Sunday, January 7, 2024

Contemporary Poetry in China: An Interview with Ma Yongbo

This post is an interview with Ma Yongbo, a Chinese poet, translator, editor, and scholar. Ma has authored or translated more than 70 books. He is a professor in the Faculty of Arts and Literature at Nanjing University. His translations from English include works by John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, May Sarton, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and others.

Poet Ma Yongbo

Zack Rogow: I understand there are a great many poets in China. Why is writing poetry so popular there?

Ma Yongbo: Before the internet became popular in China around 1999, poetry was considered an art for a select few. With the freedom of the internet for writing and publishing, the population of poets exploded. People of all ages and backgrounds delved into poetry, turning it into a mass movement with diverse voices.


In 2021, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released a report showing that China had over 500 million people engaged in online literature. Poets transitioned from penning verses in study chambers to composing on computers, smartphones, and other mobile devices. Poetry has become ubiquitous, from websites, forums, blogs, and microblogs to social media platforms like WeChat, Weibo, MeiPian, and Little Red Book.


The Chinese Poetry Network publishes 10,000 poems monthly, with 170,000 registered poets. The platform has reached 500,000 visits per day, and an average of 3,000 poems are submitted each day.


On WeChat, almost every poet has their own public account, essentially editing their own online magazine. Every aspect of life can be turned into poetry. An extreme example is "Enter Key" poetry, randomly breaking up prose into lines of poetry. It is challenging to determine what is and isn't poetry.


Or take the website Xiaohongshu ( There are over two million poetry posts on this platform, contributed by nearly 900,000 creators. Over 25 million people read poetry-related content on that platform each week.


Traditional print publications also play a significant role, with over 50,000 poems published annually in officially circulated newspapers and magazines, more than in The Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty. There are more than 250 publicly circulated literary journals, and it's challenging to count the number of newspapers featuring poems.


Each year, the number of poetry collections published by national mainstream publishers exceeds 1,200 books, more than the number published during the entire period of modern Chinese literature before 1949.


There are also unofficial, avant-garde networks of Chinese poetry, including self-published works read within a literary circle. Especially in the pre-internet era, these publications thrived as the primary means for exchanging the work of various literary movements and groups. While the number of self-published journals has decreased with the convenience of online platforms, there are still uncountable publications of this type. About 10,000 self-published journals have appeared since 1978, and the number of self-published poetry collections exceeds 10,000.


Poetry events are frequent nationwide, with an average of no less than three events daily, including seminars, readings, sharing sessions, and launches, varying in form, scale, audience, and levels of sophistication.

Poetry reading in China
There are a plethora of poetry awards, with prizes named after famous authors and poets such as Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Xu Zhimo, Wen Yiduo, Bian Zhilin, Chang Yao, Ai Qing, and Haizi, to name a few. The poetry scene is highly active, but in essence, it’s thriving without flourishing. The quality of poetry has sharply declined, with a multitude of pseudo-poetry and amateurish poetry inundating the internet, overshadowing poetry written in a more professional vein.

The work that has garnered widespread attention in recent years is poetry related to hot topics. Labels like “Migrant Worker Poet,” “Express Delivery Poet,” and “Suicide Poet” are constantly emerging, attracting the majority of readers and making genuine poets feel isolated. Online writers often express dissatisfaction with the existing social order. Most poets prefer short and quick lines and poems, catering to online platforms. Many poets focus on expressing themselves without delving into the artistic aspects of poetry, at most borrowing some techniques from classical poetry. They show little interest in the latest developments in Chinese and world poetry, resulting in a false “authenticity” that I find amateurish. Avant-garde and experimental poetry has severely shrunk, and no one is paying attention.


Q. With so many published poets, how do you and other poets in China decide which poets to read, review, and talk about?


As Borges said, poetry is always for the “infinite few.” Poetry that gains public attention because of social phenomena, often linked to current events, may not endure. Which poets enter our field of vision is sometimes accidental and sometimes a matter of “fate.” I often read not the award-winning or popular poets, but rather those who are quietly unknown or from the lower strata of society. Due to limited energy, I naturally pay more attention to the poems of friends—I’m familiar with their work. I’m particularly interested in writing styles and tendencies different than mine.


Q. Are there particular themes or topics that contemporary poets in China write about?


Classical poetry mainly focused on universal themes such as pastoral scenes, homesickness, farewells, the sorrows of spring and autumn, and border defense. Contemporary Chinese free verse has inherited these themes, but places greater emphasis on individual experiences and reflections on the collective destiny of humanity. It pays more attention to personal emotions, in contrast to T.S. Eliot’s depersonalization.


Classical Chinese poetry is a product of agrarian civilization, while current vernacular poetry is a product of modernity. Industrial themes and urban imagery are key subjects for modern poetry. The barren state of modern civilizations in both the East and the West is also something contemporary Chinese poetry has to confront, an aspect absent in classical poetry. In the Tang and Song dynasties, humans and nature coexisted harmoniously, but now we humans have become the adversaries of nature.


