Love for the World: Chinese Nature Writer Wei An

Introduction

Wei An

The Last Romantic
BY Wei An
(Flower City Publishing, 2009)

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.

Wei was also a self-avowed pacifist and, in retrospect, a deep ecologist. Wei An was the pen name of Ma Jianguo who was born in 1960. He grew up on the outskirts of Beijing, studied philosophy at People’s University, and lived and worked in Changping until his death from liver cancer in 1999. We watched a video of Wei An’s wake. When he was dying, Ning Ken drove him to cemeteries, but Wei An could not find a place where he wanted to be buried. His ashes were scattered by friends over the wheat field he was writing about when he died.

Wei An did not catalog flora and fauna; he read natural history, but it was in order to better express his love for the world when writing about an encounter with poetry, philosophy and the myriad things on this earth.

In 1998 Wei An came to the wheat field on each day of the twenty-four solar terms of the traditional Chinese calendar, which include the equinoxes, the solstices and also, for example, the days Insects Awaken, Grain Rain, White Dew, and Frost Descending. On each visit he took a picture, recorded the time and weather, and made notes. I told Wei An’s sister and friends that in Vermont, my wife and I track the seasons by this calendar. She told us the wheat field is now a cement factory.

On Wei An’s bookshelf is a framed photograph of the brick farmhouse where he grew up. Wei An’s parents worked for the state. They had no land, no animals, and did not farm. But Wei An grew up in the countryside, and his work is an eulogy, sometimes angry, for the agricultural way of life. His nature is pastoral, intimate, just on the other side of domestication. He does not write about the wild. As an American, my impulse as a translator of Wei An’s is to make him a naturalist, but Wei An resists this. The essence of Thoreau for Wei An is not his call for a “return to nature” but rather for the “completion of man.” Wei An’s last word on Thoreau in an essay about the American writer is that Thoreau was a man of great love. Wei An did not catalog flora and fauna; he read natural history, but it was in order to better express his love for the world when writing about an encounter with poetry, philosophy and the myriad things on this earth. As a product of the age of irony, I find it impossible to reciprocate, without acting, the unguarded expression of emotion and the direct discussion of truth, beauty and goodness — the idiom in which Wei An’s friends engage the world. Their and Wei An’s romanticism embarrasses me; yet it reminds me that the romantic and the scientific engagements of nature developed together and cannot — or at least should not — be separated.

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