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Is China in the midst of a second golden age of poetry?

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit.  (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Poets Mo Mo and Yu Jian reveal a commemorative plaque at the the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit. (Photo: Heather Inwood)


Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

A few weeks ago in Beijing, a dozen well-known poets got together.

Among them was an IT guy who wanted their help testing out a new app for a social network — not based on sharing friends, photos or business contacts, but about sharing poetry. He convinced them to each recite some of their work.

Yibing Huang recorded his poem, “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” into an app called “Poem For You.” According to Yibing, the poets were skeptical. They weren’t “app” kind of guys. Was this really a good venue for poetry, they wondered? But, within minutes of the poets uploading their poems, he says, “there were hundreds of people ‘liking’ them and writing comments.”

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the "Poem For You" recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Poets Gao Xing, Xiao Xiao and Yibing Huang at the “Poem For You” recording session in Beijing. (Courtesy Yibing Huang)

Hundreds of ‘likes’ within minutes. In the US, where poetry can feel like the exclusive domain of MFA grads and disaffected teens, I would never say to someone, “If you really want to understand America, read some modern poetry.” But in today’s China, where it seems like everyone is writing poetry, that might be just the thing to do.

“Maybe you hear a poet like Zheng Xiaoqiong, who’s going to read a poem she wrote when she was a migrant worker in Southern China,” says Jonathan Stalling, editor of Chinese Literature Today, of the scene at a typical reading. “She’ll be talking about the vulnerable bodies of her co-workers, dancing like dust in the afternoon sun, reflecting off the machinery on the factory floor. The next poet could be Luo Ying, the pen name of Huang Nubo, who’s one of the most wealthy men in China and writes poetry from the point of view of a capitalist.”

As in other spheres, the Internet has proven a huge democratizing force in the world of Chinese poetry, leveling the playing field for migrant workers and millionaires alike. But love of verse was already there. Chinese poetry has 2,000 years of tradition at its back. Parents read it to their babies. Kids study it in school. But the thing is, most Chinese believe poetry peaked in the Tang Dynasty. That ended more than 1100 years ago. So for today’s poets, their chosen art form’s exalted status can feel like a double-edged sword.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, new poetry is dead in China,’” poet Ming Di says. She loves the ancient poets, but feels the strict classical forms they pioneered tended to dead end after, you know, a few hundred years.

“Poets in the Tang Dynasty already did their best. And we in 21st Century have to do something new — either we bring something new to the old form or go our own way.”

And they are. Modern Chinese poets are exploring radical new terrain when it comes to form, sentence structure, and perhaps most importantly, subject matter. At the far end of this spectrum, according to professor Heather Inwood, is the “School of Rubbish.” (Although, she says, “you can also translate it as the ‘Trash School,’ or something like that.”)

vvvInwood teaches Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester in England and is the author of “Verse Going Viral,” a book about China’s new media scenes. “The ‘School of Rubbish’ became famous for writing poems about, basically, bodily excretions,” she explains. “Their goal was to go one meter lower than the ‘lower body’ — that was the name of an earlier poetry group around the turn of the millennium that wrote about sex. So they were thinking, ‘If we can’t write about sex because that’s already been done, what can we write about that will open people’s eyes to new ways of thinking about poetry?’”

And the answer was: Poems with a toilet theme. Of course, not everyone is convinced this is a hallmark of literary progress.

“People have argued … modern or contemporary Chinese poetry has not completely found its own legitimacy,” says Yibing Huang. “Some people say, ‘Is this a poem?’ You know, ‘This morning, I woke up. I drank a cup of coffee… Life sucks.’ People say that’s not a poem because it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t fit a certain expectation.”

Yet, social media may be turning the tide. This past January, WeChat, a messaging and social networking app, produced an unlikely media darling whose poems don’t rhyme and don’t avoid the fact that, yeah, sometimes life sucks. Yu Xiuhua had two books come out in one week and sell out overnight — 15,000 copies.

In addition to being a poet, Yu is also a farmer from a rural village who was born with cerebral palsy. As Ming Di points out, “Some people even consider her [to be the] Emily Dickinson in China.’”

