Wolfgang Kubin on Ouyang Jianghe

Chinese poetry since 1979 has been both a miracle and a disaster. In 1979 China opened her doors to the world, and young poets immediately became a driving force for political reform. The demands they expressed in verse were well understood, and many young people read and wrote poetry that envisioned a new (socialist) society. After thirty years of experiment with free verse and vernacular (白话 baihua) poetry (1919–1949) and thirty years of ideological indoctrination that turned literature into a political tool (1949–1979), the "modern poem" (新诗 xinshi) sprung into being at the end of the 1970s, mature in both form and in content, its representative products instantly recognizable as an important part of world literature. In and outside of China poets such as Bei Dao 北岛, Gu Cheng 顾城 or Duo Duo 多多 were seen as lyrical voices heralding a new era in contemporary Chinese poetry. They were translated eagerly and discussed worldwide. Though criticized by conservative officials as "obscure" (朦胧 menglong), immoral, and politically dubious, these poets made their way into the hearts of Chinese readers. This is the miracle of contemporary Chinese poetry.

And what is the disaster? Moreso than the end of the democracy movement in June 1989, it was the 1992 launch of market reforms, intended to vault China to world-power status, that thrust contemporary Chinese literature into an uncertain new space. Because of the growing complexity of Chinese society, poets who emerged at this time, such as Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, demanded that Chinese literature shed its outdated, black-and- white, simplistically political modes of expression and devote itself entirely to problems of aesthetics and language.

This retreat to literature for its own sake did not mean that the "post-obscure poets" (后朦胧诗派 hou menglong shipai) who came to prominence after 1989 were out of touch with the world or truly apolitical. Rather, political issues became a hidden matter, discussed in a complex new language invented to evade censorship.

The awakening to the problem of language reflects a vast sea-change in Chinese literature post-1992. Many poets fell silent, and not a few writers gave up literature in favor of making money in the Special Economic Zones. Novelists especially began writing for the market, and poets were relegated to the edges of society. The novel now dominates the literary scene so much that even internationally renowned poets have no more readers at home than abroad—in both cases, very few. Often they must pay to publish their books, or else print their own small editions to distribute for free among friends and scholars in hopes of finding readers and translators. This sudden degradation in the status of poets in China is what I call the disaster of contemporary Chinese poetry. 

Confronted with the gradual decline of the Chinese language since 1949, Ouyang, in a dialogue with Chinese and foreign poets some years ago, raised the question: "What is good Chinese?" In his eyes, the Chinese language has turned into a vehicle for propaganda, be it politically since 1949 or economically since 1992. Even the language poets use has degenerated under the impact of Maoist speech (毛体 maoti) into "the language of mice" (老鼠的语言 laoshu de yuyan). In order to restore the former power of Chinese as found in the parables of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, one must, Ouyang says, strive for "the language of the leopard" (豹的语言 bao de yuyan).

Besides being endangered by politics and economics, Chinese is also endangered by English. As English becomes fashionable, Chinese are increasingly abandoning their own language for a foreign tongue, and even Chinese writers have begun producing literature in English. In most cases the result is the same: the new language is artistically immature, and the mother tongue becomes skewed.

There is a third problem plaguing contemporary Chinese literature: the problem of tradition. Unlike in Western countries, where cultural heritage is often the foundation of literary production, Chinese tradition does not play a prominent role in contemporary Chinese poetry. The reader must be familiar with Western, not Chinese, tradition in order to recognize where Chinese poets come from and the background against which they draft their verses. In most cases it is modern Anglo-American literature that has most influenced poets like Wang Jiaxin 王家新 or Zhai Yongming 翟永明. Thus Yu Jian's 余坚 critique that certain contemporary Chinese poets have ceased to be Chinese poets seems justified at first glance. However, the question is more complicated. What the Kunming-based poet advocates is a poetry more-or-less based on Chinese folk tradition; it is precisely this kind of thinking that, in my opinion, makes the works of China's conservative contemporary poets so drab and uninteresting. I fear the return to "tradition" is an outdated model. All superb poetry is international poetry—it is no longer "national." This is true both for modern American literature under the impact of classical Chinese aesthetics—Ezra Pound is the best example—and for contemporary Chinese literature. Bei Dao comes to mind as such a poet, influenced as he was by the Spanish hermetic poetry of the 1930s. A true "Chinese" writer is a contradiction. Without the inspiration of foreign literature, he or she would just reproduce antiquated forms, adding no new life to the art he or she practices, as can be seen in the works of popular novelists who rehash the storytelling traditions of past dynasties. Only as an international writer can a writer nowadays be a "national" writer.

This is the case for Ouyang Jianghe, one of the most important poets in the Chinese language today. He writes about both foreign topics and Chinese topics. He writes in Chinese, but reflects upon the German poetry of Hölderlin in his dialogues with Zhang Zao 张枣. He lives in Beijing, but often stays in the U.S. (thanks to his green card). He accepts invitations from literary institutions all over the world. He is a frequent visitor to Germany, where in 1997 he did a half-year residency at Castle Solitude near Stuttgart. Unlike the "national" Chinese poets, who rarely go abroad and do not seek dialogue with colleagues from other countries, Ouyang Jianghe is fond of exchange with German and American writers. It is not only his work but the poet himself who now belongs to world literature.

Has Ouyang Jianghe solved the problems he raised? His own answer to those questions seems to lie in his praxis of writing poems. He practices a difficult art of poetry: its complex grammar, its rich and unusual vocabulary, and its new view of the relationship between poet and society demand much from the reader and from any translator. It is not true that the Chinese audience would understand this poetry better than its foreign connoisseur. A Chinese reader unfamiliar with the international scene of modern and contemporary poetry will not comprehend a single word. But a specialist in world poetry, even if he or she is not Chinese, might develop a feeling for what the author is aiming at.

Adapted from the introduction to Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe.

Click here to read four poems from Ouyang Jianghe's Doubled Shadows, translated by Austin Woerner.

Click here to read an essay by the translator, Austin Woerner, on translating Ouyang Jianghe.