Han Dong (韩东) was born in 1961 in Nanjing. His parents were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, taking him with them. When the Cultural Revolution ended, he studied philosophy at Shandong University, subsequently lectured in Xi’an and Nanjing, and finally relinquished teaching in 1993 to make his living as a writer. In the 1980s, Han Dong became an important avant-garde poet, and edited the influential poetry magazine Tamen (Them). He is also known as an essayist, short story writer, blogger and novelist.
He has made several literary tours in the West, visiting Rotterdam, Paris, Brussels, London, Manchester and Edinburgh, and has been writer-in-residence in Gutenberg, Germany and Saint-Nazaire, France. A collection of his poetry in English can be found in A Phone Call from Dalian (Zephyr Press, 2012). A number of poems from this collection, and others, have appeared in translation in poetry magazines and online, for instance as Carol Rumens’ Poem of the Week in The Guardian.
Nicky Harman lives in the United Kingdom. She translates from Chinese, focusing on fiction, poetry and sometimes literary non-fiction, by authors such as Han Dong, Chen Xiwo, Xinran, Hong Ying, Zhang Ling and Yan Geling. She is a regular contributor to the literary magazines Chutzpah, and Words Without Borders, and also organises translation-focused events, mentors new translators and was one of the judges for the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize 2012. She contributes to the website for translators from Chinese, Paper Republic, and was Translator-in-Residence, London, at the Free Word Centre in 2011. Her home page is here.
Han Dong was a leading light of China’s avant-garde in the 1980s and continues to be an influential poet today. But, 30 years on, the poetry scene in China has changed, and so has he. I was curious about how he sees his work now and eager to delve a bit deeper into his persona as a poet. I interviewed him for Peony Moon.
In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, Han Dong’s family was sent to a remote area of the countryside. Here he grew up, developing an affection for the countryside and its people which still comes through in some of his poems. His parents suffered: his mother was arrested on suspicion of involvement in a counter-revolutionary plot, and his author father struggled to “serve the people”, within a system so seamlessly repressive that Han Dong describes it in Banished: A Novel as “a dog that winds up biting its own tail”. Then came the 1980s and, alongside political and economic reforms, a great explosion of new literature. Han Dong became known as an enthusiastic debunker of everything from ideology and heroics to the elaborate imagery of other avant-garde poets. An early poem, ‘Of the Wild Goose Pagoda’, which mocks a famous patriotic landmark and ends with a characteristic sting in the tail, became iconic.
Han Dong has been called a ‘colloquial’ (口语), poet, of the ‘ordinary folk’ (民间). But as Maghiel van Crevel says in his Foreword to A Phone Call from Dalian: “the language of this so-called Colloquial Poetry is not the same thing as that spoken in ordinary human traffic … the power of Han Dong’s poetry lies not just in the rejection of formal or bookish language of one kind or another. Positively defined, his usage comes across as measured, focused and controlled. This lends his poetry a quiet confidence and insistence”. And van Crevel goes on: “Several features combine to make Han’s a distinct and influential voice: quotidian themes, purposefully superficial description, colloquial language, literary meta-consciousness and last but not least, his individuality and sophistication in handling these things”.
He’s got the knack for killing chickens quick, so
He became a chicken-seller, that way
He doesn’t need to kill people. Even though he acts
Calm and gentle, and never beats his wife
Taking off his wife’s clothes is like plucking a chicken
Similar skills always overlap, just as
Cruelty and kindness are two sides of the same coin
He plucks, and she leisurely takes the money
And I feel that therein lies a kind of evil sweetness
Time to give the floor to Han Dong himself. Many of the leading lights of the 1980s and 90s poetry scene have stopped writing altogether. So I began by asking –
Nicky Harman: You’ve been writing poetry for 30 odd years. Why do you go on writing it?
Han Dong: I’ll carry on as long as I’m able – for the reason that poetry, unlike other things in life, is of no practical use. And its very uselessness makes it just a bit important. Of course (I also do it because) I think I do it well and the poetry I write is distinctive. I’ve said in the past that poetry is my homeland. I have a hankering to ‘go home’, and in fact I often do. I hope one day to be able to settle down there and just write poetry, nothing else. That’s the kind of life I’d love to lead.
NH: How do you feel you’ve changed as a poet over the years?
HD: In my early poetry I put a lot of stress on form and language but my poetry has evolved in that respect. I focus now on the content, the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’, partly because I have learnt through experience what form and language to use, partly because I no longer feel form is so important to me. Now my main aim is to create work that is stubbornly, distinctly, my own. Ultimately, poetry is the meeting of language and a particular life lived. There’s a kind of mutual love, a kind of merging. I want my poetry to be reclusive and private, but I’m also groping towards connecting at a deep level with other people.
