THE JOURNAL OF21st Century Chinese Poetry 《廿一世纪中国诗歌》
is an independent journal committed to showcasing the best of contemporary Chinese poetry. We exist to discover and celebrate poetry and the Chinese poets who write them with the largest possible Anglophone audience.
In the early twentieth century, The May Fourth Movement (1917-1921) launched an era where vernacular Chinese was for the first time accepted as a legitimate poetic voice. This was followed by an outpouring of verse written in 'plain speech' by people from all walks of life in contrast to the classical, elitist poetic forms of imperial China.
A century has now passed since these 'new' poetic voices emerged. Vernacular poetry has continued to blossom in poetry journals and in cyberspace.
The editor and translators at 21st Century Chinese Poetry
are committed to translating poets from across China who would otherwise remain virtually unknown to Western audiences.
Please send all enquiries, suggestions and corrections regarding 21st Century Chinese Poetry
to Meifu Wang at:
Founder and Editor
A NEW SEASON OF POETRY
From 2019 to 2022, our editor and translator team worked in partnership with China's Poetry Journal (诗刊), to bring contemporary Chinese poetry to our readers. Poetry Journal (Beijing, China）was founded in 1957, with an emphasis on the publication of contemporary Chinese poetry as well as classical poetry by living poets. It is the widest-circulated poetry journal in China.
Circulating more than sixty years, the journal has brought together and introduced a great number of poets, reflecting many of the sweeping changes that the country has witnessed over that period.
Read these poems here:
YET ANOTHER SEASON OF POETRY
Summer of 2022, Meifu turned her focus to her own poetry, but plans to continue to translate a set of poems by a contemporary Chinese poet every month.
Please continue to visit this website and look through the poems we translated over the years,
or read some of Meifu's poems:
Reading Baudelaire Into the Night
Please stay tuned.
POET OF THE MONTH 本月诗星
Liu Nian 刘年
Liu Nian, birth name Liu Daifu, is a poet and essayist from Hunan Province. He worked as a machine technician in a cement company in Guangdong Province before becoming a full-time writer. After attending two creative writing programs that focused on poetry in Beijing, Liu has gone onto winning national poetry awards. He has published two poetry books: Faraway, and All the Secrets of the World: Poems by Liu Nian, Selected by Liu Nian (远). He lives in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province.
LIU YUNFAN AND HIS PAINTINGS
- by Liu Nian
- At one point, the whole world seemed to scorn Liu Yunfan, including me and my wife.
- Liu Yunfan, 23 years old, completed vocational school, but then failed as a cook, a motor-scooter jitney, and a street peddler of roasted potatoes, so as a last resort became an unskilled laborer, which we reluctantly accepted, hoping he would survive with honest hard work. He worked on a farm, did concrete molding and landscaping, but in all these jobs he failed because he was too dopey and cranky. Earlier this year I told him to come to my classes. Even though it was unlikely he would be any good at poetry, I believe art can redeem life just like religion. Sure enough, he began to calm down and ponder his place in the world. He then got his qualification as a security guard, ready to be self-reliant. Just about then, I met Liu Hui, a 36-year-old man from Shaoyang, teaching at Laojida. A painter and a fair poet, quiet and gaunt, Teacher Liu defended art like a fierce warrior. Still, sometimes he despaired and looked for a glass of wine in my house.
- Liu Yunfan, stocky but slow-witted, clueless and muttering his words, was considered a dumbhead by many people and became a subject of ridicule and bullying. A while back, he was told off by a girl introduced to him by a match-maker, calling him a dodo. But Teacher Liu said his naiveté was essential for an artist, treasured by all great masters. That day, Teacher Liu saw the painting of a bird by Liu Yunfan —a parrot that had just died. As he grieved for the bird, I urged him to make a painting of it as a memento. The painting turned out to be very ugly, so I tossed it away. But Liu Yunfan had kept a photo of it and showed it to Teacher Liu. Staring at the painting, Teacher Liu proclaimed Liu Yunfan a genius. I didn’t believe it. We once enrolled him in an art class, and saw him disregard all perspectives and proportions. The teacher wasn’t critical, but his classmates made fun of him, so he gave up after a few classes. According to Teacher Liu: good portraits can be painted by any trained hand, but rarely does one come with ingenuity. He envied Liu Yunfan’s uninhibited mind, and said he should take up painting rather than wasting his life away as a security guard. Liu Yunfan agreed on the spot. In my memory that was the first time someone had said something good about him.
