The One Who Happened



Illustration by Thomas Colligan.


He happened to hear the world was square, like the square table at home that could be used for eating or playing cards on.
He happened to hear that the emperor is made so by divine right, but he was just a commoner so that’s nothing.
He happened to have not heard of Hitler; that guy with a little mustache avoided him for nineteen years.
He happened to have not heard of the Cultural Revolution, and looked at himself in the mirror in a positive light.

When he came to Beijing, it happened to be a clear day, no smog;
in a spurt of energy he went to Inner Mongolia, where he happened not to run into a sandstorm and so never got lost.
Convinced by the blue sky with white clouds above the grasslands that all distance was reachable,
he happened to meet a stallion that let him ride for one hour at full gallop between heaven and earth.

Back in his hometown, he happened to not run into the accountant’s daughter, so he married the daughter of the fruit wholesaler instead.
On the street, he happened to avoid a car crash, and it was great that life could go on.
He learned how to bray just like a donkey, and he was so happy he didn’t notice it was a donkey braying in Chinese.
He happened to be born Chinese, happened to read Dream of the Red Chamber not Gargantua and Pantagruel

He happened to know poplars and willows, but not the paulownia tree.
He happened to find three wallets, but if there were a fourth time would it still be that he happened to?
He happened not to know the rich connotations of the word second, and though his neighbors know they’re not telling him.
He has experienced a second-rate happiness, and happened to be encouraged by the spring breeze.


Translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein.

Xi Chuan is an internationally acclaimed poet, essayist, and literary translator. Among the numerous honors he has received are the Lu Xun Literature Prize (China), the Cikada Prize (Sweden), and the Tokyo Poetry Prize (Japan). He lives in Beijing.

Lucas Klein is a father, writer, translator, and associate professor of Chinese at Arizona State University. He has translated Mang Ke, Li Shangyin, and Duo Duo, and his second book of Xi Chuan translations, Bloom & Other Poems, will be available from New Directions in the summer of 2022.