Chapter 1 Convergent Trajectories

In: In Search of Singularity
Joanna Krenz
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The compairative history of Polish and Chinese verse up to the late twentieth century in this chapter aims at bringing the two poetries closer together to reveal mutual resonances and dissonances that offer a source of narrative potential for intertextual interactions. I will try to actualize this potential in subsequent chapters by asking the text-actors to con-verse on my compairative stage.

1 Worlds Apart: Polish and Chinese Poetry up to the Early Twentieth Century

That Polish and Chinese poetry are two radically different literary realities may sound like a truism that needs no further elaboration. Until the early twentieth century, there was virtually no direct contact between these two universes. Nevertheless, their premodern histories determined, to a large extent, their later evolution, specific features, and mutual presumptions and expectations. Some simplifications and generalizations are of course unavoidable in such a brief account. But to understand how these two poetic traditions can offer a constructive dialogue, their backstories should be taken into consideration before we invite them to take to the compairative stage.1

1.1 Poetry in China

China has the longest recorded written poetic tradition in the world. It has developed continuously since 1500–1200 BC and was preceded by a centuries-long oral tradition, the beginnings of which can be traced back to the early days of Chinese civilization.2 In premodern times, the Chinese poetic tradition’s main sources included folk customs, religious-philosophical systems, and court culture, where poetry was widely practiced by officials and emperors themselves; the inclusion of poetry writing in the imperial examination confirms its special status in the country. Buddhist culture was a crucial medium through which foreign, mostly Indian, inspirations and influences reached Chinese poetry. The importance of these influences is demonstrated in Lucas Klein’s study The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (2018). Klein’s notion of nativization and foreignization as a methodological framework does away with the sustained misperception of the Chinese poetry tradition as a self-contained, hermetic universe.3

For more than two thousand years, beginning with the Classic of Poetry (诗经), the first anthology of Chinese verses compiled in the seventh century BC, poetry was written almost exclusively in classical literary language, referred to as wenyanwen 文言文, which followed significantly different rules to everyday spoken language. These rules remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries and mastering them was an essential part of one’s education. In addition, poetic texts were organized according to relatively strict formal and compositional principles specific to a given genre, with the repertoire of genres regularly expanding in the ensuing periods. These genres evolved in close relationship with poetry’s two sister arts: music and painting. The affinity for music is reflected in the strong rhythmicality and melodiousness of these early poems, and the aesthetic qualities of Chinese script made beautifully calligraphed verses a natural component of works in the visual arts. Traditional poetry discourse in China also displayed remarkable self-awareness from early on, evidenced by its abundant metatextual production, including theoretical treatises on literary aesthetics and extensive scholarly commentaries devoted to individual poems and poetics.

Like anywhere else in the world, the history of Chinese poetry has had its twists and turns, codetermined by the twists and turns of China’s complex political history, with periods of stability and unity alternating with epochs of unrest, territorial fragmentation, and invasions by neighboring nations and tribes. It is commonly believed that the peak of poetic development was reached during the relatively peaceful Tang dynasty (唐朝, 618–907), and its legacy was subsequently taken up by Song dynasty (宋朝, 960–1279) authors. Although it would be difficult to list all of the poets who contributed to the growth of this impressive tradition, three archetypal figures—all of whom have been canonized as sources of specific models of poethood that have echoed widely also in modern poetry—stand out: Qu Yuan 屈原 (ca. 343–278 BC), the first Chinese poet known by name, widely regarded as an uncompromised patriot and political exile, whose suicide is interpreted as an act of martyrdom for his homeland; Li Bai 李白 (701–762), “poet saint” (诗仙), a knight-errant of Chinese poetry; and Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770), “poet sage” (诗圣), famous for his deep concern for the lives of the common people, artistic responsibility, and moral principles.

The turning point in the history of Chinese poetry coincided with the social-political breakthrough of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命), which led to the dethronement of the last emperor and the proclamation of the republic in 1911. The new reality sought alternative forms of artistic expression, prompting a reform of the literary language. The New Culture movement (新文化运动), whose pioneers included Hu Shi 胡适 (1891–1962), Chen Duxiu 陈独秀 (1879–1942), and Liang Qichao 梁启超 (1873–1929), brought, among other important developments, the birth of what is known as New Poetry (新诗), which is written in free verse using vernacular language and is viewed as fundamentally separate from the two sister arts. New Poetry drew inspiration from the West, which the early reformers considered more advanced than their native culture. They tried to lead China to what they believed to be a higher level of development represented by Western civilization that was in line with the Hegelian teleological model of history adopted from European philosophy.

That said, the classical-style poetry has never disappeared from China, and today it is still not only read and memorized in schools but also widely practiced by people from all walks of life. As Haosheng Yang shows in her study A Modernity Set to a Pre-Modern Tune (2016), even the early twentieth century’s most avid advocates of the literary revolution still considered traditional forms more suitable in many situations; for example, for deeply personal content. Among them, the most consistent practitioner of classical verse was Nie Gannu 聂绀弩 (1903–1986), for whom writing in wenyanwen became a form of both self-therapy and effective resistance against the politics of Mao Zedong 毛泽东.4 Today, the subversive function of classical-style writing and the lingering attachment to traditional forms as a medium of intimate emotions and existential experience can be observed in migrant worker poetry, which we will examine in chapter 7.

1.2 Poetry in Poland

The history of written poetry in Poland dates back to the tenth to eleventh century. For around five hundred years, however, it was written almost exclusively in Latin, and the rare exceptions created in Polish were mostly religious hymns. It was only in the mid-sixteenth century that Mikołaj Rej (1505–1569), the first poet to write extensively in Polish, produced one of the most famous passages in his country’s literary history, a playful declaration of linguistic emancipation: “Among all other nations it shall always be known / That Poles don’t speak goose language but have a tongue of their own,”5 which marks a symbolic beginning of Polish national literature. Yet it is not Rej who is regarded as the father of Polish poetry but Jan Kochanowski (ca. 1530–1579), who refined the literary language and imbued it with unparalleled artistry and deep human emotion. His works range from The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys (Odprawa posłów greckich, 1578), considered the first Polish tragedy, to the intimate Threnodies (Treny, 1580), written upon the death of his young daughter. He also translated numerous works of world literature, such as the biblical Psalms, into Polish and adapted many genre forms, mostly from Greek- and Latin-language literatures. The development of Polish poetry since has largely followed the development of Western European verse, albeit about twenty-five to fifty years behind.

The sixteenth century is often considered the golden age of Polish history and culture. After annexing Lithuania in 1569, the Commonwealth of Poland was one of the three leading military powers in Europe, along with Russia and the Ottoman Empire. It constituted a strategic part of the so-called Antemurale Christianitatis (the bulwark of Christendom), a position confirmed by the spectacular victory of the Polish hussar army over the Muslim Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. I ask the reader to keep this little detail in mind because it will return in one of the Chinese poems about Poland in the final section of this chapter. This narrative is also consistently revived by the current government (as of 2022) as part of its nationalist policy to counter liberal tendencies, and by right-wing Polish cultural circles,6 including many poets who, in the 1990s, were counted among Brulion’s Classicists (more on which, see section 3 of this chapter).

In the seventeenth century, Poland’s borders had already begun to shrink owing to lost battles on its territory and the ineptitude of subsequent kings. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, it disappeared from the world map for 123 years, following three partitions by the Habsburg Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire. It was not until 1918 that the country regained independence. Nonetheless, under these unfavorable circumstances, Polish cultural life evinced an almost paradoxical, unprecedented vibrancy. One reason for this unusual dynamic between culture and politics was that the beginning of political oppression coincided with the intense reception of Western European and Russian Romanticism on Polish soil. The Romantic verse of the “Four Bards”—Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849), Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–1859), and Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821–1883)—is still regarded as the top achievement of Polish literature. Maria Janion, a prominent Polish literary scholar, called Romanticism a “revolution of imagination” (rewolucja wyobraźni). This revolution redirected authors’ interests from objective phenomena to the subjective reality of the individual with their phantasms and desires and led to the breaking of various taboos and the forming of a specific death-driven mysticism. The latter was fueled by the failure of the first major national uprising, the 1830–1831 November Uprising, and, in turn, catalyzed the launch of the January Uprising in 1863. Tellingly, the series of patriotic demonstrations that led to this uprising was preceded in 1859 by a church vigil, where mourners prayed for the souls of Mickiewicz, Słowacki, and Krasiński.

After the suppression of the January Uprising in 1864, the Romantic fever gradually cooled and gave way to the more rational postulates of positivism, which lasted roughly until the turn of the twentieth century. Positivism emphasized the necessity of “organic work” (praca organiczna) in the social-political and cultural spheres to gradually rebuild Poland’s economy and national institutions, including its educational structures. Whereas Romanticism brought an explosion of poetry, positivism virtually abandoned it and turned to prose instead. The early twentieth century thus witnessed an unprecedented development of the Polish novel, which gained international acclaim, as evidenced by two Nobel Prizes granted to Polish authors in this period: Henryk Sienkiewicz and Władysław Stanisław Reymont. That said, the Romantic paradigm, Janion argues, did not exhaust itself in the mid-nineteenth century. Rather, it extended its impact on Polish culture until today with three upsurges: in the early twentieth century, when pro-independence feeling was awakened in society at large; during World War II, when Romantic ideals sparked hope and courage among the young intelligentsia who boldly volunteered for the underground army; and with the emergence of the social movement “Solidarity” (Solidarność) in the 1980s. The Romantic paradigm has formed two distinct tendencies described by Janion as tyrtean and messianist-martyrological, the legacy of which is still prominent in both Polish literature and Polish public discourse.7

2 Coming Closer: From the Early Twentieth Century to the Mid-1980s

It is the Romantic paradigm that became the earliest and most sustained link between Polish and Chinese poetries and brought them closer together. The first translation from Polish literature into Chinese was Henryk Sienkiewicz’s (1846–1916) novella Lamplighter (Latarnik, 1881), rendered via the Japanese by Wu Chou 吴梼 in 1906.8 The protagonist, Skawiński, is a veteran of many wars and uprisings. In his old age, he takes up a job as a lamplighter in a lighthouse in Aspinwall, where he finally finds peace after a life of wandering. He maintains his connections to the homeland through books, especially his favorite, Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania (Pan Tadeusz, czyli ostatni zajazd na Litwie, 1832), which is deemed Poland’s national epic. Many famous figures of the revolutionary movement in early twentieth-century China followed Wu and translated other works by Sienkiewicz; noteworthy contributions include Zhou Zuoren’s 周作人 translation of Charcoal Sketches (Szkice węglem, 1877) and Xu Bingchang’s 徐炳昶 translation of Quo Vadis (1896).

Sienkiewicz’s works were among the main sources of inspiration for Lu Xun 鲁迅 (1881–1936), who is considered the father of Chinese modern literature. It is likely that Sienkiewicz is the reason that Lu Xun became attracted to Polish Romantic poetry, the spirit of which nourishes Sienkiewicz’s novels and novellas. One year after the publication of Lamplighter in Chinese translation, in 1907, Lu Xun wrote one of the earliest and the most famous manifestos of Chinese New Poetry, titled “On the Power of Mara Poetry” (摩罗诗力说), in which he claimed:

I let the past drop here and seek new voices from abroad, an impulse provoked by concern for the past. I cannot detail each varied voice, but none has such power to inspire and language as gripping as Mara poetry. Borrowed from India, the term “Mara”—celestial demon, or “Satan” in Europe—first denoted Byron. Now I apply it to those, among all the poets, who were committed to resistance, whose purpose was action but who were little loved by their age; and I introduce their words, deeds, ideas, and the impact of their circles, from the sovereign Byron to a Magyar (Hungarian) man of letters. Each of the group had distinctive features and made his own nation’s qualities splendid, but their general bent was the same: few would create conformist harmonies, but they’d bellow an audience to its feet, these iconoclasts whose spirit struck deep chords in later generations, extending to infinity.

