Interview with Yan Li

By Michael Standaert

Published by the MCLC Resource Center, Copyright May, 2004.

Yan Li seated in front of one of his paintings

Yan Li seated in front of one of his paintings

Yan Li is a Chinese avant garde poet, novelist, and painter, born in Beijing in 1954. In his formative years he became associated with the Stars Group of artists and writers noted for their abstraction and surrealism, and the Misty Poets, who gained notice in the late 1970s for their subversion of social realism by relying on more emotion and personal imagery. In the mid-1980s, he moved to New York where he started the magazine First Line (Yi hang), which collected the writings of many contemporary Chinese poets and also translated American poetry. His works have been translated into French, English, Italian, Swedish, Korean, and German. He was a participant in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where the following interview took place in October, 2003. A sample of Yan Li’s writing can be found at:the International Writing Program website.

Standaert – Can you talk about living in New York at the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11?

Painting from Yan Li's Fire series

Painting from Yan Li’s Fire series

Yan Li – I was painting there at the time, and it suddenly happened. After a couple of weeks, I was always thinking about how, about why people could care so little about life that they could commit suicide and destroy another human being. One reason is people still don’t have enough knowledge about life. Also, under the reason of nationalism, racialism, religion – people are blinded. They think they are doing something for the nation, the race, or the religion, but I think those things are what make people blind because they don’t have independent thinking. After that, I have thought that the answer is living life with passion. Passion. You have to love life, otherwise you can sacrifice for nations, states and religion. Those things are not the highest level for human beings, just a period. Maybe the period will be longer. In my mind there is another goal for human beings. We only have one earth, one humanity. What divides people is the nationalism, religion, race – also culture and language. Now we also communicate better through computers and many people use English, and much of the material life around the world is relatively the same. When we experience emotions, we use many of the same words. Many of the words are the same. We have computers, TV, Coca Cola. Sometimes Chinese people say, “Look at the furniture in the Forbidden City” –yes, it’s beautiful, but I wouldn’t want to sit in it. It would be uncomfortable.

Standaert – The paintings from your Fire Series, they deal directly with 9/11 and some of these things you are talking about now?

Yan Li – Yes, loving life with passion is the first thing, and the second is what I’ve just told you. We have to think higher and not let nationalism, racism, and religion limit our imagination and knowledge.

Standaert – And these have shown in New York?

Yan Li – Yes, once there and once in China.[1] I also wrote a novel about 9/11. It was published last year in Shanghai, in Chinese.[2] This novel mixes fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction part is the reporting about the event and the background. The fiction part is about a person who was supposed to have an appointment in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks. When he saw the building collapse, he just decided to vanish. He had a large mortgage owed to the ban, so he faked his death. Later he was finally caught. He met a girl in Las Vegas, and got drunk and paid for the meal with his original credit card. He went to Las Vegas to make money without showing any identity. If you work, you have to give your social security number. In America, one of the ways to do that is to gamble. Sometimes when people have the chance, they want to do something bad. When they have trash from life, if they have a chance to change that, they will. I also write about the computer and how you can connect with the whole world and if you are looking for information you can still get it on the road. There is the love story with the girl he met in Las Vegas. She’s a girl originally from Hong Kong, and her husband is a businessman always in China, so she gets lonely and goes gambling in Las Vegas. He meets her, they start planning for the future.

Standaert – Does she know his true identity?

Yan Li – No. Not until he is arrested. Also, sometimes “I,” the writer, appear somewhere in the novel, looking at the main character, sometimes having interaction with him. This is also another technique I use.

Standaert – And you lived in New York how long?

Yan Li – From 1985 to 1995, and on and off since then. I’m also doing a Chinese language magazine in New York, First Line (Yi hang). The reason I do this is that in China, as I told you before, the poetry is the most powerful use of words. So being a poet in China you always have a difficult time. In 1987, I gathered some Chinese language poets from China, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, and we started this magazine. In China, modern poets don’t have much chance to publish their work in magazines and newspapers because those publications worry that they’ll get in trouble. So we gathered together the works and published them in New York, and we sent 400 copies back to China to sell. It is easier to sell that way, and gets around the censors. It’s all online now.

Standaert – So there is no print version now?

Yan Li – No. Maybe at some point I’ll do an anthology, because now China is more open than before. Poetry is appearing more and more in print in China.

Standaert – Do many people access the site from China?

Yan Li – Yes, I have a friend in China who takes care of the website for me.

Standaert – You lived in the U.S. from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, but you’ve been going back to China more since the mid-90s?

