Zhai Yongming 翟永明: Chinese Confessional Poetry in Translation

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1. Contexts, Historical

Zhai Yongming is a Chinese poet born in Chengdu, Sichuan in 1955, and started publishing poetry in the 1980’s1. One of the few prominent female writers in post-Mao China, she writes about womanhood in a haunting, bitter way, her poems enshrouded in imagery of darkness and death. Her writing is somewhere between poetry, prose, and monologue, the syntax and vocabulary of her poems relatively easy to parse2. The strict rhythms and form of classical Chinese poetry are very different from the ones she uses. I’ve always characterized the Chinese poems as the art of saying as much as possible in the fewest words, but contemporary movements’ poetry reads more conversationally, abandoning prosody for striking imagery.

Zhai’s poetry differs from traditional poetry in not just form but content, reaching for personal subjects that were deemed inappropriate to put in poetry. Zhai’s writing comes at a tense time for the arts in China. After the Cultural Revolution, poetry journals were heavily monitored and censored as freedom of speech was policed especially in relation to the arts. In 1980, the Jintian poetry journal was banned, but the poems people wrote continued to spread.3 The Misty school of poetry prevalent in the post-war period was experimental and strange, featuring “dark, heavy, collage-like imagery that reflected the influence of French Imagism.”4 Zhai was younger than this school by a few years, but her writing still contains these elements.

Zhai also cites the American confessionals as an influence on her writing. After World War II, a limited amount of American poetry came to China in translation. Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton: their poetry was popular among Chinese poets, published in official and unofficial journals in Beijing and Sichuan, and Plath was particularly influential to Zhai’s writing. Plath’s poems were impactful in the Chinese poetry scene in general, sweeping poets in the 1980’s up in the “Plath tornado.”5

American confessional poetry has a history of over 1500 years, ranging from the religious confessions of the church to the secular confessions of the Renaissance and Englightenment, which were focused on finding an inner self and truth. After World War II, the Confessionals produced intensely personal poetry about mental illness, trauma, and the social turbulence of the time, revealing how the politics of the past decades impacted their psyches.

Chinese poetry doesn’t have this history of confession; rather, poets are expected to be socially responsible. Criticizing contemporary poetry, poet Shi Zhi 食指 snaps,

How can a poet not spend a moment considering the fate of humanity, or thinking about the future of her nation? How can a poet from the countryside not speak of the miseries of rural life or their dreams of prosperity? How can they just forget everything?6

Poetry is already seen as political in China, but it has to have the correct politics, with a moral obligation to be concerned about the collective, not just the self. To put the mundane and individual in poetry is politically incorrect and self-absorbed7. The focus on the speaker/poet and the personal confession is a shift from the wider corpus of Chinese poetry, even more so than in a western context. Confessionals in China and America both were criticized for engaging with taboo topics, but in China there’s especially a sense of social and political responsibility—a lack of concern for society as a whole.

At the same time, Zhai’s poems were also incredibly popular in China especially among women because of their feminist themes, leading her to double down on the personal nature of her work: she didn’t want to be seen as speaking for all women. But she’s still unflinchingly feminist in her own work. By engaging with the personal, that which might be hidden by outward responsibility, she validates the internal and personal struggles of women. By sharing them, she makes them collective.

2. In Text










fǎngfú zǎoyǐ cúnzài, fǎngfú zǎoyǐ jiù xù
wǒ zǒu lái, shēngyīn gài bù yóujǐ
tā bǎ wǒ āndùn zài cháonánde xiāngfáng

dìyīcì lái wǒ jiù gǎn shàng qīhēi de rìzi
dàochù dōu yǒu liǎnxíng xiāngxiàng de xiǎojìng
liáng fēng chuī dé wǒ cāngbái jìmò
yùmǐdì zài zhè zhǒng shíkè jīngshén dǒusǒu
wǒ lái dào zhèlǐ, tīng dào shuāngyúxīng de háojiào
yòu tīngjiàn mǐn’gǎn de yè dǒudòng bùyǐ

jí xiǎo de cǎo duǒ sànbù sùmù
cuìruò wéiyī de yún xiàng gūdú de yěshòu
nièzú zǒulái, hányǒu huài tiānqì de wèidào
rú tóngyǔ wǒ xiāngféng chéngwéi zhídé lǐjiě de nèixīn

