In his editor’s Note, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Jonathan C. Stalling explains that part of the publication’s mission is to offer “to non-experts a multifaceted portal into contemporary China through literature and literary studies.” To do this, he refers readers to the issue’s featured scholar, Yue Daiyun, whose work in comparative literature has led to the conclusion that the traditions of the West and those of China (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) no longer exist independently of the other. Indeed, as Stalling explains, Yue’s vision is one in which comparative literature is preparation for “an era of global multicultural coexistence.”
Chinese Literature Today is as pleasing to the eye as its content is challenging to the literary mind. Yi Sha, whose poetry, fiction, and essays have been widely published and translated, stares confidently (if not defiantly) at the reader. Yi Sha writes “lower body” poetry, which, as scholar/translator Heather Inwood explains in her profile of the poet, concerns itself with topics such as the use of drugs and casual sex. As controversial as these topics may be, Inwood maintains that Yi Sha’s poetry adds to the poetics of China and swings the focus of Chinese poetry back to the lives of common people. In fact, Inwood asserts, “Yi Sha has been a major source of inspiration for China’s next generation of avant-garde poets born in the 1970s and ‘80s.” In the six poems and accompanying essay written by Sha, Inwood’s assertion is made even more plausible.
In the poem “China’s Lower Rungs,” Yi Sha tells of two street kids living in a “workers’ tent.” One of the kids, Little Bao, has broken his leg, and he has decided to sell a 1964 vintage handgun so he can pay to have his leg mended at a local hospital. The sale of the gun “to a Mr. Dong” sets off a “shooting tragedy that shook the whole country.” But, while most people were trying to discern the big picture about gun ownership, cracks in society and the state of the killer’s mind, Yi Sha writes that all he cared about were the two children: “these hopeless kids of the lower rungs / broke this people’s poet’s heart.”
Yi Sha exhibits a fearless propensity to push buttons that other poets caught up in the watered down discourse of the university community may be unwilling to acknowledge. In his essay, “I Have Something to Say,” he writes: “Poetry is more likely an egg born from chaos, not from the managerial thinking of a modern hen factory.” Nowhere is this more evident, from the angle of my Westernized sensibilities, than in the surprising poem, “9/11 Psychological Report.” The poem counts the evolution of his emotions over the course of ten seconds, from “open-mouthed in shock” in the first second to “taking joy in others’ misfortune” in the sixth second. But in the tenth second, Yi Sha remembers his “younger sister / lives in New York.” The phones don’t work, so he sends an email:
as I type
my fingers shake
are you still alive?
Your older brother is worried to death!”
A challenge in reviewing a journal such as Chinese Literature Today is interpreting the literature, its intent and purpose, as well as the literary elements deployed in the context and language of the authors filtered through the translators. It requires a lot of faith and trust. The journal asked three translators to discuss the questions of “fidelity to the original, cross-cultural interpretation, and literariness.” Shu Cai, who translates French poetry to Chinese, explains that translation is borne out of the necessity to communicate across languages and cultures. “If one wants to translate the spiritual meaning of a poem,” he writes, “one must have an awareness of the life impulses the poet had at the time of creation, which is to say that one must have a clear understanding of the generative process of a poem.”
Excellent poetry and some very thoughtful and intelligent criticism abound throughout the current issue of Chinese Literature Today, and it is impossible to discuss all of it. My advice is to read the journal. You won’t be sorry.