After the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – an era constituted by propaganda, political purges, and the suppression of literature – poets attempted to reimagine Chinese literature. One movement was called Misty poetry (朦胧诗), a subset of Scar literature, (伤痕文学, ‘literature of the wounded’), which addressed the trauma of Mao Zedong’s regime. Misty poets portrayed subjectivity and feelings of displacement in language similar to the Imagists. Its writers, who included Bei Dao (1949-), Hai Zi (1964-1989) and Gu Cheng (1956-1993), wrote minimalistically in styles resembling those of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams. Yet, they also retained stylistic and thematic elements that help characterise Chinese poetry – a focus on nature, on enigmatic metaphor, and on probing philosophical questions in colloquial terms. Cheng’s ‘Far and Near’ (‘远和近‘) epitomises this: it presents lovers in states of isolation and uses sparse language reminiscent of classical Chinese：
一会看我 you look at me one moment
一会看云 and at clouds the next
我觉得 I feel
你看我时很远 When you’re looking at me, you’re far away
你看云时很近 But when you’re looking at the clouds, how could we be nearer!
“You” and “I” have a complex relationship that fluctuates between distance and intimacy, and the poem concerns how two individuals develop a sense of closeness. Cheng’s own understanding of Misty poetry offers further insight: ‘The defining characteristic of this new type of poetry is its realism – it begins with objective realism but veers towards a subjective realism; it moves from a passive reaction toward active creation’, he said. Through a focalization on pronouns, and subtle suggestion of a parallel between the relationship of lovers and that of reader to writer, Cheng helped create an idiom for contemporary Chinese poetry. ‘Misty’ poems, frequently published in serial magazines, thus recreated a literary conscious begun with Lu Xun and repressed by Mao.
It appears that the poetry and photography of Ren Hang (1987-2017), and several other contemporary Chinese poets such as Zhang Er and Xiao Kaiyu, are responding to similar social concerns in a reimagination of Misty poetry. This is partially a historical claim: though short of the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, recent decades have seen enormous urban migrations, radical economic reorganization, and a burgeoning internet culture. But part of the claim concerns the qualities that define the current literary movement. Specifically, Ren Hang’s attempts, in his photography and poetry, to create private spaces of security and self expression to counteract the alienation he identified in China, might be in dialogue with the aesthetics of Cheng and Hai Zi. His photography, which depicts nude subjects in moments of poignant distress and portrays his family (eg “My Mum”) through a surrealistic lens, has helped define an aesthetic that has been compared with that of American photographers Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe. In an interview this year with the British Journal of Photography, Hang reflected on his interest in using nudity to convey the rawness and communality of emotional states: ‘I do not think nudity is challenging – nudity is common, everybody has it … I use nudity so that I can feel more realism and sense of presence.’ His poetry, which often focuses on love and marriage, similarly creates an intimate humanistic presence through unmasking the intensity of underlying emotions. He has also continued the Misty’s tradition of serial publication through his Weibo blog, where he published poems between 2007 and 2017, along with a diary-style piece entitled ‘My Depression.’ Because of censorship, however, much of Hang’s work received its greatest acclaim in countries other than China.
When we learned that the majority of Hang’s writing was untranslated, we decided to try. There were a few reasons. His poetry was resonant with our own personal experiences in China, and it shows internal psychological states that images cannot. It therefore might enhance our affective understanding of his photography. Finally, his metaphors, though often referencing classical Chinese tropes, are universal. Our translation approach reflects these interests. We want both to preserve his use of enjambments and analogies in a way that reflects his original linguistic emphases in Mandarin, while also evoking his eerie, Kafka-esque mood. As we translated, we often alternated reading aloud both the original Mandarin and our English version, which helped ensure that a poem’s sonic sensibilities, and the moments in which it crystallised or painted a crucial image, crossed over into the English. Here, we present two original translations, further reflections on translation process, and thoughts on Hang’s poetic project.
In ‘Dusk’ (‘黄昏’), Hang begins by describing a ritualistic evening walk. The opening lines, which have a comforting prose cadence, invite readers to be a part of the ‘We’ who goes out ‘hand in hand with our mums, with our wives.’ The title creates a relatable, generic mood: it places us not in any particular dusk but rather in a recurring experience. This lets us settle into the rhythms of walking and familial life. All seems quite normal, even banal. Yet, Hang quickly casts an atmosphere of eeriness and nostalgia when he writes, in the next two lines, that our past lives and ‘past lovers’ linger behind us both as concrete forms and as imagined projections. Pictorially, one might see a Munch painting with its fluid lines and an undercurrent of metaphysical disquietude. There is also, however, much ambiguity. Who are these past lovers? Why are they walking ‘hand in hand with … dogs,’ a phrase that mirrors the position (‘牵着’) in the first two lines? On the one hand, Hang might be suggesting that we continuously evoke, and conjure illusions of, those possible lives that slipped from our grasp. Rather than seeing past lovers and their lovers, we voluntarily imagine them as ‘single’ dog walkers who would affectionately greet our embrace. We might also conclude that those ‘past lovers’ are simply actual walkers for whom ‘we’ create personas and whom we imagine as part of our lives. Regardless of whether ‘past lovers’ are actual people or mere projections, the piece disturbs the notion of a family as a closed conscious unit – our possible affairs are always right there – whilst still seeking to preserve a sense of normalcy and calm. That is, as we conclude with an image of ‘demure dogs,’ Hang seems to be reminding us that ‘Dusk’ will come again tomorrow, and tomorrow. Despite melancholy and nostalgia, the poem’s reality is one in which we remain ‘hand in hand’ with our own families.
