In this introduction to the work of Yi Sha, sinologist Heather Inwood (who also translated the section) offers CLT readers access to the often-polarizing issues that are at stake in the world of contemporary Chinese poetry. Inwood reveals how Yi Sha, as one of the most influential proponents of the so-called lower-body school, raised the stakes for Chinese poets by fundamentally questioning the value of poetry in modern China and the role that poets play in addressing the full breadth of contemporary lived experience. Readers of CLT may recall earlier essays on “body-writing” that explored novels like Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby and Mian Mian’s Candy, which do not shy away from the “lower body” topics of casual sex and the related hot-button issue of drug use. Yi Sha is a representative of lower-body poets, however, as Inwood outlines in her introduction, and his work has further transformed these ideas into a poetics that not only enriches poetic diction with heretofore taboo language and topics, but also refocuses the lyric upon the forgotten lives of common people.
Yi Sha 伊沙 is the pen name of the poet and author Wu Wenjian 吴文健 , who was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, a few days after the start of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966, before his family moved to Xi’an when he was two. A graduate of Beijing Normal University, he now teaches in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Xi’an Foreign Languages University. Yi Sha is a larger-than-life presence on the contemporary Chinese poetry scene, a poet whose writings and outspoken personality attract followers and foes in equal measure but are rarely easy to ignore; he has been variously described as—or has declared himself to be—China’s preeminent postmodern poet, the Chinese Allen Ginsberg, the “greatest avant-garde in China,” and the architect of a new language of contemporary poetry known as “post-colloquial writing” (hou kouyu xiezuo 后口语写作). Now in the fourth decade of his literary career, Yi Sha’s publications include numerous collections of poetry in Chinese, several works of fiction, a collection of poetry in English translation, and the epic poem “Tang.” He has played a prominent role in many of China’s poetic movements and polemics of the last three decades, including as a vocal spokesperson of the “popular standpoint” (minjian lichang 民间立场) in the battle of words against the “intellectual writing” (zhishifenzi xiezuo 知识分子写作) poets that peaked around 1998–2001, and he has been a conspicuous target of attack during ongoing debates about the value of colloquial poetry.
Yi Sha is never afraid to make fun of himself in verse, and in shining a spotlight on his imperfections draws attention to the many hypocrisies and ironies of human behavior and contemporary social life.
Although his profession as a writer and a college professor makes Yi Sha an intellectual in his own right, his sympathies lie firmly with the less advantaged people of China, as can be seen from the poems included in this section (indeed, the dichotomy that has developed in contemporary poetry discourse between intellectuals and the “popular” or folk is a false one, given China’s long intellectual tradition of showing concern for the common people in literature). His poetry is predominantly narrative in style, relating with brevity and wit the kinds of everyday stories and detailed observations that are left out of most public records of contemporary life. As Tang Xin reports, the characters in his poems include criminals, prostitutes, traitors, punks, and drunks; no person or topic is omitted for being too lowly or crass. Maghiel van Crevel suggests that a quality of rejectiveness can be detected in Yi Sha’s poetic attitude of “cynicism, disbelief, negation, demystification, desecration, deconstruction, aggression, and destruction,” but readers could equally see the stories he tells as evidence of a more receptive or broadminded approach to poetry and its capacity to accommodate humanity in all shapes and sizes.
Sometimes the contents of Yi Sha’s poems are enhanced by his imagination, as is the case with the destitute migrant workers Pigtail and Little Bao, the protagonists of “China’s Lower Rungs”; other times his poems appear more closely tied to reality and to personal experience. Although readers are often reminded to be careful about confusing the biographical figure of the poet with the speaker in his or her poems, with Yi Sha it seems relatively safe to assume that it is his own voice and thoughts we are hearing. This is especially true when he brings his experience of contemporary poethood directly into the narrative, as in “Newspaper Seller,” where we hear about the poet’s love of soccer and his leisurely lifestyle as a “man of letters”; in “China’s Lower Rungs” when he refers to himself as “this people’s poet”; as well as in “Zhang Changshi, Your Nanny,” when we are reminded that the author teaches in a foreign languages college.
