Three Love Poems by Du Ye
Du Ye 渡也 (b. 1953) is from Jiayi in west-central Taiwan. He attended the Chinese Culture University, first as a physics major, then as a Chinese major. Eventually, he earned his MA and PhD in Chinese. He began writing and publishing poetry in 1960s, and is generally lumped together with other poets of his age group in what is referred to as Taiwan’s third generation of poets.
What distinguishes the third generation from their immediate predecessors is a distinct and heightened concern for local and national cultural traditions. By the 1970s, when the third generation of poets was coming of age, the reading public and the critical establishment were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the situation of poetry on the island. It was perceived as overly westernized and unnecessarily difficult. Propelled by internal and external factors associated with globalization, critics and young poets alike began calling for a return to Chinese traditions and culture.
The third generation, in their attempts to define themselves against their immediate predecessors, naturally felt justified rejecting the ‘westernization’ of the so-called second generation of poets as a means of finding a way. A return to tradition is what was called for. But they were caught in a creative bind—as modern poets, they were restricted to using the modern vernacular language while trying to adapt aspects of tradition. What form would that return to tradition take since the classical language had been discarded as a medium for poetry a half century before? This was the quandary of the third generation of poets. The third generation poets developed a number of strategies for adapting many aspects of tradition while hewing to the modern vernacular as a poetic idiom.
Therefore, on the lexical level, the poems of the third generation are often quite easy to translate; but for the reader of the translation lacking knowledge of the larger cultural context, meaning, in the fullest sense of the word, can and will be elusive. It is the extra-linguistic features of the poems—the intertextuality, traditional poetic form and structure, forms of word-play peculiar to the Chinese language, and in some cases the interplay between text and other art forms such as painting, to name just a few—that often are foregrounded and become critical to the reading, understanding, and ultimately to the enjoyment of a these poems.
I would like to provide close readings of three of Du Ye’s ironic love poems, contextualizing them for the reader. Quite often, Du’s love poems are far more than that; they often serve as cultural commentary as well, which in some cases might be less obvious to the reader of the translations. I hope to provide the reader of the translated text with the missing lexical and non-lexical paradigms that govern the generation and reception of a particular text in the source-language culture, and thereby enhance the reading experience.
Du Ye’s poem “Americanized Breasts” 美國化的乳房 is one of his signature works. It was included in his first collection of poems titled Glove and Love 手套與愛, which was also his first collection of love poetry, published in 1980 and reprinted in 2001. The poem also is a delightfully humorous commentary of the dialectical push and pull of globalization as it was experienced in Taiwan in the 1970s. The poem:
Tonight, you again left your bra
Tonight, as you bent over to pick up a copy of the
I admit your thought and behavior
The poem is an excellent statement of the dilemmas facing Taiwan’s third generation of poets: the conflicts between the traditional and the modern, the Chinese and the western, and one generation’s artistic identity vis-à-vis another. The very odd collocation of the adjectival “Americanized” (美國化) and ‘breasts” (乳房) in the title would have been quite provocative for any reader of the poem when it first appeared. But the violence done to the language through this novel collocation is itself deeply indicative of the problems confronting the 3rd generation of Taiwan poets.
The nexus of conflict is neatly represented in the relationship between the speaker—a male college student in the Chinese department—and his girlfriend, an English major who is au courant when it comes to all the latest fashions from America. We learn that she is studying English (indicating that she is smart and did well on her college entrance exams and that she is in a department lots of people want to enter but for which few are chosen), sings western songs, dyes her hair and, most significantly, she doesn’t wear a bra. All of these characteristics are decidedly un-Chinese. In fact, the male speaker acknowledges that her “thought and behavior have all become American”. The male speaker of the poem, by contrast, is in the Chinese department (indicating that he didn’t have to do very well on entrance exams), and the possessor, protector, and purveyor of a traditional sense of morality and culture. In general, he comes across as quite dull by comparison to the young lady.