- "Firefly Flowers" by Liu Yunfan
- “Make art with heart! Tackle problems on the way! Theories shackle the mind.” Teacher Liu's philosophy is as unconventional as his art. Liu Yunfan took home his first art work, basically a mob of wiggly lines. The second painting was called “The Fields”, with a hint of poetry and philosophy in it, akin to Wallace Stevens' jar in his poem. The third painting "The Earth" began to enthrall. His fourth and fifth paintings showed progress. Teacher Liu was prepared for surprises, but was totally dumbfounded. Liu Yunfan’s brush strokes were churlish, but authentic and bold. Moreover, his feel for color was unambiguous, his conceptualization was great, never failing to reduce complexity to simplicity, zooming into the heart of the matter, revealing down-home truths with his greenness, unveiling amazing artless beauty. At first glance, some of his paintings looked so-so, but on the wall they looked more and more interesting; their shortcomings in the old-school sense had become essential to his art. To the right: The Earth by Liu Yunfan
- Several weeks had gone by and Liu Yunfan’s creativity didn’t seem to be a fluke; only then did I dare to show my pleasure.
- At three years old, he could only say one word, that was “Mama”, diagnosed as delayed language development linked to the center cord of his brain. Our well-meaning relatives and friends privately advised us to have another child, to help take care of Liu Yunfan in the years to come. We said "no" resolvedly as it would be unfair to pass on our responsibilities to his younger sibling. Therefore, my wife gave up her job to look after him and to help him become self-sufficient, which has been our common goal. Friends who knew our pain then would understand our happiness at this juncture.
- Exhausted from writing, I would come to sit in the living room. The walls are covered with his paintings. To shield them from the sun, wind and rain, I close all curtains.
- In fact, there isn’t any need for windows because each painting opens into a brand new world. "Irises” was painted for the three iris plants I brought back from the deep mountains in Sangzhi a hundred kilometers away. The bundle had about a dozen leaves and similar number of flowers, but his painting shows only two leaves and two flowers. I thought perhaps he was too lazy to elaborate. The main object was green, but he also gave it a green background, against orthodoxy. I refrained from criticizing him. However, on the wall, the green leaves and the green background refract on each other, like the emerald from Yunnan, all the more touching and mysterious the longer you look at it. Two small flowers— one in bloom the other still a bud, are like two sullen personalities, back to back, pitifully sweet. That painting is one of my favorites. "Red Rock Ridge" was his first plein-air piece. That day, the sun was bright, the sky was blue and wide, the temperature was 32 degrees. The pebble beach of Lishui River had an unobstructed view. My only desire was for him to finish the painting, to foster the idea that the pursuit of art involved sacrifice. Being a manual laborer over the years, enduring hardship was nothing for him. There I watched before my eyes a blank canvas being infused with tension, weight and warmth. He used simple dark blue strokes to depict the river, and, breaking all convention, added lemon yellow to it.
- Teacher Liu said this painting had got it. Sure enough, the painting’s bold lines and its squarely and full layout combine to produce an uncompounded magnificence. This is one of my favorites, too. Although called Red Rock Ridge, the mountain is actually dark red, made of sandstone with moss growing, therefore appearing blackish red. In Liu Yunfan’s painting, the mountain’s red pigment is fearlessly saturated, looking bright red, completely distorted; however, with just a glance my wife, still back home a long way away, recognized it as Red Rock Ridge, which she had visited only once.
- In the evening, after playing basketball, we came back to sit in the living room, and I found a chance to ask him about his paintings.
- What kind of flower is this? Firefly flower. He said. I asked him where did firefly flowers grow.
- He said he imagined it. He felt there ought to be such flowers in the world, so he painted them.
- He said let them exist, and they came to life, out of nothing.
- For a moment, he was the creator, creating firefly flowers, with a yellowish glow, swimming like tadpoles.