Lived experience in Yi Sha’s poetry can be both intensely private, as when the narrator takes his son to be circumcised (“Taking My Son to His Circumcision Ceremony”) or accompanies his wife to the hospital for a possible mastectomy (“Spring’s Breast Cancer Disaster”), and is a product of collective historical consciousness, whether that be Hong Kong’s return to mainland China, life under the shadow of SARS, various Chinese national holidays, memories of the Cultural Revolution, or the misadventures of American politicians. The picture we get of the poet’s inner world is not always flattering, as when he goes through almost every possible voyeuristic response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the space of ten short seconds before realizing, with the slightest hint of remorse, that his sister is at that very moment living in New York (“9/11 Psychological Report”), or when he admits to giving money to a beggar only to look good in front of an attractive woman (“Collusion”). Such admissions can sound outrageous when contained within poetry, but their impact lies partly in the shared knowledge that he is far from alone in his fallibilities.
The self-promoting, or some might say egotistical, overtones of his metatextual writings are set off by the more confessional and self-effacing nature of his poetry: Yi Sha is never afraid to make fun of himself in verse, and in shining a spotlight on his imperfections draws attention to the many hypocrisies and ironies of human behavior and contemporary social life. In “An Email I Never Sent to G.” he describes himself as “a grotty, unregulated, substandard poet / in love / with this grotty, unregulated, substandard Motherland of ours”; in “Kongtong Mountain,” the classic Chinese poetic trope of ascending a mountain is subverted to switch the expected effect from a lofty aesthetic appreciation for the natural world—”going up / the mountain appears half-hidden in thick mist / coming down / the mountain is laid bare in bright sunlight”—to one of bodily self-satisfaction, as the poet’s recent weight loss meant that he was able to climb the mountain by foot for the first time in many years. (At a poetry event in Changsha in 2006, Yi Sha’s newly svelte physique was a popular topic of discussion, and he has spoken on many occasions of how proud he is of his achievements in this area, having managed to lose around fifty-five pounds in the space of a year.)
“Body-writing” (shenti xiezuo 身体写作), usually understood as writing literature about the body or relating to the world through bodily experiences, is a thematic vein that runs through much of Yi Sha’s poetic oeuvre. Long before Shen Haobo and friends established the “lower body” (xiabanshen 下半身) poetry group in 2000, Yi Sha was writing poetry that deals with the functions of the lower half of the body in a direct and unabashed way. In his iconic 1988 poem “Crossing the Yellow River,” the poet confesses to having been “having a pee” while his train passed over the symbolic life source of Chinese civilization, and in a short poem entitled “Confessions,” he admits with a certain amount of pride to having squashed a pair of flies “in the act of making love.”
Given his populist bent and deconstructive eye for the scenes, events, and ideologies that surround him, it is no surprise that Yi Sha has been a major source of inspiration for China’s next generation of avant-garde poets born in the 1970s and ’80s.
Bodily descriptions in contemporary Chinese poetry are often thought to serve as a foil to intellectual matters of the mind, an idea to which Yi Sha is not as resolutely opposed as many poets and critics might assume; in fact, they themselves are far more likely to roil him with what he perceives as their frequent lack of honesty or sincerity. As his 2005 poem “Common People” alludes, Yi Sha is keen to keep himself in check, not allowing his intellectual profession to deter him from his responsibility toward China’s working classes and everyday realities: “This is a fact / Having read too much of the rubbish written by gurus / I can get a little up myself / and need to be reminded of my place.” A similar outlook is on display in “I Have Something to Say,” his series of manifestos included in this special section, when he declares, “I don’t even especially hate ‘whoring while declaring one’s chastity’; what I can’t stand is talking chastity with the chaste and talking whoring with whores while using pile upon pile of grand theories!” Lying, in other words, is not necessarily an evil in itself, as long as you don’t try to make excuses for it through pretentious intellectualizing.
Given his populist bent and deconstructive eye for the scenes, events, and ideologies that surround him, it is no surprise that Yi Sha has been a major source of inspiration for China’s next generation of avant-garde poets born in the 1970s and ’80s; Van Crevel describes him as “something of a patron saint” to poets associated first with the lower body group and more recently with the Internet-based “low poetry movement” (di shige yundong 低诗歌运动) and “school of rubbish” (laji pai 垃圾派). The term “colloquial” has been somewhat overused in descriptions of contemporary Chinese poetry and certainly does not do justice to Yi Sha’s distinctive way with words and the biting wit and sarcasm with which he approaches his documentations and deconstructions of everyday life. By Yi Sha’s admission, not all colloquial poems are “good enough to hold to the microscope.” He maintains that there is an important distinction between pre-colloquial and post-colloquial writing. While the former is indiscriminate in its use of words and subject matter, the latter is more linguistically and psychologically mediated and thus more refined, pure gold, silver, and steel rather than saliva spat out at will, or as Tang Xin puts it, “everyday language at its most resplendent peak.” In other words: Yi Sha doesn’t just put down whichever words first pop into his head, but aims for specific poetic effects and pays careful attention to the sounds and structures of his poems. Thus, while he concedes that critics of contemporary Chinese poetry are not entirely misplaced in their recent claims that poetry is “the art of splitting lines,” he is anxious to point out that they fail to acknowledge the innate talent and “feel for language” (yugan 语感) required to split lines in the best way possible and choose the best combination of words to fill each line. Linguistic simplicity can be deceptive; as Yi Sha proclaims, “Only when complicated can one dare to be simple; only when abundant can one dare to be transparent; only when physically healthy can one dare to be naked!”
