Bitter Oleander Press, 2015
This bilingual edition gathers the best poems of Hai Zi,
one of China's most beloved contemporary poets.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Award presented by ALTA
Read poems from Ripened Wheat:
For over two decades, March 26th has marked the day when college students across China hold vigils for the poet Hai Zi, reciting his poetry and sharing their own poems dedicated to him. Newspapers and magazines publish memorial articles and the latest critical essays on his work. People travel from far and near to visit his tomb in the otherwise forgotten village of Chawan. It was on this day in 1989 that Hai Zi laid his body down on a rail track near Beijing Shanhaiguan and ended his life at the age of twenty five.
In modern Chinese history, few poets have been revered to the extent that Hai Zi has. Not only is he one of the most read contemporary poets, but also one of the most imitated—his folkloric simplicity, imagistic clarity, his motifs of wheat, wheat field, village, and grassland have found their way into many Chinese poems written today. Mostly unknown during his lifetime, he has been posthumously crowned with such titles as “the genius poet”, “the purest poet,” “the poet martyr,” and “the poet who has changed a whole generation’s writing of poetry.”
Originally named Cha Haisheng, Hai Zi was born in 1964 to a poor farming family in Chawan, a village in Anqing City, Anhui Province. Although spending much of his childhood and early teenager years helping out his family in the field, he managed to pass the entrance exam to Law School at Beijing University while only 15, an unheard-of achievement in Anqing City. At Beijing University, he immerged himself in books, showing special interest in classical literature and philosophy. In 1983, upon graduation, he was employed by the China University of Political Science and Law, located in Changping outside of Beijing. There, he first served as an editor of the school journal, and then at the age of twenty, taught philosophy and art theory. Around that time, he began writing poetry. During the five or six years before his death, he wrote about two hundred and fifty lyric poems and several epics and verse dramas.
The 80s is often considered the most exciting time in modern Chinese poetry. The Misty poets that arose at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had gained national recognition at the beginning of the decade. Rescuing it from the degradation as an ideological tool, they made poetry once again an empowering medium for self-awakening and self-recovery. Mean- while, a group of Misty poets, represented by Yang Lian, turned their eyes on the cultural and historical legacies of China which during the Cultural Revolution were vilified as either “poisonous” superstitions or manifestations of feudalism. These poets composed epic-like long poems imbued with elements of classical Chinese art and artifacts, rekindling the sense of grandeur and glory in the nation’s past. Such a root-searching, genesis-tracing impulse was true for Hai Zi as well. It’s said that up until his death, he had been working on a verse drama, titled “Seven Books of the Sun,” which he envisioned as an Eastern creation myth that would decipher the ultimate truth of human existence and destiny.
Although some academics today believe Hai Zi’s major achievement lies in his long poems, most readers find them too dense and removed from everyday experience. What they admire is Hai Zi’s short lyric poems that oftentimes share the same “large” concerns but are lucid and rooted in the daily life. In “Sonnet: Night Moon,” he writes:
Pushing open the woods
the sun pours blood
inside a lamp
I sit quietly
in my people’s village
my people’s dwelling
Everything is the same as it was
Everything is stored
in people’s faces
generation after generation
I am a well
my ancestors dug
for their offspring
Every suffering comes from my deep and secret water
Here, in his village, Hai Zi contemplates the relationship between the self and the ongoing life around him. With simple vocabulary, crystalline imagery, he creates a cosmic harmony both sorrowful and soothing.
A son of the countryside, Hai Zi sets many of his poems in the rural area about which he shows an innate, intimate understanding. Whether he writes about wheat fields (“Those who grow up on wheat / hold big bowls in the moonlight / In each bowl the moon / and wheat / are soundless”), or about love (“After this month we open the door / Some flowers bloom in the tall tree / Some fruits grow in the deep ground”), images of the earth, clots of dirt, and free-growing things permeate his verse. Sometimes playful, sometimes pensive, his poems often touch a deep vein of the Chinese people who until recently had depended on the land and agriculture for livelihood. In fact, Hai Zi’s lyric poems are compared to The Book of Odes—both use an everyday, direct, immediate language free of pretense and refinement while intrinsically capturing the resonance between man and nature.
In his six short years as a writer, 1986 marked a tumultuous time for Hai Zi’s life and work. That fall, his girlfriend of two years and an admirer of his poetry, often addressed as “B” in his poems, left him. The breakup was said to be largely due to B’s concerns about his poor rural background. Already keenly aware of the disparity between city and country life, Hai Zi now realized that there existed an unsurpassable gap between the rural and the urban, a gap far beyond geographical. His poetry, up to then characterized with a delightful simplicity and suppleness, became more poignant and weighty. In “Tears,” a poem he wrote shortly after the breakup, he saw himself as both a poverty- stricken child and a homeless man:
On the last mountaintop leaves redden
The mountains are a poor child’s gray horse and white horse
On the last night of October
they fall in a pool of blood
On the last night of October
the poor child goes home holding a lantern tears cover his face
Everything dies on the road in a small town far away from home
on the last night of October
The man leaning on the white wall of the tavern
asks about the person buried in his hometown’s bean field
On the last night of October
he asks for whom the white horse and gray horse are dying... crimson blood
He is both the child heading home who’s lost his joy among the mountains, and the exiled man away from home, inquiring about his village. Lovesick and homesick, he sees himself belonging to no one and nowhere. As if to relocate himself and reassert his identity as a man from the country, he wrote a number of poems during this period about his rural hometown and his imagined home-coming— “When I am without hope / riding home on a bundle of wheat” or “In the village of plenty, I settle down / The fewer things within reach the better!” Yet his sense of displacement did not seem to be assuaged. He began to write more poems about the trip he’d made earlier that year, a summer- long venture into the Tibetan Plateau, Dunhuang Grottoes, and Inner Mongolian grassland, in the hope of finding a spiritual home and a new identity. In “September,” he wrote: “My lute cries without tears / I speed my horse across the grassland.” Here he transfigures himself into a folk singer, a horseman, a wayfaring bard, alone in nature.
