An Interview with John Crespi on Performance Poetry in China, with a Sampling of Live Recordings


/ by Zona Yi-Ping Tsou

Poetry performance in China, it turns out, is alive and well and includes a surprisingly diverse range of practices and activities from footloose avant-garde shows to straitlaced official pageants on down to amateur poetry recitation clubs and sometimes even sales promotions, says John A. Crespi, who spent a year in China on a Fulbright grant researching and recording the current state of performed poetry in Beijing and elsewhere. In the following interview, Crespi, who is the Henry R. Luce Assistant Professor of Chinese at Colgate University, discusses some of the more salient trends and gives us a sampling of some of his favorite recordings.

What got you interested in Chinese performance poetry and how long have you been studying it?
I first became interested while doing my doctoral research in Beijing in the mid-1990s. I originally planned to write about poetry from the War of Resistance Against Japan, but while digging through old journals in the libraries over there, I came across articles and even some books on poetry recitation. It looked interesting, and was something no one seemed to have written about. I thought I would write a chapter or two on the topic, but one chapter quickly became two, then four, and before long I had an entire dissertation devoted to Chinese performance poetry that covers most of the 20th century.

What forms of performance poetry do you discuss?
I don't go into the popular traditions of performed poetry. I was mainly interested in poetic recitation, or shige langsong (詩歌朗誦). Langsong is really a catch-all term in the mainland. If a famous actor recites a Mao poem to orchestral accompaniment in the Great Hall of the People, it's called langsong. If an avant-garde artist improvises a Dada-style poem with bongos between his knees, that's also called langsong. The English words "recite," "declaim" or "reading" don't really capture the span of the Chinese term. This is due, of course, to the particular history of langsong in China.

Langsong must have a long history in China.
Some of the earliest available accounts are those of Zhou and Spring and Autumn era nobles citing the Odes in diplomatic missions and court ceremony, the practice of "fushi" (賦詩). Being able to draw upon the Odes in a manner appropriate to the situation was seen as a distinguishing mark of accomplishment and erudition. Also, education in China has for millennia involved a lot of oral recitation, including the recitation of poetry. The song-like chanting of classical poems was probably the most common way for the educated to perform poetry before the vernacular language came to dominate.

Is this elite tradition still around?
This practice is still alive and well in Taiwan. A former colleague of mine from Taiwan was quite accomplished at it, and I recall seeing a student group from Taiwan give a performance of it in Beijing last year. Whether this neo-traditional recitation actually follows the older style is another question. My impression is that the practitioners all innovate and invent. No one does it quite the same way.

What about on the mainland?
The mainland naturally has its own modern history of recitation, which is rooted in the vernacular language reform movement of the 1910s. The basic goal of vernacular reform in China (and in many other places in the world) was to make language more accessible and flexible, to open up communication among members of a modernizing nation. The early proponents of poetry recitation in China in the 1930s took up this ideology, especially those with a strong leftist bent. They wrote of rejecting the chanted poetry of the old literati and their insular, exclusive cliques in favor of a recited poetry that went out into the masses to agitate and awaken. This leftist-populist tradition of poetry recitation became consolidated during the War of Resistance and was institutionalized in the 1950s and 1960s into a sort of political mass culture of dramatic reading linked to Maoist mass campaigns.

Was there much recitation that resisted, or at least stood outside of, the leftist-populist tradition before it became institutionalized?
If you go back to what these leftist-populist poets were saying in the 1930s, they were the ones resisting the “decadent” Formalist, Symbolist, and Modernist poets of the time. But yes, in the 1920s and 1930s there were a number of more academic poets in Beijing who held regular poetry reading sessions where they would gather with friends and colleagues to experiment with poetic forms and genres by reading to a small audience of like-minded intellectuals. For example, Beijing University professor Zhu Guangqian (朱光潛) was the main figure behind the Poetry Reading Society (讀詩會), as it was called. He had come up with the idea after attending readings at Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop in London. Monro's events are generally regarded as foundational for the later practice poetry reading in the Anglophone world. Zhu Guangqian helped spread the practice to China. I also know that before all that British-style Victorian verse-recitation was going on in the missionary-run schools in China, like at the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College, but haven't found a connection between this pedagogical recitation and what the Chinese poets were doing.

