new zealand electronic poetry centre


Yang Lian


Ghostspeak: excerpts

Yang Lian, translated by H.R. Lan and Jerry Dennerline

In Renditions: a Chinese English Translation Magazine;  no. 46, Autumn 1996, pp. 92-102. Republished with permission of the Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong'. 

The four works translated here are collected in Gui hua [Ghostspeak], Taipei: Linkin Press, 1994.


Just when did you stop using the word "home"? When you speak of this rickety old house you always say "that place". You donít speak of "going back". What does "going back" mean, anyway? All you ever do is leave. Again and again you leave. And you get farther and farther away. Each morning you wake up a little farther away. The surface of the distant sea is a vast brightness under the sun, a pool of molten metal, a chasm of light growing wider and wider. Soon youíll lose sight of the line of grey-blue mountains on the opposite shore.

You want to speak out, but nothing could be harder. Want to say what itís like to climb from the first floor to the second? Try. Step by step. Second by second. Your feet take you up the stairs, one step after another, fifteen steps to the landing. Then you turn. Then another seven. There. You spoke. But the words are hard, like a rough outline. Itís so black up there. Rotting handrail, nails under the threadbare carpet, and two pails, plastic ones, in the middle of the floor, catching rain. Never mind that the lights donít work. You can feel your way along. Use your feet to feel your way along. Still canít speak. Once you speak, itís just words. You canít speak without words. A little saw trims off all the branches and leaves, so you become a piece of timber, white as bone. 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 itís not you. You canít speak of a feeling you canít grasp. So when someone mentions reality, you want to laugh.

You say youíre on the run, youíve escaped to this strange city. From one corner to the next, unintelligible street signs. What have they to do with you? Read a thousand-page book, turning one page at a time, or turn one page a thousand times, whatís the difference? The exile only moves along the traces of a dotted line, remaining motionless at every dot. Feels worse than standing still. Youíre nailed down there, not at all gloriously. You donít move because you havenít the strength to move, buried alive in the tedium of each passing day. Itís like your poetry, a lie about reality. When did words start to resemble the old paint on the wall Ė flaking, peeling, falling away? When you donít speak, you hear that awful sound Ė another day over!

Living, for the sake of living, but what is living for? The beautiful sea and clouds in this place have you trapped in a round glass bottle. Water rushes in, gushing on to your head, swirling around your feet, washing your brain. You learn to gaze at the sky, all morning, a sky full of patterns. The old house is so tall you donít dream. Youíre drowned, at the bottom of the sea, a sunken ship, a pile of bones full of holes, sunken on the bottom where reincarnation stops. After you died, absolute mass, absolute emptiness. This discourse is buried. Up on the surface, under the sky, the cloudsí big feet are trampling you. You look forward to that day, ecstatically, when you can take revenge on words the same way.

Your feelings are changing, too. Changing without your knowing. When did you start yearning for all the good old things? Did dust cover the blood overnight? You talk of your childhood as if it wasnít you, but someone else who slipped into your body. In a shop window a fake blue-and-white Ming vase catches your eye. You gaze at it, wondering whose shadow that is, reflected vaguely on its surface. An old matchbox suddenly makes your heart ache. A few Chinese characters and a trademark, a stupidly symmetrical mountain done in the false naturalism favoured by the imperial house. Thirty years you lived beside it and never felt close. Why do you now, awake at midnight, close your eyes as if dreaming, and walk on the mountainís roads? Why revisit, at the time of the thaw, the little path where tourists donít go? You think about the hat you left on the bench Ė maybe it is still there.

