Jade Ladder:
Contemporary Chinese Poetry

Edited by W. N. Herbert and Yang Lian, with Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu

Reviewed by Liansu Meng
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2014)

Book cover for Jade Ladder

W. N. Herbert and Yang Lian, with Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu, eds.
Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry. Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2012. 360 pp.
ISBN-10: 1852248955;
ISBN-13: 978-1852248956 (alk. paper)

Jade Ladder is a welcome addition to the handful of anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry in English, and the most comprehensive one to date. Featuring fifty-three poets born in mainland China and nearly 200 poems written between the 1970s and 2010,[ 1 ] this anthology introduces the reader to a significantly larger number of excellent poets and poems than its peers and presents a fascinating overview of contemporary Chinese poetry in the past three decades. It is an important resource for general English-language readers interested in poetry and China, as well as for students, teachers and scholars of Chinese literature and culture.

Compared with other anthologies, Jade Ladder is aimed more at “western audiences” (23) or “a global readership” (43). This is reflected in the editorial decisions to minimize information from the Chinese sources, provide more guidance in English, and pay the utmost attention to the readability and musicality of the translations. First, it is monolingual: only English translations of the poems and introductory essays are included. When “an untranslated text” is quoted, no reference is provided, because “it has not been thought helpful or necessary to include a reference to the Chinese source” (47). Biographical information on the poets is limited to their names in pinyin and birth years. Second, Jade Ladder attempts to provide more structure and guidance for the reader. In addition to three long essays by W. N. Herbert, Yang Lian, and Brian Holton, the anthology offers additional guidance by organizing poems into six genres (lyric poems, narrative poems, neo-classical poems, sequences, experimental poems, and long poems), with a short essay by Qin Xiaoyu at the beginning of each section linking the poetic form to its roots in the ancient past and explaining its significance in the present. Last and certainly not least, the editors of Jade Ladder heavily emphasize musicality and readability in the selection and translation process. They adopt a “poet-to-poet” (27) translation approach so that, except for previously published translations, all poems were translated through close collaboration among Brian Holton (Yang Lian’s long-time translator and native speaker of English), W. N. Herbert (professor, poet, and native speaker of English), Lee Man-Kay (native speaker of Cantonese and Chinese), and Yang Lian (poet and native speaker of Chinese).

The result of these decisions is a remarkably rich and exquisite collection of poems. General readers as well as students and teachers of Chinese literature and culture will find it a pleasure to read these translations as independent pieces of literature and enjoy the kaleidoscope of views they present. For the small number of students, teachers, and scholars of Chinese who need both the English and Chinese versions or who wish to track down a lesser known poet, poem, or quote in Chinese, Jade Ladder could prove to be less useful, especially when there is a typographical error as in the case of Yang Zheng (b. 1960). There are two contemporary Chinese poets named Yang Zheng (杨政 who was born in 1968 and 杨铮 who was born in 1988), but no poet Yang Zheng born in 1960. The year 1960 might be a typo for 1968.[ 2 ] To make this anthology more useful for students and scholars of Chinese language and literature,[ 3 ] I have compiled a full list of the poets’ names in Chinese in the order of their appearance in Jade Ladder.[ 4 ]

I read a handful of translations against their Chinese versions and found that the translations are generally accurate, neat, and elegant. Of course, I also noticed a few places with minor imperfections. For example, in Zhai Yongming’s “The Sorrow of Submarines” 潜水艇的悲伤 translated by Brian Holton, Lee Man-Kay and W. N. Herbert (BH, LMK and WNH), “小姐们趋时的妆容” was rendered into “young girls’ make-up trends.” The term “小姐们” is translated literally as “young girls.” However, those familiar with contemporary culture in mainland China would realize that the term has taken on a new meaning and become slang for “prostitutes.” Rather than a general comment on the youth culture in China, Zhai was most probably lamenting a more specific aspect of contemporary Chinese culture—namely, the large number of young women becoming prostitutes to gratify their desires for high fashion and luxury goods. Notwithstanding, the editors’ painstaking efforts to ensure musicality and readability without sacrificing accuracy have paid off. Jade Ladder offers a pleasant, informative, and rewarding reading experience for any reader who is interested in poetry and/or Chinese culture. In the rest of this review, I look at some of the translations as literary creations in their own right.

