In 2012 I asked over 20 Chinese poets the following five questions: 1. Who do you think are the most interesting poets in contemporary China? Please give a list of top 10 names and explain briefly why you choose them; 2. Which 10 Chinese poets (from ancient to present) have influenced you most? 3. Which 10 Western poets, in your opinion, have been most influential on contemporary Chinese poetry and (briefly) why? 4. Which 10 Asian poets have been most influential on contemporary Chinese poets? 5. Which 10 living poets from all other countries (including young poets and new voices) are your favorite?
Ten of the poets responded in time, and I translated their answers into English. Please note that this may not reflect their current opinions.
Q1. Who do you think are the most interesting poets in contemporary China? Please give a list of top 10 names, and explain briefly why you choose them.
Bai Hua: Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), for his craftsmanship; Bei Dao, who influenced me most; Zhang Zao (1962-2010), my most precious poet friend who inspired me frequently; and Lu Yimin (1962), the most gifted poetess in the 1980s.
Zhang Shuguang: The question is how you define ‘interesting’. Is it ‘playfulness’ as Chen Danqing’s comment on Lu Xun? Or juvenile fun like Feynman’s work? Anyway, I don’t think we have many interesting poets in contemporary China. We have good craftsmen, serious poets and ambitious poets, but very few interesting poets.
Sun Wenbo: It’s not an easy thing to name only 10 poets, so I will exclude those who have already been introduced to Western countries. I believe the following 10 poets have played a major part in the development of contemporary Chinese poetry: Sun Wenbo, Zang Di, Ming Di, Qing Ping, Zhang Shuguang, Jiang Tao, Jiang Hao, Xiao Kaiyu, Ya Shi and Xi Du. Their work has fundamentally changed Chinese poetry since 1990, shifting poetry more toward social life in China. They have elevated the overall quality of contemporary poetry in China by emphasizing on concrete and precise diction.
Song Lin: Duo Duo, for the tension in his language and his forceful style; Xi Chuan, for the composite candor of his texts; Wang Jiaxin, for his weighty reflective thinking and the clumsiness; Bai Hua, for his stylish language and his way of confronting history with poetry; Yu Jian, direct, profound, with sense of directions; Zhai Yongming, for her intrinsic drama and feminist perspective; Lü De’an: plain but textured language, fable style; Chen Dongdong: bright, musical, with moderate irony; Huang Canran: for his patience, impersonal style, and religious sense; and Ouyang Jianghe, eloquent, gorgeous with complex details.
Xiao Kaiyu: I never recommend poets or poems because I don’t read poets or poems recommended by other people. Translators should work harder but not focus on famous, worthless poets so that readers from other countries could learn more about Chinese poetry. On the other hand, I don’t think we have anything worth their attention right now.
Zang Di: Wang Ao’s fresh language has revitalized Chinese; Qing Ping has a very peculiar linguistic sense. Jiang Hao has explored the potentials of Chinese as a language for poetry. Ya Shi has a rare sense of contemporariness. Huang Canran hides himself and seeks the honesty of language. Jiang Tao has the most trenchant and most merciful irony. Hu Xudong has unlimited appetite for contemporary rhythms.
Ya Shi: From 1990 to the present, I personally find that the most interesting contemporary poets who are actively engaged in poetry writing include: Sun Wenbo, Zhang Shuguang, Zang Di, Jiang Tao, Hu Xudong, Jiang Hao, Yu Xiang, Lei Pingyang, Chen Xianfa and Yu Nu. My considerations are based on whether I can find different quality in their work, different from mine own. For instance, Sun Wenbo’s poetry may look simple but carries hidden power and intelligence. Jiang Tao’s work may appear casual but has deep sensitivity.
Jiang Tao: Duo Duo, Bai Hua, Xiao Kaiyu, Zang Di, Zhang Zao, Chen Dongdong, and Ouyang Jianghe. Personally I highly regard their work and I think they each have separately made contributions in exploring the possibilities of Chinese poetry.