Translated by Shu-Ying Tsau and Donald Holoch9

In the second part of the essay, halfway between George Byron and Sandor Petöfi, one comes across several long passages discussing three of the Polish Romantic bards: Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński. Mickiewicz and Słowacki are treated as poets of revenge, while Krasiński is introduced as a poet of love. Reflecting on masterpieces of Polish Romanticism, including Forefathers’ Eve (Dziady), Grażyna, Pan Tadeusz, Spirit the King (Król Duch), and Kordian, Lu Xun emphasizes the role of the poetic impulse in strengthening the will for independence and building the identity of the nation.

In a context similar to that of Lu Xun’s work, Polish poetry returns to China in 1920, two years after Poland gained independence, in the work of Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892–1978), another reformer of Chinese literature and a renowned writer and translator. Guo identifies Byron’s participation in the fight for Greek independence with the struggle of the Polish Romantics. In his long poem The Victorious Death (胜利之死), which commemorates Terence MacSwiney, who died after seventy-three days on hunger strike against the injustice of the British occupation of Ireland, Guo incorporates quotes from Thomas Campbell’s poem “The Downfall of Poland” (1799). Guo’s work revolves around the myth of heroic death for one’s homeland, describing the Irish hero as “another embodiment of the God of Freedom,” along with Tadeusz Kościuszko portrayed by Campbell, among others.10

Around roughly the same time, Polish poets turned to Chinese poetry as a source of inspiration for the first time. Until the early twentieth century, China was present in Polish literature almost exclusively in various examples of travel writing, including extensive accounts of Catholic missionaries in Asia.11 Writers during Young Poland (Młoda Polska), a modernist period in Polish culture between circa 1890 and 1918, shared the Western avant-gardes’ fascination with, and misguided fantasies about, Oriental culture. In 1922, Leopold Staff, one of Young Poland’s most outstanding representatives, published the first collection of translations from classical Chinese poetry, Chinese Flute (Fletnia chińska), drawing on Franz Toussaint’s La flûte de jade: poésies chinoises (1920). Staff made extensive use of his translational license (by which I mean the translator’s equivalent of poetic license). The Chinese originals are, in many cases, nearly impossible to identify; all works are rendered as short pieces of rhythmic poetic prose in the specific ornamental Young Poland style.12

From the very beginning, Polish and Chinese poetries were seeking opposite things in each other, passionately digging into each other’s pasts. Chinese authors read Polish literature for Romantic inspiration to advance their own reformatory enterprise, which was expected to lead to the redefinition of national identity through literature and culture. Polish authors, conversely, read Chinese classical poets to discover spiritual experience, consolation, and harmony in the exotic landscapes of China’s ancient verse. Yet there was virtually no interaction between contemporaneous Polish and Chinese poets. From a compairatist perspective, this is extremely regrettable because the early twentieth century is a time when Polish-Chinese intertextual dialogue might have developed in a particularly interesting way since the two poetries were facing similar challenges, especially their intense negotiations of their position on the map of world literature.

Among other coincidences, it was during this period that, both in Poland and in China, two discussions began that continued for the following hundred years, culminating at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. One of them was the discussion on the (in)comprehensibility in/of poetry, which influenced the reception of the works of Andrzej Sosnowski and Che Qianzi 车前子 in particular; this will be elaborated on in chapter 6. The other discussion concerned the Nobel Prize in Literature. There is no room to reconstruct this discussion in detail, but a few words should be said about it nevertheless, as the controversy surrounding Nobel laureates helps bring out certain deeply rooted cultural-political factors that underlie many poetic phenomena that will be investigated in chapters 2–5.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, two Nobel Prizes were awarded to Polish novelists: one in 1905 to Henryk Sienkiewicz and the other in 1924 to Władysław Stanisław Reymont. In 1927, shortly after Reymont’s success, Sven Hedin from the Swedish Academy reportedly suggested in his communication with Liu Bannong 刘半农 nominating Lu Xun for the prize. Lu Xun, however, refused, famously claiming that “if the yellow-skinned people were given preferential consideration, it would only encourage the egotism of the Chinese, convincing them they really were equal to the great foreign writers.”13 This, as Julia Lovell argues, became the first impulse for what later evolved into “China’s post-Mao Nobel complex,” with its “mix of hurt national pride and authorial ego jostling,” and foreshadowed “the feverish, highly speculative debate on the Nobel that took place within post-Mao literary circles.”14 It also became one of the many points of contention in the polemic between the Popular poets (民间诗人) and the Intellectual poets (知识分子诗人) in the 1980s and 1990s, a topic I will return to in the next section. In short, the Popular poets were known for ostentatiously turning their backs on the “Western award,” whereas the Intellectuals regarded it with tacit hope. The fact that in 2000 dramatist Gao Xingjian 高行健 (b. 1940) and in 2012 novelist Mo Yan 莫言 (b. 1955) joined the ranks of Nobel laureates did not ease the tensions. Aside from the political atmosphere around their work in China, neither Gao nor Mo Yan have ever been welcomed by their fellow writers with unanimous enthusiasm. Gao has been widely criticized for his perceived lack of solidarity with other China-based authors, and Mo Yan for conforming to governmental censorship or—as others claim—self-Orientalization and catering to Western tastes.

In my communication with Chinese poets, I have often heard them speak with respect about Poland as the homeland of four (as I am writing these words, now five) Nobel Prize laureates. Nevertheless, from a Polish perspective, the achievements of the “Polish Nobels” were certainly not as obvious as they were to Chinese authors. Many of Lovell’s diagnoses of the situation in China’s cultural discourse might, with some adjustments, be applied to Poland. Among participants of Polish cultural discourse, self-deprecatory utterances that resembled Lu Xun’s response to Hedin, arrogant anti-Nobel declarations, and criticisms of the “Western committee’s” decisions as foreign interventions into Poland’s internal affairs were common reactions. In 1905, when Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize, his serious counter-candidate was another Polish author, Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841–1910), whose novels were not as rich in patriotic content as Sienkiewicz’s but were more concerned with universal themes. In 1924, as the protocols of the Swedish Academy reveal, Reymont, who was honored for Peasants (Chłopi), competed against Stefan Żeromski (1864–1925), whom the committee had rejected four times (despite enthusiastic recommendations from many Polish institutions) due to his pathetic and sentimental patriotism, which had once been so much appreciated in Sienkiewicz. Many disappointed commentators maintained that the decisive factors were in fact Żeromski’s socialist sympathies and anti-German attitudes, which were shared by a large part of Polish society at the time, and not the inferior artistic quality of his writing.15 Both verdicts ignited politically charged polemics in the country. Near-identical scenarios played out again toward the end of the century, after the award of two Nobel Prizes for poetry: Czesław Miłosz’s in 1980 and Wisława Szymborska’s in 1996, which I will discuss in chapters 2 and 4 respectively, and again after Olga Tokarczuk’s prize in 2019, which has been interpreted by radical-conservative cultural and political circles as evidence of Western attempts to impose liberal values on Poland—liberalism, in their vocabulary, referring to everything from vegetarianism and animal rights to feminism and “gender ideology.”

It would be an exaggeration to argue that the current political situation in Poland resembles that of China and Poland’s image in Western media is often overtly demonized. However, certain underlying processes that started to emerge in the early twentieth century, when the young republics sought to position themselves in the world, are convergent. The disproportionately large political importance that was attached to Nobel Prizes and other honors granted to individual authors betrays the two nations’ lack of self-confidence on the global cultural and political stage. This has limited their ability to engage in an equal dialogue with the West, moving instead between self-victimization, self-doubt, and the need for legitimization of internal order by foreign powers at one extreme, and uncontrolled, arrogant outbursts of national pride at the other. This is not a comfortable situation for poetry and literature at large, but it is worth emphasizing that, unlike in the prewar period and even in the 1980s and 1990s, many authors today have an acute awareness of how these tricky mechanisms work and actively seek a way out of them, producing truly independent works.

Although there have been many topics since the early twentieth century that the contemporaneous authors from the two countries could effectively con-verse on, the first encounter between Polish and Chinese modern poetries only took place after World War II, shortly before the proclamation of the PRC. In the late 1940s–that is, in the period of his fleeting romance with socialism—Czesław Miłosz, drawing on Robert Payne’s 1947 anthology The White Pony, translated a number of works by his Chinese contemporaries. Among them were Ai Qing 艾青 (1910–1996), Wen Yiduo 闻一多 (1899–1946), Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910–2000), Zang Kejia 臧克家 (1905–2004), and Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (1893–1976), who at the time was still better known in the West as a man of letters than as a political leader. In a 2005 collection of Miłosz’s translations of world poetry, the Chinese section is preceded by a short introduction which contains a reflection on Payne’s work, praise for Staff’s renditions of Chinese Flute, and Miłosz’s impressions on the emerging New Poetry in China:

It is easy to note that modern Chinese poetry merges its own national tradition with influences from European and American poetry. Its moving humanness and concreteness, the tangibility of every single image—this is what prompted me to render these poems into the Polish language. Moreover, I think people who can read will find abundant material for reflection on the history of modern China in this verse.16

This passage is followed by chaotic biographical notes concerning those authors of whom Miłosz managed to obtain information. About Mao, he wrote:

Mao Tse-tung; b. 1893 in Punan [Hunan] province. During the war against Japan, he was a high-ranking soldier in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. The poem Snow was written in Chongqing in late 1945 and is reportedly equally popular on both sides of the frontline during the current war.17

Aside from the credibility of Miłosz’s sources, it seemed for some time that Polish and Chinese poetry would indeed assume a very similar course in the second half of the century. When Mao Zedong, whom Miłosz praised as a poet, came to power, he almost destroyed poetry in China. Mao’s views on the role of culture in the country were systematized and proclaimed in 1942 during the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Arts (延安文艺座谈会), where he gave his seminal talks.18 Adjusting the Soviet Marxist-Leninist model to the Chinese reality, he outlined his concept of literature as revolutionary activity “in the service for the people” (为人民服务), which had both aesthetic and political consequences for authors after Mao officially became leader of the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Incidentally, 1949 is also the year when socialist realism was adopted as the official artistic and ideological line by the Association of Polish Writers at a forum in Szczecin on January 20–21.

Fortunately, Miłosz soon realized his mistake. After two years of diplomatic service in the US and France, he severed his connections with the communist government and joined the cultural elites in emigration. The long tradition and provisional institutional backup of Polish émigré literature dates back to the Romantic Great Emigration in the nineteenth century, when the country’s partition began, sparking a mass exodus of persecuted intellectuals and artists and prompting them to develop basic modi operandi of national cultural life in exile. Its loosely organized structures, which gradually evolved throughout the following decades, became one of the two crucial pillars that contributed to preserving the continuity of Polish poetry after World War II. The two main centers of activity of the Polish intelligentsia were Jerzy Giedroyć’s journal Culture (Kultura) in Paris and the London-based News (Wiadomości) established by Mieczysław Grydzewski. Culture was relatively liberal and forgiving of those who, like Miłosz,19 had once been seduced by communism and had admitted their mistake, whereas News was perceived as more conservative in its attachment to national Romantic myths; therefore, inevitable frictions and conflicts often emerged between the two publications. They, however, shared the same aim: to preserve the heritage and prompt further development of Polish literature and arts, publishing what was unpublishable in Poland and providing in-country audiences with banned books smuggled through various channels; this phenomenon is broadly known under the Russian term tamizdat (тамиздат, “published there”).

The other crucial pillar of literature under communist rule in Poland was samizdat (самиздат, “self-published”); that is, self-made, unofficial publications of individual texts, journals, and books, usually copied on mimeographs and distributed among authors in “second circulation” (drugi obieg), as “first circulation” (pierwszy obieg) referred to government-approved titles. Second circulation comprised not only literary publications but also political content, including a variety of workers’ magazines and brochures popularizing democratic postulates. Among the second-circulation literary phenomena one should mention, for example, the legendary underground spoken journal NaGłos, whose pun-based title may be loosely translated as “ALoud.” NaGłos was a forum of independent thought in the 1980s. It functioned as a series of regular meetings at the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia in Krakow, during which authors read their work. Each meeting started with a presentation of the cover and ended with the list of contributors.

