'Once were Cultural Heroes' or 'A Kind of Geek Art'? Interview with Hu Xudong about contemporary Chinese poetry
“The 1980s were the heyday of modern Chinese poetry. Poetry was like pop culture then – it played the role karaoke has today. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as karaoke, and every small city or town would have a place where people would get together after dinner and read poetry. It was such an everyday thing, so lively. Every night was like a mini-poetry carnival.
These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities – art, film, literature – but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development.”
Hu Xudong is Associate Professor at the Institute of World Literature at Beijing University. He’s also a poet, and was one of China’s first internet technicians, co-running an early website called New Youth (Xin Qingnian) which innovated with technology and language. What better person to give a lowdown on contemporary Chinese poetry, its origins in an ‘80s zine scene, and its internet iterations? Read on for a bird’s eye view.
Christen Cornell: Do you know what I mean when I say ‘zines’? I guess you could call them underground publishing – a reaction to mainstream publishing and the high-tech reality of the internet. They're kind of a return to homemade book-like objects.
Hu Xudong: Of course, I know what you mean. These have been huge in China. One reason poetry has played such an important role in China these last thirty years is because it began as this kind of zine. Contemporary Chinese poetry began around 1978 in these kinds of underground openings and events.
Beijing University, for example, had a particularly important publication called Today – or Jintian – but they couldn’t distribute it. They just made a small number of copies and distributed them amongst their friends and peers.
Before that, from 1949 to 1979, there was absolutely nothing like this; for thirty years, anything that was going to be printed had to go through the government authorities. So when this phenomenon emerged it went crazy and was extremely popular.
CC: What did people print with?
HXD: People had their own equipment – very simple rolling machines, a very ancient method. I printed on these myself. While I was at university everybody could operate this thing. And so later it became a massive phenomenon. Everywhere – anywhere that had a university, and a group of people who liked literature – people would get together and make these books.
Throughout the ‘80s, it was common for a university to have up to hundreds of these zines, all circulating among friends and peers. But then after 1989 it all ended. Not simply because of political pressure, but because especially around 1992 China had its 'accelerated reform', Deng Xiaoping conducted his ‘tour of the South’, and the economic changes that resulted had a big impact on cultural activities.
A lot of historians break recent Chinese history into stages with June 4 1989, but it was actually 1992 where things really changed. There were still a lot of ideas after 1989 – they continued – but there was just no way of expressing them. So for example an oppositional stance, or some kind of dissatisfaction – after 1992 the very basic foundations through which you might express this started to change. Between 1989 and 1992, there were still many emotions and dreams, yearnings and hopes. But from 1992 the whole structure of society was replaced by economic reform. Things became more Westernised, more commercialised, and you saw fewer and fewer of these zines.
In the 1980s the zines were huge, like a massive newspaper – the bigger the better. But in the 1990s they became tiny, a very elegant. I was still collecting them then, but some were only as small as a napkin. We called these little ‘xiao zazhi’, or ‘little magazines’, and they were mostly poetry. After 2000, when the internet became popular, they really began to dwindle. You still see them, but there are fewer and fewer these days.
CC: Funny, that’s the opposite of the West. There are probably more and more zines. They even have their own shops and online distributors.
HXD: You can still see them in the indie rock scene in China – very beautiful, graphic, handmade zines. There’s a big scene of that at Beijing University. Poetry zines are still around, but it’s not like it was in the 80s.
The 1980s was the heyday of modern poetry in China. Poetry was like pop culture then – it played the role karaoke has today. Twenty years ago there was still no such thing as karaoke, and every small city or town would have a place where people would get together after dinner and read poetry. It was such an everyday thing, so lively. Every night was like a mini-poetry carnival. But now, only twenty years later, and especially in these last few years, you hardly ever see this anymore.
These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities – art, film, literature – but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development.
Novels have their publishing houses, and are already relatively commercialised – and of course novels have a far greater readership. Then you have music, contemporary art. They have their dealers and agents, their galleries and labels. They have ‘real capital’.
But poetry only has symbolic capital. So it’s rare for poets to get a publishing house to take on their work. Very few people look after them. They need something like the internet to find their community. This community isn’t going to be like those of twenty years ago, where a group of people gather together in the one city – in a café, or in a university – it might be one person in the North of China, another in the South, another might be studying overseas. They’ll use a particular forum or internet group to make this tiny poetry community.