Jiang Hao: Every 10 years there have been changes in contemporary Chinese poetry. From the 1990s to the end of last century, the poets who were worth reading include: Xi Chuan, Ouyang Jianghe, Zhang Zao, and Zhang Shuguang. Since the beginning of the new century, the most innovative, original and pioneering poets are: Xiao Kaiyu, Zang Di, Sun Wenbo, Han Bo, Jiang Tao, Hu Xudong and myself, Jiang Hao.
Lü Yue: Hu Kuan (1952-1995), an avant guard poet who started writing poetry in the 1970s. Collected Poems of Hu Kuan was published posthumously by his friends in 1996 and he was ‘rediscovered’ by poetry critics. Other important poets are Yu Jian, Wang Xiaoni, Li Yawei, Zheng Danyi, Yang Jian, Song Xiaoxian and Wu Ang.
Hu Xudong: In terms of having unique styles and expanding the boundaries of Chinese contemporary poetry writing: Xi Chuan, Zang Di, Xiao Kaiyu, Zhang Zao (1962-2010), Zhai Yongming, Jiang Tao, Jiang Hao, Ma Yan (1979-2010), Wang Ao and Bo Han.
Jiang Li: I have two categories. 10 poets that I have been looking forward to read: Ouyang Jianghe, Zhang Shuguang, Yu Jian, Sun Wenbo, Xiao Kaiyu, Zang Di, Huang Canran, Ye Hui and Zhu Yongliang. They have demonstrated a sustained seriousness in poetry writing with distinctive styles, very enlightening. 10 poets I personally find interesting: Mang Ke, Hai Po, Mo Mo, Pan Wei, Yang Li, Shen Haobo, Li Yawei, Yi Sha and Cai Tianxin. They are interesting in different ways – each of them has a personality.
Q2. Which 10 Chinese poets (from ancient to present) have influenced you most?
Bai Hua: Too many to list. I will just mention two: Wu Wenying (c.1200-c.1260) and Huang Tingjian (1045–1105).
Zhang Shuguang: When I was young I used to like Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Shi, and Wang Wei and so forth. Later I preferred Tao Yuanming and authors of Nineteen Ancient Poems. As to contemporary poets, I’ve read some, and some of them are my good friends, but it’s hard to pinpoint to a specific impact from them.
Sun Wenbo: The following ancient Chinese poets have influenced me: Du Fu, Tao Yuanming, Su Dongpo, Xin Qiji, Cao Cao, Cao Zhi, Shen Yue, Xiao Gang and Xiao Yi, and the Nineteen Ancient Poems. Western readers must read them if they want to know about Chinese classical poetry, because these are the most outstanding ones in my opinion.
Song Lin: Qu Yuan, Tao Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, Li Shangyin, Wang Wei, Su Shi, Lu Xun (1881-1936), Bian Zhilin (1910-2000) and Bei Dao.
Zang Di: Wang Wei, Su Dongpo (Su Shi), Du Fu, Li Shangyin, Li Bai, Tao Yuanming, Mu Dan (1918-1977), Wang Ao (1976-), Qing Ping (1962-) and Bian Zhilin (1910-2000).
Ya Shi: Ancient poet Chen Zi-ang, Li Bai, Du Fu, Huang Shan-gu, Wang Wei and contemporary poet Bai Hua have influenced my earlier writing.
Jiang Tao: Classical poet Du Fu; modern poets Feng Zhi and Mu Dan; contemporary poets Hai Zi, Xi Chuan, Zang Di, Ouyang Jianghe and Xiao Kaiyu.
Jiang Hao: I would list classical poets only: Qu Yuan, Xie Lingyun, Li Bai, Du Fu, Li Shangyin, Bai Juyi, Su Dongpo, Wang Wei, Lu You and Xin Qiji.
Lü Yue: From the ancient time: "The Book of Songs", The Han Folk Songs, Li Bai, Du Fu, and Su Shi. Modern poets Fei Ming, Bian Zhilin, Mu Dan; and contemporary poets Bei Dao and Zhai Yongming.
