Monday, January 30, 2006


Shu Ting

Shu Ting is the pen name of Gong Peiyu, one of the leading Chinese poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Born in 1952, she was taken out of school while still a teenager and sent to work in a cement factory and later a textile mill during the Cultural Revolution after her father was accused of ideological nonconformity. She began to write poetry during this time, influenced by the unauthorized reading of Western poetry; she was a member of the "Misty" poets, a group of young writers who turned away from the state-prescribed "social realism" in poetry to explore the world of emotion and human consciousness. Her work began to appear in the underground Misty journal Jintian (Today) in 1979; when Jintian was closed down by the authorities, she and others were investigated for possible non-conformity, and she ceased to write for a time. But the authorities were apparently satisfied with her work, and she was asked to join the official Chinese Writers' Association, twice winning the National Poetry Award in the early 1980s. She has continued to write, expanding into prose as well, and has traveled in Europe and the United States.

Typical of her work is "Missing You," a lyric probing emotional depths through concrete images:

A multi-colorerd chart without a boundary;
An equation chalked on the board, with no solution;
A one-stringed lyre that tells the beads of rain;
A pair of useless oars that never cross the water.

Waiting buds in suspended animation;
The setting sun is watching from a distance.
Though in my mind there may be an enormous ocean,
What emerges is the sum: a pair of tears.

Yes, from these vistas, from these depths,
Only this.

(Translated by Carolyn Kizer)

"Fairy Tale," a poem dedicated to her fellow Misty poet Gu Cheng (her first book was a joint publication with him), shows us the value she places on the type of poetry the two of them are writing:

You believed in your own story,
then climbed inside it --
a turquoise flower.
You gazed past ailing trees,
past crumbling walls and rusty railings.
Your least gesture beckoned a constellation
of wild vetch, grasshoppers, and stars
to sweep you into immaculate distances.

The heart may be tiny
but the world's enormous.

And the people in turn believe --
in pine trees after rain,
ten thousand tiny suns, a mulberry branch
bent over water like a fishing-rod,
a cloud tangled in the tail of a kite.
Shaking off dust, in silver voices
ten thousand memories sing from your dream.

The world may be tiny
but the heart's enormous.

(Translated by Donald Finkel)

There is also an emotional affinity with nature that is deeply rooted and vital:

"Maple Leaf"

Here is a heart-shaped leaf
Picked up by a gentle hand
On a very special hillside
At the edge of a special wood.
It may not mean very much,
This leaf with its trace of frost

But still the leaf reminds me
Of a twilit avenue,
A mind crowded with thoughts
Released on a gentle breath
That scattered from my shoulders
The rays of the setting sun.

Again, on a special evening
That touch alights on me
Having grown heavy with meaning.
This time I can't deny it,
Deny that intimacy.

Now, when the wind rises
I am prompted to turn my head
And listen to you, leaf,
As you quiver on your twig.

(Translated by Carolyn Kizer)

She has on occasion been willing to be at least indirectly critical of Chinese society:

"Assembly Line"

In time's assembly line
Night presses against night.
We come off the factory night-shift
In line as we march towards home.
Over our heads in a row
The assembly line of stars
Stretches across the sky.
Beside us, little trees
Stand numb in assembly lines.

The stars must be exhausted
After thousands of years
Of journeys which never change.
The little trees are all sick,
Choked on smog and monotony,
Stripped of their color and shape.
It's not hard to feel for them;
We share the same tempo and rhythm.

Yes, I'm numb to my own existence
As if, like the trees and stars
-- perhaps just out of habit
-- perhaps just out of sorrow,
I'm unable to show concern
For my own manufactured fate.