Chinese poetry has always focused on reality, following the tradition of Du Fu. Contemporary Chinese poetry is no longer a deciphering of political slogans, nor is it an appendage to propaganda. It has genuinely entered the unique inner world of the poet, expressing the poet's personal thoughts and feelings.


What is more crucial is that Chinese poetry has shifted its emphasis from merely conveying content to valuing language itself. For instance, poets in the past often used the sunflower as a symbol of power worship. Nowadays, poets hope to restore the sunflower to being the sunflower itself. This change is related to the influence of phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl.


Another significant development since the 1990s is “themeless” poetry. Contemporary Chinese poetry has freed itself from "thematic writing.” From the traditional expression of emotions to the expression of experiences inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke and Eliot, and then to the expression of the “experience of experience” inspired by Ashbery, contemporary Chinese poetry has shown a trend toward “themelessness.” Poetry now creates concrete details, novelistic narratives, and dramatic situations and scenes. It even explores the generative process of poetry itself.


Q. Do all the poets write in Mandarin Chinese, or do some write in local dialects, such as Cantonese?


Most poets write in standard Chinese (Mandarin), with occasional influences from regional dialects. Poets who use dialects are rare and mostly limited to ethnic minorities. I haven't come across poets exclusively using Cantonese, as most Chinese people use Mandarin, and few understand Cantonese. Dialects are more closely associated with other forms of artistic expressions such as films, folk songs, and dance, where there might be readings of poetry in dialects. Even if the audience doesn't understand, it adds an artistic element.


Many ethnic languages are rapidly disappearing, and poetry might be an effective way to preserve them. The efforts of Native American poets in the United States, for example, are valuable in this regard. Similarly, African American poetry often has connections to jazz, creating significant cultural value.


Q. How does a writer get published in a literary magazine in China?


Currently, the circulation of official literary magazines has declined sharply, with some provincial publications printing only a few hundred copies, and they lack significant influence. Few people actually read the official journals. People generally just casually flip through the poems of friends they know. Poets don’t pay much attention to each other; they often form small circles, reading and even praising each other.


Magazines now mostly accept online submissions. However, due to the sheer number of people writing poetry, possibly millions, editorial inboxes are flooded. With limited staff, editors can't possibly go through all the submissions. To get published, you often need to submit directly to an editor you know. In China, getting published is not about quality; it's about interpersonal relationships. That’s a serious and troublesome issue.


Poets don’t pay much attention to official magazines now because publishing in social media and non-official publications serves the same purpose and reaches a broader audience. Poets value non-official colleagues’ publications more because these are self-funded, and organizers are more serious about selecting works. Good poetry is found among the people. Due to political reasons, publication principles, and editorial aesthetics, it's difficult for good poems to be published in official journals. Poets who don’t enter the editors’ social circles have practically no chance to publish; they can only communicate on social media platforms.


Editors make necessary modifications to manuscripts, mainly regarding political concerns. Experimental and avant-garde poetry have no space in China and can only survive at the grassroots. Poems criticizing reality have little chance of being published, and satirical poetry as a genre is extinct in China. Poems published officially are generally safe and uncontroversial.


Renowned poets and emerging poets may get opportunities to publish their work. How these opportunities arise remains a mystery. Chinese society relies heavily on personal connections; without them, progress is challenging. Success based solely on the quality of one's work is extremely rare and nearly impossible.


Q. How does a writer get a book of poetry published in China? How many copies do most poetry books sell in China?


Publishing a poetry collection is a task more challenging than reaching the heavens. Only a handful of popular poets receive remuneration from publishing houses and get their works published. How they attain their popularity is a mystery. Another way to publish a poetry collection is by being a poet sponsored by various levels of writers' associations.


In contemporary China, there are essentially two types of poets who have the chance to publish collections. One is the popular poet relying on market appeal, and the other is the poet favored by the authorities, relying on official financial support. The poets caught in between face a dilemma. Because they delve into the depths of the human spirit, their work is unlikely to have a large readership.


There's another category of poets who can publish collections: wealthy poets who can afford to buy an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). For a book with 200,000 characters, the author needs to pay the publisher 100,000 RMB. Genuine poets are often financially strained, making it difficult for them to come up with that kind of money. It is normal for poets to be poor because, as Robert Bly said, it's good to be poor and listen to the sound of the wind.


China currently lacks a poet who is universally recognized. If there is one, it might be Bei Dao.

Poet Bei Dao
Some poets gain fame merely because they have more public exposure opportunities; they align themselves with power and capital. The greatest poets are currently underground. Very few readers are aware of their existence. They cannot be popular or widely known, and they have minimal opportunities for publication. Fortunately, with social media and private publication, good poetry still has a chance to be read.

