Review: Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan

By Karen An-hwei Lee

If I could sing well enough — or play acoustic guitar, for that matter — I would sing Xi Chuan’s early lyric poems in a quiet studio with a swept parquet floor. A single lightbulb or a candle burning. Enormous shadows on the walls. Pot of cold black tea on a small table. Photographs of unadorned scenes from modern life: a power outage, a nurse’s youth dissolved by acid, a man pacing the room late at night (41, 77, 49). The title poem, “Notes on the Mosquito” (101), alludes to ironies existing between the collectivist ideal of proletariat rule versus actual bourgeois realities, a political motif in both his pre- and post-Tiananmen writings.

Ten thousand mosquitoes unite into a tiger, reduced to nine thousand they unite into a leopard, reduced to eight thousand they unite into an immobile chimpanzee. But one mosquito is just one mosquito.

The short-lived mosquito, however, is no Maoist peasant hero. Instead, the prose fragments in “Notes on the Mosquito” advance to compare the “hemophagous” mosquito to “the leech and the vampire, to which could be added the bloodsucking bureaucrat, the landlord, the capitalist” (101), and at the end of the poem, a lowly thief:

No one can tell the difference between a spot a mosquito has landed and a spot where no mosquito landed, just as no one can tell the difference between a spot a thief has touched and a spot no thief has touched. To scrutinize the trail of a thief is to see a dead mosquito beneath a microscope.

In this vein, Xi Chuan’s poems critique both capitalist and Communist faces of modern Chinese society. One of the younger generation after the famous Misty poets — such as Bei Dao, Mang Ke, and Duo Duo — Xi Chuan was educated at Beijing University and took part actively in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Notes on the Mosquito spans the depth and range of his oeuvre from the mid-Eighties through the current decade of our third millennium, with a silence of two years after friends Hai Zi and Luo Yihe passed away in the late Eighties and early Nineties, both only in their twenties. Xi Chuan’s later poems use long lines in a tenor at once musical yet more explicitly skeptical — while retaining the brushstroke precision of his earlier poems — depicting inner landscapes of modern isolation without sentimentalizing beauty as consolation: an airless moon not covered with his fingerprints, a buckwheat pillow’s nearly inaudible “sound of the plains,” a row of houses in twilight darkness where neighbors live in close proximity yet without intimacy (43, 95, 97). Such is the percussive timbre of his post-Tiananmen writings: rather than accompany these poems with a guitar, I would set up a “poetry happening” on a city avenue — say, Berkeley, where I once lived — and broadcast them to the rhythms of a drummer.

Nietzsche said, “Reevaluate all values,” so let’s reevaluate the value of this toothbrush. Perhaps the toothbrush isn’t a toothbrush? Or perhaps the toothbrush isn’t simply a toothbrush? If we refuse to reevaluate the value of a toothbrush, we are reevaluating the value of Nietzsche.

I demand that turnips, bok choy, and I all be in thought together; I demand that chickens and ducks and cows and sheep and I all be in thought together. Thought is a kind of desire, and I demand all ascetics admit it, and I demand all hedonists accept it. (105-107)

Notes on the Mosquito is Xi Chuan’s first collection of writings translated into English, eloquently rendered by Lucas Klein under the editorial direction of Jeffrey Yang at New Directions. In portraying Xi Chuan’s austere lines on Chinese urbanization, Klein’s fine technique as a translator resonates well with José Saramago’s comment, “Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature.” This is not to say, of course, that Xi Chuan’s poetry lacks universality: on the contrary, with a subtly dynamic style, Klein gracefully renders the cultural nuances which often confound the most patient translators, especially from Chinese to English, languages whose syntax rarely recompense a purely literalist (verbatim) strategy. Klein’s dynamic translations convey the mood and atmosphere of the originals, minimizing embellishments that would otherwise clutter less adept renditions: Xi Chuan’s image-driven vernacular flows smoothly in the Anglophone tongue.

Power Outage

A sudden power outage, and I’m convinced
I live in a developing nation
a nation where people read by moonlight
a nation that abolished imperial exams
a sudden power outage, and I hear
wind chimes and a cat’s footbeats upstairs

in the distance an engine stops with a thud
the battery-powered radio beside me still singing

once the power’s out, time turns back quickly:
candles light up the little eateries…

His poems hold a natural resonance for Western audiences, with allusions to Dante, Don Quixote, Nietszche, Borges, Akhmatova, and Pound — the latter a subject of his undergraduate thesis at Beijing University — mixed with references to the 1911 overthrow of imperial China and a Chinese writer of the May Fourth Movement:

Answering Venus (45 Fragments)

Steel guns. Cannons. Angel barracks.
Enough for those violent types
to choke on

Corridor. Dust-covered gate. Hand of moonlight
on the southern tip of Liaodong peninsula
one thousand prisoners listen to the tide.