This combination of unsettling images, along with a desire to preserve a sense of peace and connection, emerges throughout Hang’s work. He often uses sparse, enjambed diction to create temporary confusion and uncertainty from which, at poem’s end, we begin to emerge. In ‘Love’ (‘爱情’), a poem that describes two lovers who are waxing between states both romantic and comic, Hang sets the scene with a simple image of two lovers (‘We sit on a bench chatting’), yet he places a line break between the preposition (‘在’) and the bench (‘长椅’). In vernacular Mandarin, one seldom halts between locative adverb and noun, unless intending to emphasise either the actions or the circumstance in which they occur. The line break offers a number of possible interpretations, and it injects the poem with a kinetic, playful rhythm, which throughout has a number of unexpected enjambments. In another example, Hang writes ‘When we rise and get ready/ to leave…(起身准备/离开的时候)’, which creates a pleasant fluidity between ‘to get ready’ and ‘leave.’ In a fashion similar to the Black Mountain Poets, who sought to create ‘open field’ poems in which ‘ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION’, these interruptions in prepositional and verbal continuity invite creative opportunities in which we can imagine where the scene is taking place. As we fall from ‘at’ (在) to the bench, it seems as if the poetic image is coming into being as it might if we were actually perceiving it, and the eerily protracted beat counters our tendency for fast, consumptive reading. This has larger implications in the context of Hang’s metaphysical depiction of ‘Love,’ which involves a re-imagination with our very relationship with verbs and motion. The poem’s conclusion, in which Hang playfully remarks that he is his lover’s ‘lighter,’ jocularly suggests that ‘loving’ is contingent on becoming more open and receptive to one another’s energies. We must be equally flexible in our reading and encounter each verb and preposition as a kind of building block in a continuously emergent image. The joy of reading Hang in Mandarin, and perhaps in English, thus lies partly in his ability to create nuanced linguistic cadences of which we are often unaware.
Many critics and commentators have suggested that China is now entering a ‘golden age’ of poetry. They point to large, collaborative gatherings of poets in Beijing as evidence of a revived culture. The poems that have garnered the most attention have important resemblances to Ren Hang’s style: they are colloquial, profound yet sarcastic, and quickly garner internet attention. Yu Xiuhua’s ‘Crossing Half of China to Sleep With You’ epitomises this stylistic mixture. In the poem, she waxes between metaphysical questions, such as ‘To spend or to be spent, what’s the difference if there is any?’ and playful assertions on the ‘Absolute reasons that I spend a night with you.’ Xiuhua is faithful to no singular idiom – one moment, she speaks in blogger-style language, the next in rhythmic poetic cadence. She feels the freedom, and indeed the necessity, to choose that mode of expression which best conveys the qualities of her sentiment or idea, and to switch on whim. Such dexterity is a defining feature of Hang’s work – in both ‘Dusk’ and ‘Love,’ he offers playful imagery with serious undertones. Although it is difficult to make overarching statements on the possible effects of his aesthetic on this movement, he surely has contributed to a revived ethos. In one poem, Hang provides a clue to what seems like an underlying philosophy – namely a fidelity to using art as a catharsis. ‘Hospital’ (‘医院’) presents a dystopian scenario of people looking for an “exit.” The poem, with existential undertones, offers a visual depiction of being “trapped” and shows the possibility that creativity can provide:
我走进一间病房 I walk into a ward with
四面是墙 no exit. I find all four walls
上面画满了门 covered in painted doors.
我走进一间病房 I walk into a ward with doors
到处是门 everywhere. I find it full of
里面挤满了寻找出口的人 people looking for an exit.
It appears that in modernity, freedom is decidedly contingent on creativity and releasing ourselves from what Hang identifies as a ‘disenchanted’ condition. Hang was not a writer with faith to any one cause, but he certainly had what the protagonist in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) calls ‘fidelities,’ or an ongoing state of devotion to a process. As he wrote on his blog, he wanted readers to resist hopelessness and maintain faith in composition. In one post from 2012, he writes about how to undermine those who ‘laugh at and doubt you.’ He wrote: ‘So don’t worry when they look at you. They want to see you fall, but you must let them see how beautiful life is. That within the indescribable pain lies indescribable beauty.’ For Hang, beauty and pain, creativity and horror, were forever intertwined. That he repeatedly chose to go to those places, and present them to us, seems to have helped awaken a national poetic conscious. It also might, if we can listen, teach us to stop searching for exits and realise that we must, in the end, create our own.
We must add that Reng Hang decided to end his life on February 24, 2017. At the time of his death, his photography was featured in exhibitions in Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Beijing. The depression, melancholy, and ennui that emerge beautifully in his poetry pervaded his life. Surely perceptions of depression in China, where it is often viewed as a sign of weakness, must change such that mental illness becomes more recognizable and treatable. For now, it seems that our only way of possibly honoring him is through cherishing, listening to, and learning from, his immaculate work, for we have inherited that ‘precious gift’ of life mentioned in his poem “Gift” from July 2014. This is the reality of which Ren Hang’s poetry, again and again, reminds us.