To Write a Poem in Chinese and Bid It Sing:

The Translatable Spaces of Creativity


Afaa Michael Weaver


A condensed version of this essay was delivered as

a lecture at Beijing Normal University in Beijing, China, in October 2008

for the World Literature Today conference co-sponsored with the University

of Oklahoma.

”Yet do I marvel at this curious thing…”
--Countee Cullen

Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child

spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction,…”

--Steven Pinker

In early autumn in Boston, I use the rearmost door of the subway car at the Museum stop so I can walk the longer way to my office. Simmons College sits on the edge of Fenway Park, and in early fall the changing colors of the trees are mesmerizing. I ease along, allowing the power of the season to distract me from turning on my computer, answering email, making final preparations for classes--all the matters of being a professor. Canada geese waddle along and sometimes stop the traffic there on Louis Pasteur Boulevard as they slowly cross the street en masse. Tourists come from other parts of the world to see New England’s autumnal splendor. In autumn of 2004, I traded this deciduous shifting of green, to yellow, red, orange, and gold for the eternal green of Taiwan with its tropical autumn. I moved into a sixteenth floor apartment in Taipei, the country’s northernmost capitol, where I lived with my landlord, his family, and a few other tenants in Taipei’s commercial district, across the street from a giant department store called Sogo’s. The nearest sizable park was the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, where there is a handsome statue of Confucius. When it rains in Taiwan the green looks luscious and edible, as if the water slides seductively over the skin of each leaf and renders it vulnerable to the eye, tempting to the tongue. My language school was in the Shi Da University neighborhood, where there is one of the more enjoyable of the city’s night markets where you can stroll and enjoy adding inches to your waist.

It was to be my immersion experience. I had lived in Taiwan before but not as a student of the language. Immersion is just as it implies, swimming in deep water as opposed to cooling your heels in the ocean while you sit on the beach in a lawn chair with a chilled fruit juice. Caught on the crest of a wave, you can look back at the beach, at your empty chair, at the waving hands of those who would rather play with language study on their own terms and not the terms of the new language. The wave flattens out, and you fight the urge to panic when you realize you must learn not only to swim but to breathe in synch with your movements as you would in your own ocean, but this is ocean is new. The surface can be likened to the first level of sentence diagrams that Noam Chomsky took to task as he named the space beneath and within as deep surface.

Our various oceans are connected by the commonality of the deep. In language acquisition there is the question of how far Universal Grammar may influence acquisition. In my case there are the factors of age and the numbering of the acquisition, as Chinese is my fourth language after English, French, and Spanish. In French and Spanish I have always sat on the beach, tickling my feet in the water, but in Chinese I have gone out into the vastness of the ocean of immersion, which has no detectable bottom, looking for the space in which not only to learn but to create as a poet.

The Challenge of Chinese

The epigraph to this essay from Countee Cullen’s poem “Yet Do I Marvel” where he invokes the sense of wonder at the idea that a black person can produce creative literature and fly in the face of racist assumptions by thinkers such as Hume, Locke, and Jefferson, who tried to justify slavery by maintaining that black people are incapable of creative literature because they are not human beings. I am appropriating Cullen’s tongue in cheek idea in his poem to apply it to the widely held idea among non-Chinese people that Chinese is an impossible language, one where only the genius dare tread, and in doing so I am employing the Chinese emphasis on humility, however false it may be.

Chinese culture has the longest ongoing recorded history, and a good deal of that is due to the written language, which has undergone a great deal of evolution and change through several simplifications. Currently, there are two writing systems, one of which is the simplified or modern version in use in Mainland China and throughout much of the world insofar as Chinese relations. The other is the traditional writing system in use in Taiwan and parts of Hong Kong. Below is an example of the same written word or hanzi in the two systems of characters or graphemes, which is the term in use by linguists.

