Another Kind of Surrealism: Poetic Flare and Energies in Yang Zi’s Work

Yang Zi

Translator’s Note

Born in 1963 in a working-class family from Anhui Province, Yang Zi, a proclaimed contemporary Chinese poet, has authored a dozen books that include Border Fast Train (1994), Gray Eyes (2000), and Rouge (2007). Elder brother of Yang Jian — who is widely considered today as one of the most major living Chinese poets — Yang Zi spent nine years in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region after his university studies in Chinese literature. With Xu Zhuang and other friends, he co-founded an avant-garde literary journal, Big Bird. In 1990, he was appointed Vice Alderman of Tahaqi Village. Yang Zi’s writings are at times exulting and highly charged with emotions, other times elegiac… These years of travel, solitude, labor and seekings consolidated his interior and creative lives, all of which serve as rich materials for his poetic originality. Since 1993, he has lived in the southern coastal city, Guangzhou, and now works as the Associate Chief Editor of the Nanfang People Weekly. As a prolific poetry translator, he has also introduced the works of Osip Mandelshtam, Paul Celan, Fernando Pessoa, Gary Snyder, Charles Simic and other Western poets to Chinese readers.

A poet who believes in communicating clearly, Yang Zi’s writings are at times exulting and highly charged with emotions, other times elegiac or brooding. With a temperament firmly grounded in reality, he seeks not to write about some elusive Garden of Eden, but to respond explicitly to contemporary needs and social investigations. Incessantly probing into both objective and subjective truths, his poems carry a strong mix of lyrical voices and confessional tone.


BY Yang Zi
(Haifeng, 2007)

In “Desolation,” for instance, he muses with nostalgia about the moon, a symbolic image that recurs in Chinese classical and contemporary poetry, before punctuating at a timely fashion with a sharp irony, “I still don’t know book is book, life is life” —

Moon, have you traveled to
a place more desolate than here

I read in the dreary classroom.
I still don’t know book is book, life is life.

I walk in the dusky air,
just walk, not poetically meander.

Witness to the destruction of nature, common good and values in the so-called modern China today, Yang Zi’s strong critical voice comes across as blatantly transparent when he pinpoints money, greed and desire for power, social validation or fame as prevalent roots of evil. Take a look at one of his title poems, “Rouge”:

What a city.
Eight million people dream the same dream:
Money, money, money!

Yang Zi’s poems do not assume elitism, nor morality. Unafraid to doubt, or even condemn angrily and without reserve, they contain an attractive spontaneity and measure. Surrealist landscapes provide a background for many of the narratives in his work. In an interview with one of his three translators, Melissa Tuckey, he shares openly, “I’m always unleashing anger.” However, his anger about polluted urban landscapes and corrupted mankind, for instance, always transforms to something positive and discreet, even though he might remain pessimistic about his present surroundings and what may befall them. In their flare and darkness, his harrowing and Surrealist imageries may “threaten,” but their truth never alienates itself from poetic beauty and music. Ye Chun, another of his translators, aptly notes, “He writes passionately and beautifully about the ugly and grotesque of contemporary urban life. There’s always an urgency in his poems which is artfully combined with a wild imagination. His voice is often powerful and haunting, and I think it captures a prevalent mood of today’s China.”

This sampling of four poems — “Desolation,” “I Hear Someone Calling My Name in the Air,” “Night Clouds” and “Rouge” — accompanied by their English translations in Cerise Press, were written between 1999 and 2003. They are now compiled in the revised edition of Yang Zi’s poetry collection, Rouge (Haifeng, 2007).

— Fiona Sze-Lorrain

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