yúgān zài shuǐmiàn huádòng, hūmínghūmiè de yóudēng
rèliè shāyǎ de gǒufèi shǐ rén mòxiǎng
zuótiān jùdà de fēngshēng sìhū liǎojiè yīqiè
bùyào róngnà hēishù
měigè jiǎoluò bùzhì yī cì shājī
rěnshòu bùmǎn réntǐ de shíkè
xiànzài wǒ kěyǐ wújūwúshù dì chéngwéi yuèguāng

yǐhūn fūfù mèngzhòng tīngjiàn mǎoshí yǔshuǐ de shēngyīn
hēilǘmen kàozhe shímò shāngliáng míngtiān
nàlǐ, yīnyáng hùnhé de tǔdì
duì suǒyǒu nián yuè liǎorú zhǐzhǎng

wǒ tīngjiàn gōngjī dǎmíng
yòu tīngjiàn gūlu dǎ shuǐ de shēngyīn

The First Month, trans. Lingenfelter

As if it had been there all along, as if by prior arrangement
I arrived, and a voice beyond my control
Placed me in a south-facing wing

I arrived just in time for the pitch black days
Every footpath looked the same
Breezes chilled me pale and lonely
While the cornfields pulsed with energy
When I arrived, I heard the roaring of Pisces
And the endless trembling of the sensitive night

Tiny haystacks spread out in a solemn array
One feeble cloud, like a solitary wild animal
Moved in on tiptoe, with a taste of foul weather
As if meeting me gave it a heart to match its shape

Fishing poles gliding over the water, flickering oil lamps
Fierce and ragged, the barking of dogs plunges me into thought
Yesterday’s howling wind seemed to comprehend everything
To say nothing of those black trees
Murderous traps are set in every corner
I’ve endured the moment that covered my body
And can now become moonlight, unfettered

A husband and wife hear the sound of pre-dawn rain in their dreams
Black donkeys lean against a stone mill, talking about tomorrow
There, the soil where yin and yang intermingle
Knows each year by heart

I hear a cock’s crow
And a windlass drawing water from a well

First Month, trans. me

As if it already existed, as if it were already arranged
I arrive, an involuntary noise
It settles me in a south-facing wing

The first time, I arrive in time for the pitch-black day
Everywhere the trails appeared the same
The cold wind turns me pale and lonely
At times like this the cornfields shiver with energy
I come, and hear the howling of Pisces
and this feeling night trembling endlessly

Tiny haystacks scattered and solemn
One fragile cloud like a lonely wild beast
tiptoes in, holds the taste of foul weather
As if by meeting me, it would become a heart worth knowing

The fishing poles glide on the water, the flickering lamps
The lively hoarse barking of the dogs gives people pause
Yesterday the roaring wind seemed to understand everything
Don’t tolerate the black trees
There’s a murder in every corner
Endure the moment that covers my body
Now I can become moonlight with no stopping me

In their dreams a married couple hear the pre-dawn rain
Black donkeys lean against the stone mill discussing tomorrow
There, the earth where shade and sun mingle
knows every year like the back of its hand

I hear the cock crow
and the gulu of water being drawn from a well

“The First Month” is part of a twelve-poem series called “Tranquil Village”【静安庄】. In this poem Zhai piles image upon image, not all of them connected or clearly linked, but almost all heavy and ominous. It takes place in darkness and bad weather, mostly lonely but for the blinking of lights and barking of dogs. The village isn’t peaceful at all. The air is full of anxious, hostile noise and trembling. The stars howl, the wind screams, the cornfields shiver. The nature around the speaker seems alive, and we don’t need to see to understand its sound—we can’t see. It’s pitch-black, and only the noise around us shows what’s happening.

Like the village, restless, the speaker is unsure of herself. She trails into as-if’s and might-be’s. Nothing here is certain, even time itself. The poem shifts confusingly between the present and past and future. In the first stanza, the speaker arrives at the village, but is it the same arrival she introduces in the second stanza as her first time? (Lingenfelter seems to think so.) On pitch black days, “the cornfields shiver brightly,” but Zhai never tells us if this is actually happening. We do not see the cornfields, only are told that they might be shaking. The images Zhai evokes are fleeting and detached from each other—we can’t piece together a comprehensive narrative with the fragments we’re given. The ambiguity casts us into darkness. This poem is the first of twelve, representing the first month; we expect this series to pass through the course of a year. But this poem disrupts that assumption. The Chinese title is not 【一月】, “January,” but 【第一月】, “First Month,” separating itself from a calendar. At the same time, the poem seems to take place over a day and night, starting with the pitch-black day of the speaker’s arrival and ending with the crowing of a rooster. Linear and ambiguous time cross over.