Unlike Polish poets, Chinese poets had virtually no opportunities to publish abroad. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a large group of young people left China to pursue education in Japan and in the West, including literary reformers such as Lu Xun, Hu Shi, and Guo Moruo. Most of them, however, returned to their homeland to help build it into a modern country. Emigrant circles with some informal structures and regular initiatives, such as the publication of the Today (今天) journal, were only formed after June Fourth, when many prominent authors and scholars were forced to settle abroad. Moreover, international exchange in the PRC was subject to much tighter control than in Central Europe. Therefore, tamizdat, which played a vital role in Poland, was virtually nonexistent in mainland China, and samizdat was the only way to sustain the independent stream of poetry.

Chinese poetry after 1949 was divided into orthodox poetry (正统诗歌)—that is, poetry in line with the officially adopted aesthetic standards and within the official institutional framework—and unorthodox poetry, which was developing unofficially. After the war, many authors representing the so-called first wave of Chinese modernism, who had actively participated in the literary reform of the prewar period, offered their talents “in the service of the people,” joining the ranks of orthodox poets and accepting government positions. This was the case, for example, of Guo Moruo, who held important offices while at the same time remaining a prolific writer and scholar. Of course, not all intellectuals accepted Mao’s vision of literature. The most outspoken opponent of the Party’s cultural policy was the Marxist poet and critic Hu Feng 胡风 (1903–1985), who expressed his views in his “Report on the Real Situation in Literature and Art Since Liberation” (关于几年来文艺实践情况的报告), better known as the “Three-Hundred-Thousand-Word Letter” (三十万言书) submitted to the politburo in 1954. A committed leftist and supporter of literary realism, Hu nevertheless called for the greater autonomy for writers and embracing of their subjective artistic perspectives by officially adopted aesthetics. Firmly rejected by Mao, Hu’s well-argued literary-theoretical propositions soon became a pretext for attacking and imprisoning him on political grounds and launching a campaign against the alleged members of his “clique” as counterrevolutionaries.20 This was followed by a short period of apparent relaxation known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花齐放) during which intellectuals were encouraged to share their opinions about the Party line. Their response was crushing to Mao, who did not expect such a critical assessment, and decided to nip the freedom of expression in the bud by announcing the Anti-Rightist Movement (反右运动) against those who dared to express their dissatisfaction. This resulted in incarceration, sentencing to reform or reeducation at labor camps, banishment to remote rural areas in northern China, and other sanctions targeted at many leading intellectuals and artists.

Meanwhile, the underground poetry scene functioned mostly as secret clubs or salons where unorthodox poets shared their writings and exchanged illegally circulating texts of foreign authors. One of these salons, “X Poetry Society” (X 诗社), was organized by Guo Moruo’s son, Guo Shiying 郭世英 (1942–1968), who was denounced for his activity, persecuted, and driven to suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Another well-known club was “The Sun’s Column” (太阳纵队), established by one of the participants of Guo’s society, Zhang Langlang 张郎郎 (b. 1943). “The Sun’s Column” had, among other things, its own ambitious magazine which published works openly critical of the Party’s politics.21 It, too, was deemed counterrevolutionary, and Zhang was arrested in 1968 and spent the next nine and a half years in prison.22

However, the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命, 1966–1976) disturbed this two-track development of Chinese poetry, putting orthodox and unorthodox authors alike at the mercy of the insatiable Red Guards (红卫兵) in whose eyes any form of intellectual work was tantamount to a crime. During the Decade of Chaos, the veterans of New Poetry, such as Niu Han 牛汉 (1923–2013), Zang Kejia, Mu Dan 穆旦 (1918–1977), Lu Yuan 绿原 (1922–2009), Ai Qing, and others continued their artistic work in hiding or used this time to rethink their understanding of poetry and reemerge as “Returners” (归来者) with new programs in the late 1970s. At the same time, new talents were born and new literary friendships germinated among young people, including the educated youth (知识青年) who shared the generational experience of learning from peasants (向农民学习) in the countryside.23 This was the case for the Baiyangdian Poets (白洋淀诗人)—three Beijing schoolmates, Mang Ke 芒克 (b. 1950), Genzi 根子 (b. 1951), and Duo Duo 多多 (b. 1951), who were sent down (下乡) to Baiyangdian in 1969. The Three Musketeers of Baiyangdian (白洋淀三剑客) spent their time writing what would later be called experimental poetry and secretly reading “gray” and “yellow” books (i.e., foreign works translated into Chinese for internal use by Party officials) smuggled by Genzi from his parents’ collection or obtained at underground literary salons in Beijing. In the late 1970s, they established closer contacts with Bei Dao 北岛 (b. 1949) and Jiang He 江河 (b. 1949) and formed the most famous informal poetry movement in contemporary China: Obscure poetry (朦胧诗).24 When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 and the poetry scene could safely resurface, the confrontation between the Returners and the Obscure poets turned into one of the fiercest debates in Chinese New Poetry, which will be revisited in chapter 2.

In the early years of Deng Xiaoping’s 邓小平 “reform and opening up” (改革开放) policy, when the cultural airspace over China was being demilitarized, a swallow that heralded political thaw arrived from Poland. The first foreign work published in the PRC after the Cultural Revolution was Part III of Mickiewicz’s Romantic drama in verse Forefathers’ Eve. The initiative reportedly came from the prime minister, Zhou Enlai 周恩来, who expressed an interest in the Polish masterpiece. It was translated by a pioneer of Polish literary studies in China, Yi Lijun 伊丽君, under the pseudonym Han Yi 韩逸, which she adopted to protect herself from persecution. She showed great courage and determination, working on Mickiewicz’s masterpiece during her forced reeducation at a labor camp in the countryside after returning from Warsaw, where she had studied Polish language and literature from 1954 to 1960.25

Yi Lijun’s enterprise assumes a symbolic meaning if one considers the unique role the postwar stage interpretations of Forefathers’ Eve III had played in Poland’s struggle against communist rule ten years earlier. In 1968, theatrical performances directed by Kazimierz Dejmek inspired student antigovernment protests; the subsequent intervention of the authorities and attempts to cancel further performances led to a series of antitotalitarian publications and initiatives by the Polish intelligentsia. In 1973, Konrad Swinarski reinterpreted Forefathers’ Eve for the stage, challenging not so much political oppressors as the naive version of the Romantic paradigm with its misguided ideas and ideals, thereby prompting society’s self-reflection and self-awareness.26 Of course, the reception of Forefathers’ Eve in China was much less intense than in Poland, and its social impact was inevitably smaller. Nevertheless, the play was a long-awaited portent of change, which many authors still remember. The work was staged at the China Youth Art Theater and adapted for a radio drama by the People’s Radio.27 It also became one of several links in the chain of events that, in the following years, allowed for the transcription of the Chinese identity discourse into the code of Polish national symbols, myths, phantasms, and traumas, opening the perspective for a conceptual translation of the reality of contemporary China into the Polish historical-cultural topography. We will observe this process of translation in the discussion of the reception and rejection of Miłosz among Chinese poets in chapter 2.

In Poland, the period from 1968 to 1976 marked the peak of activity for the New Wave (Nowa Fala) poets. They disagreed with what they perceived as the excessive aestheticism of younger authors and called for politically engaged writing, emphasizing the ethical aspect of literary creation. To Adam Zagajewski (1945–2021) and Julian Kornhauser (b. 1946), the authors of the programmatic literary-critical book The Unrepresented World (Świat nie przedstawiony, 1974), such engagement meant what they described as “nonnaive realism,” with poetry as a sophisticated commentary on the current national experience. To Stanisław Barańczak (1946–2014) and Ryszard Krynicki (b. 1943), this engagement called for linguistic creativity aimed at freeing the Polish language from the influence of the socialist Newspeak (nowomowa). Ewa Lipska (b. 1945), the only woman associated with the New Wave, explored the political potential of existential irony, and Krzysztof Karasek (b. 1937) turned to cultural-historical themes.

The importance of the New Wave tends to be underestimated in literary-critical discourse and its program is often reduced to artistic intervention against totalitarianism. In fact, among its postulates, one can also point out many universal philosophical concerns which—as Bożena Tokarz demonstrates—partly resonated with the goals of the Western counterculture movement developing at the time in countries like the US, France, and West Germany. Needless to say, Polish authors did not share their Western coevals’ fascination with socialism (and Maoism) and life in communes; instead they craved the capitalism and consumerism that the young Westerners had already become fed up with, but their respective ideals and deeply critical attitudes showed many mutual convergences. One was a painful awareness of the sheer discord between language and reality in public discourse. Westerners observed it in omnipresent commercial advertisements, whereas Polish poets saw it in state propaganda, hence their common calls for authenticity in speech and actions, and emotional—often desperate—attempts to unmask the “great mystification” which had become their natural existential environment.28 Another tangential point between the New Wave and Western counterculture was the poets’ frequent recourse to Zen Buddhism, where the spiritual refugees of communism and capitalism crossed paths.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the New Wave poets themselves have never been particularly enthusiastic about what in Chinese poetry discourse is referred to as “connecting with the West” (与西方接轨). They did not want to turn Polish cities into Paris; instead, they aimed to create and promote a unique quality that would attract Parisians to Poland. Zagajewski and Kornhauser argued that “peripheral culture may liberate literature from backwater condition only if it is able to turn province into the capital of the world.”29 Although they never managed to put these ideals into practice, the New Wave poets were, in fact, the first to underscore the singularity of national poetry as an independent, collective organism.

The year 1976, which was marked by intensified antigovernment strikes and protests among the working classes, was pivotal to younger authors such as Jan Polkowski (b. 1953), Tomasz Jastrun (b. 1950), and Bronisław Maj (b. 1953), the generation whom critic Edward Balcerzan referred to as advocates of “poetry as a frame of mind” (poezja jako samopoczucie). In this case, “frame of mind” meant not so much personal attitudes as social attitudes in Poland, the “psychosphere” of which they were consistently exploring.30 The 1976 Generation’s alleged obsession with national topics and the New Wave’s ethnicism sparked harsh criticism from the Brulion Generation, which took the poetry scene by storm in the late 1980s. In China, a similar role was assumed by the Third Generation (第三代), which rebelled against the Obscure poets.

3 June Fourth and the Polemical Decade of Transformation

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 the two poetries were in the early and enthusiastic stages of what would turn out to be a protracted and stormy process of negotiating a new vision of writing and forming new hierarchies on the literary scenes. In both countries, this process had started in the late 1970s with the New Wave in Poland and Obscure poetry in China. The year 1989 deepened divisions that dated back to the mid-1980s, when the literary influence and moral authority of New Wave and Obscure authors was first openly challenged by younger generations.

In addition to social-political factors, such as the easing of state control and increasingly optimistic attitudes among the people in the 1980s, many cultural and literary phenomena played a role in the transformation of poetry that would gain momentum in the middle of the decade. One of these phenomena, in both Poland and China, was a growing number of translations from modern foreign literatures, especially from Western languages, which launched an avalanche of further changes. For all the differences in social-political environment, the poetry scenes in Poland and China had evolved along near-identical trajectories for about a decade. This is reflected in the two major polemics of the 1990s in which the definition of, and the right to define, national poetry were at stake. I will summarize them in detail, because they contain resonances that constitute promising compairative capital for the joint Polish and Chinese narrative on poetry’s quest for singularity.

