a documentary about her.
21. Xiao Shui (1980). His poignant “Food is Running Out” deals with the relationship between spiritual and physical hunger in a global “distribution” crisis in which some have too much while others not enough.
22. Kawa Niangi (1989-2015) was a Tibetan environmental activist (thus a double threat to the government) who drowned in Qinghai Lake on June 26, 2015, at age 26, while trying to dismantle an illegal fishing net for Huang fish---they are a key element in keeping the ecological balance in the Qinghi Tibetan region. Here’s the first two stanzas of his poem, “The Final Judgment” which expresses the alienation from the world of accelerated economic development:
I’m waiting for doomsday,
for things to become nothing.
When a big bang bangs in outer space
we’ll all be back the beginning, everything quiet
At the very end of time, I’ll start
all over again, bringing with me food,
hope, and light, and bringing with me
a healthy body and good spirit.”
Near the end of her anthology, Ming Di also includes two migrant worker poets who especially resonated with my students, Xiaqiong Zheng (1980) and Xu Lizhi 1990-2014).
“Made in China”
In 2008, in a Walgreen’s, I saw these 2 feet tall Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama plastic cartoonish action figures (I think if you pressed a button or something they’d move their jaws or their feet as James Brown played). I picked one up, and, sure enough, on the buttocks of these figures (where you put the batteries), I saw “Made in China.” I asked my girlfriend, “what do you think goes on in the mind of the factory workers in China when they’re making this? What do these workers in a totalitarian state think of American democracy when they’re forced to make this crap?” We could only speculate.
In China today, according to a paper by M, there are over 250 million migrant workers and 80 million industrial workers, …”yet (Chinese) society hardly hears the voices of the vast, marginalized industrial workers’ voices.” This process started in the 1980s, as the industrial workers in state-owned enterprises were phased out (resulting in a huge unemployment crisis), and replaced with migrant workers in sweatshops. One of these workers was the Xiaoqiong Zheng (1980), who became the pioneer of the New Chinese Worker Poetry. In her early poem, “Industrial Zone,” she writes:
So many lamps are glaring, so many people passing by
Place yourself inside the bright factories, memories, machines
The speechless moonlight, lamplights, like me
Are so tiny, fragments of spare parts, filaments
Using their vulnerable bodies to warm the factory’s hustle and noise
And all the tears, joy, pain we ever had
Those noble or humble ideas, spirits are
Illuminated, stored up by moonlight, and taken so far
To fade away as unnoticed rays of light
When she writes “Place yourself,” I feel she’s responding to my question, not just about what workers think, but also what they feel, as their very souls are “stored up” in the products of their labor, and “taken so far” (whether to Beijing or Walgreens in San Francisco) to fade unnoticed in a market of conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence; workers are treated like, and become, the “fragments of spare parts” they have to work with.
In the context of Chinese poetry since 1917, M considers Zheng’s poetry a breakthrough: “she had broken the worker-intellectual opposition existing in China for the past 100 years…for the first time, the poetry of workers begins to focus on individual experience instead of political slogans of imagined communities; workers are no longer just part of a broader community,” (as in poems, often written by intellectuals who were not workers themselves in the “upper-level guidance” of the Maoist era, “the 27 years of political poetry” from 1949-1976), but “independent individuals who have their own tears, joy, and pain.”
M also points out how Zheng focuses on gender discrimination and how female migrant workers are the most vulnerable of this marginalized group. “China’s patriarchal family severely restricts the life path of every woman, especially in education, family labor division, employment and marriage choices. Most are young unmarried women. After the age of 25, if they do not get married, they are generally considered worthless, and the golden period of their lives (18-25 years old) is requisitioned and plundered in sweatshops to promote the development of cities and industries.”
After Zheng’s success, M notes that “Working Poems” was officially supported in the early 21st century, “including being launched as a ‘brand’ in Guangdong.” As a result, many working poets ‘consciously or unconsciously assimilated to the official and folk organizations to become a professional poet….However, Lizhi Xu was not one of them.”
I first discovered Xu Lizhi (1990-2014) through activist, rather than poetry, channels. On October 5, 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Apple founder Steve Jobs died tragically young of pancreatic cancer. While many were expressing thoughts & prayers, I discovered (on my Apple laptop) the tragic conditions in the Foxconn factory that makes computer parts in Shenzen, China. At least 14 workers had committed suicide in 2010. As a result, Foxconn installed nets to prevent them from committing suicide. A few months later Xu Lizhi wrote a poem in tribute to the interior life of these human resources, the struggles and strength of these workers, forbidden even a dignified death, “The Last Graveyard.” Here’s the first 6th lines”
Even the machine is nodding off
Sealed workshops store deceased iron
Wages concealed behind curtains
Like the love that young workers bury at the bottom of the their hearts
With no time for expression, emotion crumbles into dust
They have stomachs forged of iron…
The metaphorical relation of “buried love” to concealed wages gets to the heart(lessness) of global capitalism in a way that would take a contemporary “cultural-Marxist theorist” paragraphs of logos.
