Yang Lian
Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee
Green Integer ($14.95)

by Lucas Klein

Over a decade ago Harvard Sinologist Stephen Owen took on contemporary Chinese literature with his article "The Anxiety of Global Influence—What is World Poetry?," wherein he succeeded, through astonishingly sensible and even-tempered writing, in laying out a pretty bullet-headed point. Now required reading for Chinese poetry courses in English-speaking universities, the article faults Bei Dao and his fellow Misty Poets—poets who were raised on clandestine translations of experimentalist writing from outside China—for not being Chinese enough. The main point of Owen's review is simple: "Poems are made only for audiences," and the audience Misty Poetry is written for is international, not Chinese. He asks, "is this Chinese literature, or literature that began in the Chinese language? For what imaginary audience has this poetry been written?"

Professor Owen's comments were aimed at Bei Dao, certainly the best known of the Misty Poets, but they struck the other Chinese poets affiliated with the underground journal Jintian (Today) as well. Shu Ting, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian, to name only the most renowned, have all in various ways been castigated for doing what for any other tradition would be a bold, futuristic move: casting away the bonds of the past and moving forward into a new literature.

Yang Lian, however, has not simply thrown away his Chineseness. In the late 1980s, Yang Lian wrote Yi, which may be China's first epic poem, incorporating elements of Western Modernism without jettisoning any of the Chinese cultural heritage. Yang Lian takes the Yijing (familiarly known in English as the I Ching or The Book of Changes) as his starting point, and in exacting, difficult, and sometimes hermetic poetry, demands that we re-examine the nature of man's relationship with his surroundings. In its dependence on Chinese traditions—ancient and modern—in thought, motif, and specific reference, Yi is a work that even Professor Owen would find worthy of Chinese literature.

Like the best of classical Chinese literature, the architecture of Yi is impressively tight, though on a much grander scale. Sixty-four poems subdivide into four sections, each with a specific structural purpose. The Yijing, an ancient text of cosmology and divination, outlines sixty-four hexagrams—six-line units—to correspond to human interaction with nature; the hexagrams are each formed out of a pairing from the eight trigrams, in turn representing Heaven, Earth, Mountain, Marsh, Water, Fire, Thunder, and Wind, each of which is composed of the various combinations of three lines of yin or of yang. In following this structure, Yang Lian's poem is necessarily just as complex. As described in his very helpful endnote, "The abstract signs of the Changes are not used but certain images and numbers are indicated in order to preserve the primitive free symbolization of the Changes, like the forms in nature. In internal structure, Heaven and Wind, Earth and Mountain, Water and Marsh, Fire and Thunder, are used to construct four books corresponding to the Four Elements of classical philosophy."

He is here referring to the four books of Yi, each with its own set of hexagrams and an element as thematic coagulant. The sections outline as follows: "The Untrammeled Man Speaks," the Heaven and Wind hexagrams, is based on qi, as much air as the mystic breath of vitality; "In Symmetry with Death," with the Earth and Mountain hexagrams, uses earth as its central imagery; the poems of "Living in Seclusion," running through the Water and Marsh hexagrams, base their poetics on water; and finally there is the redemption of "The Descent," which through the Fire and Thunder hexagrams takes fire as its central element. Each section also illustrates an essential conflict, in the order of Man confronts nature, Man confronts history, Man confronts the self, and Man reaches transcendence.

Yet the overarching structure does not suffocate. While it is meticulously outlined, each individual poem, when taken line-by-line, is refreshingly free-form and organic. Take, for example, Yi's first lines, from "Heaven 1":

Supreme like this: Nameless black rock, ecstatically crashing through
vertical time
The myriad things tranquil like dusk, more free more vast
Sunset's ritual each step a lotus, slowly moves west to death

And indeed, this is what poetry aims for: a crash, though tranquil, through time; the frame gives shape to the expression and the rigidity is softened by the verse. Yang Lian has married freedom to form, achieving what all poets aspire to do.

In Yi, Yang Lian as poet presides over a marriage of Eastern and Western. While the general structure of the poem follows traditional Chinese culture, its roots also reach into the Modernist tradition of Europe and America. The length alone dictates that Yi belongs to the tradition of personal epic extending from Pound's Cantos. Translator Mabel Lee, professor of Chinese at University of Sydney, has published an article illustrating the debt Yi owes to Sunstone, the long poem that defines the poetic maturation of Octavio Paz. Indeed, the two works share a thoroughly modern use of language to investigate the lingering significance of an ancient cosmological text, as well as a cyclical structure to evoke wholeness; the repeated strophe that begins and ends Sunstone—"a course of a river that turns, moves on, / doubles back, and comes full circle, / forever arriving: " (Eliot Weinberger, trans.)—is analogous to the first and last phrase of Yi: "Supreme like this." As Lee writes, "Paz's Sunstone and Yang Lian's Yi have both been inspired by ancient calendars which provided in both cases symbolic and concrete confirmation for their thinking about cyclical time in human history."

