Rooted in words

Updated: 2011-01-14 14:06

By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)

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Rooted in words
Even as writers He Xiaozhu (left) and Jimu Langge explore their ethnic
 roots, they are just as inspired by mainstream ideas. Chitralekha Basu
 / China Daily

The ethnic origins of Chengdu's writers are no longer seen as exceptional. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Many of Chengdu's writers work at night and sleep until late. During the mellow, usually cloud-covered afternoons they prefer to lounge in wicker chairs on the sidewalks of a bar street, chatting, snoozing, playing mahjong, as entrepreneurial China rushes past.

Quite a few of these writers living in the provincial capital of Sichuan who seem to have internalized Chengdu's laid-back romantic aura, become absorbed in its inclusive, close-knit literary brotherhood have ethnic group origins - Miao, Yi, Tibetan.

They have grown up in the Liangshan highlands in southern Sichuan, like the Yi poet Jimu Langge; or spent time in secluded Yi villages in neighboring Guizhou province, like the writer He Xiaozhu, who is half-Miao.

The "ethnic" tag, they say, has ceased to matter, although their ethnicity, as you might expect, continues to inform a lot of their work.

He Xiaozhu, whose minimalist, intimate, almost conversational style of poetry has inspired several translations in European languages and scholarly papers at the University of Sydney, was born to a Han mother and Miao father in Chongqing municipality.

While He admits the history and lives of people belonging to his ethnic group were once integral to his writing (in the story Witch-maker, for example) he does not want to "underscore his ethnic identity at all times".

He does not speak the Miao language. He did give learning it a shot, living in a Miao village for months, but gave up.

"If I had persisted, I would probably have been able to open up a fresh dimension toward understanding Chinese literature," he says.

He writes in Mandarin, with liberal sprinklings of Sichuan dialect, but critics see a distinct marginalized sensibility at work, harking back to his ethnic roots.

"When I was a child

I liked to break up Chinese characters, in those

meaningless brush strokes look for secrets I am not Han, yet am also distant from my own ethnicity

I don't understand my mother tongue, those folk songs

are only ever guests in the Han language."

Jimu Langge, He's friend and fellow writer, is unconcerned by the "ethnic writer" tag. A stickler for perfection, he seems far more concerned about not being able to put his finger on the sensibilities and aesthetic harbored by the Yi community, to which he belongs.

"They never celebrate birthdays. Funeral-related rituals are emphasized more than those related to marriage. I've been writing (in Mandarin) for so many years, but still cannot find the right words to describe how Yi people regard death," Jimu says, regretfully.

The noted Tibetan writer A Lai, who also lives in Chengdu, says there was a time when a writer's ethnic background would be highlighted to gain political mileage.

"But at present one's ethnic origin does not add an extra dimension to an author's repute or help to sell a few more books. It's the quality of one's writing that matters." In fact, "there isn't a clear line distinguishing an ethnic writer from one of Han origin any more", he says in a phone interview.

He and Jimu are cases in point. Both inhabit an overlapping space - writing about themes and experiences that are as ethnic as they are mainstream. Jimu, for instance, has taken a satirical view of the Chinese artists' nationalistic impulse when they seek their place in the world, such as in the poem, I Love China, although he claims the situation would be "just as true of an artist from, say, India".

"I am against any large or small country

that imposes upon China

Only in art

do I not have a nationality

That is to say, only after more of China

can there be more of the f***ing world."

And sometimes these writers are more concerned about issues beyond ethnicity or national identity, about maneuvering language and ridding words of cultural baggage, for example.

Both He and Jimu are 47 and used to be a part of the Not Not (Fei Fei) school of writers, in its heyday, in the late-1980s. The club, founded by Zhou Lunyou in Xichang, Liangshan prefecture, in 1986, advocated stripping poetry of all adornments and getting to the core of the meaning encased in each word.

"For instance, the word moon had acquired other meanings, suggesting nostalgia and hometown," He explains. "The idea was to cleanse the language of poetry, of the extra flab it had accumulated. The principal contribution of the Not Not school was providing a platform for the exchange of ideas and sensibilities, without leading to homogenization."

While He acknowledges having been, subsequently, inspired by surrealist writers - such as the Czech master of modernist prose, Franz Kafka, and the Argentinean magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges - Jimu, He says, has "remained a pure poet, untouched by literary influences".

This is evident in Jimu's seemingly mystifying poem about being visited by tigers at night, at the end of which in a quirky twist - the poet reveals himself as one of the beasts.

"Just last night

A tiger came to my side

Folks paid no attention to it

I also hid my shock

What does a tiger imply?

At midnight, among a crowd

You want to get to the bottom of it

I am just another tiger."

When asked if the tiger motif contained layers of significance - especially given that in Yi mythology the tiger is seen as the origin of all species, Jimu insists it is best if "readers try to understand it at the superficial level ... I really don't know what I want to express through this poem," he says, disarmingly.

As for He, who dropped out of senior high school to become an erhu fiddle player in the Fuling song and dance drama troupe in Chongqing and had trained in Chinese classical painting as a teenager, "A poem is a confluence of language, sensation, rhythm, sound and images, and a poet like a shaft of sunshine, corroborating the existence of sensation."

Unlike Jimu, He has allowed his words to take on a layer of meanings. He believes, "While it might help a writer, in his early years, to have a set of guidelines to follow, in terms of building an image and improving the quality of writing, eventually, he might improve on the given formula or even go against it to reach a different level."

Both poets have moved on to writing prose, essays, fiction and blogs in order to explore their ethnic roots, and also because writing poetry is often not enough to keep the fire at home burning. While He turns out a novel every two years, Jimu is taking his time penning his magnum opus based on the life and times of his Yi brethren. Jimu has been at it for 10 years.

"Yi people are happy being left behind. They just like to enjoy the sunshine and continue practicing a traditional lifestyle, while other people strive to evolve," Jimu says.

It's a credo Jimu seems to have taken to heart.

Guo Shuhan contributed to the story.

Translation of poems by D Dayton, courtesy Poetry International


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