Remembering Shang Qin (1930-2010)


Steve Bradbury

The following essay, photos, poetic inclusions, and drawings by the poet originally appeared in a memorial feature devoted to the late, great master of the Chinese prose poem, Shang Qin, published last autumn in The Taipei Chinese PEN. Our grateful acknowledgments and heart-felt thanks to the editors for allowing us to share them with our readers.

Shang Qin is one of the most original and powerful Chinese poets, not only in our time but in the entire history of modern Chinese poetry.

                                                                             Michelle Yeh

Small in quantity but consummate in substance, Shang Qin's poetry epitomizes the doubts and values of the individual during an era of upheaval. In a poetic diction approaching that of speech, he exposed poetry's cutting edge and set the highest possible standard for subsequent poets. Even today we find his work an unflagging incentive to refresh our sensibilities and divest our language of artifice, which is poetry's true measure.

                                                                             Hung Hung

THIS LAST SUMMER saw the passing of Shang Qin 商禽, or Shang Ch'in, as he is also known in the West, who was, in my opinion and that of many far more qualified to judge, the finest Chinese poet of his generation and one of the past-masters of the prose poem. Although the announcement of his death in the early hours of June 27 came as a shock to many, I for one could not help but feel a measure of relief, for I knew that the poet, who had long struggled with Parkinson's disease, had greatly suffered this last year or so due to complications arising from a bad fall and invasive surgery in 2008 that left him progressively more disoriented and eventually unable to eat or speak. It was a sad ending for a man who loved words and was a wonderful cook and conversationalist. I find solace in the thought that while the poet is gone his poems will outlive us all.
Shang Qin liked to say that he had “stumbled onto the road to poetry” and that his long and eventful life was but a series of “flights and evasions.”1 He was born in 1930 under the name Lo Xianxing 羅顯烆 in a remote hamlet in the southeastern corner of Sichuan, in the spur of mountainous countryside that juts between Yunnan and Guizhou. His parents were well enough off for him to attend public school, and he had a relatively uneventful childhood. In 1945, however, as the War of Resistance against Japan came to a close and the Nationalists and Communists renewed long-simmering hostilities, the family fell on hard times, and he and his elder brother felt forced to enlist in the Nationalist Revolutionary Army, the military arm of the ruling Kuomintang Party or KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek. At his mother's suggestion, the fifteen-year old boy, who was small for his age and of a slight built and gentle disposition, signed up to be a military driver but was told that his legs were too short to work the brakes. He then tried the Military Police Corps, which, desperate for recruits, threw a uniform on him, rushed him through “boot camp” and marched him off to the provincial capital city of Chengdu.
Eight years of war had taken a terrible toll on the once thriving city that was famous for giving refuge to Du Fu and other Tang Dynasty poets who had fallen out of favor with the court. The frequently bombed streets were awash with refugees, displaced civil servants and KMT elites, middleclass businessmen and their families, profiteers and gangsters, and tens of thousands of soldiers, including American servicemen as well as many mercenaries employed in the private armies of the various local warlords Chiang Kai-shek was compelled to work with to keep the Communists at bay. Meals were few and far between and so revolting that on his first day-leave, in the hope of mustering up a decent meal, Shang Qin hunted up an old acquaintance who happened to be a platoon commander for one of the local warlords and found himself forcibly conscripted. When he tried to resist, he was locked up in an ancestral temple to “think it over,” as they say, and by the time he emerged, he had taken his first step on the road to poetry. No account of this formative incident is more engaging than the poet's own:
. . . After a week's incarceration I was pretty much broken in, but I discovered the place was filled with books the like of which I had never seen before. It was my first exposure to what we then called the “New Literature” [modernist poetry and fiction written in Mandarin as opposed to classical Chinese] and translations of Western popular classics such as Tarzan of the Apes and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I was so enthralled I forgot to eat. It was there I first read Bing Xin's Myriad Stars 繁星 and Lu Xun's Wild Grass 野草 , which is probably the first volume of prose poems to have been written in Chinese. . . . The latter really caught my interest, so when we got our marching orders, I tucked it into my backpack. Unfortunately, my platoon commander saw it. “It's all I can do to get you to lug your rifle and you're carrying books!” He made me throw it away, but that work left a profound impression on me. . . .2
It was not long, however, before Shang Qin made what he called “the first of [his] many escapes,” for he had a great gift for evasion: “I was flat-footed and thus often fell behind. Sometimes I used that as an excuse to try and run away, but I was always overtaken by other troops, who usually took me in without a word. It was a chaotic time, and we were fighting a losing battle.”3
Over the next four years, as the increasingly demoralized and often leaderless detachments of the Nationalist Army fell back before the more disciplined and determined “peasant guerillas” of the Peoples Liberation Army, Shang Qin was marched across half the provinces of Southern China more times than he cared to remember. With his flatfeet and heavy pack, walking became an affliction, and there were times when he fell so far behind that he became lost or found himself in a firefight between Nationalist and Communist forces; like most MPs, he was never trained for combat.

