Yao Feng, the pen-name of Yao Jingming, was born in Beijing in 1958. He studied Portuguese at university and worked as a diplomat for a time, but is now based in the former Portuguese colony of Macao. In additon to writing poetry in Chinese, he also writes in Portuguese and translates Portuguese poerty into Chinese. In 2006, he was awarded the Ordem Militar de Santiago de Espada medal by the President of Portugal. His Selected Poems came out in 2009.
As a poet, Yao Feng seems particularly attracted to terrible, human kinds of beauty. The ailing woman he visits in the poem ‘In St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester’ has fingernails “like plum blossom”. Their persistent “flowerings” in life are full of furious splendour (the Chinese, like the English, merges the meanings of “anger” and “vitality” here) , and yet at the same time they are tokens of the body’s last-ditch resistance to death. In another hospital poem, ‘Plant Man’, his dying friend is described paradoxically as a thriving flower: “His body is plugged with tubes / making him look like a lush tuber”. At heart, Yao is anti-romantic: he wants poetry to confront the harsh conditions of human life without altogether denying its capacity for moments of joy.
The menace is not always obvious; sometimes, it tends to lurk in the fringes of his awareness. In ‘Nanjing’, for example, the yuhuashi or “rain-flower pebbles”, a type of gorgeously coloured rock sold in the city, are personified as witnesses of a kind (“they stare at travellers with wide rainbow eyes”). This witnessing, however, does not extend to a brutal fact of history, the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, which the poet catches himself (consciously?) avoiding.
A similar historical awareness operates in the poem ‘Prospect Hill’, the name of an artificial mound built near the Forbidden City, former residence of the Chinese emperor. Yao evokes the place lyrically at first, an idyllic tourist attraction beautified by sunset and the superb fragrance of lilac flowers. Yet the point of his poem is to break this spell of surface tranquillity and to exhume something of the past. He denies an interest in the textbook facts of history, the rise and fall of dynasties, to focus instead on the fate of the women who were to all intents and purposes imprisoned in the City for life as courtesans. (China’s greatest family saga, The Story of the Stone, deals at length with the bittersweet reality of a family member fated to become just such a courtesan). The Chinese word for “prospect” here, jing, is echoed in the word for “menopause”, juejing, thus helping to underscore his purpose in the poem and to maximize the irony of its opening lines.
This talent for reversal also drives ‘Conquerors’. The poem promises a cliché: that the will to conquer will always succeed in the end. Yao Feng examines the photographs bequeathed to history by such victors over nature in order to restore what has been left out by the framing of the incident: the sherpas who provided the local knowledge and expertise necessary to ensure the success of the endeavour. Their absence from the story is marked by the line “standing silently in a corner there”; the poem quietly insists on acknowledgment of their role, their reinstatement.
Less obvious, but full of intrigue, is the short poem ‘Toward the Light’. Again, the conventional image of the moth irresistibly attracted to a light that will annihilate it is thoughtfully reworked. The “training” of the moth to lose its wings (wings that elevate and impress with their patterning) suggests, I think, something of Yao Feng’s own efforts in writing. Like the disabled moth, he is able to resist the headlong plunge into so-called “illumination”; instead, carrying the night with him, he creeps, painstakingly. His aim is to avoid the temptations of easy, attractive responses to the world. Contemporary, worldly-wise, human-oriented: these are some of his primary qualities.
Xie zai feng de chibang shang (Written on the wings of the wind)
Yi tiao dipingxian, liang zhong fengjing (One horizon line, two views)
A Noite Deita-se comigo (The night lies down with me)
Yuanfang zhi ge (Song of the Faraway)
Yao Feng shixuan 2002-2008 (Yao Feng: selected poems 2002-2008)
Selecta de Poetas Portugueses Contemporaneos (1999)
Andelade shi xuan (Selected poems by Eugenio de Andrade) (2001)
Three poems on the Poetry Sky website