‘The Chinese Communist Party is too stupid, cynical and ignorant to understand what is going on in deep Chinese poems. Nobody qualified to understand a real Chinese poem would ever enter the Party.’
So says Yang Lian, one of the best-known Chinese poets of the last twenty years. Born in 1955 in Bern, where his father was a diplomat, Yang grew up in China and was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution for ‘education through labour’. During that time he began writing poems in the forbidden traditional genre, but after his release in 1977, having discovered more modern styles, he came into contact with the ‘Misty’ poets. A poem titled ‘Norlang’, after a Tibetan waterfall, was condemned in 1983 during the ‘anti-spiritual pollution’ campaign and he narrowly escaped arrest.
In 1989, while Yang was travelling in Australia and New Zealand, the Tiananmen uprising began; because he joined protests in Auckland he was banned from China and two volumes of his poetry were destroyed. Now an adopted citizen of New Zealand and the UK, Yang lives in exile in London. I spoke with him on 16 April, the same day the London Book Fair opened. The special guest at the fair was Beijing’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the body of the Party that ensures that anything published is, so to say, strictly kosher. This official imprimatur meant that only thirty or so approved authors received invitations to attend the fair.
Yang has returned to China many times to see his father; he is always closely watched but, amazingly (Party stupidity again?), thirteen volumes of his poetry have been published in Shanghai, selling around 16,000 copies. Also surprising is that, after Yang received the prestigious Nonino International Literature Prize, he was