Joseph R. Allen:

Translating Gu Cheng

This essay is modified from the “Introduction” to Sea of Dreams: The Selected Writings of Gu Cheng (New York:  New Directions, 2005). Unless otherwise noted, all quoted materials are from that volume.


In October, 1993 readers across the world were shocked when they heard that one of China’s most celebrated contemporary poets, Gu Cheng 顧城, had assaulted his wife and then hanged himself, leaving her to die in the hospital a few hours later1.  He was thirty-seven years old; she was thirty-five; their son was five. Some would see this as a desperate act by a romantic and naïve genius who had been victimized and abandoned by the women he loved; others would see it as the final event in a life of an immature, self-obsessed impostor who had taken advantage of those around him. Gu Cheng had always been seen as an eccentric figure in the contemporary literary scene; with his death everyone seemed to take sides—he was either a child of nature or a monster. Gu Cheng’s peripatetic life mirrored the dramatic changes in Chinese society in the late twentieth century, and those changes, both personal and political, contributed to the range, richness and variation in his work.


Life and Work

Gu Cheng’s literary career rose from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and plotted the reawakening of lyricism in China during the 1980s. Born (1956) into privilege, if not wealth (his father was a well-known writer and party member), the first few years of Gu Cheng’s life in Beijing must have been relatively comfortable. A family anecdote captures those early years:

    One night after dinner, the family went out for a walk together. As he walked along, Gu Cheng looked up at a large willow tree that stood on the side of the road and said, “Losing an arm, I open wide an eye.” Father was sort of startled by this; he laughed and asked Gu Cheng if the tree preferred to have an eye or an arm? Gu Cheng, who seemed to be suddenly shocked by the thought, did not reply. After returning home, he worked on the poem, asking his older sister how to write the characters. The poem was saved by his mother [and became one of the first two poems in his collected works]2.

Here one senses that the young Gu Cheng was surrounded by a devoted and attentive family: father as critic, sister as tutor and scribe, and mother as anthologist.  He seems to be their literary project as well as their child.

That world quickly shattered however. When he was twelve, Gu Cheng accompanied his family to the barren reaches of Shandong province, where they had been “sent down” when the Cultural Revolution cranked up its anti-bourgeoisie machine. While not the harshest of treatments of those troubled times, the exile reduced their lives to that of peasants, and ended Gu Cheng’s formal education. It is here we get the seminal vision of natural innocence to which Gu Cheng clung throughout his life. Viewed in retrospect, the years in Shandong become a haven for innocence: “He was all alone, only able to commune with selfless nature; in this way he escaped from the turmoil of the human world.”

Gu Cheng’s discovery of this “selfless nature” is one of the most common tropes in the construction of his aesthetic sensibility; he says that he learned poetry from the natural world, direct and unmediated: from raindrops, lavender, and hermit crabs. Later, it would be dreams, hallucinations, and visions that functioned as this extra-literary engine. This is, of course, simply a conceit used to characterized his disenchantment with the everyday world; “art is made of art” and Gu Cheng no doubt learned much about writing poetry from other poetries. During this time he was fascinated with a 19th century book of entomological drawings, one of their few cultural possessions; indeed, the line drawings that he produced throughout his life have an illustrative, bizarre natural history quality to them: like scientific drawing seen through a kaleidoscope. In terms of poetry, I think we can assume two early influences: classical Chinese poetry and his father. Classical poetry is central to the ubiquitous culture of memorization in China, contributing substantially to the common conception of what constitutes poetry. We witness Gu Cheng’s early familiarity with this poetry in the small corpus of classical-style poems that he wrote, as in this example from his first year in Shandong when he was thirteen:

          You sir, walk the dike midstream
          the two banks white with frozen snow
          A spring wind brushes across one’s face
          and spring waters in torrents flow


In its structure, language and affective scene, this is a respectable version of classical Chinese poetics, which is characterized by a sensibility that merges the mundane scene with the mental world of an “I” narrator in a vignette of occasionality. We wonder if perhaps the classical “sir” (jun 君) refers to his father? That would make sense, since, in many ways, the stories that come from those years are “father and son” tales—they were said to have herded pigs together during the day, writing poems in the sand, and on scraps of paper to be burned in the cooking fire so that “only flames were their readers.”

