Letter from Beijing 4: Poets from the Yangtze River
by Ming Di
This week in Beijing’s packed with events. After the final reading yesterday (October 12, 2017), Tracy K. Smith returned to the states. Kevin Young and John Yau along with the Mexican poet Mario Bojórquez went to Wuhan for a 3 day visit. I’m staying in Beijing knowing they are in good hands. While the three will meet with the celebrated poets there such as Zhang Zhihao (张执浩), Jian Nan (剑男) and Xiao Yin (小引), I will introduce some other equally known or less known poets from this big province in central China.
Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, is divided into three parts by the Yangtze River and Han River: Wuchang on the south side of Yangtze, Hankou is north of Yangtze and east of Han, Hanyang is north of Yangtze and west of Han. According to Chinese mythologies, Han River corresponds to the Milky Way. Han as one of the 56 nationalities in China, named after the Han River in the early years of Han Dynasty (c.202 BCE), is the most populous ethnic group in the world, 92% of Chinese being Han. Each of the three parts of Wuhan has been important on its own. Hanyang was the first industrial city in Chinese history with military factories. The first railroad in China was built in 1906 from Hankou to Beijing. Wuchang Uprising (武昌起义) in 1911 spread to Beijing and overthrew the Qing Dynasty, which is why we celebrate October 10, 1911 as the beginning of the Republic of China. W.H. Auden visited Hankou in 1938 during World War II (when the two political parties of modern China were united in Hankou against Japan) and published with Christopher Isherwood Journey to a War in 1939. The verse section was later renamed “Sonnets from China.” In 1955, the first bridge over the Yangtze River was built in Wuhan, a historical moment in China. (My uncle, a young engineer then, was a member of the team and subsequently built other bridges over the Yangtze and Han.)
Wuhan City is where the Han River meets the Yangtze (and Han becomes the longest tributary of Yangtze), the biggest inland port in China. Of course there’s much more about this city but the province as a whole is even more fascinating. The first great Chinese poet Qu Yuan (屈原 c.340-278 BCE) was born in Yichang-Zigui county. The May 5th Dragon Boat Festival and Dumpling Festival are prominent cultural events in central China, allegedly in memory of Qu Yuan. Next to Zigui is Santouping where the Three Gorges Dam (三峡大坝) was built from 1994 to 2006, the biggest water power in the world and the most controversial one: three million people have been relocated, Yichang-Sandouping (my father’s hometown) doesn’t exist anymore. At the same time, 1282 historical sites of ancient civilization were discovered from 1993 to 2003, the oldest being from 7000 years ago, evidence of the Yangtze River Civilization (长江古文明). In northwestern Hubei, the Shennongjia Forest is even more ancient, the most mysterious region in China, undeveloped, with so much unknown hidden there.
Hubei Province has a continuous history of literature, from Qu Yuan to present. Two of the most important early modernist poets, Wen Yiduo and Fei Ming, were originally from Hubei. Currently, it has one of the biggest literary publishing house in the country, Yangtze River Art & Literature Publishing House. Wuhan University, one of the earliest universities in China, established in 1893, has produced many of the most accomplished poets in contemporary time such as Wang Jiaxin (王家新), Li Shaojun (李少君), Qiu Huadong (邱华栋), etc. While Wuhan University has the most open-minded campus like Beijing University and Central China Technology Institute is top-notch in science and technology like Qinghua, Central China Normal University (where Kevin Young and John Yau were invited) is also a national-level university that started as a private college founded by Yale-in-China in 1903 (with an earlier, smaller campus opened in 1871), developed into a comprehensive state-run university among the first-class in the country while maintaining an independent spirit.
Associated with Wuhan University located on Luojia mountains are Luojia Poets (珞珈诗派), and around the Yangtze publishing house are Hieroglyph Poets (象形诗群). The first is active nationwide, the latter is prominent in central China. (In 1994, over twenty thousand clays with signs were discovered in Yang village, Yichang-Sandouping, which displayed the earliest hieroglyphic/pictographic scripts in Chinese, over 2000 years earlier than the oracle bones found in 1899. The Hieroglyphic Poets are promoting a revival of the ancient tradition.)
Of the following seven poets, I met three, Chen He (my publisher), Huang Bin, and Yi Lai, during my last visit to my hometown Wuhan in 2012. Since I lived in many places in my childhood, Sui County, Sha County, Sha City, Xiangyang, Gucheng, etc. I take the whole province as my hometown and I love its nickname: Province of Thousand Lakes. There are 1194 rivers and over a thousand lakes in Hubei. East Lake in Wuchang is the biggest lake-in-city in China (six times bigger than the West Lake in Hangzhou) where I spent many mornings and evenings with my mother (after we left Hankou and before moving to Beijing). Hubei literally means lake north. It’s situated north of Dongting Lake (the third biggest lake in China) which holds the flood from Yangtze. Since both Yangtze River and Han River pass through several provinces, neither Wuhan nor Hubei represent the entire Yangtze or Han but instead the style of Chu Kingdom which I will discuss in another letter.
On a warm autumn day in Beijing, what do I remember most about Hubei? 56% mountains, 24% small hills, 20% the Han Prairie. I’ve lived in all these three areas, each distinctively different from others and each distinctively varied from within. Hubei is rich and diversified in its geography, and in its poetry as well.
Yu Xiaozhong (b1965, 余笑忠) was born in the rural area of Qichun county in eastern Hubei. He graduated from Beijing Broadcasting Institute in 1986 and has worked for Hubei TV since then. He started writing poetry in college and has won a number of prizes such as the 2003 Chinese Poetry Prize awarded jointly by the Star Poetry Monthly and Poetry Monthly, the third Yangtze River Poetry Prize, and the twelfth October Literary Prize in 2015.
