Chinese Roundabout

Bei Ling is the founder and editor of Tendency. His essay was translated from the Chinese by Denis Mair

Compiled with a coherent view of history and certain political assumptions, "Frontier Taiwan," an anthology of 20th-century poetry from Taiwan, clearly makes a statement. Modern Taiwanese poetry, after more than half a century of separate growth and evolution, has become a literary territory complete in itself, a trunk instead of a branch. It is an entity that parallels the modern literature of mainland China without being part of that literature in either a national or cultural sense. The two are rivers which flow side by side, which have mingled and are now permeable to each other, but neither of which can eclipse the other in size or significance. The Western literary world, especially the English-speaking world, has long ignored the literary river that Taiwan represents. This selection of 430 translated poems by 50 poets boldly declares the existence of a modern tradition of poetry in Taiwan.

The pressure to classify poetry written in the same modern language as belonging either to Taiwan or mainland China and to expound on the differences between the two is the result of the political and military enmity which has characterized cross-strait relations for more than 50 years. But it is precisely because of this enmity that readers and poets have been able to experience what a vivid contrast, in purely literary terms, can arise under such a separation.

... Shamelessly I occupy a corner of the earth--

By the Congo River lies a sleigh;

Nobody knows how it slid that far.

A sleigh that nobody knows lies there.

--from "Abyss" by Ya Hsien

"Frontier Taiwan," edited by Michelle Yeh, professor of Chinese at UC Davis, and Goran Malmqvist, Stockholm University professor emeritus and member of the Swedish Royal Academy, is the first English-language anthology to provide a truly comprehensive view of poetry in Taiwan.

One might wonder why Malm-qvist is the co-editor of a book that bridges two languages, neither of which is his mother tongue. Given the pool of knowledgeable English-speaking talent among Chinese critics and readers, it might appear a controversial choice. Malmqvist, however, is a premier translator of modern Chinese literature into Swedish. With such qualifications, one can see the rationale of pairing him with Yeh, who grew up in Taiwan and is an authority on Chinese poetry. She is one of the most qualified of all the translators in this collection, most of whom are trained in classical Chinese poetry and modern fiction but not modern poetry, and her preface is an historically informed work of aesthetic judgment and a sustained contemplation on the poetics of place.

Modern poetry in Chinese emerged little more than 80 years ago, but the history of classical poetry in Chinese stretches back 3,000 years. Modern Chinese poetry stems from a literary language forged out of vernacular Chinese and translations of Western works. Without the availability of Western literature translated into Chinese in Shanghai during the first part of the 20th century and a desire to translate Western poetry into Chinese in Taiwan beginning in the 1950s, there would have been no modern Chinese poetry to speak of. In its relatively short history, modern Chinese poetry emerged as an epochal, revolutionary break from classical genres, transforming the face of the Chinese language in the process.

Shanghai poets of the 1920s and 1930s, poets originally influenced by Western literature who created a poetic style and language separate from writers of the Beijing School, a southern Shanghai style, influenced modern Taiwanese poets. Although mainland Chinese poetry was directly influenced by Russian and Soviet writers such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Essenin, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, modern Taiwanese poets followed the lead of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valery, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and the surrealist French poets such as Eluard. Translations of Symbolist, Impressionist, Dadaist, Modernist, and Surrealist Western poetry flooded into Taiwan after the 1950s and heavily influenced the creation and evolution of a modern poetic tradition in Taiwan. Such Western poetry did not enter the mainland until the late 1970s.

There can be no doubt that Taiwan's modern poetry was influenced by the mainland's May 4 (New Culture) Movement of 1917. The first book of modern poetry in Taiwan was Zhang Qingrong's "Love in a City of Chaos" (1925), coming five years after Hu Shi published his "Experiments" as a model for vernacular literature. Even the theme of Zhang's book was centered on his experiences in Beijing. In the 30 years after the May 4 Movement, key achievements in new poetry were made by mainland poets, including Xu Zhimo, Dai Wangshu, Li Jinfa, Ai Qing and the poets associated with the Nine Leaves group. Poets in Taiwan were hindered by Taiwan's status as a Japanese colony, especially after the Chinese language was suppressed.

In 1949, the founding of the People's Republic of China on the mainland heralded the arrival of a communist Chinese state. The Kuomintang was left to rule over Taiwan. Thenceforth the Chinese language followed two paths of development, and Chinese poetry met with different fates on either side of the Taiwan Strait. The People's Republic forcibly simplified the writing system and imposed Marxism-Leninism as the state ideology. It mobilized a scholarly effort to translate classical Marxist works and the entire canon of Soviet socialist literature, making these books the core of its educational system. Traditional Chinese literature was denigrated and erased from the curriculum, which hastened the evolution of Chinese into a language heavily influenced by translations and based on Beijing-style Mandarin. Meanwhile Taiwan was affected by the influx of 2 million mainlanders, including cultural elites who used a vernacular-literary hybrid that had developed after 1917. Their Southern-style Mandarin (originating at the former Kuomintang capital of Nanjing), together with Taiwan dialect and Japanese influences, made a relatively smooth transition toward a different strain of modern Chinese.

