Letter from Shanghai


On Poetry

How a scandal about a Chinese name has been received in China.

This past February, the Chinese media widely announced that the Chinese poet Biqujibu, an ethnic Yi from western Sichuan, had been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, international category. Only twenty-three years old, he was selected for his very first book of poetry, a 1,500-line epic poem written in English, called A Poem Sacrifice for a Mountain Dream. Among the literary stars who wrote glowing reviews of the book were Biden Sitland (a famous American poet), Liffen Lushby (a prominent American translator, critic, and member of the Nobel selection committee), and Didian Linda (an American woman poet, a proponent of “rural writing”). This was an astonishing honor for a young ethnic-minority writer living in a country whose great literary works have been largely overlooked by American critics and readers.

But of course it never happened. The entire thing, including the unconvincing names and the assertion that the Pulitzer committee created the “international” prize just for Biqujibu’s sake, was made up. Even the poet in question turned out not to be ethnic Yi, but Han (the majority ethnicity in China). News of this fantastically ambitious ruse never made it to the States. And why should it have? It had nothing to do with the U.S., really; it had to do with the distant fame of the Pulitzer, and a lust for outside recognition in a dusty mountain town somewhere near the border of Yunnan.

Just as there is a sucker born every minute, there’s a shyster quick on his heels. The revelation of the appropriation of Yi-Fen Chou, a (likely) female Chinese name, by the white male poet Michael Derrick Hudson for a poem that was subsequently included in Best American Poetry 2015 has caused a ruckus in the American poetry scene. Here in Shanghai, though, there has been nary a ripple. When I asked a group of savvy poet friends both here and in Beijing, only two had even heard of the incident. When I explained to them what had happened, I barely got a raised eyebrow in response. On September 10, while my Facebook feed was exploding with furious commentary, my weixin feed was full of saccharine commemorations for the annual Teacher’s Day holiday.

There is virtually nothing to be found on baidu or weixin. The only reports I could ferret out were translations of articles first printed in Slate and Time Magazine, in which hilarious and varied attempts to translate the name Yi-Fen Chou appeared. The Slate translation gave 周一峰 (the surname 周 is quite common), or One Peak Zhou, while the Time translation favored 周易风, or Gentle Wind Zhou (which could also be translated Windy Book of Changes). One of my young poet friends used 周一奋, Single Struggle Zhou, in our discussion.

The name, obviously, is important. Isn’t that what we’re all talking about? But in the American discussion, Hudson’s pen name is referred to as Chinese or Chinese American. This misses an important subtlety. Given its spelling (with the strange exception of the Y in “Yi”), the name reads as Taiwanese. Taiwan never abandoned the Wade-Giles system, while mainland Chinese switched to a pinyin system in the 1950s. Hence some of the difficulty for mainland Chinese to figure out how it should be written. From a mainland point of view, then, it’s all a bit of distant infighting.

After all, the Chinese have no stake in our identity politics, our unequal publishing opportunities, and our political correctness. They have no history of yellowface, and a very different history of appropriation and ignorance of (or ignoring) the experience of entire groups of people. And anyway, they have their own scandals to attend to.

Perhaps what one well-known poet and critic told me gets to the heart of it: “It shows that in the assessment of poetry, one’s identity, and how one is labeled, can serve to amplify the work itself.” Which is to say, if a poem is rejected fifty times, maybe what needs to be changed is not the author’s name, but the poem itself.

Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni, was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Prize. Nine Dragon Island, a book of her poetry, will be published this year.