Throughout his writing career Yi Sha has been repeatedly obliged to defend his choices of subject matter and use of colloquial language against members of the general public and professional critics. One particularly emphatic commentator is the writer Meng Yifei 梦亦非, who has accused him of “squandering language under the disguise of short lines” and of mistaking a true “popular standpoint” for a “provincial standpoint” (waisheng lichang 外省立场). In general, criticisms of Yi Sha’s poetry are so passionate and profuse they could constitute a field of study in their own right; the speed with which Yi Sha returns rhetorical fire has only heightened the disapproval aimed at him. The online appearance of his epic poem “Tang” in 2002 brought fresh controversy. Poets and critics were split in two as to how to respond to this audacious rewriting of China’s most canonical poetry anthology, the Three Hundred Tang Poems.
The print version of this poem, published in 2004 at over two hundred pages in length, includes six pieces of criticism by Yi Sha’s closest poet friends (including Shen Haobo 沈浩波, Yu Jian 于坚, Xu Jiang 徐江, and Tang Xin 唐欣), who are full of admiration for this bold experiment in bridging the historical divide and communing with his literary ancestors in a both reverential and highly brazen manner. Yi Sha takes the original Tang poems as his starting point, but often goes off on a tangent and ends up with a poem that bears only the faintest resemblance to the original. In places he even incorporates recent Internet slang (like “I fu 服 you,” or “you win!”), which could be seen as a travesty or a triumph depending on one’s personal tastes. Less sympathetic readers wasted no time in tearing Yi Sha’s efforts apart; one poet described “Tang” as “terribly mediocre, nothing more than a shoddy attempt at commenting on Tang poetry”; poetry critic Chen Zhongyi 陈仲义 conducted a detailed analysis of the entire poem, leading him to point to various shortcomings such as oversimplifying and distorting the original poetic intentions of such hallowed greats as Li Bai 李白, Wang Wei 王维, and Du Fu 杜甫. Knowing Yi Sha, however, such criticisms can do little to deter him from his goals, and are more likely to end up strengthening his sense of individual worth. One of the most striking characteristics of his approach to poetry is the way he simultaneously revels in others’ distaste yet remains single-mindedly absorbed with the need to forge a place for himself in literary history. As he sees it, being controversial is not a hindrance to achieving historical longevity but rather a sign that he is on the right track: “Writing well is a crime! I am a criminal! Poetry circles are a humanitarian disaster zone scattered with the scum of humanity!”
In part in order to secure his future reputation, Yi Sha throws himself into his literary activities with seemingly boundless energy. He is a strong proponent of the discourse of “live scenes” (xianchang 现场) of poetry activity, referring to the physical sites and media in which poetry is produced and circulated in the present, as well as the basis of documentation and evaluation for the purposes of literary history. He was among the first wave of Chinese poets to realize the benefits to be had in participating in poetry activity online, contributing on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis to a wide variety of Internet forums, blogs, and microblogs since the late 1990s, and once declaring the Internet to be “the primary live scene for contemporary poets’ daily existence and the open circulation of contemporary poetry.”He is equally active in print publication and at face-to-face poetry events, and is an accomplished performer of his own poetry. Since January 2010 he has been organizing the Chang’an Poetry Festival (Chang’an shigejie 长安诗歌节), a series of informal gatherings of Xi’an-based and visiting writers that revolves around talking freely about poetry, sharing recent publications, drinking large quantities of beer, and reciting each other’s poems until everyone’s throats are hoarse. When I attended one such gathering in April 2010, Yi Sha treated the British members of his audience to a reading of his 100-stanza poem “Blue Lamp” (“Lan deng” 蓝灯, a phonetic play on the name of the city of London), dedicated to his friend and translator Simon Patton, which continued for the best part of an hour and revealed an impressive level of poetry recitation stamina.
Yi Sha’s latest project has been playing out in real time on his blog and microblog pages since December 2011. Under the title “Retranslating the Classics” (“Jingdian chongyi” 经典重译), he and his wife, “Old G,” have been translating classic works of poetry from across the world by canonical writers such as Anna Akhmatova (with whom Yi Sha admits to sharing a special affinity), Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Charles Bukowski, Tomas Tranströmer, and Allen Ginsberg. Their unconventional methodology involves consulting existing Chinese-language translations to create a new version written in Yi Sha’s inimitably colloquial style. Like much of his work, this looks to be contentious: Yi Sha recently announced on his microblog that they had translated fifty poems in the space of just ten days, and he has already drawn the ire of other poets and readers who accuse him of failing to understand the original poems and destroying their poetic flavor. As one Weibo user lamented, “Yi Sha has translated Yeats’s beautiful poetry into something truly ghastly, yet still claims his poems are better than the original—does he have no sense of shame?!”
As usual, although the speaker in Yi Sha’s poems is very much focused on being present in the here and now, his literary ambitions are more future-oriented and far-reaching. This reflects a predicament shared by many Chinese poets: How can they prove themselves as writers of poems that are focused on contemporary issues and rooted in current Chinese experience, yet avoid pandering to prevailing popular tastes? For Yi Sha, acceptance by his living peers is less important that finding a place for himself in a canon of contemporary world poetry that has yet to be formed. Nonetheless, to win literary accolades in the future it is inevitable that poets make their voices heard in the present and put on a public show for audiences at home and abroad, otherwise their efforts will go unheeded by the people and institutions that really matter. This is a challenge that Yi Sha clearly struggles with: “So what if you are accepted by the current era? Would that make you happy? My imagination doesn’t run that far. I think you’d be little more than a giant panda, shipped around and put on display.”
Being treated like a giant panda is near the bottom of Yi Sha’s bucket list. In a 2007 poem entitled “Questions for Myself,” he wonders aloud,
was the point of my lifetime struggle
just to turn into a fellow like this
and to be treated as a National Treasure
. . .
To grow as docile as a panda
to the point of being loved by anyone who saw it
To grow as chaste as a panda
to the point of only mating twice a year
Need I say: my answer was NO! (in English!).
Regardless of what you think of his poems, it is hard not to admire Yi Sha’s determination to maintain his avant-garde credentials by staying well ahead of those at the front. His career thus far has been a colorful example of how to root one’s writings in life in the present, while running a race in the ninth lane toward an undetermined finishing line, or, to indulge in one of his favorite metaphors, partaking in an never-ending game of soccer in a fantasy league entirely of one’s own construction. How future literary historians will judge his performance is yet to be seen, but it is evident from both his poetry and his reputation on the scene that Yi Sha has been busy following his own advice, pursuing honesty in his writing, and following fate’s path to fame.
EDITORIAL NOTE: For more on Yi Sha, read Six Poems by Yi Sha on the CLT website.
1 Maghiel van Crevel, “Rejective Poetry? Sound and Sense in Yi Sha,” in Text, Performance, and Gender in Chinese Literature and Music, eds. Wilt Idema, Maghiel van Crevel, Tian Yuan Tan, and Michel Hockx (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 390.
2 Yi Sha, Starve the Poets!: Selected Poems, trans. Simon Patton and Tao Naikan (
3 Ibid., 90.
4 Yi Sha, Starve the Poets!, 123.
5 In the print edition of this issue.
6 Van Crevel, “Rejective Poetry?,” 409.
7 For more on the Low Poetry movement see Michael Day, “Online Avant-Garde Poetry in China Today,” New Perspectives on Contemporary Chinese Poetry, ed. Christopher Lupke (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 201–218, and Heather Inwood, “Identity Politics in Online Chinese Poetry Groups,” Berliner China-Hefte/Chinese History and Society, 34 (2008): 77–94.
8 See Yi Sha, “I Have Something to Say,” in the print edition of this issue.
9 Meng Yifei, “Kouyu
10 Zheng Wenbin, “Pipan Yi
11 Chen Zhongyi, “Gujin
12 See Yi Sha, “I Have Something to Say,” in the print edition of this issue.
13 Yi Sha, “Zuo da de ‘Shi
15 Yi Sha, Starve the Poets!, 137.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.2