Dissident poetry star Yang Lian tells Etan Smallman about fleeing Communism and the fate of Hong Kong
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In China, Yang Lian’s poetry has been banned, destroyed and derided as “spiritual pollution”.
The censorship began in earnest in the early 1980s, after Yang wrote the poem “Nuorilang”, which deploys Tibetan mythology and was seen as a critique of Han Chinese nationalism. It reached its peak in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre and another poem, “1989”, in which he said the violence and suppression were nothing new and they signified “no doubt a perfectly ordinary year”.
But in Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy and Scandinavia, the dissident is hailed as a literary superstar, a poet praised by Allen Ginsberg before the Beat poet’s death for his individualism, and even tipped as a future Nobel laureate.
To his mantelpiece of honours, as of yesterday, Yang can add another: the inaugural Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation, for his book Anniversary Snow. He shares what will be a biennial award – in memory of one of Britain’s most distinguished champions of international poetry – with his long-time Scottish translator, Brian Holton.
Yang describes the process of reinventing his work in English as “like growing a second tree but from the same root. But this second tree, I have to say, is a very beautiful tree.”
“We’re sort of like the Morecambe and Wise of our language pair,” says Holton, who has worked with Yang since 1993. “I don’t know of any other translator and poet who’ve stayed together so long.”
The Scotsman is delighted, too, to see some adulation for his own craft. “Translators always feel underappreciated, you know. As I have written, the translation may be a cover version, but some cover versions are as good as the original. Some are better, even.”
Holton speaks Chinese, but Yang also works with translators who do not speak the language, pioneering what he calls “poet-to-poet translation”. They talk through the pieces sentence by sentence, image by image, in what he says is “a conceptual art”.
The 66-year-old, who was born in Switzerland but grew up in Beijing, wrote his first “real poetry” in 1976, the last year of the Cultural Revolution, which had seen him forced to move to the countryside. It was in response to his mother’s death when he was 20 years old.
“She left a very big emptiness inside of me. And only in that year, the words come out from my pen, from my hand and heart – something changed,” he recalls on a Zoom call from his Berlin living room, not far from the studio of his old friend and collaborator, the artist Ai Weiwei.
He soon became a founding member of the Misty school of Chinese poets, so-called because of their use of obscure metaphor. Although Yang has lived outside his home country since Tiananmen (he was visiting New Zealand at the time and never went back), he insists: “I was exiled from China but I was never exiled from the Chinese language.”
Twenty years were spent in London, where he gained fresh inspiration. He even wrote a 2009 collection about Hackney, called Lee Valley Verses, in which he said the district “holds dirty pigeons to its bosom”.
But Yang doesn’t allow himself to forget the brutality of the regime he has left behind. “China,” he says, “is the worst capitalism plus the worst socialism.”
On the treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, which US secretary of state Antony Blinken has called genocide, Yang says: “The real trouble here is actually between the dictatorial power and all the people. If you look back to the past, we all have been pressed down and killed by the autocratic power. We all need to be fighting for the rights of our cultures.”
On Hong Kong, he regrets that the British did not do more to safeguard democracy before the 1997 handover. But, he says, “it is never too late” for a strong, united response from governments across the globe. “If there’s no strong reaction, the Taiwanese people will be next, and the southern Chinese, and so on. There will be a dark future for the world.”
But first, he warns, the West should sort out its hypocrisy when it comes to penning criticism of human rights in China while doling out contracts that profit from forced labour. “The Chinese autocratic power deliberately made the workers very, very cheap. It uses this, kind of, slave way of working. And then almost all big Western companies came rushing to China.
“If you want to find two words to paint a portrait of the world,” he adds, “a) selfish, and b) cynical. The problem is not somewhere else, the problem is here under our own feet.”