Che Qianzi is from Suzhuo, a city that has remained important to his later work as a writer of both poetry and prose. For many Chinese readers, Che is a rare prose stylist who writes passionately about his hometown of Suzhou while channeling the style of far earlier times. In the art world he is known as a painter who specializes in ink wash works, and as the sinologist Magheil van Crevel has pointed out, within poetry circles he is known as China’s “poet’s poet.” While Che’s visual works echo popular traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink wash styles, his poetry reflects a far more experimental disposition. In seeing the two art forms side by side, one gains a stronger appreciation of the subtle experimentation that informs his visual work and the traditional Chinese poetics and aesthetics that inform his unorthodox writing style. While he is often associated with the so-called LANGUAGE school of avant-garde American poetry because of his attention to the materiality of language itself, close readers of his work will find that this focus is specifically tuned to the physicality of the Chinese written language (its visual, aural, and etymological nature) and thus arises from a very different set of cultural conditions. In a conversation with journalist and poet Glenn Mott, Che discusses the relationship of his Eastern and Western influences and the different media he works in, granting his readers an unprecedented look into the poetics of one of China’s most elusive poets.
A conversation between Glenn Mott and Che Qianzi in a Beijing teahouse. And as with the ancient poets of the Orchard Pavilion, the cup is passed downstream.
Glenn Mott: What is the state of your work now, in terms of poetry and painting? Generally the reputation you have is a poet’s but increasingly your reputation is being made as a painter.
Che Qianzi: In addition to writing poems, I also write prose, novels, and scripts; it’s like new events being added to the Olympics, to apply a metaphor from the recent sporting spectacle. I have written five or six plays. Plays are my “pranks”: I wrote homophonic dialogues so when actors read those lines, the audience, for the most part, will be led astray. It’s like this—my reputation may come from my poetry, but few people can comprehend it, nor do they want to read it.
GM: Well, I think this is true all over the world. There are more people who want to write poetry than read it.
CQ: I have a larger readership as a prose writer, and in recent years some of my new readers only read my prose. That is to say, I can benefit from it—making some money. I have been making my living by writing since I moved here ten years ago. However, we don’t have perfect laws and regulations about publishing at present. Publishers conceal the print runs of my books, fall behind with my royalties, or even resell my copyrights. I could do nothing about it but start to sell my paintings last year—cash transactions are comparatively safer for me. I’ve been concentrating on my paintings for a few months every year in the past two years. I devote myself to poetry writing once the art exhibitions are over. I will not spend more time on painting because I still love writing poems. I quit writing prose since I started earning some money from painting. Now I can finally write my poems one after another without being interrupted.
GM: So what’ve been the themes for your prose; what are your concerns now? Are you doing innovative things with form, or is your focus strictly on thematic, topical issues?
CQ: I’ve published over ten collections of prose, covering gourmet food, gardens, reading, painting, tea, my hometown, and so on. My prose work is more about a dream of my last life. Sometimes those pieces seem weird even to me. Sensitive readers say reading my prose is like meeting one of the ancients, like they are going back to the lives of Chinese people before 1949, or further back, to the Ming dynasty or even Song dynasty. I meet a lot of readers like this, who when they learn that I am the author, they say, “Ah! You are so young!” Surely I’m not young anymore, only they expected to meet a much older guy.
GM: I’m interested in this idea. So the phrase is, “like a dream of my last life.” I like it—qian shi de meng 前世的梦; it’s more concise in Chinese than it is in English. What are you getting at with that: “It’s like a dream of my last life,” this idea of being old?
CQ: I believe that people have their last lives. My latest reincarnation, according to my observation, or to be exact, comprehension, happened in the Yuan dynasty.
GM: So we are really talking about reincarnation, then? Talking literally.
CQ: With long intervals in between.
Now I regard the history of literature and painting as a process of unceasing reincarnation, which leaves behind many traces. I am now interested in these traces, perhaps even more than the spirit, the material, and the work itself.
GM: This is interesting. Let’s talk about spirituality, then. Is this a poetics of the spiritual? For instance, I see poetry as devotional; it’s a devotional act. It can be a secular means of devotion. I don’t tend to see it as artifact but as ritual, and I see this as a kind of net of attention we construct that catches everything as we move through our lives, and if you are writing, you catch those things, they become part of your work. How does spirituality enter into it for you? The spiritual for me is that poetry itself is ritual, but now you’ve introduced a new element, that of reincarnation. Tell me about that. We’ve never talked about this belief in reincarnation. Could you be more specific?