In Poland, one of the milestones in the evolution of poetry discourse was the publication of a so-called “blue issue” (July 1986) of the periodical World Literature (Literatura na Świecie), which presented selected works by poets from the New York school, including Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, translated by Piotr Sommer (b. 1948)—editor-in-chief of World Literature and poet, essayist, and idol of many Brulioners31—and Andrzej Sosnowski, then a budding author with revolutionary ambitions. It also featured essays on American poetry by Marjorie Perloff, Leslie Wolf, and David Shapiro, among others. The blue issue was followed by several book-length collections, including the almost legendary 1987 edition of selected poems by O’Hara, Your Singularity (Twoja pojedynczość), in Sommer’s translation. In 1994, a sequel came out, the “black issue” (March 1994), which included several new names. Along with O’Hara and Ashbery, the editors introduced Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Harry Matthews, and Edmund White.32 The New York school, previously almost unknown in Poland, in addition to the American Beat Generation, became a primary source of inspiration for many emerging Polish poets, who did not want to sit back and passively observe how “space is disappearing and your singularity,” to quote the final line of O’Hara’s cult poem “Sleeping on the Wing.”33

The reception of American poetry catalyzed the erosion of the tyrtean mode, as Piotr Śliwiński noted, alluding to Janion’s distinction between tyrtean and messianic-martyrological versions of the Romantic paradigm in Poland.34 At the same time, for all its disengagement and disinterest in public issues, the New York school strengthened the other, messianic-martyrological, mode of Polish Romanticism, entering into complex interactions with the still vivid lore of the “cursed poets” of the 1970s: Rafał Wojaczek (1945–1971) and Edward Stachura (1937–1979). Even if the Polish poets who drew inspiration from American authors did not consider themselves prospective spiritual leaders of their nation, there were many critics, publishers, and scholars who launched an informal search for a poeta vates. Indifferent, self-sufficient individuals who were focused on their individual singularities became, ironically, principal candidates for this role in the process of defining national poetry. Marcin Świetlicki (b. 1961), a protagonist of chapter 3, is the most evident case in point.

After 1989, participants and observers of the poetry scene in Poland desperately sought new justifications of poetry’s significance in the country. Poets were no longer considered indispensable as bards of independence and full-time chroniclers of the “besieged city,” to recall the title of Zbigniew Herbert’s 1982 collection. The new situation brought, among other things, the dethronement of the Old Masters, who had been regarded as witnesses of the century and the living links that connected the culture of socialism-stricken Poland to the idealized interwar period, the only two decades of a free Poland since the partitions of the late eighteenth century. Among them were Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Wisława Szymborska, but the rebellion of the young poets was targeted mostly against the former two, as Różewicz and Szymborska never aimed to become voices or icons of the nation. In fairness, Miłosz was not eager to take up this role either, but he had a tendency to “talk big,” and this was the kind of diction that the new generation found particularly difficult to accept. Only Herbert had some actual aspirations to moral leadership. However, it was perhaps because of his unambiguous ideological stand and a putatively clear message of his poetry that he was perceived as a relatively easy target. Some painful blows were also landed on the New Wave poets and on the Generation of 1976. Among the latter, one should mention especially Jan Polkowski, who became the addressee of the most-quoted poetic manifesto of the 1990s, namely Marcin Świetlicki’s “For Jan Polkowski” (Dla Jana Polkowskiego, 1990):

For Jan Polkowski
It’s time to shut tight the little cardboard door and open up the window,
open the window and ventilate the room.
So far it’s always been successful, but this time
it is not.
The only case,
when after poems
stench remains.
The poetry of slaves feeds on ideas.
Ideas are watery substitutes of blood.
Protagonists were in prisons,
and the worker is ugly, but touchingly
useful—in the poetry of slaves.
In the poetry of slaves, trees have crosses
inside—under the bark—made from barbed wire.
How easily a slave travels a dauntingly
long and almost impossible road
from the letter to God, it takes only an instant, like
spitting—in the poetry of slaves.
Instead of saying: I have a toothache, I’m
hungry, I’m lonely, two of us, four of us,
our street—they say quietly: Wanda
Wasilewska, Cyprian Norwid,
Józef Piłsudski, Ukraine, Lithuania,
Thomas Mann, the Bible, and obviously something
in Yiddish.
If the dragon still lived in this city today
they would glorify the dragon—or ensconced
in their hideouts, they would write poems
—little punches threatening the dragon
(even love poems would be written
in dragon letters …)
I’m looking in the eye of the dragon
and shrug my shoulders. It’s June. Clearly.
In the early afternoon there was a storm. Dusk falls first
on perfectly square city squares.
Dla Jana Polkowskiego
Trzeba zatrzasnąć drzwiczki z tektury i otworzyć okno,
otworzyć okno i przewietrzyć pokój.
Zawsze się udawało, ale teraz się nie
udaje. Jedyny przypadek,
kiedy po wierszach
pozostaje smród.
Poezja niewolników żywi się ideą,
idee to wodniste substytuty krwi.
Bohaterowie siedzieli w więzieniach,
a robotnik jest brzydki, ale wzruszająco
użyteczny—w poezji niewolników.
W poezji niewolników drzewa mają krzyże
wewnątrz—pod korą—z kolczastego drutu.
Jakże łatwo niewolnik przebywa upiornie
długą i prawie niemożliwą drogę
od litery do Boga, to trwa krótko, niby
splunięcie—w poezji niewolników.
Zamiast powiedzieć: ząb mnie boli, jestem
głodny, samotny, my dwoje, nas czworo,
nasza ulica—mówią cicho: Wanda
Wasilewska, Cyprian Kamil Norwid,
Józef Piłsudski, Ukraina, Litwa,
Tomasz Mann, Biblia i koniecznie coś
w jidysz.
Gdyby w tym mieście nadal mieszkał smok
wysławialiby smoka—albo kryjąc się
w swoich kryjówkach pisaliby wiersze
—maleńkie piąstki grożące smokowi
(nawet miłosne wiersze pisane by były
smoczymi literami …)
Patrzę w oko smoka
i wzruszam ramionami. Jest czerwiec. Wyraźnie.
Tuż po południu była burza. Zmierzch zapada najpierw
na idealnie kwadratowych skwerach.35

Świetlicki’s poem says a lot about the young rebels’ attitude toward the national poetry tradition; it also indirectly reveals the reasons behind their interest in American literature. This was probably the first time that Polish modern authors had turned to the West, not for the light of civilization, high culture, or development, but for a breath of wilderness, to “ventilate the room” cluttered with various high-cultural developments displayed like fancy gadgets from all over the world.

The association of “Western influences” with the sphere of popular culture in Poland may be interpreted as a manifestation of the gradual decolonization of the nation’s mentality and a casting off of the deeply rooted self-deprecatory hierarchies that considered the West the domain of “high” things and Poland and the territories beyond its eastern border the domain of “low” things. One may recall, for example, Herbert’s essay volumes Barbarian in the Garden (Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie, 1962), The Labyrinth on the Sea (Labirynt nad morzem, 2000), and Still Life with a Bridle (Martwa natura z wędzidłem, 1993), in which the author describes his sojourns in Western Europe from the position of a guest from an undercivilized world who visits sacred temples of art in Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Miłosz, likewise, speaking of his first visit to Paris, in “Rue Descartes” describes himself as a “young barbarian” in the capital of the world.36 Among the authors born in the 1960s, the demand for Western high culture for some time disappeared almost entirely.

It is also interesting to compare the reception of American poetry in Poland with the reception of Polish poetry in America—as if the two countries made a mutually beneficial exchange, importing what they needed from each other most. Krzysztof Siwczyk (b. 1977) cites his conversation with Kacper Bartczak (b. 1972), poet and specialist in American poetry, with some observations on this phenomenon:

I’ve always wondered about the splendor and fame of Zbigniew Herbert in America. I love to read what Miłosz has to say of it. A sort of submissiveness and admiration with which Americans received this work full of pathos, displaying the struggle with history and myth, is incredible. Almost as if Herbert put all those American butterflies, including Ashbery and Koch, in their place with the Decalogue in his hand. I’ve once asked Kacper Bartczak about this phenomenon. He answered straightforwardly: “Come on, they were sick and tired of this flow chart! They finally got a serious dose of serious poetry!” Serious poetry, that is the spirit of a stouthearted prince, ethical signposts, and not the moral and epistemological arbitrariness of narratives such as “the New Spirit” of Ashbery. And in Poland it was apparently the contrary. Ashbery “unblocked” perhaps not only Zadura, but also many of the “snappiest,” to use Sommer’s word, new poets for whom the translations [of American poetry] became a kind of alibi justifying their exhaustion with the appeals with which they were bombarded by Herbert.37

The name of the generation of revolutionists comes from the Brulion magazine (also written as brulion or bruLion), around which the leaders of the Polish poetic coup gathered. The title means literally “scrap paper,” but I use the original Polish form due to its simplicity and regular presence in international discourse on Polish poetry. Brulion was launched in 1986 by Robert Tekieli, who also served as its editor-in-chief. The magazine introduced Polish readers to many phenomena that, at the time, were seen as alternative culture; for instance, techno music, cyberpunk, yoga, and all sorts of fashionable performative forms of literature and arts. It also exposed readers to new and controversial topics of social relevance, including feminism, homosexuality, New Age, consumerism, and drug legalization. Along with Świetlicki, Brulion’s team included authors such as Marcin Baran (b. 1963), Marcin Sendecki (b. 1967), Krzysztof Koehler (b. 1963), Krzysztof Jaworski (b. 1966), and Jacek Podsiadło (b. 1964), to name the most active. In 1991, Brulion published an anthology of twenty-nine young authors loosely affiliated with the magazine Barbarians Have Come (Przyszli barbarzyńcy) whose title alludes to the poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Since then, the name “Barbarians,” enthusiastically taken up by critics, has stuck. The next year, another collection came out, a two-volume anthology titled After Wojaczek (Po Wojaczku). Its first volume, subtitled Anthology of Polish Poetry 1971–1991 and edited by Kamil Ratyniecki, featured a greater number of recognized authors ranging from Old Masters and Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II) to the New Wave and almost forgotten early postwar avant-gardes and several lesser-known “cursed poets.”38 The second volume, After Wojaczek: Brulion and Independent Authors (Po Wojaczku. Brulion i niezależni) edited by Jarosław Klejnocki, promoted the work of the emerging generation.39 Thus Wojaczek was tacitly elected a patron of the poetic revolution, and his suicide became a foundational myth for new poetry in this peculiar blend of Polish messianic-martyrological Romanticism and the “butterflyish” (to allude to Bartczak’s observation) American postmodernism.

Many prominent poets and critics were skeptical about this new “barbaric” mode in poetry.40 Two texts that, as Marcin Jaworski argues, played a crucial role in sparking the nationwide polemic were authored by the New Wave poet Julian Kornhauser, whose concerns revolved around the lack of Ideas and Ideals in the Brulioners’ poetics.41 Brulion’s three Marcins (Świetlicki, Sendecki, and Baran) replied with “A Semi-Final Poem” (Wiersz półfinałowy) written jointly before a 1992 World Cup game, in which they ironically declared that they would be glad to write poems with some decent ideas, but “behind the window no idea waits. / Yeah, no, fuck all, idea” (żadna nie stoi za oknem. / Tak, za oknem ni chuja idei). In the following stanzas each describes an everyday landscape of a city street as seen from the windows of their respective rooms.42 The discussion continued for several months in Catholic Weekly (Tygodnik Powszechny) and in several high-quality literary journals. Among the contributors were critics such as Grzegorz Musiał, Natasza Goerke, Rafał Grupiński, Jerzy Jarzębski, Krzysztof Varga, Grażyna Borkowska, and others. It would have likely died down after this semi-academic exchange were it not for Wojciech Wencel (b. 1972) whose polemical temperament immediately heated the atmosphere.