At first, you were afraid of forgetting. You were afraid that you yourself would forget, afraid that youíd be forgotten. So every morning you talked, you wrote, you performed a ritual at the desk. You used your own voice to search for memories to fill the growing void in your heart. You searched: a face, many faces, a phrase, many phrases lingering in your ears. You followed the windís pulse for a long time. Then, suddenly stopping, you discovered the faces were gone, leaving you with only a block of wood cradled in your hands, not even suitable for masks. The moment you parted, memory stiffened and died. A nail was suddenly pounded in between your eyes. Now, all you remember is that dead face, that same expression, frighteningly young. You know itís you who have left the days behind and crossed over to the other side. Memory has distorted you. Even though your fingers are locked tightly together, the moment you must "remember" your face starts to melt, running off drop by drop. The harder you try to remember yesterday, the more you lose of today. You die no matter what. Die forgetting or die remembering, itís all the same. While you look on, gaping, the world slips away under everyoneís eyes. Now youíre really afraid. Afraid to remember. People you forget or remember forget or remember you. Life or death, just a couple of names roaming around, until one day you forget: do you remember yourself? Between you and your shadow lies such a short distance filled with so many lonely ghosts.

Hereís this old house you moved into last July. The second floor room overlooking the street Ė you tidied it yourself. Your nest, for better or worse. The neighbours are fine. Two little animals live on the roof. They run to and fro all night like wild cats or like horses galloping overhead. Next door the old drunkard locks himself in and sighs. Sometimes he comes across you on the stairs, brushes past you, his eyes staring vacantly. You can hear the stare hit the wall, break up, and shatter on the floor. Youíve lived here long enough but still donít know each otherís names. Behind the thin wooden wall he curses in a foreign language. And you curse in another foreign language. You guess this is how dead soldiers converse. Dead soldiers from foreign countries, lying side by side in great heaps. On the other side of the thin wooden wall is your foreign country. Another star over there, nothing to do with you. A pair of madmen. So long as you go mad under separate roofs the world is safe.

So, who else do you talk to? What do you say? Your bloody umbilical cord has only just been cut. The muddy tiles are sharper than knives. Now youíve finally had a taste of exile. The saw cuts every day, bites with jagged teeth, tearing you to bits. Grass grows in your follicles, its pointed fibrous roots turning in the flesh. Itching, smarting. You want to laugh, to go out in the street and laugh, to face the strangers walking toward you and laugh. You giggle and hide in someoneís shadow. Now youíve had a taste of being chased off the land, of being chased from time. Itís the taste of being unleashed, unfettered. The taste of freedom. A calf chased from the milk pail, starving and mooing loudly. Wonderful freedom! You just want to talk to yourself. A monologue. But if a calf can just repeat the same word day after day, you canít. You need to invite eavesdroppers, or borrow their ears to listen, so you canít possibly deceive yourself. What you want to say is all said before you can open your mouth. Thereís a mark on the steerís rump. The sizzling of the red-hot branding iron on its hide makes you laugh. Others chat about how much meat will come from the steer. You listen. Listen and wait. At last it gets a little quieter. When it quiets down, make an eye of plaster, and, looking into the deepest part, where itís blank, do you see anything but a piece of darkness? And so it is that in darkness, all is blank. Your language stops there, with the slamming shut of the cell door. Walking around inside Ė the prison guardís boots. But youíre locked out. Like water kept outside a bottle. Glimmering freedom. Youíve had a taste of being a fish just pulled from the water, having lived to the end but unable to die. Even the howling of the guards would be good to hear. Even the sharpening of knives. Although you canít hear a thing, itís such a short distance between today and yesterday, and youíre locked out of what was yesterday, dumped into this vacuum of today.

Thirty-five years old, too old. Too late to start life all over again. You can only write, letting the words drop one after the other, a black mass of eggs laid on paper. As when flies dash against the window pane, in the end donít you want to know if their heads crack and bleed? Is it because the sky is so tempting that they kid themselves so cruelly? And what about you? Arenít you also kidding? In the midst of absolute emptiness, you and your poems reproduce each other, inbreeding. Without gestation you give birth to a mass of ugly things craving spoiled blood. Boisterous laughter is followed by sobbing. Should an idiot be afraid of repeating himself? Youíve had your brains gouged out. You line up against the wall, stand at attention, and dress ranks. What you write is blank, and you are written into blankness. Vast empty words gun you down in slow motion. Such a slow death isnít even a death worth speaking of. The old house knows quite clearly; you must admit defeat. Suddenly the walls are bleeding. You havenít fallen yet, but you can feel the vast ruin inside your body.