In 1974 that pastoral idle gave way to a new life in the city when Gu Cheng and his family moved back to Beijing. Like many of the “educated youth” sent down to the countryside, Gu Cheng had to learn to live in a radically altered world: he became an urban laborer and budding intellectual— carpenter, painter, illustrator, and editor. In 1976 he participated in the Tian’anmen demonstrations, which jump-started a new youth culture in China focused on “democracy” and from which the underground journal Today was born. In late 1978 he was befriended by a group of somewhat older writers associated with that journal. Later, he, along with other Today poets, became identified with a new poetry, called menglong 朦朧 by the critics—a term commonly translated as “misty,” but whose meaning is closer to “hazy.” This poetry offered an equivocal, symbolic, and introspective literary vision to young readers who were bone weary of decades of simple didacticism, or what Gu Cheng called “rhyming editorials.” Sometimes this new poetry was filled with political innuendo; sometimes it offered the reader only an essential, slightly ambiguous, imagistic moment. The best combined the two. Gu’s small lyric of 1979, “A Generation,” became the slogan for his time:

          Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night
          I go to seek the shining light


The early 1980s were heady days for the young people of China as the country emerged out of decades of political lunacy and social dislocation toward a promise of freedom, comfort, and stability. These were Gu Cheng’s most prolific years; he frantically wrote poem after poem, sending them out over the country for publication in the emerging literary venues. He writes: “It was like being a real poet—on the road with a group of editors from The Poet magazine. We swaggered through the streets, bullshitting with each other and looking for a bathroom.” In just a few years, Gu Cheng rose to become one of China’s celebrity personalities, instantly recognizable in his signature stove-pipe headwear—a leg cut from a pair of jeans. It was a time when everyone was reading and discussing the new literature, especially the “misty poetry.” Celebrated and censured in a range of popular and official media, the poetry captured the “shared journey, shared reality, and shared ideals” of the lost generation of young people of China. For the older generation, including Gu’s father, it was a poetry that was just beyond the pale of comprehension, “just too difficult to understand.” The young writers in Beijing became “rock stars” of China, with fans that cut across all social groups; they were Springsteen, Sting, and Paul Simon, all in one, performing their poetry to adoring crowds. The central government even dispatched them into the countryside on goodwill visits where “the guests from on high were treated not just like deities descending to earth, but even like the Kitchen God returning to his palace in heaven.”

In the 1990s, after the brutal events of June 4th 1989, the lyricism of the post-Mao era gave way to a more mercantile, jaded urban society, where television replaced newspaper boards and cell phones replaced poems. Political dissent was suppressed or traded in for material goods of a consumer culture that emerged from the economic reforms of the 1980s. By the time of the June 4th mayhem, Gu Cheng was already living abroad enjoying an international reputation; yet he also faced other personal demons as he struggled to re-establish the simpler times of his life. Following visits to Europe, the United States, and Hong Kong, Gu Cheng and his wife, Xie Ye, moved to New Zealand in 1987 where he taught Chinese at the University of Auckland. He had entered a new type of isolation, living in an international society with which he could not easily communicate or understand—he never learned any other language beside Chinese despite his long residences in Europe and New Zealand.

Then in 1988 he and Xie Ye bought a small, dilapidated house on an island in Hauraki Gulf of the coast of Auckland. Here they took up an impoverished Thoreau-like existence with their newly born son: sort of a self-imposed “sending down.” The house, which is featured undisguised in his novel, Ying’er 英兒, became nearly an obsession for Gu Cheng. Of their first night there, he writes:
Lei [Xie Ye] wrapped the baby in a small blanket and placed him on the only sofa we had, and then she got down to work. That night was filled with wind and rain and we lit a candle. I looked at Lei and said, “This is the place I have been looking for for 20 years. I have been looking for it ever since I left school when I was twelve.”

And later in poem, on a brighter day, he wrote, “Listen / this house is our sunshine.”

Their friend and the object of his infatuation, Li Ying, joined them on the island in 1990:

    I had dreamed about it so often, and then finally she got her passport. On the telephone I listened to her speak softly about getting the passport, the fights, the visas. Her voice had seemed different then. I looked at Lei; she seemed somewhat hesitant, but then quickly agreed to buy the airplane ticket.

Thus began the ménage à trois that haunts his novel and much of his later poetry. In the novel that is spelled out in graphic terms: “All I had to do was thrust a little, and she would cry out in pleasure.” In the poetry, things come to us through a lyrical filter that veils the occasionality of the work:


        You hear
        The sound of a window opening
        In the distance is the sea

          The glistening boat
          Lies in the dunes
          In the distance        is the deep blue sea

        That whisper you hear      is sound of the sea

                 The boat lies in the dunes
        In the distance stretches the deep blue sea



        遠處是        藍藍的海

        最小的聲音        是海


This relationship became the fodder for the much of the critical literature that appeared after their death. Often that criticism, both positive and negative, plumbed his poetry for the currents of death that became so seemingly clear in hindsight. Yet, what really is significant about Gu Cheng’s later poems is their deepening complexity, which stands in such contrast to the search for a simple life on his island. It is as if the island were his physical defense against the emotional complications of the adult world. In the end, even the house seemed to have turned on him: a few months before he died he wrote to a friend:

    When you read my book [Ying’er] you will know how completely sick I am, only my hands are normal. I have spread pieces of our ruined garden everywhere, spread pieces of myself everywhere. See how the world has meant so little to me, but so much to her. I want to preserve those times together in that white cottage; she abandoned it, and so did I. The cottage did me harm. I should not have left Beijing in the first place; I should not have lived so long. The most beautiful days should be those just before the end.