The character or grapheme on the left is in the simplified style, and the one on the right is in the traditional style. There is the obvious challenge of recognizing which is which, and the difference here is radical. In other characters the change is not so great. The meaning is the same. However, the meaning changes depending on the tone. Tones are degrees of pitch and not volume. An inexperienced speaker will substitute volume changes for tone changes. But back to the meaning, which is “to make” or “to issue forth” if you use the first tone, which is a level tone, meaning the pitch does not rise or fall. In order to learn the tones you must recite them, and a student will only make progress when he/she learns self-study, which is to be able to detect your own mistakes in speaking and to discern the tones of another speaker with accuracy.

Learning to speak is a bit complex as there are two phonetic systems, the pinyin was adopted in Mainland China. Pinyin uses the roman alphabet to give the phonetic sound, and it is convenient for foreigners. Pinyin gives recognizable hints as to how to pronounce the characters. In 1956 the government began simplifying the characters in stages. There are 56,000 characters in the Chinese language. That count may vary according to which source you refer as some contend that certain characters are no longer in use or should not be counted. The Chinese written language has been simplified at other times in China’s history. Simplification is not new, but this most recent set of changes is the most radical. At the same time that pinyin was developed the zhuyin system was also developed in Mainland. In Taiwan they continue to use the zhuyin system, often referred to as bo po mo fo. The pronunciation for the character for “to make” is as follows in each system, with pinyin on the left and bo po mo fo on the right:

fa Y

It should be clear that pinyin has been a help to foreign students. For example, the pinyin system can easily be typed into a computer using Chinese software. Bo po mo fo has computer entry systems, too, but they require the memorization of those phonetic symbols, which is difficult for foreigners. In Mainland there are many people who have no knowledge of this old phonetic system, although it was developed in China and maintained in Taiwan. For native speakers learning the language as children or adults, the bo po mo fo is an advantage as the elements of those signs are similar to parts of the characters and thus aids recognition.

Now that we are onto recognition, let me say that in order to recognize the characters you must learn to write them, and in order to write you must learn the strokes. In order to learn the strokes you must learn the order in which they are written. If you do not do these things, you will not be able to use a Chinese-English or Chinese dictionary because you must be able to count the strokes in a character in order to find it in the dictionary. Counting the strokes involves learning the radicals. You must know the modular components of the characters, or the radicals, which will enable you to both read and use the dictionaries in faster and more efficient ways. The radicals for the traditional writing system and for simplified are not the same. There are a few hundred radicals in each system.

Finally, the Taiwanese accents in Mandarin Chinese are different from those on the Mainland. There are varieties of accents in each place, and one should know the differences so as not to inadvertently insult anyone in either place. The issue of which Chinese is correct can be an emotional one, and the matter of correctness presents another challenge when looking for teachers and tutors in the United States. Some tutors from Mainland will not consider using a textbook purchased in Taiwan and vice-versa. So diplomacy is yet another challenge in your studies, an extremely important challenge.

Those are basic issues for any student, and one should do something in the way of review or study every day. In the Boston area Zhong Tian cable television from Taiwan is available, featuring both programs made in Taiwan and Mainland. I spend time watching programs every day, even if only for a few minutes or to turn it on as I am doing other things in my home. Chinese television always has subtitles because there are so many varieties of the spoken language, all of which are connected by the characters. However, some are in simplified and some are in traditional. If you only know one system, you will have trouble with the other. In my first two years of formal study, I used the faculty audit at Simmons and studied alongside Simmons undergraduates. We used textbooks in simplified Chinese that offered the traditional Chinese at the back of each lesson for those who wanted to learn. I kept up with both as much as possible, but after two years my tutors advised me to switch to traditional. The rationale is that it is much easier to study simplified “after” the traditional. So I moved to Taiwan.

Cross-straits relations are too large a topic for this essay, but it is important to note that it reveals itself in the tension between the two written forms of Chinese, simplified and traditional. Feelings run deep on the subject of whether or nor to use the traditional or “old” style of writing, which is mostly used in Taiwan. When the United Nations abandoned the traditional writing system in favor of the simplified, which is the official system of Mainland, the gesture was taken as an insult by many people in Taiwan and further evidence of America’s gradual but steady abandonment of any hope for Taiwan’s independence. Mainland China’s simplification of the language is certainly not the first such move in China’s history, but it is perhaps the most extensive restructuring of the writing system.

