By Jonathan Stalling
Wolfgang Kubin talks to CLT Deputy Editor in Chief, Jonathan Stalling, about his life as a sinologist, poet, and literary translator. After reflecting on his scholarly and poetic background, Kubin explores his many relationships with Chinese poets from the early 1980s to the present, with special attention to his friendship with poet Gu Cheng and how some of that poet’s last works came to be included in the new Chinese Literature Translation Archive founded by CLT at the University of Oklahoma Libraries.
JONATHAN STALLING: Professor Kubin, it is not an overstatement to say that you are one of the great conduits of Chinese literature and culture into the German language over the last nearly half-century, and it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to speak with you today.
WOLFGANG KUBIN: Thank you so much.
JS: I thought I might begin by asking you how you came to study Chinese in addition to poetry, which I know is the core of your research and your personal interest as a poet, translator, and scholar.
WK: Well I, myself, am not a typical scholar of Chinese studies or a typical sinologue because my upbringing is a little bit complicated. I fell in love with philosophy very early, and I fell in love with ancient languages, such as old Greek or Latin. I only learned English for five years at middle school and French for two years at grammar school. I started writing poetry when I was about sixteen years old. At that time I already had decided to study theology. When I left high school in ’66, I studied theology for two years at the University of Muenster, in a small town in northern Germany, but I was not prepared for the modern theology I studied there, and I could not really see a future for myself. I wanted to become a clergyman, a man of the church, a minister, different from a priest because I’m Protestant, but I did not know how to make use of what I’d learned at university for preaching or holding a sermon in church. This is one of the reasons I then also started studying German literature and went on learning many, many languages. I was lucky to get to know a young poet based in Hamburg who started learning modern Chinese because of his interest in Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese. I started in the winter of ’67 learning a little bit of classical Chinese. It was not possible then to learn modern Chinese; I was not interested in modern China and modern Chinese at all, because at that time the Cultural Revolution already had broken out in China and I was totally afraid of so-called Red China.
JS: And with Ezra Pound as your principal aperture into China, of course he’s most interested in Tang poetry, right?
WK: Right, yes.
JS: Would I be mistaken, then, to think that Tang poetry also became a part of your reading at this time?
WK: Yes, I was introduced to Tang poetry by Pound and his translations and his ideas.
JS: I’m interested in when you first went to China. I understand it was in the late ’70s, still during the Cultural Revolution.
WK: Yes. I first went to Japan because I was interested in Tang China and I was told that I could find Tang China in Japan, which was true. So in ’69 I had already learned Japanese—modern Japanese—for one or two years. I went to Japan, stayed there for three months, and when I came back in ’69 I decided to quit theology and to make sinology my major. I went on studying classical Chinese in Muenster, but I was again lucky enough that someone told me about a specialist for Tang poetry at Bochum University. Bochum is an industrial town, but in ’65 it got a completely new university that hired the most progressive and advanced scholars—Germany did not have any other universities similar to it. They started with Chinese studies and hired a specialist in Tang poetry who was trained in the ’40s in China. So I left for Bochum and under him studied Tang poetry with only three or five people, not more. Through him I was introduced to what I would call true China. As he spoke fluent modern Chinese, he not only asked us to be capable in classical Chinese, he always asked us to learn modern Chinese as well as classical Chinese. He forced us to learn modern Japanese as well. When I did my PhD with him, he always told me I had to go to China. Prior to the United States, West Germany had established a relationship with so-called Red China, and so through the German academic exchange program it was possible beginning in ’72 or ’73 to go as a student to China. I was not interested at all in going; for me, China during the Cultural Revolution was not China anymore—it was not true China at all. I wanted to stay home with my books and go on only dealing with classical China, but he said no, you have to go for one year—you have to learn modern Chinese. And in some respects that rescued me, because when I came back from China I always had a job, I always earned money.
JS: I understand that partly because of the difficulty of moving back and forth during this time you did take a job as a tour guide in order to more frequently travel to Beijing, and that after you were done with your touring you could stay for a longer period in Beijing.
WK: Right, yes, yes.
JS: It’s around this time that you started to meet what we have come to collectively call the Misty poets. I wonder if you could maybe talk a little bit about how you entered that scene.
WK: I do not like the term “Misty” poetry; it is derogatory.
JS: You view it as a derogatory term?
WK: Yes. It was invented by older poets who were envious of the younger poets. These older poets, including Ai Qing 艾青, did not understand modernity; in fact, Ai Qing is a betrayer of modernity. The tenets of modernity before ’49 made China’s literature one of the most modern literatures in the world. Compared to German-speaking countries, including Switzerland (very strange, that, including Switzerland), China’s literature of the ’30s and ’40s was much more advanced than German literature, because after ’33 Germany was not allowed to introduce modern literature in Germany and the writers were forced to write a very conventional literature in praise of the new regime.
