There’s something rotten in China
As in Denmark, good rhyming
That came from typing
Or the cold that didn’t know the season
With someone I haven’t met who threw
His words or weight or wow
Around. If you know the lines
The ducks are the first to know
The warmth of the spring river
Come and see the semen
Ooops, I meant the cement
Ducks by the water that are probably colder
Than you know what I mean
To kill or cure the cold or
The Chinese, as Lawson suggested
Is to go to Yaddo or Fado
Or 1996, a year of over
To wound the wind
Or be wounded by it
Is to know that one hates the iron
For not turning into steel
Or to know the woman
Poet, rejected, removed, Shanghaied and Australianed
Same thing, no difference
For wanting to invent a gun
That can kill an entire nation
Ouyang Yu is teaching in Shanghai when I send my questions to him via email. Pressing send on that email makes me feel sick with nerves. The sheer volume of his work, his immense energy in dealing with my early questions and the variety of themes, forms and ideas covered by his writing are intimidating to say the least.
So it’s a gentle relief to remember that even Ouyang Yu was a child once. A child who was asked to recite poetry by his father, “a man versed in classical Chinese poetry although he was an accountant by profession”. Ouyang wrote his first poems in Chinese when he was a Grade 4 pupil in a primary school, as best as he can recall. It was not until he studied at university as a major in English language and literature, however, that he began writing poetry profusely, some of it in English as well.
At the same time, he began to read quite widely, “whatever that I could lay my hands on” including poetry by Shelley, Byron, Keats and Wordsworth, and The Golden Treasury. He remembers copying poems from it in longhand with great pleasure and considers “the best gift that opened my eyes and broke me from the classical Chinese poetry was a copy of the Norton Anthology that my Canadian teacher gave me when he left China”. After that, his poetry had “a completely different feel from the ones I wrote before in that it’s much more open and free”. These youthful poems, written at university, “explored questions of love and sex, a forbidden topic then, of man’s place in the natural world and man-made world, and of incompatibility of human relationships, including men and women’s”.
The hardest part of all of these interviews for Peril’s map, is the section where we ask writers to consider that question of self-definition. Paraphrasing often creates a new set of false boundaries, so it’s best to consider Ouyang’s response to the question in its entirety:
“As I am an Australian citizen, not holding a Chinese passport but an Australian one, since 1998, I guess officially I would be an Australian like everyone else holding the passport. The problem this has is that every time I enter China and live for a period of time, I have to apply for a visa by paying a fee and have to report myself at the local police station on arrival. At the same time, though, the passport enables me to have the facility of visiting many countries without having to go through the trouble of applying for a visa, something a Chinese passport could not give me. Ethnically, though, I am Han Chinese, eating rice, not bread, on a daily basis, if that makes any difference. Linguistically, I spoke and wrote Chinese till I arrived in Australia at the age of 36 when I began speaking and writing in English as much as I did so in Chinese, becoming increasingly bilingual. In China, I’m classified as an ao’hua zuojia (Australian-Chinese writer), lü’ao zuojia (writer sojourning in Australia) or aodaliya huayi zuojia (Australian writer of Chinese descent). At one stage, I was not comfortable with those nomenclatures, choosing instead to identify myself as an aodaliya zuojia (Australian writer). After a while, though, seeing that people continue to apply whatever terms they’d like to when describing me, I have given up on feeling uncomfortable but just let things go as each makes sense on its own, capturing only part of the whole thing identity-wise. As a poet and a novelist or non-fictionalist, I write aware of all those fragmentary identities.”
Being featured seven times in the Best Australian Poetry would seem qualification enough as some variety of “Australian” writer, but Ouyang’s editorial and poetic output is prodigious, hard to pigeon-hole and often openly critical of the boundaries of cultural stereotypes. Perhaps it is not surprising that, until he was an MA student in Shanghai, in 1986, majoring in Australian and British literature, with a thesis on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, he was hardly aware of Australia at all. For him,
“then, it [was] not the cultural or political issues that concerned me as I had not physically lived in Australia; I was more interested in exploring the intricate family relationships and their literary representation. It’s not till I began writing my PhD thesis (1991-1994) in Australia on the literary representations of Chinese in Australian fiction that I came into contact with the larger issues of racism and ethnocentrism in the Australian literary representation of the Other. I managed to write two books of poetry, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems and Songs of the Last Chinese Poet during that period of time, thanks to the process of cross-fertilization in which I worked with theory on the thesis and to the physicality of living in Australia, an experience so vastly different from that in China that my writing, perversely, seemed energized to the degree that it poured, without restraint and unstoppably.”
Unstoppable seems a rather apt description, for even as Ouyang’s work is sometimes dense and challenges, it can also be frank and forthright. Take ‘Rotten’, Ouyang’s contribution to the map, about which he says:
“There is not only reference to China and Denmark, to which I went in 2004, a strange combination, and reference—duck, for example, a familiar one—to classical Chinese poetry but also that to Lawson with his remark that goes, ‘A time will come eventually when the Chinaman will have to be either killed or cured—probably the former,’ as well as that to popular Chinese sayings, an untranslatable one like hen tie bu cheng gang (hating the iron for not being able to turn into steel), an expression of regret, often used by parents to describe their children as not doing as well as they have wished. Hence an author’s heart-mind map of language, place, tradition and culture, all merged into poetry, plus the fact that the poem was directed to an American-Jewish writer I have been acquainted with in China.”
‘Mapping’ is, therefore, an interesting word to use here, as for Ouyang, “there always is an invisible map in a writer’s mind or heart, not just territorial but also psychological, mental, linguistic, and time-related.” Reading Ouyang’s comments, I wonder if we can think of the racism of Lawson’s attack on “the Chinaman” as the kind of long standing Australian geographical landscape – a mountain perhaps – just waiting for the slow erosion of the wind. For it is clear that while Lawson’s (and other bush poets reminiscent of Lawson) remains an undeniable feature of Australian poetry, there are other, unmistakably challenging voices that are now receiving critical attention.
For three years at university, I completed units in classical Chinese poetry, wrestling horribly with the dense and – for me at least – frustratingly oblique works of poets such as Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei and Li Qingzhao. I mastered neither the language, the philosophy or the poetry itself, but dammit if I didn’t try. In trying, I learned a hearty respect for a canon of poetry that stripped back language, distilled meaning and gave deep pause for reflection. I spent hours in the repetition of the difficult calligraphy, wondering if the character for “silkworm” could only be written by one, there were so many goddamn strokes.
And then I stopped studying Chinese.
I wonder, however, if things might have been different. What would have happened had my Chinese poetry class considered contemporary writers like Ouyang Yu on the syllabus? Perhaps we would not have spent so many hours wondering what it meant to “draw a snake and then add feet” but what it was to “want to invent a gun that would kill an entire nation”? I may have had pleasure copying those lines in longhand myself.