Ming has translated some of Yu Xiuhua’s poetry, including her most famous poem, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You.”

    To spend or to be spent, what’s the difference if there is any?

    Two bodies collide — the force, the flower opened by the force,

    and the virtual Spring brought by the flower — nothing more than this,

    and this we mistake as life restarting.

    In half of China, things are happening: volcanoes

    erupt, rivers run dry,

    political prisoners and displaced workers are abandoned,

    elk deer and red-crowned cranes get shot.

    I cross the hail of bullets to sleep with you.

    I press many nights into one morning to sleep with you.

    I run across many of me and many of me run into one to sleep with you.

    Of course I can be misguided by butterflies

    and mistake praise as Spring,

    and a village similar to Hengdian as home.

    But all these are absolute

    reasons that I spend a night with you.

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

Shi Zhongren recites his poetry at the Zhu Gangzi peach blossom poetry meeting in a Beijing suburb. (Photo: Heather Inwood)

It’s hard not to feel good about social networks like WeChat if they can launch a woman like Yu Xiuhua into literary celebrity. And WeChat recently debuted a new program where every evening at 10pm it publishes a poem read by a “daily guest,” including luminaries like China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. WeChat’s goal for the project is to help people “develop a deeper understanding of life.” Hard to imagine Twitter doing that.

Recently a popular Beijing anchor read “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” one of Yibing Huang’s poems on WeChat. Yibing is thrilled about the exposure the Internet brings him. But what is this all this doing to Chinese poetry?

“In a way I would say there is a danger in contemporary Chinese poetry,” Yibing says. “There is a kind of intellectual laziness. Taking poetry more for its entertainment value or eyeball effect.”

Social media has ensured there’s a lot more poetry out there, but Yibing argues it also makes the good stuff harder to find. How many microblog posts do you really want to scroll through to get your poetic fix? True that, but I wonder if purists are also miffed because they believe poetry is supposed be difficult — and a little out of reach. For this crowd, clickability has taken away some of poetry’s luster, and that’s unlikely to change. But as a vehicle for enjoyment, poetry has always been more unicycle than bullet train. Even the simplest poem requires a lot more of us than settling back to watch a movie.

The Internet isn’t going to kill poetry, people deciding it’s not worth that effort will. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen in China anytime soon.


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The spread of mondegreens should have ended with the Internet — but it hasn’t

Kissing 'the sky' or 'this guy'?

Was Jimi Hendrix kissing ‘the sky’ or ‘this guy’?

Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

You may not know what “mondegreen” means, but you definitely have a great mondegreen story — like maybe mishearing the chorus for the Cuban song “Guantanamera” as “One ton tomato. I ate a one ton tomato.”

The word mondegreen was coined in an essay by writer Sylvia Wright in which she described misinterpreting a line from the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Moray.” The actual line was, “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And laid him on the green.”

What did she hear? “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.”

It turns out there are scientific reasons for why it’s so easy to misinterpret songs and poems. The first thing you have to understand is that “when we understand what someone says, it’s always at least partly a hallucination,” says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania,

Extracting meaning from sound actually depends on a combination of hearing and hoping.

“There’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the sound that comes in our ear,” Liberman explains, but “there’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the expectations in our brain.”

When that piece of sound contains weird metaphors or jarring imagery — or is just plain hard to hear — people tend to translate it into something that makes more sense to them. “And, of course, songs tend to have lyrics that are a little bit unexpected or unusual,” Liberman adds. “It’s what makes songs interesting.”

It’s also what makes mondegreens interesting — often more interesting, or at least way funnier, than the original lyrics themselves. For example: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”

If you need a good mondegreen, you can check out Kiss This Guy, a website dedicated to them. You could also buy the book of mondegreens that hit the bestseller list in Germany.

In some countries, like Russia, mondegreens have even become a genre unto themselves. I talked to Anya Krushelnitskaya, who grew up in Soviet Russia, and I came to feel that a closed society provides the perfect laboratory for studying the spread and mutation of the mondegreen.

