I grew up with poetry by my side. One of my earliest memories is that of when I was three or four, bouncing up and down on a bed in the corner of my grandparents’ cramped apartment, repeating after them as they taught me the lines of Tang Dynasty verses in Sichuanese. They passed onto me so many ancient quatrains, word by word, until the poems blossomed across my tiny mind like hundreds of flower petals, each a microscopic piece of the overwhelming world into which I stumbled, nervous and wide-eyed. Here’s one of my favourite poems from those days, the one that would later become the first that I ever translated into English:
Night Mooring by Maple Bridge
By Zhang Ji
The moon sets, a raven cries, frost permeates the sky.
Riverside maples, fishing lanterns, asleep with heartache by my side.
Outside Suzhou City, by Cold Mountain Temple,
on my wandering boat, I hear the bells ringing at midnight.
To be an immigrant in the diaspora is often to be adrift in a vast ocean with no shorelines in sight. To be the daughter of divorced parents, one of millions of “left-behind children” passed among relatives while my parents toiled away on a distant continent, is to be transient and rootless. To have moved so many times—from China to the United States to China to Canada to the United Kingdom to Canada—I can’t even begin to explain all the twists and turns on that journey. When home isn’t a person, or a place, or memories, but a wisp of smoke just beyond my grasp, a glass castle so ephemeral and elusive, poetry is one of my rare lifelines. It’s the closest that I have ever felt to belonging.
During my preteen and teenage years, when I still visited China every two years or so to see my relatives, my Eldest Uncle and I would sometimes compete against each other in friendly “poetry battles.” The game also appears in the film Mark of Youth, where a grandson and his grandpa, who are each other’s only familial support, take turns reciting poetry in Mandarin late into the darkening night. Each poem recited must begin with a first character that matches perfectly the final character of the last poem recalled, so they pick up each other’s endings and stretch them out into wavering new starts, going round and round, for as long as they could. The grandpa plays the two-stringed erhu as he sings the poems; the grandson strums the guitar to accompany himself as he replies. The traces of poetry and music exchanged are all they need to understand one another.
“You must learn to carry loan words, / tiny seeds gift-wrapped like hand-me-down / heirlooms as you crisscross borders.” So begins my poem, “A Sichuan Diaspora Daughter’s Kitchen,” which meditates on my complex relationship with Sichuanese, Mandarin, and English. Although I am multilingual, English has dominated my waking hours and dream world for nearly two decades, and as the years pass by, there’s always been a growing, unshakeable unease that my first languages are slowly slipping away from me, dormant and faltering. However, when I lift my pen to write—mostly in English, except for a few Chinese words or phrases sprinkled in here and there—the ghosts of those poems that I memorized long ago still trail my every stroke across the page.
Many Chinese poets throughout history, including Qiu Jin, a modern feminist poet whose work I have translated, wrote frequently about their longing for a “zhiyin” (知音), literally “the one who truly understands your songs.” The word originates from a legend about the musician Yu Boya, who was strumming his qin in the wilderness when he met Zhong Ziqi. When Boya performed one song, Ziqi described it as reflecting the mood of soaring mountains. When Boya played another song, Ziqi said it evoked the atmosphere of flowing waters. Ziqi could appreciate Boya’s music like nobody else did, and when Ziqi passed away, Boya smashed his qin into pieces, vowing to never play music again. Boya thought of Ziqi as a zhiyin, akin to a platonic soulmate or kindred spirit. In a world where romantic and sexual relationships are often held up as the most intimate and crucial, the idea of a zhiyin offers me another way to think about the deeply platonic and queerplatonic relationships in my life.
山川异域，风月同天。Although we’re divided by rivers and mountains, we’ll weather the storm together under the same moonlit sky. 岂曰无衣, 与子同裳。Who says there are no clothes? We’ll share our robes with you. These two lines of Classical Chinese poetry allude to ancient legends about reciprocal generosity and mutual aid. The words were written on some boxes of masks and thermometers sent from Japan to China during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. In an era of polarizing divides, border closures, and rising anti-Asian racism, the sharing of these words was a simple and moving gesture of friendship and care, a reminder that no matter how physically apart we are, we’re still interconnected after all.