Nowhere is this transition evidenced more clearly than in the poetry of "Frontier Taiwan." Three major groups of poets comprise the pages of this anthology: First are those who grew up under the Japanese occupation, some of whom only began writing in Chinese after 1945. Second are mainland poets who followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan. They carried on the legacy of the May 4 Movement and the modernist experiments of the 1920s and 1930s. Third are poets raised in the postwar years. The influence of older poets and ethnic culture gave rise to nativist concerns and an identification with Taiwan as a nation, expressed by the nativist modern poetry of Taiwan.

... On the edge of the island, on the boundary

Between sleeping and waking,

my hand is holding my needle-like existence

threading through the yellow button rounded and polished by

the people on the island, it pierces hard into

the heart of the earth lying beneath the blue uniform.

--from "The Edge of the Island" by Chen Li

The pages of "Frontier Taiwan" are abundant with imagery of anti-colonialism, war, displacement, mainlander pride, islander pride and modernism. These expressive themes differentiate Taiwanese poetry from that of the mainland, and we find further variations wherever we look--in grammar, presentational structure, vocabulary and voice. Such differences have expanded the expressive capacity of modern Chinese.

... At the rifle range, the target breakfasts on bullets. (It ruminates on good years of eight-course dinners.)

It swears at the measly menu. It mutters about prices.

Tanks are munching on grass. Munching on briar roses.

Cannon barrels are sipping on stars. Sipping bats ....

--from "Cousin Rat" by Guan Guan

An institution I have seen nowhere else--the literary supplements in every daily newspaper--propelled the growth of Taiwanese poetry. Poems which would only have been read within small poetry groups were selected by these supplements. These supplements, together with the government's support of small magazines, had a catalytic effect on poetry writing.

The golden age of Taiwanese poetry began in the 1960s and lasted through the 1980s. Of the poets included here, most of their best work was completed during this period. But the selections here also reflect a major pathology that Taiwanese poetry shares with its mainland alter ego: a tendency to prosify and indulge in watered-down (postmodern) oral language. This is most obvious in the pre-'60s and post-'80s selections. The criteria for inclusion of poets are strict, but the choice of particular poems is not. A third of these poems are excess baggage that could safely be omitted, perhaps for inclusion in a separate anthology of conversational oral-style poetry. The susceptibility of modern poetry to this conversational style is not unique to China and Taiwan. In the words of the Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet Eugenio Montale (1896-1981): "By now there exist two types of poetry, one of which is for immediate consumption and dies as soon as it is expressed, while the other can sleep quietly. One day it will awaken, if it has strength to .... There is poetry even in prose, in all the great prose which is not merely utilitarian or didactic; ... millions of poets write verses which have no connection with poetry."

In Taiwan's case, this problem is a direct result of the boom in free publishing brought about by democratization in the 1980s, followed by a proliferation of literary Internet sites in the '90s. Although this gave poets ways to connect with a larger readership, it also tempted them with too many chances for easy dissemination. The government's Cultural Development Committee and semi-public foundations lavishly subsidized publication of many ephemeral journals and collections, without long-term guidance and support for quality publishing ventures. The result was a dilution of poetic essence, along with a wide increase in poetry writing. Taiwan's politicization of social concerns and fascination with political gossip brought new vitality to political language. Political language was enriched by literary impulses, but creeping politicization sapped the language of poetry. As politics draw inspiration from literature, the literature may have been coarsened and lowered by undue influence from political language.

In recent years, I have seen several anthologies in Chinese covering the 20th century, edited by poets in Taiwan and China, which will be published in two Chinese versions (in simplified and traditional characters) later this year. Each of them attempts to establish aesthetic standards for judging a century's worth of poetry. Of course, any attempt to boil down this ocean of material will run great risks. "Frontier Taiwan" differs noticeably from these compilations by having been edited by two scholar-critics. The poets selected are representative figures, founders of poetry groups and creators of classic works; some are editors of journals and literary supplements which ushered in new styles of poetry.

The editors have approached their work as literary historians, operating under certain political assumptions, one of which is that Taiwan is a political entity in and of itself. This particular identity is unique to an island with a complex colonial history and a specific multicultural experience. The influence of Dutch, Spanish and Japanese cultures must be considered alongside the effects of the May 4 Movement, nationalist and immigrant history and more literary history. Regrettably, some excellent poets have been left out, including Luo Ying, Yin Ling and Du Shisan. If this book had been edited by poets, more pains might have been taken not to omit fine poems by poets not yet recognized for their achievement.

The emergence of modern poetry in China was as magnificent, traumatic and revolutionary a breakthrough as any witnessed in world literature during the 20th-century, yet the world has shown little interest in it. To introduce modern Chinese poetry to the English-speaking world is a mission that needs to be undertaken. The publication of this anthology is a timely step in that direction.

I write a Chinese character in the palm of his hand

Making it as intricate as I can in the interest of

Arousing his interest I write it wrong so I can rub

It out and write it right from scratch stroke by seductive stroke....

--from "Written for Other" by Xia Yu

After almost a century, an anthology of 20th-century poetry from Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, has been presented to the English-speaking world. Yet after almost a century, no poetry anthology of comparable substance from mainland China, with a population of 1.3 billion, has yet been presented to the English-speaking world. *

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