“We did have tiny, tiny holes in the Iron Curtain through which the lyrics would come in,” Krushelnitskaya tells me. That process involved somebody well-connected — like the son of a diplomat — selling liner notes they were able to smuggle into the country on the black market.

These lyrics were then disseminated by people who copied them by hand, like an epic game of “Telephone” played in an unfamiliar language. And since western pop circulated on homemade cassette tapes that were dubbed and redubbed — or primitive vinyl records carved out of x-rays — degraded sound quality was another big impediment to figuring out the words. It’s easy to see how mondegreens became the norm, not the exception.

But what may have begun as an honest effort to figure out the lyrics to popular Western songs soon morphed into a vibrant subgenre of soundalikes. For instance, Anya explains, The Beatles’ song, “Yellow Submarine” became, “Y’ela Margarin” — “She was eating margarine.”

These intentional mondegreens were funny, but they also served as Trojan horses for political commentary. Take another Beatles song, “Yesterday,” which Anya says was sung as the Russian-English mashup:

“Esti Dai (give me some food)

All my roubles seem so far away.”

There are those who believe that Lady Mondegreen has finally been slain by insidious lyrics websites and their cold, efficient databases. The New York Times Magazine bemoaned this scourge, as has The Guardian.

But lyrics sites aren’t slaying mondegreens — they’re spreading them.

“We crowdsourced all our lyrics,” says Shawn Setaro, former editor-in-chief of one of the biggest lyrics sites on the web, Genius. “Anyone could add lyrics, anyone could edit lyrics. They would type and transcribe. And it got to the point where when new popular songs came out, they would be on the site six, seven, eight minutes after they’re released.”

Those first stabs eventually get refined on Genius, but not every lyrics site strives for accuracy. One thing other sites do is solicit lyrics anonymously via email, with no vetting whatsoever. Another thing they do, Setaro tells me, “is just crawl and steal from other lyrics sites. So it becomes this giant circle.”

How does Genius know other sites steal from them? They did an experiment and subtly messed with the lyrics to some of their new songs, just to see if other sites were grabbing them. Sure enough, within hours, several sites had posted Genius’ lyrics — mistakes and all.

So it’s often the initial, uncrowdsourced version — the one fans pound out quickly — that gets picked up and spread around.

Iggy Azalea performing in 2014 (Photo Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

Iggy Azalea performing in 2014 (Photo Ralph Arvesen via Wikimedia Commons)

Even when lyrics sites go straight to the source, there’s room for error. This summer, Genius got the lyrics for “No Mediocre,” a song by hip-hop artist T.I., that features Iggy Azalea. They came directly from Azalea’s label, but she later tweeted that they were full of mistakes.

Sometimes fans don’t even believe the artists themselves. Danny Brown, a rapper from Detroit, has lyrics that are particularly prone to misinterpretation because of his wildly stylized vocals. Brown came in to the Genius office in Brooklyn himself to correct all of his lyrics.

But a few days later, Setaro says with a laugh, “his fans had put them back to what the original mishearings were. It was actually as a result of that that we built in a function to lock the pages, so once the artists say, ‘Hey, this is the right way,’ no one can change it.”

Some artists may scoff, some may shrug, and others might simply decide to embrace Lady Mondegreen. Many people claim that Jimi Hendrix even started singing “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” for real once he found out people thought those were the words. You can judge for yourself in the version below, recorded at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.

And according to linguists, that’s actually closer to what we’re expecting him to say, anyway. So go on, Jimi — kiss him.


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Why What’s Funny in China Might Surprise You

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki

Jesse Appell will do anything for a laugh.

“Food poisoning is funny. I got dysentery once. That was funny.”

Well, not quite that funny the moment we sat down to talk over dumplings in Beijing. Appell has lived in Beijing on and off for several years.

Recently Appell has been studying what’s funny in China, which he admits has not been easy.

“When I came to China I initially didn’t have the language ability to make a joke. I would try to make a joke but I didn’t know the cues that you would use to make jokes so when I said stuff wrong people just assumed that i was speaking wrong,” said Appell.

But as Appell’s Chinese language skills have developed — he’s now nearly fluent in Mandarin — so has his understanding of what’s funny in Chinese. He remembers the first day he made a successful joke in China.