Silence. The only theme left. You ought to keep silent, to maintain that expression in your eye, the expression of a fish thatís used to being immersed in salt water. In this world the victor is the one who is able to live without pain. You dislike numbness, you choose defeat. Speak out, expose the lies that hide in silence everywhere. Talk to the sky. Your lips have already died, these words are only posthumous noises. Youíre delighted, no one likes to hear you announcing their death.

Youíre homeless. Who needs a home? The noise of passing cars all day outside, like the pedestrians on the street, brushing past one another. A ray of sunshine and a poem pass on the desk in like manner. Neither sees the other as real. Even you wonder, why decorate and redecorate the room? Like a memorial hall. Do you want to turn today into a yesterday worth going back to? Now youíre the old thing no one cares about. You know youíre already interred in the yellow earth. Seen through the yellow earth, everything is refracted into a kind of reverse image. Where to return to? After all, under the yellow earth thereís no such thing as a foreign land, and yet itís not your homeland. Youíre just born in this place that used to be without you. Youíre nowhere. In this old house, you grow used to the meaningless noise next door. Footsteps echo in an empty room. Who knows whose poems are being read? Stanza after stanza of ghostspeak. They say this house is haunted. And you say, yes, indeed, it is!

Auckland, 25 April 1990

Half a Phantom

With your hair, your skin, and your eyes, you ought to be a phantom.

You appear and disappear every day on a street where you arenít, eluding legions of real blue-bodied people. With your language, youíre silent. You reach the ultimate depth and then let yourself vanish. Under a blue-bodied sky your lonely voice is profane.

Youíre afraid now, and with reason. Because youíre homeless? No. Because youíre suffering? No. Youíve already fled so far that you canít help adding to the fire. How else could you stomach refugee camp life? Yet who is to blame if youíre unhappy? If you want to flee further, then flee from humanity. Flee from life. Wouldnít that make you safe? To a phantom fleeing from blue-blooded humanity, donít the drummers at the funeral seem a welcoming party? But youíre even more afraid that you wonít be a whole phantom. Death isnít perfect either. Youíre only a half, walking sideways in the wind. And the other half is the loathing you feel for your own coughing body.

The past is the only place where, at last, nothing new can happen. Still, you honestly think you should add something to the past. The day the wall fell, all the phantoms rushed out. As all those escaping phantoms fled toward you, who could have known that hiding in the midst of the mad cries for help was that blue-bodied one? Who could have understood that time works like a shaman? The price we pay for human evolution is learning to slaughter. Even more cruelly, we practise our forgetting. If, when the cheering is over, this world in a sky-blue shirt can openly emit such a rotten smell, wouldnít staying trapped forever in the tomb better suit the tragic truth?

But what about the blood? Blood of those who climbed the wall. Blood of those who broke out of jail. The half phantom merely flees in a prolonged burst of gunfire. You know others are fleeing, too. When blood flows, it turns everyone into a refugee from doomsday, appearing and disappearing on a street where you arenít. When you donít exist, youíre everywhere. So it is, even for those who are unbearably blue. You are not afraid Ė if misery also has a "motherland", just leave "the motherland" to them.

Berlin, 15 October 1991


A studio is not a room. You walk in, and from wall to wall there is infinite space. Distances grow with the touch of your brush. You walk behind a painting and youíre hung up there, motionless. This is how you walk your whole life long. Quietly panting, the studio walks out of you. Looking back, it casually locks you up inside yourself. You bump into rags, paints, and chisels in the darkness, fall, and then sit down to think. Locked up by the studio and layer upon layer of canvas, you can die without worrying about others passing themselves off as your murderer. You die behind the pencil sketch of a skeleton, and itís only the smiling pigment that dies. In the void you become whatever part you play.