But there were bright moments in this otherwise dark chapter of his life: “Even now I can vividly recall the lights of the fishing boats on the Jialing River and the murmur of the water as it flows to the sea,” he fondly recalled in the preface to the revised and expanded version of his first volume of poetry, Dream and the Dawn 夢或著黎明. Once, while passing through a village where the Communists had been active, he found a handwritten collection of some folksongs and ballads that he would sing to himself whenever he fell behind or made one of his “escapes,” such as this one he recited during a talk he gave in 2005: “In the heart of the drifter/ burns a fire/ if you try to put it out with your hand/ you too will turn to fire.”4 For three months he had the good fortune of being billeted at a restaurant in Badong 巴東, a town on the Yangzi River that served as a communications hub between Sichuan and Hubei provinces, and learned how to cook delicious Sichuan dishes, a skill which served him well over the years. But he was soon back to near-starvation rations and endless marches that seemed to have less and less purpose.
Finally, in late 1949, after Sichuan fell to the Communists and the “Generalissimo” ordered a general evacuation to Taiwan, Shang Qin, who by then had rejoined the Military Police Corps, was ordered in turn to march to southern Yunnan, near the Vietnamese border, to help defend one of the airfields the army engineers had hastily constructed to evacuate the beleaguered remnants of the 7th and 26th Armies. Shang Qin's detachment followed the railroad tracks to get there, and it was not until the Communists were in striking distance of the field that they themselves were evacuated on one of the last planes out. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new life.
Like most of the other mainland Chinese soldiers who fled to Taiwan after the “fall of China”—some estimates run as high as a million—Shang Qin could barely speak a word of the local languages when he arrived and knew no one outside the members of his own detachment. As an MP, the very idea of forging ties with a highly resentful population that had studied Japanese at school, spoke Taiwanese or Hakka amongst themselves, knew little if any Mandarin, and viewed the KMT and its Nationalist Army as little more than invaders, was dubious at best. Fortunately, the would–be poet—for he had begun his first tentative efforts at writing some modernist verse, “counterfeit poems,” he called them5—had the good luck of being stationed in Ximending 西門町, a theater and entertainment district in Taipei where many of the evacuees who wound up in the Taipei area would gravitate during their leisure hours. Being a modest, soft-spoken person with a large reserve of colorful stories and a wry sense of humor, he soon made friends, most of whom were other servicemen who shared his interest in poetry and desire to transform the anomie of exile into a sense of belonging.

Shang Qin on the far left.


As is often the case with expatriates and soldiers stationed overseas, being strangers in a strange land gave their relationships a particular intensity that quickly developed into lasting friendships. Zheng Chouyu 鄭愁予, Hsin Yu 辛鬱, Guan Guan 管管, Ya Hsien 瘂弦, Lo Fu 洛夫, Chu Ge 楚戈 and Ji Xian 紀弦 (founding editor of Modern Poetry Quarterly 現代詩), are the names that come most readily to mind, but there were quite a few others. Over the years their circle would gradually include most of the major poets of their generation and many fine younger poets who came up after them, such as Shoo Tau 秀陶, who would also distinguish himself as a prose poet, and Wai-Lim Yip 葉維廉, who would become the first of Shang Qin's many English translators and interpreters. They were rarely stationed in the same place for very long, but somehow or other, despite their poverty and the constraints of martial law and military life, they would find a way to meet every month or two, and it was always poetry that brought them together.