Wencel, who was then still a student, became the leader of the poetic “right wing” after several of his zealously conservative essays were published in 1995. This right-wing movement was characterized by strong attachment to traditional and religious values and a pursuit of formal perfection Wencel proposed as an antidote against what he considered a crisis of poetry caused by the arrival of the Barbarians. The polemic played out in the Poznań-based biweekly magazine New Stream (Nowy Nurt). Though the magazine had only existed for about three years at the time (from May 1994 to June 1996), its significance in shaping the poetic field, its forces, and hierarchies cannot be emphasized enough. It is in New Stream that Wencel published his most influential article in the dispute: “Problems with Language” (Kłopoty z językiem). Karol Maliszewski (b. 1960) replied to it in “Our Classicists, Our Barbarians” (Nasi klasycyści, nasi barbarzyńcy), an essay that has weighed heavily on the history of contemporary poetry in Poland. Maliszewski, both a poet and among the most prolific poetry critics, concisely characterized the poetics of the two emerging factions. His sympathies were generally on the side of the Barbarians, but he nevertheless tried to paint a balanced picture. This is how he summarized the stances in the polemic:

Classicizing authors [autorzy klasycyzujący]: Yes (to this world), restraint, trust, “primacy of forms,” belief in history (also literary history), antirealism and objectivism, prioritizing “oldness”: preference for forms rooted in culture, openly adopted authorities, “tradition says,” illusion of a pursuit for perfection (living up to a role model), emphasizing togetherness, that is, evocation of a timeless community, balance hinged on well-proven values, observation of existence (describabilism), pulchrism, rhythmism, and new rhyme-making, expanding and illuminating anthropological horizon: positive metaphysics. Belief in a bis-reality, basing oneself on mediated data. Linguistic passivism, that is, treating language as a medium that preserves the timeless, symbolic stability.

Barbarizing authors [autorzy barbaryzujący]: No (to this world), lack of restraint, mistrust, “primacy of content,” belief that history (including literary history) is a fiction—it is a history of specific expressions, confessions, concrete beings, and appearings; realism, sensualism, prioritizing freshness, newness (discovery); rather unclear authorities, “tradition doesn’t say”; illusion of rejection of any form of perfection and lack of role models, emphasizing oneness, singularity, the present, participating in being (witness), desperately searching for and testing values, turpism, crippled rhythm, cagey rhyme (remote or inexact, if any). Belief in reality, basing oneself on directly available data. Linguistic iconoclasm, colloquial semantic anchorage. Darkening and narrowing the horizon: negative metaphysics.43

The division was reinforced in the subsequent years as new voices joined the polemic, including Klejnocki who took the side of the Classicists (klasycyści)—referred to by some as the “Classics” (klasycy)—scolding Maliszewski for primitive simplifications, and the Brulion poet Krzysztof Koehler, whose writing also gravitated toward “classicizing” diction. All in all, it is difficult to say who won, but looking back with the hindsight history affords us, it seems that the legacy of the Barbarians proved more convincing for the subsequent generations of poets. Interestingly, the Brulion magazine, the hotbed of “barbaric” ideas in Polish poetry, underwent a conversion to conservatism in the final years of its existence, following its editor-in-chief, who at some point had converted to radical patriotic Catholicism, and was gradually transformed into a tribune of rightists.

In China, the late 1970s and 1980s were marked by the domination of Obscure poetry, whose popularity in society was unprecedented and still remains unmatched in the contemporary history of Chinese poetry. Its commonly recognized significance is reflected in the notion of “post-Obscure” poetry (后朦胧诗), which is sometimes used to refer to everything that came chronologically after the movement’s peak, be it as a direct response to it or without a clear causal connection. A thick two-volume anthology edited by Wan Xia 万夏 and Xiao Xiao 潇潇 in 1993 titled Collected Post-Obscure Poetry (后朦胧诗全集) certainly contributed to the popularization of this category.44 In 1978, the Obscure poets, unwelcome in state-funded literary publications, launched Today (今天), one of the first and certainly one of the most influential unofficial journals after the Cultural Revolution. Today was shut down due to censorship in 1980 and only revived in 1990 in emigration. In the meantime, however, smaller self-published and often quite ephemeral journals started to spring up all around the country. Most of them were associated with specific “poetry schools” (诗派), “poetry societies” (诗社), or “isms” (主义) proclaimed in manifestos which proudly opened the first issues of the periodicals.45 Two titles that will return in the following chapters are Not-Not (非非) edited by Zhou Lunyou 周伦佑 (b. 1952) in Chengdu, and Them (他们) edited by Yu Jian 于坚 (b. 1954) and Han Dong 韩东 (b. 1961) in Nanjing.

In the 1980s, several attempts were made to unite the nationwide avant-garde movement through common events and publications, such as the “Grand Exhibition of Modern Poetry Groups on China’s Poetry Scene 1986” (中国诗坛 1986 现代诗群体大展) and the subsequent book, A Grand Overview of Chinese Modernist Poetry Groups 1986–1988 (中国现代诗群大观), compiled by Xu Jingya 徐敬亚 (b. 1949) and others and published in 1988 by the Shanghai Tongji University Publishing House, or The Third Generation Poets Exploratory Poetry Selection (第三代诗人探索诗选, 1989).46 Yet, as differences and tensions between various local poetry centers and especially between Beijing and the “peripheries” accumulated, such common endeavors led to ever more acute conflicts, which escalated in 1998 after the publication of a poetry volume of the anthology A Funeral Portrait of Bygone Years: Literature of the Nineties (岁月的遗照: 九十年代文学书系).

Around the mid-1980s, among the plethora of new artistic projects and programs, two increasingly distinct general standpoints known as Intellectual poetry (知识分子诗歌) and Popular poetry (民间诗歌) started to emerge. The former had its headquarters in the capital city, while the latter was scattered across the “Poetry Rivers and Lakes” (诗江湖), as the Chinese “provincial” unofficial poetry scene is sometimes called (an alternative translation of the term is “Poetry Vagabonds”). In his monograph, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money, Maghiel van Crevel characterizes the two camps as sitting at the Elevated and Earthly end of the aesthetic spectrum respectively and offers a brief summary of the dichotomies that underlay the split in China’s poetry scene:

heroic v quotidian
literary v colloquial
cultural v anti-, pre- or non-cultural
lyrical v anti-lyrical
mythical v anti-mythical
sacred v mundane
utopian v realist
absolute v relative
elitist v ordinary
academic v authentic
Westernized v indigenous
central v local
Northern v Southern
mind v body
intellectual v popular47

Except from “Westernized v indigenous” and “Northern v Southern,” van Crevel’s dichotomies more or less overlap with the dichotomies on the Polish poetry scene identified by Maliszewski, with Intellectual poetry a Chinese counterpart of the Classicists, and Popular poetry a counterpart of the Barbarians. Whereas the “Northern v Southern” exception stems from the general difference in the cultural geographies of Poland and China, the “Westernized v indigenous” exception requires some elaboration. Unlike in Poland, where Western inspirations contributed to the surge of the Barbarian tide, in China, Western poetry remained a source of “civilized” poetics for the Intellectuals. On the one hand, one may argue that there was still a relatively strong Western complex among Chinese poets in the 1990s, especially among the Intellectual camp, for whom Euro-American culture was a near-synonym of high culture. This is perhaps an echo of the Hegelian teleological model of historical development adopted by prewar modernists, with Western culture seen as evincing a higher level of advancement, something China was yet to pursue. On the other hand, we should not forget that Western “low” culture (i.e., popular culture) reached China much later than it reached Poland. In Poland, it was present, especially in music, during the entire postwar period, so by the 1990s the West was already largely demythologized. In China, it began to spread only in the mid-1980s. Someone who played a crucial role in this process was the rock musician Cui Jian 崔健 (b. 1961), whose ambiguous status in poetry discourse, as an object of interest to both the Intellectual and Popular factions, will be discussed in chapter 3.

While it is true that the antagonisms between the two groups on the Chinese poetry scene started several years earlier, 1989 brought two crucial sets of circumstances that made the division practically irreversible. The first was the suicide of Haizi 海子 (1964–1989) in March and the death of Luo Yihe 骆一禾 (1961–1989) in April, the latter reportedly due to exhaustion caused by being on long-term hunger strike at Tiananmen Square and/or involvement in editing Haizi’s posthumous poetry collection together with their mutual friend Xi Chuan 西川 (b. 1963). The second was the massacre on June Fourth and the subsequent unprecedented wave of emigration among authors, artists, and scholars. These tragic events paved the way for a model of heroic poethood that was adopted by the Intellectuals and pitilessly ridiculed by the Populars. Opponents of the Intellectual poets saw them as imitators and usurpers of the legacy of the Obscure movement. When Wang Jiaxin 王家新, after losing his job as the editor of Poetry Monthly (诗刊), moved to London for less than two years (1992–1993), he became the main target of the Popular camp’s attacks. Yi Sha 伊沙 (b. 1966) called him a pseudo-exile (伪流亡者) and Shen Haobo 沈浩波 (b. 1976) addressed him with the following tirade:

Granted, Wang Jiaxin’s “Pasternak” is a good piece of work, but that’s all. In most of his poems, the best lines are always those in quotation marks (and what he quotes is other people’s poetry!). He is always in London or in Russia, always pouring out his Brodsky, his Pasternak, his Kafka—he simply doesn’t grow on Chinese soil! All day long, over and over again, he says “exile” “exile” “exile,” but the problem is: who is it has exiled you, Wang Jiaxin? You’re not Bei Dao, you’re not Duoduo, you’re not Brodsky, and you will always be that overcautious Wang Jiaxin, imitating the Russians with that big scarf ‘round your neck, Wang Jiaxin!

Translated by Maghiel van Crevel48

Perhaps the mutual jostling would have remained a small family dispute within the Third Generation if it had not been for critics constantly turning up the heat. Similar to Karol Maliszewski in the confrontation between the Barbarians and the Classicists, the poet and critic Cheng Guangwei 程光炜 played a key role in the dispute between the Intellectual and Popular poets. Cheng was the editor of A Funeral Portrait of Bygone Years and the author of the controversial foreword “Journey with Unknown Destination” (不知所终的旅行). In the collection, which is presented as representative of the entire poetry scene of the 1990s, Cheng included only Intellectual authors, and in the introduction he dwelled extensively on the importance of foreign literature in the development of Chinese poetry:

On the one hand, we look to Pound, Eliot, Auden, Yeats, Miłosz, Mandelstam, not to mention the biases and ever-changing tastes of foreign sinologists, and we attempt to establish what is in fact the fiction of a “tradition” of modern poetry in Chinese; on the other, in our heart of hearts, in the insight into Han culture and language that is carved into our bones, we lack any and all confidence regarding this “tradition,” which is built on sand. We are sufficiently vigilant vis-à-vis the “international poetry stage” but at the same time yearn for recognition on that very stage, to use this as a standard for greatness in poets.

