For Yu Jian, poetry is largely a matter of sounding his world with words. Born on 8 August 1954 in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan, he contracted serious pneumonia when only two years old. An overdose of streptomycin saved his life, but left him with diminished hearing in one ear. Yu Jian accepts this disability of his with philosophical aplomb. In an autobiographical note he once wrote:
I pay an expensive price for this defect of mine, having had to struggle all my life for equal treatment and respect from others. On the other hand, it has made me accustomed to understanding the world through my eyes instead of talking with others. I have had to create an “inner ear” for myself.
As he was growing up, times in China were far from propitious for poetry. With the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, his schooling was interrupted and he lived an “untied life”, wandering the streets of Kunming with his friends while his parents were forced to leave home to undergo “re-education”. In 1969, at the age of 16, he became an apprentice in a factory north of the city and worked as a riveter and welder. Perhaps for this reason it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the poet is also an enthusiastic tennis player: years of catching red-hot rivets at work no doubt considerably sharpened his reflexes.
Influenced by his father’s interest in classical Chinese poetry and aided by frequent power failures at the factory, Yu Jian became a voracious reader. The first Western poetry he ever read was Longfellow’s 'The Song of Hiawatha', but it was Walt Whitman who made the biggest early impact on him: “ . . . for six months I was immersed in the excitement of these poems . . .”. It was to be a decisive influence.
At the age of twenty, Yu Jian began writing his first poems in free verse. In 1980, when university education once again became a possibility for young Chinese people, Yu Jian passed the entrance examinations for Yunnan University, becoming a student in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature. He became known as a student poet and was an energetic literary activist, helping to establish several literary clubs as well as edit various publications.
His big break came in 1986 when China’s most prestigious official poetry magazine Shikan published one of his poems as the lead item in its November edition. The poem was entitled 'No. 6 Shangyi Street', and it is a good example of the plain, down-to-earth style that Yu Jian deliberately cultivates:
no. 6 Shangyi Street
yellow French-style houses
Old Wu’s pants hung out to dry on the second floor
. . .
the big public toilet next door
the long queue outside first thing every morning
usually with the onset of twilight
we open packets of cigarettes open our mouths
turn on lights
Yu Jian’s paintings pinned on the wall
familiar only with Van Gogh
Why the bluntness?, you might ask. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chinese poetry has been struggling to rid itself of a dangerously over-inflated grandeur. This grandeur can be traced back to the official “optimism” demanded of China’s “artistic and literary workers” by the Chinese Communist Party after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, a quality developed to unimaginable heights during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At this time, Chairman Mao was worshipped as a god while ordinary people were forced to conceal all trace of their individuality for fear of persecution.
After 1976, poetry was at the forefront of the arts in demanding a shift from one-dimensional praise of the Party and the mass of “workers, peasants and soldiers” to a recognition of individual human worth and self-expression. In this it was spectacularly successful, but it soon became apparent that the cult of the Great Leader was being unwittingly perpetuated in the cult of the Great Personality—epitomized by the outspoken avant-garde poet who, in his efforts to free Chinese humanity from a stultifying uniformity, had a tendency to regarded himself as a kind of latter-day Prometheus or shaman figure. Yu Jian’s down-to-earthness can be understood as an attempt to resist both the orthodox optimism of the older generation and the exaggerated individualism of his own.
In trying to achieve this, Yu Jian has been forced to pay particular attention to the intricate powers of language. The poetic language he has inherited from tradition has, in a very real sense, been contaminated by hyperbole and absolutism. In the development of his powers as a poet, there is a marked rejection of many devices conventionally considered to be “poetic”: literary vocabulary, rich images, startling metaphors and exalted moods. In short, his approach is staunchly unlyrical. However, in Yu Jian’s case, this does not amount to a form of literary punk rock that derives its energies from a simple negation of the aesthetic ideals endorsed by the establishment. Yu Jian’s aim is not to destroy poetry but to open it up as far as possible to life in all manifestations. Echoing William Blake’s memorable line “To see a World in a Grain of Sand”, he once wrote that he believed that “it is possible to see eternity—to see everything—in a teacup or a sweet wrapper. Everything in the world is poetry”. Helping his readers to see eternity in the most everyday and unexpected places is one of the key motivations of the poet’s writing.
A watershed in the poet’s creative development came with the publication of the long poem 'File Zero' in 1994. The dang’an (personal file or dossier) is an inescapable fact of life in the People’s Republic of China: it serves as the official life history of the individual as well as a powerful means of surveillance and social control. By casting his poem in the form of a file, Yu Jian not only draws attention to the material and literary nature of this bureaucratic instrument—"only 50 or so pages over 40,000 written characters / plus a dozen or so official stamps seven or eight photographs several fingerprints nett weight: 1000g"— but also to the file’s ultimate inability to “capture” the real essence of individual life.
Detractors of Yu Jian’s work attacked 'File Zero' as “a heap of language-garbage”. However, the poem was considered important enough to become the subject of a conference organized by poetry expert Professor Xie Mian at Peking University in December 1994. But while scholars were able to point out the merits of the poem, some saw it as tantamount to “literary suicide”: it would be difficult for Yu Jian to write anything so forcefully subversive ever again.
Understandably, Yu Jian himself was daunted by the challenge. An even longer poem entitled 'Flight', begun in 1996, became tangled in a string of revisions. The poet turned to the writing of prose and short poems for a time. A collection of travel sketches and impressions of daily life was published in 1999 under the fitting title of Notes from the Human World. At last, on the 23 February 2000, Yu Jian produced his definitive version of a text that runs to a staggering 10,000 Chinese characters.
The poem defies easy summary. It is a jigsaw of 49 sections, riddled with quotes, pastiches, clichés, confessions, descriptions, lists. What holds the whole together is the notion of flight, but the meanings of flight are made multiple by the kaleidoscopic energies of the poem. The text’s central image is that of aeroplane travel, an activity that represents the height of sophisticated modernity for the poet. At the same time, however, “flight” serves as a ready metaphor for the act of writing with its heady “flights” of inspiration, of imagination, of insight.
Less obviously, the whole poem is, in the final analysis, a paradoxical flight away from the terrible dehumanizing elements that underpin the foundations of techno-modern paradise, East and West. The text is littered with quotations from T. S. Eliot and this fact itself suggests that 'Flight' is above all the expression of the poet’s brave coming-to-terms with the waste land elements apparent but rarely acknowledged in the bewildering landscape of contemporary Chinese culture.
The Queensland Government, through Arts Queensland, has provided $5000 to Simon Patton and Poetry International Foundation for the China domain of Poetry International Web.
Shi liushi shou (poems, 1989)
Dui yi zhi wuya de mingming (poems, 1993)
Zongpi shouji (essays, 1997)
Yi mei chuanguo tiankong de dingzi (poems, 1999)
Renjian biji (essays, 1999)
Shige • Biantiaoji (short poems, 2000)
Yu Jian de shi (poems and translations, 2000)
Lao Kunming: jinma-biji (prose, 2000)
Lijiang houmian (travel writing, 2001)
Zongpi shouji • Huoyejia (essays, 2001)
They Tattoo Their Bodies for the World