    Chen Jinchi, Hsin Yu, Chu Ge, Xu Shizhao, Shang Qin & Ji Xian, 1962.

For Shang Qin and his circle, their “pursuit of the pure poem”—as Ji Xian described it in his announcement of the “Modernist School” 現代派 in 1956—was tantamount to a “spiritual vocation” or “calling” (to paraphrase Michelle Yeh), one that enabled them to stand relatively aloof from the repressive State discourses of “anticommunism” and “moral reconstruction,” which had compelled the island's poets to turn their verse into jingoistic pulpits, withdraw into the pastoral enclave of Classical poetry or abandon poetry altogether for the penny arcades of popular literature.6 The idea of a “pure poetry” based on modernist principles and unsullied by political or moralistic sentiment gave Shang Qin and his fellow poets a measure of immunity from the ever-vigilant censors of a paranoid regime that was, as Wai-Lim Yip and others have observed, quick to crush “anything resembling criticism of the party or the state.”7
This sense of being “called to poetry” must have been especially keen for Shang Qin, for though he was often flat broke, unlike many in his circle including Ji Xian, he never submitted his poems to the lucrative poetry competitions that were routinely sponsored by the KMT Party or the many journals and newspapers it owned and operated as part of its “ideological apparatus,” as the neo-Marxists are wont to say. Money was never the issue for Shang Qin; what mattered was the integrity of the work and desire that it not be corrupted by other practices. This comes out both in Long Qing's interview of the poet and in an incredible incident that poet A Weng 阿翁 recounts in a piece she wrote for the Shang Qin memorial issue published by Wen-Hsun Magazine 文訊 last August. According to A Weng, some years ago, long after Shang Qin had become a household name, an unscrupulous contractor stole a line of verse from one of Shang Qin's poems to promote a real estate venture. The poet was so incensed that he initiated a suit to compel the contractor to make a public apology. To avoid a scandal, the contractor offered ever greater sums to get the poet to drop the suit—the final offer was one million NT dollars, more than $30,000US—but Shang Qin refused and took him to court. When he not only lost the case but was stuck with the court costs and legal fees, he simply laughed and said, “They could have offered me two million and I still wouldn't have taken it.”8
Shang Qin's pursuit of the “pure poem” helps account for the relatively small size of his oeuvre—a mere 167 poems composed over a career that lasted more than half a century. But another factor that kept the numbers down was his habit of composing his poems in his head, much like the one-line drawing he made entitled, “Thinker #2” [思想者 No.2]. Shoo Tau once told me that Shang Qin picked up this habit during the two years he was a sentry at Chiang Kai-shek's summer residence on Yangmingshan, where for long hours he had to stand perfectly motionless in his sweat-soaked uniform, his heavy carbine at his side. To fill up the empty hours, he would turn lines of poetry over and over in his head to the slow but insistent trilling of the cicadas. Come evening, of course, the music of the cicadas would give way to the croaking of the frogs, which Shang Qin said he liked to pretend (no slight intended) were the voices of his fellow poets.
Though Shang Qin rarely revised a poem after he had consigned it to paper, he often shared his work-in-progress by reciting it aloud during his frequent get-togethers with the other poets of his circle. Chu Ge, who is evidently blessed with a near-photographic memory, said many of these “drafts” were quite different from the poems that have come down to us today, and he recited a few during a talk he gave in 2008, among which was a striped-down version of “Pigeons” that I much prefer to the final version Shang Qin published in Dream and the Dawn. (Chu Ge wasn't sure if this “draft” Shang Qin recited was a prose poem or free verse, hence the use of slashes instead of punctuation or line breaks).9