Another evident precursor for Yang Lian's Yi is Eliot's Four Quartets. Structurally, both are poems built from four sections, each inspired by the four elements. Likewise, the poems are meditations on time and eternity, the nature of poetry, and the duty of the poet. Similarities even appear in individual lines: "Forever the first," "Where time does not exist life and death do not exist. Each person is a word, in each word there is no distance between hell and heaven," and "I am not on the mountain, I am the mountain" could all have been written into The Four Quartets. The complexity of structure and the darkness of The Waste Land combine in Yi with the high philosophy and meditative essence of Eliot's later work.

While The Four Quartets represents Eliot's Paradiso, Yang Lian does not have a similar Judeo-Christian model to follow; the symbolic order of the China written into Yi is at times so foreign to the Western reader that the section of redemption and transcendence, which we would normally expect to be an upward motion, is titled "The Descent." Although the Euro-American forebears to Yi are important, they are not the whole story. To be sure, this is a modern epic in the Pound tradition, following as it does his definition that an epic is "a long poem containing history." That history now is a foreign history, one which Ezra Pound, even in writing the China Cantos, would have been unable to create.

The Chinese word for epic is in fact a compound word meaning "history poem," so the poem defines its epic nature on its own terms, without needing help from Pound's famous designation. History is indeed at the root of Yi, perhaps nowhere so visibly as in the eight Earth poems of "In Symmetry with Death." The eight poems are written in something approximating the voice of eight figures from ancient Chinese history, with classical quotations throughout. Yang Lian explains these eight figures as personae, or masks, that each human wears at times in his life. But they also have echoes with more recent history, as the poem “Earth 7” illustrates:

History crammed into reverberating walls
Language of the dead
Buzzing circles

The poem's accompanying hexagram is Earth over Thunder, or what the Yijing calls "The image of the Turning Point." If this is the turning point, then, it turns from historical success to failure. The poem's header points to Chen Sheng, described in the notes as

Leader of a peasant rebellion in the Qin dynasty [221-206 BC]. Driven to extremes by the oppressive government of the time, he led an uprising in the marshes. . . . Afterwards when his military might gradually increased he became obsessively suspicious and began to kill off his comrades; he was eventually murdered by his intimate ministers.

For Yang Lian, Chen Sheng is the historical precedent for Chairman Mao Zedong, the walls of today crammed with historical reverberations. Chairman Mao, another peasant who came to power by rebelling against an oppressive government and who killed his comrades in the Cultural Revolution, could just as easily be the subject of this poem. To link two historical figures may be little more than a parlor game, but literature actualizes the unity of past and present:

In fish bellies cut open in the shrieking of foxes is his name
No one guesses his secret fear of ghosts
He stakes all on the handsome face of his head:
King, marquis, general and minister
Would you prefer progeny

For the audience, especially the audience of Chinese readers brought up and brought down in the Cultural Revolution, the secret fear of ghosts not only links Chen Sheng with Chairman Mao, but is also one of the trends against which Yi is a forceful rebellion. Not only did the Cultural Revolution preach forgetting as a means of eradicating ghosts, but China since the 1970s has also treated the ten years of chaos as a mistake best left undiscussed. Yang Lian understands the psychological impossibility of 'ignore it and it will go away', and his Yi is in many ways a fight, if futile, for remembering.

Bending down a huqin is being played
Mottled snakeskin
Eyelids of the dead split
Echoes on walls     Reverberate
Each person forgotten in
The language of the living

Though the Cultural Revolution is never distinctly mentioned anywhere in Yi, no work of consequence from 1980s' China can fully avoid digesting the significance of cataclysmic horror only a decade removed. But while Yi explores many revolutions—psychic, social, natural among them—the topic of political revolution remains on the submerged part of this iceberg. Yi can still be read as an individualist (or even just an individual) response to the Cultural Revolution, confronting the natural world intellectuals were "sent down" to, revisiting the past that both produced and entailed these events, questioning both one's terror and one's guilt, and finally emerging triumphant, as a poet, as a creator. "I created the setting sun in the midst of the vast human river. The flood of the vast setting sun spills into a perfect circle to rest in the sky."

If any redemption can be found in the Cultural Revolution for Yang Lian, it is that Yi embodies the poet's own counter-revolution. Both the foreign and the ancient were made illegal in the Cultural Revolution—"The more ancient, the more counter-revolutionary" was one of the more inane slogans of the day—and yet the foreign and the ancient are the seeds of Yang Lian's oeuvre. That such elements can combine to create what will no doubt come to be seen as one of China's most powerful and important poems is no surprise (just as it is no surprise that it took nearly ten years for such a poem to find publication in English). After all, Yang Lian has turned the personal into the universal, and the universal must now find its audience.

As for whether the intended audience is Chinese or international, the question is hardly relevant anymore. For poetry of this level, the audience needs to find the poem; Yi is not simply a great Chinese poem, but it may just be one of the grandest poetic masterworks to be found in any language's literature. Like the Yijing, Yang Lian's Yi represents a closed circuit, wherein a change in one line, in one hexagram, in one poem, has repercussions and responses in each of the other interdependent elements. The poem is a grandly conceived web where only the architecture and the words maintain superiority. Yi compels a vision of the world in inter-connected change, where a Chinese or international audience is only a matter of the temporary manifestation of the cultural flux. In the end, and at the beginning, it is Yi itself which, while never breaking free of the need for an audience, is still above, transcendent, superior, "Supreme like this."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003