Yan Li – Since 1995, I have often gone back to China. I was married there, I have a kid there. I also want to do cultural exchange with the Chinese people. On the other hand, I want to bring my writings back to China, but unfortunately my work was banned from 1995 to 1999. This was after a magazine published a piece of my novel Returning to One’s Native Language (Muyu de zaoyu).[3] The story tells about people from mainland China who lived outside of China for a few years after China opened to the West.

Standaert – When was this?

Yan Li – This was 1995. They thought – the argument about my work was – that it was too liberal and addressed freedom, and things like that. After 1999, the publisher came out with a series of books of modern Chinese poetry, with one book of my poetry.[4] After that book was published, the government news bureau said nothing. That meant the ban was lifted. The strangest thing, when they ban someone’s work, is that they never say how long, and they never send out another statement saying that the ban has been lifted. So if you have a good relationship with a publishing company, you can try after a while.

Standaert – So they wouldn’t tell you and you just figured you’d try?

Yan Li – Yes. Also, the publishing company had their reasons. Before they published the book, they’d already sold some excerpts to newspapers and magazines . . . before they printed my book. The important thing is the publisher is still controlled by the government, you can’t have a private company publish books. They have opened the country to foreign books, but only for sales, not to publish.

Standaert – Why do you think they were so threatened by your work?

Yan Li – Because they always think about the mentality of the people, they are very worried about the power of words. China has a long history of using the power of words to influence people’s minds. From the Qin dynasty, two thousand years ago, there is the story of “burning books, burying intellectuals.” For this kind of culture, they always think words are a very powerful tool to influence minds. The government likes to have people think about how good it is. There is a fear of culture’s influence and the power words have, so they use censorship.

Standaert – Were you overtly critical toward the government in your work, or was it more abstract?

Yan Li – More abstract. But the important thing in my mind is that elements of politics are everywhere, you can’t avoid them. For people who are doing creative work in this life, you have to touch the field of politics – but not be professional politicians.

Standaert – More to bear witness?

Yan Li – Yes, you have to speak about the events that happen in your life, period. You taste it, you smell it. In many ways you combine it all.

Standaert – Can you talk about your childhood in China, your early years, and how you came to be a poet?

Yan Li – My childhood was very hard. I was born in Beijing, but my parents sent me to Shanghai to live with my grandparents. My parents were very busy – they were Communist Party members and worked in Beijing. Two months after I was born, they sent me to Shanghai – where I lived until I was eleven years old. That’s when the Cultural Revolution came. My grandfather was a very famous Chinese traditional doctor – he was a traditional doctor from China’s first medical school in Shanghai where he graduated in 1921 – so, for that reason, during the Cultural Revolution, those kinds of people, lots of them, got in trouble. They took my grandfather to a secret place, and four months later he committed suicide. Before his suicide, my grandmother sent me back to Beijing because they didn’t think they could protect me. This was when I was twelve years old, in 1967 or 1968. After I came back to Beijing, my parents were sent to the countryside. So I just lived alone in Beijing for almost two years. My parents didn’t think it was a good idea to grow up like that, without my parents, but they left me in Beijing because they didn’t know how long they would be gone – no one knew – and thought they would come right back. The whole society was really in chaos. Maybe they thought that if they couldn’t get back to Beijing, at least I could live there. The living conditions in the countryside were very poor. But after two years they were like, okay, let’s bring him back. There were many young people like me in Beijing, many of us, doing bad things – smoking, fighting each other, and not going to school. So my parents took me to the countryside, in Hunan province, and I stayed there as a farm worker for a year and a half. Then my parents sent me back to Beijing to go to high school; later, I worked in a factory there. In the meantime, they put my father in a secret place because of the influence of my grandfather. After four years he became very ill and in another four, or four and a half years, he died.

During this time, around 1970 or so, I was working in the factory. That’s were I started to meet poets, underground poets who were a little older than I was. During that time, I started to write poems secretly, and we would exchange poems with each other and critique each other. Around 1978, the Cultural Revolution was over, but its influence was still present. There was a US-Sino relationship again, but things weren’t all that different. In Beijing, youth groups started to do different things. I was in a group called Today, and we had a poetry magazine.[5] We were factory workers who were poets (sometimes called the Misty Poets). Later I was involved with the Stars group, another poetry and art group. We used to perform in Beijing. In 1979, they closed us down and they have never shown the work of this group in Beijing since. In 1980, I quit the factory job. People had started thinking we could do things by ourselves, but in 1981 the government banned these groups. They banned political groups and many people were thrown in jail. That’s when I decided to get out. I had a relative in New York and applied for a passport, but they didn’t give me one until the end of 1984. Then suddenly they gave me a passport, and I left China in April of 1985, as a foreign student studying English and Art.