Shang Qin started out as a free verse poet but eventually became convinced that he could never write with the elegance and flair of a Zheng Chouyu or Lin Ling 林泠: “I knew that I would always lag behind them, eating their dust,” he once quipped, and thus turned to the prose poem as having the better claim on his attention, precisely because it was grassy and wanted wear (as Frost would say), which of course has made all the difference.10 Though Shang Qin would continue to write free verse poems throughout his life, the prose poem would become his métier. He was encouraged in this direction by Ji Xian, who turned him onto the French modernism—Baudelaire's “The Stranger,” from Paris Spleen, was a personal favorite—and also introduced him to the surrealist work of Max Jacob, André Breton and to the surrealist prose poems he himself composed a decade earlier, such as “Dog Barking at the Moon” 吠月的犬, which finds echoes in several Shang Qin poems including one (“My Amoeba Kid Brother” 阿米巴弟弟) that pays tribute to the same painting by Joan Miró that inspired the title of Ji Xian's seminal work. Although the prose poem was a modern import from the West, part of the attraction of this genre for Shang Qin was that it encouraged him to return to the well-springs of his own literary tradition, as he points out in an interview he granted in 2006:
. . . Being a poet who rails against any formal constraint, I naturally gravitated to the prose poem, which has none. For me, poetry isn't a frame but a frame of mind, one that I found as much in certain passages of classical prose as in the classical poetry, such as the Zhuangzi and Tao Yuanming's preface to the “Peach Blossom Spring.” No one remembers the poem Tao wrote on the same subject, only the prose preface, and for the reasons I've outlined. . . .11
In Shang Qin's hands the prose poem experienced a sea-change into something rich and strange. Surrealist is the word that comes up most often in scholarly discussions of his work, but the poet chafed at the label. At times, he would flatly deny that he was a surrealist and, when pressed by a critic or scholar, would testily add that the scholarly compulsion to classify him as a surrealist ignored the diversity of influences that had shaped his work and deprived readers of their interpretive freedom. At other times he would concede to being a surrealist insofar as the Chinese term for surrealism (chao-xianshi-juyi 超現實主義) can be interpreted to mean a “super-realism” or “more-real-than-real realism,” which seems to me to be a pretty fair description of my favorite Shang Qin poems, but especially "Turkey," which was included in his first collection.sup>12
There are many things I love about "Turkey," but what I find most appealing is the curiously self-deprecating, almost child-like, way in which the speaker attempts to make sense of the turkey by translating its behavior in human terms even as he simultaneously insists on its absolute otherness. Like all great poems, it seems to have no precedent and yet recalls all manner of texts and contains many threads to tantalizing subtexts. For example, when I consider that the turkey, unlike the peacock, is no less a modern import from the West than the prose poem, and that the poet to whom Shang Qin is most frequently compared, Lu Xun, whose every prose poem was no less a protest than the turkey's, I begin to wonder if this poem is not an allegory of Lu Xun and his generation of Leftist protest poets, or alternatively, of Shang Qin's distinguishing his voice from the more florid free verse poets of his generation.
Shang Qin began publishing as early as 1953 under various pennames, but it was not until 1960 that he settled on the somewhat bizarre collocation “Shang Qin” 商禽, which is homophonous with “wounded bird” 傷禽but is invariably rendered by computer translation programs as “commercial poultry.” When I mentioned this to Shang Qin, he smiled and said that, back in the early Nineties (the take-off decade of the Taiwanese economy), he used to introduce himself by saying, “My name is Shang Qin, that's shang as in jianshang 奸商 [unscrupulous profiteer] and qin as in qinshou 禽獸 [the birds and the beasts].” But after the SARS epidemic in 2003, by which time many local firms had off-shored their factories and operations in order to increase their profit margin, he started saying, “. . . that's shang as in taishang 台商 [overseas Taiwanese businessman] and qin as in qinliugan 禽流感 [avian influenza].”