CQ: You used the word “spirituality” and believe that reincarnation is spirituality, while I think reincarnation is cultural identification.
GM: Again your phrases catch me short. When you say, “reincarnation is cultural identification,” to me it’s like your saying “a dream of your last life.” How is that? For me, I tend to see culture as more temporal, so to say something like “reincarnation is cultural identification” is redefining culture in a way I’m not used to.
CQ: The identification of culture is deqi 得气, “to receive qi 气.”
GM: Qi as defined in Chinese medicine?
CQ: Actually, the qi I am talking about here—there are many types—qi never dies out. The qi of mediocrity reincarnates quickly; in other words, there are more chances for it to reincarnate, while for those with more individuality or creativity, or those who kept the heterodox qualities, the chances are slim. That’s why I believe Zhuangzi 庄子 never experienced any reincarnations and still flutters on top of our heads. Why do I say that I belong to the Yuan dynasty? I recognized my last life as a poet in the Yuan dynasty. I know I am the reincarnation of him. I remembered that I once wrote in my résumé that I was the reincarnation of a Yuan poet called Yang Weizhen 杨维桢. Unintelligible text took up half of this résumé. I did that on purpose because reincarnation, to a great extent, is beyond what language can express. Now another reason why reincarnation is the identification of culture rather than spirituality: When I said I am a Yuan poet reincarnated, I identify his fate as my own.
GM: So, by recognizing the fate of the poet, you are going to share his fate in this life. How does the identification come about?
CQ: Not really. Before you recognize the fate of a poet, you need at first to recognize the culture imagined by a certain language—the language understood by a certain culture. The recognition of a poet’s fate should be linguistic in the first place, which is the same with the above-mentioned concept deqi. The word deqi might be abstract and inscrutable for Westerners but it is totally specific and clear for me; I even have an image of it in my mind, since I learned some acupuncture from my father in my youth. In the present age this sort of recognition is my observation of misfortunes and hardship. Sure it’s cruel to use the word “observation” here but there’s no better choice. We must learn to observe misfortunes and hardship when they befall us, like you are not the one who experienced it. During the observation I am exhausted (emptied) and, if lucky enough, I will meet my soul in the far distance, or you can call it “a second self” in Western terminology. When I was observing the fate of Yang Weizhen, it was just like discovering the cultural symbol of an age, which can only be shared but never be repeated. As to where the recognition comes from, let me provide an example here: The reincarnation of mediocrity is by the recognition of mundane life, while the reincarnation with a mission is the commitment to those relatively miserable and difficult cultures. Culture has many levels, even if we just talk about Chinese culture alone.
GM: On your understanding of mysticism—is this your own type of mysticism? Calligraphy takes this from folk belief to invention. Is it something like Blake’s vision? Is it visionary? Personal? Does it come from traditional folk customs or is it a personal mystical visionary belief?
CQ: I am, or I might be, someone who has certain tendencies of mysticism but I am not a mystic. In my opinion, once the mystery becomes a doctrine, it becomes a research object, and when it becomes a research object, especially when it considers itself as the main body of research, mysticism is not mysterious any more. That’s why I think mysticism is not mysterious at all, and that’s also why I feel myself to be someone who has certain tendency of mystery, only this tendency is a more open view of nature and life. Just like you said, it is “piety” and “devotional.”
GM: You write poems and also paint; do you see any similarities between your perspective and William Blake’s mysticism?
CQ: I’ll need to think about it before I give my answer, but right now I would like to hear what you think of the statement I just made.
GM: When this all becomes academic?
CQ: Let me elaborate on what I just said: The “projection port” of mysticism is being studied as a mystical tendency. The study can never be more mysterious than mystical tendency itself because it—I mean the mystical tendency—has uncertainty. The mystical tendency refuses to be studied, but it will establish trust. And speaking of Blake, he and Ginsberg are both mystics to me. They are too certain.
