A Cart of Charcoal in the Snow: Qiu Xiaolong on the Poetry of Wang Xiaolong

By Qiu XiaolongOctober 25, 2013

A Cart of Charcoal in the Snow: Qiu Xiaolong on the Poetry of Wang Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong is the author of nine novels in the award-winning Inspector Chen series, with the eighth, Enigma of China recently out in the US, and the ninth, Shanghai Redemption, scheduled to come out in French first next March . He has also published collections of short stories, poetry, and poetry translations. His books have sold over a million copies, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. 

Born in Shanghai, China, Qiu Xiaolong published poetry, translation and criticism in Chinese before he went to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow. He obtained a PhD in comparative literature at Washington University. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.  


THERE ARE TWO Chinese proverbs often used for contrast. “It’s common to add florid embroidery to the brocade.” “It’s rare to send over a cart of charcoal in the snow.” Mo Yan’s winning of Nobel Prize in literature may illustrate the former. Mo is a wonderful writer. It’s also true, however, that he is a Party-member “professional writer” with state-funded salary from the Chinese Writers’ Association, of which he serves as the vice chairman, a position that entitles him to the benefits of a vice minister in the central government. In contrast, most of Chinese poets today exemplify the latter; among them, Wang Xiaolong (b. 1954), a poet generally acknowledged as the founder of the living language school (kouyu shi), is overwhelmed in the snow, with not a charcoal cart in sight, let alone such a grand prize.

It helps to delineate the genesis of Wang’s work. Roughly speaking, modern poetry in the vernacular Chinese (baihua) originated with the May 4th Movement in total rebellion against traditional poetry in the classic Chinese (wenyan). Because of the radical breakup, early poets mostly turned to the Western tradition, with Feng Zhi composing his best pieces in sonnets, Bian Zhilin adopting versification from English metric foot, and Li Jinfa transplanting French symbolist poetics. But their efforts were hampered in a difficult time plagued with numerous wars, and then cut short in 1949 with the Communist Party grabbing power. Because of Mao’s call for literature to serve politics, those pro-western poets got into trouble. In the meantime, the official mainstream poems were practically nothing but rhymed slogans (epitomized in the Party-compiled Red Flag Ballads), to which the so-called “Misty” poets (including such figures as Bei Dao and Yang Lian, known for their realistic yet allusive work) offered a loud and clear reaction after the Cultural Revolution, leading to an explosion of poetry in the 1980s. The country’s “poetic discourse” in general, however, remained artificial, stilted, unexplored like before, full of big yet empty words, lacking in the fusion of thought and feeling, incapable of presenting the fullest grasp of the contemporary experience.

That’s when Wang emerged with his distinctive kouyu, which may be translated as spoken or colloquial language (with implied difference to the written or formal), but it is not exact in the context. So, the “living language” as used by F.R. Leavis may be more appropriate here, with which the complicated texture of the real contemporary Chinese experience can be rendered or expressed through a flexibility and creative freedom inconceivable before.

Wang’s awareness of the underlying crisis may be seen in an early poem of his titled “To Poets.”

There’re so many poets in this city / you just throw out a stone at random/ and it hits a poet’s head /.../ wherever you turn / you may run into a poet / stopping to praise a leaf / worn out by eighteen eulogizing poets /... / on the way back, step into an image pharmacy / selecting fifty grams of stars, three grams of violet / half a kilo of wheat or platanus / ready to make a pot of poetry for night snack....

He has his reservation not just about the mass production of poems, but also about the hackneyed poetics, pointing out its limited access to the real experience of the complex society and limited means to make a bland pot of poetry. And the influence of western modernist poetry Wang came under helped to add a subtle yet satirical linguistic sensibility to the lines.

The poem “In Memory,” generally seen as the milestone for the living language poetry, revolves around a son’s reveries, partially in monologue, partially in dialogue to a silent listener.