His life on the island, and the poetry produced in those years, seem to have been complicated by two seminal events: the Tian’anmen tragedy in 1989, and his return to Germany in 1992 – 1993. The massacre in Beijing, when the hopes of the 1980s came crashing down, haunted Gu Cheng’s dreams throughout the following years, as if he suffered from “survivor’s guilt.” At the same time, the months in Berlin broke his moorings to house and home—Li Ying remained behind on the island, but left with another man before Gu Cheng returned. These complications, tensions, and even the mental anguish seem to have produced the best of his poetry, as it struggled to draw his innocence and experience into one consideration. Those complexities are best seen in the long poetic sequences that occupy the last part of his corpus, especially “The City: A Dream Sequence.” Of this he wrote:

    In my dreams I often go back to Beijing, but it has nothing to do with Beijing of today. It is a place that is heaven-sent just for me. Peace Lake and China Gate are now gone; also gone are the bricks in the bright sunlight, the cinder road along the hillside, and the wild jujube trees. And yet, I still move above them, looking down on all below and on days to come.

In this sequence, originally titled, “The City: June 4th,” Gu Cheng creates a bewildering pastiche of nostalgia for his old city, friends and the tragedy befell them, all filtered through the medium of his recalled dreams.4

We should not think, however, that Gu Cheng was completely consumed by angst during those final years. In both his letters and his poems we find moments of the old, untroubled innocence: at the very end, he writes to his parents, “By nature I am not a happy person, but right now I am very much at peace, just playing with Little Chubs [his son] and his toy cars . . .” This was also the time when he wrote the playful prose-poem sequence “Classical Tales,” which is filled with puns and written in tongue-in-cheek faux-classical Chinese. It begins with the island, the sea, and the slight hint of tragedy:

    The lord of the island dwells on his isle, scanning the skies. In days past he bid his time in the mountains, yearning for the sea. Then, quite unexpectedly, above the South Pole the ozone layer was breached, and, with the melting of glacial peaks, the ocean waters rose. Thus came baleful bother to the one of his desires.

On Translation and Language

In the earliest stages of Chinese literary criticism there is a canonical formula of poetics:  shi yan zhi 詩言志: “poetry puts into words that which occupies the mind,” or more simply, “poetry verbalizes intent.”5 Ignoring for the moment the problem of how phenomena come to “occupy our minds,” this formula asks us see poetry as “translation,” in which one strives to represent psycho-phenomena in language, which in turn becomes what “occupies the mind” of the reader. Thus, we can place literary translation at the end of a chain of such representations; it is a translation, another representation, of what “occupies the mind,” but this time it is the mind of the reader, not of the writer. While I recognize the generative status of the phenomena that become a writer’s occupation, when we translate we are unlikely to be able to recover / represent those phenomena because they are already veiled behind a series of representations formulated within the limits of language. Rather we are more likely to recover and translate more accurately the occupations of the reader’s mind, which we share in our immediate contemporary condition. Discussions with my collaborators, Zhang Jing and Chou Changjen (both highly competent and informed readers) often focused on what “occupied their minds,” when they read these poems, instead of what might have been Gu Cheng’s intent.

Through the two decades of his writing, Gu Cheng explored the limitations of language to represent the emotions that seemed to take possession of him, his zhi. In general, he worked within a relatively simple vocabulary and mode of presentation. While there are important exceptions, such as his prose poems in “Classical Tales” sequence, Gu Cheng’s language is usually relatively mundane and his presentation much in the psycho-affective shi yan zhi mode. Gu Cheng is indeed very concerned about “what occupied his mind.”