This last line, if taken out of context could appear in a Maoist sloganist poem celebrating workers’ as abstractions of super-human strength (in America they speak of Superman’s Nerves of Steel,” Ford Tough); the next 2 lines, however, flesh out the metaphor:
Full of thick acid, sulfuric and nitric
Industry captures their tears before they have a chance to fall…
Tears, bodies. Personification of dehumanization: I can’t go on about devices like personification. This is no mere metaphor. Does the first line make you want to vomit? Does the second line make you want to cry? How raw do we want our materials? Easily replaced parts. Tears, bodies, screws…
A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
When someone plunged to the ground
(“A Screw Fell to the Ground” 1/9/14)
In a world of hostile external forces and Holistic Unhealth that infects body, mind and spirit, Xu tries to find a way to somehow release these toxins (which become their ‘wages’) to make some room for love or life force. He still has a sliver of contemplative consciousness left to be able to see “They’ve trained me to become docile,” to “grind away my corners, grind away my words.” In another poem, Grabbing the pen becomes a desperate clutch to breathe:
Flowing through my veins, finally reaching the tip of my pen
Taking root in paper
These words can only be read by the hearts of migrant workers
He also brutally literalizes the metaphor of “poetry workshop” in “Workshop, My Youth Was Stranded Here” (“Beside the assembly line, tens of thousands of workers line up like words on a page/ ‘Faster, hurry up!’). One commentator refers to his work as “cold and pensive, directly facing a life of misery,” but if you want something “lighter,” something that promises the strength of filial, ancestral lineage as if family values can flourish in, or push back against, such working conditions, you might appreciate “A Kind of Prophecy:”
Village elders say
I resemble my grandfather in my youth
I didn’t recognize it
But listening to them time and again
Won me over
My grandfather and I share
Almost as if we came from the same womb
They nicknamed him “bamboo pole”
And me, “clothes hanger”
He often swallowed his feelings
I’m often obsequious
He liked guessing riddles
I like premonitions
In the autumn of 1943, the Japanese devils invaded
and burned my grandfather alive
at the age of 23.
This year i turn 23
We could talk about the “missing capitals” in the last 3 lines, the dramatic pacing, the way the device of parallelism becomes a premonition, the historical analysis: is what the Japanese did to him, any worse than what Foxconn does to us?
Or perhaps we could find some solace in domestic life:
A space of ten square meters
Cramped and damp, no sunlight all year
Here I eat, sleep, shit, and think
Cough, get headaches, grow old, get sick but still fail to die
Under the dull yellow light again I stare blankly, chuckling like an idiot
I pace back and forth, singing softly, reading, writing poems.
Every time I open the window or the wicker gate
I seem like a dead man
Slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin.
(“Rented Room,” 2 December 2013)
It sounds like he lives in a bathroom, is forced to eat where he shits. Such living conditions are also common among migrant workers in San Francisco, for instance Luis Gongora Pat, a Mayan who came from the Yucatan to work long hours as a dishwasher at Mel’s Diner for almost a decade before he lost his job for not speaking English or Spanish, became homeless and was murdered by the police. I could also think of the situation Harriet Jacobs lived in for 7 years under the regime of American chattel slavery. Prisoner, homeless, chattel slave, “free market” slave. Death could seem liberation….
One of the poems included in this selection was “I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron.” I was happy to see that Ming Di also included this poem, with a different translation. Here’s the two English translations side by side:
I swallowed a moon made of iron
I’m swallowing an iron moon,
They refer to it as a nail
a screw they call it.
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
I’m swallowing industrial wastewater, unemployment, orders.
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
People die young, who are shorter than the machines
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
I’m swallowing migration, displacement
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
skywalks and rusty life.
I can’t swallow anymore
I can’t swallow anymore.
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
All that I’ve swallowed rush out/ of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
spreading like a shameful poem
Into a disgraceful poem
on my fatherland.
(Nao project) (Ming Di)
Since I don’t know Chinese, but have so many students who do, I thought a comparison contrast of the two translations would be a great paper topic prompt option, and, thankfully, one student took me up on the offer: ZQ writes that Xu “created a satire that even the moon, which is supposed to symbolize heartwarming reunions with family, becomes very cold and heavy and makes him more lonely.” Of the many subtle differences in these translations, ZQ focused on what he refers to as the “passive tense” (the Nao project one in bold above) past tense version and the “active tense” (present tense) Ming Di version.
ZQ generally believes the “passive tense” translation “does a better job in word choice and maintains the structure of the original poem.” He believes that to translate the first line as “I’m swallowing an iron moon” makes it sound “like Xu Lizhi is willing to do it,” while the passive tense version makes it sound like he’s “being forced to.” He also prefers the Nao Project’s version for the 4th line: “’Youth stooped at machines die before their time’ is indirect and contained mixed ideas… Xu Lizhi did not directly use the word “people.” Youth can be defined as young people or a period of time at a young age…when he refers to “youth” as time, it tells that Xu Lizhi and his coworkers are scarifying their youth in exchange for low reward.”
