Wandering in Wuhan

By | 26 November 2005

Ali Alizadeh at Wuhan's East Lake
Much has been said, refuted and regurgitated about contemporary China's emergence as one of the world's economic superpowers. As the current hegemon, the United States perspires beneath the weight of a colossal and seemingly incurable national budget deficit (not to mention the more visible disasters of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina). China's fiscal and technological advances, on the other hand, seem destined to elevate the vast Asian nation far above its troubled rivals in the region and, perhaps one day, across the globe.

Or so the economists and policy analysts insist.

As a newcomer in Wuhan, one of China's most industrialised and business-savvy cities, I'm inclined to both agree and disagree with such views regarding China's proposed ascendancy. I have witnessed dazzling opulence as well as dizzying penury throughout the city's gentrified business districts and their accompanying slums. Whatever one's definition of 'economic progress', China seems to be split between its ostentatious vanguard and its tarnished rearguard.

More than anything else, however, I am surprised by the striking survival of poetry, perhaps the least commercial and most archaic form of cultural expression, here in this most economically rational and commerce-obsessed of places.

I am almost astounded to find that ancient and medieval poetry occupies a uniquely central presence in Wuhan's contemporary identity; that, in spite of ideological and legal issues and restrictions, new cutting-edge poetry grows across China's cyberspace; and that all of this is happening in spite of a rapid, and some might say rabid, modernisation and commercialisation.

Poetry in the West has, arguably, barely survived the Industrial Revolution, modernity, Capitalism, globalisation, etc. To say that poetry (at least in Australia) is dead would be unnecessary since the continuing rejection of poetry by the majority of Australian publishers is an all too familiar theme; and to blame modernity and economic rationalism for this cultural malaise may amount to stating the obvious.

Yet the truly striking phenomenon that I have encountered here in China – a country that has seemingly fetishised and dedicated itself to all aspects of Western modernity and the progress myth – is that poetry has not been rendered obsolete. From what I have seen and understood of this country so far, poetry, both as antiquated cultural heritage as well as a contemporary medium for discourse and expression, constitutes a significant, ubiquitous and lively entity.

Consider, for example, Wuhan's renowned landmark Yellow Crane Tower. The five-storied and 51.4 meters tall citadel and its surrounding pavilions and gardens, first built during the Three Kingdoms period in AD 223, have over the centuries become not only the city's major tourist attraction but also its symbolic backbone, performing an emblematic function similar to that of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Before visiting this site about a month ago I was expecting to find it bathed in Communist-era nostalgia and/or neo-Capitalist insignias of today's China; but I instead found myself in the presence of an extraordinary monument to the prowess and longevity of the art of poetry.

Yellow Crane Tower is literally, and literarily, steeped in poetry. The elaborate citadel has been the subject of much poetry (one thousand individual poems, according to the site's promotional pamphlet) by some of China's best-known poets from the Tang Dynasty genius Li Bai to Chairman Mao Zedong. These poets are commemorated in the adjoining districts of the complex that extend to the east and south of the tower away from the Yangtze river; in the form of stelae, pavilions and statues.

One of the most impressive of these sites celebrates the Song Dynasty warrior Yue Fei. Next to a mammoth and ferociously august bronze statue of the 12th century general a didactic plaque describes his doomed military career before noting what seems to be Yue Fei's real cause for immortality: his composition of a belligerent poem called 'Manjiang Hong' ('Bloody River'), a line of which has been included in the plaque in English translation as “My hair bristles with ire”.

To the south of this site and further towards the tower, past a place called the Poem Verandah, an enormous stele inscribed with Tang Dynasty poet Cui Hao's 'Huang Ha Lou' ('Yellow Crane Tower') commemorates what is perhaps the best-known poem about this historic structure; a remarkably famous poem that apparently prompted the reconstruction of the then dilapidated site in the 1980's.

What follows is an English translation of the poem as published in 300 Tang Poems (Beijing: Higher Education Press, 2000) translated and edited by Wang Guoxiang and others:

The sage on yellow crane was gone amid clouds white.
To what avail is Yellow Crane Tower left here?
Once gone, the yellow crane will ne'er on earth alight;
Only white clouds still float in vain from year to year.
By sunlit river trees can be count'd one by one;
On Parrot Islet sweet green grass grows fast and thick.
Where is my native land beyond the setting sun?
The mist-veiled waves of River Han make me homesick.

The massive stele, touted as the park's 'treasure' in the accompanying plaque, includes the poem in carved calligraphy alongside an idealised stone relief of the medieval poet himself, brush in hand and looking pensively into the distance and over the river's swirling clouds of mist and wavelets that frame the fringes of the engraved Mandarin text. On the day of my visiting the site many Chinese tourists had queued up to have their pictures taken with the stele; and it seemed as though they revered, and nearly worshipped, this Tang Dynasty lyric.

This poem, as I was later informed, is part of the cannon of Tang Dynasty verse that Chinese school children study and memorise in primary schools across the country; and it was in deference to this poem's acknowledged greatness that a later poet, who had also climbed the tower to write about the celebrated view of the humid city and misty rivers from the temperate heights, chose to lay down his pen and stop writing – a curious, almost post-modernist and Derridian, event that has also been commemorated alongside the Cui Hao relief in a so-called Deferral Pavilion exhibiting a copper statue of a desk with an abandoned pen.