The Creative Process in Chinese

Had I been born Chinese in the U.S. and moved to the U.S. as a child born in China or Taiwan, I would more memories of speaking with my family from an early age, and several of my classmates at Simmons were Chinese-American and at least had some familiarity with pronunciation. In October 1984 I began six months of lessons in Baltimore in the Chinese Community Association under the late Lillian Kim, the director. My teacher was a classical pianist from Taiwan who was rather vigilant about pronunciation. I was in the adult class in Grace and St. Peter’s church, part of the Sunday Chinese school for children that is common in Chinese communities. However, I came to serious study of Mandarin Chinese when I turned fifty and am therefore making memories, tapping a latent language instinct in an older brain, my anti-senility project. So in early November, 2004, twenty years after I began those Sunday lessons in Baltimore, I found myself in Taiwan for the duration of my sabbatical year.

In the Zhong Xiao Fu Xing commercial area, I found a flat on the top floor of a sixteen story apartment building. I lived with my landlord and his family, along with a few other tenants. Zhong Xiao Fu Xing is an important part of central Taipei, and the name of the junction refers to the eight virtues in Chinese culture.

My language school was not far away. In Taiwan the traditional writing system is everywhere and English is scarce. Sometimes the Chinese characters or graphemes are written from right to left and top to bottom on signs and in newspapers, which is the old way of writing. At other times the characters are written from left to right, in Western style. As you become more literate in the written language, you cannot ignore it. Some English speakers live in Taiwan and never learn Chinese, so they live in a bubble, unmoved by the visual and verbal promptings that surround them.

In the two years before moving to Taiwan, I had studied the Beijing dialect, and my first teacher at Simmons was from Beijing. But in Taiwan the rolling r’s of Mainland speech give way to the Taiwanese “lee” sound as in the word for “here.”

In Taipei, the capitol city on the northern tip of the island, you begin to revel in the cold gusts of air-conditioned coolness that come from the businesses and restaurants. At night you can still feel it, as the heat lingers. The rain comes and makes the tongue want to taste the wetness. I had two hour tutorials with two different teachers each day for five days per week, which meant homework for two to three hours a night, as I had to write in Chinese. Writing by hand fixes the characters more firmly in the memory but is a slow process for foreign students. My grand plans for studying Chinese and continuing my writing projects in English soon collapsed under the reality of being a student in his fifties with a bald spot that was forming corporate mergers in the areas around my ears.

I enrolled at the Taipei Language Institute (TLI), where the director, Ms. Eleanor Chang, assigned me to two teachers, one for each of my two hours of daily tutorials. Teacher Lai was a short woman with a stentorian voice who kept all kinds of snacks in her tiny office. The two of us could be heard all over the school when we began laughing. She was not especially interested in poetry. Her interest lay in managing my personal affairs and pushing me to find a Chinese wife. The other teacher was Teacher Fang, with whom I studied for the first hour.

Teacher Fang was a bit taller than Teacher Lai, and Teacher Fang is also a distinctive woman because her ancestors include a man from Portugal. One of the TLI teaching methods is for the teacher to lead the student through the text by reading it aloud first and then listening to the student as he reads the same passage. Students are also encourage to buy tape recorders to tape the sessions so as to be able to go home and listen to the day’s lesson. The primary objective here is to get the student to do self-study, and self-study is one of the pillars of Chinese teaching. I first encountered it when I began to study Taijiquan in 1978, again in Baltimore.

Teacher Fang and I read together, and sometimes we struck a lovely harmony. She would say in English, “That was beautiful.” All of the TLI teachers are college educated, and Teacher Fang has a B.A. in international studies. As a child she lived in Africa. He father was an engineer. One day I came to Teacher Fang distressed.

“Afaa, what’s wrong?”

“I have too much to do and no time for my poetry in English.”

