Poet Shen Haobo discusses family and his poems written at the height of the pandemic
Shen Haobo plays an important role in contemporary Chinese literature. Twenty years ago, he spearheaded the local avant-garde “Lower Body Poetry” movement and co-wrote an ironic manifesto, denying the cerebralism of previous generations of Chinese authors and hailing the spontaneity of writing, human sexuality, direct representation of reality, and resistance to its excarnation in abstract constructs. He publishes his provocative texts online, commenting on everything around him—thus inviting criticism from readers of all backgrounds.
Elizaveta Abushinova is a scholar of contemporary Chinese poetry and has been friends with Shen Haobo for several years, translating many of his poems into Russian. Her contribution to EastEast is based on an interview with the poet that she conducted on May 8th, 2020. It is dedicated to the universal and most urgent issues of home, family, native land, and death. The text patches together pieces of the interview, two of his strikingly sincere poems written at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in China, along with Elizaveta’s impressions of her encounter with this unexpected side of his oeuvre.
Shen Haobo has actually written numerous poems about the family: it’s me who rarely chooses any of them for translation. He once told me that he already had enough for an entire book—he just didn’t have the time to properly deal with them. I understand why I have little interaction with this side of his writing. It contrasts very much with the image of the “lower body” poet, and with the poetry Shen posts on social networks, which everyone mainly writes and talks about—poetry that makes fun of everything that can be ridiculed, even things some would say are best not to make fun of. For example, there is his very famous poem “A Handful of Breast” (一把 好 乳). Not only does Shen represent in this poem an almost pure “male gaze”, he also dehumanizes the family ties of his heroine to such a degree that the very notion of him discussing the idea of “family” appears impossible. But it is only on the surface, and I do agree that good poetry cannot be anti-feminist or anti-human. I’ll even say more—I didn’t want to read his poems about the family, because I knew that almost surely I would find something humane in them and it’s not something I can always easily handle. Some people are quite sensitive to certain heart-wrenching experiences and themes and I’m certainly one of them. I was afraid to discuss something like this with him and anyways, didn't expect I would have to do so, when suddenly—the editorial assignment and the coronavirus. Everyone was staying at home, time was running slower, and it was possible for us to talk about the family, home, and—inevitably—about the epidemic.
Elizaveta Abushinova: Will you tell me about your family?
Shen Haobo: At first our family was very poor. Actually, we were almost like two families. We shared one house in Taixing, Jiangsu province, in eastern China. There were four of us, plus our grandmother, which would be five. My grandmother, my father, my mother, myself, and my younger brother. And the other part of the family was my father’s elder brother, bófù, his wife, bó mǔ, (Chinese language has distinct names for every kind of familial relationship—Ed.) and their three children. One extended family of ten.
EA:Around what period was this?
SH:Well, in what specific year was that house built? I was in the 2nd grade of secondary school and I was born in 1976.
EA: So the 1980s then?
SH:Probably it was in 1990 or 1989. I remember 1989 pretty well—I was in the 1st grade of secondary school then. Probably, the house was built in 1990 when I was 14 years old. This year I’m 44, which means it was 30 years ago. My elder brother was a university student then and he really wanted to return and see us in a new house. That’s why he came up with an idea of building it and the whole family chipped in. Miraculously, they managed to keep within a 30,000 yuan budget. It’s a miracle because 30,000 was a very small amount of money in those days. Building a house with such a budget was impossible, but the family did not have any more, so they had to make do with what was available. They found ways to buy the cheapest bricks, how to deal with builders—simply inviting friends to help. And as for the furniture or the cabinets varnish—they dealt with those themselves. They varnished all the patterns carved on the furniture themselves, all the furniture pieces were self-made from wood pulp—just like the roofing tile work. All on their own. Tiling, varnishing, carpentry—all these were done by my parents’ or relatives’ friends, who charged very little. And that is how they managed to build the house; those times were really special. And, of course, thanks to this house, our family lived a lot of happy moments.
EA:Could you describe what being at home felt like to you?
SH:At that time, both of my sisters were already working, and my brother, as I said, was studying in Beijing. On holidays, for example, on the Chinese New Year, the whole family gathered together and we all were kind of one thing: together we had meals and made mántou (traditional Chinese steamed buns — Ed.), took pictures.