For the speaker of the poem, the young girl is unquestionably a vibrant young woman. Her apparent rejection of things Chinese and things traditional seems both to intrigue and upset him. She embodies all the latest fads and fashions and all the changes taking place in Taiwan. But still he finds her to be classically Chinese; it is just the packaging (or lack thereof) that has changed. In other words, there appears to be an artificial, if not imposed, domination of what is American over what is naturally Chinese. In this regard, the young woman can be said to represent the latest poetry of Taiwan, which was heavily influenced by Anglo-American modernism—the poetry written by Taiwan’s second generation.
However, the young man—who can be said to symbolize Taiwan’s third generation of poets—insists upon looking elsewhere for his muse and literary inspiration—to his five thousand years of Chinese literary tradition. He compares that tradition to a voluptuous and colossal breast that provides him with nutritive sustenance, and he seems to console himself with the thought that the breast of tradition is bigger than what his girlfriend has to offer. He rejects the contemporary, which he considers superficial and foreign, opting for the classical.
But while Du Ye’s poem seems to pinpoint the conflict in a cleverly symbolic way, it is also generated by that very conflict. If we take a closer look at the breast analogy, we find it somewhat troubling. The solitary breast has been excised and isolated from the organic whole of the feminine body. We must ask ourselves how can a breast, detached from the living organism provide nourishment of any kind? It cannot. The idea is monstrous, an impossible abstraction. Thus we can say that traditional culture has become nothing more than a collection of lifeless fragments and artifacts. The actual living culture, represented by the speaker’s girlfriend, is a hybrid culture of sorts, a global cultural configuration, a combination of East and West.
Cultural displacement is a preoccupation of Du Ye’s. Culture and language can be conceived of as organic wholes, but not impervious to external influence. Du Ye takes great delight in examining the effects of globalization (Americanization) on Chinese culture. Another of his poems on this theme is “Universal Love, Not War” 兼愛非攻:
I was studying the philosophy of universal love
Together they destroyed Mo Tzu’s system
This poem was included in his second collection of love poems titled Empty City Strategy 空城計, published in 1990. Ostensibly this is yet another love poem by Du Ye, but this text, like the previous poem, also deals with cultural conflict. The key to appreciating this poem is being aware of a misreading of Chinese tradition by the speaker, more specifically in being attuned to a semantic displacement of the poetic sign “universal love”(兼愛).
The doctrine of universal love was advocated by the philosopher Mo Tzu 墨子 (fl. 479 – 438 B.C.). The doctrine perhaps is most closely akin to the Christian golden rule of ‘love thy neighbor’. The semantic displacement to which I have referred first rears its head in the juxtaposition of the title of the poem with the narrated content of the poem. The title of the poem 兼愛非攻 is composed of the titles of two books of the Mo Tzu text: book four, titled “universal love” and book five, titled “against [offensive] war”. Therefore, the reader comes to the text with the expectation of encountering something related to Mo Tzu’s doctrines, and perhaps something dry and classical.
However, the reader soon finds that something is amiss. The semantic displacement that generates the text is apparent almost immediately. The speaker tells us that he has been studying Mo Tzu’s theories as well as putting them into practice. But this simple assertion devolves into a conflict between several of his lady friends. Clearly the speaker has confused Mo Tzu’s notion of ‘universal love’ with the more recent notion from the West of ‘free love’. For anyone who lived through the Vietnam era, the title immediately suggests the popular phrase: “make love, not war” as well as the entire free-love ethos of the period. Once again, we see a juxtaposition of the Chinese with the western. The semantic displacement gives rise to the speaker’s predicament as well as to the irony in the text. The words of a philosopher from the Warring States period (475 – 222 B.C.) are reinterpreted through a filter of contemporary western notions imported to Taiwan. For the speaker, Chinese tradition is more foreign and more removed from his existence than contemporary western ideas. Humorous as the speaker’s situation appears, it belies the vast gap that separates him from his own cultural traditions.
If, as this poem suggests, Du Ye takes this gap as axiomatic for contemporary culture, what does it mean for the third-generation poet in his or their attempts to return to tradition as a means to rescue Chinese culture and pull it back from the brink of total westernization? Clearly, given the situation of the speaker, the prospects are not encouraging.
