By Maghiel van Crevel, Leiden University
Published by the MCLC Resource Center, Copyright 2003.
Longbo Guangchang, transl(iter)ated as Rainbow Plaza, is on the East Third Ring Road, near Changhong Bridge, Beijing. The Cultural Development Company Red Square [Hong Chang Xiu 红场秀], located on the Plaza premises, regularly puts on programs that include fashion and game shows, dance nights and music. On 18 October 2002, Red Square hosted a joint initiative by artist Tong Zhen’gang 童振刚 and poet Fang Zi 方子. The show was entitled “Them [feminine]: Language & Image.” The Image took the form of oil paintings by women artists Wang Shuling 王淑玲, Zhang Huike 张惠可, Zhu Bing 朱冰, Hou Limei 侯丽梅, Shi Lei 石磊, Wang Xiaolin 王小琳, Richu 日出, Feng Ling 枫翎, and Du Jie 杜婕, on exhibit in the corridor leading to the Red Square theater. Inside the theater, Language came to the audience in readings by women poets Xiaoxiao 潇潇, A Bi 阿B, Bing Dao 冰岛, Liu Xia 刘霞, and Fang Zi. Their recital alternated with live music by the rock band Second Hand Rose [Ershou Meigui 二手玫瑰].
The Roses are men, but their repertoire was well attuned to the day’s theme. Their first song pounded away at marriage and divorce, also featured later on in A Bi’s long poem <1998 Red Matrimony Series> [1998 hongse hunyin xilie 红色婚姻系列]. The institution of matrimony aside, heterosexual relationships were prominent in other poets’ readings too. Throughout the program, in their lyrics the Roses balanced a masculine stage presence with a clear connection to the thematics of women and their relationship with men, right up to when the persona contained in singer Liang Long’s 梁龙 voice expressed shock at “Really? Really? Really?” being pregnant. The band has been described (see the website linked above) as blending Chinese story-telling and singing traditions with Western rock music. One interface with Feminine Creativity—the English caption to the program—lies in Liang Long’s habit of performing in drag, which can be seen as an embodiment of the female-male dialogue in North-East Chinese song-and-dance duets [er ren zhuan 二人转]. That would have been an interesting, ambiguous contribution to the day’s event, but Liang chose to appear in “plain” clothes. All in all, the Roses offered a self-assured, musically somewhat rigid but worthwhile mix of gloom and bitter jest.
“Them: Language & Image” found a remarkable venue in the Red Square theater, replete with a catwalk, smoke machine, light show and background music. The Red Square host began by reaffirming a resounding cliche? when he announced that the program would feature beautiful women poets. In itself there’s nothing wrong with calling people beautiful, and no offence was intended or visibly taken. Still, the phrase sits uneasily with a common denominator of much contemporary women’s poetry: not cute nor susceptible to patronizing. Especially A Bi’s and Fang Zi’s readings set the record straight. A Bi (fig. 1) praised and cursed marriage in her <Matrimony Series>. In <Farewell, Motherland> [Gaobie zuguo 告别祖国], New York resident Fang Zi (fig. 2) compelled attention by the sheer intensity of her recital. That quality in her reading also blocked out the drone of the background music.
Poetry recital and music are a potentially powerful combination, as long as they match. Poet Hei Dachun 黑大春, for instance, currently puts on meticulously rehearsed joint performances with the rock band Vision [Muguang 目光], and Yan Jun 颜峻 is opening up recital practice by reading his poetry amid computer-generated soundscapes. But the total is painfully less than the sum of its parts if the music is simply dumped on the poetry, and repetitive within an individual’s reading to boot—which was the case at the Red Square. To make matters worse, the music accompanying the poets was, again, of a cliched, tragic-melancholy mood predisposing their poetry’s reception by the audience. One wonders if the same pieces would have been chosen to accompany male poets. The women reading in the Red Square had been divided on the issue, but in the end all read to music. The practice may be something like a current cultural reflex triggered by the now ubiquitous availability of audio equipment, and more generally the rise of entertainment culture. It happens in a wide variety of (semi)ceremonial moments, from a spectacular recital by the Survivors [Xingcun zhe 幸存者] poetry club at the Chinese Drama Institute in April 1989—about as avant-garde as it gets—to a formal address at a conference on the Nine Leaves Poetry Group held at the Modern Literature Museum in August 2001—definitely an establishment activity.