From 1910 to 1940, when early Chinese immigrants arriving in the United States were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Center for weeks, months, or even years while they underwent extensive interrogations, they turned to poetry. Faced with the despair of endless confinement without a specified end date, they engraved poetry onto the walls. They wrote in the style of the Tang Dynasty verses I know so well, paying homage to a long lineage of Chinese prison poetry. The wall poems that have survived are compiled in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, in both their original form and in English translation. As I flip through the book’s pages, I cling to the words of elders passing down historical testimony, even as I grieve what has been lost. The women’s barracks on Angel Island burned down in a fire before the book’s compilation could take place, and so, none of the women’s verses remain.
In Canada, Chinese immigrants were also detained in Victoria’s Dominion Immigration Building and the Vancouver Detention Shed, known in Cantonese as chu jak uk (pigpens). Both buildings have long been torn down, their histories buried. Before the Dominion Immigration Building was demolished, the late Dr. David Chuenyan Lai, a University of Victoria professor who spent decades working on the preservation of Chinatowns in North America, managed to identify and record around a dozen poems that had been engraved onto the building’s walls, which he uncovered only after peeling back layers of concealing paint. When a demolition worker warned him to leave the building before it collapsed on top of him, he stayed long enough to cut out three chunks of fragmented poems from the wall and lugged the heavy pieces away.
The poet Bei Dao is a leading representative of the “misty poets”, whose work are so named because of their puzzling imagery and vague language that resist easy understanding. I encountered Bei Dao’s poetry for the first time as an exchange student in Edinburgh, where the white male instructor of my Modern Chinese Literature in Translation seminar kept asking me if I “wanted a language exchange partner” to “improve my English.” Bei Dao’s “The Answer” was my lantern through those rainy Edinburgh days: “I don’t believe the sky is blue / I don’t believe in the thunder’s echoes / I don’t believe that dreams are illusions / I don’t believe that death will not carry out retribution.” His poems encouraged me to question authorities, power structures, the institutions that govern our lives. Years later, when I stumbled upon him signing books in the busy crowds of the Hong Kong Book Fair, I would thank him, and walk away with a signed copy of his newest collection. It turns out that if I pay enough attention and have luck on my side, even the mistiest of poets could be found.
For me, the acts of writing and translating poetry are also acts of salvaging, a form of quiet resistance. When I write, my pen strokes dig deep into my subconsciousness, carried by the lyrical imagery and rhythm of the Tang Dynasty verses that I memorized so long ago, remapping onto and disrupting the structures of English. When I translate, I search through the dusty rubbles of history books and archives in search of voices to excavate and resurface. Forge friendships with Sinophone poets whose words lead me back to my poetic and linguistic roots, even as I help other Sino diaspora immigrant writers find their way back into their heritage languages. On this long path of recentering and reclaiming, I hope that my words can ripple across the page like the returning echoes of a long-lost song, to reach those readers who are most in need of its comfort—those zhiyin with whom I can sit side by side and share poetry, the most intimate language of all.
Yilin Wang (she/they) is a writer, poet, Chinese-English translator, and editor who lives on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples (Richmond, Canada). Her writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, The Malahat Review, CV2, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Toronto Star, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her English translations of Chinese poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Guernica, Room, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Asymptote, Samovar, and the anthology The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories (TorDotCom 2022). The Lantern and the Night Moths, a chapbook that contains her translations of work by five modern and contemporary Chinese poets, won the Tafseer Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming with Collusion Books in October 2022. She is also the Chinese translator of the picture book Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon (Simon & Schuster 2021). She has won the Foster Poetry Prize, been nominated for a Rhysling Award, been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, and received an ALTA Virtual Travel Fellowship. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and is a graduate of the 2021 Clarion West Writers Workshop.