A Tell-All Interview with Yang Li, the Alpha-Male of Chinese Blog Poetry


Steve Bradbury

In the decade or so since the world went digital, Chinese poets have flocked to the Internet like ducks to water and for a very good reason: China is a huge and fragmented country in which physical distance, State monopolies and rampant censorship present innumerable obstacles to publication, promotion and distribution in conventional print formats. Among the first and most prominent Chinese poets to take to the Internet was the Sichuan-poet Yang Li, who, ironically, came up long before most people in China had ever heard of computers. In fact, he did not even know how to go online until the year 2000, but he has virtually lived there ever since. Over the last ten years, he has been one of China's most controversial poets, for much of his verse is devoted to such provocative topics as the rights of sperm and why he has lost interest in giving oral sex as opposed to receiving it. Indeed, his signature poem is an epic-length meditation on “The Big Cannon,” a Chinese euphemism for masturbation. But if his subject matter is likely to make you quesy, this should not be reason to write this poet off. As his first English translator, the Australian poet Simon Patton, has aptly observed, when Yang Li is in good form and the Muse at his elbow he has a surprising knack for writing poems that are all the more engaging for their apparent lack of craftsmanship. He also gives a great interview, and the poems we picked for the writing feature at the end are some of the best we've ever published.

I love your poem, “Albania.” I think it's one of the most engaging depictions of adolescent psychology i've read in Chinese, but what really fascinates me is the effect it creates of being utterly effortless, as if it had poured out of you like a sudden recollection. Which begs the question: Do you revise your poems very much?
Some poems are so good the first take that I don't touch them, but I usually have to revise them. I do strive rather hard to create that artless impression.

What prompted you to write a poem about this subject?
Well, when we were little, during the Cultural Revolution, Albania was about the only country that was on friendly terms with China. It's just a “tiny little pellet of a country,” as we say in Chinese—I mean, it's so small it couldn't get much smaller. Yet in our hearts and minds, it was huge, for it was the one bright light in a very dark world. I don't recall exactly what inspired me to write the poem—I'm not even sure I want to know. I could have been that I suddenly thought about the past and realized it was gone forever, or that I got one of those baffling flashbacks from my childhood. Yes, that must have been it: it was the image of a partisan playing a mournful harmonica to the tune of “To the Hills, Brave Men!” 趕快上山吧勇士們!—that's still my favorite song.

You're talking about the theme song from “Clear Horizons” [Horizonte Të Hapura], the 1968 film directed by Viktor Gjika, about partisans during WWII. That's one of the classics of second-generation Italian-style neo-realism.
I don't know what you call it in English, but in Chinese we know it as Ningsi buqu 宁死不屈 [Rather Death Than Surrender!]. It was an incredibly popular film in the '60s and '70s. I saw it many, many times, and that song followed me all through my childhood and adolescence and even into middle age. I've heard much better songs since, but there's something very special about the music that seizes you in your youth. But I'm not sure if that answers your question or not.

It helps to flesh out and humanize the period. All we ever hear about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the West is the violence of the Red Guards and grim stories about State-sponsored famine and intellectuals being “sent down” to the countryside. It's nice to know that not everyone recalls the ‘60s and ‘70s with bitterness. Did you read much classical verse when you were growing up?
Of course, but before 1976, you had to do it on the sly because it was all banned. Reading poetry was a bit like fooling around with someone's old lady—very risky, but intensely stimulating! For example, I had a school-buddy whose dad ran a warehouse for the local court. One day my friend had to go there to talk him about something and dragged me along. When we were inside I chanced to see a big pile of old books lying in the corner. They looked like something the Red Guards would have confiscated but hadn't had time to dispose of, so when nobody was looking, this wicked urge came over me and I filched one of the books. Of course, as soon as we got out of there, I rushed off to some secluded place to see what it was I'd stolen and saw it was a copy of the Chu Ci 楚辭 [Elegies of the Chu]. I almost died with joy!

You quote Tang poetry quite a bit in your verse. Did you steal a volume of that as well?
No, but when I was around fifteen this neighbor of mine who was about ten years older than me used to recite poems from the Tangshi Sanbaisho [300 poems from the Tang Dynasty]. I never actually saw the book because his folks always kept it locked it away. You've got to realize that even though the Cultural Revolution was beginning to wind down by 1976 or'77, which is the time I'm talking about, books were still being seized from private homes and often destroyed on the spot. So though he didn't have the nerve to show me the book, he would recite the poems to me until I had them memorized. It took me more than a year but I pretty much memorized the whole book, and I can still recite quite a few poems from memory. A few years later I started writing my own poems and a few years after that I co-founded Xiandaizhuyi Tongmeng 現代主義同盟 [Modernist Alliance] with Wan Xia 萬夏, and the following year founded Feifei [The "Not-Not" Movement"] with Zhuo Lunyou 周倫佑, Lan Ma 蘭馬, He Xiaozhu 何小竹 and Jimu Langge 吉木狼格. But I've talked about these movements and initiatives so many times I'm getting kind of sick of the subject.