EA: It's strange, I thought that for this holiday the Chinese mainly made dumplings.
SH:Not really, for the Chinese New Year in every house we make mántou. Jiǎozi dumplings are made in the north of China, while we are in the south. Those represent two regional traditions. My sisters and brother were very young then, so the house felt full of life. Then everyone left, but their children still visit. A long time ago, peach and apricot trees were planted in the courtyard, and my grandmother would make sure that all the fruits remained on their branches—peaches were to be saved for her great-grandchildren.
EA:While listening to you explaining what home means to you, I think I should specify that Russian in this regard differs from Chinese. In Chinese, “jiā” stands for both home and family—this word has two meanings. In Russian we use two separate words to express these concepts.
SH:Actually, no. Both as a building and as family members—both mean “home”, “jiā”. Did you get my point?
EA:Well, it seems to me that while speaking about “jiā”, you were mainly focusing on people and the way they lived.
SH:Yes, I was. Because for me “home” is a family’s place. “jiā” is impossible without people and those feelings. It is about the unforgettable atmosphere that makes us want to return. And emotional completeness is still about people.
EA:But after all, everything could also vary: in Russia they sometimes speak about “native walls”—something related to material, tangible things. Well, you know, this is my dear window, those are my dear walls, furniture...
SH:In China, it is different. Speaking of “jiā” in such a context, we still mean family, people.
EA:But what about all these physical details you’ve mentioned earlier? Self-made wooden furniture, for example, how do you feel about it?
SH:This is nothing, because it can be easily replaced. Its only purpose is to complement a certain whole. For example, if we talk about the osmanthus that grows in our yard, it has already become a kind of symbol of our house, we all love this tree—from my grandmother to my little nephew. We no longer think of our home without it, growing to love it more and more. And after most of us moved from there—for example, I left when I entered the university in 1995—all the more so.
EA:Excuse me, did I get you right? Now only two people live there, both in their 80s? It’s clear that for them this place is home, but what about you? You left such a long time ago. Do you still consider the house in Taixing to be your home?
SH:Still, it is more “lǎo jiā” (native places, homeland, home where one was born, parental home—Ed.).
EA:It will be very difficult to explain this. I think in the Russian language there is no word that would fully convey all the shades and meanings of the Chinese concept of “lǎo jiā”. At least, it’s very difficult for me to think of one right away.
SH:I think that here in China this is still about the whole concept, it is extremely important for us. “Lǎo jiā” speaks to where a person comes from, where one belongs, and defines it. The “Lǎo jiā” of a Chinese person stays the same throughout all his life.
EA:I remember you telling me that not long ago—during the epidemic—you were returning to that home. Have you noticed any changes? How are things now?
SH:Everything was closed due to the quarantine—you could neither enter nor leave it. I came on Tomb-Sweeping Day, when moving around was already allowed. I wrote this poem about the osmanthus right there and right on Memorial Day—on April fourth. Remember you were asking if I was going to write something? I decided not to emphasize that the poem was written on the eve of Memorial Day, I didn’t want to in any way specifically indicate that I was at home, writing something.
Under the Osmanthus Tree (桂花树下)
Shen Haobo (沈浩波)
Translated from Chinese by Liang Yujing
My native place is a hamlet in northern Jiangsu,
formerly called Shen’s Alley, but now this name
has disappeared. My family’s old house remains,
with some vegetables in the yard, and a few
apricot and peach trees. The tallest and thickest
is an old Sweet Osmanthus. In autumn, the full tree
is strewn with honey-scented flowers. This is my family’s
most precious treasure, a companion of four generations. Under the Osmanthus Tree is the name of our Wechat group.
The old house was built thirty years ago. My parents,
along with my uncle and aunt, tried every way
and spent thirty thousand yuan to have it erected.
Now, only my uncle and aunt live there,
two old people in their eighties. My uncle, paralyzed,
sits in his wheelchair with a speech impairment,
unable to speak, alternately sober and muddled.
On April 4, I return home. My eldest sister and her husband,
my second eldest sister and her husband, my eldest brother
have all come back. Sisters and brothers reunite
in our mutual home. When my sisters cook dinner,
I drink with my brother and brothers-in-law.
My aunt sits aside, smiling, looking at us
who keeps talking about our childhood.