(Translated by Carolyn Kizer)

But, despite such occasional criticisms, she maintains an essential optimism about her country and her people:

"Motherland, My Dear Motherland"

I am the old battered mill on your river
For hundreds of years weaving a weary song
I am the lamp on your forehead, darkened by coaldust
Lighting your way as you grope like a snail down history's tunnel
I am the rice stalk, my head only husks
I am the road bed, out of repair
The barge stuck on the silted shore
Its towline sunk deep in your shoulder
O, my motherland

I am poverty
I am sorrow
I am the aching hope of generaltions of your ancestors
In the wide sleeves of the apsaras I am the flowers
Which failed from thousands of years to fall to earth
O, my motherland

I am your newest ideal
Just struggling free from the cobwebs of myth
I am the sprouting bud of the ancient lotus, found under the snow
I am dimples hung with tears
I am the starting line, freshly painted
I am the scarlet dawn, with the sun just peeping out
O, my motherland

I am one of your billion
I am all your acres of land
With yopu much-bruised breast you have nursed
The lost me, the meditative me, the boiling me
Then from my flesh and blood
Take your wealth, your glory, your freedom
O, my motherland

(Translated by Sun Li, Hu Meng-jie, Chu Meng-dan, Lu Wen,
Zuo Hong, Li Yi-dong, Ann Arbor, and John Rosenwald)

And, for her, what is finally of greatest importance is that which is rooted forever in the earth itself:

"Love Poem Earth"

I love earth
Just as I love my wordless father
Earth breathing warmth with its rivers of blood
Earth fermenting with sweat, fertile with oil
Quickening slightly under the strong plow and bare feet
Rising and falling from heat at the heart's core
You must shoulder bronze statues, monuments, museums
But sign the last judgment on the line of the fault.
My frost-crusted, mud-coated, sun-cracked earth
My stern, generous, indignant earth
Earth granting me skin color and language
Earth granting me wisdom and strength

I love earth
Just as I love my compassionate mother
Robust earth covered with kissprints from the sun's lips
Collector of leaf-layers, of sprouts springing up after sprouts
Time and again abandoned by man, never abandoning man
Creating each sound, each color, each curse
And still you are called dirt.
My lead-lustred, red-pooled, white-spotted earth
My rough, lonely, untended earth
Earth granting me love and hate
Earth granting me pain and joy

Father grants me an infinite dream
Mother grants me a sensitive heart
The lines of my poems
are the sounds of the gramtree grove
Day and night sending out to the earth
its incessant shower of loveseed

(Translated by Sun Li, Hu Meng-jie, Chu Meng-dan, Lu Wen,
Zuo Hong, Li Yi-dong, Ann Arbor, and John Rosenwald)

"Translated by Sun Li, Hu Meng-jie, Chu Meng-dan, Lu Wen, Zuo Hong, Li-Yi-dong, Ann Arbor, and John Rosenwald"

whoa, that must be some tough translating.

It would be interesting to know the significance of the pen-name. Whether it's a standard Chinese practice, or if there was some reason for it.
Regarding the use of a pen name, I gather from my limited reading in the poetry of the period that, in the years following the Cultural Revolution, poets who chose not to follow party-approved "social realism" found it advisable to write under pen names. The leading poet of the period is Bei Dao, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai.

As far as the list of translators go, I can only refer you to John Rosenwald's note which begins "I have no idea of how to 'credit' these translations." He goes on to explain at some length the whole list of individuals who were involved in making the translations, which include a number of works by poets other than Shu Ting, by the way; the complete set of translations was published as "The Beloit Poetry Journal" Chapbook 19 and is available as a downloadable PDF file requiring Adobe Acrobat at the following url:
The last digit in that url is "9"; it got cut off by the margin.
I really liked your nest! It's so hard to reach those distant poets, i guess foreign poetry is hard to find, even for poets themselves.
I'm a brazilian poet, and would be glad to help you with portuguese language poetry (Brazil and Portugal), suggesting poets and helping with translations. Let me know, and congratulations again for this initiative!
Thanks, Calvin; I appreciate your comments. I may very well call on you for help particularly when I start looking at Latin American poets, about whom I know very little; thanks for the offer.
Do you know where I can find the poem The Singing Flower by Shu T'ing?
Sorry, Raven, but I don't have a copy of that poem.
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