The Chinese people's enthusiasm for the Tang poets should not be necessarily seen as mere patriotism as many non-Chinese poetry aficionados also share it. Du Fu, the best-known of the Tang poets, for example, has been described by some Western scholars as “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet whose writings survive in any language”; a description that seemingly places the Chinese poet in the company of Homer and Shakespeare. And it too would be a mistake to see the preservation and near-idolisation of the archaic poets in Yellow Crane Tower as something on par with the sort of devotion lovers of the cannon in the West heap upon their 'greats'.

Ali Alizadeh at Wuhan's East Lake
Ali Alizadeh at Wuhan's East Lake

In this city – as mentioned before regarding the role of Cui Hao's famous poem in galvanising the restoration of Yellow Crane Tower – life has imitated art. More specifically, the relationship between poetry and place is not only sentimental but also fundamental to the very being and identity of environment.

As another example, Mulan Mountain and Lake district – a popular holiday destination 58 kilometres from Wuhan – is named after and remembered across China as the hypothetical birthplace of Hua Mulan, the legendary and possibly fictional gender-bending heroine of a verse ballad of the Northern Dynasties period (AD 386-581).

In other words, here poetry is not merely 'valued' as a pre-modern and bygone cultural artefact; but it defines the very individuality and substance of existing cultural as well as natural landscapes. It is perhaps this mutual and unbreakable relationship between poetry and place that prompts the survival of poetry in China in spite of the arguable death, or at least the dramatic decline, of the art-form in the West.

While neither ancient nor modern poetry has had much of a role to play in the lives of most Western citizens over the last two hundred years or so, China remains deeply attached to the illusions, musings and narratives of her wordsmiths in spite of the triumphs of modernity, economic rationalism and commercialism.

An argument, however, could be had regarding the possible negative impact of such a reverential and uncritical attachment to the work of classical poets, and the subsequent myth-makings that may distort the 'reality' of the individual poems for the sake of contemporary usage. Notwithstanding these issues, and for the purposes of this discussion, the central topic regarding the reception of poetry in China concerns the place and role of contemporary poetry.

Could it be said that as a result of an overly positivist view of the work of 'greats', the work of contemporary Chinese poets could be sidelined and possibly undervalued by the cultural organisations and people? What level of popularity and audience does contemporary Chinese poetry enjoy? Is poetry 'alive and kicking' in China?

I cannot provide adequate responses to these important questions as my Mandarin is still limited to ordering food (at best), and most of the English language books of poetry in Wuhan's foreign language bookshops are translations of the aforementioned 'greats' or original works by their English counterparts e.g. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, etc.

I am, however, deeply impressed by the sophistication and vibrancy of the poems translated and collected by Ouyang Yu in the groundbreaking anthology In Your Face: Contemporary Chinese Poetry in Translation (Melbourne: Otherland Literary Journal, 2002); and I therefore thought it best to put my questions to Professor Yu himself, currently teaching creative writing and writings in the Chinese diaspora at Wuhan University, and ask him about what level of readership, if any, contemporary Chinese poetry is afforded in China.

“Contemporary Chinese poetry in China is characterized by its ever shrinking readership, an ever increasing number of poets reading each other's work and publishing their own work as well as poetry getting self-published and widely distributed online”, Yu comments. “Apart from poets themselves and lovers of poetry, few people read poetry, which doesn't mean that they don't read poetry if given a chance”.

While these remarks seemingly echo observations that could also apply to the poetry scene in Australia, the phenomenon of expansive online publication of poetry should be emphasised as it has not, to the best of my knowledge, really proliferated in Australia beyond a few 'real' journals such as Cordite, Divan, Jacket, Masthead and Thylazine – on 'Australian Poetry: Poetry International Web' site, for example, only six “interesting Australian poetry websites” have been listed (including only one of the aforementioned journals).

In China, on the other hand, according to Xinhua News (China's official media group) there are now over 250 poetry websites, and the abundance of online poetry has led to the “unprecedented flourishing” of the art-form in the country. It should also be noted that in China online publishing has provided an outlet for the dissemination of uniquely controversial and avant-garde poetries that would have almost certainly been rejected by the country's few and rather exclusive print poetry journals, such as the work of the so-called Rubbish Poetry Group, a movement of younger poets favoured by Ouyang Yu.

Yu further believes that the adulation that has been bestowed upon the work of the classical Tang poets could not outweigh the worth of the work of contemporary Chinese poets. He observes: “The classical poetry is being taught at all levels of schooling which in a way eclipses the contemporary poets but that doesn't mean their poetry is necessarily sidelined or undervalued as long as it is creatively and imaginatively good and fresh. Classical poetry needs to reinvent itself, too, through contemporary poets such as myself; I, for one, have re-written poems by Li Bai and Du Fu to an unpublishable degree.”

'Reinvention' seems to be the keyword in not only discussing an ideal relationship between classical and contemporary poetry, but also the overall political and economical discourses generated by the successes and/or risks of today's China.

Whatever the outcomes of China's socio-economical reinvention and her gargantuan modernisation, it is clear that she will not altogether abandon poetry to the rather grim fate of archaic cultural products in the 'age of mechanical reproduction' as in some other developed countries such as Australia.

It seems to me that for as long as sites such as Yellow Crane Tower stand and are visited in Chinese cities, and for as long as the internet exists and is put to use by poets, poetry will survive, and perhaps even flourish, in what may or may not be 'the world's next superpower'.

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