Many Chinese poets, ancient or modern, seem to Western readers sometimes obsessed with landscapes, and Yang Jian (born 1967) is no exception.
the kind, the evil
begins a short poem entitled “Winter Duck Painting”. Along with landscapes in general, parts of them such as rivers continually feature; there are also man-made structures like bridges imposed upon them and the history which has taken place on them.
Yang Jian is also an artist, so many of his poems are evocative of Chinese ink-brush paintings—ut pictura poesis, as Horace famously said, “as is painting, so is poetry,” a much-discussed phrase, admittedly, but one that can be taken in its simplest sense, namely that a poem, through its language, produces a “picture” of the moment in the reader’s mind or imagination. Yang’s poems are very visual; as Christopher Merrill says in his foreword, “Priest of the visible and invisible alike, Yang Jian never misses a beat.”
Yang is a devout Buddhist, believing that all beings, sentient and otherwise, are linked, and that the past and future have no meaning in themselves, because they are linked in the present moments. Yang’s poems are a series of vignettes—like haiku, they show us particular, momentary visions, such as landscapes or people performing everyday tasks, informed by memory, nature and a host of other aspects of existence with only their transitoriness in common.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain has done a masterful job of translating these poems by a major voice in modern Chinese literature.
The poems are sometimes bleak, yet always thoughtful and meditative; this isn’t poetry that shouts its message from the rooftops or dazzles readers with complex or opaque imagery; it’s a “poetic landscape of hermit living,” as Dian Li describes it evocatively if somewhat cryptically on the back cover, “which is as enthralling as it is illusory.” Illusory, one assumes, because it describes the present moment and what may be experienced in it, real in a sense but nonetheless fleeting. Most of Yang’s poems are short, perhaps reflecting the fleetness; as the translator remarks in her introduction, “brevity enacts power and attention.”
The fact that Yang’s Buddhist faith informs his poetry suggests that his interest lies in the human condition and its suffering, At the same time, it provides him with the tools to lead a contemplative life, detached, but in no way isolated, from the world of literary trends and politics, allowing him to write poetry which reflects his inner rather than his outer life. In “Here,” for example, he starts in the suburbs, “the only triumph of a broken landscape,” but concludes
My heart is the world’s lasting silence
transparent, until the end
into meandering mountains, deep running rivers.
The suburbs may break the landscape up temporarily, but “the world’s lasting silence” is forever. Yang, cryptic (or perhaps Zen-like) to the end, does not elaborate much on the meaning of “the world’s lasting silence,” apart from identifying it with his heart and explaining that it is everywhere. Readers are left on their own to contemplate its metaphorical significance.
Yang’s spirituality leads him to evoke various religious systems, but he does so in a way that remains general rather than particular; Buddhism may be the foundation for his outlook on the world, but he is not trying to privilege it as a way of interpreting what he sees and feels. “This voice is real, I told myself,” the translator writes, observing further that “Yang’s Buddhist devotion never ceases to sustain his faith in truth, nourishing a poetic candor.” There are also many allusions to Confucianism, together with, as the translator notes, Christianity. In “Mysterious Gratitude,” for example, Yang is likely alluding to the Confucian idea of ren (benevolence) as he writes:
My tears will fall on this rope
by virtue of a mysterious gratitude that unfolds me in autumn
Gratitude, unbroken through generations
I live in a country that knows even well water is bestowed by heaven.
Water is a necessity for humanity, but its presence cannot be taken for granted; it has been put there so that people may use it for their sustenance. Generations of peasants know this, and water, like everything else in nature, has its origins with divine benevolence. As for Christianity, Yang writes in “Ancient Bell”:
In church, the white-haired Pastor Huang
preaches what Christ said when nailed to the cross,
They know not what they do.
The bell itself may well be older than Christianity, but here
Peasant women listen in quiet like drowned hands clinging
to a shipboard.
The last three words are indented to suggest, perhaps that the hands are not holding on consistently, but groping desperately, not quite knowing what they are doing or that Christianity may be their last resort.
There are three sections in this book, each one reflecting an aspect of Yang’s spiritual and poetic complexity. “Mysterious Gratitude”, the title poem of the second section, may be said to embody Yang’s Confucian side and his desire for a harmonious society and whether he thinks China has come anywhere close to achieving it. The first section, entitled “Ode to a Dead Tree”, together with “Speak, Heart”. the last section, may be seen, as the translator puts it, as being more “personal” and employing “autobiographical sources”, thus having more “narrative drive” than the other poems. In “Wu Qianli”, for example, both the narrative “I” and “Grandpa” (one assumes this is Wu Qianli) are doing something; the narrator is carrying “unsold tofu home from town”, and Grandpa
carried two baskets of book ashes
to their grave
and watched a boat of words and paintings
The unsold tofu is useless now, having failed in its purpose, and so are Grandpa’s books. These items were once meaningful, but are now just fleeting images of a past that has gone, a past of cultural artifacts as stale as unsold tofu.
Yang’s poetry is far more than the musings of a spiritual Buddhist living in isolation; he writes also, for example, of the effects of the so-called “Cultural Revolution,” an upheaval during which the Communist Party sought to establish itself in the collective psyche of China by destroying the past. “I was born in the foundering 1967/ destined to see everything with destructive eyes,” Yang writes in “1967.” He lists some of the actions taken and their dire consequences:
Burn these manuscripts
destroy these temples
banish these monks and nuns
We’ll no longer have morals
no longer have conscience
However, as a poet and Buddhist he can rise above this.
Seeing all of you dying
I’m destined not to die
he proclaims confidently;
but to open my mouth and speak among ruins
to open the iron door sealed by dust.
The 1967 upheaval didn’t just pull down buildings—it went a long way towards destroying the very soul of the nation, but it could not stop poets from speaking their truth. However, Yang seems doubtful (or realistic) about the effect he can have; “I’m a man who looks at the river,” he says, “My books, my poems can never lessen their misery.”
Fiona Sze-Lorrain has done a masterful job of translating these poems by a major voice in modern Chinese literature. She thoroughly understands the background and the spiritual side of Yang’s work, and has produced sensitive versions of the poetry, making sure that, as she tells us in her informative introduction, she doesn’t follow in the footsteps of “certain Sinologists and unauthorized translators,” who had a habit of “mythifying Yang as a monk or vagrant or a spiritual authority.”
Practicing Buddhism, as Yang does, is not the same as teaching it, but he can, through his poetry, show it as an antidote to destruction, apathy or hopelessness. Sze-Lorrain quotes from an interview with Yang in which he says, “Man and the world are one entity. In this sense, neither isolation nor solitude is possible.” Physically, he might live “far from the madding crowd,” but that doesn’t make him detached, because everything is linked. “I stay forever in transparency,” he writes,