GM: Well here’s my question: I’m trying to determine what is aesthetic and what is spiritual practice. Aesthetic practice from spiritual practice . . . what distinguishes those? Because you said “when it becomes doctrine”—I understand that—but do you mean “when it becomes an aesthetic”? What I’m trying to figure out is how much of your belief is studied for the aesthetic properties of it, and how much is a spiritual belief. Does this relate to a search for spiritual collagen in a culture of atheism? China’s latest pursuits? The real question here might just be how far are we from talking about your paintings and poetry. Are we very far away from that? In other words, how do aesthetics and spirituality come together in your work?
CQ: Sometimes I see reincarnation as poetics. In the years I devoted to the thinking of essence and representation, I thought a poem must be new, original, “only new,” wei xin 唯新, that is, ri ri xin, you ri xin 日日新, 又日新, “make it new, daily new.” But after I got the concept of reincarnation, I felt that sometimes traditional elements or reflections appeared in my poems, which in my earlier days I could not accept, or would even be scared of, but I accept them with ease now. I think there is some trace left by a previous poet during my reincarnation, which can also be seen as traces of my last generation or the life before. Now I regard the history of literature and painting as a process of unceasing reincarnation, which leaves behind many traces. I am now interested in these traces, perhaps even more than the spirit, the material, and the work itself.
GM: So it’s the eternal recurrence. We have the idea of eternal recurrence from Pythagoras in Greek thought, though its origins may be Eastern. But in your use of the term “reincarnation,” what separates this idea of culture from mystical and esoteric thinking? Or is it simply that for you there is a reconnection to Chinese folk belief or Chinese religious belief in reincarnation? Is it something fundamentally Chinese in what you are doing? And if so, how is your use of the term “traces” (which are left by a previous poet) different from the concept of eternal recurrence or tradition and individual talent? Like Eliot, you connect with tradition, you recreate tradition. Or Ezra Pound’s slogan from the Chinese xin ri ri xin 新日日新, “make it new,” where the “it” is tradition. Is this idea of “traces” different from tradition and individual talent, or Pound’s idea of getting history into the poem? “It” being tradition, constantly regenerating? Is it different from that, or fundamentally based in Chinese mysticism and belief? It puzzles me because I’m trying to separate how you, Che Qianzi, mean “reincarnation” in a kind of mystical way, and I don’t know how that connects with your work through culture, so I’m trying to close the gap.
CQ: Ezra Pound, I think—as to ri ri xin 日日新, my view is as follows: ri ri 日日 is a process of reincarnation without break, while xin 新 means the completion of the reincarnation, which, of course, is a temporary completion. Its eternity lies in the temporary completion—that it will never be completed fully or for good, because the reincarnation will continue, and this is precisely the dynamics of ri ri xin日日新. Well, actually, I do not like the word “dynamics,” but I can’t think of a better one. So under the premise that I have to choose one from them, I would choose Pound’s, which is closer to me.
GM: I’ll start here. So ri ri 日日 is the eternal recurrence, xin新 is the temporary completion of that cycle. It’s close to what Pound got from the Chinese. The rest of it is your personal belief, right?
CQ: Yes, belief . . . for instance, it can be my faith to write a poem in an afternoon. But this kind of belief is difficult.
GM: So it’s a little like what I said at first, which is, for me poetry is a devotional activity, daily devotional activity, just the activity, the doing of the thing. It’s like in calligraphy, you do it over and over in imitation. Not to devote yourself to imitation. The activity itself is devotional through process. If you do it only occasionally, it doesn’t free your mind. If you do it constantly it frees you, that engagement in a kind of ritual. That’s what I was saying.
CQ: I find it quite interesting. There is no such word as “devotional” in my vocabulary. In my country, it is too ideological a word.
GM: As in, “Serve the people.”
CQ: Yes, but the word as you use it means something different, I think, interestingly.
GM: Are poetics fundamentally . . . and here I use the term Aristotle defined as “making” because otherwise I don’t know what poetics mean . . . there’s a way in which we define terms differently, clearly, but what I want to figure out is whether the poetics are different or the same. You know, this idea of ri ri xin 日日新 is a point on which we can agree. There is a point of connection. Partly because it’s a place where Western and Eastern philosophy come together, and so whether it is called “reincarnation” or “eternal recurrence,” it largely doesn’t matter, unless it’s a spiritual practice as well, because eternal recurrence is not a spiritual practice, it’s secular.
CQ: This is a difficult question.