“Afaa, you have written something very poetic in your journal in that section about the rain we have been having. Why don’t you write poems in Chinese?”

Teacher Fang is the person who carried me along into the real transition into Chinese, with the compassionate love of teacher and student. So that was my beginning, sitting there looking helplessly into my teacher’s eyes, feeling all the anxiety of dependency as an older man negotiating with a strong-willed and determined Chinese feminist. The director of the school gave me her two most aggressive teachers as she was determined to make this the best learning experience for me and in the Chinese way. One does not question the teacher. I submitted to my teacher and to the rain, the notorious Taiwanese rainfall which comes almost daily in late winter as we prepare for spring. The spring rain is sometimes called mei yu or plum rain.

For me, I take the Keatsian description of the act of writing poetry as a greater intuitive way and a lesser intuitive way. The greater intuitive way is waiting for the poem to emerge, sometimes from an emotional moment different from the other currents of any given day, and this is more the vatic way of eros and divine madness. The lesser way is that of a more deliberate and conscious sculpting, not so much affected by eros and the Dionysian swirling. The two ways feel like writing on water and carving in stone. The space of creativity is filled with the languages we know, if I may extend this now outward from myself and make polite presumptions onto the spaces of other poets, and the sounds and images evoked by these spaces for me becomes the associational mix, the palette from which the poem emerges at times and at other times from which I pull the poem. The creative act itself is a translatability of experience and ideas, from what they are, as such, to the form of poetry, of literary art. I do believe that poetry is thought, and, thinking now of Pinker’s phrase “mentalese” for the language of thought, poetry exists in these fragments or bits, floating as they do in images. This is the sea of creativity as I see it, and this thought or mentalese is what led to my first successful poem in Chinese. I was writing to the subject of language with the view of the Pacific from Taiwan’s eastern coast in mind.

He Nan Temple, the setting for “Sea Shore,” is in Hualien, on Taiwan’s eastern coast. The gate to the temple is approximately 100 yards from the Pacific shoreline.

Testing the water meant questioning my ability to think in Chinese, challenging my fears. In terms of fluency, that means not just the sounds but the characters, the writing system. So fluency taken to another level became the challenge of acquiring a level of comfort in the language such that I could create a field of association.. It takes some degree of formal study and interaction with native speakers to begin to create a field of associations, which is to say enough of a vocabulary and idiomatic awareness to be able to move creatively. After five years of study, my textbooks indicate that I have learned 5,000 characters, but that is usually not enough to begin a field of associations without the aid of a dictionary and to move in the creative process to a place in Chinese that does not sound so much like English in its associations.

To internalize the characters means to spend time writing them by hand, the old process which has yet to be surpassed by computer assisted learning. There is something about the physicality of taking an hour or so a day to sit and write characters repeatedly, say ten repetitions per character. The formation of the characters in the correct order of the strokes with attention to the radicals, or smaller components that go into each character, places them more firmly in the mind. Perhaps because I am a foreign student of the language the visualization of the characters is part of the process of imagining the poem, and this does not happen for me in English. In English I only do image and sound association, and the imagery is of places, people, and things. But in Chinese to all that is added the visual imagery of the word itself, and I am not sure if this is true for native speakers, although learning the characters is as difficult for them as children as they are for me as an older foreign student.

The retention of Chinese characters is dependent upon their usage. In studying Chinese I have found I retain the characters to the extent to which I practice writing them by hand. Recognition of the characters is obviously essential to being able to read Chinese, but this level of retention in no way guarantees the ability to reconstruct them in writing by hand as opposed to copying them from a text. This is the higher level of fluency, where one can write exactly what one says in conversation or compose a letter without the aid of dictionaries. Chinese software makes it easier to write in Chinese, but the ease that it offers with online dictionaries and other aids does not aid full retention. Computers erase the physicality of studying Chinese, which has been ingrained in the culture over the centuries.