Since W. N. Herbert, Yang Lian, and Qin Xiaoyu all note directly or indirectly the close ties between Jade Ladder, the Misty Poetry movement, and the underground literature magazine Jintian今天 (Today),[ 5 ] a brief introduction to the connections among the three might be a good starting point for reading the translations. As the first unofficial literary magazine in China since 1949,Today made its debut being posted on the exterior walls of major cultural and political institutions in Beijing on December 23, 1978.[ 6 ] It was co-founded by a group of young people who wished to publish works of literature and art germinated underground during the Cultural Revolution. Two of the co-founders, Bei Dao and Mang Ke, were also co-editors-in-chief, and the most important contributing poets of Today. Until the state police closed it down at the end of December 1980,[  7] Today reached a broad readership and became the mouthpiece of a whole generation of Chinese youth. While poetry was not the only genre published by Today, it was definitely the most powerful and made the strongest impact at the time. Many poets who first published in and gained nationwide popularity through Today soon became major poets when their poetry appeared in official journals and was dubbed “Misty Poetry” by official critics due to the obscure nature of its language. Among them were Bei Dao, Shu Ting, Gu Cheng, Jiang He, Yang Lian, etc. For various reasons, a number of Today poets didn’t publish in official journals until much later and were only retrospectively added to the Misty Poets group. Among them are Shi Zhi/Guo Lusheng, Fang Han, Mang Ke, Duo Duo, etc. Both the poetry and the publishing model of Today paved new paths for the young people of the day and the next generation of poets, generally called the Third-Generation poets. As Yang Lian points out, “Jintian ended forever the meaningless opposition between official ‘non-poetry’ and poetry: after it, the competition would only be between different kinds of poetry. A real, living tradition had been born” (35). Xi Chuan, one of the finest poets in China today, also notes, “Today’s way of publishing has opened up a small tradition for Chinese poetry. Because of it, a proportion of younger poets have lost interest in the official publications” (52). Qin Xiaoyu emphasizes in his introduction to the lyric section, “Based on these numerous unofficial publications, contemporary Chinese poetry managed to maintain its aesthetic independence and even its attitude of resistance” (52).

Arranged in chronological order according to the poet’s birth year, the “lyric poems” section, which takes up half of the space in Jade Ladder, opens with Bei Dao, Mang Ke and Duo Duo—three important figures in the recently revised canon of the Misty Poetry movement,[ 8 ] who started writing “Misty poetry” in the early 1970s during the Cultural Revolution, well before the term itself came into existence. Bei Dao’s “Accomplices” 同谋, written around 1980 and translated by Bonnie S. McDougall, seems to be carefully chosen as the first poem in this section. His often-quoted line, “Freedom is nothing but the distance/between the hunter and the hunted” (55), accurately registers the mindset of the Misty generation, especially the Today poets, and their relation with the state. The last of Bei Dao’s poems in this section is Eliot Weinberger’s translation of “Black Map” 黑色地图, a more recent poem depicting Bei Dao’s trip back to China after years of exile. In this poem, the earlier image of a brave yet fragile young mouse surreptitiously eking out a meager living under the vigilant watch of the powerful state cat in “Accomplices” is replaced by a more poised figure engaging the state almost like an old friend. The tension and tie between the poet and the state takes on a more interesting turn in this poem:

Beijing, let me
toast your lamplights
let my white hair lead
the way through the black map
as though a storm were taking you to fly (62)

Directly addressing Beijing, home to both the CCP and the poet, and suggesting a celebratory reunion after years of separation, the poet is no longer a victim running away from his hunter, nor is he coming back to surrender. Calling attention to his white hair, an indication of old age, the poet seems to be about to acknowledge his spiritual weariness after years of exile and admit defeat; instead, he catches the addressee and the reader off guard by casually suggesting: “let my white hair lead,” thus changing the addressee’s position from a hunter to a follower. Rather than outlining a relatively distinct curve of poetic transformation as in Bei Dao’s case, the rest of this anthology mostly highlights snippets of a poet’s career. Mang Ke’s “The Moon on the Road” 路上的月亮(trs. BH, LMK and WNH), was written in the early 1970s:

The moon walks me home.
I want to carry her into tomorrow.
All the way in this silent calm… (64)

The straightforward depiction of a young man’s love fantasy here would probably make some readers wonder: in what sense is this poem part of the legendarily rebellious Misty Poetry? Comparing the moon to a loved one was not new in Chinese poetry, but the candid expression of physical desire was new in the social, political, and literary context of the time. During the Mao era, open expression of personal affection and love, especially physical desire, was not allowed in official literature or public life; the seemingly innocent expression in this poem was in fact a radical gesture of defiance.