Indeed, Du has poked fun at some of the third-generation solutions. I would like to take a look at another one of Du’s love poems, one that conjoins love and cultural critique in one humorous whole. Du Ye’s poem “Power Tiller” 耕耘機:
Long, long ago
Night after night
The poem was published in 1992 and later collected in Du’s 1999 collection Ramblin’ Rose 流浪玫瑰. The basic meaning of Du’s poem is not difficult to grasp. He writes about poor but hard-working farmers whose only solace in life is the pleasure they share in bed. The narrator tells of their poverty but also their diligent character, once again stock characteristics in the portrayal of Taiwanese farmers. The names of the man and woman are also telling. The Ah in both names is a prefix used familiarly before a childhood name, nickname, surname, or the name of a relative. It is a commonplace in rural Taiwan and a marker of familiarity. (One only need think of how Chen Shuibian, president of Taiwan, is often referred to as Ah Bian). Dao in the woman’s name means ‘rice’ and the Niu in the man’s name means ‘ox’, two stock images of farm labor. All in all a relatively commonplace portrayal, until, that is, the last line of the poem, where we encounter the metaphorical usage of the words ‘power tiller’.
However, there is another less apparent level of meaning to the poem: this love poem is also a parody of a nativist poem of the sort written principally in the ’70 and ’80s in Taiwan. Nativism in Taiwan literature was one response to the westernization of modern Taiwan poetry (and culture). In general works of nativist literature focus on rural themes and are written in a colloquial diction, often with a liberal use if dialect. It was an approach that had been used by some Taiwanese poets during the Japanese occupation period (1895 – 1945). Poets at that time sought to articulate a Taiwanese identity to resist Japanese cultural assimilation. Rural culture was the last stronghold of old culture and local customs and therefore the least corrupted by outside influences. It was a sort of wellspring of ethnic consciousness. Later, when Taiwan was once again threatened by outside influences, nativism arose yet again as a reaction to the excessive westernization advocated by the modernists. Du’s poem them is a critique of one response by Taiwan’s third generation of poets to the modernist crisis.
In order to better understand Du’s parody, it would be good idea to look at the sort of poem he is critiquing. Perhaps the single most important nativist poet of Taiwan is Wu Sheng. Wu is a teacher and a farmer and deeply committed to rural life. Some of the poems he wrote in the ’70s, especially the grouping titled “vignettes from My Village”, remain the best expressions of nativist poetry. (His more recent poetry also deals with environmental themes). In general, while written in a colloquial diction, they are rather solemn in tone in that they detail and lament the decline of rural life. Those were the days of the large exodus from poorer rural areas to urban manufacturing centers. Here is Wu Sheng’s 1975 poem “Preface to Vignettes of My Village”:
Long before long, long ago
Long before long, long ago
Long before long, long ago
Wu’s poem is an excellent example of what epitomizes nativist poetry: it is an unflinching and solemn look at life in rural Taiwan written in colloquial diction. What comes to the fore in Wu’s poem is Nature’s indifference to man and his sufferings and how this has characterized rural life for generations. Life is typified by poverty and a sense of hardy fatalism. In all of this there is a sort of stoic dignity, but little humor.
Du’s poem makes its point by employing the same colloquial diction and serious style to express an incongruous subject—the love life of the poor farming couple—and thus disturbing the balance of form and content that we expect in a typical nativist poem. The very first line echoes Wu’s poem in a disarmingly direct way. The speaker’s comments on poverty and hard work of the couple and even the names keep the reader’s attention focused on Wu’s poem, while at the same time deflating it. Du’s parody offers an emotional counterpoint and humorous critique of the nativism practiced by poets such as Wu.
Du Ye’s love poems provide the reader with an ironic look at human foibles. Many of them can also be read as commentary on contemporary culture in Taiwan. The multiple levels of the poems might escape the general reader unfamiliar with the cultural context of Du Ye and his readership in Taiwan. It is my hope that the commentary on Du’s poems enhances the reading of these translations.