Poetry

A Century of China’s New Poetry9 min read

Six poems by Mo Yan and others, spanning generations – edited by Ming Di


Selected from New Poetry From China: 1917-2017

China’s New Poetry Movement was started in Beijing in 1917 by Hu Shi (1891–1962) and reinforced by the May 4th Movement in 1919. But what was its aesthetic goal, what influence does it still exert on cultural life in China, and what has been challenged? New Poetry From China: 1917-2017, a new anthology, tries to address the many dimensions of the movement, covering works from most of the important poets still relevant today. 120 poets were selected, from Hu Shi to contemporary voices, including dissident poets. Mo Yan and Liu Xiaobo are back to back on the pages, and many other poets are translated into English for the first time. Two major traditions within the New Poetry Movement have been pushing each other forward: Spoken Language Poetry and Neoclassical Poetry, both are experimental in language and form but with different approaches. We hope you enjoy this small sample of six poems below, representing the span of different generations of poets, from Zheng Min, born in 1920, to Su Xiaoyan born in 1992. – Ming Di

Golden Rice Sheaves
Zheng Min 郑敏

Golden rice stands in sheaves
in the newly cut autumn field.
I think of droves of exhausted mothers,
I see rugged faces along the road at dusk.
On the day of harvest, a full moon hangs
atop the towering trees,
and in the twilight, distant mountains
approach my heart.
Nothing is more quiet than this, a statue
shouldering so much weariness—
you lower your head in thought
in the unending autumn field.
Silence. Silence. History is nothing
but a small stream flowing under your feet.
You stand where the rice is, your thought
becoming a thought of the human race.

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di and Kerry Shawn Keys
Zheng Min (1920-) was born in Fujian, graduated from Southwest United University in 1943, and studied literature and philosophy at Brown University in the US, earning a master’s degree in 1952. She returned to China in 1955 and taught at Beijing Normal University from 1960 until her retirement in 2006. Zheng Min started writing poetry as a student in college and first published her work in the 1940s during the war time. She is the last living member of the Nine Leaves, a group of modernists from the 1940s, whose work was published in 1981 as a collection of nine poets, titled Book of Nine Leaves.


Flesh
Yi Lei 伊蕾

I’m a deep cave
Starved for your wild blaze.
A daylit cloud spread high above your lowlands.
My legs are nimble as a climbing vine.
My breasts, as lucent as lilies.
The breeze off a billowing osmanthus is my face,
My dark hair rippling.
The dew from my eyes
Drenches your desperation.
The sea is bounded in its passion,
But I am boundless,
Stretching in every direction. Nowhere
Will you find flesh more spotless than mine—
Flesh to make you rich—
Flesh you alone may squander.
Peerless, my skin. Incorruptible.
Flowering again
While all around me age after age falls to ruin.

Translated from Chinese by Tracy K. Smith with Changtai Bi
Yi Lei (1951-2018) was born in Tianjin as Sun Gui-zhen, and is one of the earliest and most important feminist poets in China. She studied creative writing at the Lu Xun Literary Institute, and Chinese Literature at Beijing University. She published eight collections of poems, among them A Single Woman’s Bedroom, The Love Poems of Yi Lei and Women’s Age. A recipient of the Zhuang Zhongwen Literature Prize, Yi Lei died of a sudden heart attack while in Iceland. A selection of her poetry is forthcoming from Graywolf Press, translated by the US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith with Chinese scholar Changtai Bi.


Pamuk’s Study Room
—For Orhan Pamuk far away
Mo Yan 莫言

Stomach tucked in, I enter a narrow elevator
to get to his study room—the guy’s hot,  
hotter than me back in my home country. 
“My name is red.”

I’ve been to many colleagues’ studies
but none has such an aura.
It’s not really big but holds many books.
The floor creaks, the bookshelves shabby.
A round table by the window, a small chair
by the table. That’s where he has afternoon tea—
once you come out to his balcony,
you are really in his study.

The most alluring scene is the sunset at dusk,
a brilliant view of visions:
shadowy islands in front to the left, 
lights from a shipyard ahead to the right.
A church in rose color beneath my eyes,
its beautiful dome, a jade pillar pointing to the sky.
Pink seagulls circling around.

Asia on the left, Europe on the right.
A shrine below, a nirvana above.
An ocean lies ahead. Here you can hear 
the heartbeat of Istanbul.
Here you can hear two continents 
colliding.

Pamuk threatens to throw books by local authors, 
age fifty to sixty, out the window—
stupid mediocre with small achievements, 
gut feelings lost daily, 
male, bald.
He takes the English version of Red Sorghum
from the shelf.
I touch my head. In panic.
He smiles: You are not a local.

But in the end he throws my book 
from the balcony anyway—
four seagulls catching it just in time.
They carry it like a piece of bread
and drop it on the dome.
Is there a better destiny than
this?

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di and Kerry Shawn Keys
Mo Yan (1955-) is best known as a novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, but has started publishing New Poetry in recent years. This poem is from a suite of seven poems which became controversial immediately after its appearance in the People’s Literature journal in September 2017.