ZQ also believes the “active tense translation” of the final couplet is more “straightforward, but alters the structure of the original poem and does not express Xu Lizhi’s message.” To back his claim, he claims Xu Lizhi is clearly appealing to the ancient tradition in which it was an honor to be a poet, and making a contrast with how being a poet “becomes worthless. The word “fatherland” in the active translation did not deliver the satire behind this poem because it only tells its origin. On the other side, ‘the land of my ancestors’ delivers the satire of Xu Lizhi on this disgraceful cold and heartless society of China.”
ZQ certainly deserves an A for making a very convincing case to why he prefers one translation to another to my ears, but I don’t ultimately know all the nuances of the process of intention, nor would I presume to claim other interpretations aren’t equally valid. For instance, “unemployment, orders” sounds stronger, more forceful, than the translation ZQ prefers which merely says “unemployment documents.” But perhaps my biggest take away from reading ZQ’s brilliant paper is the clear reverence for both Xu Lizhi’s craft as well as his passionate moral argument, and manifests much more ease and agility with the kind of ‘close reading’ attention poetry either demands or invites….
According to a biographic summary from The Nao project, Xu left his home in Jieyang, Guangdong (whose local economy was destroyed, and countryside polluted), a place so isolated he couldn’t even order books (his main source of pleasure and meaning in life) on line because they wouldn’t deliver, to work at Foxconn in 2010. He also wrote essays, film reviews, and news commentaries (which I have not yet read). They also mention that, even though he was getting attention for his writing, he had applied for a position as librarian at Foxconn’s internal library for employees,” but had been turned down. They neglect to mention, however, something M taught me in his paper: The stand Xu Lizhi’s took for the workers in his refusal to sell them out:
“When poet-critic Xiaoyu Qin contacted him and listed him as one of the ten poets in the documentary Verse of US, Xu refused. He basically broke off contact with poets. The experience of Lizhi Xu indicates the dilemma of many worker poets in China in some aspects. Writing poems welcomed by the authorities or the intellectuals is almost the only way for them to get rid of the exploitation in factories and plants. However, for some poets, that means giving up their identity and poetry life. Even after the poetry of the workers walked into the public eye with support of the intellectuals and authority, it only means that individuals in the working class were able to break away from their class. When the workers are no longer concerned about workers, they are no longer workers poetry.” Xu, by contrast, “transforms his personal pain into eternal perseverance”
According to an acquaintance of Xu’s called Zheng (pseudonym) in the Shenzen Evening News, Xu’s suicide resulted from both “internal and external factors: not only the disappointments he had undergone, but even more so the solitary poetic spirit in his bones,” a translator’s note quarrels with the reliability of this acquaintance’s explanation; it “neglects the profound hatred of life on the assembly line reflected so clearly in many of his poems…and why so many other workers---at Foxconn and elsewhere---have chosen to commit suicide---even those who were not poets.”
M ends his essay, with a sentence from Xu’s “Quatrain” which shows the power of solidarity that his spirit has given his fellow workers: “Someone has to pick up the screws on the ground/ This abandoned life will not rust.”
M has taught me so much, not only about the contemporary Chinese poetry landscape, but also about the wider cultural-economic-environmental landscape, airscape, waterscape. I asked him about why he thinks first person poems of individual experience have more galvanizing collective revolutionary force than the more abstract poetry of slogans. He wrote:
“In China, the reason we value individual experience is that for so many years, since the Mao era, people recite those slogans everyday….Personally, I feel, in an ideal situation, there should probably be a balance between slogans and individual experience. The overwhelming victory of either side may represent a severe problem with society. When slogan wins, it reminds me of the Cultural Revolution in China in which the fanaticism of people as a collective creates both tragedies and slogans. When individual experience wins, it reminds me of an extremely self-centered society in which most people become politically apathetic. Some sensitive artists may feel the greater environment and choose to write different things; it reminds me of the Misty Poets after the time of slogans and the slogans in France during May 68.”
I asked M if he had been a migrant worker himself, and had managed to escape, and he wrote that he had grown up isolated from, and had no interaction with, migrant workers, but when he got admitted to one of the top high-schools because he was ranked in the top 0.1% of the high-school entrance exams, he quickly despised the atmosphere of these elite high-schools and colleges “where only one kind of voice is allowed to exist.” It was by being a photographer that he became concerned with migrant workers, and began doing work for the NGO aiming to protect the rights of industrial workers while doing a photography project to record the conflicts in the urbanization process of Chengdu.
He also sent me examples of rock songs (with translated lyrics), and makes a provocative argument that may have some American analogues when it comes to questions like: “Is hip hop poetry?”
“I think Misty Poets best represent the literary and artistic world in 1980s China; however, the musicians like Zhang Chu, Dou Wei, etc. can best represent the literary and artistic world in 1990s’ China,” and includes a few links which I’ll end with.
A song recommended about the reform in the 1980s which cause hundreds of thousands industrial workers out of job: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uh0rqCMRPOs
 All translations, unless otherwise specified, are taken from: https://libcom.org/blog/xulizhi-foxconn-suicide-poetry
 I asked M more about this (because I remembered liking Qin’s poem in Ming Di’s anthology), and he wrote: “Personally, I don’t like Q’s documentary not his book; his attitude towards Xu and other worker poets is more like, “that’s fascinating. I didn’t know workers can write poems too.”)