Youíre not one person. Youíre many. Only when the studio fills up with people is it really empty. Every day you try to paint. Unable to paint others, you paint yourself. You extend your long skinny claws and grab the air. One face, many faces. Behind the many faces even more expressions and accents. Somehow, you have always felt that a face and a leaf have something in common. Changing expressions are to a face what the passing seasons are to a tree. A leaf can be seized but not the sound it makes in the wind. You look in the mirror every day and itís like sitting by the window watching this tree slowly turn yellow. The veins in the leaves gradually protrude. Blood vessels on pale skin clog up with dead blood. And the voice turns dry and sharp. It reminds you of the feeble laughter of a hoarse and ageing throat. Is it your own? You canít say when your laughter began to sound worse than crying.


Painting begins with composition, and the self-portrait begins, as usual, in a place where you canít see yourself. Is it brush and blank paper or the darkness of the womb there in front of you? You got used to it long before you were born Ė life fermenting in a bottle, with death as a necessary premise. So, paint it. Paint aimlessly. The first strokes Ė randomly scattered bits of flesh and blood Ė by the fact of painting directed into trenches under the brushís tip. Only in oneís wildest dreams could they gradually become a body, learn to crawl, move around, replace the one that fell and grazed its knees at the street corner yesterday. The other you, buried under years and years of accumulated filth, tries to escape. The more it fails to escape, the more desperate it becomes. The more it seeks, the less it finds. Stripped naked, mashed flat, and framed, you at last disappear in the place where you exhibit yourself. What the sunlight mercilessly exposes is one who has always lived underground.


Because there is no reason, living becomes its own reason. You donít know why you laugh, so you laugh. The skin at the corners of your mouth peels off with the slightest stretch. Add creases that go deeper. They look as if they were carved by a knife that doesnít draw blood. Is that laughing? You feel the muscles cramp, out of control. Like a bull thatís been stabbed in the heart. Already it kneels on its front legs but on its hind legs it still tries to stand. Is that laughing? In fact animals canít laugh. They weep when theyíre in pain, or when the cold winter night is filled with danger, but they donít laugh. You see a horse prancing in the sunlight, rolling on the ground, but its face is passive despite the excitement. It reminds you of the stone faces on ancient sculptures. Only you humans are not spared the punishment of laughing, because you hate so deeply.


Then what? To the sound of your own laugher, you split into pieces, like a bird smashed by the sky. The sticky fragments of bone splatter against the sky, and the sky acquires the smile of a dying man. A man sentenced to death forgets how to cry in the end. As the beheading nears, he smiles stupidly, looking around searchingly as if beseeching onlookers to compare the expressions on his face before and after execution. Youíre alive and you, too, look around searchingly, looking at every cheap portrait walking the streets, all exactly like you. If you donít laugh, you may be put out like a pot of fake flowers to gather dust. At worst you will rot unnoticed like a piece of wood. But if you laugh, nothing is left but lies. Your laughter gives voice to a lie, proves there is no joy. Betrayal should always be done unknowingly. A frog with its hind legs severed will continue to swim in a pool red with its own blood. You continue to wear that indelible smile you hate. The pain slowly drills into your flesh. It penetrates to the core and becomes a finger that tickles you. You canít help laughing. As you laugh, death really comes. Once that tiny foot, like a childís, steps on you, you begin to rot openly. Your crooked nose sniffs and sniffs. Our nostrils fill up with a smell both sweet and putrid. Itís a smell everyone publicly scorns. The sound of their scornful laughter makes you laugh loudly back.