In Xiaoxiao’s (fig. 3) case, even if she was one of the poets who had wanted to read without music, the damage was limited, perhaps because she herself opened with a poem called <More Sorrowful than Music> [Bi yinyue geng youshang 比音乐更忧伤]. In a brief speech, she was the first to take an apologetic stance on behalf of poetry, speaking of her gratitude to an enthusiastic audience of 80-100 people who had “still come to listen to poetry in this day and age”. From a publisher’s point of view, Xiaoxiao knows what she’s talking about. Co-editor in 1993 with fellow Sichuan poet Wan Xia 万夏 of a rich anthology called The Complete Post-Obscure Poetry (Hou menglong shi quanji 后朦胧诗全集) (Chengdu: Sichuan jiaoyu], she is today still in the business of producing books. Bing Dao (fig. 4) joined Xiaoxiao in thanking the audience for attending, saying “We are one of a kind, to love poetry in a time like this”, and wondering in the first part of her <Ballad of the Times> [Suiyue geyao 岁月歌谣] whether “the lyric age of poetry / has now truly passed?” Liu Xia’s (fig. 5) concern about having become “removed from poetry”—and her introduction by anchorwoman Du Dongyan 杜东彦, who felt the need to hint that there was a “personal secret” behind Liu’s worries—somehow added to a mood that fits well with a view of poetry widespread among poets and critics in China today.
The said view is as much a sociological as a literary phenomenon. Its proponents acknowledge the primacy of bread and circuses in today’s society, but refuse to forgo a prideful self-image incompatible with that fact of life. Their incrowd dignity has a potential for growth in inverse proportion to the art’s removal from mainstream consumption, but cannot indefinitely do without an audience beyond the inner circle. In modern times in China and elsewhere, for a poet or an artist to be—publicly—misunderstood or suppressed by Uncool Powers, be they political dictators, the bourgeoisie or the stock market, can be an honorable fate, to the point where willful provocation of establishment interference occurs. Conversely, in the interaction of artists and a type of audience that has the power to suppress, and inasmuch as artistic achievement is measured in terms of rebellion and social controversy, a variation on Oscar Wilde suggests itself: there is only one thing worse than being misunderstood and suppressed, and that is being ignored.
In China, being ignored may have been alright for poetry in the early 1990s. The gung-ho banner-waving, collectivist Ismism of the 1980s was followed by broad social disenchantment in poetry circles, and individual authors striking out on their own in different directions. Life and art after the turbulent turn of the decade took reflection and readjustment, as did the rapid, all-pervading commercialization of daily reality. But while the suppression of the 1989 Protest Movement and a subsequent few years of poetic reticence are now a long time ago, commercialization and multi-media, multi-sensory consumerism and entertainment culture show no signs of abating, and are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Karaoke with full condiments is hotter—that is, more visible in society at large—than the subtleties of literary metaphor. So, if being ignored was fine for a while, and arguably conducive to poetry’s creative development, continuing to be ignored is much harder.
This hypothesis explains an often-heard lament in literary circles of recent years over poetry’s lack of social status–not proud marginality but downright negligibility, captured in expressions like “failure,” “being on the wane,” and “crisis”. It also leads to the conclusion that in spite of claims by various members of the avant-garde, they have by no means internalized a view of poetry as autonomous from mainstream social discourse. Albeit in a loose sense, they still subscribe to a poetics of Literature to convey the Way [wen yi zai dao 文以载道], whether in a traditional or a modern frame of reference. Alternatively, in pragmatic terms, they must be taking their cue from things like the number of people who watch TV and read poetry, respectively: if TV is bigger, then poetry can be no good. As such, it is precisely the two forces forever cited as alien obstacles to the avant-garde’s development—literary orthodoxy and commercialization—that, ironically, supply the criteria for its evaluation. Otherwise, what’s the problem? Don’t catalogs, literary magazines, bookstores and private libraries display unprecedented poetic pluriformity and abundance? Not to mention graphomania on the Web: Web text quality is by and large in inverse proportion to its quantity, but the Web has undeniably spurred on experiment, debate, and mobility.