Well, here's a subject I suspect you've not yet grown tired of talking about: sex. That plays a big role in your writing, and many of your most famous poems are on such topics as masturbation, oral sex and other practices that were, and still are, I would imagine, rather frowned on in the People's Republic of China. Do you take much heat for writing about sex?
Let me tell you two stories: After I wrote “Fire in the Hole,” I took the manuscript to a printer down the street to have it typed up and printed—this was before I learned how to use a computer or publish my own books. They took the manuscript and gave me a date to pick it up. Now this was a printer I had done business with several times before and had never had a problem, but when I came back at the agreed time, the boss-lady told me that they were terribly sorry but were so swamped with orders that they hadn't had a chance to get around to mine and don't know when they would and thought it best if I went somewhere else. I was furious, of course, but the real reason didn't occur to me even after the same thing happened to me at the next printer I went to. It wasn't until I took it to a third printer that the boss-man chanced to browse through the work and then took me aside and said, “This is gonna cost you extra, you know.” I thought he was trying to fleece me and said, “What are you talking about?” He shrugged and said, “Look, fella, publishing pornography could get us into a lot of trouble. You want us to take the extra risk, you're gonna have to pay the extra money.”

I can see the appeal of publishing online and of self-publication.
You're not kidding. I don't know where I would be without it. Even today, I could never interest a major publisher into picking up my verse. It's just too controversial; it would never pass muster with the State censors. Which is why I'm self-published. I was one of the first poets to look to independent or underground publishers as a way of getting around State censorship. This began in 1980, when I published Shouyi 鼠疫 [Bubonic Plague]. That's the publication that made me a familiar face with the Chengdu Municipal Public Security Bureau. After someone posted “Fire in the Hole” on the Internet, that work got uploaded to a lot of porn sites, which got me into hot water for awhile. The authorities are always taking my stuff down, but people keep putting it back up.

So do the authorities still harrass you about your work?
Yes, they do. I try to be polite, but they can be awfully annoying. In fact, they came around the other day and scared the hell out of my new girlfriend. She's never going to let me hear the end of it.

So what was the second story you were going to tell me?
I was at some banquet in Beijing and there was this very intellectual-looking woman who kept staring at me with these big, glittering eyes that shined between her glasses, but I couldn't figure out why until, sometime later in the evening, she plopped down beside me and suddenly said, “I read your ‘Big Cannon'—read it several times in fact—but I want you to know that it did not provoke the slightest physiological reaction in me.” I didn't know what to say to her, but I'll tell you this: her saying that she'd read it several times definitely provoked a physiological reaction in me!

You lived in Beijing for many years. What took you to there and why did you leave?
It was love of a woman that took me there and love of another woman, my mom, that brought me back. My mom's been getting on in years, but I couldn't talk her into coming to Beijing; she's one of those women who just won't budge from home even if you could threaten to beat her with a stick. So I decided I had to come back to Chengdu to help take care of her. She's getting pretty frail.

That's very touching. So who was the woman that took you to Beijing? By any chance was it Ms. “Chrysanthemum” Wang, the woman you mention in “Spring Days.” The one who shared her condo with you and used to rag you about your personal habits?
Ms. Chrysanthemum Wang wasn't a real person. She's just a figment of my imagination, a poetic invention I concocted for a bunch of poems I wrote five or six years ago. The woman who took me to Beijing was the one I discuss in “Nan Nan Dreams of Chairman Mao.” She's a novelist and playwright.

So if you weren't sponging off Ms. Chrysanthemum Wang, as “Spring Days” suggests, how did you make ends meet in an expensive city like Beijing?
I never went to college but I worked in a bank in Chengdu for a couple years before I moved to Beijing, and I used what I had learned there to "go to sea," as we say. Which is to say, to do a little business on the side. But I eventually got tired of that and wanted to devote more time to writing. For awhile I lived off my parents and my wife's income and the generosity of friends, but after I moved back to Chengdu, I started self-publishing my work, which I sell online or at the poetry readings I give.

I love the cover design to Canlan [Glorious], your memoire of the '80s and '90s.
That's a serious chronicle of the "Third-generation Poets". You ought to translate it into English.

I'd have to give up my day job for years, Yang Li—it's 1200 pages long!
Suit yourself. Someday, someone is going translate it and you'll wish it was you.

One last question: I'm intrigued by the author of the poem you allude to in "from the "Talking to Myself" series". I found the poem online but I couldn't find the author, who used to maintain a blog but hasn't added an entry since 2007. Do you know her or how she might be located? I ask because I would like to include a translation of the poem you mention so readers will know what inspired you to write your take on it.
No, I never met the lady and have no idea idea who or where she is.