When my father beat me, my aunt’s heart ached so much
her tears came out. My uncle was once so angry with
my sister’s ill temper he wanted to kill her with an axe.
On my eldest sister’s wedding day, the bride-fetcher
carried her on a bike, going slowly on the dark road,
while my second eldest sister and I
followed behind, in total silence.
My eldest brother tells me to write about our family.
I say, I’ve written a lot, say, about you being a crybaby,
and he laughs out loud. My aunt, already drowsy
is reluctant to go to bed. She prefers to stay with us,
listening to our chats. Recently she has been in a good mood.
My brother and sister took her to Shanghai
to have a medical check, for her legs hurt so badly she couldn’t walk.
Finally, her disease was identified and could be treated properly,
so they all returned home. Laughter reappeared
under the Osmanthus tree. My aunt, beautiful in her youth,
stays with us now with a full head of gray hair
glittering in the light of the dining room,
though her past beauty can still be faintly recognized.
What she doesn’t know: my brother has cried many times secretly.
He calmed down and told my aunt she’d got bone tuberculosis,
which could be cured slowly, and my aunt believed it,
full of anticipation. Now, we are all laughing heartily.
No one has told her about her advanced lung cancer.
This is a reunion with tearful laughter, a simple life
worth cherishing. My elder brothers and sisters
sit close to each other, accompanying their mother
with their deepest love. They, much older than me,
once guided me in my early life. Even now, this night,
they are still educating me, about life and love.
This is what Han Dong, a famous Chinese poet and critic, wrote about Shen Haobo’s “Under the Osmanthus”: “Poems that describe the poet’s origin, or ‘roots’ frequently appear to be unnatural due to the pursuit of originality, but this one is very lively. It has a relatively rare completeness and relaxation about the narrative. The text has a fixed length, the references are complex and specific, thus the density of meanings unfolds very slowly and with effort. This poem is an example of two forms at once: ‘poetry about roots’ and narrative poetry.” Naturally, Han Dong is more immersed in the context and can find a place for this poem in the variety of today's texts produced by Chinese poets, while I see here a dialogue with the past articulated from the present moment, a dialogue with ghosts that are visible and invisible at the same time. I also see the articulation of an amazing attitude towards death—in my culture, informing someone of their own deadly diagnosis would be considered an honest act.
SH:I think this poem to some extent is also my dialogue with home in the times of the epidemic, now it is still ongoing. The epidemic is about death.
EA: Yes, could you tell us about the connection between the epidemic and your lǎo jiā?
SH:I’ve said that the interaction between them is present in the poem, but I should emphasize—it is still not the main motive. The poem is more about my bó mǔ being diagnosed with lung cancer. Why did we all come there this time? Not because it was a day off on Tomb-Sweeping Day, but because of her. We simply could not tell her that she had cancer, because if she found this out it’d be very hard for her to bear. So, we were all there together, brothers and sisters, talking about the past. Auntie really likes such stories, it makes her feel happy. I also noticed a striking glare on her hair—and decided to describe this scene.
EA:And you, probably, did. I have another question—now due to the epidemic, many people in China simply have no choice whether or not to leave or stay home. Are they starting to think more about their interactions with home?
SH:When I celebrate the Chinese New Year, I return to my parents’ house, not to lǎo jiā, although the distance between them is not so large. Sometimes, coming to my parents, I can drop in at my father’s elder brother and his wife’s place, if I have free time. But this time, because of the epidemic, I stayed with my parents for a very long time. Usually, for the Chinese New Year, I spend a few days with them and then return to Beijing, but this time I stayed for about two weeks, and thus I could see much more. But the new year was in January, and this poem was written in April. I have another one—maybe it will help you better understand what I'm talking about.
Pandemic and Cancer (疫与癌)
Shen Haobo (沈浩波)
Translated from Chinese by Liang Yujing
My aunt has got Covid-19.
I’ll go back to my native village to see her.
This is too dangerous.
How can I avoid being infected?
My brothers and sisters
have been looking after her.
Is it likely that they’ve already been infected?
My fear grows as I keep thinking about it.
But fear wouldn’t change my plan.
My aunt treats me as her own child.
Now that she has fallen ill,
I must go back home to see her.
First, I have to go to Rugao
and stay in my parents’ home,
but yesterday my parents were brought
by my eldest brother to our native village
to reunite with my uncle and aunt.
