A Double Helping of Contemporary Chinese Poetry: Wu Sheng and Ya Shi

My Village: Selected Poems 1972-2014, Wu Sheng, John Balcom (trans) (Zephyr Press, June 2020); Floral Mutter: Selected Poetry of Ya Shi, Nick Admussen (trans) (Zephyr Press / Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, April 2020) My Village: Selected Poems 1972-2014, Wu Sheng, John Balcom (trans) (Zephyr Press, June 2020); Floral Mutter: Selected Poetry of Ya Shi, Nick Admussen (trans) (Zephyr Press / Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, April 2020)

Chinese remains inaccessible to most English-speakers; Chinese poetry doubly so, so Western readers should be grateful to Zephyr Press for issuing these two excellent bilingual versions of contemporary Chinese poetry, which introduce us to two unfamiliar and very different voices, Ya Shi from the mainland, and Wu Sheng from Taiwan.

Wu Sheng is profoundly steeped in the world of traditional Taiwanese agricultural society, which he sees as being under threat from excessive globalization. Wu, described by John Balcom as “a local writer”, nevertheless emphases  contemporary themes such as protection of the environment and the plight of farmers in an age of technology. Wu, one imagines, might well  reject the highly eclectic and experimental nature of Ya Shi’s writing. Ya, trained as a mathematician (the arcane connections between Ya’s poems and mathematics are too complex for this reviewer, whose mathematical inclinations are minimal, to understand properly), moves effortlessly from one poetic world to another on a kind of purposefully restless literary journey which passes through various poetic stations on the way, and still hasn’t got to where it’s eventually going. It’s a bit like taking a train journey—a metaphor the poet himself employs and which underscores all the material in Floral Mutter—to nowhere in particular, although the track itself is linear and will go somewhere, stopping at various stations as it goes.

Wu Sheng tells us, a little disingenuously perhaps, that


The poems father occasionally writes
Are like the village we grew up in
Where no-one puts on airs.


Even in these few lines, though we can see the contrast between the two poetic voices, although it’s worth remembering, of course, that complexity can hide simplicity and vice versa. At the same time, both poets in their own way are affected by their surroundings and the events of their own lives.


Ya Shi’s book begins with a series of sonnets from the Qingcheng Poems superscribed with a quotation from Friedrich Hölderlin (which caught my eye because he happens to be one of my favorite poets). The connection between Ya Shi and the great German romantic poet is nature, the force that enables life and also destroys it and which for Hölderlin was a central theme of his poetry. “A senior translator once told me,” Nick Admussen writes in his must-read introduction, “that the Qingcheng Poems, because they are in the tradition of Keats and Hölderlin, should read like Keats and Hölderlin.” Admussen disagrees, and counters tellingly that “channeling Hölderlin in my office in Ithaca is vastly different than reading it in a lean-to on the back of Qingcheng Mountain,” which is of course the way Ya Shi himself most likely read it.

One can however easily imagine the German poet (perhaps futuristically channeling Ya Shi) writing about


how my flesh, awoken by the vast sky
wandered and empty valley [sic]
listening to the mountains’ secret, copious spill.


There is no question that Ya Shi recognises the European poetic past as being part of his present poetic makeup (he also at one point alludes to Garcia Lorca, another favorite of mine), what he himself calls that “damp and sultry marshland of Romantic poetry.” The sonnets may be written in a modern Chinese idiom and sometimes broken into spaced fragments, what Admussen calls “a honeycomb of gaps and pauses” (both by the way found in Hölderlin’s later unfinished poetry) but they still have fourteen lines and concentrate on one experience or natural vista, as their titles, such as “Quiet Lake in the Hills” or “Pillar of Sound” suggest. Furthermore, the sonnets demonstrate Ya Shi’s sensitivity to the Sichuan landscape whence he springs, as strong as Hölderlin’s was to Swabia. “The mountain valley is absolutely not a symbol,” he writes in the concluding sonnet to the series, “because I have touched it.” We can find a similar attitude expressed in Hölderlin’s later, fragmentary poetry, as Michael Hamburger observes in his edition of Hölderlin’s Selected Poems, writing that in it “the phenomena of nature seem to be celebrated in their own right, rather than as symbols.” Indeed, Admussen’s observation about Ya Shi’s “fascinating and irreverent relationship to the Euro-American tradition” is borne out throughout this collection as he attempts (and succeeds) “to build a music for the poems that gives them a tone and mood in English that honors the Chinese.”

Ya Shi moves on from this series of sonnets to more consciously “modernist” poetic forms, in Section II “abandoning setting and narrative in favor of voice and mood,” as Admussen tells us, and in Section III the poems “reach towards the imperative, exhortative mode.”


This complex kind of modernism likely wouldn’t sit well with Wu Sheng, who, according to his translator, nonetheless has a good knowledge of it while at the same time rejecting what he terms “literary fashion”. As Balcom explains, “Modernism has come and gone. Postmodernism has arrived, and it will undoubtedly be supplanted by something else,” unlike the “nativist roots” which ground Wu Sheng’s poetry and are still very much present, analogous to the world he writes about, tenaciously surviving as it does amidst the onslaughts of “progress.” As Wu puts it,


Bare-armed, who cares about the latest fashions?
Barefooted, who cares about being poetic?
… Who cares about affected literary moods, much less
Becoming a part of history?