Did recitations play a prominent role in the Cultural Revolution and subsequent "democracy" movement?
Absolutely. All this was what Xiaobing Tang (唐小兵) calls the "lyric age," a time of utopian yearnings and revolutionary passion that found expression in poetry recitation. In his essay "Recitation," Bei Dao (北島) writes about reciting from the rooftops during this period, and young people all over would recite the classics of the time—everything from "Song of Lei Feng" (雷鋒之歌) to the poetry of Pushkin and Lermontov.

Anyone from this period who really stood out?
Yes, the poet Huang Xiang (黃翔). There's an article by Andrew Emerson in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture that describes his activities with the Yeya Salon (野鴨沙龍) in Guizhou (貴州), and his journey to Beijing early on in the Democracy Movement. Huang is probably best known for his theatrical delivery—he'll bellow, shout, weep, shake his fists. He still recites this way, as I can attest after inviting him to Colgate some years ago to do a reading. There's a story going around that when Huang was invited—or more likely, invited himself—to read at the artists' colony in Yuanmingyuan (圓明園) back in the early 1990s, he recommended that all the other poets stand up and recite poems until they collapsed from exhaustion and had to be taken to the hospital. I've been told, too that in the early 1990s the Sichuanese poet Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) actually was carried to the hospital after reciting. If you've heard recordings of his recitations you'd believe it.

Poets today in China will tell you that there really isn't much difference between the officially-sanctioned recitation style and Huang Xiang's wild underground style. Both come out of the same tradition of performed poetry as a vehicle of passion and tool of agitation. The entire mindset relates to China's modern tradition of political protest under the communists, where a high premium is put on revolutionary martyrs who fearlessly stand up to confront the enemy head on. Think of that famous photo of the guy standing in front of the line of tanks on Changan Avenue. I think it's safe to say that among the intellectual camp of poets, that sort of approach took a body blow in 1989. The realization set in that you can't simply "shout down" a political regime; if you want things to change you have to work slowly, gradually, build foundations in your own independent or at least semi-independent discursive space.

What other forms of poetry recitation are going on in China today?
The range and variety is pretty dizzying. But the split I've been describing between a leftist, agitational tradition and a more liberal, intellectual, cosmopolitan tradition is still very much alive. Even today, poets affiliated with Beijing University view what you might call “the official tradition of recitation” with a certain antipathy. On the other hand, people who go in for the more dramatic, official style tend to look down their noses at the intellectual readings. For instance, at the poetry recital for the annual Beijing University festival last year, a woman I know from a poetry recitation club turned to me while a particularly opaque poem was being read on stage and said to me with conviction: "This sort of thing departs too far from the masses."

Is poetry recitation part of the urban club scene and sub-culture?
That's an interesting question because it gets at some of the fundamental differences between poetry reading in places like the US and poetry recitation in China. Again, to get at this properly you need to keep in mind the bifurcation (but by no means a strictly oppositional one) on the Chinese poetry scene. On the one hand you have people influenced by the official-style recitation and who view it as a performance art in itself. They generally recite other people's poems, usually well-known, anthologized works believed to be suited for recitation. These can be poems by Mao Zedong, Bei Dao, Shu Ting (舒婷), Shi Zhi (食指), Xu Zhimo (徐志摩), poems from the “political lyric” genre, or even occasional pieces tailored to a certain event. On the other hand you have poets who almost exclusively recite their own poetry. These poets often take a dim view of the other type of recitation, seeing it as excessively stylized, hyper-emotional, and politically retrograde. Likewise, the former group likes to point out how poets are poor reciters.

Have you ever participated in recitations in China?
While in Beijing during 2005-6 I joined a newly-formed amateur recitation club—a group of folks who would meet the first Sunday of each month on the second floor of a Beijing halal hot-pot restaurant between the lunch and dinner hours. The head of the club was the owner of the restaurant. The membership comprised regular folks of all ages, from college students to retirees—anyone who liked to recite and who wanted to meet others with the same interests. The core of the club, however, was made up of a smaller group of perhaps ten people who were semi-professional “recitation artists”; that is, they had some voice training, maybe had worked in radio or as professional dubbers, and were perhaps poets themselves. At a typical meeting one of the core members would act as m.c. by welcoming everyone, asking new members to come to the front to recite something, offering constructive criticism, and generally keep the program moving along. More than anything this was a social club, a place where like-minded people could get together to make friends, establish connections and “enrich their cultural lives,” as some put it.

