Love for the World: Chinese Nature Writer Wei An
I visited Wei An’s apartment in the Beijing suburb of Changping with his sister, brother and three friends. His basketball, camera, and canvas traveling bag are hanging inside the front door. Wei An’s study is as he left it; on the bookshelves are Chinese translations of the writers Wei An admired. They were almost all foreign. His hand-written manuscripts are kept in a box in a shuttered bottom shelf.
Between 1988 and 1995, Wei An wrote seventy-five short meditations on the things that fell within his observation and concern; five of these are translated here. Another ten were also published in my translation in the recent Mãnoa anthology, Sky Lanterns: New Poetry from China, Formosa and Beyond (University of Hawai’i, 2012). Wei An’s final draft of “Life on Earth” is neatly written in blue ink; the penultimate draft is carefully corrected in red. Wei An wrote little, and he wrote slowly. His meticulous self-editing was one of the qualities that puzzled and charmed his friends. He had each of his visitors write a note on a postcard, and the day Wei An’s sister opened Wei An’s apartment to us, the poet Shu Cai flipped through the postcards. Together with Wei An’s college classmate Zhou Xinjing, and the novelist Ning Ken, they reminisced. Wei An was sincere and naive, the three agreed. Zhou said that when Wei An had visitors who did not know each other, he conducted solemn, formal introductions. The thoughtfully articulate Zhou, who has published a novel, imitated Wei An and chuckled. Shu Cai is an ex-diplomat and knows French; in the 1990s he got phone calls from Wei An at all hours pressing him for immediate translations of more work by Francis Jammes, Wei An’s favorite poet. The exuberant, energetic Ning Ken, brought a basket of flowers and put on the table in front of Wei An’s photograph in the front hallway. He remembered going swimming with Wei An at a nearby reservoir they called with great satisfaction their own Walden Pond.
Wei An read Walden in Xu Chi’s translation in the winter of 1986-1987, and the book changed his life; he discovered he preferred what he called Thoreau’s “free, unrestrained, simple and open… organic” style to any form of writing he had previously encountered. Wei An wrote that his poetry, which he stopped writing when he read Walden, was “prose-like” and Thoreau’s prose was poetic. He said the form of writing that occupies the middle ground fit him. “Life on Earth” is somewhat like Walden with nine out of every ten sentences removed.
To those who knew him, Wei An’s character and the way he lived his life were more important than his writing. His self-discipline, open-heartedness and loyalty marvel his friends even now. Wei An’s grandfather was a vegetarian for health reasons; Wei An’s vegetarianism was an ascetic, environmental practice. Wei An made a point of writing that his vegetarianism had nothing to do with Buddhism; his most common religious reference is to Christianity, even if Zhou Xinjing stated categorically that Wei An was not Christian.
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