Hu Xudong: Classical poets Ruan Ji, Li Bai; modern poets Bian Zhilin, Fei Ming; and contemporary poets Duo Duo, Bai Hua, Xiao Kaiyu, Zhang Zao, Xi Chuan and Zang Di.
Jiang Li: Classical: Qu Yuan, the anonymous authors of the Nineteen Ancient Poems, Tao Yuanming, Xie Lingyun, Wang Wei, Meng Haoran, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, and Su Dongpo.
Contemporary: Zhang Shuguang, Ye Hui, Sun Wenbo, Zang Di, Xiao Kaiyu, Lü De’an, Huang Canran, Pan Wei, Sang Ke and Cai Tianxin.
Q3. Which 10 Western poets, in your opinion, have been most influential on contemporary Chinese poetry, and (briefly) why?
Bai Hua: Too many to count.
Zhang Shuguang: Chinese poets gain knowledge of foreign poets mostly through translation, not from personal choice. So it all depends on the perspectives of the translators. This reflects how important translation is. First we had T. S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke, then we had Czesław Milosz and Joseph Brodsky. By the late 1990s, more poets were introduced into China, and there were more choices to make. Many poets promote C. P. Cavafy, but few seem to have learned the essence.
Sun Wenbo: Western literature from ancient Greece down to the present has had a significant impact on Chinese literature and poetry. Since the modernist movement was introduced into China, the following poets have had the greatest influence on Chinese poets: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Ashbery, Ginsberg, French poets Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Valery and the surrealist poets; German poets Rilke, Georg Trakl, Celan; and Russian and Eastern European poets such as Mandelstam, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Brodsky. Foremost, they changed our concept of what’s poetry so that we had a new starting point in re-understanding the traditional Chinese poetry and in building a new form. It was revolutionary change in the language. For example, Pound helped us get rid of what must be abandoned; Eliot helped us build an entirely new relationship between poetry and tradition.
Song Lin: Dante, Baudelaire, Hölderlin, Whitman, Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Rilke, Valery, Frost, Borges, Wallace Stevens, Lorca, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Celan, Milosz, Brodsky, Cavafy, Tranströmer, Heaney, etc.
Xiao Kaiyu: I can tell you who I’m reading right now: the New & Collected Poems of George Szirtes.
Zang Di: Eliot, Rilke, Pound, Yeats, Stevens, Ginsberg, Valery, Montale, Brodsky, Milosz, Ted Hughes, Plath and Bishop have had significant impact on Chinese contemporary poetry. For instance, Eliot awakened the modern consciousness in Chinese poets and the awareness of how to deal with the relationship between traditions and individual talents. Rilke led contemporary Chinese poets in overcoming the sentimentalism in earlier Chinese free verse poetry – a variant of Romanticism. Pound encouraged our aspiration for language innovation. Yeats, with his efforts in adopting ‘masks’ and a symbolic ‘self’, helped us distance our writing from the state literature. Stevens demonstrated the role of the imagination in writing.
Ya Shi: In the evolving phases of Chinese new poetry, Eliot, Auden, Rilke, Valery and Baudelaire have left clear marks. Their concepts of poetry and their work are part of the formation of Chinese modern poetry. Auden came to China and wrote a famous poem about Chinese current affairs then, which might be one of the reasons he influenced us. Since the late 1980s, Chinese poetry has ‘encountered’ Stevens, Brodsky, Heaney, Milosz, Zagajewski, etc. for various poetic reasons. To answer this question requires historical insight and detailed case studies. Every poet would have a different answer, and his map is tinted by his personal growth.
Jiang Tao: Eliot, Brodsky, Rilke, Borges, Auden, Larkin, Ashbery and Lowell. Their influences are in two main areas: first, in establishing certain poetic consciousness, and second, in developing poetic styles.
