Inke Arns (by way of Marjan Kokot) on Wed, 6 Aug 1997 19:47:26 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Debate with Yang Lian at Deep Europe workshop

Debate between Yang Lian (chinese poet, guest of the 100 days) and
members of the Deep Europe workshop Tuesday, 5. 8. 1997, 13.00 at
Hybrid WorkSpace, Orangerie, dx, Kassel

-- transcribed by Inke Arns --

Andreas Broeckmann: We had a conversation for about five or ten
minutes where everybody spoke in their native languages and so because
there is overlapping areas of the languages somebody always got it,
and sometimes there was misunderstanding. It's really interesting to
see the differences when somebody speaks his own langage and suddenly
you see that whole cultural background, you get a sense of that
territory. You know about that....

Let me briefly introduce you - this is Tom Bass, he is American and he
lives in Budapest, Hungary. Inke Arns lives in Berlin, and Luchezar
Boyadijev he is from Sofia in Bulgaria. Inke and Luchezar were also at
the lecture last night.

I would have an introductory question: Could you explain again why you
hesitate when people say that you are a chinese writer?

Yang Lian: Well, I always feel that this question is a bit too limited
or too narrow, because the nationality is only one example of the
common human situation. Well, if I call myself chinese it's only
because of the depths of being - of the life which I experienced in
China.If I can really express myself in my poems and the poems reach
that depth, I can call myself chinese because this experience somehow
must have been special or interesting, different from others. But if I
couldn't do something like that, then the chinese is only a birthplace
or a passport or a kind of language we have learned since our
childhood. It has no real meaning. To me even less than that, because
I was not born in China and I do not have a chinese citizenship
anymore - all those things were not decided by myself. Actually, now,
the only meaning of the chinese is in my language and in my poems.

Andreas Broeckmann: Which parts of your life did you actually spend in
China? How old were you?

Yang Lian: I was born in Switzerland. My parents went back to China
before I was one year old. That was in 1956 until I left China in
1988, so I was about thirty-two years old. Well, it was a most strange
period actually. Before 1949, Chinese people always thought that they
were lost in this condition of the world. In the first half of the
century in China people tried to be modern, and tried to run close to
Western society, but certainly after 1949, after the Communist Party
got to power, all Chinese people were told that *we are the future of
the world*. And we jumped from the really far past into the future: we
were left with what we are, in an empty space. This was a most
dramatic change. Only in the late seventiesin or in the eighties, we
had a chance to think back to chinese history and to history in this
century. The time when I was in China I got a chance to look into this
history or the cultural tradition and especially - myself.

Luchezar Boyadijev: I agree fully with what you said, about being told
at some point that we are the future of the world. But after 1989, I
started referring to myself as a survivor of utopia. Because real
socialism was in a way an attempt to build up utopia. My question is:
In your words yesterday, there were some delicate nuances between
language and tradition which I did not quite follow through. I wanted
to ask you: You write in Chinese, and you live in a basically english
speaking context. So your actual direct link with chinese language as
it is spoken in various parts of China - I realized there are various
dialects or jargons - it must be an extremely rich language. On the
other hand, you said that poetry, in order to attempt to get the full
meaning, you have to look and read in between the words and even
behind the words. The fullness of a language is somewhere in between
and behind the words. So, my question is: If you are not living in a
chinese context, do you feel you are loosing some of this rich meaning
or the spoken language now? On the other hand, does the English
language, which is not even anymore Yanglish or Pigeon-English - it's
Pigeon-Yanglish now, and it's getting richer everyday - so does that
context somehow influence your poetry? Not with words, but the spaces
in between the words?