Green tree, red fruit
The green tree was there before I was
Then I walked past it
Then ahead of the tree, there were more green trees
Between the forked branches was the sun
I looked right at the sun. Just then
It was like a red fruit
And so the whole garden became an orchard
A flurry of footsteps came
A buzzing of voices debated life
People’s shadows circled, gathered like gnats
The evening star, a great cool teardrop
I am still there
The red fruit gone
The green trees dulled
NH: You famously said that, “poetry does not go beyond language” (“诗到语言为止“). Do you still believe that? If not, what do you think are the most important principles of poetry?
HD: When I said that, it was to counter the prevailing view (in China) that “the written word must express a moral view”, and to emphasize the importance of language in poetry. But ultimately this was just another creed and, to that extent, one-sided. I understand poetry in a more rounded way now, not just as in opposition to something else. Poetry is an absolute, or at least an indication of an absolute. Analysing poetry is of limited use. Poetry doesn’t exist in the abstract, only in specific poems, in the writings of a particular poet, and we shouldn’t try to over-explain it. I dream of being able to write poems which need little or no explaining, and can be understood intuitively. Readers don’t need training but poets do, and that training ought to include how to stir people’s hearts.
Han Dong has written many poems about women, from the erotic to the love-lorn. I can’t help noticing there are fewer now, at least of the latter. Could this be because he is a middle-aged, happily-married man? I rather cheekily asked him if he still wrote love poems.
HD: Of course … Ultimately, a good love poem is about more than just love. … I’m continually concerned with human feelings, especially the love between men and women, and that’s a source of inspiration I wouldn’t willingly give up. You’re in love, you break up, you have no one to love or you’re abandoned – and you write about all of those things as they happen. There’s something else: the thing we call ‘love’ is only one way of expressing love between humans. I’ve said in the past that my ‘spiritual home’ is with people who have left or died, with friends, even with pets. That’s where love is, for me. Yes, I will go on writing love poems in the broad sense.
Hmm, I’m not sure I really managed to nail him on that one.
NH: Going back to the years when you first made a name for yourself as a poet, you had a reputation for getting into heated debates about poetry. Are you still so combative? If so, what topics get you fired up?
HD: I’ve always enjoyed a good argument, but I’ve also regarded that as a failing. In fact, I really hate that side of myself. Intense, aggressive debate only ends in defeat or victory, so it leaves me feeling empty. I almost always win the argument, which makes it more difficult for me to curb that tendency. The reality is that where poetry is concerned, the only meaningful things are serious thought and careful listening to others. Discussion should be based on an exchange of ideas, where everyone gets a chance to say what they think and makes an effort to understand the opposing side.
The wood workers lie at work in the sawdust
Their workshop has no door, no windows and no walls.
Just a shack with blonde rush matting on three sides.
Just sunlight, sawdust, wood and
The shaped hafts of every kind of farm tool
No door, no windows, benches or doorsill
No lathe. This wood work has done away with wood work
Sawdust has covered up the mud floor
NH: What do you feel about the translation of your poetry? I once asked you which of two possible titles I should use: Wood worker, the person who does it, or Wood work, the process. (The Chinese could mean either.) You said you didn’t mind, I could choose whichever I liked. Would you be as laissez-faire about translation if you were fluent in English?
HD: Translations are authentic creations in their own right; the original is only the spiritual source and the basis for the translation. Especially with poetry, when you translate from one language into another, you create something other. For a poem to work in another language, it needs to be completely transformed. Its magic, its inspiration, depends on the translator. Poets aim to ‘translate’ life and give it a meaningful existence in language; translators have the same aim. So, first-rate poetry can become second-rate in translation and vice versa, depending on the translator’s ability and sensitivity. I’m there to respond to the translator and I’m happy to discuss anything which is relevant to the original work, but this is just a way of stimulating the process and doesn’t mean I want to control it. If your poems don’t stand up to translation into another language, then why should the translator continue to be loyal to the original? If those poems can shine in another language, then why worry if they have departed from the original?
Ultimately my aim as a poet is to create good things, not things that are good for my reputation. And all good things can stimulate and ‘give birth’ to further good things. Even in the original language, a poem only becomes complete when it is read, when it arouses feelings, and when the poem combines with those feelings. To have vitality, a poem needs to transform, stimulate, adapt, combine and give birth to something new.
And there we left our discussion. But let the poems speak from themselves. And, yes, there really is one about his dog:
My small dog was shut in the flat
The neighbours opposite kept one
Shut in their flat too
The two dogs yapped through the barrier of two doors
They could hear each other, and sometimes met on the landing
They were boy dog and girl dog but didn’t mate
We all know dogs like to lay-about in packs, but these two were no pals
You could say hostility was
Stronger than friendship
More help in overcoming loneliness
The end came when their dog died, but my dog
Kept up the yapping
An imaginary enemy may well be better than a real one
At overcoming loneliness.
Han Dong’s poems ‘can stand their ground in any contemporary world literary canon’, World Literature Today.
All the poems except ‘Overcoming loneliness appear’ in A Phone Call from Dalian (Zephyr Press, 2012).