JS: So by “advanced,” you are referring to authors who are multilingual, who have traveled, often widely, they’re incorporating global influences in a progressive way, attempting to write in what we would think of as an avant-garde tradition. These are all things taking place in China, but to a lesser degree in Germany at this time.
WK: Right. In the ’30s and ’40s, modern Chinese writers were much more advanced than many, many writers in Europe. You should not forget it was not only Germany or Italy or Spain who changed, who turned to fascism; there were nine countries that were called fascist, and they had no modern literature at all, no modern art. From the May Fourth movement in 1919 up to ’49, China produced world literature. It’s a pity that only a few people know this. In ’49, modernity vanished from China’s literature as China turned to some kind of so-called socialist literature. Modern literature has the advantage of writers who can think for themselves, and that they are critical of any kind of society and so they go their own way, but socialist literature meant that the writers had to go together with the party. They had to be the mouthpiece of the party, and this means that a writer is not independent and that he or she does not think for him- or herself at all. So in ’79 when people like Gu Cheng 顾城 or Bei Dao 北岛 who had been trained by modern Chinese literature started writing poetry, they continued that kind of modernity that was not asked for anymore after ’49. They rescued not only China’s literature—at the same time they also rescued the Chinese language and the Chinese mind.
JS: Can you talk a little bit about how in particular young authors would have done this? As I understand it, part of what could be responsible is the difficulty of getting access to world literature in translation, so there was an appetite for it and a very serious consumption of it, of everything that was available. Bei Dao talks about reading everything he could. I wonder if it is in some way the scarcity that drove a certain kind of fervent reading or deep reading, a vigorous kind of reading of world literature during the ’70s under duress that produced the late ’70s blooming of new forms.
WK: Yes, we nowadays say, which is not wrong, that the new Chinese literature started in ’79, but it was already primed in the middle of the ’70s when people like Bei Dao were able to get ahold of translations that were done in the ’30s or ’40s. For instance, Bei Dao told me that through the translations of Dai Wangshu 戴望舒, he found his way as a poet. Dai Wangshu was not only an excellent poet, he was also a translator. In the ’30s he went to France and Spain to meet all the French and Spanish poets, the most modern poets in the world; he translated them and he also started writing poetry in French. You can sense how in some respect Spanish poetry or French poetry, which was quite common in the ’30s and ’40s, was revived by poets like Bei Dao at the end of the Cultural Revolution. So in some respect we can say Bei Dao is a Spanish poet with a Chinese tongue.
JS: So the poet Shi Zhi 食指, or Guo Lusheng 郭路生, had in a way started to develop a personal or subjective lyric that was distinct from other writing in the ’60s—
JS: But he did not have access to this same kind of inter-national literature, so we don’t see the formal experimentation that we associate with the so-called Misty writers until after him, until Bei Dao, Duo Duo 多多, Mang Ke 芒克, and so on.
WK: I would not say that Shi Zhi is a modern poet; though he’s a good poet. He told me that he was much influenced by He Jingzhi, who was an important writer leading into the Cultural Revolution, but an awful poet, but I guess that—
JS: He gets his meter from him right?
WK: Yes, the meter.
JS: The subject matter is quite different—
WK: The form, but not the content. We can say that according to form, he still is in some respect a premodern poet, and as his content is in some respects critical of those years, and a more modern poet, but still he’s conservative in some respects.
JS: Especially formally, but also ideologically, he remains Marxist to the day, even now in a way that is uncommon.
WK: Yes, and he’s in some respects very naïve, believing in the future; I cannot see any future to come for China at present.
JS: He is, I think, in some ways prized because he does retain as it were a certain kind of very rare optimism, especially within Chinese poetry and poetics. When did you meet Bei Dao the first time? He was the first poet you were introduced to within this group, correct?
WK: During the Cultural Revolution I translated a kind of poetry I did not really like, and which today I dislike totally, but still it was necessary for me to do this kind of translation work, as otherwise I would not have known what socialist literature is. I translated Li Ying 李莹, He Jingzhi 贺敬之, Hao Ran 浩然, and Mao Zedong 毛泽东. I’m not sure when I heard for the first time the name of Bei Dao; it might have been in ’80 . . . I might have met him for the first time in the fall of ’81 or the fall of ’82, I’d have to check. I was introduced personally to him by Bonnie S. McDougall. I already knew his work. We met one night in the fall of ’81 or ’82, the last night before I left again for Germany. We had a very good talk then in the Friendship Hotel, and whenever I came again to Peking, I would meet him and then start my translation work. We were always followed by Gong’an Ju 公安局, the Secret Service.