Experimentation in language of Gu Cheng’s early poems is primarily in terms of metaphorical substitution. While the images and the metaphors in these poems are often new and fresh, even bizarre, the language itself remains relatively commonplace. We might note that this writing in “substitutions” was a social-political condition of the times—the highly euphemistic language of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution began that newspeak, and it quickly became embedded in the daily language of the government controlled media, which the reader learned to decipher. (Some sense of this language is seen in Gu’s satirical pieces “With a TV Mounted on the Wall” and “Eating at Desert Creek.”) In his poetry Gu Cheng exploits that method by writing in metaphorical language that straddles the political and personal, the mundane and the mythical. His most famous epigraphic poems (such as “One Generation” and “Impression”) are obvious examples of this use of the single metaphor to represent the blend of the mental and phenomenal world. Rhyme and rhythms in these poems are also rather simple and direct, as “Generation” and “Impression” attest. Translating this language into English presents no great obstacles, although adjustments are always necessary. In my experience these adjustments are most often necessary in interrupting the commonly repetitive language, which works better in Chinese than English (often working for more assonance and alliteration in its place) and in toning down the sentimentality of the poems, which often comes with an emotional climax in the closing lines of the poem or stanza; in English these seem to strike rather false notes.

In Gu Cheng’s later and longer poems these metaphors are often extended, either by agglutination or elaboration. The “agglutinative poems” string out a series of metaphors in relatively unintegrated layers, while the elaborative poems draw the metaphor out into a conceit of its various manifestations. Gu Cheng’s two most common extended metaphors of his early and middle poems are those of the sea and the dream (or fantasy). In the most complex of these extended metaphors we have long, integrated constructions, such as in “Life’s Fantasy” and “Wind Dreams.” At the extreme, these extended metaphors yield the early poetic sequences, both of the elaborative and agglutinative kinds, such as “An Ancient Boat” and “Eulogy to the World.” The “Bulin’s File” sequence uses these techniques within an extended narrative, producing a very special set of poems. The challenges and opportunities in translating these sequences are necessarily multiplied but not substantially different from those in the shorter poems.

As we move into the later poems we sense that the metaphor, epigraphic or extended, can no longer fully represent what is occupying Gu Cheng’s mind. In these poems a fragmentation of the language sets in and the tentative logic of syntax and metaphors begin to implode. This is accompanied by his diminishing use of punctuation and the increasing use of the broken and elliptical line structure.

Chinese language lends itself to this type of syntactic manipulation. The lack of number, inflection, and tense allows a wide range of indeterminacy in the relations between words. This is particularly so in poetic forms that tend to weaken the word-order dependent grammar of Chinese—if your object, for what ever reason, floats away from its syntactic position in the sentence, there is no way for it to maintain its “case.” On one level this means that the Chinese reader does not sense ambiguity in the same places as the reader of English—since there is no marked tense, a verb that can refer to past, future and present actions is not ambiguous unto itself. This is ambiguity that should not be translated, or at least not given special notice. Yet on another level it is clear that Gu Cheng’s later poems exploit the particularities of Chinese language to create conspicuous ambiguity—that is, an ambiguity that needs to be translated.

Small signs of this fragmentation are visible even in the early, simpler metaphors where imagistic disjunctures are introduced (eyes for arms, dark eyes seeking light, colors in the grayness). Those disjunctures spread slowly throughout the later poems producing two new complexities: one at the syntactic level, and the other at more multiple levels. With syntactic fragmentation come nonsequitor structures in verse and stanza. Multivalent readings seep away in two directions from a given phrase into the poem, such as in “Sea Basket Blues.” The more fragmentary poems, such as “Walled Dreams, and an Awakening,” interweave the agglutinative metaphor with this fragmentary syntax to become highly disruptive. While the vocabulary of these poems remains relatively unadorned, they are wracked with juxtapositions defying semantic integration, sometimes appearing to be a jumble of words on the page—words are sometimes even fragmented within themselves, such as separating the two characters of the fixed binome for “sala / mander” (rong / yuan 蠑螈) onto adjacent lines in his Ghosts Enter the City sequence. Often we sense that we are listening to broken and half-heard conversations sense; as if we are indeed listening to a dream. Translating the language of these more disruptive, playful poems has been the special difficulty (and pleasure) of my work.

The most important task of any translator is to find a voice for the poet in the translated language; one has to imagine what the poet would have sounded like if he or she had written in another language. We do not want to “translate away” the distinctiveness of Gu Cheng’s poetry; we need to hear the language, rhythms and constructions that are distinctly his, but in this case, as manifested English. At times this means ignoring the specific formulations of the original poem that fall oddly accurate into English; but at other times this means finding new forms of expression in the target language that would not come without the pressure of translation. On this later point, Rudolf Panniwitz argues that “the basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.” But Talal Asad also warns of the “person who is satisfied with an absurd-sounding translation on the assumption that the original must have been equally absurd.”6 In that tension between fluidity and innovation lies the illusive Janus-faced language of translation. When we find that liminal place, then can we be a successful part of the chain of representations that began back in the first step of shi yan zhi.