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Sarah Howe
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a small jar of night a thousand frontiers carrying him the sky of old age continues the firing in the kiln continues arranging this pot plant lamplight a glazed hand refines a blue cough in his flesh he embroiders the fragile whiteness of posterity –Yang Lian, ‘Father’s Blue & White Porcelain’, trans. Bill Herbert My posts this week have been ‘To China’: part return, part letter, to a land that will always be just over the horizon. In my last blog, I’d like to bring us full circle, back to the i... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
...The sour tear-like orange was there like a clove of garlic melting in my mouth. It wasn’t a time for complaints and nobody murmured a word of discomfort. It was the silence of refugees longing for an identity foreign to this tiny, floating, motherless city. –Kit Fan, ‘BN(O)’ A fortnight ago, a story about rumour’s power to fuel a whirlwind of nationalistic indignation, stoked online and then as quickly averted, played across the news channels in China. The trigger was a photo circulating on the Chinese-language internet, which seemed to show an act of recent vandalism. In a piece of iconoclastic violence uncannily reminiscent of the faceless Buddhas in the Mogao Caves, the heads had been knocked from several of the mustard-coloured Buddhas sitting in teal niches on the glazed exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom, one of the most treasured buildings in Beijing’s Summer Palace. Was this the work of mindless vandals? A couple of months earlier, another furore had broken out among Chinese netizens when a photo emerged of a carved stone relief inside the famous Luxor temple in Egypt: one of the 3,500 year old statues had been defaced across its torso by a Chinese tourist’s incised graffiti, sparking a hunt to shame the person responsible for so tarnishing China’s global reputation. The perpetrator had made the rookie mistake of scratching out his full name, and before long the crowd-sourced force of one of China’s increasingly notorious Human Flesh Search Engines had tracked him, a fifteen-year-old boy, to his home in Nanjing. It looked like it was all happening again, this time on Chinese soil, until the Summer Palace’s curators came forward to explain that no modern vandals were involved. The restorer’s glue responsible for re-affixing the reconstructed heads onto the Buddhas’ necks, expanding and contracting with the seasonal temperatures, had caused them to fall off again. In fact, the ceramic heads had been smashed over a century earlier, in 1900, when an army of allied foreign forces marched into Beijing to respond to the Boxer rebellion. The story was not, it turned out, about modern morals at all, but rather was part of a historical narrative about China’s ‘century of humiliation’ familiar to all Chinese school children from their history textbooks. The ruins of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, ransacked by British and French soldiers during the Second Opium War, are a symbol of foreign imperialist aggression which the Communist government are keen to keep fresh in people’s minds. As Julia Lovell explains in the opening pages of her recent history of The Opium War, tales of China’s past sufferings under feudalism on the one hand and foreign imperialism on the other are a crucial part of the current regime’s narrative of its own rise to power, and thus its legitimacy. What English school children learn about Beijing’s looted Old Summer Palace, reduced to marble rubble by British troops? For the Chinese authorities, those Beijing ruins are an important spur to patriotic feeling –... Continue reading
Posted Aug 16, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
[My apologies – after a gruelling flight from London to Beijing yesterday (a journey I’d made in the opposite direction a few days before, coming home for a dear friend’s wedding), I found myself feeling somewhat discombobulated by my ping ponging of time zones. And so I’m running a day behind (or ahead?) with these posts which, appropriately enough, have just acted out the very West-East transit they describe.] At the turn of the twentieth century, the monk appointed by himself caretaker of the sacred rubbish was persuaded by Aurel Stein that the explorer should be able to load up his ponies and ‘Don’t miss me too much today’ two years later the cave was empty. –Caleb Klaces, ‘The cave is woken up’ At the close of my second post, I left you with Li Bai’s famous poem, ‘The Moon at the Fortified Pass’, which imagines how the wind which beats at the battlements of the Yumen Pass in Gansu has already scoured a thousand miles of desert before it reaches that point. The elements have eroded the four-feet deep ochre brick walls of today’s Yumen Pass to a dilapidated softness – as though destined to collapse back into the surrounding sands – which it can’t have possessed in Li Bai’s day, when it bristled with soldiers guarding China from westward