The Roof Guys
Lü De’an 吕德安 

But they’re local—the roof guys 
of roof guys who really know 
roofs. They move 
in the same fashion 
with the same caution. When they walk on the roofs 
even the clay tiles crack 
in the same direction.
They are careful but still
you can hear the 
creaking. 
Open one up—dust rises 
like tiny insects 
resurrected. Every being lives 
for the same purpose— 
to be opened.

Roof guys come and go
replacing each other’s faces.
At sunset, they disappear.
But this time they remain—as our specimens,
awkwardly moving, one by one 
on the roofs.
Looking toward them, you find them gone,
and yet they seem to have stayed the night,
or an entire age.

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di 
Lü De’an (1960-) was born in a small town in Fujian province and started writing poetry in the late 1970s. He lived in New York City from 1991 to 1994 as an artist and returned to China in 1995. He built a stone house in the mountains in his hometown and became a modern hermit until his third collection of poetry came out in 2010, which won the Gaoligong Literature Award in China in 2011. He received VSC/Luce Foundation Fellowship in 2013.


Morning
Han Bo 韩博

Sun ripens on the teeth
of corn as Grandma
sets table for breakfast.
Strawberries in clean water 
with melons and golden berries.
Salad of green string beans
wakes me up, the whole summer spreading ahead.
Grandma talks about the poppies on the balcony, 
in an aged pot with black patterns.
My mother’s mother has a bright mind, a full house 
of children and grandchildren.
She tastes the same fruit of the same flowers everyday,
her body transformed into a mountain forest
or a witch
obsessed with TV news. Yesterday 
I was almost digested by an iron bird in its stomach,
even my dream didn’t escape.
This morning, there’s a cloud market on my pillow,
morning glories singing for the iron bird in a sunken sky.
Crickets chirp in a northern accent
calling for the shrinking shadow of the sun.
We gather in the square hall,
only Grandpa is missing. The smell of vegetation
passes through the hall 
and our dining table. Old stories ring a bell.
Five years ago, fifty years ago… Grandma speaks in a flashback,
naïve, and lovely,
Grandpa carrying his box gun 
knowing who’s singing to cheer him up.

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di 
Han Bo (1973-) is a poet, playwright and visual artist. Born in Harbin, northeast China, he went to college in Shanghai where he currently lives. He earned an MA in Journalism from Fudan University and attended the International Writers Workshop in Iowa in 2009. He was awarded the Liu Li’an Poetry Prize in 1998 and the Poetry East West Poetry Prize in 2012. His first chapbook in English, China Eastern Railway, translated by David Perry, was published by Seaweed Salad Editions in March, 2019.


Two Bamboo Baskets
Su Xiaoyan 苏笑嫣

Like two old men, the two bamboo baskets sit
side by side on a wooden bench by the door 
looking quietly at the cornfield—
a flying bird passes by, singing.
They gaze into their favorite slow breeze in the afternoon,
tranquility dispersed in the air, the yellowed years.

The two aged bamboo baskets have year after year
loaded so many things: banana pears,
banana apples, and pearl-like peanuts. 
Now they are empty, the bamboo sticks stunned,
their bodies wrapped with hemp ropes,
fatigued and lifeless. 

In the past they fell deeply in love with the fall
but now they fall in the shadow of the season 
that has changed instantly, from warm to desolate,
the memories framed on the trees 
as they harvest year after year and have harvested 
an entire life, now blown

away by a gust of wind. 
A tree full of fruit, and two bamboo baskets: 
they don’t know how they can be loaded again.
For the first time they face the harvest
at a loss, but calmly. 

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di
Su Xiaoyan (1992-) is an ethnically Mongolian poet born in Liaoning province. Her Mongolian name is Mu Xiya 慕玺雅. She moved to Beijing with her parents during middle school and started to publish poems as a teenager. She was admitted to the Beijing Industrial Institute and now works as a designer in Beijing. She has published two novels, two collections of essays and one collection of poems. ∎

Ming Di (ed.), New Poetry From China: 1917-2017 (Black Square Editions, April 2019), introduction by John Yau, trans. Ming Di and Kerry Shawn Keys with Gregory Pardlo, Kevin Young, Tracy K. Smith et al.
Header: oil painting by Yi poet Jike Bu, whose poetry also included in the anthology.

Kerry Shawn Keys

Kerry Shawn Keys is a US poet and translator living in Lithuania. He has published nearly 50 books, ranging from poetry to plays, fiction to children's books, also including translations from Portuguese and Lithuania. He is the recipient of NEA and Poetry Society of America awards, and is a member of International PEN.

Ming Di

Ming Di is a Chinese poet based in America with six books of poetry in Chinese and four in translation including River Merchant’s Wife (Marick Press, 2012). She studied at Boston University and taught Chinese there before moving to California. She edited and co-translated New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Tupelo Press, 2013), and co-translated The Book of Cranes (Vagabond Press, 2015) and Empty Chairs – Poems by Liu Xia (Graywolf Press, 2015).