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Poetic career and life of Bian Zhilin

GAO XING | 2022-05-19 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Bian Zhilin (1910–2000) was a renowned Chinese poet, translator, and critic, especially noted for his highly evocative poetry.

In the 1980s, shortly after I joined the editorial department of World Literature, Gao Mang, the editor-in-chief, took me to visit the editorial board members including Feng Zhi (1905–1993), Bian Zhilin (1910–2000), and Ge Baoquan (1913–2000). Mr. Feng, who wrote “My Loneliness is a Snake,” sat with his back straight and spoke loudly. No matter what he said, he could always catch your eyes. Mr. Ge, who translated Maxim Gorky’s “The Song of the Stormy Petrel,” was quite enthusiastic and easy-going. He served us tea by himself. Mr. Bian was handsome and thin. He sat there quietly, looking a bit reserved and gentle. With eyes glittering behind glasses, he didn’t look at us, but somewhere in front of him. In a soft voice, he seemed to be talking to himself.

My initial impression of Bian was that he seemed to be a poet in an ivory tower, completely immersed in his inner world. Later, after reading more of Bian’s works and learning more about his life, I realized that I was wrong. 
‘Rain at Night’
Bian was born in Haimen County, Jiangsu Province. He described Haimen as “a new sandy land between the river and the sea, with a history of only one or two hundred years. Eighty to ninety percent of the people living there were immigrants who came from the south bank [of the Yangtze River] for refuge or land reclamation. There was nothing romantic about this place.” Bian read many ancient Chinese classics in his childhood, such as the Mencius and Zuozhuan (Zuo’s Commentary). As a teenager, he developed a strong interest in the New Poetry [the modern vernacular poetry developed since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, featuring free verse as opposed to traditional Chinese poetry], and began to learn to write poetry. He started to show a talent for language in middle school. In high school, he was able to read Shakespeare’s plays and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems in English, and translated Coleridge’s long poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Haimen was not far from Shanghai. Fashions, thoughts, news, and information from Shanghai always reached Haimen quickly. In addition to reading and writing, this precocious and sensitive boy kept an eye on the changes in China.
In 1929, Bian was admitted to Peking University. According to him, the reason why he chose Peking University was not only a yearning for the birthplace of the May Fourth Movement, but also an escape from the hopeless, gloomy reality of the time. Bian’s comment on Dai Wangshu [also Tai Van-chou, a Chinese poet, essayist, and translator, 1905–1950] revealed his own inner world: “A group of honest and sensitive poets who emerged around 1927 or a few years later took different paths, arguably for the same reason—the widespread disillusionment. Fighting against the grim reality left most of them no time to pursue art, while escaping reality enabled the rest of them to find a way out in art.”
It can be seen that Bian’s so-called “escape” was actually another kind of pursuit. In his view, “patriotism and a sense of justice have always been valuable traditions of upright literati with conscience in China.” With the help of Xu Zhimo [a well-known Chinese romantic poet, 1897–1931], Bian began to publish poems under his real name, and continued to engage in translation. In other words, Bian stepped into the literary world as a poet and a translator. These two identities influenced and enriched each other throughout his life.
During this period, Bian’s state of mind was revealed by his writings and translations, such as one of his early works, “Rain at Night:” “My soul wanders in the street,/ drenched in heavy rain./ It is still walking now,/ but almost impossible to take a step./ How pitiful! It is shaking all over./ It still carries the delicate beauty of dreams,/ tears at every step./ It hasn’t found its home yet, while already been too tired./ But how can it stop on the road?” 
From this poem, we can feel how this young man, or the entire generation of youth, felt in those dark, chaotic, and turbulent years. In the rainy, chilly night, their souls wandered in the street, filled with dreams, looking for a place to rest. Their souls never stopped for a moment before finding their “home,” no matter how tired they were.
‘Several Individuals’
In his poetry, Bian not only focused on his inner world, but also on daily life and ordinary people. The poet has the talent to capture details of daily life, which, with his calm processing, instantly exudes a soul-stirring charm. The poem “Several Individuals” is an example:
“The peddler cries, ‘Sugar-coated haws,’/ Not caring at all about the dust and dirt he swallows;/ The birdcage-carrier looks at the white doves in the sky,/ Passing the sandy river with leisurely footsteps,/ When a young man meditates on the desolate street./ The carrot seller waves his polished knife emptily,/ Loads of carrots grin foolishly in the sunset,/ When a young man meditates on the desolate street./ The short beggar stares at his long shadow,/ When a young man meditates on the desolate street:/ Some people hold a bowl of rice and give a sigh,/ Some people listen to the dream-talk of others in the mid-night,/ Some people wear a red flower in their white hair,/ Like the setting sun against the fringe of a snowy field…” (translator unknown)