Admittedly, since the 1990s most avant-garde poetry comes at a financial loss for the publisher, and many manuscripts must bring their own funding along. A rough estimate would be between RMB 5,000 and 10,000 for a sizeable book. Then again, one should bear in mind that in the 1990s there were infinitely more people producing manuscripts for individual publication than in the 1980s. They would have been encouraged by the frenzied development of the publishing industry. And if the contemporary avant-garde came to the fore in the late 1970s, with an underground history going back another decade or so, it stands to reason that its true proliferation began only after some ten or twenty forerunners had challenged establishment strictures, that is: in the late 1980s. Incidentally, this aids the interpretation of the popular expression that in the 80s, a rock thrown out the window was sure to hit a poet. That saying may reflect the conspicuous impact of a small, budding avant-garde, set off against fresh memories of the Cultural Revolution, riding the tide of the government policy of “Emancipation of the Mind”, addressing a dedicated audience with few other distractions—and not so much the emergence of truly great numbers of people writing in a truly great variety of individual styles. The latter situation is in fact a defensible description of the 90s and beyond. If falling rocks have stopped hitting poets, that may well be because these days, the streets are crowded with other potential victims, too: managers, consultants, entrepreneurs, tourists and so on.
Anyway, the need to purchase an ISBN number [shuhao 书号] has not precluded publication of innumerable individual collections, driving a collector-cataloguer like Liu Fuchun 刘福春 to despair because it is impossible to keep up. At the same time, the avant-garde remains a status symbol with prominent publishing houses. One example is the Blue Star Poetry Treasure-House [Lanxing shiku 蓝星诗库] of the People’s Literature Press, hitherto including solid collections by Shizhi 食指, Shu Ting 舒婷, Gu Cheng 顾城, Haizi 海子, Xi Chuan 西川, Yu Jian 于坚, Wang Jiaxin 王家新, and Sun Wenbo 孙文波. Another is the Hebei Education Press Epoch Poetry Series [Niandai shicong 年代诗丛] with books by Yu Xiaowei 于小苇, Jimulangge 吉木狼格, Xiao An 小安, Ding Dang 丁当, He Xiaozhu 何小竹, Lu Yang 鲁羊, Yang Li 杨黎, Bai Hua 柏桦, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, and Zhu Wen 朱文. According to series editor Han Dong 韩东, whose own work is separately available in the same, stylish Epoch format, the Epoch project aims at a total of forty indivudal collections over the next couple of years, in another three instalments after the above-mentioned first set of ten books. The next cohort will include poets who rose to prominence in the 1990s; the third, those who made a name for themselves on the Web, mostly born in the 1970s; and the fourth, various contemporary poets whose work has, according to the editor, not received the attention it deserves. Notably, the authors in these series are not paying for publication, but getting paid, to the tune of RMB 5’000 to 7’000 for a first print run, with detailed arrangements for reprint royalties. Equally important, there are multiple examples of rich people—named and unnamed, including business people, some with literary aspirations themselves—sponsoring poetry publications, in both official and unoffical circuits. Unofficial circuits produce everything from scruffy-looking to exquisitely laid-out publications such as Poetry Reference [Shi cankao 诗参考] Poetry Text [Shi wenben 诗文本], Poetry and People [Shige yu ren 诗歌与人] andBlue [Lan 蓝], published by Chinese living in Japan, to name but four out of several tens of widely read journals. Having grown out of their 1980s underground status, they continue to be recognized as influential, even as the avant-garde is less and less defined in opposition to the orthodox literary establishment. Indeed, the avant-garde has effectively outshined the establishment and become magnanimously indifferent to avant-garde authors publishing in what used to be the enemy camp—say, official literary journals—if only to make some money. Finally, in addition to individual collections and journal publications, the genre of anthologies is positively thriving, both chronological surveys and those that highlight particular trends or persuasions.
Hence, pluriformity and abundance. And it’s not just more of the same. In a crude generalization, after the early 1980s “Obscure” [menglong 朦胧] poetry, the avant-garde has constituted a broad poetical spectrum, contained within the outer limits of two main, divergent—some would say opposed—trends. A critical taxonomy is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that many poets and critics have used binary classifications for their craft in the said period, containing both self-assigned and hostile labels, some more tenable than others. For example: lofty vs quotidian, formal vs colloquial, elitist vs anti-elitist, mythical vs anti-mythical, cultural vs anti-cultural or pre-cultural, affirmation vs disavowal, northern vs southern, westernized vs indigenous, mind vs body and recently (1998-2000), in a sustained polemic, intellectual vs popular. So-called representatives of the first item in each of these dichotomies include Wang Jiaxin, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Haizi, Xi Chuan, Chen Dongdong 陈东东, Zang Di 臧棣, and Xi Du 西渡. The second item in each entry is associated with Han Dong, Yu Jian, Ding Dang, Zhou Lunyou 周伦佑, Lan Ma 蓝马, Li Yawei 李亚伟, Yang Li, Zhu Wen, Yi Sha 伊沙, Xu Jiang 徐江, Hou Ma 侯马, Yang Ke 杨克, Song Xiaoxian 宋晓贤, and Shen Haobo 沈浩波 among many others. In reality, these broad trends accommodate an array of individual styles merrily crossing over from one exclusive poetics to the next, shining examples being “narrative” [xushi 叙事] poets like Zhang Shuguang 张曙光, Xiao Kaiyu 肖开愚, and Sun Wenbo, and “alternative” [linglei另类] poets such as Che Qianzi 车前子, Mo Fei 莫非, and Shu Cai 树才.