GM: I doubt it’s a question at all. Let’s go with how these ideas show up in your painting. What can you point to in your painting that, if we’re looking at the work, looking at the visual work, what do you want us to see? I know that’s a strange question, but I’m asking it because it’s just a kind of simple fundamental question about whether there is intention.
CQ: This is a question I’ve discussed before with friends. Some artists would ask me questions like, “What do you expect the viewer get from your paintings?” I told them that the difference between us is that I do not expect viewers to see anything whatsoever, because we often interpret “seeing” as “getting.” My only expectation would be that viewers feel something—like, to feel baffled. Bafflement is the best kind of “getting.” When I’m creating a visual artwork, like a painting, I think there might be some anti-visual elements in it, which would most probably be the intervention of poetry.
GM: Maybe we should talk about the tradition of court painters in China. Do you see yourself coming out of that tradition? You clearly come out of a literary tradition as a poet. And so what tradition of the poet-painter do you come out of?
CQ: When it comes to the relationship between poems and pictures, we would talk of Wang Wei 王维. In one of his poems he said, “I’m a poet in this life but in my last life I must’ve been a painter.” “Painting-in-poetry, poetry-in-painting,” Su Dongpo’s 苏东坡 appraisal of Wang Wei, has already come to be regarded as our esthetic tradition. But I see the relationship of poetry, calligraphy, and painting as sleepwalking. In this kind of sleepwalking there is only one line, which is constantly extending, transforming, and we may also say it is reincarnating. A poem’s last life would possibly be a picture, while a picture may also reincarnate into a poem.
GM: Are you working within a tradition anyone would still recognize in the enormity of China’s national ambition, or do you see yourself as developing discretely and alone? Poetry is often put to use, and poetry in China has broken the bounds of literary traditions and entered the economy and social media landscape in interesting and unexpected ways. For instance, there’s Jidi Majia 狄马加, a cadre in Qinghai Province who is running poetry festivals, there have been the search-engine parodies of Zhao Lihua’s “pear blossom verse” 梨花体 and the like happening online, developers are using poetry to promote the opening of shopping malls, and, most recently, Chongqing’s party secretary Bo Xilai 薄熙来 is encouraging the use of poetry by the founders to promote his “Sing Red Songs” campaign. Where do you find yourself in all this? It seems your work has taken a different and more discrete path than most of your contemporaries, perhaps in response to your surroundings. How do you feel it’s going? Do you find yourself more in line with painters and that conversation? I guess it’s a question of ambition. Your ambition is elsewhere, what you are doing is elsewhere. What do you think about the society of poets? Particularly poets who have been better translated.
CQ: I think a poet should work independently from the multitude of other poets. While in terms of objectives, it may be a changing position. In my early years I thought of acquiring something, like recognition, by writing. But now I only write to not recognize something, to lose something. Poems are not tools for communication, at least not in a larger sense. Poems are a private code. When I was writing, either about the changes or the reincarnation, or even the sleepwalking thing, I was endeavoring to crack my private code, which inevitably involves refusing to recognize something or someone.
GM: What is it? The people you refuse to recognize?
CQ: Such as conservative academic paranoia, revolutionary amateurs.
GM: You don’t want to be circumscribed by a kind of recognition within the poetry community, would that be accurate?
CQ: Not just the poetry community.
GM: You see poetry as resistance, affirming resistance through change. To use the easy term, your poetry for most people will be difficult, especially in translation. Your painting, on the other hand, has a visual immediacy about it in a way that transcends these other considerations of language. Your poetry is sometimes tied to a set of poetic principles and thereby connects you to other schools and other poets. While your painting, it seems to me, connects you to a deep tradition of ancient Chinese art. So when you say poetry is resistance, you certainly don’t mean that about your paintings, do you? Does “poetry as resistance” apply also to your paintings?
CQ: Yes, I have the same thought when painting. But I am more manipulated by the market when painting. Moreover, I also need my painting to maintain my poetry writing at present; you know, poetry is my life. I think I will never be released from this painful entanglement.
GM: How does your poetry extend to painting?