- The piece "Life" has a flower in some murky amniotic fluid like a trembling child in the uterus, as if bowing and apologizing to the glassware, as if paying homage to the uterus, clearly a good portrayal of Liu Yunfan himself. In "Grapes”, the subject was on the plate, but Liu Yunfan gave them wings to fly, with yellow sand and red rocks at the bottom, like a king reigning over the world. His “Sunflower" lacks zeal compared to Van Gogh’s. His flower looked frail, lonely, and sad, without the passion in Van Gogh’s painting. In ”Through Time and Space", he showed a green meteorite floating at the margin of time and space, as if carrying the first or the last hope of life. “Earth” has pleasing colors, but also gives the impression of struggle. The bunch of white flowers really want to break through the imprisonment of the vase to rejoin the earth, but the glass is too thick. "Flowers and Glass" suggests a different outlook: the flower is on fire, vibrant and profuse; the glass jar looks wobbly soft as if it could melt at any time, a sharp contrast to the flower. In “Roses", the boundary vanishes between the flowers and the glass. They meld into a mandolin, sharing a warm rhythm, just like when prison guards and prisoners dance together. In "Heavy Rain", the fat raindrops have a bomb-like texture, like the rain I braved on my motorbike through Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. In "The Fields”, there was a basket of stones in the wilderness, reminding me of Wallace Stevens' “Anecdote of the Jar”...
- ”The wilderness rose up to it,
- And sprawled around, no longer wild.
- The jar was round upon the ground
- And tall and of a port in air.
- It took dominion everywhere.
- The jar was gray and bare.
- It did not give of bird or bush,
- Like nothing else in Tennessee.”
- "Evening Cherry Blossoms" depicts the cherry tree downstairs; the branchlets, so heavy with flowers, that they break in light rain. This species of cherry tree does not bear fruit, which reminds me of people who sacrifice everything just to look pretty. I found a broken twig and put it in a vase at home, hoping its beauty would last a few extra days. It was indeed a blessing in disguise because Liu Yunfan preserved it on his canvas. He even housed it in his favorite jar with a spiral color background. Now the beauty for which the tree sacrificed everything would last forever. The three fish in "Fish" are like a family. They recently escaped the terrifying deep sea to swim in the shallows in white light. Naturally, I am the biggest and the last fish, with tears in my eyes. Do fish cry? I don't know, but I would. When Liu Yunfan was five years old, I stayed at home full time to teach him language. One day we were working on a poem:
- “All birds have flown away, so high.
- Lonely cloud drifts on, so free.
- Gazing at Mount Jingting,
- nor am I tired of him, nor he of me.”
- After 136 repetitions, a number that I could never forget, he still jumbled the words, forgot the lines, without perceiving the meaning; but he tried and tried tirelessly. I pretended that I needed a bathroom break, but couldn’t stop tears rolling down my face in the corridor.
- Why is there a white ball in the middle of "Azalea"? Like a spot with flaking paint. I tried three times to persuade him to change it to to the more pleasing yellow. He said it couldn’t be changed, it needed to be white. I asked again, and he, being slow with words and feelings, still couldn’t explain.
- When he said it couldn’t be changed, it meant it couldn’t be changed.
- In the canvas of fifty by forty centimeters, let him be his own god.
- Beauty, like religion, teaches us to be kind.
- Compared with a year ago, Liu Yunfan seems a new person.
- He has quit smoking, alcohol and beetle nuts. Apart from painting, he attends classes informally. He goes to different classes, sometimes repeating the same class of mine three times, but who knows if he absorbs them or not even though he always has a notebook with him. The rest of the time, he mails books out for me, prints documents for me, fills out forms, plays football, and does laundry and cooking for the family. He also writes a poem each week. The latest one is “Cooking Fish":
- “First add a little oil
- then plonk in the carp to fry
- transfer it into water to boil
- and simmer
- next is to eat it
- Fish is delicious
- they say fish recharges the brain and IQ
- particularly suitable for me.”
- Mundane inventory, consistent ho-hum, without any technique.
- He put it all down without thinking too much. Sending it off to circulate among his friends, he went out to play basketball.
- I, however, tasted the sadness in it.
- Translated by Meifu Wang, 2022
Read more of Liu Nian's poems here: The Ruin
, All Lovely Things Have An Inner Glow, At the Silversmith's
, The Yak Herder
, and Liu Yunfan and His Paintings