Jiang Hao: Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry freed Chinese poets from ideological concerns; Rilke is somehow in resonance with ancient Chinese poetics. T. S. Eliot’s poetry and essays have made a decisive influence on contemporary Chinese poetry and poetry criticism – no other Western poets have been more influential than him. Ezra Pound, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and John Ashbery have each affected certain part of Chinese poetry. Frost reminds us of our beloved classical poet Tao Yuanming, Ashbery’s poetry leads us to a more conceptualized art that is absent in Chinese tradition.
Lü Yue: Baudelaire, completely new, startling. Whitman, free form and free spirit. Rilke, clear language and perfection in craftsmanship. Ginsberg, critical and destructive, strong auditory effect.
Hu Xudong: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, and the Surrealist Poets in the French tradition influenced Chinese poetry in the 1930s-1940s as well as 1980s, and brought about a basic awareness of modern poetry.
Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden and Stevens of the English tradition have each had an influence upon Chinese poets in different ways and at different times, in terms of intellectual thinking and overall creativity.
Russian poets Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam have strengthened the lyrical expressions in Chinese poetry. Georg Trakl, Rilke, Paul Celan of the German tradition enriched the ‘depth’ of Chinese poetry.
Lorca and Neruda and other Spanish voices have affected the emotional presentation of Chinese poetry.
Ginsberg brought a rebellious impulse in the 1980s. Plath and other ‘confessional’ poets injected a strong shot into the Chinese women's poetry in the 1980s.
Heaney, Milosz, Paz, Walcott, etc., have helped Chinese poets in re-adjusting the relationship between reality and imagination, history and writing ethics, modernism and contemporary writing.
Since 2000, Western poets have rarely had a ‘global’ impact on Chinese contemporary poetry. Its penetration into the discourse of contemporary poetry is mostly local and even personal, sometimes in an extremely private way. For instance, some Eastern European poets such Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski and Tomaž Šalamun have aroused great attention. Some American poets who did not initially leave big impressions, or only had slight popularity, are now becoming strong inspirations: Crane, Bishop, Ashbery, O'Hara. The same situation with the ‘forgotten’ non-English poets: C. P. Cavafy, Antonio Machado, Cesar Vallejo and Yehuda Amichai. They have attracted more interest as more translations have appeared. Fernando Pessoa has become a personal source of inspiration for some Chinese poets.
Jiang Li: The following poets have had strong impact on Chinese poetry since the 1980s: Whitman, Stevens, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Rilke, Robert Frost, Eliot, Yeats, Lorca, Saint-John Perse, Heaney, Pound, Auden, Brodsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Milosz, Cavafy, Borges, Pessoa, Yannis Ritsos. Chinese ‘New Poetry’ experienced a rupture in the 1950s and re-gained interest in Western literature in the 1970s. Within 30 years of time, Chinese poets absorbed the 100 year history of Western modern poetry. The main impact is on the writing of poetry. But the influence goes beyond poetry. Bei Dao’s generation was influenced by symbolic poetry. The third generation was more influenced by the post-World War I poetry, especially Beat poetry. Currently, domestic classical poetry is becoming a vital source of inspiration for us. This Chinese-Western fusion will be an important part of new Chinese poetry in the years to come.
Q4. Which 10 Asian poets have been most influential on contemporary Chinese poets?
Bai Hua: Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon (c. 966–1017) with her work The Pillow Book has influenced me since 1990, and even more so now.
Zhang Shuguang: I think the real influence if any came from Rabindranath Tagore – but good or bad, it’s still hard to say. It’s difficult to pinpoint other Asian poets.
Sun Wenbo: Overall, Asian poetry didn’t have great impact on Chinese contemporary poetry. Tagore may have had some influence, but due to the inadequate translation, he wasn’t presented as one of the greatest thinker in Asia and therefore he had very limited influence on contemporary Chinese poets. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám has certain influence on some Chinese poets’ writing.
Song Lin: Tagore, Khayyam, Matsuo Basho, Gibran, etc.