Here is the poet, extremities exposed to the elements, touching the land he loves with his bare feet and feeling the wind on his bare arms.

Yet Wu knows that scenes like this are becoming rarer as young Taiwanese leave the land for the city, go to university or emigrate:


I recall once asking
What you do there
Study, research
I didn’t know, you finally said
Aren’t people always trying to find ways
       to leave here
Dragging in relatives
For green cards, preparing to leave?


In the end he hopes


That our brothers like you can find a way
To work hard
For this land that bore us.


The translator observes, “Wu Sheng continued writing poems about rural Taiwan even while it seemed to be disintegrating around him.” What used to be central is now becoming steadily more marginalised in the name of “progress” as industry and urbanisation replaced agriculture and rural villages. A poem by Ya Shi actually touches briefly on this, or something very much akin to it:


See the fatigue in the elderly eyes
… Why, when you think the word ‘machine’
do your eyes fill with tears?


It would seem that the “nativist” is still very much alive in this most enigmatic of modernist poets.

Ya Shi is a poet primarily of language, moving between various linguistic modes which he suits to the thematic material of his poems, observing what older writers would have called “decorum”. He can use colloquial language or slang with the best of them (difficult to translate, as Admussen notes) or traditional poetic language. However, in the end he confesses


What I possess, I cannot with certainty say—
they’re all useless, unreal kernels, pearls of crumbs of words!


Ya Shi’s poetry asks a lot of questions, but gives few answers, hence the lack of certainty in it. This is certainly not the case with Wu Sheng, who has no doubt what he wants to say, and has the linguistic equipment to say it straightforwardly. For him, the rapid industrialisation of Taiwanese society, particularly of rural life, has dealt a body-blow to Taiwanese culture and, in the process, has attacked and mutilated the very environment which used to nourish that culture. “A truck dumps another load of gravel,” Wu writes flatly,


Another large patch of green farmland disappears
The small shrine to the Earth God at the field’s edge
lies buried.


Young people are moving to the cities or overseas, and the old are left to lament a bygone way of life. At the same time, however, there is hope that such a deep-rooted tradition will somehow survive the ravages of what many see as progress. Ya Shi does not concern himself with such things; he’s interested in what language can do, yet, as we have seen, he shares a common bond with Wu Sheng, namely nature and the land.

Wu Sheng’s poetry is much more “reader-friendly” than Ya Shi’s, although I do not mean this as a negative observation, merely one born out of personal taste and literary experiences. In the end, Ya Shi is a modernist poet’s poet, preoccupied as he is with the language of poetry, its distinctiveness and artistry, which means that one needs some knowledge of those aspects of writing to properly plumb the depths of what he is saying. If you are reading poetry that, as Jennifer Kronover writes on the back cover,


is an amazing clash of classical Chinese poetry, the New York School, post-modern cinema and the inside of a singular heart-head


you need to recognize these things in the poems because they obviously mattered to Ya Shi when he was writing the poems in Floral Mutter. And, as the other back cover note by Zhai Yongming adds,


he roams freely among traditional poetic language, the aesthetics of the Xueyuan [‘Academic’] poetry school, and the slanginess of the Minjian [‘Popular’] school, brewing out of these a linguistic melange.


Fortunately Admussen, a poet himself as well as a scholar of contemporary Chinese poetry, can sort all this out and introduce readers to Ya Shi’s complex and sometimes incomprehensible poetic world. “Friends, do not be mistaken,” Ya Shi says, “what I’m saying is as clear as the daytime sun”—he needs readers who can believe this, but this reviewer is not one of them.


Turning specifically now to Wu Sheng is a welcome respite. Here is a poet of the land, of tradition and of social engagement. He is not interested in experiments with language per se, cryptic allusions to Western literature or subtle word-play.


I won’t discuss the art of poetry with you
I won’t discuss involved metaphors with you


he begins in “I Won’t Discuss It With You”, and goes on to refuse discussions of life and society as well, opting instead for leaving his study for “a walk in the broad fields,” which explains the whole purpose of Wu Sheng’s writing without using any specific words. His poetry is all about what you would see on such a walk, the river, the paddy fields, the farmers, experiencing


the spring breeze
And how it blows warm and gentle over the land.


This is tactile writing, unobscured by experimentation or linguistic prestidigitation. This sometimes leads Wu to write somewhat prosaically (as we saw above), and he has a definite didactic streak, which is completely lacking in Ya Shi. Consider this extract, which begins


We listen intently to the
Undulating memories of the paddy field,
Learning again from the good earth


but from that lyricism comes the jarring


Bound together, mutually supportive
(Protecting irrigation water/ Rejecting the use of chemicals)


which sounds like an environmentalist directive.

These are two important poets, both writing in Chinese, but on different poetic roads. On his train journey Ya Shi plays with language and poetics; on his rural walks Wu Sheng touches the heart of the natural world and the old agrarian ways, hoping that both will survive. as Hölderlin wrote, “Each of us makes for the place, reaches the place that he can.”

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.