Every day you climb the stairs you think: this is exile. Feel every step carefully. Miss a step and the whole world comes tumbling down on you. Each step could be a chapter, this two-storeyed house a great epic of humanity in exile. Still it’s not you. You can’t speak of a feeling you can’t grasp. So when someone mentions reality, you want to laugh.
From Ghostspeak, a meditation on writing in exile begun in Auckland, New Zealand, April 1990.
Yang Lian, poet and literary critic, was born 1955 in Bern, Switzerland, where his diplomat parents were stationed. He grew up in Beijing and struggled through the Cultural Revolution, which swept him up at the age of 11. Like all Chinese of his generation Yang underwent ‘Re-education Through Labour’; he was sent into the countryside in 1974 and required among other things to work as a grave-digger. Letters exchanged with his mother (who had been sent to a different rural workplace) were a significant means of understanding his individual position in a milieu of insistent, state-imposed collectivism, and Yang has said that his mother’s death in 1976 initiated his life as a poet. From 1977 he was a programme organiser and editor for the state-run broadcasting service. Yang began writing modern (xiandai) poetry while participating in the Peking Spring democracy movement in 1979. With the help of an introduction by Gu Cheng, he became a prominent member of the group of experimental poets associated with the underground literary publication Jintian (Today). He began attending the group’s weekly meetings and his poem ‘Nuorilang’ gained widespread attention in 1983 as a result of the harsh criticism it received during the ‘Against Spiritual Pollution’ political campaign. The term ‘misty’ (menglong) was applied to the Jintian poets by the authorities in an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss their avant garde challenge to socialist realist hegemony.
YI, the long poem completed between1985 and 1989 is regarded as Yang’s representative masterpiece of the period. Based on the framework of the ancient Chinese classic Yijing (The Book of Changes) the book traces the literary and philosophical tradition commenced by Chinese poet Chuyuan (343–290 BC).
Yang’s works were introduced to overseas readers as the political climate in China became more open in the mid-1980s and he was invited to present his poems in European nations. In 1986 he visited Hong Kong, West Germany, France, Spain, England and Austria, giving readings and lectures, and was named one of the ‘Top 10 Poets’ by mainland Chinese readers in 1987. In the same year Yang established the Survivors Poets' Club with Mang Ke and others. He edited the first issue of the club's magazine Xincunzhe (The Survivors) and organised poetry-reading sessions.
Yang Lian was invited to visit Australia in 1988. From February 1989 to December 1990 he and Gu Cheng were visiting scholars at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. They were invited by John Minford, then professor of Chinese at the university and a noted translator, to take part in the 1989 New Zealand-China Writers and Translators Workshop. Yang also lectured on non-mainstream Chinese literature in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures. Both poets and their families were in Auckland when the massacre in Tiananmen square occurred 4 June 1989.
Yang Lian and Gu Cheng remained in Auckland and helped organise immediate protests against the suppression of pro-democratic protest in China. A memorial reading was held in the university’s Maclauren Chapel, and Yang and Gu Cheng co-authored an eloquent
statement that was distributed at the service. In September a festival day called ‘China: The Survivors’ was held to mourn the losses at Tiananmen and to mark their place in ongoing resistance to the legacies of the Cultural Revolution. Poet
Murray Edmond organised a concert of readings and musical performances in the Maidment Theatre at the university as part of the festival day. A commemorative stone was laid 17 September 1989 at St Andrews Presbyterian Church on the corner of Symonds St and Alten Rd, bearing the inscription:
This stone stands as witness for those who can no longer speak. In memory of the victims of the Peking Massacre of 4 June 1989, and all those who have given their lives for the ideal of freedom in China.
Yang Lian was based in New Zealand until 1993 and became a New Zealand citizen. He worked for a time in the University of Auckland Library, which holds some rare early publications and associated
manuscripts. He had a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) writer in residence in Berlin for the 1991 year, a summer residence at the Yaddo Foundation in 1992, and a University of Sydney residence for the 1993 year. After that he spent half a year at Amherst College in the US and travelled to Germany again. In a note written to accompany the poem Grafton Bridge, Yang wrote of his New Zealand home base:
137 Grafton Rd is a very important address for me in my life. I lived there from July 1989 until August 1993. Grafton Bridge is just next to the road, on the way from my home to Auckland University. During the very first difficult period of exile life, I remember very clearly the view from the bridge: it was the view of that time and the situation. I wrote the poem in 1991 when I was in Berlin, to keep the starting point of my not-yet ended exile journey. (Statement for The New Zealand Herald, 20 October 2001)
Since 1994, London has been what Yang calls ‘Central Station’ for extensive travel in Europe, the US and Australia. His books were banned at the end of 1989 on the Chinese mainland but in recent years he has made frequent visits to China and his work has been published there (though not in Beijing). He remains an exile, sticking to a frugal lifestyle, and striving for continuous transcendence in the spiritual aspects of living.
Yang’s works are primarily poems and prose, though he is also noted for his literary and arts critiques. His oeuvre includes eight volumes of poems and two collections of prose. Selections of his work have been translated into over 20 languages and have been published in many countries.
Yang has actively participated in international literature, arts and academic activities and is widely regarded as one of the major voices representing modern Chinese literature. In 1999 he was awarded the Italian Flaiano International Prize for Poetry. His collection of poems Where the Sea Stands Still (1999) was recommended for an English translation prize by the British Poetry Association. In addition to serving as writer-in-residence for Taipei City in Taiwan in late 2000, he has been a judge for the Weimar International Essay Prize Contest and the Voice of Deutschland broadcasting literary contest and was an overseas advisor to both the Taipei 2001 International Poetry Festival and the 2001 Berlin International Literature Festival.
Yang Lian currently lives in London and continues his writing career. He is married to the novelist Liu Yo yo.