Are open-mike recitations or poetry slams part of the bar or club scene in China?
I saw very little when I was there. According to poets I spoke to, such events had been organized in the past, but had “the head of a tiger but the tail of a snake”; in other words, they were publicized with great fanfare, but petered out quickly. Without actually having witnessed one of those ill-fated ventures, I can't really say why that would be. My feeling, however, that it has something to do with a different tradition of performance in China. Poetry recitations in China are typically part of a larger “event” of some sort: a commemoration, a poetry festival, a real-estate sales opening, a book publication, a holiday, or maybe a group of poets declaring their presence on the scene. Interestingly this is true for all schools of recitation. I think it is a hangover from the days when cultural events were tied into political mass movements. Given this sort of cultural convention, a regular weekly poetry open mike would seem rather purposeless.

Do they have many poetry specialty bookstores in the PRC?
Not really. I don't think a bookstore devoted to poetry could survive very long in China. It's hard enough anywhere else. On the other hand, you do see poets and poetry enthusiasts running bars and clubs. The woman poet Zhai Yongming (翟永明) for instance runs the White Nights (白夜) bar in Chengdu, and has held readings there. Last year at the annual Beijing University Weiminghu Poetry Recital (未名湖詩歌朗誦會) a poet named Chu Tianshu (楚天舒) followed up his reading with a plug for the CCTV Story Club restaurant-bar (CCT老故事餐吧), which was about to open on the North 3rd Ring Road. Aside from writing poetry, Chu is a manager at this place. In fact his business card reads "Manager (poet)." He invited me to the opening, and they've held more poetry-related events there since. It's a large theme restaurant that plays on the cultural capital of CCTV's documentary film archives. I remember the advertising slogan on the wall behind a small stage: "A world of reminiscence for white-collar professional, fantasy land for the middle class" (白領懷舊天地,中產幻覺世界).

So to answer your question about poetry bookshops, I guess I'd have to say that poetry readings are tied to cultural spaces, but these are spaces of recreational consumption that enhance their commercial appeal through an appeal to cultural recreation, with performed poetry one element in the repertoire of putting culture on display. Zhai Yongming's place might be an exception to this, if for no other reason than it is so small and doesn't have any economic clout.

You mentioned real-estate sales openings. Are you saying that commercial developers are using poetry recitals for promotional purposes?
Yes. In fact, there's also a gigantic mall going up in Beijing called the Dazhongsi International Plaza (大鐘寺國際廣場). The real-estate entrepreneur behind this project, Huang Nubo (黃怒波), is also a poet. In fact, he's a major "art angel" behind a whole slew of poetry-related events, prizes, institutes and so on, half of them affiliated with Beijing University, the other half with the quasi-official Chinese Poetry Association (中國詩歌會). Talk about buttering your bread on both sides! When I left Beijing last year the Dazhongsi project was still a hole in the ground, albeit a very impressive hole, let me tell you. In an online interview he claimed that the place would include an "International Poetry Corridor" inside of a 1950s-era steel factory to be transported whole, soil included, from Xinjiang. He says it would be a place for fashion shows, big parties, and poetry and song performances. Basically he is ripping off the let's-put-art-and-culture-in-an-old-factory idea, which has been making a big splash in China lately. In any case, I'm definitely going back for another look when the mall is done to see if he is good for his word.

What about the music scene? Is there much poetry recitation going on there?
Some. If you're interested in the merger of electronic music with poetry recitation, I particularly recommend a 2003 article by the Dutch sinologist Maghiel van Crevel's on Yan Jun (顏峻), which includes extensive translations and sound files. Another piece of his on MCLC mentions the poet Hei Dachun (黑大春), who recites his poetry with a live rock band.