It was also 1960 that the poet received his first rejection slip. Ironically, this was for the poem that would subsequently become his most anthologized work, “Giraffes” 長頸鹿, which was returned to the poet with the following squib: “Your imagery is deep and sweeping, but the diction needs more discipline.” While the wording of the rejection seems to suggest that the editor had “issues” with the poem's style, I suspect his real concern was over its content. Since the beginning of the martial law period or “White Terror” (as it is usually referred to by KMT critics) in February 1947, after the notorious 228 Incident when thousands of Taiwanese were reportedly killed, “vanished” or imprisoned in response to an uprising triggered by a police shooting, government censors had banned any publication that even suggested dissatisfaction with the KMT party or the current state of affairs and more often than not had dealt harshly with the authors and publishers of these publications. Earlier that very year (1960), the country had been witness to the brutal crackdown of the liberal Free China Fortnightly 自由中國 and arrest of its publisher, Lei Chen 雷震, who was charged with treason and sentenced to ten years in prison for printing an editorial that stated such obvious facts as the KMT was a one-party dictatorship and its claim of one day recovering the mainland a pipe dream. Several of Lei Chen's staff members had also been thrown into prison and the author of the offending editorial placed under permanent house-arrest which lasted until his death nine years later. Even the literary editor, Nieh Hualing 聶華苓 who had not been privy to the decision to publish the editorial, might well have suffered the same fate had she not been the daughter of a high-ranking KMT official who had been martyred by the Communists during the Chinese Civil War; she was nonetheless banned from publishing for over two years and under constant surveillance until she left the country in 1964 to pursue an MFA at the University of Iowa.13
In such a climate, what editor would not have been reluctant to publish a poem that depicted prisoners in a sympathetic light and suggested life itself was a kind of Kafkaesque prison? Given that domestic mail was routinely censored during the martial law period, I am tempted to interpret “your diction needs more discipline” as a veiled warning to “Watch what you say or you'll wind up in prison yourself.” Whatever the reason for the rejection, it was the last one Shang Qin ever received and for a very good reason: the poet who claimed to have stumbled onto the road to poetry had finally found his stride.
The Sixties was the “break-out” decade for Shang Qin in more ways than one. In 1961 a dozen of his poems were selected for inclusion in a prominent anthology. The following year several of his poems were translated into French, one of which (“Giraffes”) was even recited on Radio France. By 1966 his poetry had succeeded in attracting the attention of English-language translators and scholars both at home and abroad. In 1967, he married the poet Luo Ying 羅英 and, less than a year later, retired from the military. Despite his twenty-years of service, his pension was quite meager. Like many other military retirees, he was forced to take a number of menial jobs to make ends meet, which became all the more difficult after the birth of their first child, a daughter, in 1968. Among the jobs he tried his hand at were longshoreman, gardener, and peddler of silk stockings and Western cigarettes. A temporary solution to the problem of “getting by” in civilian life presented itself in 1969, when Shang Qin unexpectedly received an invitation to do a year-long residency at the International Writing Program in Iowa City. It was quite an honor for a poet who had yet to publish his first collection, which did not appear in print until after he had made his “escape” to the States.
Founded by Paul Engle and his bride-to-be, Nieh Hualing, the former literary editor of the ill-fated China Free Fortnightly, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, or IWP, was only two years old in 1969, but thanks to Paul Engle's skill at securing State Department funds and grants from the Ford Foundation, Shang Qin was joined by thirty other writers from twenty-two countries including two writers from Taiwan: his old friend and poet-in-arms Zheng Chouyu and the choreographer and future founding director of the now world-renowned Cloud Gate Theatre, Lin Hwai-min 林懷民, who would become a very close friend and later adapt one of Shang Qin's poems (“Door or Sky” 門或者天空) for a theater production that Lin himself preformed.