This shifty use of time doesn’t help in translation. Chinese doesn’t have tenses, but we have to commit to them in English. Lingenfelter sticks with the past, but shifts toward the present by the end of the poem, or avoids tense altogether. I stay in the present. The events in the poems, despite all the shifting in when/if they happen, are unadorned by indications of when each event occurred relative to the speaker’s now. As such, I decide to stay close to the infinitive in the present, before an event is settled into the past and left behind. I crowd all the events into the here-and-now, leaving the reader to decide when anything occurs. The tension between the omission that Chinese allows and the specificity English demands is apparent: we are asked to supply subjects, temporality, articles, plurals. As translators, we interpret. We fill in the gaps.

But the speaker is well-suited to the night, and feels at home in ambiguity. As she becomes moonlight, the speaker frees herself; “无拘无束” means literally “without constraint, without end.” She’s comfortable in this timelessness, free of physical and temporal restraint. In contrast, she’s stuck in time in the first lines, losing control over her body as she is “placed” facing the south, which gets more sun in the northern hemisphere—the opposite of the moonlight she seeks to become.

After this transformation, dawn draws near, bringing with it a scene of peace. The black donkeys at the mill aren’t people, but their conversation reminds me of old men sitting around a patio and chatting. Domestic life returns in the married couple, the rooster, the drawing of water. The unnatural darkness of the previous day is gone, replaced by the mingling of shade and sun—yin and yang—which is familiar, the light of the moon against the pitch-black dark. And even as dawn comes in the final lines, it’s still nighttime, and we hear the quiet chatter of the moments before the sun. The balance of yin and yang isn’t about the return of the daylight, but about peace.

I choose “shade and sun” rather than “yin and yang” as Lingenfelter does. Despite its relevance in Chinese philosophy, I find invoking yin and yang in English trite, more pseudo-spirituality and stereotype and white people rattling on about inner peace than anything meaningful. So I work around it. The white gaze has plenty else to drink in: but not this.

3. Contexts, In Translation

Zhai Yongming’s work was first published in America in the 1990’s. Andrea Lingenfelter translated and submitted her poem “Desire” to issue 39:03/04 of the Chicago Review, where it was published—without Zhai’s knowledge, much less consent9. Lingenfelter would later work with Zhai on The Changing Room, an anthology of translations of a selection of her poetry and the book that I’ve taken her translation of “The First Month” from. The two collaborated closely on this book of translations. What this collaboration consisted of, I don’t know, but we can likely presume that it was one Zhai approved of.

Literature in translation, Nunes writes, is often considered “second-class literature.”10 Translation is regarded as untrustworthy because of the presence of a translator, another voice standing in between the poet and their reader. As such, the general consensus around translation is that it should not “intrude” on reader’s experience. There is a focus on fluency, on making the reader forget that the work is translated. At the same time, we worry about originality, that a work’s meaning is preserved accurately. There’s an anxiety about the role of the translator: did they do it right or not? Nunes, in seeking to offer a queer feminist translation practice, suggests instead that the translator should not seek to hide their point of view, but make it clear that the reader is engaging with a translated text.11 The reader, she argues, should sit with the discomfort of crossing languages, rejecting a single fluent English version of the poem.

4. Contexts, My Own

I am not a fluent Chinese speaker, but my parents immigrated here from China in the late 90’s. As a toddler, the first words I spoke were in Chinese, and I grew up listening to my parents and extended family speak the language, even if I spoke it less and less. My mom likes poetry, and my parents tell me that as a kid they would give me Tang poems to memorize and recite,


Bright moonlight before the bed; I almost think it’s frost.
Gaze up wondering at the moon, look down and long for home.12

I don’t remember this. Now, I stumble through the language, and my voice in Mandarin is slow; the tones and vowels twist on my tongue and I don’t always wrap my mouth around them right. I translated【第一月】with many searches in Baidu’s online Chinese dictionary, Google Translate, and a lot of squinting at Lingenfelter’s version and another translation by Michael Day13.