You have any personal favorites?
Maybe because I play acoustic guitar myself I really like the poet-singer-songwriter named Zhou Yunpeng (周雲蓬). He has been blind since the age of nine, but that hasn't stopped him from wandering all over China as a street musician. Now he's settled in Beijing and plays regularly for a weekly open-mike at the Nameless Highland (無名高地) bar, and tours around from time to time. He's put out a slim volume of his poetry, some of which are song lyrics, and has two CDs, one of which came out just last April. My favorite recording is one I made at a party where he performed the song “A Child's Dream of Communism” (一個兒童的共產主義夢想), which is his adaptation of a socialist-era children's song. It's a simple, fun tune—and you can hear that he's having fun playing it—but at the same time it expresses something of the wonder and confusion of living in a country hell-bent on modernization. I also like this particular recording, a “field recording” if you will, because it picks up the ambient sounds of the audience and the space of the performance. Performed poetry and performed music is always embedded in a specific space and place. Though we might try to filter it out, and really lack a critical vocabulary to talk about it, the background “noise” of live performance becomes part of the text we experience.

You have any other recordings you could share with us before you go?
Here's three I like that exemplify the diversity of performance poetry in China today:

The Stranger” (陌生人) is a videoclip of a recitation of a prose poem written by Beijing-based poet Xi Chuan (西川) that I recorded in May 2006 at the Orient Avant-Garde Theater (东方先锋剧场) in Beijing. What you see here is an actress reciting a pared-down version of the poem as Meng Jinghui scripted it into his haunting, absurdist drama “Flowers in the Mirror, Moon on the Water” (鏡花水月).

Confession” (自白) is a clip I recorded in September 2005 at the Museum of Modern Chinese Literature (中國現代文學館) in Beijing that is a good example of “official” recitation in China today. The reciter is a senior actor in the Central Military Commission Drama Troupe—hence the uniform—as well as a ranking expert in standard Mandarin pronunciation. He's reciting Zang Kejia's (臧克家) 1934 poem “Confession” (自白) at an evening of song and poetry commemorating Zang's 100th birthday.

“Names” (名字) is an example of poetry recitation crossing over into performance art, or vice versa, that I recorded in December 2005 at the South Gate Space (南門空間) in the Dashanzi Art District (大山子藝術區), Beijing. Heizi (黑子) performed it during a sort of avant-garde cabaret called “From Yuanmingyuan to 798” (從圓明園到798) that included spoken word, music, and performance art.

Do you have translations of the recitations?
Yes, I do, and would be happy to have you post them.
A Child's Dream of Communism   一個兒童的共產主義夢想  

The rain is pouring down, a call comes from Beijing
The rain is pouring down, a call comes from Beijing
Enlist, enlist, let me enlist,
I'm not grown up yet, I'm not grown up yet.

The rain is pouring down, a call comes from Beijing
The rain is pouring down, a call comes from Beijing
Join the army, join the army, let me join the army,
I'm not grown up yet, I'm not grown up yet.

An upstairs and a downstairs, electric lights and a phone,
An upstairs and a downstairs, electric lights and a phone,
Pull the cord, pull the cord, the room fills up with light
Twist the spigot and water comes gushing out.

The year 2000, the Four Modernizations
The year 2000, the Four Modernizations
The lies, the nonsense, the empty talk, the exaggeration,
Better to go drinking, get drunk, and spout hot air
The lies, the empty talk, the nonsense, the exaggeration,
Better to go to bed and talk in your sleep.
The Stranger   陌生人  

I'm waiting. A man sits down across the table. It's not who I'm waiting for, but who knows . . . .

He orders tea. He coolly watches my every move, like he's watching some big global event. He sticks a tea leaf in his mouth and begins chewing, and chewing. He's groping around in his right-hand pocket

He stares at me. On instinct I smile back, but don't feel right.

Has he got the wrong person? Is there another one of me out there? I scan back fast over all the wrongs I've committed, and just as fast feel bad for everyone I've done harm.

Who is he?

He clenches his fist till his knuckles pop. It sounds like there's a beast inside of him, panting.

The stink of an animal. The law of the jungle. Darwin got it right.

I lift my newspaper to block him out.

I try to make my presence fade like I was on a dimmer switch, but stay right there.

To fight Darwin I summon my every cell to the palm of my hand.

I slam the paper down.

He's gone.

Confession   自白  

. . . .
In these days of lies,
I keep for humanity a strand of what is pure,
I am warmth, I shall ladle boiling water
Over a universe hard like ice.
Let terror be no more than the driving rains of June,
I know when they shall end,
And fear not. See that file of shadows there before you,
(uncounted hearts pulsing over my own)
I shall sing loud of what is right,
And be not a thrush, but the rooster that calls forth the dawn.