In conversations with Chinese academic friends, they have told me that as a result of using computers to do work in Chinese and/or English they are forgetting the characters. So in writing my first Chinese poem I employed the greater intuitive process, waiting for the correct mix of mentalese to emerge in a matrix I could then recognize as a poem’s beginnings.

I composed it over the course of a few days, drafting and redrafting as I went along, and through all of it I searched for words whose sound I found pleasing and which I thought followed the mental image of the Pacific ocean as it lies just outside the gates of the He Nan Temple in Hualien. The central idea of the poem as it occurred to me is that language is an ocean whose consciousness is greater than our own, and that idea existed simultaneously in my mind with a rendering of the Daoist perception of the internal body as a natural world, complete with mountains, rivers, buildings, wheels, and other things contained in the world outside us.

The water imagery in the poem I further associated with Daoism as it pertains to the creation of saliva in the process of doing Taijiquan. Taijiquan is one of the oldest physical expressions of Daoism and can be seen as one of the treasures of Chinese culture. While doing the exercise, one must push the front part of the tongue up behind the upper palate so that the tongue takes the shape of a fountain, and this positioning increases the flow of saliva or “water.” The movement through the form physically along with the concentrated thought fills the mouth with saliva which must then be swallowed as the Daoist regimen of cultivating the Qi (pronounced chee) depends of mixing the saliva with the flow of breath and blood as the breathing must be from the diaphragm in the manner of opera singers and babies. In this way two Daoist principles emerge, that of becoming as a child and the notion that in moving a Taiji player is like a rushing river. In stillness one is like a mountain. In other words, the mentalese preceding the creation of the poem is stillness, or the mountain, and creation of the poem is the rushing river.

Sound emerges in the poem in the form of the song heard in the ocean, the sound of language. I depict this song as one which is most audible when one is in tune with nature’s harmony in the way animals can sense vibrations and disturbances in normal circumstances long before most human beings.

This is the final draft of the poem in Chinese with a literal translation:

海邊 Sea Shore

我想的時候 1 When I think

下雨了 2 it rains

什麼都是說話 3 everything is speech

一种語言好像海 4 Language is like the sea

在海邊我站著 5 I stand at the sea shore

看看中文的海裡 6 and look at the sea of Chinese

天空有一首歌 7 The sky has a song

這是誰的聲音﹖ 8 Whose voice is it?

在世界上 9 In the world

大家覺得海總是 10 everyone feels the sea always

唱了。 我們不認識 11 sings. We do not know

海﹐可是海認識 12 the sea, but the sea knows

我們。為什麼﹖ 13 us. Why?

我想的時候 14 When I think

下雨了 15 it rains.

That is with the traditional graphemes, which I used in composing the poem. What follows is the poem in simplified characters. I hope to show some of the visual impact of reading the two different systems while suggesting some consideration of what this might mean in the creative process. With a more recondite memory of a large number of graphemes it is easier to compose without the aid of dictionaries, and I am suggesting here that the greater fascination with the appearance of the character is for the foreign student of the language, although one certainly should not dismiss the emphasis in Chinese culture traditionally on studying calligraphy by rewriting ancient poems. In a calligraphy class today one would typically spend many hours practicing writing Tang or Song dynasty classics with meticulous attention given to each character.

海边 Sea Shore

我想的时候 1 When I think

下雨了 2 it rains

什么都是说话 3 everything is speech

一种语言好像海 4 Language is like the sea

在海边我站著 5 I stand at the sea shore

看看中文的海里 6 and look at the sea of Chinese

天空有一首歌 7 The sky has a song

这是谁的声音? 8 Whose voice is it?

在世界上 9 In the world

大家觉得海总是 10 everyone feels the sea always

唱了。 我们不认识 11 sings. We do not know

海,可是海认识 12 the sea, but the sea knows

我们。为什么? 13 us. Why?

我想的时候 14 When I think

下雨了 15 it rains.