Minor tussles aside, the polemics of “intellectual vs popular” poetry meant a dramatic, widely publicized confrontation within an avant-garde that found its footing in early 1980s collisions with the establishment over “Obscurity” and “Spiritual Pollution”. It seems plausible that the 1998-2000 polemic, especially its sometimes sensationalist presentation in print and online media, was in part motivated by a desire to stir things up, and reclaim for poetry a position closer to center stage than it had held for a long time. For, as earlier argued, other than finding fault with poetry for low social visibility, it would be hard to pinpoint its “failure”, its “being on the wane” or a “crisis” in, shall we say, textual matters. Of course there is much debris amidst the improbable amounts of poetry written and published these days, but many good poems remain. Apologies for poetry are something of a genre in themselves, and there’s no greater or lesser need for them in present-day China than anywhere or anywhen else. It all depends on whether the unbearable experience of being ignored couldn’t also be a pleasurable one of being left alone.
Meanwhile, contemporary Chinese “Women’s poetry” [nuxing shige 女性诗歌] is one category whose members are particularly difficult to pigeonhole as a group according to any of the above binary pairs—or of popular genealogical catchwords such as “Obscure,” “Post-Obscure” [hou menglong 后朦胧], “Third Generation” [di san dai 第三代], “Fourth Generation” [di si dai 第四代], “Post-70” [70 hou 后]. Women’s poetry has Zhai Yongming’s (fig. 6:) series “Woman” (1984) as its fountainhead, and cuts across generations, geographies and writing styles. As is true for many literary-critical categories, it allows very different authors to be lumped together: Shu Ting, Wang Xiaoni 王小妮, Zhai Yongming, Yi Lei 伊蕾, Lu Yimin 陆忆敏, Tang Yaping 唐亚平, Hai Nan 海男, Tang Danhong 唐丹鸿, and many more, including the five authors who read in the Red Square theater in the fall of 2002. The theoretical possibility of a definition of Women’s poetry that allows for inclusion of male-authored texts has not been seriously explored. This makes sense—more than just common sense—for the category originates from a primary interest in women authors, whose gender was initially read into their texts as a male-critical construct as much as anything else. That does not detract from the fact that in the meantime, writing on Women’s poetry has developed sophisticated textual arguments in areas like thematics and language usage, such as in the work of authors like Cui Weiping 崔卫平, Lu Jin 吕进, and Zhou Zan 周瓒—editor of Wings [Yi 翼], an unoffical journal for Women’s poetry.
The invitations for “Them: Language & Image” listed six poets. In addition to Xiaoxiao, A Bi, Bing Dao, Liu Xia and Fang Zi, there was to be a reading by Yin Lichuan 尹丽川 (fig. 7), prominent in the “Lower Body” [xiaban shen 下半身] poetry troupe that has scandalized and delighted the poetry scene and its audiences since 2000. Its members include Shen Haobo, Sheng Xing 盛兴, Li Hongqi 李红旗, Li Shijiang 李师江, Xuanyuanshike 轩辕轼轲, Wu Ang 巫昂, Duo Yu 朵渔, Ma Fei 马非, Zhu Jian 朱剑, and others. At its best moments, Yin Lichuan’s poetry is at once hilarious and terrifying. Mere paraphrase of its thematics—sex, decadence, cynicism, derision, lethargy—would not do justice to her effective use of formal elements like repetition and rhyme. Whatever it is, her work could not possibly be dressed up in cliched visions of woman-poethood, and makes it unlikely that she has any talent for being apologetic, on behalf of poetry or anything else. Perhaps because there is something absolutely illusion-less and unassuming about it—and it feels like its author couldn’t care less about being ignored, and may well take pleasure in being left alone. It is tempting to read her unexplained absence from the Red Square recital as evidence. Be that as it may, one wonders if she might not have tipped the balance in favor of a recital without background music. The type of music for which her work implies a certain enthusiasm must inherently be played so loud that it would drown out any poet’s voice.
Beijing, December 2002