“I got a nose bleed in class. The word liuxue means to flow blood but it’s a perfect pun for the word exchange student,” explained
Appell.

So when Jesse left class to take care of his nose bleed, he called out to the class in Chinese, ‘Don’t worry about me I’m just an exchange student.’ His classmates erupted in laughter he says.

Word play is an essential element in the ancient Chinese art of comedy. There is a centuries old tradition of Chinese stand-up called xiangsheng or crosstalk according to linguist David Moser who has has studied crosstalk in China.

“Crosstalk is a folk verbal art form that similar to beloved classic skits that we know of like the who’s on first routine,” said Moser.

Much like Abbott & Costello in traditional crosstalk there’s the funny man and the straight guy. Crosstalk began in Beijing where some comedic skits go back to the Ming Dynasty. Modern times and modern politics have altered what can be funny in China and crosstalk has adapted. The humor is rather vanilla; this is the opposite of political satire.

“After 1949 they had to clean it all up. They had to get rid of country bumpkin jokes because the peasants were the heroes of the revolution. Of course, all the sex and bawdiness was gone. The one thing you can’t do is do political humor at all,” said Moser.

But according to Moser that doesn’t mean that Chinese people aren’t dishing out the political jokes.

“I almost feel that there’s two layers of humor. One is the public media labor. It’s very prudish, polite; it’s not rambunctious or impolite. Then there’s this other layer which is the average person on the street which is just how it is in any country. It can be really outlandishly anti-authoritarian or smutty or absolutely outrageous,” said Moser.

This other layer of humor takes stage on the internet sometimes inspired by humor from unexpected places like the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Chinese netizens have taken to translating Stewart’s show. He’s actually Jiong Situ in Chinese.

“Very often the subtitles show they didn’t understand the joke, but some of the jokes do translate and that’s good enough,” said Moser.

Good enough that in April of this past year a clip of a joke about North Korea went viral in China. Turns out jokes about North Korea are funny to both Chinese and American audiences. Jiong Situ is still a long way off from gracing Chinese prime time. His jokes are far too politically sensitive.

There are other forms of comedy bubbling up in the bars and clubs of Beijing: improv for one. Fulbrighter Jesse Appell is part of a bilingual improv comedy troupe called BIG.

The troop rehearses in a makeshift theater with tiny stage. If you’ve ever been to an improv show, it’s a pretty familiar scene. The audience shouts out suggestions, the players improvise a scene. Except that here players mix English and Chinese.

The topics were rather tame, nothing bawdy or political. I kept waiting for something controversial to come up. But this is China after all. As I was reminded when a sudden discussion ensued just as I pressed record. Jesse approached me:

“You can record whatever but if we say anything about the government we need you not to use that,” said Appell.

It was a surprising request and as it turned out unnecessary. No one said anything about the government. However, it seems Jesse has learned much more about China then just comedy.

Jon Stewart taking in his Chinese celebrity:

Comedians Guo Degang and Yu Qian:

Jesse Appell performs stand-up comedy in Chinese:


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Observing the Tiananmen Anniversary with ‘Big Yellow Duck’

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

Here’s a post from my Big Show colleague Traci Tong…

June 4 was the 24th anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese authorities against student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

China’s leaders go to great lengths to prevent people from remembering what happened.

That includes banning online searches for words or phrases like “Tiananmen,” “tanks,” or “June 4th.”

Today Chinese censors added another phrase: “Big yellow duck.”

Rachel Lu, editor at Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that analyzes China’s social media, said the big yellow duck refers to a giant rubber yellow ducky, similar to the bathtub toy.

"Tank man" blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

“Tank man” blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

The duck is 54 feet high and is an art installation that’s been floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor for the past month.

The floating duck has become a minor celebrity. An anonymous poster on the Chinese social media network, Weibao, took four images of the duck and superimposed them on that iconic image of the four tanks during the Tiananmen Square pro democracy protests.

Lu says the duck has now become a symbol to remind the Chinese people about the Tiananmen Square event in 1989.



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