He Xiaozhu is a poet of the periphery in China, both imagined and real. Born in 1963 to a Han mother and a Miao (also known as Hmong) father in Pengshui county, Sichuan (now Chongqing), his mixed ethnic identity and rural home deeply shaped his view of the world and language. As an outsider to mainstream Chinese culture, he was motivated from an early age to pursue a poetics of difference and, after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, he was determined to break with the usual strictures of society. To his parents’ dismay (both were teachers), he did not take the entrance exams for university and instead joined the local arts troupe as an erhu player (the erhu is a string instrument played with a bow). However, almost ten years later he carried his vision from the periphery to a national level as a poet in the acclaimed avant-garde poetry group Not-Not in Chengdu.
He Xiaozhu has always had a unique relationship to the language and culture surrounding him. Although he grew up in an environment distant from his Miao heritage, this distance has made a lasting impact on his relationship with his poetry. As a Chinese literary critic once said, “He Xiaozhu’s mother tongue should be Miao, but he grew up in an entirely Han Chinese language environment. Although he was never able to receive his mother tongue’s full nourishment, within his lack of ancestral knowledge there flows the mother tongue’s blood. This enables him to maintain a potential distance from the Han Chinese language, and grants him the intuition to enter into the possible formlessness of language’s periphery.” Quoting He Xiaozhu, he entitles his article “’Catching Unidentified Insects along the Margins of Language: He Xiaozhu and Metalingual Writing” which at once captures both He Xiaozhu’s conception of poetry (marginal language) and his poetic practice (imagery of the micro, i.e. locality).
He Xiaozhu’s early career as a poet was more often colored by a kind of ‘mystic’ style loosely related to his ethnic background. However, by the time he joined the Not-Not poetry group between 1986-1992 with other poets such as Zhou Lunyou, Lan Ma, Yang Li, Jimu Langge, he had already begun to reduce this mystic quality and focus on a more unadorned and conversational language. It is this style that dominates his most recent and definitive poetry collection entitled 6 Verbs or Apples. Through a process of ‘subtraction’, He Xiaozhu says in his preface to the collection that he is reducing poetic language’s excesses. When asked by a reporter “ . . . [A]fter cancelling out the expression of meaning and the flow of poetic meaning, what is left over?” He Xiaozhu’s reply was “poetry”. However, He Xiaozhu’s poetry is not a grinding of words into poetic nothingness. Instead, it is a refocusing of poetics on the innate world behind the language. With his view from the periphery he uses his poetry to frame an alternative look on ‘things’ as in this poem ‘Behind Stood a Horse’:
As we ate noodles
a horse stood behind us
There were probably very few that
because as we ate
our eyes looked at the noodles
Only one or two people
turned their heads
and saw the horse
Playing on the turn of language from subject to object, He Xiaozhu makes the mundane seem different, almost unique. In the continual process of subtraction, his poetry sparks a sensation “left over” after the poem — those untidy pieces that hold one’s attention, the after-thought. This “leftover state” is an image developed in his poem “Leftover Sounds, Leftover Peels” which reduces language and things to sounds and peels. There are similarities between this image and his own distant connection to his ethnic background and its subtle influence on his poetry. What to make of those residual pieces left over from language and style is the question He Xiaozhu raises for his as we read his poems. The fifth stanza of the poem asks these same questions:
Some sounds are left over
Some peels are left over, how do we deal with them?
When I was a child
I liked to break up Chinese characters, in those
meaningless brush strokes look for secrets
I am not Han, yet am also distant from my own ethnicity
I don't understand my mother tongue, those folksongs
are only ever guests in the Han language
What else can I do?
maybe forever listen to those whirling maple leaves in my heart
He Xiaozhu is a poet caught between worlds, between ethnicities, between the obvious and the hidden. His poetry attempts to reveal those cracks between ‘things’, the language that describes them, and the innate world beyond them. In this way, he gives his readers a chance to use their peripheral vision and see a view of the world from the outside.
However, in other more playful poems like ‘Going to Supo Village’ and ‘Stars of Xichang’ we see a lighter side of He Xiaozhu that simply but lastingly pairs family and friends with the moon and stars. Within his plain language and his pursuit of style-less poetics, there are still plenty of moments of wonder and awe. He Xiaozhu just wants his readers to read between the lines.
He Xiaozhu has published several poetry collections, a novel and a series of short stories. He is also an active blogger of poetry, prose, and online commentary.
Mengjian pingguo he yu de An (Ann dreaming of apples and fish), 1989.
Huitou de yang (The sheep that looked back), 1991.
6 ge dongci, huo pingguo (6 verbs, or apples), Hebei jiaoyu chubanshe, 2002.
Xie dao 1000 shou shi zhi hou (After writing a 1000 poems). Koopee.com, 2003.
Aiqing geyao (Love songs), Chunfeng wenyi chubanshe, 2002.
Nüwu zhizao zhe (Witch-maker), Huaxia chubanshe, 2003.