It’s presumptuous, maybe, for me to have the confidence to translate Zhai’s work, but the exercise is still valuable, inviting close reading of every version of this work and bringing me closer to the text. And I don’t claim to give a comprehensive or accurate translation, or that my interpretation is better than any other. Lingenfelter worked with Zhai to produce The Changing Room, but I don’t have any such luxury. Or perhaps, I have an advantage: I am not haunted by author intent. My translation is produced by my interpretation of the poem, the translations of it that I’ve read (Lingenfelter’s and Day’s), and the connotations that each word carries for me as a non-native speaker. I carry with me my own language, straddling America and China, and my own close reading practice. Chinese poetry reminds me of my mother, who writes poems sometimes; of my grandmother, who taught Chinese literature at a high school; of myself, as a reader and writer. It brings me close to the women of my family and our relationship to language, my mother’s stories of burning rice on the stove as a girl because she was reading, my own sneaking books under my desk during class in elementary school. It makes me remember my father’s dismissal of literature and my mother’s intellect, never mind that she’s the one with the PhD in computer science, and how he turns instead to mathematics and software engineering. This, too, is gendered: our love of words, their harsh and softness, our understanding of how they might harm or connect.

This year, the dorm room I’m living in is north-facing, and during the day the light is blocked by trees and other buildings. I fall sleep in darkness and wake in darkness, clicking open my phone to check the time. Over the past few months, as sunset creeps in earlier and earlier, I notice my sense of time warping. 6:00pm feels like midnight and the night seems to stretch on forever. Yesterday night the winds howled and the trees and rain whined outside, or maybe it was the one before. I walked outside when it stopped and saw the clear glow of the moon. I hadn’t gotten dinner yet. It felt too early for this: this cold-cut loneliness and the pale wispy clouds scattering from the moon.

Zhai Yongming’s poems take place in the dark, but she is not invisible, nor is she unheard. The noise of her poetry reaches out to me across the years and across the ocean. Through translation. Through a sea of voices. I touch her language, in a tongue both familial and unfamiliar, and might bring forth my own voice.

  1. Zhai and Lingenfelter, The Changing Room↩︎

  2. Jin and Lee, “A Commitment Both Existential and Linguistic.”↩︎

  3. Zhai and Lingenfelter, The Changing Room↩︎

  4. ibid.↩︎

  5. Zhang, “An Ecofeminist Perspective on Sylvia Plath and Zhai Yongming.”↩︎

  6. Qtd. in Nunes, “Sitting with Discomfort.”↩︎

  7. Zhang, “The Personal Is Political.”↩︎

  8. Zhai and Lingenfelter, The Changing Room↩︎

  9. ibid.↩︎

  10. Nunes, “Sitting with Discomfort.”↩︎

  11. ibid.↩︎

  12. Tang poem by Li Bai 李白, very commonly taught to children; my translation.↩︎

  13. Day, “The Poetry of Zhai Yongming 翟永明.”↩︎

Works Cited

Day, Michael. “The Poetry of Zhai Yongming 翟永明.” Blog post, January 2008. https://michaelmartinday.blogspot.com/2008/01/zhai-yongming-poetry-translations.html.

Jin, Siyan, and Isabelle Lee. “A Commitment Both Existential and Linguistic: Zhai Yongming.” In Subjective Writing in Contemporary Chinese Literature, 231–52. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvzsmbm7.11.

Nunes, Jenn Marie. “Sitting with Discomfort: A Queer-Feminist Approach to Translating Yu Xiuhua.” In Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs, 23–44. Amsterdam University Press, 2019. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvs32rh7.6.

Zhai, Yongming, and Andrea Lingenfelter. The Changing Room: Selected Poetry of Zhai Yongming. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1p6qr2d.

Zhang, Xiaohong. “An Ecofeminist Perspective on Sylvia Plath and Zhai Yongming.” Comparative Literature Studies 55, no. 4 (2018): 799–811. muse.jhu.edu/article/713648.

———. “The Personal Is Political: A Comparative Study of Contemporary Chinese and American Confessional Poetry.” Comparative Literature Studies 54, no. 1 (2017): 31–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/complitstudies.54.1.0031.