In my balcony, there’s a bird dropping
on the iron rails.
I will not clean it off
out of respect for flying creatures.
I will not clean it
I will even take it
as a flower
The letters are saved
along with the envelopes,
who sent it, from where and to where,
stamps and postmarks.
The letters maintain the creases
Each time I read a letter, I unfold it,
and fold it back in its original folds.
The letters not sent but saved
also have envelopes.
Or, I need to find an envelope for each
in a grave way
as if selecting for each a grave.
Chen He (b1967, 沉河) is a poet, essayist, and one of the most celebrated literary editors in the country. He was born in Qianjiang, south-central prairie of Hubei, and became a school teach after graduation from Hubei University. He joined the Yangtze River Art & Literature Publishing House in 2001 as a poetry editor. He has since edited and published the prestigious 21st Century Poetry Series (from 2006 ongoing), several MOOKs (magazine in books), and the most legendary and controversial 30 volumes of New Poetry Canon (2013). He is also the editor of Hieroglyph, a journal that has gathered many local poets.
Jade inhales air with care—
into the worldly life and out.
Jade crosses rivers calmly.
Last night I tried to stay calm like jade
with no thoughts or lust, forgetting
the seven orifices or nine openings,
my body flat, no ripples or wrinkles.
With eyes closed, I became a breath of air.
Huang Bin (b1968, 黄斌) was born in Redcliff in southeastern Hubei, a historically well-known place due to the Redcliff War in the year of 208 CE during the Three Kingdoms Dynasty. Huang Bin studied journalism at Wuhan University and graduated in 1990. He started writing poetry in 1983, won first place in the national poetry competition in 1994, and continues to write poetry while working for the Hubei Daily as a journalist. He received the ninth Qu Yuan Literary and Art Award in Hubei.
a yellow leaf
on the hillside
in the sun
in the wind wayward
WALKING IN THE WOODS
Walking in the woods in the summer, I see
trees flourishing in a complicated way.
Uplifting, they are positive, thriving, their interior
grows like human ambitions and swelling desires.
I think of the word 木 mu, simple and quiet,
born to be silent, born in the deep fall,
its first appearance stunning. Shocking.
木 mu of four seasons slows down to acquire a 木 image.
Look at its shape with branches and a trunk, created
in more than a few days, or a few weeks.
A simple beauty. A holistic miracle. A concrete abstract.
木 lives in the woods, in the nature, in the human heart,
immortal in a mortal world.
木 becomes paper, and paper’s full of the words 木.
How does 木 in words meet 木 in the woods? How?
Hubei Frog (b1968, 湖北青蛙) is the pen name of a migrant worker poet, Gong Chun, who has a very unique voice in a reformed classical style. He was born Gong Chun in Qianjiang county of Hubei, became a migrant worker in 2000 and worked in ten cities around the country. Currently he lives in Shanghai. He has been writing poetry in his spare time and published mostly online with two collections of poems printed without ISBNs.
FOUR LINES IN A BEAT
There’re birds around me but I like them also above
me. Sometimes I can’t help but look for nests
in clouds. I may just be a tree, for now, but I like my body
to grow things that make me cry out or gasp.
FOUR LINES IN A BEAT
I know my friends are writing poems, such as Tao Qian,
Du Fu, Li Bai. I know their poems have nothing to do
with me but I’m one of the few words such as lake-south,
lake-north, swans and frogs they write left and right.
Yi Miyi (衣米一), born in Daye, southeastern Hubei, lives in Hainan, South Sea Islands of China. She started writing poetry in 2005, a late starter but has appeared in many journals and has published two collections of poems.
Many things have shells. I’ve unshelled peanuts,
sunflower seeds, pistachios.
I’ve cracked open walnuts with a hammer,
coconuts with a knife.
Shells are hard.
What’s inside are either hard
I once opened my heart. Uncomfortable
compared to opening other things.
I’m scared when it’s without a shell. What if it sheds tears?
Or even bleeds?
I quickly put it back.
Sometimes I try to crack open life.
It doesn’t agree to what I do.
It feels disturbed.
It stares at me
from its bloodshot eyes.
Yi Lai (亦来, pen name of Zeng Wei) is a poet and scholar, born in 1976 in Zhijiang, southern Hubei. He graduated from Central China Normal University with a BS in Computer Science and a PhD in Comparative Literature and World Literature. He serves as the chief editor of the university press at his alma mater, and currently he is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
Hah, what a sultry profession.
In the darkroom he becomes what he sees—
a peach, a butterfly, or a flying bird.
If he sees a garden he will feel rain
in his left eye while on his right knee
many little creatures rise from hibernation.
He never has doubt about his vision, as he trusts
the lens that passes judgment.
He knows for sure that spring is here—
there is bright light outside, and a dazzling young girl
in the park or on a T-shaped platform.
(Here comes his fantasy.)
He knows she will take off her hat, then her scarf,
and will watch out for pollen or mosquitoes.
All this knowledge comes from the process of developing
and restoring things to their originals, or to “more than likely,”
like what we learn from books about optics.
In the tons and tons of films he even thinks that he owns
a whole pipeline of spring.
But when he tries to find his body—
all he sees is a small bit of darkness.
Note: “Darkroom” has appeared in New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Tupelo Press, 2013). The other poems are new translations by the author of the Letter from Beijing series.