Featured review

The effort of bringing together such a diverse and overarching selection is impressive.

Review by Justin Hill

Chronicles of a Lordlordland
The Jade Ladder, edited by W. N. Herbert and Yang Lian,
with Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu, Bloodaxe, 2012

Chairman Mao was a poet of some distinction, apparently: his collections still sell, and friends tell me they’re really very good. But despite his poetic talents, Mao doesn’t make it into The Jade Ladder, the new collection of Chinese Poetry, published by Bloodaxe. 

Covering fifty odd poets and over three decades ( split into Lyric, Narrative, Neo-Classical Poems, Sequences, Experimental and Long Poems, each section preceded by an essay by leading poet and critic, Qin Xiaoyu ) this is an ambitious survey of the best contemporary Chinese poetry – which started with young men in the late 1970s, who began to find their stuttering voice as the Maoist era began to fail around them. 

Poetry was once the centre of educated life in China. For two thousand years Chinese scholars and Confucian civil servants would sit at banquets and compose poetry over a cup of wine; tourist guides were the poems that were written by previous visitors, and poetry was at the centre of court life. This all changed with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the years of warlordism, and the Communist Liberation of 1949, when the last connections with the Tang Dynasty, ( 608AD – 907AD ), with poets such as Li Bai, Bai Juyi, Wang Wei and Du Fu, were broken. ‘Ireland hurt you into poetry’ Auden wrote of W. B. Yeats, and modern China has had more than its fair share of hurt. Expressing this, and their changing world, is and has been the challenge that poets face in China.

Yang Lian writes how the early contemporary poets felt dislocated from their Classical heritage and alien to the odd and occasional shafts of light that came in from the outside world. From this darkness and isolation a new kind of poetry has emerged. Those first poets, like Bei Dao and Yang Lian, were part of a generation creating their own poetry and daubing it onto Democracy Wall in the late 70s. Because of the political climate they were living in, their poems were obscure and the officials labelled them the ‘Misty’ poets. But China has changed drastically in the 30 years this collection represents, and ‘Misty’ poetry has been replaced by other reactions and ways of expression: with ‘Roots Literature’ rediscovering what it means to be Chinese; the post Tiananmen Square Massacre ‘Poetry of Exile’; and the flowering of contemporary Chinese poetry, with its many schools.

Jade Ladder is a reference to Kunlun Mountain, in the semi-mythic Western China, which is the mythic ladder that connects Heaven and Earth. Yang Lian writes ‘When I read this description by the great Tang Dynasty poet Li He, ‘Jade breaks to pieces and the phoenix cries | Lotus drop their tears while the perfumed orchids smile’, I thought that this ‘Jade Ladder’ might also be a metaphor for contemporary Chinese poetry. [ … ] The Jade Ladder stands on every poet’s desk.’ 

This anthology had its genesis in 2007 when the poet W. N. Herbert was on a trip in China, with the aim of filling the knowledge gap that is modern Chinese poetry. The effort of bringing together such a diverse and overarching selection is impressive. The original list was drawn up by Yang Lian and Qiu Xiaoyu. The works selected were judged regardless of whether a poem was ‘banned or its author imprisoned, or because it dealt with a politically correct subject matter, whether that be exile, sexuality, or political or other minorities,’ as Yang Lian writes, reminding us that poetry still matters in China, as poets still find themselves in exile or prison. 

There are many problems facing a translator: Chinese characters essentially retain the pictorial element of the original hieroglyphs, and add another layer of visual detail to the words themselves. But Brian Holton, one of the most experienced Chinese translators and Yang Lian’s long-term translator, was involved with this anthology, as well as a number of British poets. Herbert states that ‘I … felt strongly that an emphasis on dialogue, on poets and translators simply talking to one another about the text they were hoping to translate and the motives that led to it, meant that a fuller act of transmission could be possible.’

Just a skim through the titles shows how Chinese poets are very much part of the modern world: ‘SOS’; ‘For T. Tranströmer’; ‘Beer Bottle Top’; ‘The Sorrow of Submarines’; ‘Chronicles of a Lordlordland: When SARS Was Rampant’. But there are also touches that speak of continuity: ‘The Suzhou Year’; ‘Song Sung Drunk’.

Perhaps most distinctive is the narrative poetry, which is still reacting to the Tang Dynasty historian Liu Zhiji ( 661 – 721 ) ‘the beauty of national history must consist of good narrative … [ which ] must maintain brevity and simplicity.’

It is of course impossible to pick a poem from this impressive selection. One poem which in no way represents the rest, but which gives a sense of the variety is Yi Sha’s ‘Wishful Thinking or the Feelings You Get from a Film Played Backwards’

A shell is fired back into the barrel of a gun
Writing is sucked back into the tip of a pen
Snow floats from the ground
Daytime rushes towards the sun
Rivers runs to their sources
Trains creep inside tunnels

Spanning back through the thirty-odd years this selection represents, it ends with the author, young again.

I will walk away from that chilly
unfamiliar railway station
and go back to the classroom
my red Pioneer’s scarf knotted round my neck
standing to greet my teachers working at my lessons
getting ahead studying hard

This is an impressive and provoking collection. The last word should perhaps go to W. N. Herbert ‘[ This poetry ] … is not only unique in its scope and its depth, but constitutes indispensable reading for anyone with an interest in the future not just of China but of poetry itself.’

Justin Hill

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