Translation and Identity

It would seem that integration and wholeness of the experiential self requires me to give up the idea that poems I write in English are Chinese enough to warrant translation and are therefore not poems but extensions of my method of studying the language, and there might be some evidence of that if we reread my entry into writing poems in Chinese as an assignment from my teacher. It is in this “doubting space” that notions of culture and race enter and I am reminded of Countee Cullen’s observation that it is indeed a marvel that even a black person can write poetry in English, that first language. The doubting space is also a “troubling space” as it has to be deprogrammed in order to continue my studies because to go forward with racially tinged presumptions would make the project one of disproving false notions. So it occurs to me to further edit Cullen and note that it is a curious thing indeed to emerge from the deep structure to the surface and see that one has maintained one’s identity and is indeed a poet again. It is imperative to move forward with a firm notion of how language works inside me, which is to say my function in any language, which is to say that I am a poet first and foremost.

So the questions remain. Am I writing poems in Chinese or just translating my English mentalese into Chinese? If so I have to challenge the idea of mentalese. Or am I writing poems in Chinese and therefore bypassing the English and moving from the language of thought to Chinese? If so, the extent to which I am doing so should be gauged by my increasing inability to translate my own original poems in Chinese. What am I saying and to whom am I speaking? If I take Benjamin’s idea that an adequate translation of the original comes in its afterlife, then my movements into English from the Chinese are complete and not simply an extension of the creative process, the exercising of the brain’s instinct for language. 1

Rendering the English version of this poem proved to be quite difficult. In writing the Chinese there was a definite space in consciousness, the “feeling” of creative inspiration that was impossible to capture in English. Of course, the sound was not to be had in English. It seemed I was having all the problems we know of in translation except that the author of the text in the original language was myself. In choosing words in the original version, I often made sonic choices just as I do in English, and the verbal play or “babbling to myself mentally” that I do in both languages was impossible to recreate in English. So I settled for trying to bring into English the meaning of the poem. I thought I had made a successful walk into acquiring Chinese, and my Chinese readers were impressed, I think.

I have yet to get beyond some responses of Chinese readers to my work as it being “Englishy,” and truthfully, I am a bit afraid of getting beyond that test. There are parts of English Me, the prejudices of being born into a language, which I am unwilling to abandon, as if that is really possible. Inherent in all of this is the question of what it means to be Chinese, whether there is such a thing as cultural membership through participation or whether membership can only be the generosity of an honorary title.

However, “Sea Shore” is less Englishy than some later poems I wrote during that time in Taiwan when I used dictionaries to search for words that matched the poetic inspiration. It seems that “Sea Shore” was close enough to an experience I have in other places in gazing at oceans and seas and had enough accessible vocabulary and theoretical references that I could launch my imagination into the poem without the limiting and awkward steps of a student of the language. The translation that occurs no matter what language a poet uses is the translation form the creative moment into language. It is as if one is a child again truly, which is to say you move back as far as you can to the place where you are beginning to negotiate with the world outside you, taking on the painful lesson that you are not the world, that there is a boundary at the edges of your skin that require the establishment and assertion of an ego force so that you can get the things you want and need. So this negotiation requires learning the language of the world beyond your infantile skin. Octavio Paz wrote “When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate…”

Chomsky’s deep surface emerges as the full and wet tongue of the sea with the air of the roof of the mouth above it, and the whole thing the seat of consciousness, the mind as it were, of a language and a culture, and I stand gazing at it as one who is looking to learn what is perhaps new, or as one looking to see his own self reflected in the moweving waters and echoed in the song in the air above. To learn I have to find the beginnings of the sea inside myself so as to connect like entities and begin the pulsating rhythm of informing my own consciousness with its latent ability to function in Chinese, the new language. Taking language as instinct in accordance with computational theories of language, I have to attune the mentalese that some think is the language of all thought so that it manifests as a language that, at times, seems to be the opposite of English, which is to say learning Chinese feels like a massive rewiring of the brain. In the times that I have felt this rewiring to be discovery I have wondered “how” identity matters.