hordes. Stretching away on either side of the pass are distant, marooned fragments of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) Great Wall, now just a few feet high. Built from tamped earth and reeds in the absence of a resilient local stone, they are a thousand years older than the crenellated bulwarks of the Ming Dynasty wall tourists saunter along near Beijing. On the afternoon, two weeks ago now, we filed through the squat doorway that broaches the Yumen Gate, jostled by a stream of eager Chinese tourists, the air hung unbearably still – the desert’s oven-like expanse relieved by no wind. But when the wind does blow in that corridor of the Gobi, it blows from the West. In other words, the winds noted by Li Bai follow the same route across Central Asia from the Middle East as the eastbound caravans of 2000 years ago, which would have had to pass through that very juncture, where we were stood, on their way to Xi’an and other Chinese cities to trade in silk and precious goods. The Yumen Pass, near Dunhuang A stretch of the Han Dynasty Great Wall, near the Yumen Pass We had originally planned to track further back along this stretch of the Silk Road, from Gansu on to Xinjiang province. Xinjiang, whose name means ‘new border’, is the furthest west of China’s provinces and also the largest – its vast reaches of desert account for almost 20 percent of the country’s total area. Despite a recent and growing influx of Han Chinese, its inhabitants are mostly members of the Uighur ethnic minority, whose Turkic descent and Islamic faith mean they have more in common with... Continue reading
Posted Aug 15, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms, A great shelter for all the world’s scholars, together in joy, Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it. Oh! If I could see this house before me, I’d happily freeze to death in my broken hut! –Du Fu, ‘My Thatched Cottage was Torn Apart By Autumn Winds’, trans. Mark Alexander Just over a week ago I found myself in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, standing in front of the thatched cottage of Du Fu. Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), along w... Continue reading
Posted Aug 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
The Savage is flying back home from the New Country in native-style dress with a baggage of sensibility to gaze on the ancestral plains with the myths thought up and dreamed in her kitchens as guides. –Denise Riley, ‘A Note on Sex and “The Reclaiming of Language”’ This Easter I spent five weeks or so living and writing in Hong Kong. It was only the third time I had been back since my family left for England in 1991, when I was almost eight. That childhood migration didn’t surprise me or, I think, my Chinese mother (though my little brother was tearful for days after it was announced, believing he would have to leave all his toys behind). My father had swapped East London for the Far East thirty years earlier, but had always encouraged us to think of England – a country we had scarcely visited – as ‘home’. I had it marked with a toothpick Union Jack on the world map in my childhood bedroom. But two decades later, it was Hong Kong that had come to feel for me like a place in the imagination. People often ask me how much I can remember of it – and the answer is, surprisingly, a lot. But of course they’re a small child’s memories. The yellow-crested cranes in the enclosure at the park. The banyans hung with fishing-line hairs that sentried my walk down the hill to the school bus. The neon-silver vista of the skyscrapered harbour, peered at through the kumquat trees that lined our living room window. But I had no residual sense of the island’s geography, of how those memories would relate to each other plotted on a map. So this year, in what turned out to be an unusually wet and sultry April even by Hong Kong standards, I went on long walks, trying to knit together the places I could remember, or at least could remember being told about – sometimes a bit of both. My hope was that all this would seed new poems, but what I didn’t expect was the unintended fact checking of older poems I fell into. Unintended, because it hadn’t really occurred to me I might have got things wrong – or that it would matter if I had – in the handful of poems about Hong Kong I’d already written over the past few years. One long poem, ‘A loop of jade’, which interleaves my early memories with my mother’s childhood in ’50s Hong Kong, proved especially problematic. Some errors were simply factual – retelling a Chinese fable, and embroidering one particular scene, I’d placed the draped bride at the ‘head’ of her wedding procession rather than in its midst. If I hadn’t stumbled on a traditional bridal sedan (plus explanatory plaque) in the history museum, I would still be oblivious of that modest howler. With its smoothed dark wood carry-poles, it looked much too small to fit a person inside. Other errors were more to do with... Continue reading
Posted Aug 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 12, 2013