CQ: Chinese ink painting has at present turned into a kind of skilled trade, a total craftsmanship. What I want to do now is something that engages my soul and imagination more, not just my hands. By doing so, I refuse to recognize many painters, or certain concepts of painting as well as the history. Suzhou in particular has launched many great painters throughout history, such as the Four Great Painters of Ming. Such a lot of famous skeletons enabled the ink painters in my hometown to violate the corpses, to plagiarize, both surreptitiously and flagrantly. But what I am preparing to do is get back to the origin of ink painting—by conjecture and betrayal. But betrayal doesn’t mean defecting to the West (like the modern artists), it means growing again from the root, like a tree.
GM: Poetry then, prepared you to become the painter that you are, the painter who has found his own style, rather than a skilled worker, rather than a painter just repeating the models. With poetry being a way to see the world, then as a poet you had that notion of resistance to what is normative.
GM: So without poetry, your painting could not exist. You’re technically skilled; clearly, if you want to you can just paint. But the style you developed comes out of what you were doing in poetry. It’s a different art form, but has the same concerns, the same lineage.
CQ: Poetry, calligraphy, and drawing are all transformations of a line.
GM: Can we talk a little about calligraphy? Calligraphy as painted poetry. Calligraphy is where everything comes together.
CQ: I am in awe of calligraphy and would not venture to do it. Except when I get drunk.
GM: Other than developing an individual style in calligraphy. . . . or, to put it another way, calligraphy tends to come out of copying. You copy the masters, and then you develop an individual style. Once you’ve become adept at copying the styles of the old masters, what are you hoping to achieve in calligraphy? What is your aim? What is it that interests you about calligraphy?
CQ: That’s an interesting question. Calligraphy is a tradition that doesn’t permit going against the grain. It doesn’t allow me the stance of making my own rules; it’s autocratic and is a good approximation of the Chinese system. I’m reluctant to do calligraphy because it throws my mind into a state of conflict. Art requires progress, but when I do calligraphy, I feel the virtue of conservatism. This leaves me perplexed and conflicted. Am I an artist without rebellion? Copying the master, as you just mentioned, is the one true way to become a calligrapher. But one loses his individuality in the course of copying in order to learn the general characteristics—calligraphy is here to serve the aesthetic needs of general characters. I think there is a shortcut to the understanding of Chinese culture—it’s calligraphy. I’ve noticed that for some Western poets and scholars I know, there are obstacles to understanding Chinese ink painting because they see references to Western painting. But when it comes to Chinese calligraphy, there’s no reference, even though viewers sometimes associate it with abstract paintings. In the final analysis, calligraphy is the document of existence. Sometimes I don’t consider calligraphy art, because more than anything else it makes me feel the dilemma of real life. Another point I want to make clear is that I have never shown any appreciation of modern Japanese calligraphy because it started with a hypothesis, which makes it hard for me to take it as calligraphy work. I consider it abstract painting.
GM: So you don’t take cues from, say, abstract expressionism, the way I might look at something and be reminded of Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell? You take cues strictly from Chinese traditional forms. This answers a question for me, which is that your original poetry—being clearly avant-garde—came from modernism, but your calligraphy comes from absolutely traditional Chinese elements. Is that accurate?
CQ: Two things influenced my poetry: One is a not-so-important Chinese tradition, a tradition that is ignored; the other one is modern Western literature and art.
GM: The Western part I think we know—it’s basically modernism and the things that were available to you in translation. What about the traditional influences and the overlooked Chinese artist you just talked about?
CQ: From the perspective of literature, writers such as Li He 李贺, or Lu Tong 卢仝, and Yang Weizhen, who I just mentioned above, are all non-mainstream. Take Li He: If it were not for Mao Zedong’s admiration, Li’s poem. . . . Actually, Li’s influence is still confined to a very small group today. Most people still don’t treat him as being in the mainstream tradition of Chinese poetry, while Li Bai 李白, Du Fu 杜甫, Wang Wei 王维, and Bai Juyi 白居易 are considered orthodox. Li He is regarded as the “poem wizard.” As to Lu and Yang, they perhaps belong to the ghosts and spirit-kind. The authentic Chinese tradition, in my opinion, mostly draws inspiration from folk art, such as Kunqu opera 昆曲, puppetry, shadow play, Suzhou ballad-singing, mud play, the guqin 古琴, blue-printed batik cloth, paper cutting, and so on. And also fortune-telling, in which character analysis is employed. I was intrigued by this game for a while. About characters . . . later on, I laid great stress on the importance of the characters used in a poem. The origin of this can be traced back to the influence that the analysis of Chinese characters had on me. It is considered to be superstition today, but it’s an indispensable part of Chinese history. The characters really do contain such things as universal information and the destiny of humankind as well as every individual. This has always been a thought of mine.