In Chinese the poem arises to the surface from the deep, and in translation the question becomes “Where is the origin of the translation?” In a poem by a native speaker it is understood that the translation into English is best done by a native speaker in English, so must I become alienated from my English self in order to write in Chinese? Then the great monolith of an unanswerable question arises. "What is the self?" It is easier to query the sound of one hand clapping.

The translation of the poem presents the more intriguing and challenging aspects of this project of bilingual writing as it pertains to rewiring and identity. There is the fundamental question of whether this project actually can be called bilingual writing, as to be bilingual is a matter of acquiring a certain fluency in the acquired language, and as I discovered during the process of attempting to translate this poem, fluency is an ongoing project. Each grapheme presents difficult choices, but there are certain difficult spaces in the poem that present questions ranging from the origin of language to questions of cultural identity. What it means to be Chinese is a larger question, one beyond any level of pretension I would dare muster, but it does arise alongside the search for fluency.

However, it is important to note how it felt to write the poem, the emotional content of this creative and perhaps translatable space. There is the sense of attempting to grasp an other inside oneself while simultaneously acknowledging that the investment of a lifetime in English will not be erased by the new language. Yet there the difference between the two languages, the move to another writing system and to a language that is tonal, is a difference that can make the distances between languages a more palpable thing. One must travel a great distance to Chinese from English, a distance greater than that from English to French, for example. Chinese and English are more unlike each other, connected as they are by the language of thought and universal grammar, if we accept computational theories of language. For example, Chaofen Sun notes that in Chinese there is no word for word. The closest grapheme is ci: 2

The process of studying Chinese begins with the rudimentary acts of learning what something in English means in Chinese, and it progresses to where one must take on, as it were, words, phrasings, and expressions that have no translation into English. To know these untranslatable aspects of Chinese, you must know the contexts in which they are use and accept that there is no way to know these varieties of meaning outside Chinese culture. Learning the language is to envision a stranger inside yourself who emerges from your own ego, and to write poetry in Chinese is to breathe that stranger’s breath, and this idea of strangeness is related, I think, to the impact of anthropology and sociology in conjunction with theory, all of which have helped us accept the notions of cultural difference. Paz put it eloquently when he wrote, “Translation had once served to reveal the preponderance of similarities over differences; from this time (the modern age) forward translation would serve to illustrate the irreconcilability of differences, whether these stem from the foreignness of the savage or of our neighbor.”

We recognize the foreignness of our neighbors when we hear them speak, and I would like to end this section of the essay with a visual representation of the word for speak, for speak as in ‘to talk or speak word,” and the word for language. Again, the simplified characters are on the left, and the traditional characters are on the right. The Chinese word for speak is shuo, while talk or speak word is shuo hua, and language is yu yan:

Speak shuo shuo

说话 說話

Speak Word shuo hua shuo hua

语言 語言

Language yu yan yu yan

As a foreign student of the language, the Chinese characters or graphemes themselves exert a certain allure to me. At times I feel the study of the writing system is similar to studying art, especially in calligraphy where one can spend hours writing and rewriting a short ancient poem in squares on the practice page, looking to have the correct proportional relationships between the different parts of the characters. It is this calling, this speaking that the written language has for many foreign students that brings the poet with his license into the dance of whatever it is that connects all languages, the language of thought or some as yet undiscovered entity inside what we call reality. Most importantly, I think, is the truth of the poet’s work in language, which is that he, more so than other literary workers, is closest to thought, to the dance of mentalese as it is configured by poetic inspiration.

Parsing an Ending

Baby born talking describes heaven…”

is Qi...