CC: Has this influenced the hierarchy in Chinese literature? The hierarchy of who says what is good and bad?
HXD: In some ways, but it’s not quite that simple. If you want to work independently to develop your own style and language, you can do that online. But society still judges you by whether or not you have published a book according to traditional conventions. You might be known as a famous internet writer, but if you really want to be recognised with any sort of authority you still have to publish a physical book.
Then again, the internet and traditional forms of publishing do sometimes crossover. So for example I know lots of publishers who’ll use the internet to do their research looking for new writers. If they find something that’s popular, that they think has potential to sell, they’ll approach the writers, arrange a contract and publish straight away.
So lots of people who write online – not only those writing novels, also those writing other things like a personal diary – can have a very clear ambition which is still to be published in traditional form. To still have a paper book. I think people are starting to see publication on the internet as a stage before real publication. A prelude to more serious work.
CC: So if the internet hasn’t influenced the hierarchy, has it influenced the structure or content of Chinese poetry at all?
XHD: There has definitely been some influence here, although we’re still in awkward phase.
When the internet first started I had a website with some friends. It was huge, a bit like Douban today, and was called New Youth – or Xin Qingnian. We wanted to use the internet to innovate with some of these basic principles of language and narrative, and we did some experiments with poetry. So for example if you moved the mouse somewhere on the screen a word might suddenly jump out and turn into something else; or if you clicked a sentence it might take you somewhere else. A bit like a game, or hypertext.
We were looking for a new way of using the Chinese language. Something that you could call poetry but also contemporary art. A scientific art, or ‘a geek art', you could say.
It was very difficult to find a context for this kind of thing in China, though, and we wrapped up the website after a few years. While poets in other countries spent the 1960s and 1070s experimenting with concrete poetry, visual poetry, and performance poetry, most poets in China were busy creating large-scale, traditional works. So we never really had this base.
China is still very influenced by traditional ideas of what poetry is. Our best poets are more concerned with the issues of high modernism. There are some more progressive people who might think about poetry and life art, who might consider poetry’s vocal dimensions – like Yan Jun (he was the first to do some sound experiments, to put poetry and sound together). I've done some 'dialect performance' as well.
But when you do this kind of work, although some people will think it’s cool, they’ll also assume that it’s already very ‘far away from poetry’. They won’t give it the same kind of respect.
HXD: Because of the role poetry has played in our recent history.
Contemporary Chinese literature only really has about a thirty-year history – from 1978 or 1979 on. Within these thirty years poetry has held a relatively special position because compared with novels, drama and film, it was the first to start to develop after Mao’s restrictions on art. The modern Chinese novel only really only began around 1980, but modern poetry had already started before 1978.
This is why so many people read poetry in the early 1980s – because poetry had had a head start, and had played an important role in liberating people’s ways of thinking after the Mao period. So when you look at the contemporary poetry scene in China today, its readership might be small, but it still has great historical significance. Bei Dao, Duo Duo, Wang Ke – these poets of the 1980s all have this role of the cultural hero.
That era which created poets as cultural heroes has now passed. But it was only thirty years ago so it’s very difficult today to present multimedia poems, or poems like that use images and pictures like games, and have them accepted as poetry. For the role of poetry to change that quickly – people can’t quite handle it.
In other countries, you can just have a normal department of literature, your mission as a writer is simply to express your spirit, your thoughts, to express your perception of the world. In other countries there’s been a period of transition – a time where poets could adjust and explore the role of poetry, and through that investigate the visual effects, or the vocal effects of poetry. But in China we’ve only recently dropped from this position of the hero, and are not quite used yet to our new role. It’s a question of stability, or having the right foundation.
CC: Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers still seem to feel a sense of responsibility towards society.
HXD: That’s right. They’re less likely to think that making art is a matter of play, of fun. They feel a sense of pressure – even a sense of burden.
So contemporary Chinese poets are in an awkward position. One the one hand, they’re not respected at all, but on the other, they can remember just how powerful they were so recently. Together these positions make for a tension. In real life, the poet is a bit of ‘loser’, while in our minds the poet is still a star.
Every new generation has its own force. But if you compare them to contemporary Chinese novelists, filmmakers, and artists, China's contemporary poets are currently kind of out on their own.