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‘Refusing to be published, refusing even to perish’: Amelia Dale Interviews Ouyang Yu

1 February 2018

AD: The latest issue of ‘Otherland原乡’ is a pinyin special issue which includes poetry that deploys Chinese characters, English and pinyin. What for you, are the highlights of this issue? What happens when poetry smashes into pinyin?

OY: I started experimenting with pinyin about 35 years ago in my poetry although I didn’t have the idea as I now have, which is that Chinese people have three languages without knowing it: simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese and pinyin. These three things, when mixed, can rub off great creative sparks. Take a fragment of pinyin in my poem in that issue that goes, ‘Yu, you xia xialai le, tianqi buleng bure, jishi zai biechu yijing daxue fenfei de wukong buru …’ not even youngsters, people born in the 1990s and the first decade of the century would quite understand it and that’s the beauty of it because we or they are losing a language that needs to be revived. Perhaps I need to translate that into English for my readers: ‘the rain, is coming down again, the weather not cold not hot, even though elsewhere snow is so big that it enters into every hole …’ But the poem is not an inter-translational text (it could be in another poem, though). Each stanza stands alone so that the poem has four mixed ‘languages’.

What I was going to say in the last answer is that in this Otherland WeChat group we or I also encourage chuangjiu创旧 (create the old), as against simply just following the old tired adage chuangxin创新 (create the new) by finding stuff from ancient texts, poetic, fictional and nonfictional, some dating back to thousands of years ago, not only in content but also in form.

The highlights of this issue are, in my view, three-fold, one that it brings attention to a ‘language’ on the brink of extinction, or, I might say ‘disextinction’, two that it shows that the play with the disextinct language hides as much as it reveals the meaning and three that when English, Chinese and pinyin are combined new creative energies are unleashed.

《口诀表》

1唱雄
23其
3从4
4意妄
5颜6
6亲不
7拼8
9曲10
10拿9
不可11

Perhaps an explanation? The title is kou jue biao, in pinyin, which means part of the Times Table but is minus ‘Times’, only the ‘Table’.

The first line is actually part of a well-known sentence that means “一唱雄鸡天下白”(yi chang xiongji tianxia bai), that means ‘the singing of a cock makes the whole under-heaven white’, actually meaning that when the cock crows the day breaks. But I only take the first three characters of that sentence and turn the “一”into ‘1’. Anyone acquainted with the Chinese language and the sentence would immediately understand it.

“23其” is actually part of a Chinese idiom that goes “二三其德”,literally meaning two to three of its morality but that actually means not morally stable or constant, apart from many of its extended meanings. Again, I only use three of the four-character idiom while turning the “二三” into “23”,thus deliberately leaving people confused.

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