Poem by ZHANG QIAOHUI
Translated from the Chinese by YILIN WANG
Poem appears below in both English and Chinese.
You know where Grandma is buried, but do not know
where Grandma’s Grandma is
Jiaochang Hill’s graves have long been displaced, now covered with lush greenery
In the mortal world, a saying, “to have no resting place even after death”
I stand at the old burial ground, waiting for more fragments to surface
He claimed women over forty are the most ruthless
She wasn’t moved by the romance of the moon and winds
The twenty-year-old woman he adored was so lyrical
She envied the grave and the peach blossoms blooming around it
To be in full bloom is to join boisterous masses in slaying oneself
Whereas, to die, is a soliloquy
Standing before the demolished graves,
I remember the young lady among the peach blossoms
I am still waiting, for spring grass to sprout from concrete
Zhang Qiaohui’s poem “Soliloquy” portrays a speaker who stands at Jiaochang Hill, reflecting on the lives of the women who lived before her and on the changes that the world has seen across numerous generations.
Many of Zhang’s poems are set in the city of Ningbo, China. “Soliloquy” is no exception. In the second stanza of this poem, the speaker refers to a place known as Jiaochang Hill. The area used to be called Shaiwang Hill, “the hill for hanging nets,” because the hill overlooks the sea. In the Ming dynasty, guard towers were built in the area, and a part of the hill was turned into a training ground (a jiaochang) for soldiers. The place was thus renamed Jiaochang Hill, which continues to be its name to this day.
For many years, Jiaochang Hill was a cemetery where people were buried. When Zhang Qiaohui was still in school, she sometimes sat quietly in the cemetery, letting her thoughts dwell on history, on eras of war and prosperity, and on death. The cemetery on Jiaochang Hill has been relocated in recent years, and the hill has been transformed into a busy public park. Through reflecting on the history of the area and how it has evolved over time, Zhang Qiaohui’s poem asks us to ponder the meaning of life in an era of rapid change.
One of the challenges that I faced when translating this poem was how to render the Chinese idiom “死无葬身之地” into English. The phrase refers to a cruel and tortured life, where one cannot even rest in peace after they have died, because there is no place for one’s body to be buried. According to traditional Chinese views on death, it’s crucial to honor and respect the dead by burying them properly and laying them into the ground, or else they would never be able to rest in peace long after their passing. Based on the meaning of the source text, I have chosen to translate the idiom as “to have no resting place even after death” as to evoke the dual meaning of the word “rest” in English.
The opening two lines of the poem were my favourite lines to translate: “You know where Grandma is buried, but do not know / where Grandma’s Grandma is.” They ask me to reflect on my own relationship with my ancestors and family history, because as an immigrant who has lived in the diaspora for most of my life, I know so little about my grandma’s generation, let alone anything about my grandma’s grandma’s life.
As a translator who works from Mandarin Chinese, my heritage language, I see the act of translation as a way for me to reconnect with and reclaim my cultural roots and literary heritage. I am thrilled for the chance to translate this poem about ancestral history and the passing of time into English and to be able to share it with new readers.
Zhang Qiaohui 张巧慧 is a Chinese writer, poet, and essayist. She has published five poetry collections and an essay collection in Chinese. Her writing has appeared in Chinese journals including People’s Literature, October, and Poetry Journal, which has named her one of China’s “top 20 most innovative women poets.”
Yilin Wang (she/they) is a writer, poet, and Chinese-English translator living on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples (Richmond, Canada). Her writing and translations have appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, POETRY Magazine, The Malahat Review, CV2, Words Without Borders, and various other publications. Yilin is the winner of the 2021 Foster Poetry Prize, the recipient of a 2021 ALTA Virtual Travel Fellowship, and has been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.