During the next two years, Hai Zi worked in a frenzied state, especially on his verse drama, “Seven Books of the Sun.” Apart from a few foundering love relationships and a second trip to Tibet, he spent most of his time writing. It’s said that he would write all night long, sleep in the morning, teach in the afternoon, and then sit down again to write. But the finished sections of the “Sun,” like his earlier long poems, were not well received, criticized by some established poets as inflated. The disappointment, isolation, and mental overload soon took a toll on him. In January 1989, he started to hear voices.
The hallucinations were also attributed to his practice of qigoing which involves control and manipulation of qi, the breath. Extremely popular in the 80s in China, qigong was believed by many to bring enlightenment and heightened sensory perception. But when unguided, as perhaps in Hai Zi’s case, it may also cause serious side effects.
Hoping to recover, Hai Zi went back to his hometown Chawan. But soon, the hope seemed to turn into resignation. In late January, he wrote one of his most quoted poems, “Facing the Ocean: Spring’s Warm and Flowers Bloom,” which has been both canonized in school textbooks, and absurdly, exploited by developers to advertise their ocean-view real estate. Here, Hai Zi already sees himself apart from the “dusty” world:
Stranger, I’ll also pray for you
Wish you a brilliant future
union with your loved one and happiness
in this world of dust. I only want to
face the ocean where spring’s warm and flowers bloom
Standing in a heavenly springtime or a spring-like heaven, Hai Zi faces the ocean, his new spiritual home, and leaves his prayers to the human world, the worldly happiness absent in his own life he wishes for others. He’s making peace with the world by bidding his farewell.
After the winter break, he went back to Changping. His hallucinations didn’t lessen. Twelve days before his suicide, he wrote his last poem, “Spring, Ten Hai Zis,” in which he visualizes “ten Hai Zis all come back to life,” while only “the barbarous and sad Hai Zi / is left alone, the last one / The child of night, drenched in winter, with a heart for death.” He sees the inevitability of his death, but also sees his death circle back to life, the self not ceasing to be. On March 25, 1989, he cleaned his studio, put his manuscripts in bundles and placed them in a wooden chest he’d brought from home. Then he headed towards Shanghaiguan, literally, the Pass of Mountain and Sea. The train that crushed him leads to the Bohai Gulf which opens to the Pacific Ocean.
His tragic death doubtless put a mysterious veil on his life and work, but even after the sensationalism has died down, the appeal of his poetry has remained. His work has been printed and reprinted, read and loved by poets and non-poets alike. Reading his poems, we are reminded of the wonder of life, of our connections with the earth, the land and soil. We are taken with him on journeys to faraway landscapes, and what he seeks is often what we seek; his aspiration speaks to our aspiration. He died only a couple of months before the Tiananmen Massacre. The public death and national trauma has since been projected onto his death, and his suicide has come to symbolize the end of idealism in the 80s. What has followed in the 90s and the 21st century is the cold, ever-expanding urbanization and consumerism running rampant across the entire country. The pursuit of market profits has replaced the metaphysical contemplation and spiritual quest of the previous decade. In this whirlpool of commodities and materials, in our restlessness, Hai Zi’s poetry provides a quiet place for us to inhabit awhile.
I first translated Hai Zi’s work in 2000. It was the year I started writing poetry bilingually. By rendering my own poems back and forth between Chinese and English, I realized that translation could be a process that prompts me to look at words with clear eyes and to restore meanings to words by using them in fresh and precise ways. As I’d wanted to know how Hai Zi uses language to create such a delicate balance between clarity and mystery, fantasy and immediacy, I translated a dozen of his poems I loved most to learn from them. In 2006, rereading Hai Zi, I found my appreciation for his work hadn’t decreased. Over the years I’ve translated seventy of his lyric poems that I liked most and believed could be rendered effectively into English. I arranged them in a rough chronological order utilizing each year as a section. I have included eight or nine poems each from the years 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989, and a total of twenty-seven poems from 1986, which represents for me his most productive year. Employing such an arrangement will hopefully give the reader some notion as to the progression of his poetic development.
Since Hai Zi’s diction and imagery are oftentimes simple and concrete, I have given most of the poems a rather “literal” translation. My main task was to find the words in English that both serve as suitable equivalents and can generate a musical effect that retains the mood of the original. However, when literalness hinders the translation—as it inevitably does sometimes, considering the cultural and grammatical differences between the two languages—I would take the liberty and make certain departures from the original to aim at the overall integrity of the translation.
I am grateful to Shawn Flanagan, Gillian Parrish, and Melissa Tuckey for their invaluable feedback that made the translations better than they were. I am grateful to my old friend He Jiawei who first introduced Hai Zi’s work to me. My gratitude also goes to Xi Chuan for editing Hai Zi’s selected and collected work, from which the source texts of these translations come. And to Liao Yuan whose biography of Hai Zi provides much of the biographical information in this introduction. I dedicate this book to Paul B. Roth, my editor and longtime friend, for his compassionate and thoughtful readings of these translations, his insightful editorial suggestions, and for making this compilation a reality.
In an essay about his beloved poet Hölderlin, Hai Zi says that a poem should be “real, natural, and growing.” It’s my hope that these translations are just that and will bring you the same delight and comfort his poetry has brought me and so many millions of Chinese readers.