Duo Duo’s poems collected here span a decade from 1983 to 1994. His 1994 poem “Unlockable Direction” (Tr. Gregory B. Lee), transforms the mundane and sometimes extremely private details of everyday existence into an absurd and surreal world of tension. It reads almost like postmodern fiction:

A frozen chicken in a refrigerator wakes up
Two raisins dependent on a roast leg of lamb wake up
From within already-forecast weather
From the dripping sound of inhibiting a boy’s peeing
From within skimmed sperm
From within an operation there wasn’t strength to complete
Wake up, together with golden sand once said again blaze into the storm

A storm that bursts out from within the shower head. (79)

By this point, the reader would already have a good sense of how diverse in terms of themes, approaches, and styles the “Misty Poets” were and how they changed over time.

With the exception of the last dozen poets, who are younger, the bulk of the lyric section consists of poets born between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, a mixture of the younger members of the Misty poets (such as Yan Li, Yang Lian, Gu Cheng, and Wang Xiaoni) and the “Third Generation” poets (such as Zhong Ming, Yu Jian, Zhai Yongming, Bai Hua, Sun Wenbo, Ouyang Jianghe, and Xi Chuan). Arranging the poets by their birth year highlights the interconnections rather than the “generation gap” between the Misty poets and the Third Generation poets, offering a complex map of continuity instead of division.

Yang Lian is a good example of the linkage between the two “generations.” A younger member of the Today and Misty poets, Yang Lian has been living and writing abroad since the 1980s. His poems included in Jade Ladder were all composed after he left China. Whereas most of his earlier poems have the state as the main interlocutor, his later poems show constant reflections on the role of the poet as well as language and poetic forms in a context where the state is no longer an immediate presence. This shift of emphasis can be seen in other Misty poets who have kept writing and Third Generation poets alike. The only poet who has poems represented in almost all sections of this anthology, Yang Lian is probably the most versatile in his experimentation with poetic forms: one could grasp the diversity of forms in contemporary Chinese poetry by reading all his poems together. Take his poems from the lyric section for example. The opening line of Yang Lian’s “The Winter Garden 2” (Tr. BH), “In this world the ones who trust writing least       are poets” (91), very well illustrates his reflection on the paradoxical relationship between the poet and language. “The Lying Game” (Tr. BH) indicates a subtle transition from his earlier poetics during the Mao era:

we think the speech which deceives us           is only
truth      the dying day of every line of poetry
is a mirror, smashed years ago, preserving a face
drooping earlobes
hang from a boy’s trundling hoop

a lifetime’s suns are trundling down night’s steep slope

when words come trundling down      mutes are born
the mad silence in the heart of a mute
is the silence in the tiger’s heart as it springs on the gazelle
flesh is ripped      can’t even make the noise of paper
we have always been mutes
and so      we are playthings for lies (93)

What a general reader sees in this poem is probably a perfect elaboration on the opening line in “Winter Garden 2.” One with knowledge of the Maoist past would notice that “a face/drooping earlobes” is an allusion to Mao’s portrait. From the realization of the deceptive nature of the officially-sponsored poetry during the Mao era to the recognition of the tyrannical nature of language in general, the poet has experienced a transition from a national past to a larger context that is beyond national boundaries.

The rest of the lyric section features a rich medley of styles and subjects in contemporary China. To name a few: Wang Xiaoni’s exquisite and almost Zen-like distillation of the minute details of everyday life in “White Moon” (Trs. Pascale Petit and Wang Xiaoni); Zhai Yongming’s transformation of an obsolete military symbol into a poetic ideal of solitary existence away from the overwhelming power of commercialization in “The Sorrow of Submarines” (Trs. BH, LMK and WNH); Ouyang Jianghe’s powerful crystallization of the rushed, impetuous, and impatient psyche of the post-millennium cosmopolitan urban elites in “One Minute, Oh, Heaven and Men Have Grown Old” (Trs. BH and MLK); Xi Chuan’s intricate weaving of the paradoxical relationship between history and myth in “Khitan Mask” (Trs. BH and MLK); Yi Sha’s strangely beautiful capturing of the tragic fate of those living on the edge of the society in “I am a Wrongly-written Chinese Character” (Trs. Simon Patton and Tao Naikan); and the list goes on.