Zang Di: It’s hard to pinpoint individual influences from Asian poets. Japanese poetry played a role in shaping Chinese new poetry, but due to the Sino-Japanese War, the effect easily slipped into ‘politically correct or not’. Tagore influenced Chinese poetry earlier on but quickly it was distorted into sentimental cliché. Classical Indian poetry had a significant impact on some Chinese poets such as Hai Zi in 1980s. Chinese poets are becoming more interested in poetry in India, Iran and Palestine.
Ya Shi: I can’t think of Asian poets that have had a strong influence on our contemporary poetry.
Jiang Tao: Influence from Asian poetry is relatively smaller. This is the problem of acceptance and perspectives since the 1980s. We’ve looked more to Europe and the United States, lacking an interest in the real diversities of ‘World Literature’.
Jiang Hao: None.
Lü Yue: Tagore since the 1920s. Very few Asian poets have been introduced into China in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, Tanikawa Shuntaro has been translated, Yehuda Amichai from Israel has been translated, and Arabic poet Adonis has gained a lot of attention.
Hu Xudong: Japanese poet Tanikawa Shuntaro has been translated into Chinese, but it’s difficult to judge if there is any impact on Chinese poets. Some of the Chinese poets turn to poetry in the Middle East, West Asia and South Asia to refresh their inspiration, but it’s difficult to make any conclusion as to whether there has been any influence from there.
Jiang Li: Tagore for a while, but didn’t last long.
Q5. Which 10 living poets from all other countries (including young poets and new voices) are your favorite?
Bai Hua: Thomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, Paul Muldoon and Jan Wagner.
Zhang Shuguang: Most of my favorite poets are dead. I haven’t read enough younger poets, or there haven’t been many introduced to China. I would just name Ashbery, Zagajewski, Heaney, the earlier Li-Young Lee. In reading poetry, I prefer younger poets, not because they are better but because they have something new to attract me.
Sun Wenbo: Walcott, Heaney and Zagajewski. They are not necessarily my favorite, but I read them to learn what’s going on out there. The young poet you translated last year [Ilya Kaminsky] deeply impressed me, and I see great potential in his work.
Song Lin: Heaney, Tranströmer and Zagajewski.
Xiao Kaiyu: There are many good poets, poets from Ireland, poets from Hungary, etc.
Zang Di: Simon Armitage, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Durs Grünbein, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, Aleš Šteger, W. N. Herbert and Louise Glück.
Ya Shi: Currently I like John Ashbery, who is very sophisticated, and Seamus Heaney, who is clear and solid without lacking linguistic complexity. Of the younger poets, the one you’ve translated [Kaminsky] appeals to me strongly. I’m drawn to the sense of pain and joy of language in his poetry, and the way the Russian tradition expands in his work.
Jiang Tao: I have read some contemporary poets who are active in other countries, but honestly I haven’t done enough careful evaluation and comparison.
Jiang Hao: John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Merwin, Charles Wright, and Robert Bly.
Lü Yue: Marin Sorescu from Romania, Wislawa Szymborska from Poland, Ana Blandiana from Romania, Ivan Zhdanov from Russia, Adonis, Adam Zagajewski, Tomas Venclova from Lithuania, Tanikawa Shuntaro from Japan, and Ilya Kaminsky.
Hu Xudong: Among the living international poets, I have been paying more attention to Heaney, Walcott, Tranströmer; in recent years Juan Gelman (Argentina), Jose Emilio Pacheco (Mexico), Ferreira Gullar (Brazil), Tomaž Šalamun (Slovenia), Robert Haas and Forrest Gander (USA). As to young poets, I find the following poets interesting: Scottish poet W. N. Herbert, and some poets from Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia that I’ve met in recent years.
Jiang Li: Walcott, Ashbery, Zbigniew Herbert, Merwin, Zagajewski, Tranströmer, Robert Bly, Louise Glück and Charles Simic.
From New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry 1990-2012, edited by Ming Di (Tupelo Press, 2013, co-published with the Harriet Monroe Institute of the Poetry Foundation (USA))