Yang Lian: Well, that's a very rich question! The first thing is about
tradition and language - especially my language. I think in China, and
also myself, there was for a long time a misunderstanding to put the
tradition and the modernity as two opposite things. Tradition means
past, and the modernity means present. Only after 1976,when the
cultural revolution had passed, we suddenly felt, that people like Mao
Zedong or the Chinese government, their way of thinking and their way
of doing - even if they used *new* words, their way of thinking was
absolutely the same, or even worse than the traditional autocratic
power. Automatically, we felt that the tradition and the past had not
left us. Tradition and past were still among us, and even more, they
were inside us. This experience really made us think about what's
exactly the meaning of tradition. If you said, OK, tradition is
antique, well, those antiques, in fact, in China have been distroyed
almost completely. But people didn't realize that tradition was still
inside them. And this is why the shadow of the past is always coming
back with the new words. From this understanding - and I think some of
the contemporary writers realized that - we can only get to a living
tradition through our everyday creative thinking and writing, or even
leaving. This means, the one side is so-called tradition and the other
side is the self. I think I created this sentence which is "to
rediscover tradition within yourself". I try to put these two things
together. This means to get away from this opposition between the
tradition and the modernity. But these two things are interlocked to
each other. This means, every living tradition must be based on one's
self. Like even Konfuzius or Lao-tse, all these classical Chinese
philosophers - they have a very strong self - a special form of
writing, a special style of language, and all very, very different,
very special. This is why they became the so-called root of Chinese
culture. Without them, we would not have any tradition. On the other
side, as a contemporary Chinese poet, within myself, I have to have a
special understanding of my own tradition, this must be part of
myself. Tradition and the self should be linked to each other. When I
was in China, I wrote poems which made people crazy, made them hate
me, because I talked tradition a lot, and they said: "Where *is* the
tradition? You don't talk about Lao-tse, about Konfuzius, sometimes
you talk about the I Ging, but we cannot find the I Ging in your
poems! What do you mean about tradition!?" I think that the tradition
should be rediscovered by one, and as differently and as special as
possible. But people don't like that, because it's not a common
knowledge which they can quickly look up in a text book in school or
university. But I didn't care about that. I kept going my way until,
for political reasons, after 1989, I'd become an exiled writer. In the
beginning. of course, the western language and culture was absolutely
strange and different. At that moment, I chose a special form for my
poems - short poems. I read three of the short poems last night, which
are from this part. This form is much more simple than the form I used
when I was in China. When the form is a little bit more simple, you
can try to touch what's my reality now. I try to touch it more and
more, even from this Western life experience. There is the book
"Ghosts speaking" which has been published already in German. It's a
collection of prose. In the piece of prose titled "Ghosts speaking" I
especially put two layers: one is a strange life, and the second is a
very crazy feeling about language - about foreign language and about
my own language, which to myself is not a foreign language. With the
change of place, my Chinese is becoming a real foreign language in the
Western world. I live at the same time in two worlds and two
languages, Western and Chinese. The outside and the inside at the same
time. I am one person, but within myself, there is a big distance
between everything. For me, it is still quite difficult to understand
the Western language or life - but it's interesting to understand this
new situation within myself. This becomes something very interesting
and even very exciting for my thinking and my writing, because it's a
new experience. It's different from what I had when I was in China.
>From these experiences I get some energy to support my writing and to
go deeper and deeper. 

Luchezar Boyadiev: Just one more direct question: I presume your poems
are not published in China now? What would be the reaction of the
Chinese public to your poems now?

Yang Lian: Two of my books have been banned after the Tiannamen
massacre in China. The first time my poems have been published in
China in the first underground poetry magazine in Bejing in 1991. They
did put a group of my poems on the front page. I asked them: Don't do
that, because I am an outsider, so the will not give trouble to me,
but they will give trouble to *you*. Their answer made me quite moved.
They said: We have to *do* something! We cannot only wait, you know.
At that time it was really hard. After that, after 1993, in some small
magazines - they found some of my writings outside China, and printed
them in those magazines. I never sent anything to official
publications because, in fact, I have my idea, which is: Not only the
government banned the poets, but sometimes, because of our taste, we
banned them too! When I now open those official magazines, I just
cannot imagine I could publish something among this kind of writing!
That is the problem. I don't think really that the government had that
power, but I think that poetry is somehow special or something. It is
necessary to ban *them*. 