Due to the limitation of space, I cannot discuss all the fine poets in the lyric section and the interesting samples of various poetic forms in the five other sections of the collection. Readers can explore the wide variety of subjects, forms, and techniques on their own and discover their favorite poets and poems. I end this review with some comments on the significant lack of women poets in Jade Ladder. Among the fifty-three poets featured in Jade Ladder, only 3 are women (one from each “generation”): Wang Xiaoni from the Misty generation, Zhai Yongming from the Third Generation, and Shui Yin from the Fourth Generation. While historical reasons have traditionally prevented more women from being visible in literary, social, and political realms, more women poets have been active on the Chinese poetic scene since the 1980s. It is surprising that a comprehensive anthology such as Jade Ladder does not show this change. Widely acclaimed women poets such as Lan Lan 蓝蓝, Zhou Zan 周瓒, Jiang Tao 江涛(布咏涛), and Yin Lichuan 尹丽川 are not represented in this anthology. More surprisingly, Shu Ting 舒婷, the best-known female Misty poet whose unique poetic voice touched the lives of a generation of young people since its first appearance in Today, is conspicuously absent from Jade Ladder. The editors ofJade Ladder emphasize an unflinchingly high standard for the quality of poems in their selection (27) and translation (41) process. While it is no doubt that the poems selected are excellent, one is left wondering whether the lack of women poets in Jade Ladder is due to the assumed second-best quality of their poetry or a varying standard for what constitutes the best.

Liansu Meng
University of Connecticut


[ 1 ] Yang Lian states in his Introduction that “over 60 poets and more than 200 poems” are included in this anthology (41). However, as W. N. Herbert indicates, some poems were discarded during the translation process for various reasons (27). The result is 53 poets and 196 poems, still an impressively large selection.

[ 2 ] I want to thank Jiayan Mi for kindly sharing his expertise.

[ 3 ] Lucas Klein has noticed this inconvenience as well and compiled an incomplete list of the poets’ names in Chinese included in Jade Ladder.

[ 4 ] Bei Dao 北岛, Mang Ke 芒克, Duo Duo 多多, Zhong Ming 钟鸣, Yu Jian 于坚, Yan Li 严力, Wang Xiaoni 王小妮, Yang Lian 杨炼, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Bai Hua 柏桦, Gu Cheng 顾城, Sun Wenbo 孙文波, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Zhang Shuguang 张曙光, Liao Yiwu 廖亦武, Zhou Lunyou 周伦佑, Song Lin 宋琳, Lü De’an 吕德安, Xiao Kaiyu 肖开愚, Yang Zheng 杨政, Chen Dongdong 陈东东, Meng Lang 孟浪, Senzi 森子, Hu Dong 胡冬, Mai Cheng 麦城, Qing Ping 清平, Zhang Zao 张枣, Huang Canran 黄灿然, Xi Chuan 西川, Yang Xiaobin 杨小滨, Zhang Danyi 郑单一, Hai Zi 海子, Pan Wei 潘维, Song Wei 宋炜, Zang Di 臧棣, Yi Sha 伊沙, Yu Nu 余怒, Chen Xianfa 陈先发, Ge Mai 戈麦, Zhu Zhu 朱朱, Jiang Tao 姜涛, Jiang Hao 蒋浩, Ma Hua 马骅, Shui Yin水印, Han Bo 韩博, Hu Xudong 胡续冬, Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇, Wang Ao 王敖, Sun Lei 孙磊, Zhang Dian 张典, Zou Jingzhi 邹静之, Ya Shi 哑石, Jiang He 江河.

[ 5 ] See pages 16, 21, 29-31, 33-35, 47, 49, 51-53.

[ 6 ] Bei Dao 北岛, “Kaimushi zhici” 开幕式致辞 (Opening Remarks). Presented at Crisis and Detour: 25 Years of Today, University of Notre Dame (March 19-21, 2006).

[ 7 ] Today was relaunched by Bei Dao in Stockholm in 1990.

[ 8 ] See Cheng Guangwei 程光炜, Hong Zicheng 洪子诚, eds. Menglong shi xinbian 朦胧诗新编 (New edition of Obscure Poetry) (Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi, 2004); Hong Zicheng 洪子诚, Liu Denghan 刘登翰, Zhongguo dangdai xinshi shi 中国当代新诗史 (History of contemporary Chinese new poetry) (Beijing: Beijing daxue, 2005), 175-206.