I came to know TS Eliot’s name for the first time through a scathing review in Literature Review, a Party-controlled Chinese magazine. I read the article amidst the gongs and drums beating against the inflamed sky of the Cultural Revolution, shivering as “a black puppy” in the mass criticism of the proletarian dictatorship.
From the foreword to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and Other Poems, 100th anniversary edition, reprinted with permission from Berkshire Publishing.
Those days, it was conventional that a Nobel Prize-winning poet like Eliot in the West had to be relentlessly condemned, even though his poems were banned from Chinese readers. Yet some of the poetry quoted in the article more than shocked me. Raised in the zeitgeist of Mao’s literature serving Party politics, specifically through an officially advocated collection titled Red Flag Ballad, consisting of nothing but doggerel-like political slogans, I began to wonder how people outside of China had responded to those lines of Eliot’s. A crack seemed to appear in the Great Wall that surrounded a young reader like me, revealing the sky “like a patient etherized upon a table.”
After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, I was admitted as a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. There, a textbook of English and American literature compiled by a Russian scholar was shoved over to the students, and the section on Eliot read pretty much like what I remembered from the Literature Review. Luckily, my advisor Bian Zhilin approved my thesis proposal: “The Personal and the Impersonal in Eliot’s Early Poems.” For an appendix to the paper, I started translating the poems, which eventually expanded into a separate and comprehensive collection that included all his major poems, titled Four Quartets. The collection was later published by Lijiang Press in 1985.
The translation turned out to be a bestseller and was reprinted five or six times after its release. I was surprised to read that, for a modern or fashionable flourish, a young couple had even placed a copy of Four Quartets on top of their dowry piled in a rusted delivery tricycle parading through the streets of Shanghai. Ironically, one of the reasons the book became so trendy was because of an intentional misunderstanding pushed by some Chinese intellectuals at the time. According to their argument, the realization of “Four Modernizations” as set forth by the CCP government necessitated a thorough grasp of modernism—a political taboo until then. A paradox indeed for Eliot’s poems—to play a role reminiscent of “Cousin Nancy” in China’s opening up to the West.
For quite a number of young Chinese poets, his poems proved to be truly instrumental as they came up with their own responses to “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Facing harsh governmental censorship, they managed to blaze a secret, secluded trail—“misty, or menglong poetry” under Eliot’s influence. As Eliot argued in the essay in his essay, “The Metaphysical Poets”: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience….Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” It is fair to say that those young Chinese poets came under his idea of difficult poetry in the present-day world, though not that directly, consequently, a fortuitous avoidance by “misty poets” of the too-direct confrontation with the ruthless ideological control orchestrated from the Forbidden City.
For me, the exploration in my MA thesis also pointed to a new horizon of understanding in terms of poetics and politics. With the Chinese Communist Party wielding absolute power after 1949, the personal had been driven out of China’s official discourse, with nothing left but the collective voice of Party-dictated propaganda, which had nothing to do with Eliot’s impersonal theory. In his rendition, as he discusses in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the personal and the impersonal form not a contradiction, but rather the very art of Modernist poetry: turning the personal into the impersonal through the separation of the man who suffers and the mind that creates, thereby speaking to all readers and enabling them to find common, universal meanings and feelings in the experience of the poetry.
When I started writing novels toward the end of the 1990s, the protagonist in my Inspector Chen series turned out to be an honest cop working under the omnipresent surveillance of the regime while still trying hard to keep some distance as an independent-thinking intellectual. He frequently quotes or paraphrases Eliot’s lines, which help to give him an alternative, humane perspective in spite of that suffocating system. In the fourth installment of the series, for instance, Chen composes a poem imitating the dramatic monologue in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” with personal yet existentialist angst.
My necktie asserted by a pin,
my alligator shoes shining.
(They will think: “How yellow his skin!”)
What will they say—to my quoting
from Shakespeare, Donne, and Hopkins In short, I am not sure.
(They will say: “But how strong his accent!”)
In the fourteenth installment, having been removed from his sensitive position in the Shanghai Police Bureau, Chen pens a sort of Judge Dee investigation set in the Tang dynasty as a cover for his unyielding efforts for justice, maneuvering around imperceptibly like “a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness.” At the same time, he is also using the Eliotic technique of juxtaposing and contrasting the past and the present for multiple dimensions of the poetic vision.
Over the past two decades, I’ve had opportunities to travel around for literary festivals and book events in different countries. During discussions with readers, here and there in their respective languages, I am often asked: “Why is Eliot so important to Inspector Chen, and to all of us in today’s world?” A French reader brought me a copy of a French/English edition of Eliot’s poems, along with a bottle of champagne, as a way to explore the combined linguistic sensibilities as well as the urgent relevancy of the waste-land vision for the new century. We recited the lines in English and French over the bubbling wine inside the temporary book-selling tent, two readers “still with the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings”. A Norwegian publisher expounded to me about the musical quality in Eliot’s work helping to make Cats such a phenomenal success, and then banged the table over my lost opportunity of purchasing Eliot’s old home in St. Louis. Chris Teerink, a Dutch producer, recently flew over to interview me for an Eliot documentary. One of the questions he asked was about the translation of numerous allusions in The Waste Land, and I pointed out that classical Chinese poetry contains many more allusions. He was so interested in Eliot’s incorporation of poetics in terms of different linguistic sensibilities that we are continuing our discussion over the course of his movie-making.
As to the question about why Eliot remains important in today’s world, readers and critics may of course have responses from their own points of view. For me, what Eliot said at his Nobel banquet has been shedding much-needed light on my own process of writing and translating:
While language constitutes a barrier, poetry itself gives us a reason for trying to overcome the barrier. To enjoy poetry belonging to another language is to enjoy an understanding of the people to whom that language belongs, an understanding we can get in no other way.…there is a meaning to the phrase “the poetry of Europe,” and even to the word “poetry” the world over. I think that in poetry people of different countries and different languages … acquire an understanding of each other which, however partial, is still essential.
This short essay appears not to be something a meticulous Eliot scholar would have done, but it is a testimony of why Eliot matters from the perspective of a translator and a poet writing first in Chinese and then in English under his influence, and of what Eliot means not just to Chinese readers, but to readers the world over.