Translated by Maghiel van Crevel49

Cheng’s piece generated a series of angry responses from the Popular poets and further ripostes from the Intellectuals. The culmination of the polemic was the poetry conference in the Panfeng Hotel in Beijing in mid-April 1999 during which the two factions crossed swords. Their direct confrontation catapulted the entire debate onto the first pages of influential cultural and literary magazines like Poetry Exploration (诗探索) and Beijing Literature (北京文学), among others; articles also appeared in mainstream publications such as Beijing Daily (北京日报), Southern Weekly (南方周末), and Science Daily (科学日报), making the polemic a public issue. Van Crevel lists 120 literary-critical pieces that appeared between April 1999 and January 2001, many of them written in an arrogant, sarcastic tone.50

As was the case in the polemic between the Barbarians and the Classicists, it is not possible to indicate a winner in the feud between the Intellectuals and the Populars. By and large, it seems as though, like in Poland, the overall situation of the poetry scene in China lends itself to descriptive categories closer to the Earthly than the Elevated end of the aesthetic spectrum,51 and the emerging grassroot movements and poetics are now receiving increased international attention. On the other hand, most positions in leading academic and cultural institutions in China today are held by former Intellectual poets and younger continuators of the Intellectual poetic legacy who thus have an arguably larger impact on the forming of literary canons.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, a new trend in the Intellectual-Popular dynamic has become increasingly visible: the Third Generation seems to be gradually reuniting to face new challenges posed especially by the development of new media and digital culture. For instance, in 2013, Yu Jian launched what he hoped to become a regular book series: Poetry and Thought (诗与思). In the two volumes of essays published to date, former adversaries from both camps together ponder the role of poetry in the new, hypermodern reality.52 Another common front can be found in the reaction of the Chinese poetry community to the debut book by AI poet Xiao Bing 小冰 in May 2017, which I will discuss in the final chapter. While younger authors were enthusiastic about this new technological development, some even competing against a bot in a TV show, the Third Generation spoke out, almost in one voice, against such experiments.53

The two nationwide polemics echoed for many years in literary-critical discourse in Poland and China alike. Nonetheless, in Polish literature, the showdown between the Classicists and the Barbarians quickly turned into a sort of a legend with limited impact on the actual shape of the discussion among authors representing the younger generation. By contrast, in China, those born in the 1970s still remained, minimally in the eyes of critics, divided and defined by the old dichotomy, as will be substantiated in chapter 5. There, I will also provide a more detailed account of the social-political context of the postpolemic stage in both countries.

4 From Brotherhood in Socialism to Elective Affinities

To date, contemporary Chinese poets have been far more interested in contemporary Polish poetry than the other way around. This is reflected, among other things, in the number, profile, and authorship of translations. There are a considerable number of book-length translations of contemporary Polish poets in Chinese, particularly of works by Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, plus several books and countless scattered renditions of Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Adam Zagajewski published in various literary magazines and on internet platforms. Their quality varies from amateurish to impeccable. Zagajewski, for instance, has his translators to thank for two prestigious poetry awards received in 2013: the Poetry and People International Poetry Prize (诗歌与人国际诗歌奖) and the Zhongkun International Poetry Prize (中坤国际诗歌奖), which is sometimes referred to as China’s Nobel Prize in Poetry.

Some of these translations were made directly from the Polish, mostly by scholars from the Chair of Polish Studies at Beijing Foreign Languages University, such as Yi Lijun, Zhang Zhenhui 张振辉, and Zhao Gang 赵刚, and by Yang Deyou 杨德友 from Shanxi University. Some have also been made by nonacademic translators, including Lin Hongliang 林洪亮 and Wei-Yun Lin-Górecka 林薇昀 (from Taiwan). Very common, too, are relay translations via English, eagerly undertaken by poets, especially those associated with the Intellectual camp, including Zhang Shuguang 张曙光, Xi Chuan, Wang Jiaxin, Huang Canran 黄灿然, Hu Sang 胡桑, Li Yiliang 李以亮, and others. Moreover, inspirations from the five Polish authors mentioned above have deeply infiltrated Chinese poetics. Later in this section, we will observe this phenomenon in Wang Jiaxin’s intertextual dialogue with Zagajewski. In the next chapter, I will also discuss Miłosz’s role as an “adoptive father” of Chinese contemporary poetry.

The only book-length—or, actually, chapbook-length—translations of a Polish poet of a younger generation that I have managed to identify are Tomasz Różycki’s (b. 1970) Scorched Maps (Zapomniane mapy, 被遗忘的地图, English translation by Mira Rosenthal, Chinese translation by Zhao Gang) and Julia Fiedorczuk’s (b. 1975) Orion’s Shoulder (Ramię Oriona, 猎户臂, English translation by Bill Johnston, Chinese translation by Lin-Górecka) published in Hong Kong on the occasion of the Hong Kong Poetry Nights, in which the two poets participated in 2013 and 2017 respectively.

The number of translations in Polish of Chinese postwar poetry pales in comparison. And although the diversity of these translations is arguably greater, this does not necessarily testify to, or result in, Polish readers having a broader knowledge of Chinese contemporary verse. Among the individual collections of modern authors, one should mention Bei Dao’s A Window over a Cliff (Okno na urwisku) in Izabella Łabędzka’s translation from 2001, small and already almost unavailable collections of Wang Yin’s 王寅 (b. 1962) Call by Name, Tears (Zawołaj po imieniu, łzy / 直呼其名吧,泪水) and Zhu Hao’s 朱浩 A Lonely Stroller (Samotny spacerowicz) in Jarek Zawadzki’s translation from 2009, and the Selected Poems (Wiersze wybrane) of Duo Duo in Małgorzata Religa’s translation from 2013, published on the occasion of the Miłosz Poetry Festival in Krakow, to which Duo Duo was invited. Earlier on, in 2011, Bei Dao was a guest at the festival as well, and Wang Yin and Zhu Hao visited Katowice for the Ars Cameralis Festival in 2007. In 2015, Religa published Jidi Majia’s 吉狄马加 (b. 1961) Words and Flames (Słowa i płomienie); the same year Huang Lihai’s 黄礼孩 (b. 1975) Who Runs Faster Than a Lightning (Kto biega jeszcze szybciej niż błyskawica / 谁跑得比闪电还快) appeared in Wu Lan’s 乌兰 translation with Zagajewski’s preface. In 2017 and 2018 respectively, I threw my modest contributions into the pot: a selection of Yu Jian’s poetry Come In World (Świecie wejdź / 世界啊 你进来吧) and Li Hao’s 李浩 (b. 1984) collection Homecoming (Powrót do domu / 还乡). In June 2021, shortly before the submission of the final manuscript of this book, an anthology of works by nine laureates of the Chinese Lu Xun Literary Award was published, with an introduction by Jidi Majia. The collection is titled Lights in Amber (Światła w bursztynie) and was translated jointly by Małgorzata Religa and Katarzyna Sarek. A two-volume anthology in my translation including works by the Third Generation and younger authors is currently in the making, and will be completed in the coming years.

The above books were translated from Chinese by academics with a background in sinology, and they caused little resonance on the poetry scene. Two exceptions are Huang Lihai’s collection, with an introduction by Zagajewski, and the poetry of Jidi Majia, which drew the attention of the poet Dariusz Tomasz Lebioda, who subsequently translated into Polish three of Majia’s collections from the English: Rites of Eternity (Ryty wieczności, 2016), Snow Panthera (Śnieżna pantera, 2017), and Blackness and Silence (Czerń i cisza, 2018); in 2019, Lebioda published a monograph titled Eternal Fire: Life and Works of Jidi Majia (Odwieczny ogień. Życie i twórczość Jidiego Majii).54 This last work is currently being translated into Chinese by Zhang Zhenhui.55 The relationship between Zagajewski and Huang and between Lebioda and Majia extends beyond just one book; in both cases the poets are/were personal friends. Zagajewski’s Poetry and People award was founded by a periodical edited by Huang, and the award ceremony became the occasion on which the two authors first met. Lebioda visited China as well. In 2009, he participated in an exchange program between European and Chinese authors. Before he undertook the translation of Jidi Majia’s poetry, the two had certainly met at least once, as Lebioda had been on the jury of HOMER, The European Medal of Poetry, which was awarded to Jidi Majia in 2016. In 2018, Majia was awarded Tadeusz Miciński’s PHOENIX Poetry Prize, founded by the Toruń/Bydgoszcz branch of the Polish Writers’ Association chaired by Lebioda. Another example of a poet translating another poet is Wioletta Grzegorzewska’s rendition of selected works by the Chinese migrant worker author Xu Lizhi 许立志 (1990–2014): Nekrolog orzeszka ziemnego (Obituary for a Peanut, 2017).

This list is certainly not exhaustive since it does not include, for example, a number of scattered publications in periodicals, but it gives an idea of the consistency of Chinese readers’ interest in a specific kind of Polish poetry and the comparative randomness of Polish audiences’ interest in Chinese poetry. In our personal conversations and sometimes when introducing me to others, Wang Jiaxin used to repeat that Poland, “just like China, is a country of poetry,” that Poland, like China, is a poor country, which is why it has raised so many good poets. This is merely an anecdote, of course, but—questionable causal logic aside—it confirms what can be otherwise observed in poetic texts: in Chinese poetry’s search for identity and singularity, Poland has been perceived as China’s fellow sufferer, especially by the poets of the Third Generation who experienced the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and June Fourth. At the same time, Polish authors have tended to see China as a distant Other, not necessarily hostile, but one that may serve as a (counter)point of reference in the process of self-definition, or as a utopian asylum into which one can escape social-political reality.

This difference in approach is visible, for example, in the poetry of Wang Jiaxin and Adam Zagajewski. Commenting on Zagajewski’s work, Wang explains his success among Chinese audiences thus: “besides the beauty of his poems and humanist consolation they offer, this might be because of their spiritual character (精神品质) and moral responsibility that are specific to East European authors.”56 To Wang, Zagajewski’s work contains traits of Eastern Europeanness (东欧性), which manifests itself in the abundance of “snow and silence” in his writings, and in the ability to cohabit with ghosts of the past.57 At the same time, confronted with Miłosz, an unmatchable, “strong poet,” in the Bloomian sense of the term, Zagajewski is in Wang’s opinion a “weak poet.” This allows Wang to identify “a spiritual kin” (精神同类) in him.

Wang himself, too, translated, as he imprecisely recalls, “ten, twenty” poems by Zagajewski, including “The Swallows of Auschwitz” (Jaskółki Oświęcimia/奥斯维辛燕子), “Blizzard” (Zawieja / 风暴雪), and “Three Histories” (Trzy historie / 三种历史), a selection that says a lot about his reception of the Polish author.58 His melancholy Romantic interpretation of Zagajewski’s writing (and Polish poetry in general) is also reflected in Wang’s poetic triptych “On the German-Polish Border” (在德波边境) from 2011,59 written after his stay near Görlitz/Zgorzelec in the house of his friend, a Belgian visual artist. Its motto is borrowed from Zagajewski’s “Poems on Poland” (Wiersze o Polsce, 1982):

którym żywią się czarne orły, głodni
cesarze, Trzecia Rzesza i Trzeci Rzym.
on which feed black eagles, hungry
emperors, the Third Reich, and the Third Rome.

Notably, Wang uses the decontextualized quote in a sense that seems to be precisely the opposite of Zagajewski’s intention. Zagajewski’s work is ironic, filled with subtle mockery targeted at Polish people who, through poetry (and in other ways), export a self-victimizing image of their own homeland abroad, and also at the foreign authors who buy into this illusionary narrative and write about Poland in a semi-exoticizing and semi-Romanticizing way. The full poem reads:

Poems on Poland
I read poems on Poland written
by foreign poets. Germans and Russians
have not only guns, but also
ink, pens, some heart, and a lot
of imagination. Poland in their poems
reminds me of an audacious unicorn
which feeds on the wool of tapestries, it is
beautiful, weak, and imprudent. I don’t know
what the mechanism of illusion is based on,
but even I, a sober reader,
am enraptured by that fairy-tale defenseless land
on which feed black eagles, hungry
emperors, the Third Reich, and the Third Rome.
Translated by Renata Gorczynski60
Wiersze o Polsce
Czytam wiersze o Polsce pisane
przez obcych poetów. Niemcy i Rosjanie
mają nie tylko karabiny, lecz także
atrament, pióra, trochę serca i dużo
wyobraźni. Polska w ich wierszach
przypomina zuchwałego jednorożca,
który żywi się wełną gobelinów, jest
piękna, słaba i nierozważna. Nie wiem,
na czym polega mechanizm złudzenia,
ale i mnie, trzeźwego czytelnika,
zachwyca ten baśniowy, bezbronny kraj,
którym żywią się czarne orły, głodni
cesarze, Trzecia Rzesza i Trzeci Rzym.61

In “On the German-Polish Border,” Wang Jiaxin actually does the same thing that the “foreign poets” anonymously invoked by Zagajewski did. The first part of Wang’s triptych may look like an attempt to humorously dismantle the Romantic paradigm that weighs so heavily on Polish poetry. Romanticism is represented by the hussars (see section 1 of this chapter) engrossed in Chopin’s music:

After crossing a bridge from Görlitz
you find yourself in Polish Zgorzelec
The Neisse River has become a meandering border
A river separates also
two poets
Zagajewski and Benn
separates, that is connects
a river once peaceful once furious
flows between us
Oh Poland, your hussars
still waving their sabers to the sounds of Chopin’s Polonaise
only the helmeted sentry on the bridge
have long switched to another business
the black market trade

Parodying hussars and Chopin, Wang indeed hits at the very heart of Polish Romanticism. The dismantled great narrative leads him to the same place where it led Western deconstructionists—to the fragmentation of the subject and the disintegration of the vision of the world. Yet, in Wang’s poem, this split vision lacks the postmodernist dynamic, the element of deconstructionist play. The text, instead of disseminating and absorbing new contexts that “defer” the arrival of its meaning, to use Derrida’s jargon, congeals in this exilic model of subjectivity, a new myth to replace the discredited Romantic-heroic one. In the second part of the triptych, Wang has a “translingual” conversation with animals and ghosts, to whom no national borders exist:

Wonderful world
every day at dawn fawns of unclear citizenship
together with little squirrels prowl around the garden
every night I stay alone with ghosts
trudging between several languages
do I need interpreters? I seem to understand
a hymn of praise that floats to me from a nearby chapel
without translation

However, this conversation does not alleviate his loneliness either and does not help him break out of stagnation. Conversely, it seems to be deepening his snow-colored nostalgia, which he experiences in part two of “On the German-Polish Border.”

