In January I traveled to China for a little over two weeks. I stayed mostly in Shanghai, studying “Tradition & Modernity” with 18 of my Wofford College colleagues. Our lodging was comfortable, a modern hotel on the edge of Fudan University, one the educational institutions fueling China’s mad economic sprint.
I’d never been to
Asia so everything was startling at first—the sharp, rhythmic speech so far
from my own English, the magic sweeping strokes of calligraphy adorning walls
and signs, tai chi in the parks, a large smiling Mao statue at the university’s
front gate, and sweet potatoes roasting on 55-gallon drums on corners around
were lectures by Chinese academics. Afternoons we took excursions into the city
center, 15 minutes away by bus.
I’m not much of a
city boy, and so I suffered a little “urban shock” the first few days. The
college had given us a generous stipend for food and entertainment, but after the daily commitments I retreated to my room, stunned by strangeness into watching Chinese basketball
Those first few
nights I fell asleep by 8:30 p.m. China time and I woke up around 3 a.m.
Internet service was consistent in the hotel, and so in the early hours before
dawn I surfed the web freely. Before I left the United States I’d downloaded a
program on my laptop that would allow me to access the sites the Chinese
blocked. As one of our Chinese hosts put it, I could “climb the wall.”
I felt like a real
revolutionary as I Googled whatever popped into my head. I accessed “The Cultural Revolution,”
“The Great Leap Forward,” a progression
of national screw-ups by way of Wikipedia.
Of course I was a
little paranoid too. Was some Big Brother monitoring my every query, in spite
of the software? Would I be confronted with my Google transgressions when I
passed through Chinese security on the way home? It didn’t take me
long to leave history behind and start looking for poetry.
Shanghai has 22
million people and I don’t believe any of them had the China in their head I
arrived with. Mine was derived mostly from reading Gary Snyder’s translations
of Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems in the 1970s. I don’t need to
tell you that there was no “Cold Mountain” to be found that first few days in
Shanghai, and Snyder’s hermit poet hunkered only on cheap silk scroll
imitations sold to tourists like me downtown.
On our second
night we went to the Chinese opera, and I was so tired from the day’s activity
I nodded off. As I came in and out of sleep I thought that the characters on
stage were speaking nonsense English, and so I wrote a poem as I sat there in
the theater. I thought it was a liminal poem and maybe I was balancing on a
threshold between cultures, trying to find my way from one to the other.
That night I
decided to bring my knowledge of Chinese poetry into the century I was surfing.
I’d find out a little about Chinese contemporary poetry. I’d see if I could
find some poets online in translation who didn’t write about mountains or misty
islands or lonely hermits among the bamboo.
I quickly wandered
into the work in translation of Bei Dao, a Chinese poet exiled after Tiananmen Square in 1989, and not returned to China until 2006. The biography I found said
Chinese students shouted Bei Dao’s surreal poems as the tanks moved in.
I left the Chinese nature poets behind and wrote a poem in Bei Dao’s style--fragmented, surreal, and gritty. It opened up for me a way to write about the power of what I could experience in contemporary urban China.
The next night I broke through my city fears. I left my room and headed out with my colleagues. I did what poets have always done. I entered the hidden flow of a far-away place.