Pinker quotes the Sun tabloid in noting the child prodigy, and his quote on communication comes from his explanation of the science of “pragmatics” or how “sentences are woven into a discourse and interpreted in context” in English, but I would like to appropriate it here as the beginning of an ending. Babbling in infants, according to Pinker, is the method by which they teach themselves the physiognomy of speech as well as the patterns for forming grammatical structures, and for me this babbling is the verbal play in a field of association that I mentioned above as part of the process of composing a poem. It is something I try to do only in private, as I would not want to end up in a tabloid described as Old man babbling describes heaven. However, writing poems in Chinese sometimes feels like grasping for the starry heavens. 3

Perhaps the babbling is that of a bubbling brook, an earthly version of the river of forgetfulness that washes the memories away as we enter a new incarnation, and in that way perhaps it is possible to imagine oneself as walking into the clothing of a new identity in studying Chinese. However, in Chinese culture especially, it seems that the culture goes to the marrow of the bone. Aspects of the culture form an intricate weaving of a complex assemblage held together in concentric fashion by a powerful electromagnetic core. Confucian ideas of centering in the culture were brought home to me in my first visit to Beijing. On a tour to ancient sites, we were taken to the Temple of God and shown a stone that one emperor said it is the center of the earth. Indeed, it seems that Chinese thinking asserts that all things come to China, as in all roads lead to Rome. However, China is vastly different from the ancient western mecca. Values and perceptions do seem opposite at times, and the more I learn about the culture the more I come to question Americans’ understanding of it. Also, I fear the misunderstandings.

It is as if the concentric reality of Chinese culture and language defy the grafting that happens when Americans borrow from other cultures. It could be said that America itself is a borrowing, but the degree of difference between American and Chinese culture is made more intense by the complex way things are layered around central ideas in Chinese. For example, Daoism (Taoism) is a popular subject in American and other western cultures, but I doubt if many people would accept that simply reading Laozi can not lead one to anything other than a superficial understanding and not a realization of the Dao. Daoism is a hotly contested subjected in Chinese culture, as one poet in Beijing told me that Daoism is fantasy. Still another maintained that it is natural perception. In Taiwan the ideas are just as varied or perhaps more so. While studying Taijiquan with Master Xiong Hui in Taiwan at the behest of the Taiwan Fulbright office. Xiong Hui is the Taiji teacher for Cloud Gate, Taiwan’s premier dance company. He explained to the class the essential quality of (Qi) as it relates to Taijiquan, the crown jewel of Chinese culture.

“If you understand Qi , you understand Chinese culture.”

Calligraphy in Chinese requires the breath and is thus the stream of life. A calligrapher who knows Qigong, the art of cultivating the Qi, will know an aspect of the culture that is addressed as far back as Confucius and beyond to an unknown point in antiquity. The act of belonging in Chinese culture is more an embodiment than an act. So, on one hand, it is quite ridiculous to think one may become Chinese, but, on the other hand, for me the thrill of dancing in the language is made more exciting and fulfilling by an involvement in the culture that goes back thirty-four years to the moment a friend gave me the invaluable gift of a copy of the Dao de Jing by Laozi, or Laozi, as the book is sometimes referred to in Chinese. For me the study of the language is a process moving toward an imagined act of completion. The process is the speaker, and the destination is the beckoning listener standing at the edge of the deepness of deep structure, the alluring worlds of oceans and seas of language.


1. This is from the Harry Zohn’s translation of Walter Benjamin’s 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator.”

2. Chaofen Sun notes that in Chinese “…the notion of ‘word’…is neither a particularly intuitive concept nor easily defined.” P. 46

3. Pinker writes “There is more going on in children’s minds than what comes out of their mouths.” He further notes, the odds against an older person acquiring another language are part of “senescence,” the inevitable frailty of old age. P. 272


Chomsky, Noam. Language and Mind.

Fairbank, John King and Goldman, Merle. China/ A New History.

Cambridge: Harvard UP. 2001.

Loewen, James W. The Mississippi Chinese. Long Grove: Waveland Press.


Packard, Jerome L. The morphology of Chinese: a linguistic and cognitive

approach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct/ How the Mind Creates Language.

New York: Harper Perennial. 1994.

Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules/ The Ingredients of Language. New

York: Harper Perennial. 1999.

Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet. Theories of Translation. Chicago:

Chicago UP. 1992.

Sun, Chaofen. Chinese/ A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press. 2006.

Timoczko, Maria and Edwin Gentzler. Translation and Power. Boston: U

of Massachusetts Press. 2002.


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