One of the wine cups standing / on the table must be yours / the drawer fallen out in moving / presents a letter you forgot to mail out / the old leather shoes remained anchored under the bed / thinking so hard / the razor rusted with your beard / why is all turning into the past so fast / when blowing out the match / I look up to see you / smoking in the mirror / sitting there every morning / feeling confounded / being clever / consequently, being helpless / losing temper invariably out of self spite / you are swarthy / and large-pored / when the sad wild geese flit through your eyes / autumn is gone / Oh I am you. // No you forget you /always pushed me out the door / when I thought the matter was over / as if punishing me by making me wait on the street corner / you purposely ignored me ignored the poem / I had left on the tea table / flicking the cigarette ash I conceived / myself as the broken tin ashtray / repeatedly singed by you/ when you turned out the light the world’s dark / you made me run naked / falling from the roof into the sea / I believe the dream believing / now you beat the back of my head again with your disgusting glance / it’s all because / because I am you // When I decided to be a good student the next day / the alarm clock had to stop midnight / when I resolved to be a worker earning honest money / I got summoned away to serve as a conductor / when I wanted to make a good husband / the sausage was sold out in the deli / somehow the damned world / always stands in my way / I would rather turn into a rotten egg / so I was willing to reconcile with everything / and with you when you / turned of a sudden and left / In short, it’s normal to rain in a sunny afternoon / look, the rain drops shine in the light / harmonious like a couple of waifs / so nothing really matters that much / you speak why don’t you speak /the stubbornly silent palm.

There’s a subtle movement in the poem, from the son’s remembrance of things not understood or even resented, to the realization of the hardships in life, and to the reconciliation with his late father through the setbacks he suffered himself while growing up. The living language makes it possible to embrace the ordinary, not-that-poetic experience with the linguistic flexibility, rendering the unsuitable as suitable for poetic expression, sometimes ironical yet nonetheless lyrical. For instance, in the days of state economy, the failure of getting the sausage then in short supply could result in a family squabble, and a “worker / conductor” was then politically correct regardless of artistic competence. Even the persona is an impotent anti-hero coming to a belated understanding of his father only through his own failures with realistic details of black humor.

“In Memory” was published in the early 1980s, a period sometimes called the golden age for poetry, but in the summer of 1989, everything changed dramatically like in Yates’ “Easter, 1916,” except with no “terrible beauty born.” In the wake of a general disillusionment, came the onslaught of the materialistic. Poetry turns increasingly marginalized. Wang is also a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association but, in contrast to Mo Yan, he is not a “professional writer” with a state-funded salary. Wang has to work as a documentary producer, though he continues writing when not holding the camera. For a session Wang co-chaired with me at the Shanghai International Literary Festival several years ago, he self-published a collection, A Man Also Has to Give a Birth, which came out in limited edition of 100 copies. To use another Chinese proverb, that tiny number of copies is like one single ox hair compared to all those from nine oxen in the case of Mo’s best selling novels. In recent years, with poetry ostracized out of bookstores, Wang’s poems appeared only on a literature web forum named “A Vegetable Garden for a Handful of People.” One of his poems is titled “Surplus Economy,” which reads still so pulsating in the living language, idiomatic yet rhythmic.

Those years, we did not have so many socks, / nor so many batteries and sockets / nor so many phone numbers / nor phones at all / nor so much trash... // nor so many cars / nor so much cash in the pocket / the last time, upon middle school graduation / we walked from Zhabei to People’s Square / and then from the square to the Waibaidu Bridge / making ourselves sentimental like a novel / parting in silence... // I sit at the curb, thinking, left foot, right foot, in turn / how to ship the present surplus / back to the then shortage / when you see an old man’s leg trembling / he must be thinking of this problem

While the musicality of the poem reminds me of Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music,” there’s no missing the bitter irony in the comparison: men-consuming things in “Surplus Economy” versus poetry-loving men in “To Poets.” However, even the literary forum for a handful of men went steadily downhill, what with the emergence of the microblogging – short and easy like a fast food bite – and the loss of interest in anything except materialistic, and with censorship trouble, even for such a forum. Eventually, it closed with a whimper two or three months ago.

So I have no idea where else to find any new poems by Wang. In spite of the existential crisis for modern Chinese poetry, his effort to blaze a new trail through the living language deserves more recognition, whether in terms of Nobel Prize or not. But for the moment, he is totally snowed under, with no destination visible for the imagined cart of charcoal. 


Qiu Xiaolong is an English language poet, literary translator, crime novelist, critic, and academic, currently living in St. Louis, Missouri

LARB Contributor

Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He published prize-winning poetry, translation and criticism in Chinese in the ’80s, and became a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association. In 1988, he came to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow and obtained a PhD in comparative literature at Washington University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning Inspector Chen series; a collection of linked stories Years of Red Dust (2010); three poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003), Evoking T'ang (2007) and 100 Classic Chinese Poems (2010); and his own poetry collections, Lines Around China (2003) and Poems of Inspector Chen (2016).


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