In part three, Wang continues his attempts to dispel the lofty atmosphere by interspersing the story with details, interjecting random observations that “Polish bread is cheaper than German bread” (波兰的面包比德国的便宜) and “German women are slimmer than Polish women” (德国的女孩比波兰的苗条). Eventually, however, he returns to the idea of (Polish) poetry that is carved in his mind: “Polish coffee as Polish poetry / always half cup of bitter grounds” (而波兰的咖啡,像是波兰的诗歌 / 竟带有半杯苦渣). It may seem like the poet is finally managing to spit out these bitter grounds and take a fresh look at the reality around him. In the final stanza, a reflection on the poetry-writing process as one of destabilization and renegotiation of the order of the world emerges. Still, ultimately this rethinking comes down to the remapping of the author’s own spiritual condition on Polish territory:

There, at the very bottom of our selves
if I write a poem
every line
will repeat the meanders of the borderline

In contrast to Wang’s interpretation of Polish poetry, let us look at Zagajewski’s interpretation of Chinese poetry in a work titled “Chinese Poem” from the collection Fiery Land (Ziemia ognista, 1994):

Chinese Poem
I read a Chinese poem
written a thousand years ago.
The author talks about the rain
that fell all night
on the bamboo roof of his boat
and the peace that finally
settled in his heart.
Is it just coincidence
that it’s November again, with fog
and a leaden twilight?
Is it just chance
that someone else is living?
Poets attach great importance
to prizes and success
but autumn after autumn
tears leaves from the proud trees
and if anything remains
it’s only the soft murmur of the rain
in poems
neither happy nor sad.
Only purity can’t be seen,
and evening, when both light and shadow
forget us for a moment,
busily shuffling mysteries.
Translated by Clare Cavanagh62
Chiński wiersz
Czytałem chiński wiersz
napisany przed tysiącem lat.
Autor opowiada o deszczu
padającym przez całą noc
na bambusowy dach łodzi
i o spokoju, który nareszcie
zagościł w jego sercu.
Czy to zbieg okoliczności,
że znowu jest listopad i mgła
i ołowiany zmierzch?
Czy to przypadek,
że znowu ktoś żyje?
Poeci przywiązują wielką wagę
do sukcesów i nagród,
ale jesień po jesieni odziera z liści dumne drzewa
i jeśli coś zostaje to delikatny szmer deszczu
w wierszach, które nie są
ani radosne, ani smutne.
Tylko czystość jest niewidoczna
i wieczór, kiedy i cień i światło
zapominają o nas na moment
zajęte tasowaniem tajemnic.63

It is essential to consider the moment in which “Chinese Poem” was written. The Fiery Land was published eight years after Zagajewski had moved from Poland to Paris and started a new period in his career, with frequent stays in the US where he taught at a university. His New Wave poems and essays published in the 1970s were epitomes of socially and politically engaged literature. In 1974, together with Julian Kornhauser, he published a book titled The Unrepresented World (Świat nie przedstawiony), in which the two authors emphasized the responsibility embedded in all forms of cultural activity and accused the Polish postwar intelligentsia of escapism and a lack of interest in public affairs.64 In 1975, after cosigning the “Letter of 59”—an open letter to the Polish authorities written by intellectuals in protest of the changes in the constitution made by the Communist Party of Poland—Zagajewski’s works were banned. In the 1980s, a notable shift in his poetics emerged, and the author started to distance himself from the social-political reality, claiming that a poet and an intellectual at large should be detached from their surroundings so as to create works of universal value. His 1986 book of essays, Solidarity and Solitude (Solidarność i samotność), as Barbara Toruńczyk notes, testifies to the fact that he finally

made a choice, his aim is artistic creation; this has consequences also for his way of life. Artistic creation loathes collective existence. It allows for a brotherhood of kindred spirits, a friendship between artists, mutual understanding between people who share a creative attitude toward the world and are connected with a secret, invisible tie. It is these ties that Miłosz meant when he spoke of lonely islands which, he believed, still exist in our civilization and are ruled by spiritual values.65

One cannot live for others without first ensuring oneself a space of solitude in which one can grow and perfect one’s art. This is the only way to be fully creatively responsible. This was, in short, Zagajewski’s credo during a large part of his emigrant life. Vita activa, adds Toruńczyk, referring to Hannah Arendt’s distinction in The Human Condition,66 was thus complemented in his work by vita contemplativa.67 It was arguably this vita contemplativa that Zagajewski hoped to find in Chinese classical poetry, perceiving it as a spiritual shelter where one can hide oneself and be forgotten by the world for a while. Similar to Wang in “On the German-Polish Border,” he projected his own needs and moods on the Chinese literary map, fitting them into a conventionalized notion of Chineseness, just as Wang fits his into the specific idea of Eastern Europeanness. Rey Chow and Michelle Yeh would likely consider this an example of an essentialization or reification of the concept of Chineseness confined to the (distant) past.68 In fact, the same sin of reification is perpetrated by Wang in regard to Polishness.

On March 20, 2020, another Chinese author, Zhuang Xiaoming 庄晓明 (b. 1964), posted a short poem in which he aptly summarizes Zagajewski’s reception of Chinese poetry and the Chinese reception of Zagajewski’s poetry. The text reads:

Polish Sorrow
From a Chinese poem
Zagajewski read out a peace from before thousand years
the sound of rain and time on the bamboo roof of a boat
the void and accidentality of a Chinese poet
From Zagajewski’s poems
I in turn read out Poland’s sorrow
peacefully infiltrating time like the sound of rain
there’s no map or territory
on which to nail it.

Ancient (Chinese) poetic peace and modern (Polish) poetic sorrow are mutually complementary visions and they may become a foundation of sustained, mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, but they do not open perspectives for actual dialogue in the sense of creating a joint narrative through con-versing.

Netizens, among whom the work in question is tremendously popular, tried to establish which “Chinese poem” Zagajewski is referring to. Ji Shi 吉士, who carried out a thorough investigation to identify the source, offers several possibilities. Ji’s first suggestion is Song dynasty author Lu You’s 陆游 poem “Dongguan” (东关), which is not unlikely because Lu You’s poems were available at the time to English-speaking readers through Burton Watson’s translations.70 But although the general lyrical situation in the alleged source poem is similar, many details cited by Zagajewski are missing. Ji Shi’s other propositions include three Tang dynasty authors: Wei Zhuang’s 韦庄 “Living on a Boat” (宿蓬), Wen Tingjun’s 温庭筠 “Seeing Off a Monk on His Journey to the East” (送僧东游), and Tang Xuanzong’s 唐玄宗 “The Rain-Soaked Bell” (雨霖铃).71 Zagajewski has probably never come across these three texts, but the intuition that “Chinese Poem” might be something like an (imagined) universal Chinese poem, or a contamination of various Chinese poems, is arguably a good departure point for further exploration. In my interpretation, the poem is a blur of two other texts from Lu You’s oeuvre: “Four Early-Autumn Poems (Two)” (早秋四首 其二) and “A Tempest on the Fourth Day of the Eleventh Month” (十一月四日风雨大作), because the former tells the story of a boat during a storm, and the latter contains a clear reference to time: the eleventh month, which also appears in Zagajewski. However, there is no hard evidence to support this hypothesis.

In his 2014 award acceptance speech, Zagajewski sheds light on the genesis of the poem, which suggests that the text indeed constitutes an abstract construct of Chinese poetry and of the China he “saw” through it, rather than an attempt at intercultural dialogue. He mentions his interest in China in his early youth when he read Marco Polo’s accounts of the expedition to Asia, how he learned about Confucianism and Daoism during his studies at the Jagiellonian University’s philosophy department, and then, how after moving to America, he encountered Chinese classical verse:

Later on, for many years, and from time to time, I read Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and other authors to better understand China. Of course, this didn’t allow me to completely understand China. I bought Chinese poetry collections and read them many times in English. Reading silently, I was carried away by these poems, as if life stopped for a while. I wrote a poem called “Chinese Poem.” When I was working on it, I had a feeling as if a spirit of a great Chinese poet had entered my soul. I experienced a deep peace in my heart. I think that reading classical Chinese poetry (but also some New Poetry) helped me, I don’t dare to say to understand China (would anybody dare to claim so?), but certainly to “see” China. I admire the perfect manner in which the unique scenery of Chinese paintings and the bewitching tradition of calligraphy are matched with poetry. This beautiful communion between poetry and painting helps me experience the profound content of this verse, its emotional load and aesthetic exquisiteness.72

Twenty years after writing “Chinese Poem,” Zagajewski realizes that this image is a mere illusion, just like the image of his own homeland as a country of unicorns that emerges from the poems about Poland by foreign authors. In the very next sentence of the speech, he adds: “On the other hand (there is always the other hand), I have also realized the tragedy of China, the tragedy of Cultural Revolution, the tragedy of destruction of the great cultural heritage accumulated during the several thousand years of Chinese civilization,” and presents a rough reconstruction of China’s difficult road to modernity. Based on this historical recapitulation, Zagajewski goes on to construct a narrative of the global community between artists and the universality of art, assuring that “[a]fter reading verses of Chinese [contemporary] poets, I realized that there is an astounding similarity in artistic expression across cultures.”

In the preface to Huang Lihai’s collection, Zagajewski no longer speaks of anonymous, faceless “Chinese poems.” Instead, he begins by mobilizing an individual perspective:

Huang Lihai radiates with kindness, smiles joyfully—it is a smile of friendship, so convincing that it cannot be mistaken for a smile of an official or a star of popular culture who strives for popularity, or even for a transient smile of a passerby in the busy street.73

He expresses his fascination with Huang’s work, praising his attentiveness, unique sense of observation, ability to balance tradition with modernity, and artistic honesty. The preface ends with a meaningful statement:

This kind of sensitivity to the surrounding reality is perhaps the most important thing: the poet looks at the world, listens to it, but never turns into a connoisseur of sophisticated observations. He remains one of us, our brother, someone who also sees suffering. He’s helpless, like us—what can he change in the cruel reality?—but he is a witness, he remains available for a judge.