 Most poets can only afford to self-publish their collections, limiting them to private circulation, such as giving copies to friends or donating to libraries. Very few poetry collections make it to bookstores, and even fewer enter major online retailers like Dangdang and JD. Generally, poetry collections have few buyers, with a few hundred copies being a significant breakthrough. If a published collection can sell two to three thousand copies, the publishing house can break even. My collection, Travels in Words, published by Huacheng Press, had two printings and sold more than eight thousand copies, rare among serious poets.


Q. Are poetry books reviewed in other publications, such as newspapers or poetry magazines?


In academic journals and literary publications, you find reviews, and some newspapers’ book review columns also review poetry. However, poetry remains the most marginalized genre in the literary world. In universities, whether in Chinese or foreign language departments, scholars researching poetry are on the fringe, receiving little attention. Publishing research papers on poetry is challenging. University faculty members seeking promotions and fulfilling so-called research workloads need to publish papers in “high-level” journals. Consequently, the number of university professors researching poetry is decreasing; there are only a few hundred in the entire country.


Q. Are many international poets published in China? Who are the most popular international poets?


Translated poetry collections are relatively easier to publish than original poetry in Chinese, although it is still challenging for marketing reasons. There is an old saying in China, “A visiting monk can recite the scriptures well,” meaning there is curiosity about the exotic. In recent years, quite a few collections of work by foreign poets have appeared in China, especially Nobel Prize winners, and publishers vie for their works. Additionally, winners of prestigious awards such as the U.S. National Book Award, the Critics’ Circle Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize may also find opportunities in China. Poets who have previously received acclaim in Chinese, known for various reasons, have an easier time getting translated and published. Other poets face difficulties publishing collections, even if their poetic quality surpasses that of Nobel laureates and other awardees. This is primarily for marketing reasons.


My interest in American poetry began during my university English classes. I translated several poems by African American poets and received praise from my teacher. In the early 1990s, I began systematically translating contemporary American poetry, especially postmodern poetry. I compared American poetry with Chinese poetry, hoping to find commonalities and differences. I believed that Chinese poetry and American poetry are mirrors reflecting each other. Unresolved poetic issues in Chinese poetry may find solutions in American poetry, similar to how Ezra Pound found inspiration from classical Chinese poetry.


I spent thirty years introducing John Ashbery to China, and his influence has been significant, possibly making him the most famous American poet in China over the past two decades. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton have also gained substantial recognition in Chinese. Rilke had a considerable reputation in the 1990s, but he is rarely mentioned now.


Chinese readers prefer poets like Tagore, perhaps the most popular in Chinese. Readers of avant-garde and experimental poetry are few, but personally I believe these writers are more valuable. They allow Chinese poets to understand trends and developments in world poetry. Without these reference points, Chinese poetry lacks nourishment. Since we have already severed ties with classical poetry, Chinese poetry is still growing under the influence of international poetry. It has been challenging to break free from this influence, and Chinese writing has struggled to establish its own poetics.


With contemporary Chinese poets, we often strongly sense the influence of international writers. For example, the impact of confessional poetry on women’s writing, the influence of Russian Silver Age poetry, and Auden's influence on academic poetry are easily recognizable. It will take a long time for Chinese poetry to truly find its own path with national characteristics and build a native poetics free from European traditional influence, the way William Carlos Williams did in North America,


Q. Who are the most widely read English-language poets in China? Are poetry readers in China aware of the very diverse range of writers here in the United States?


The most well-known English-language poets are still Byron and Shelley, regardless of how many English poets have been introduced in recent years, such as Eliot and Pound. This is related to the deficiencies in aesthetic education, as the textbooks in middle school still follow the old curricula. Unfortunately, Whitman is less popular than Byron and Shelley,.


Professional poets are well aware of the diversity of American poetry. They are familiar with various schools of contemporary American poetry, such as confessional poetry, the New York School, the New Surrealism, Deep Image, the Black Mountain School, the Beat Generation, etc. However, ordinary readers are not likely to be familiar with these, and at most, they may know Whitman and Dickinson, or perhaps Frost. Less accessible poets are rarely explored, for example, Wallace Stevens.


International poets hoping to publish poetry collections in Chinese face enormous challenges. Especially in recent years, if a book doesn't sell more than three thousand copies, publishers incur losses, and they might refuse to publish, even if the intrinsic value of the poet's work is high. There are often unclear reasons behind the emergence of translated poetry collections— it's hit-or-miss. Authoritative translators may have some chance of convincing editors to take the risk of publishing a particular international poet's collection.


In China, poetry seems to have no hope or future and can only serve as a source of self-entertainment. The description of China as a "poetic nation" is far from the truth; in fact, the Chinese people are now overly pragmatic, completely losing the spiritual pursuits seen in the Tang and Song dynasties. As a result, poetry remains a niche and marginal art form. Despite the influence of the internet, leading to millions of people engaging in text-based writing, poetry is still the pursuit of a minority. Other media are more popular, allowing poetry to become the lonely guardian of language and the soul—an isolated watchman—and this is perfectly normal and a good thing.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry