We are pleased to present the second installment of our two-part feature on New Poetry from China, translated by Stephen Haven and Li Yongyi. Click on the titles below to view bilingual editions of new poetry by Yang Jian, Mo Fei, and Li Yongyi.
YANG JIAN was born in Anhui Province in 1967. He worked as a factory laborer for 13 years. A practicing Buddhist and scholar of Chinese traditional culture, he began writing poetry during the mid-80s. He is the recipient of many national poetry awards, among them the prestigious Chinese Media Literature Award (2008). His books of poetry include Dusk (2003), Old Bridge (2007) and Remorse (2009). Yang Jian is also an accomplished artist in traditional Chinese painting.
The leaf, not resisting, falls,
And when the wind
Spins it around again,
It rustles, without resisting.
In its tiny wizened body, love breathes
More passionately than when on the tree.
Yes, I will not die,
A gift from these leaves.
This Couple in Silence
The two sit in total silence,
Their hug as rigid as the rocks on the bank.
The shriek of birds in the woods
Shivers their hearts.
Under the willows
What sorry ideas of love!
Suddenly, he recalls the gray hair he dreamed last night,
The price paid for sleeping with her after dark.
This impulse to weep, this utter confusion:
He looks at the lake,
At the woman on his shoulder.
Nearby a child, a toddler,
An old man who can no longer walk,
A pregnant woman picking flowers by the shore,
Her husband standing by, blank eyes gazing nowhere.
All my fast thoughts vanish in a thatch house
Where the floor is made of earth and mud.
Over the log fire in the huge stove
White rice steaming from a wok.
Deep in a bowl slices of tofu
Covered by some rotten Chinese cabbage.
This sweet stench of baicai, old as China,
Stews even my sunk thoughts.
“Tear off the erhu strings,
Smash its body.”
We ended up without music.
“Chop this big old tree
Down to the stump.”
We ended up without shade.
“Kill this stonemason,
That carpenter, right now.”
We ended up without bridges;
Without pretty houses.
“Burn the ancient books,
Demolish the Confucian shrines,
Send the monks home to their mothers.”
We ended up without a moral sense,
We ended up without conscience.
I was born in 1967, an apocalyptic year,
Destined to look at things with a destructive eye,
Sick soon after I entered the world,
Destined to look at things as a morbid man.
Seeing that you all are dying
I’m given to a life that cannot die.
My word on the ruins, sealed in dust,
The iron gate shoved open.
Yang Jian’s books of poetry include
Old Bridge (2007) and
was born in Beijing in 1960. He is a poet, photographer, gardener, and naturalist. He published his poetry collection Words and Things
in 1997 andSelected Poems of Mo Fei
in 2011. He represents a mildly anti-establishment brand of contemporary Chinese poetry, neither nostalgic of native grassroots traditions nor overwhelmed by Western intellectual influences—the so-called Third Road.
The Man Trapped in the Room
The man trapped in the room
Weighed down by terror of the desk,
Words, yawning holes big and small
He doesn’t know how to fill—
A white clean sheet is much better.
Utterly resigned to it
Always the drip of the wall-clock’s ticks:
Stopped, it would be more accurate.
Some unnamed fear rocks his head,
He can hardly hear anything.
Thunder and rain petrify armies of trees
Please a vicious dream.
Dawn comes all of a sudden
After his writhing, endless night.
A blaze, descending from nowhere
Illuminates his books.
Coins Tossed in All Directions
Coins tossed in all directions,
The sky pure as after an oath,
You note threads of dark fate,
Tassels stitched to words.
The messenger comes to change dates,
Already sets off from his home,
The heavy leaves, parasols of trees,
Overabundant, a plenty of rain.
Cascading deep in their dreams
Shrubs frisk like birds.
Worrying about the fall of night
Is like running for someone else’s life.
The disruption of her sweet meeting
Lingers in your memory:
The naiveté of an ear
Silence, Just Dust on the Surface
Silence, just dust on the surface:
Plane trees shaking with fear,
All leaves bound in that embrace,
Grant us the secret gift of withering.
Things worthy of celebration
Are even more worthy of weeping.
Nothing brings no worries yet.
He cannot vacate his room
To hide books conscripted by death.
The last fruit bunch endures
Autumn’s impact, within and without.
He braves rumors—how can he help it?—
Rising from time’s rebukes.
Leave the rooms of the brain empty,
Let screaming in the word bogs
Wear life down to a husky voice.
Hidden Grains Glisten in Winter
Hidden grains glisten in winter,
Dark dung quickens roots and buds.
How unreal the hot vapor from the stable!
Pressed to the door by death, a face of tears.
Fields green again, home at its tenderest,
Seeds sown, the world can hardly keep calm.
Great spirit, weighed down by sudden spring,
Reaches the years for shouldering things.
I have to submit to birds’noise closing in.
Washed shores bare clear pebbles.
The peach tree in full bloom stops no one,
No one knows its hidden pride.
Staying true to promises, your lonely days.
Insects’eyes hurt the green leaves.
Inevitable, this pendulum swinging down,
Casting shadows on stopped carts.
Translated from the Chinese by Stephen Haven and Li Yongyi
Mo Fei published his poetry collection Words and Things in 1997 and Selected Poems of Mo Fei in 2011.
is Professor of English at Chongqing University, in Chongqing, China. He was a 2012–2013 Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the University of Washington. His major fields of scholarship include Anglo-American modern poetry, classical Roman poetry, and classical Chinese poetry. He has translated 14 books into Chinese from English, French, and Latin. His translation of Carmina
was the first Chinese translation of the entire body of Catullus’s poetry. He is the author on one collection of his own poems, Swordsman Poet Phantom
Destinies (a poem in six parts)
This hatred of you, an art, a philosophy
A ghastly perennial assembly line: gossip,
Oratory, monographs, festival shows,
Crosses, gyres, gas chambers, pits.
For you, older than Athens and Rome,
Trampled, crushed like moldy bread,
War, a gaping curse, whoever fights.
In peace, you’re still steeped in gore.
Jesus your gift, Judas your heritage.
Ideas, beliefs, the gift of your theorems;
Debris, ghettos you get in return.
You endure, endure; they err and err.
Restored, your country almost lost
Again. God chose you, but not for peace.
In fire eternal Jerusalem seeks
That first promise of milk and honey.
You blitzed literature, took philosophy
In a whirlwind. Casts of iron and blood
Forged a new empire, your smile lit up
Summits of industry. Civilized eyes
Astounded, ablaze, sulfurous flames
Burst out their lips: Prussians, Huns,
Barbaric Boche, the Anti-Christ….
Besieging your dreams, flags darkening the sun.
Your hard logic stood and harder prejudice.
Luther provoked Pope, cursed the Jews.
Kant’s stars ordered to the colors of the skin,
Hegel buried Chinese in pre-historic gloom.
In World War I you fought Europe, and in II
You fought the world. Millions of young bodies
Bulldozed into pulp by an ever-churning Idea
Until Auschwitz paralyzed your mind.
The genes of your Germanic fathers ebbed.
The Berlin walls excluded the centuries
Before the mayhem, cinders of volumes
Burned by the Nazis blowing above the Rhine.
III. The USA
Spiritual territory divided by Israel and Rome,
Capitol, the eagle and the military
Turned English into Latin, your ark of covenant
Lurking in “Old Europe” and exceptionalism.
The future of the New World, like the formed past,
Stands unalterable. To glorify a Calvinist God
In plantations, stock exchanges, gold valleys,
You pursue wealth, salvation, the American comedy.
Witch ashes taught you to sever law from religion,
Taxes from the Crown inspired your Constitution,
Procedural justice drove Indians West,
And slaves’ liberty brought new value to industry.
Moved by your own virtue, embarrassed
At your profit, you embrace all who suffered,
Yourself an aporia of suffering.
The world needs you in the absence of a better judge.
Your sheer size imbues enemies with desire, despair.
No costs insufferable to you, villages destroyed,
Livestock wiped out, lands coated with corpses,
Survivors defeat physical and psychological laws.
Deep as Lake Baikal your pain, your power secretive
As a Siberian tiger. Colossal mountains and rivers
Impede communications, but bone and ghosts, obstinate,
Learned to sing in chorus in Petersberg’s swamps.
Bullied by the Mongols, you yearned to be Third Rome,
Adopting a Greek-styled alphabet and Byzantium blood.
Thirsting for freedom, you more often embraced despotism,
Empire being your true totem and tenet.
Yet you always stand higher than politics, thoughts
Make you a giant. Locked securely away,
Your honest sages, enduring exiles and penitents,
Will store food for the world in endless winter.
Europa’s offspring, forefather of Europe,
You too used to control the Mediterranean waves,
But now a mere stroke of smoke in the desert,
A ghostly mirror in history and myth.
That amorous queen truly gave her heart
To a vagabond Aeneas? Or more likely
A middle-aged fantasy of triumphant Latin
Adds a veneer of decadence to a blood lake.
Gloomy Hannibal, bound in vain by an oath
To a life of killing. Did bewildered elephants,
Half-buried in Alpine snow, ask him where
He would go if there had been no Rome?
A lonely army, wrapped by its enemy, nearly
Annihilated a nation. Under the carnal mountain
Erupted an empire, flames would consume
The skeleton of its rivaling civilization.
I won’t sing Athens, your ghost more powerful
Than the memory of that eternal enemy,
Undeterred by the rooster, unsinkable by dawn,
Silent spell confining any sober mind.
The beauty of the three hundred startles,
Each dead a child that had survived,
Property of the polis, parents unknown,
Taught to love hate in a soldier’s camp.
In the dark, an unseen shadow left behind
The body of a surprised slave.
Next morning, the elders warned him,
Solemnly, of the recurring initiation.
Ruins after the civil war ushered in
Macedonia, but you’ve never gone rotten.
Even Plato dreams of you in his heaven,
Even liberals enthrall to your order.
Translated from the Chinese by the author
Li Yongyi has translated 14 books into Chinese from English, French, and Latin. He is the author on one collection of his own poems, Swordsman Poet Phantom.
Part 3 (III. The USA) of this poem first appeared in Issue 10 of The Common. Click here to purchase.
About the Translators:
is the author of The Last Sacred Place in North America
(2012, winner of the New American Press Poetry Prize). He has published two previous collections of poetry, Dust and Bread
(2008, for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year), and The Long Silence of the Mohawk Carpet
Smokestack (2004). He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ashland University, in Ohio. He was twice a Fulbright Professor of American literature at universities in Beijing.
is Professor of English at Chongqing University, in Chongqing, China. He was a 2012–2013 Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the University of Washington. His major fields of scholarship include Anglo-American modern poetry, classical Roman poetry, and classical Chinese poetry. He has translated fourteen books into Chinese from English, French and Latin. His translation of Carmina
was the first Chinese translation of the entire body of Catullus’s poetry. He is the author on one collection of his own poems, Swordsman Poet Phantom.