Here last entry was "Lately, I've been incredibly bored." That was more than three years ago.
That's the way it is with blog poets. They come and they go. Lately, they mostly go.


           translations by Steve Bradbury    

Albania   阿尔巴尼亚  

Back in our day there wasn't anyone who didn't know Albania
who didn't know it was the bright light of European Socialism
or that the other bright light was us. Back then
from Beijing to Tirana, we could all sing
A bosom friend afar brings distance near . . . It wasn't till much later that
I learned these words were by Wang Bo of the Tang
He died a long time ago and was never in Tirana.
I doubt he'd ever heard of the place, much less that it was very, very small.
A pal of ours named Wei Guo once said to us rather cryptically: all
Albania is just like the little upstart kingdom of Yelang.
I remember, I swear: it was the summer of ‘74.
We had just turned 12 and thought what he'd said outrageously reactionary.

Spring Days   春日

I live by myself in Beijing's Tiantongyuan East Section 3
apartment complex on the first floor in a unit with a large lanai
the apartment belongs to my girlfriend, Ms. “Chrysanthemum” Wang
she used to share the place with me, but now
she doesn't. She moved further into town, just two stops from Xidan
but still comes round on weekends to gripe and clean
until the middle of the night, when she'll suddenly recall our sex life
Ah, love in the Nuclear Age! Spring days grow long, and the foliage is lush . . .
I admit that at first I liked giving oral sex
but lately I just like getting it: oral sex had its day but now it's dead and gone
I've squirreled it away in far off Tehran
where there's oil underground, the women veil their faces
and an entire nation is scrambling to build the bomb

Nan Nan Dreams of Chairman Mao   南南梦见了毛主席  

Nan Nan said that when she was a lonely freshman
she'd wander over to Tiananmen Square nearly every Sunday
and somehow or other found herself
in the Mao Mausoleum. It was only later when she started falling
for one fellow after another
that she finally stopped going there
even then, if she happened to pass it, on her way from Xidan to Wangfujing
it never occured to her that she'd ever been alone
it's just like what the Chairman said in her dream last night
sex life is your life, and our life as well
but in the final analysis it is still your sex life

from the "Cheap Shot" series 《双抠》    

When We Eat We Never Talk About Sex   吃饭的时候我们不谈论性  

Xiao Yang said
it's not that I don't want to
but that I never get the chance
when she finished speaking
she turned
and looked out the window
where it was still raining
it was actually only drizzling
but it hadn't stopped for three days and nights
well then
I said
unless you have an objection
let's talk about sex
orgasms for instance
like when do they come around
Xiao Yang kept looking out the window
beyond which
the rain obscured the distant buildings
like a curtain
you mean my orgasms?
she said
I haven't seen one of those in a long, long time
like some cat that's run off and never came back
she stopped
I knew there was something
more she wanted to say
but in the end
she didn't

The Story of the Stone, the Sequel   石头的故事(2)  

I carried this stone down from the mountains
all the way to Beijing. What's this? Jian asked me
I said it's a stone
he said I know it's a stone
what he meant to say was: what's it doing on the bed?

so I said
I only put it on the bed
just now

from the "Talking to Myself" series 《自言自语》    
This Last One's for “Witch Lady Lute Silk”   最后一段是写给巫女琴丝的  

Because one afternoon
when it was raining and
I was laying on the couch
reading one of her poems
called “The Buddhist Nun Way Up in the Mountains”
I suddenly
heard the sound of singing
it wasn't that good
but it felt like a breath of fresh air
a little while later
the singing was gone
and there was just the rain
still falling


           translation by Steve Bradbury    

The Buddhist Nun Way Up in the Mountains   《深山里的尼姑》  

me and my boyfriend
took a daytrip to Nigushan
just for the fun of it

halfway up the mountain
the trees were so verdant
there was a rill
so clear you could see the bottom
and a young nun
washing her clothes

in the basin full
of gray garments
the strapless pink brassiere
was especially striking

coming down the mountain
I couldn't take my mind off
that bra
and had an urge to see
the nun again

that night
when my boyfriend and I were making love
there was no pleasure in it
we both keeping thinking about
that nun who lived up in the mountains
like some latter-day Wu Meiniang

Translator's note for "The Buddhist Nun Way Up in the Mountains": Wu Meiniang was the nickname of Wu Zetian (624-705), the Cinderella-consort who eventually became the only woman in Chinese history to have ruled as empress regent. The name was given to her by the founding emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Taizong, who died a few years after she became an imperial concubine. Like most childless concubines, Wu Meiniang (literally, the “lovely lass with the surname Wu”) was forced to take Buddhist orders after the death of the emperor. Fortunately for her, so legend has it, Taizong's son, the Emperor Gaozong, chanced to see her when he went to offer incense to his deceased father and became so enamored of her beauty that he had her recalled to the palace, where, five years later, he installed her as empress. After his death, she founded her own dynasty and ruled for fifteen years before the Tang was finally restored. No less than Elizabeth I, her life and legend are the subjects of innumerable poems, plays, novels, movies and television dramas.

        from left to right: Han Dong, Yu Jian, Yi Sha, He Xiaozhu, Yang Li    


All photos and images courtesy of Yang Li. All poems and translations copyright © 2010 by their respective authors. "Albania" originally appeared in Guernica/ a Magazine of Art and Politics.