You move from painting to painting. The paintings move from you to you. Or, are you the paintings? Is a person nothing but portraits of nothingness? As a child you worried that your heart might forget to beat. A momentís negligence and you wouldíve been dead and gone. Now you open yourself up and paint your way inside. Open up the face by its features and paint a skull with dark eye sockets. Open up the belly and paint the guts wriggling out of control. Stones in the organs, like beans strung together with flesh, when packed in a box would go click-clack. Cellular renegades in the interstices dig tunnels from next door. Cling-clang go the shovels of disease. Hand it all over! Youíre not intimidated. You can hand it all over because thereís nothing left to hand over. One painting, a lot of paintings. Donít care how you appear to others. Anyhow, the day will come when you set your mind to be one who stops his heart from beating.


What are you still afraid of? Afraid of yourself? So much talk of you. But, in fact, there has never been a you. Afraid of the lies? But every one of those faces suspended on canvas is only too real. When a painting is finished, slap on more paint and rub it around until it becomes something else. Youíre changed. You change every day. Every minute. Hung up inside a frame, or hung up outside a frame, itís equally real. As with a cobweb falling carelessly from a roof beam, a hundred years can be wiped away with a flick of the wrist. You, too, can only wait to be flicked away. The studio makes you realize: the drab lies of this world are actually simple truths. Couldnít be simpler, like taking a breath. And so you canít fathom it but neither is there any other way out.


In the end, only you are colourless in the dazzling array of proliferating colours. As you move invisibly from painting to painting no one lays eyes on you. Look down at your hands, your arms, transparent in the sunlight. Moisture flows from your flesh into the air. Your blood is also colourless, more colourless than pitch. And so you can alter yourself radically at will. Dyed green, youíre grass. Yellow, youíre earth. Put on the light rouge make-up of a smile and youíre a loathsome and cowardly person. You know there are no hypotheses without reality as a premise. Living in a studio, deceiving becomes most natural. Itís not even art, itís reality. You canít flee into a painting. Instead, painting after painting flees from you. Whatever you pretend, you become. Whatever you resemble, you are. Only when youíre nothing do you enter into everything. You see a fly buzzing Ė crying out Ė on the window pane. You can only let it buzz. If a person canít stop fictionalizing himself, how can he stop this fictitious world? There is no other way. Laughing is the end. Colourless laughter, poison dripping on the body, corroding it, melting it away. Your very last work of art is to lock yourself in the studio and die. Laughter is the murderer of this world. All those who have learned to laugh over the centuries are its accomplices. In the museum, on the wall, a face turned to stone. The wrinkles, meticulously carved, bring out all the terror that has been. Shrinking into a corner, you become the paintingís only superfluous thing.

Berlin, 18 September Ė 20 November 1991

Posthumous Work


I write in Chinese. One by one the square Chinese characters get into my blood. For me, each poem is a posthumous work. Once finished, it shares my destiny: death. I must die in order to return to life in the next poem, to let the words I hate turn me into their senseless shadow once again.

For many years a book has been reading me from inside. Couldnít we say that words cause the world to be born inside a person? One cannot but write oneís "own" history, culture, and even native land in the void. Because of me, even the moonlight feels the pain. Even though this book has only a single page, it gets rewritten every morning. No sooner does my pen move, than I hear this page turning. Even though the loess plain has cruelly abandoned me, leaving me farther behind day by day, it keeps on turning. Because for an imaginary country, one lone body is big enough.

I long for this place. Poems long for the end they struggle toward. Maybe one small room is enough to inspire the agitated darkness to reveal its shape. And crystallize. And enable me to watch astonished as all these unfamiliar bones and muscles suddenly make me open up. Just as that instant they call Judgement Day opens up the way to the days after death. I am happy that a paper gravestone will return the poet to the poem. And out of the ruin the poem will embark on its own maiden voyage.

Not the poet but the poem truly has the right beginning on Judgement Day to continue its wandering under a clear sky. The right to join other lonely children in the wind and mud. "Chinese" is not its name. Its name is "blank". Once a poem is finished, it is at once finished and blank. At that moment I am abandoned by the poem forever. In abandonment I and my other selves have the same address. Sound upon sound reaches silence.

Only after silence do I wake up.

Berlin, 7 September 1991


Last updated 12 October, 2001