Andreas Broeckmann: For this workshop in the Hybrid Work Space we
chose the title "Deep Europe" because we have a network of people from
all across Europe who are involved in media culture in the broadest
sense. We have a mailing list on the Internet - that's how we stay in
touch with each other - and from time to time we have these meeting
places where groups of us get together at conferences or we do
workshops like this. First, the network was about making contacts
between East and West Europe. It's been going on for 1, 5 years and
now there are a lot of good contacts both between East-West and
East-East, and the West-West contacts are now the most difficult
(Laughter from Deep Europe). France can be really far away... So, we
were looking for a word that would not be East / West or something,
but would give a different dimension to our discussions about the
contemporary culture in Europe. That's why we chose this adjective
"deep". Luchezar, maybe you can give your reading of the notion of
"Deep... Europe"? Because I would then like to ask Yang Lian something
about that.

Luchezar Boyadijev: The notion is a metaphor which could be
problematic. In the logic of this metaphor, deepness or depth is where
there are a lot of overlapping identities of various people.
Overlapping in terms of claims over certain historical past, or
certain events or certain historical figures or even territories in
some cases. It could be also claims over language or alphabet, it
could be anything. Europe is deepest, where there are a lot of
overlapping identities.

Andreas Broeckmann: So, there is some sort of mapping of culture and
of the depth, of identities onto the geography. There is a
relationship somehow between mentalities and geography, but at the
same time they are disconnected because the mentalities live in
people, and people move around all the time. So, something that we
also experience with the network is that in our relationships, we
easily bridge the territorial borders, although the territory also
means someting, in terms of our culture. (Addressing Yang Lian)
Because you're even more disconnected or separated now from this
notion of territoriality in your identity, I was curious whether you
have ideas about that. What is your relationship with China, which
parts of China do you identify with, what's the Chinese culture that
you inhabit, in terms of your location in the world?

Yang Lian: That's very interesting, actually. I love this word "deep".
If you got the magazine no. 1 by documenta (documenta documents no.
1), there were two of my articles. There was a special part where I
did talk about the two words "deep" and "new". That's why, when I saw
"Deep Europe", I thought, whow, that sounds quite alright to me
actually. In my understanding, the word "deep" is not only something
that shows in reality, in front of your eyes, but something behind,
like behind the words, the ideas or the thinking. In good conditions,
it can create reality. It's not political thinking which directly
tries to change something, but it tries to change some deep things. I
think that's it what is interesting. Also about chinese culture.

I grew up in Bejing, which is not as dramatic / romantic as Tibet for
example. Bejing is maybe like Moscow. It's a common place, people come
and go. I don't really like to talk only about local culture or folk
arts or folk songs. When I saw those contemporary Chinese artists, who
like to use these folk things, folk culture, characters of Chinese for
example, especially to the Western world, I say: It's easier to sell
like this, or to be popular - but it's not *deep* enough. To me it's
your own special understanding of the background you come from, where
you live in, which is so importatant and so interesting. In my writing
I am always trying to show the situation of the human being, through
Chinese culture. Chinese culture is quite interesting and special.
e.g. the language. This culture is completely different from European
culture. Because of the different tradition, the characters of the
language is so different - it has been called a visual language. Every
character has a complete meaning. The characters can be used without
the subject, like "I", "you", or "she" / "he". The characters for the
verbs do not change. There is no past time, no present, no future
form. The verbs are always the same. That's different from German,
English or French. So, Chinese in fact is a very abstract language.
European languages somehow have a hold on the very concrete reality -
"it happened yesterday", "it happened five minutes ago", "it happens
now". In Chinese we do not only talk about the time of the movement,
when something happened. When we are writing, we talk only about the
situation. Drinking is not "I am drinking now" - no, the word "drink"
includes all the people in the past, the present and the future who
drink. You see, the possibilities of language somehow shows, that the
situation of our lives - which is probably quite sad - somehow never
has changed. I called my lecture "Concentric Circles" because it
includes different times and different spaces, but in the center is
the understanding of myself. I try to find a way of communication
between myself and Chinese language and what has been written in
Chinese cultural tradition. So, if every contemporary Chinese writer
could discover Chinese tradition by himself, then it could be a very
interesting task to compare with another culture - e.g. with European
culture. (...)

Cultural misunderstanding is a reality. (...)

* * * * 
This is the first half of the interview / debate we did with Yang
Lian. You can find the whole interview on Radio Internationale Stadt
(RIS), on

Inke Arns, Deep Europe, Hybrid WorkSpace, Orangerie, documenta X,
Kassel 6. 8. 1997, 18.00
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