JS: What was it like encountering his poetry before you met him for the first time? What were you immediately struck by?
WK: Yes of course, because I knew this kind of poetry. It was just the kind of poetry I wrote, or that the Spanish poets of the ’20s and ’30s wrote.
JS: Does that make him easier for you to translate?
WK: Easy, very easy, because I know what he wants to write.
JS: You’ve spoken of him having two periods of poetry . . .
JS: They consist of before and after ’89, more or less, but also written in China and then written abroad. What about the later period—are you still able to translate him with ease, because he kind of moves away from that earlier Spanish voicing?
WK: As for the form and content, he does not. But he mixes in some new elements. The difference is his poetry written before ’89 does not really introduce a personal pronoun. Usually he does not speak about “I” or “me,” he speaks about “we,” “us”—so he speaks for a generation. But his poetry after ’89 does not speak of a generation anymore; it speaks of an exiled person who is similar to him, who is a single person. In some respect we could even say that he’s talking about himself, but what he has to say represents anyone living abroad or in exile. So I see a strong relationship with the poetry of Raffael Alberti, who had to leave Spain, and at the end of the ’30s he went to South America, but again he had to leave South America for political reasons. Raffael Alberti is always writing about a person abroad, far from home. And this is what we discover in the poetry of Bei Dao, too.
JS: The occasion of our conversation today is the establishment of an archive of your papers here at the University of Oklahoma Libraries, part of which includes your correspondence with Bei Dao over all these decades. There is also a large collection of materials on Gu Cheng, who I know was quite a close friend of yours that you met through Bei Dao. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about his poetry and its evolution during the period of your relationship.
WK: I think that except for during his last years, his poetry did not change much.
JS: How would you characterize it?
WK: It’s modern in the sense of Spanish poetry. Gu Cheng also acknowledged that he was influenced by Lorca. Spanish poetry seems to be very simple, different from French poetry; we can also say that the poetry that Bei Dao or Gu Cheng writes comes close to the Italian poetry of the ’30s and ’40s, such as that of Quasimodo and Eugenio Montale. They all have a lot in common, but still I have the idea that Spanish poetry is much more simple. The tone that Gu Cheng wrote in seems to be very simple but actually it shows a very complicated nature and a continual examination of human existence.
JS: Tell us a little bit about how you met him. Didn’t he often live in your flat in Germany over the years?
WK: This was during his last year, when he had the chance to stay in Berlin for one year. We were meeting all the time in Berlin. Finally—because he would have left Berlin when his year was over but he still wanted to stay there—he moved into my flat, which was empty at that time. When I came back from Bonn University, we were together, playing tennis, talking to each other, eating together. He just loved to talk to me about essential things, for instance, is there a god? And if not, what will happen to me, Gu Cheng? He told me all the time about his sin. That was at the beginning of ’93; he and his wife were writing his last work in book form that was called Ying Er 英儿 (Ying’er) and was about the relationship a male has with two women. At that time I didn’t understand what they were doing there behind closed doors, but whenever he came out of the room, he would tell me that he’s a sinner and that he has to confess his sins. So we were talking all the time about religious questions. Only in the end, when he was already dead, did I discover that they were there finishing the manuscript of Ying’er, which then was sold for a very high price at a book market at Shenzhen.
JS: What has been the legacy of his work in China?
WK: Everyone admires him: for the Chinese he’s a great poet. Sometimes they give me the feeling that they agree with my opinion that Gu Cheng might be the greatest poet in the Chinese language in the twentieth century.
JS: Many of my poet friends at UC Berkley in the mid ’90s and I all imitated him.
JS: Yes. I have several poems that borrow his titles and use the same sonic structures, borrowing heavily from Bonnie McDougall’s English renderings as well. There was something incredibly exciting about the juxtaposition of a kind of purity and naiveté, yet existentially unnerving . . . absolutely beautiful. That juxtaposition of childlike and yet dangerous voice.
WK: Dangerous, of course.
JS: It was thrilling as a reader. I still have all of my Gu Cheng materials from the early ’90s forward. I know I’m not alone in having been influenced by his work, for me in both the Chinese and English, but I know many of my friends were influenced by his works at that time. Can you tell us a little bit about his paintings that you brought over for the archive? Or I suppose we shouldn’t quite call them paintings, as they’re also calligraphy, so they’re linguistic as well as pictorial insofar as he is a painter and calligrapher. He’s manipulating the visual, the characters—there’s a pathos, if you will, in the way the characters are manifested in the work, but then of course it’s also linguistic, so it’s a poem in that sense as well.
WK: Yes. Gu Cheng, just as other Chinese writers have, finally turned to calligraphy and to painting. Gao Xingjian 高行健 perhaps was the first one to do so when he came to Berlin in ’85, yet actually he did not write there, as he was invited for writing but he turned into a calligrapher and a painter. Gu Cheng is not an exception, there are many more now who started painting . . .
JS: MangKe. . . JiaPingwa 贾平凹 . . .
WK: I think it might have to do with the crisis—I think that Gu Cheng was not able anymore to control himself through writing. We see this with his last great work called Gui jin cheng 鬼进城 (Ghosts Enter Beijing). To my recollection, he had a hard time finishing this cycle, and it might be that it was never really finished. Perhaps he told me that he is unable to finish it or that he has to go on writing this cycle. I translated this cycle very early and wrote about it, because when he was writing this cycle in Berlin he always talked about it and told me how to understand it and how to interpret it. I took a lot of notes, all of which were published in German and translated into English
When he came to Berlin and I saw him for the first time, probably in the beginning of ’92, he asked me, perhaps others, too, to come for dinner. I discovered that he was not writing; he was painting, he was doing calligraphy. He spoke about a fish on a plate, and that this fish on a plate would like to go home, that the fish on the plate longs for the sea. Whatever he painted then he just left it behind, so I’m not sure if I took some of the paintings away or if it was he himself wrapping up his paintings in newspapers, giving them to me or leaving them behind. I discovered some of these paintings in my home, so I brought them here. The last two or three months before he left Germany for New Zealand via America, he stayed in the home of Heinrich Böll, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in ’72. Heinrich Böll influenced Bei Dao very much. It was Böll who coined the famous phrase feixu wenxue 废墟文学, “ruins literature,” or literature written on the ruins of a destroyed country. If I remember right, Gu Cheng did not write anything during his stay at the Böll house, which is now turned into a cultural center where a lot of Chinese writers like to stay for a three-month tenure. He painted there and he left all the paintings there. The Heinrich Böll foundation gave all of his paintings to me around 1994 because they did not understand the paintings and perhaps they also wanted to get rid of the history that Gu Cheng left there, because the Böll house was where he started beating his wife.
JS: What were the ramifications of the murder-suicide in terms of his reception in Germany? He had pretty strong German roots. His translator did a two-volume dissertation on him—
JS: And he had been there; his readings were very popular—
JS: Was there coverage in the media? Was there a sense of taboo?
WK: The media did not really take notice of this, and after his death no one dealt with him anymore. I think I was the last one who wrote a long essay about him and his life, and maybe I was the last one who translated him or wrote about him. Peter Hoffmann still did a long essay about him, but now he’s nearly totally forgotten even in Chinese studies—no one deals with him.
JS: Do you think this might change with time? I know there are some new dissertations that have been written—
WK: I have been asked by two publishing houses to produce a collection of his poetry. I think I will have to do this because Peter Hoffmann does not translate poetry anymore; he translates prose. He’s a very good translator. Others might be afraid of Gu Cheng’s history.
JS: It seemed to be a double-edged sword. In 1998 there was a feature film produced out of Singapore that I think even has Hollywood connections. I hear there’s another documentary being made in mainland China, so there is a fascination with his work, but then the peculiarity of his explicitly having a kind of polygamist relationship that becomes the subject of his last work, and then, of course, the murder-suicide—it makes for a very dramatic tale. Hai Zi 海子 is another well-known poet of this period who committed suicide, who has become mythologized for that act. But it doesn’t involve a murder as well—
JS: And the domestic abuse is not there.
WK: Which makes the case very different.
JS: It sounds like there could inevitably be a continued interest in his life’s work.
WK: I think if it’s not Peter Hoffmann, it has to be me.
JS: Yes. We’ll keep in touch on this front, of course; I’d like to learn more about this as your work goes forward. Have you worked on any other poets since then that you could tell us about? I understand you’ve translated Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 and Yang Lian 杨炼 pretty extensively. Both of these writers were writing in the 1980s but have continued their careers through the ’90s and into the present in a very robust fashion, and they’re still mid-stream perhaps in terms of their life’s work. A popular phrase in the 1980s was to “pass Bei Dao,” meaning to get beyond the so-called Misty poetry, maybe it is a Spanish voicing. Has their work evolved from the ’80s and ’90s into something new? Do you see a new direction for Chinese poetry among those who were writing in the ’80s and are still writing now?
WK: Yang Lian is a poet who originally belonged to what I call the hermetic school of Chinese poetry; others talk of obscure poetry, but I don’t like this term at all. He’s still writing, but his style has changed a lot. He himself characterizes his poetry of the ’80s as naïve. Some of his works are; some are not. What he is writing nowadays does not always really come up to the level of quality that—in my eyes—was typical for him at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. I still think that his three great cycles—Masks, Crocodile, and Old Story—are highlights of contemporary Chinese poetry. Ouyang Jianghe did not really start writing in the ’80s or, rather, he did not start as a so-called Misty poet. He belonged to that generation who wanted to pass Bei Dao and to get rid of him because they were spokesmen for pure literature, for pure poetry, and the poetry of Bei Dao as written before ’89 is political poetry, full of political allusions. I know whom he means when he speaks about a rat in his poetry. Others do not know, but he told me. He denies it now that he told me this, but poets always forget or want to forget. It was also Zhang Zao 张枣 who told me that we are different from Bei Dao. Zhang Zao has always been said to have tried to commit suicide because he could not compete with Bei Dao. Zhang Zao and Ouyang Jianghe wanted pure poetry and new vocabulary, whereas the vocabulary of Bei Dao before ’89 is quite conventional and comes close to what the Spanish poets of the ’30s and ’40s made use of. Bei Dao writes short poetry, but the so-called post hermetic poets prefer the longer form and their outlook is quite different. They are not politically naïve anymore; they do know how complicated a society can be. The poetry of Bei Dao or the poetry of the ’80s, however, always believes in a future that will be good and that will be coming tomorrow. You won’t find this kind of naiveté in Ouyang Jianghe.
JS: And what about, say, Xi Chuan 西川, or Zhai Yongming 翟永明? They are names that would perhaps be familiar to Western readers, and they along with Ouyang Jianghe loosely follow as a generation after the so-called “misty” generation.
WK: Zhai Yongming’s starting point is so-called hermetic poetry, and her first cycle about women is so complicated that it drives you crazy as a translator. I translated her work into German and published a book of it very early. I translated much more of her poetry, and actually I should have produced another book, but she’s very modest and always asks me to translate others before editing a new volume of her poetry. But before long she left this kind of hermetic poetry. During her second phase, she dealt with a history of women in her mother’s generation in China before and after ’49. She chose a very plain language and she preferred the long poem. The poetry of her second phase is very easy to translate into a foreign language; it’s not complicated at all. During her third phase, when she started criticizing men, when she started making fun of male protagonists, then her language changed again—it was not hermetic, it was not plain, it was something in-between. Nowadays she prefers a very plain language for social critique. This is her fourth phase, so she’s the only Chinese poet about whom we can say that she went through three, no, four phases of different kinds of poetry. Bei Dao has only two phases; Yang Lian, I think you would say he has one phase and has never changed. P. K. Leung 梁秉鈞 the Hong Kong poet—in some respects he’s always good, always the same. Zhang Zao 张枣, the same. Ouyang Jianghe has made changes, perhaps with his last long poem. Xi Chuan, he’s riper now, so he’s different, but concerning his form, I do not see much difference. He’s now more philosophical and he’s more sophisticated, he has humor, he makes fun.
JS: With regard to your own poetry, do you see your work still being in conversation with the work of the’80s because of its strong association with the Spanish, French, and Italian tradition that you grew up with? Do you still resonate with and work out of voicing that maybe would be more similar to that decade of production than to the present?
WK: The poetry I wrote up through ’85 is clearly under the influence of Spanish poetry and Tang poetry. After ’98 for some reason, however, I started a new period writing longer poetry and more narrative poetry. This poetry is quite different, not only concerning the form, but also concerning the content and even moreso concerning the vocabulary—I now avoid any words that people liked to use in the past, be it in Spain, Germany, or China. This probably has to do with an encounter with Ouyang Jianghe, who said we have to poeticize daily words. For instance, fast food. No one has done this before. He has a poem about a fast food restaurant. And so I also started to make use of words that were never used by poets.
JS: A kind of reframing the pedestrian or the banal—
WK: The so-called banal, yes, but if you had a rhythm, these words are not banal at all.
JS: So in these poems you are investing the pedestrian or banal everyday with a new kind of aesthetic rigor that is a kind of paleo-modern, going back to archaism and bringing them forward to make the current moment strange in a certain sense, and beautiful without denying the current moment or the life world, not aestheticizing a way out of it, right, but a way into it. A grounding of fast food in the ontology of the present in a serious way.
I look forward to talking more about your own poetry next time, and for now would like to thank you so much for this conversation.
WK: Thank you for your interest.
JS: Let’s talk again soon.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 2