Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the August 2019 issue

Unfamiliar Riverbank: Contemporary Chinese Religious Poetry

Religious life in China has been the subject of much speculation, misunderstanding, and projection by the West. In the present day, much of what we receive is filtered either through news stories about the officially atheist state or through (usually older) translations of Tang Dynasty poets such as Han Shan, who have come to be known as free-thinking Chan masters wandering through the mountains. Their sound is familiar to us from the Beat Generation of poets, who gave them a particular cadence, which we now associate with the totality of “Chinese poetry”: 

Spring water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge—the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness.

                                                         (Han Shan, trans. Gary Snyder)


Other poets who sometimes write in this vein, like Li Bai and Wang Wei, have come to make up the bulk of the limited number of Chinese poets to be known in the West. This is in part because the poetry is often wonderful, and there is much to appreciate in it. But this is also because there have been lamentably few Chinese poets throughout history translated into Western languages, a problem that we still face today. This small sample size gives a limited and misleading picture of religion in China, which is in fact highly varied and complex. Not only Chan Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Daoism, but also Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Mongolian shamanism, Sufi-related mysticism, and countless local spiritual traditions have survived despite every attempt to suppress them at some point throughout history, including the period from the Communist revolution up to the present day. 

Yet according to China-watcher Ian Johnson, there are somewhere around sixty million practicing Christians in China today, along with several hundred million members of Buddhist and Daoist religious organizations. Although official churches come under constant scrutiny, surveillance, and sometimes outright destruction, house churches and bible study groups abound. Though the historical temples and monasteries located on the famous Daoist and Buddhist mountains are kept under strict government control, and now serve mainly tourists rather than genuine believers, there are many other smaller temples and local teachers and monks who serve as religious guides and who keep their particular faiths alive. In western China, where forms of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism are concentrated, religious activity is viewed with suspicion and is harshly constrained. Any activity that can be claimed to fall under the rubric of “extremism” is suppressed, at great human cost. 

Still, religious life continues in China under many guises. Even innocuous morning exercises in the park may be forms of Daoist taiji or the internal energetic work of qigong. All a practitioner of Chan Buddhism needs is a place to sit. Calligraphy and other art forms can be used as different kinds of traditional Buddhist meditative practices. Chinese translations of the bible are easy to get hold of, even just to read on one’s own. Religious and spiritual activities persist, both in public and in the private sphere. 

Within this larger sociopolitical context, Chinese poets today utilize many different strategies to write, directly or obliquely, about their religious and spiritual lives. Many poets avoid specific references to religion, and those who do write on religious themes are often careful to couch it in unthreatening language or to bury references within subtexts. The poets presented here are among those who write explicitly on religious themes, sometimes in ways that directly challenge the state’s desired hegemonic control over religion.

Among a handful of poets writing forcefully and overtly about Christian themes, Li Hao is steeped in religious literature and Biblical texts, often referencing them in his work. He must toe a line as a younger poet living in Beijing and working for an official literary publication, careful to keep his verse free of material that might be considered proselytizing. Nevertheless, his first published collection, The Tempest, was banned and pulled from shelves not long after its publication. 

Also living in Beijing, but kept under constant state surveillance as an outspoken Tibetan poet, Tsering Woeser writes about a world that has nearly been lost. Along with religious themes, her poems address the tremendous cultural destruction that has been inflicted upon Tibet, often in the name of “progress” or “economic development.” Her sensitivity to ecology, flora, fauna, natural monuments, and religious monuments both macro and micro are captured beautifully by her translator Ian Boyden, who has engaged in interactive translation and conversation with Woeser for many years. 

Xi Wa, although ethnically Han, was born in Xinjiang, a far western province that borders Tibet and is perhaps most closely akin to Tibet in its situation vis-à-vis the central government. She writes on many themes, including music, the natural world, and female independence, but in this selection from a longer work, she explores her personal Tibetan Buddhist path. Wa has immersed herself in Buddhist texts for many years, and even in her less unambiguously religious work, Buddhist theology underpins or frames many of her poems. Her translator here, Chloe Garcia Roberts, brings her considerable experience from translating the esoteric work of the Tang poet Li Shangyin to bear with wonderful affect. 

Darren Byler, who has done tremendous work to bring the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the attention of the outside world, and Joshua Freeman, a highly accomplished literary translator from Uyghur into English, bring us the work of Tahir Hamut, a Muslim Uyghur poet living in exile in Washington, DC. In his poetry, Hamut gives voice not only to his own religious experience, but also to a people who cannot at the moment speak openly for themselves. He writes from a perspective that may soon be lost to the world, as the place in which he grew is rapidly disappearing. 

These poems are in no way representative of the breadth and depth of religious poetry being written in Chinese, both in China and in the Chinese diaspora. The collection is instead a small sampling of the riches to be found within a complex, fraught, and ever-changing literary landscape. Mindful of their connections to the past and to the unplumbable depths of the literary tradition that they have inherited, these poets traverse new ground, cogently and powerfully expressing their contemporary condition. It is high time that the Chinese poetry available in English-language translation better reflect the linguistic and expressive innovations of Chinese poets writing today. 

© 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.

Read more from the August 2019 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.