April is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating with a series of articles that looks at Chinese poetry, both past and present. Last week we featured Li Bai, Du Fu, and Hai Zi, among others. Today we look at a contemporary poet, Zheng Xiaoqiong 郑小琼.
所见 suǒ jiàn
Tā shēn jìn hú zhōng yǎo qǐ yīlún yóuwū de luòrì
pòjiù de cháng dī zài liǔshù xià kuìjué
chénmò zài xǐyī fùrén de zhú kuāng zhōng zhènchàn
shēn xiàn yūní de cūnzhuāng tíshēng dōngrì de
hánlěng qīngshòu de niǎo míng wājuézhe hángdào
nàxiē bǐ dìpíngxiàn hái dī de míngzì yǔ miànkǒng
tāmen liàngqiàng yèsè hūn zhuóle yèsè
bèi shēnghuó jǐn jǐn kǔnbǎngzhe de xiāngcūn
tāmen wēnxùn dé yǒurú shēngchù tāmen dī chuí
tóulú kěnzhe hán shuāng shì de yuèguāng tā cóng jìjìng de
hú zhōng lāo chū yī yè yǐnbì de kūqì zhè tòngchǔ de
shēnghuó yǒurú luòrì tāotāo ér xià
ràng tā mǎnhuái kuìjiù……
What Was Seen
She reaches into the lake, spoons up a greasy ball of sunset.
The old, long dam under the willows bursts
in the washer women’s bamboo baskets, silence trembles.
The mired village hoists up the winter’s
cold A scrawny birdsong digs a path
Those names and faces even lower than the horizon,
they stumble Evening muddies into evening.
The villages tightly bound by life
are as docile as livestock their heads
drooping and gnawing at the frost-like moonlight.
From the quiet lake she hauls up a hidden cry
This anguished life tumbles down like a setting sun
leaving her filled with regret…
—Translated by Samantha Toh
Zheng Xiaoqiong 郑小琼 was working in a metal factory in southern China when her finger got caught in a piece of machinery. As she later described in an essay, half of the nail on her index finger “disappeared soundlessly.”
Zheng is, by any measure, an anomaly. When she won the Liqun Literary Prize in 2007, she was completely unknown in the literary world. Now, she is a seminal figure in the emerging genre of migrant worker poetry and one of the most significant living Chinese poets, as her recent nomination for the Newman Prize attests.
Zheng’s poetry is well-known for its stylistic complexity. But what I find most interesting in her poetry is the relationship between two seemingly opposed landscapes: the classic pastoral landscape on the one hand and the landscape of mass-production on the other. In “What Was Seen,” these landscapes touch beautifully in the first line, where the woman reaching into the lake comes up with “a greasy ball of sunset.”
In Chinese, “一轮油污” (yī lún yóuwū) is even more evocative of industry. 轮 (lún, wheel) brings to mind car wheels and the verb 轮班 (lúnbān), which means to work in shifts, while 油污 (yóuwū) refers more specifically to machine oil and pollution, bringing to mind a mechanic’s oily rag.
In China, where urbanization is consuming rural areas at an unprecedented rate, and masses of people, like Zheng, are moving from small towns to big cities, the pastoral and industrial are forced into uncomfortable proximity. Sprawling factories are often juxtaposed with farmland, iron with wood.
Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poetry has much to offer. It is, of course, stylistically beautiful and thought-provoking, but, perhaps more interesting to her foreign readers, her poetry paints landscapes — both physical and spiritual — that evoke a silent, hidden China. Besides the elements of her work mentioned above, Zheng’s poems speak powerfully to the experience of women in China, environmental degradation, and many other concerns.
Though she seems to come out of a world completely foreign to the traditional poetry reader, her work has a universal resonance. As such, her writing is more than a wellspring of meaning for each reader; it is an ocean that connects readers from worlds that might otherwise never meet.
We’re celebrating National Poetry Month by looking at Chinese poetry, past and present. Follow our series here.