This is a scene on the streets of Beiping [today’s Beijing] at dusk. Several characters who seem to be unrelated have one thing in common: They are all struggling in difficult days, and they seem to be nourishing the hope of something, yet in different manners.
Bian had been interested in Marxism, especially the Marxist dialectics. “Relativity” is a key concept in dialectics, best exemplified by Bian’s famous poem “Fragment”: “You stand on the bridge overlooking the landscape,/ and upstairs someone looking at the landscape looks at you./ The moon adorns your window,/ and you adorn somebody’s dream” (trans. Lucas Klein). “Relativity” here is both a method and a point of view, or even a theme. “You” and the one upstairs are the scenery and decoration of each other. Unconsciously, they both become the scenery in the landscape. This short poem is Bian’s representative work, as well as a classic in modern Chinese poetry.
Journey to Yan’an
In August 1937, upon hearing of the fall of Beiping and Tianjin [in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression], Bian was in deep sorrow. He decided to do something. In March 1938, Bian and other scholars, including He Qifang and Zhu Guangqian, founded the bimonthly Gongzuo (Work), which published articles about life in the war zone and the experience of refugees, as well as essays that voiced concerns about the current situation.
At the same time, Bian secretly prepared for an important and adventurous journey, the journey to Yan’an. In his preface to Historical Chronicle of Carved Critters, Bian revealed his intention of the trip to Yan’an: “China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression has begun, and people of the whole country are lifted up……Due to patriotism and sense of justice, I also want to visit Yan’an, especially to experience the life of the fighting troops behind the enemy lines.”
Based on documents, records, and Bian’s writings, we can briefly recount his trip to Yan’an: On August 14, 1938, Bian Zhilin, He Qifang, and Sha Ting and his wife, set out on the trip to Yan’an. They first took a car, heading north along the Sichuan-Shaanxi Highway, and arrived in Baoji [in Shaanxi Province] on the 24th. They went to Xi’an by the Lanzhou-Lianyungang Railway Express, and stayed in an office of the [CPC-led] Eighth Route Army. On the 31st, after arriving in Yan’an, they were dressed in the gray uniforms worn by the cadres and troops [of the Eighth Route Army] in Yan’an. He Qifang and Sha Ting were appointed to teach at the Luxun Academy of Arts. Bian planned to make a short-term visit and stayed at the Cultural Association. In early September, under Zhou Yang’s arrangement, they visited Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong encouraged these writers to go to the front line and experience life on the battlefield. Finally, they went to the front line in two groups: He Qifang and Sha Ting followed He Long [a famous Red Army general] to the Jizhong Plain [at the center of Hebei Province]; Bian went to the Taihang Mountains in southeastern Shanxi Province with Zhu De, commander-in-chief of the Eighth Route Army at that time. 
On the front line, Bian made a concentrated effort towards his work, and didn’t miss any opportunity for interviews and experiences. He came into contact with numerous officers, soldiers, and people who fought for China, and witnessed the war. Bian stayed in Yan’an and the front line for a year. He called Yan’an “another world”—a world where he could see hope and the future. His poetry style changed drastically and his literary creation entered a new stage. Bian wrote twenty poems, two short stories, and several essays, depicting the warriors who seized horses, workers in coal cellars, people who carried the rails, children who kept watch for the Chinese army, young pioneers in the northwest, and sharpshooters on the front line. 
Writing for the new China
In the late 1940s, when Bian was a visiting scholar in Britain, he heard of the great changes in China and decided to return to his motherland. At the end of 1948, he first arrived in Hong Kong by ship, and then went north with Dai Wangshu on a cargo ship carrying paper, where they pretended to be the cargo escorts along the way. “Finally, in March 1949, they returned to Beijing after this city was peacefully liberated [in 1949, the CPC achieved a peaceful transition of power over Beijing from the Kuomintang].” After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Bian actively participated in social construction, went deep into the life of common people, and wrote a series of poems and essays that reflected reality. 
Bian was also devoted to foreign literature research and translation. He loved literary translation all his life and regarded literary translation as a special creation. Before 1949, he had translated poems, novels, biographies, and essays of foreign writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Remy de Gourmont, Paul Valéry, Jules Supervielle, Marcel Proust, and André Gide. After the founding of the PRC, he began to translate and study foreign writers such as Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Blake, and Bertolt Brecht. His translations have provided valuable materials for Chinese readers and writers.
Gao Xing is a research fellow from the Institute of Foreign Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and editor-in-chief of World Literature.