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Chinese Roundabout

FRONTIER TAIWAN An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry Edited by Michelle Yeh and N.G.D. Malmqvist; Columbia University Press: 492 pp,. $49.50

July 22, 2001|BEI LING | Bei Ling is the founder and editor of Tendency. His essay was translated from the Chinese by Denis Mair

Compiled with a coherent view of history and certain political assumptions, "Frontier Taiwan," an anthology of 20th-century poetry from Taiwan, clearly makes a statement. Modern Taiwanese poetry, after more than half a century of separate growth and evolution, has become a literary territory complete in itself, a trunk instead of a branch. It is an entity that parallels the modern literature of mainland China without being part of that literature in either a national or cultural sense. The two are rivers which flow side by side, which have mingled and are now permeable to each other, but neither of which can eclipse the other in size or significance. The Western literary world, especially the English-speaking world, has long ignored the literary river that Taiwan represents. This selection of 430 translated poems by 50 poets boldly declares the existence of a modern tradition of poetry in Taiwan.

The pressure to classify poetry written in the same modern language as belonging either to Taiwan or mainland China and to expound on the differences between the two is the result of the political and military enmity which has characterized cross-strait relations for more than 50 years. But it is precisely because of this enmity that readers and poets have been able to experience what a vivid contrast, in purely literary terms, can arise under such a separation.

... Shamelessly I occupy a corner of the earth--

By the Congo River lies a sleigh;

Nobody knows how it slid that far.

A sleigh that nobody knows lies there.

--from "Abyss" by Ya Hsien

"Frontier Taiwan," edited by Michelle Yeh, professor of Chinese at UC Davis, and Goran Malmqvist, Stockholm University professor emeritus and member of the Swedish Royal Academy, is the first English-language anthology to provide a truly comprehensive view of poetry in Taiwan.

One might wonder why Malm-qvist is the co-editor of a book that bridges two languages, neither of which is his mother tongue. Given the pool of knowledgeable English-speaking talent among Chinese critics and readers, it might appear a controversial choice. Malmqvist, however, is a premier translator of modern Chinese literature into Swedish. With such qualifications, one can see the rationale of pairing him with Yeh, who grew up in Taiwan and is an authority on Chinese poetry. She is one of the most qualified of all the translators in this collection, most of whom are trained in classical Chinese poetry and modern fiction but not modern poetry, and her preface is an historically informed work of aesthetic judgment and a sustained contemplation on the poetics of place.

Modern poetry in Chinese emerged little more than 80 years ago, but the history of classical poetry in Chinese stretches back 3,000 years. Modern Chinese poetry stems from a literary language forged out of vernacular Chinese and translations of Western works. Without the availability of Western literature translated into Chinese in Shanghai during the first part of the 20th century and a desire to translate Western poetry into Chinese in Taiwan beginning in the 1950s, there would have been no modern Chinese poetry to speak of. In its relatively short history, modern Chinese poetry emerged as an epochal, revolutionary break from classical genres, transforming the face of the Chinese language in the process.

Shanghai poets of the 1920s and 1930s, poets originally influenced by Western literature who created a poetic style and language separate from writers of the Beijing School, a southern Shanghai style, influenced modern Taiwanese poets. Although mainland Chinese poetry was directly influenced by Russian and Soviet writers such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Essenin, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, modern Taiwanese poets followed the lead of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valery, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and the surrealist French poets such as Eluard. Translations of Symbolist, Impressionist, Dadaist, Modernist, and Surrealist Western poetry flooded into Taiwan after the 1950s and heavily influenced the creation and evolution of a modern poetic tradition in Taiwan. Such Western poetry did not enter the mainland until the late 1970s.

There can be no doubt that Taiwan's modern poetry was influenced by the mainland's May 4 (New Culture) Movement of 1917. The first book of modern poetry in Taiwan was Zhang Qingrong's "Love in a City of Chaos" (1925), coming five years after Hu Shi published his "Experiments" as a model for vernacular literature. Even the theme of Zhang's book was centered on his experiences in Beijing. In the 30 years after the May 4 Movement, key achievements in new poetry were made by mainland poets, including Xu Zhimo, Dai Wangshu, Li Jinfa, Ai Qing and the poets associated with the Nine Leaves group. Poets in Taiwan were hindered by Taiwan's status as a Japanese colony, especially after the Chinese language was suppressed.

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