I was supposed to go to an art institute, but the dean looked at my slides and my paintings and photos and said, “If you want to teach art, you’ll have to take classes. If you want to become an independent painter, don’t study. You have the work already, school would just take up too much time.” They could only offer a little money, the tuition was high for me as a foreign student. So I decided to study English, which I did at Hunter College for one and a half years. Then I started my life as a freelance artist in New York, just doing the Chinese cultural magazine and painting until 1994. During the time I was in New York, China had the difficulties on 1989. Most Chinese people outside didn’t think they could go back to China, they thought it would be a long time before they could go back to China. But after 1991, 1992, China became more open to the Western market. In 1994, I thought I could go back, so that was the first time I returned.

Standaert – Were you granted asylum in the US?

Yan Li – No, I was granted a special visa as an artist, that way I could work. One for what they call ‘special talent’ people, artists and journalists. It was for people that had already some kind of success. I’d had some things in American magazines, and shows of my art. When I went back to Beijing the first time I wanted to open a gallery and have cultural events there, but was denied. They didn’t like that. I was supposed to have a poetry reading there, and one day before the reading the authorities come and tell me I can’t do it. Later in 1995, my novel come out in Shanghai. Also, in 1997, I went to Hong Kong to have a look. I met a person, a Chinese-American, who had just started a magazine there. I was there for about one and a half years, but the financial storm in 1998 put an end to that. At that time I didn’t think I could work in Hong Kong, and my work was not being accepted in China, so I decided I’d have to go back to the US to do my painting and my writing. From 1999, I started painting my Patches Series. I think the world needs patches. Many things need patches. Relationships. The environment. Even inside the human body – we use our body for many years, we injure a lot of things inside and outside. I started using crayon and acrylic on canvas.

Painting from Yan Li's Patch series

Painting from Yan Li’s Patch series

Standaert – Is there a special significance to using crayon, a child’s material?

Yan Li – Yeah, yeah, yeah. Later, a friend asked me to do some computer business inside China. At that time it was very popular to sell technology, computer, so he asked me to help design websites and conten (they were selling a search engine). So I go back to China to help with this company, but after ten months the business crashed, all over, like Silicon Valley. The reason for me to work back in China was because I was married in 1995, and I have a daughter – they live in Shanghai, so I needed a job in China.

Standaert – Have they been able to come over to see you?

Yan Li – She has applied for a Green Card, but if a Green Card holder is married to a foreigner, it takes a long time. Now it takes about five to six years. She may come next year. She’s been waiting for a long time. But if you ask me which place I’d want to stay as a base, as home – I would prefer China, but of course I can go back and forth between the US and China. I really want to do something culturally in China. In the past, for almost ten years now, they wouldsay “Welcome to those people who have studied technology and design” and to experts in Science, “we welcome you to serve the country.” But they never welcome someone who studies the culture. In my mind, I think, the whole development of human beings is like a ball – you can’t cut it in half and only take the science and technology part and think you don’t need the culture part. As a writer, as a poet, you have to use your native language in writing. For every language, every word has history and meaning, when you use them, you combine the meaning to express this life. For writers, you have to use your native language. I want to share my writing with my native people. Of course, I do sometimes translate American works, or do talks with groups, writers and poets in China, and give them some ideas about American culture as well.


1. Thinking and New Media Foundation (New York; 2002). In China, at the Jin Cai Gallery (Hangzhou, 2002).
2. The novel is entitled Zao yu 9.11 (Encountering 9/11) (Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi, 2002).
3. In Dajia (1995).
4. Spinning Polyhedral Mirror (Qinghai renmin, 1999).
5. Yan Li was a key member of the avant-garde Xingxing (Star Star) Group of painters, sculptors, and writers, which stood against government interference in the arts. In the late 1970s, he was also a key contributor to the underground magazine, Today (Jintian), which published the Misty Poets. Some of Yan Li’s translated work has appeared in journals such as Manoa, Trafika, and The Portable Lower East Side.

Michael Standaert is a writer currently living in Iowa. His recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), San Francisco Chronicle (book reviews), Central Europe Review (Prague), Seoul Times, Boston Review, Maisonneuve (Montreal), In These Times,, and others. His first novel, The Adventures of the Pisco Kid, will be published by Arriviste Press in late 2004. He is also working on a non-fiction book for Soft Skull Press, scheduled for release in late 2005. His poetry collection, The Walnut Wars, was a finalist in the Gival Press Poetry Prize, 2003.