… if any judge ever appears.74

This is a symbolic gesture. It repeats the gesture of Miłosz in the 1940s when he translated the poetry of the first wave of Chinese modernism and was surprised by the resonance between the Chinese poets’ interests and his own, as well as by the entire Polish poetry’s “pursuit of reality” (pogoń za rzeczywistością), to cite his famous phrase. At the time, history had brutally separated the two national poetries’ respective trajectories, on which I will elaborate in my discussion of Miłosz and Ai Qing in the next chapter. There, we will also see an attempt to stitch these trajectories together within the ideological framework that accompanied the first publications on Miłosz in the PRC in the early 1980s, creating an image of the Polish Nobel laureate as a socialist poet. This image was reinforced by another first-wave modernist author, one of Miłosz’s most active mainland Chinese translators, Lu Yuan 绿原 (1922–2009) and his 1989 translation of the collection Separate Notebooks (拆散的笔记薄).

In 2014, a quarter of a century after the decomposition of the artificial ties of “brotherhood in socialism,” the time is ripe, signals Zagajewski, to establish a new form of brotherhood as an “elective affinity,” to use Goethe’s term, which bridges cultural, geographical, and generational gaps, one that is based on mutual familiarity, trust, and respect on the one hand, and shared interests, goals, and concerns on the other. It is also a good moment for the two poetries to productively con-verse about past issues that they have had no opportunity to thus far, including their difficult quest for self-definition in the twentieth century, as well as about open projects, such as the pursuit of capital-S Singularity beyond the limits of human language and transcending our grammars of cognition and creation. The aim of the following six chapters is to provide them a stage where such con-versations can take place and to record the compairative narrative that will emerge from their interactions.

Before our journey begins, allow me, by way of a little postscript, to share a reminiscence from the Chinese poetry scene after Zagajewski’s death on March 21, 2021. The sad message that reached his audiences on the (appropriately enough) World Poetry Day echoed widely in China, generating a huge number of commemorative essays and poems that bear testimony to the development of the said “elective affinity,” based on genuine mutual understanding and disinterested friendship. Among them was a moving elegy written by Wang Jiaxin, which, on the one hand, like “On the German-Polish Border,” contains elements of Wang’s general conception of Romanticism- and Holocaust-laced Eastern Europeanness embodied by the intertextual swallow from Auschwitz, as in Zagajewski’s work, but which, on the other hand, lets us hear clearly the author’s own, somewhat shaky yet firmly resolute personal voice. The voice of a person struck by grief. In his narrative, the memories of Zagajewski, “our poet” (我们的诗人), are intertwined with the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic which united Chinese and European poets—represented here by the Macedonian author, Wang’s longtime friend Nikola Madzirov, for whose medical treatment Wang helped to raise funds among fellow poets in Beijing—perhaps more strongly than any of the roughly analogous historical experiences discussed in this chapter, and with the threads from Wang’s past and (imagined) future. All of these perspectives add up to a complex portrait of someone struggling to piece his world together after an existential earthquake. I invoke this poem as a homage to Zagajewski and a tribute to solidarity in solitude.

Elegy for Adam Zagajewski
I am so shocked by your death—
as if I am immersed in my writing,
as if I can still write for a decade or two,
as if I can calmly complete my life,
but someone, all of a sudden, took away
my pen.
It is another sandy day in Beijing. A touch of fresh green
of an early spring. The swallows’ silent, shrill cries,
coming out of your poetry.
I walked by a dark, sparkling small river into the dark night.
Have we got through another winter? Yes,
but when I am walking, a kind of energy is also walking,
through the ice and fire of this March, sorrow and shame
are all burning on fire.
(You know, it is Madzirov
who told us the news.
Himself lying on a hospital bed for a long, long time,
with an oxygen mask on.
Is what you see even clearer now?
His severely damaged lungs,
opened up again to his God
as a cry because of your death!)
Farewell, our poet.
I recall our encounter ten years ago,
when I was at the Leipzig Book Fair,
but could not visit your Kraków.
Now that you are dead, should I still go there?
Yes! Even if all that I see
are swallows of Auschwitz,
once making circles over your head.
At this moment, I already hear them call.
March 22–24, 2021

1. Madzirov: Nikola Madzirov (1973–), a leading Eastern European poet, born in a family of war refugees in Macedonia; in his early years, his poetry was recognized and recommended by Zagajewski.

2. The former site of the Auschwitz concentration camp was not far from Kraków. Zagajewski has a poem called “The Swallows of Auschwitz.”

Translated by Robert Tsaturyan
2021 3 22–24


1﹐ 尼古拉马兹洛夫 (Nikola Madzirov 1973–),东欧杰出诗人,生于马其顿一个战争难民家庭,早年曾受到扎加耶夫斯基的大力推荐。

2, 奥斯维辛集中营旧址距克拉科夫不远。扎加耶夫斯基曾写过一首《奥斯维辛的燕子》。75


For a history of Chinese poetry in English, see, e.g., Chang and Owen 2010 (volume 1: to 1375, volume 2: after 1375). For a history of Polish poetry in English, see Miłosz 1983a, 1983b.


Hinton 2014, introduction.


Klein 2018, esp. chapter 3.


Yang Haosheng 2016, chapter 5.


This comes from a series of Rej’s short, humorous poems titled “Figliki” included in his Animal Farm (Zwierzyniec) collection from 1562. A digital edition of the book is available online as part of The Great Poland District Digital Library (Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa) at (accessed December 22, 2020).


Every year on Independence Day, 11 November, xenophobic nationalist groups organize a mass demonstration called the “Independence March” (Marsz Niepodległości) in Warsaw. Incidentally, in November 2020, the official poster for the march contained a picture of a kneeling hussar with red-and-white wings, supporting himself on a sword whose tip cuts into pieces a five-arm star (symbolizing communism), which is half-red and the other half in the colors of the rainbow (symbolizing LGBT+). The official slogan was “Our Civilization, Our Principles” (Nasza cywilizacja, nasze zasady).


Maria Janion’s studies on Romanticism, its history-creating role, and its presence in the Polish public sphere, belong to the canon of Polish literary studies. See, e.g., Janion 1969, 1972; Janion and Żmigrodzka 1978, 2004. For the discussion above, see Janion 2001.


Li Yinan 2016: 172; cf. Krenz 2019b.


Denton 1996: 99.


Guo 2000: 110–115; cf. Krenz 2019b.


For a meticulous account of representations of China in Polish (and Serbian) travel literature between 1720 and 1949, see Ewertowski 2020.


In 1982, the State Publishing Institute released an annotated edition of the text with a commentary by sinologist Mieczysław Jerzy Künstler who identified most of the titles. See Staff 1982.


Quoted in Lovell 2006: 83.


Ibidem: 84.


Goźliński 2002.


Miłosz 2005b: 190, trans. J K.


Ibidem: 191, trans. J K.


The full original text of Mao’s talks in Yan’an is available online. See Mao 1942.


On the controversy surrounding Miłosz’s break with the communist government and the reactions of émigré circles, see, e.g., Bikont and Szczęsna 2004; Franaszek 2011: 459–578. A detailed account of the ambiguous relationship between Miłosz and Giedroyć can be found in the collection of letters exchanged by the two published in 2008; see Miłosz and Giedroyć 2008.


Endrey 1981.


Zhang Langlang’s account of the “legend of The Sun’s Column” is found in his collection of essays: Zhang Langlang 2013.


This paragraph draws extensively on van Crevel 1996: 21–27.


On underground poetry life in China during the Cultural Revolution, see more in van Crevel 1996: 21–68; Li Runxia 2001.


See Guo, Song, and Zhou 2015: 28–29.


Li Yinan 2015: 55–56; 2016: 174.


In October 2020, when mass protests against the Law and Justice party’s rule erupted in Poland, triggered by the tightening of abortion law, one of the most spectacular events was a performance in the windows of apartments located vis-à-vis Jarosław Kaczyński’s house in Warsaw being a modern reinterpretation of Forefathers’ Eve. The specific form of the performance was determined by the safety regulations during the pandemic and the ban on open-air cultural events.


Li Yinan 2015: 96–97.


Tokarz 1990: 222–223.


Quoted in Tokarz 1990: 216, trans. J K.


Balcerzan 1990.


On Sommer’s influence on Polish poetry of the 1980s and 1990s, see Jaworski 2018: 26–33.


The “blue issue” has a dedicated entry in Polish-language Wikipedia, available at On the New York School and its reception in Poland, see Pióro 2014; Jankowicz 2010b; Sływynski 2009. Sływynski’s paper also discusses how the New York School, via Poland, traveled to Ukraine and influenced authors such as Serhiy Zhadan, Yuriy Andruchovych, and Andriy Bondar.


O’Hara 1995: 236.


Śliwiński 2007: 18–19.


Polish version reprinted in Pawelec 1999 from the original place of publication, that is Literature Weekly (January 1990). Trans. J K.

Pawelec’s paper contains elaborated analyses and interpretation of the poem including its historical, intertextual, and ideological implications.


Miłosz 2011: 765–766.


Kałuża and Jankowicz 2013: 207, trans. J K.


Ratyniecki 1991.


Klejnocki 1992.


A collection of contributions to the polemic between the Barbarians and the Classicists preceded by a comprehensive, chronological account and literary-historical commentary was edited by Marcin Jaworski (Jaworski 2018). Unless otherwise indicated, details concerning the timeline of the polemic in the following paragraphs come from this book.


Jaworski 2018: 40–43.


Cited in Jaworski 2018: 44–45, trans. J K.


My translation is based on the version reprinted in Jaworski 2018: 159–177.


Wan Xia and Xiao Xiao 1993.


A two-volume anthology of Chinese unofficial (民间) journals, Geography of Contemporary Chinese Unofficial Journals (中国当代民间诗歌地理), was edited by Zhang Qinghua 张清华. It contains a large number of poems that are representative of the included journals, manifestos by editorial teams which usually opened the first issues, recollective essays by editors or important contributors, and a considerable amount of critical commentary (Zhang Qinghua 2015).

A unique collection of journals gathered by Maghiel van Crevel is available in digital form via the Leiden University Library. The material can be accessed at and it is accompanied by a fascinating introduction (van Crevel 2017d) and a web lecture by van Crevel (


A detailed discussion of the “Grand Exhibition” and the subsequent publications is found in Day 2005, chapter 8.


van Crevel 2008: 25. Chapter 12 of the monograph contains a detailed description of the Popular-Intellectual polemic and a list of articles published by contributors to the polemic.


Quoted in van Crevel 2008: 406.


Ibidem: 404.


Ibidem: 451–458.


See, e.g., Maghiel van Crevel’s fieldwork essay “Walk on the Wild Side” (van Crevel 2017c).


Yu Jian 2013, 2015.


A collection of the utterances of Chinese poets on Xiao Bing can be found in Dafenghao 2017; cf. Krenz 2020. See also chapter 7 of the present book.


Lebioda 2019a. Extensive excerpts from the monograph are available on Lebioda’s blog (see Lebioda 2019b).


Zhang Zhenhui, personal communication with the author, February 21, 2020.


Quoted in Li Yiliang 2015.


Wang Jiaxin 2017c: 223.


Ibidem: 222–223.


In the extracts of “On the German-Polish Border” presented here, my translation is based on a manuscript received from the author.


Zagajewski 2003: 133.


Zagajewski 2010: KL 429–436.


Zagajewski 2003: 271.


Zagajewski 2010: KL 1509–1520.


Zagajewski and Kornhauser 1974.


Toruńczyk 2015, trans. J K.


Arendt 1958: 7–21.




Chow 1993: 1–7; Yeh 1998b, 2008.


Zhuang 2020, trans. J K.


Lu Yu 1973. Lu Yu is the Wade-Giles transliteration of the name rendered in Pinyin as Lu You.


Ji Shi 2018.


Zagajewski 2014, trans. J K.


Huang Lihai 2014: 5, trans. J K. Zagajewski’s preface spans pages 1 to 7.


Ibidem: 7, trans. J K.


Original manuscript received from the author. Translation – courtesy of Robert Tsaturyan.

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