Shang Qin at the center of group at the back, Zheng Chouyu on far right.


. . . At Iowa, they didn't really teach us much, and very few of us did any actual writing. Most of the time we just hung out together and talked about poetry and drank. We did a lot of that, so much so that somebody said they should rename the program the International Drinking Program. [Laughter.] Others suggested it be renamed the International Fucking Program, for reasons I'd rather not go into. [Laughter.] But I did learn something there. I learned not to confine myself to my old style, and experimented with some new ways of expression. I even wrote some free verse poems like “Cough,” the poetic preface to my second collection of poetry, Thinking with the Feet. When I was invited to [the International Poetry Festival in] Rotterdam a couple years ago, they asked me to recite a poem about music, but I didn't have any poems on that subject, so I read “Cough,” and they loved it. . . .14
When I recently asked Nieh Hualing if she recalled Shang Qin's stay, she said he would often come over to their house on McGowan Street and regale them with his favorite stories and Sichuan dishes that were so hot that Paul would invariably collapse into a coughing fit and have to run outside the house to avoid setting the furniture on fire.
A second Ford grant and a university appointment as “Honorary Fellow in Writing,” both arranged by Paul, enabled Shang Qin to extend his stay for an unprecedented second year, a decision prompted by the Engles' concerns over Shang Qin's safety upon returning to Taiwan. The previous year had seen a rash of arrests in Taiwan following the government's announcement of yet another “moral reform” campaign designed to “root out leftist thinking.” Nearly thirty writers were arrested in the course of this purge. Some of these writers were clearly critical of the KMT regime, such as Chen Yingzhen 陳映真, who was locked away for years on Green Island. But others, such as Bo Yang 柏楊, who received a ten-year sentence for having published a translation of a Popeye comic strip that Chiang Kai-shek became convinced was a lampoon of his decision to install his son as his successor, were so questionable as to prompt the intervention of Amnesty International. Several writers in Shang Qin's circle were among those arrested, including Yu Tiancong 尉天聰 and Zheng Chouyu who, being abroad at the time, was declared persona non grata and prevented from returning to Taiwan for many years. That Shang Qin did return in 1971 leads me to suspect that he thought it wise to stay the extra year just to make sure that Dream and the Dawn, which included “Giraffes,” was not among the books that were banned. It was not and he returned without incident.
Although the IWP residency and Ford Grants had greatly enhanced his reputation in the republic of letters, it did little to improve his ability to make a living. Once again he was forced to take jobs that left him little time to write and barely paid the bills, which mounted after the birth of a second child, once again a daughter, in 1973. To defray the costs of parenting, for three years he and Luo Ying ran a kindergarten, but when that business failed, he then tried his hand as a beef noodle soup vender in a hole-in-the-wall eatery in an alley in Yonghe, one of the satellite cities of greater Taipei. The noodles were Sichuan-style, of course, and by all accounts delicious. He was often visited by his poet and artist friends, who helped to spruce up the place with their artwork and calligraphy. But as Shang Qin was the first to admit, he was not much of a businessman and had to give up the venture after a year.
To his good fortune and peace of mind, in 1980, one of his artist friends, the abstract painter Li Xiqi 李錫奇, helped him secure a position on the editorial staff at the China Times Weekly 時報週刊, a journal of current events, wealth management and society news based on Time and Fortune, where he eventually rose to become assistant editor-in-chief and remained until his retirement in 1992. His editorial duties often kept him late at the office, but he enjoyed the work and being surrounded by journalists evidently had a liberating effect on his poetry, for in the year or two after he began working for the journal, Shang Qin wrote some of his best and most politically engaging poems, of which my hands-down favorite is "The Speed of Sound" 音速. This little jewel of a prose poem, which Shang Qin drafted in 1982 but did not publish until martial law was lifted in 1987, some forty years after it had begun, making it the longest martial law regime in history.

As my expanded version of the epigraph suggests, the subject of this elegy was a victim of police violence. The official story goes that Wang Yingxian 王迎先, who had been arrested and interrogated on suspicion of being involved in a 1982 bank robbery, the first in Taiwanese history, signed a confession admitting to his involvement but somehow managed to escape during a prison transfer, and—either in remorse for the crime or embarrassment at being caught—committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Many people at the time, however, Shang Qin among them, were convinced that the police, who were under great pressure to solve the crime, had tortured Wang into signing the confession and then murdered him to prevent his making a retraction. Although no police were ever convicted, Wang was shown to be innocent, which created a scandal that forced the legislature and courts to end their long indifference to police brutality under the martial law regime. When I met with Shang Qin in the spring of 2004 to discuss this and several other poems I was translating at the time, he was unusually frank, so much so that I excused myself to go to the men's room so I could record his remarks while they were still fresh in my mind:
. . . We'll probably never know for sure what actually happened, but it was perfectly clear to me that Wang had not committed suicide and that he was dead before his body hit the water. Of course, I couldn't say that at the time, and I wouldn't want to in a poem—after all, poetry is not a mirror of life, but a way to get inside it. Even so, I was afraid to publish “The Sound of Speed” for many years. I didn't want to end up in a cell on Green Island like Chen Yingzhen, especially with two daughters to raise. Plus, I love to have a little drink in the evening, but, strange as it seems, they don't serve liquor in prison. . . .
Shang Qin's views on Wang Yingxian could hardly have been more explicit, but the poem itself is remarkably reticent as to the question of blame. I must have read “The Speed of Sound” at least thirty times and yet I am still unsure whether the target of this poem—if in fact it has a target—is the police for murdering Wang or the press and public for failing to insist that the perpetrators be brought to light. As a member of the press, such open-endedness is nothing if not ironic, but then Shang Qin was a man of many ironies. Although he had a lifelong revulsion for war and state violence, he served as a military policeman for much of his adult life; and though he himself had been a victim of war and state violence, he never once expressed the slightest sign of anger in either his poetry or conversation. In a final, glorious irony, though many of his poems were written decades ago and have been endlessly discussed by critics and scholars, his best work seems to refresh itself with each new reading.
The poet Hsia Yü 夏宇 said it best: "Shang Qin has been around a long time, but his poetry will never grow old."