GM: So we’ve talked about painting, calligraphy, poetry, and these are Chinese influences. Earlier I said we know your Western influences but I think I was assuming too much. You said that when it comes to calligraphy, you are not influenced by, say, abstract expressionism; in poetry, though, you acknowledged that modernism has influenced you. What is the influence of modernism in general, or premodernism, even? What is your most significant Western influence and how does it intersect with traditional Chinese elements?
CQ: I read Western poems, novels, and philosophies the same way I appreciate grass-style calligraphy, caoshu草书. There are always some characters that are hard to make out or are totally unreadable in grass-style calligraphy. I feel a little ashamed for not knowing any foreign languages, though when I read texts in translation—modern or postmodern or even Romantic—I can’t help but notice some illegible elements as in grass-style calligraphy. At least, I treat those texts the same way I treat grass-style calligraphy: I regard these unrecognized elements as freedom, liberty, and imagination, or even more, something more important. It’s through the unreadable parts that I can combine the Chinese and Western together.
GM: So in part your poetic style is a fusion style, based on misreading, really.
CQ: Right, I like misreading. You could say I’m obsessed with it.
GM: Sometimes with contemporary Chinese poetry (as with Eastern European poetry of a certain vintage), there has been a kind of ideological fetish placed on the translations. And I think that your work resists that. I mean the work itself resists it because of its ambiguity but also it is very particular, you know, as in, “the walnut is a school, a school is a walnut.” In some ways you’ve been a party to this in the sense that people would categorize your work as part of the Misty school. Even at that level, your poetry completely resists the categorization. Ambiguity is more difficult to shackle with ideology, which I think has been a trick of Chinese poets since the Maoist era. It’s much easier to apply the fetish to Bei Dao’s 北岛 work, to make it political. This is more difficult with you, so I will compare you more to Celan or some of the French surrealists. Have you been influenced by French surrealism?
CQ: Celan did not find his readers in China until recent years—his collection of poems was published in 2002, but his “Death Fugue” is famous here. I have known his work for a long time although I don’t think much of that piece.
GM: And French surrealism has no influence?
CQ: Like Breton, Éluard, Aragon, Sartre even talked of the “socialist surrealism” of the Soviet Union in a letter. Henri Michaux, also René Char, we cannot just say that they are super-realists, can we?
GM: I’m thinking of Michaux, the ink paintings.
CQ: Absolutely! Michaux is a genius, an outlaw, a destroyer!
GM: So French surrealism isn’t an influence then, but I wouldn’t call your images particularly surreal; what I will call them is “hyper-particular.” You know, it is this idea put in “the walnut is a school”—do you read a phrase like “the walnut is a school, a school is a walnut” on a level of meaning, or do you read it as pure language?
CQ: As language.
GM: And that’s what separates you from surrealism, because a line like that by a surrealist will be read for the expansion of thematic meaning, not the language. So, language is construction; it’s linguistic.
CQ: I don’t have much to do with surrealism. I’m not that “automatic writing” kind. I’ll give myself pre-set obstacles.
GM: One more question. When I say Yuanmingyuan 圆明园, what does it mean to you, what will you immediately think of?
CQ: I don’t think of anything special. I reject all that is given to me from the outside. To me, Yunamingyuan has other meanings. The other day, I accompanied my wife to a bookstore near Yuanmingyuan to attend a poetry reading. After that, we went to Yuanmingyuan. Then we sat under a willow watching another willow, the kind of willow called Li Liu 立柳. The sky that day was very Pulan 普蓝 (short for Pulushi lan 普鲁士蓝, “Prussian blue”), like a piece of a painting by the missionary Giuseppe Castiglione.
GM: You have a son in college. What’s he studying?
CQ: He’s studying film directing.
GM: Do you think for his generation, films are what poetry was to your generation?
CQ: To them, computers are more important.
Translated by Yan Ke 严可, with grateful acknowledgement of the additional scholarship and assistance he provided for this interview.
From Chinese Literature Today