Lonely Ezra Pound peels a tangerine
when the moon soundlessly slips through the Atlantic sky
Ezra Pound broods on the whole of humanity

Xi Chuan blends worldviews and heritages to explore what is modern China, an inquiry essentially rife with contradictions summed as “oxymoronisms” in the Afterword:

China today is an enormous oxymoron: Originally a linguistic term, an oxymoron is a statement comprised of two or more words that seemingly contradict each other, such as “vexed smile” or “living dead” (in Chinese we say “walking corpse”). Today we find oxymoron everywhere: for instance, Chinese “hip-hop” commercials, or “Red Tourism,” which is both nostalgically Communist and at the same time consumerist; or the phrase “Party-member capitalist” (well, are you a capitalist, or a Communist engaged in the struggle to overthrow capitalism?); or how about “Socialist Market Economy,” which is as oxymoronic as a “Capitalist Planned Economy” would be, if it existed…in the 1950s our oxymorons were claims of “People’s Democratic Dictatorship” and “democratic centralism” — Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were masters of the oxymoron.

With a cool nod to the lyric feeling of his earlier poems, and a grave vision of the urban wasteland — the aimless ennui of modern life, ad nauseum to the point of Kafkaesque absurdity — Xi Chuan is a global citizen who has lived in exile within and without his homeland, like Czeslaw Milosz, whom Xi Chuan has translated into Chinese. The poetry of Xi Chuan is also reminiscent yet not wholly derivative of the modernism of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound in its exilic sensibility. To this end, hybridizing Sinophone and Anglophone literary traditions, his style is distinctive in the vanguard of contemporary China. Take, for instance, his poem about a bird, an international symbol of inspiration or transcendence, transposed to a sphere of rationality:


The bird is the uppermost organism upon which our naked eye can gaze, at times singing, at times cursing, at times silent. As for the sky above the bird, we know nothing: it is an irrational kingdom, a vast and boundless void; the bird, then, is the frontier of our rationality, the fulcrum of cosmic order.

In a philosophically syncretic move — after a sundry pageant of Greek myth and Biblical allusions — the bird ultimately transforms into a chimera of biological realism and human fantasy:

The bird of our songs — its magnificent plumage, its lissome frame — is but one half of the bird. The bird: creature of mystery, seed of metaphysics.

All things considered, the later poetry of Xi Chuan never resorts to flagrant cynicism or a rejection of modern civilization altogether. Rather, as his poem about Nietzsche who “reevaluates all values” (105), Xi Chuan uses long lines in his more recent work to reflect the incongruities of contemporary China. Neither does Xi Chuan dismiss or scrutinize Chinese tradition, past or present, in the shadow of Western ideologies — with an erudite complexity beyond dichotomies of “East” and “West,” Xi Chuan explores the challenges of reconnecting modern China to a role of tradition — even while problematizing didacticism and ancestor-worship — juxtaposed to hazy ethics in a consumer-driven society:

32. An enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius refutes another enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius to a bloody pulp.

33. Du Fu has received too much exaltation, so no other Du Fu could ever win anything.

34. In a dark room, I fawn over a dead man. He’s not my ancestor but my neighbor. I create for him a life of glory, his cast-iron face flushed with pink. Many years later, I overeat at the home of his grandson.

Cast in the light of a Tolstoyan worldview, Xi Chuan believes a turn-of-century Chinese ethics of survival has shifted, returning to an ethics of culture. However, as Xi Chuan suggests, what exactly is modern Chinese culture? For seekers of tradition, how to reconnect to values in the past? What is germane? Xi Chuan observes, “Chinese modernity is a forced-upon modernity, forged in response to its own crises, and therefore distinct from its origins in the West. This point is often forgotten, and certainly warrants our close attention” (240). In a context of such exceptionality, we appreciate the byzantine explorations at work in the prose poem, “What the Tang Didn’t Have”:

All products of modernity aside, the Tang didn’t have, well, let’s count: in the Tang there wasn’t this, in the Tang there wasn’t that, uh, in the Tang there weren’t any Thinkers! In the Tang there were emperors and beautiful ladies and palaces and armies and officials, there were astrologers and the moon and the clouds and poets and minstrels and dancers, there were drunkards and hookers and revolts and stray dogs and wilderness and ice storms, there were the poor and the illiterate and national exams and nepotism…but in the Tang there were no Thinkers. How could that be?… Not that in the Tang they thought that poets could take the place of Thinkers, only there really weren’t any Thinkers in the Tang. For anyone now who dreams of taking us back, let me just warn you: prepare your thoughts — either give us a second Tang dynasty without any Thinkers, or give us something that isn’t the Tang.

Notes on the Mosquito
By Xi Chuan
Translated by Lucas Klein
New Directions
ISBN 9780811219877

Comments are closed.