      translations by Steve Bradbury    

Pigeons   鴿子  

My right hand/clasps my left hand/left hand tosses and turns in its embrace/my left hand clasps/my right hand/right hand in its embrace/tosses and turns/ he is so much like a wounded pigeon/I really feel like setting it free/but it is only my hand/a pair of hands that have butchered/in the end will be butchered as well

The Turkey   火雞  

A child once pointed out to me that it's only when a turkey eats that its snood stiffens up like a horn. Which got me thinking that the turkey is not one of your run-of-the-mill domestic fowl with a fondness for idle chatter. Indeed, its every cry is nothing if not a protest.

When it ruffles up its feathers the turkey bears an amazing resemblance to the peacock. (It even sounds the same, the thought of which once filled me with grief.) But while the peacock flaunts its splendor out of feelings of loneliness, the turkey ruffles its feathes up in an unending effort to put on a show of force in the face of nothingness.

A turkey that puts on a show of force in the face of nothingness clearly has a feeble grasp of metaphysics.

It likes to eat the chlorophyll-rich tips of the scallion.

It lightly turns its thoughts to love but rarely takes a stroll with its significant other.

It also thinks, quite often, but hardly the sort of thoughts we could ever understand.

Giraffes   長頸鹿  

When the young turnkey discovered the reason the prisoners seemed to be taller with every monthly physical—that in each case their necks had grown conspicuously longer—he reported to the warden, saying: “Sir, their windows are simply too high!” But the only response he got was: “No, it's their longing to see the months and years go by.”

The compassionate turnkey, who was tender in years and consequently unacquainted with the face of Time and equally unclear as to the question of its origin and present whereabouts, took himself off to the zoo, where, night after night, he hung about the giraffe enclosure, watching, waiting.

Cough   咳嗽  

a corner
a room
in the library
I managed to stifle the urge

until someone took a book
history most likely
and dropped it on the floor

I could not help but


The Speed of Sound   音速  

An elegy for Wang Yingxian, “drowned” in police custody, May 7th 1982

Someone leapt from a bridge.

As he was falling through the air, his body as stiff and disjointed as a prop dummy in a B movie, he suddenly stopped, a full half-second, before resuming his long free fall. The truth is that the force of his heart-wrenching scream rebounding off the surface of the water had momentarily arrested his momentum. Which also goes a long way toward explaining why he made such a pitiful splash.

Click to read   ENDNOTES  


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: "Remembering Shang Qin (1930-2010)," "Giraffes," "Pigeons," and "Cough" originally appeared in The Taipei Chinese PEN No.153 (Autumn 2010) and are reprinted courtesy of Taipei Chinese Center, International PEN and the author/translator. The photo of Shang Qin in the military, 1953, is reprinted courtesy of Contemporary Literature & History Imagery System, National Central Library, Taiwan. That of the group shot of Shang Qin with Ji Xian and others on the beach, 1962, is reprinted courtesy of The Epoch Poetry Quarterly. All other photos, drawings and hand-written ms reprinted courtesy of Shang Qin's daughter and literary executor Shan-shan Lo. All rights reserved.