Weren’t they afraid of being infected?
I feel so worried
that I wake up from sleep
and cover my forehead with a hand,
trying to calm down for a while.
Then I begin to remember—
my aunt’s disease
but lung cancer,
which has spread
to the bones.
EA:These times are very scary, I see that the poem was also written in April. I sympathize with you very much. Now in Russia we are going through practically the same period that you had in China in January (the interview took place on May 8th—Ed.), so many poets are locked at home writing poems about the epidemic. It was also common in China, wasn’t it?
SH:Yes, in China everyone was also writing, of course, many things have happened and a lot of new thoughts have appeared then. It’s because people have never faced anything of this kind. Look, most Chinese returned to their lǎo jiā at the height of the important family holiday and they had to spend a lot of time in their homes. This need arose out of the blue. There was no time for preparation, we had to stay alone with our parents and the older generation, in general. So, certainly, because of this, family relations are rethought in the first place. It's just unprecedented—we rarely spend so much time with our relatives now.
EA:I assume you had to work through a lot of old connections, revive some memories. Do you have any photographs of that time? I mean from when you were still living in that house.
SH:We do, but very few. They should probably be somewhere there, in that house. In the past, when I visited different places, people there used to take out old albums and we watched them together, but there is no such habit now. For example, this photo in our yard—it’s my bó mǔ. Here are all three generations of the family and the tree I was speaking about, by the way. And this is my bófù—he is no longer in contact with this world. Both can’t move very much now, so the first floor is almost abandoned, you don’t have so much freedom on a wheelchair, do you? All the others in this photo, except for those two, have moved elsewhere—to Shanghai or Nanjing. And this is my sister, she lives nearby and goes there more often than the rest.
EA: How does this actually work in China? How is the decision made as to who is going to look after the elderly parents?
SH:There is no special rule, it is not even necessarily the youngest family member. It’s different in every case, but for the Chinese New Year more or less everyone comes back. Although, over the years this has also changed; sometimes I just cannot come. The connections are getting weaker and weaker, while the beautiful tree is still there—have a look!
EA:Do you have any photographs of the 1990s?
SH:Yes, this one, for example, with my sisters and the old wattle fence at the entrance to the house. Everyone was wearing such strange clothes.
EA:The 1990s were a very interesting period in China. I think in Russia many people would like to learn more about the material culture of those times. By the way, don’t you think these photos are quite personal? It’s still about your family. Have you ever shown them to anyone for an article before?
SH:No, that’s fine. Why should I hide them? Although for a Chinese publication, I think it would be more difficult for me to do this.
EA:One more question. In Russia, many people seem to believe that due to the high population density, personal space is not something that matters for Chinese people. What do you think? I imagine it was probably another issue that had to be rethought during the epidemic.
SH:In the past, we really had no personal space. Indeed, with so many relatives what personal space can we talk about? Little space, many people, and even now families often live in such conditions where one hardly could think of a private room for personal reflections. It all depends on income level: as soon as you have money, you can find more personal space. Right now, for example, my elder sister has her own country house with a garden where you have all the freedom to walk around and think in peace as much as you want. When everyone used to have the same conditions, we did not feel the lack of private space as something wrong—all of us were always living that way. When I was a little boy, I felt very good, even though we were poor and I had no personal space at all.
EA:And what do your family members say about the epidemic?
SH:Our epidemiological situation was not so difficult, so the rhythm and lifestyle did not change much in general. The biggest change was related to the difficulties of travelling from village to village, which did bring discomfort. If, at that time, I felt like returning from my parents to lǎo jiā, it wouldn’t be possible, I simply wouldn’t be allowed to do it. First, I would have to go through the bypass, then look for some kind of roundabout village paths. It is the only way to get to your destination, but apart from that everything felt like usual.
I see the difficulty of studying contemporary literature in a precise way: the subject-matter of your research is at risk of being compromised, because many of my constructions would prove to be incompatible with the reality of a particular person. It seems that what I was afraid of did happen—after this talk, Shen Haobo has become more humane in my eyes.
Translator and specialist in Chinese Studies. She graduated from the A.M. Gorky Institute of Literature and from the Interuniversity Faculty of Chinese, IAAS at Moscow State University, and took part in an internship program at Peking University. She now lives and works in Beijing.