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Yang Lian

Yang Lian was born in 1955 in Bern, Switzerland, and grew up in Beijing, China. Lian began writing in the 1970s and became one of the founding members of the Misty school of Chinese poets. Along with the other Misty poets, Lian contributed to the underground literary journal Jintian, founded by Bei Dao.

An outspoken advocate of free speech and freedom of political and artistic expression, Lian grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and came to prominence during the 1980s. In 1983, the Chinese government openly criticized his poem cycle “Nuorilang,” titled after a waterfall in Tibet, during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and several of his other works have been banned and censored for their political context.

In 1988 Lian visited Australia and New Zealand, and after the Tiananmen Square Massacre the following year, he went into exile. He remained a Chinese poet in exile until moving to London, England, in 1997.

Known for his long poems and poem sequences that draw from the traditions of classical Chinese poetry, Lian is the author of numerous poetry collections that have been translated into more than twenty languages. His poetry collections in English translation include Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe Books, 2017), translated by Brian Holton; Lee Valley Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009), translated by Holton and Hung-Chong Chan; Riding Pisces: Poems from Five Collections (Shearsman Books, 2008), translated by Holton; and Concentric Circles (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), translated by Holton and Chan.

Of Lian’s work, Allen Ginsberg has written, “Yang Lian distinguishes himself in representing the pain of life caught in between historic eras…a new version of an old issue for world literature as well as Chinese literature is proposed: how to continue writing, relying on individual rather than enforced communal inspiration.”

Lian’s honors include the Flaiano Poetry Prize, the Nonino International Literature Prize, and the International Capri Prize, among others. He is a two-time elected board member of PEN International and in 2013 was invited to become a member of The Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression. Lian lives in London.

Selected Bibliography


Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe Books, 2017)
Lee Valley Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)
Riding Pisces: Poems from Five Collections (Shearsman Books, 2008)
Unreal City: A Chinese Poet in Auckland (Auckland University Press, 2006)
Concentric Circles (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)
Yi (Green Integer, 2000)
Where the Sea Stands Still: New Poems (Wellsweep, 1995)

By This Poet


Venice Elegy 2 Rot Poem

Translated by Brian Holton

rot    holds the long rows of this great ship of stone
rot    holds your footstep    my footstep

walking the toppled waste where the Admiral gazes down upon the water
marble window frames    door lintels elaborately carved
the oil paint of the sky    soaks the ebb and flow of tides under the bridge’s parapet
young girls’ eyes sparkle on the decks
never afraid to wave good-bye    poems of setting sail    poems of dreaming

we pass through time    like swallows startled by the bells

walk the inverted rotted underwater forest
a thousand years of tamping
a stinking deep black growth ring holds the palette of the waves
smearing your portrait    my portrait
a rotted portrait is invisible    yet like roots
it grows day after day    poking at the sea’s black-and-blue wound
from deposits of sludge rise pearls and dead bones
in the sound of colored glass violins
a row of dead sailors locked into the struggle to keep paddling

in ship’s holds flooded with brilliant sunshine
                 gold    always pornographic enough
                            to make humans dizzier than yesterday

walk narrow alleys where water can’t turn back
hear seabirds cackle like ghosts
                            howl like infants

rotting branches gently sway in the green waves
rotting fish embedded in the silver-bright seashells under walls
the water level    climbs timber stakes    climbs stone steps
like a curse locks a rusty wooden door
like a collapse    another balcony dragged into black moonlight
bleached skeletons    pull another balcony’s snow-white bones closer
in the pitch black moonlight sway shadows of people   sway reflections in water
illusion is no metaphor
periscoping centuries pursue their own termination

you this instant    I this instant
the little backyard jetty moored where flows a filthy river
tastes unloaded from our flesh    spread out on the breeze
winged lions vacantly stare at the future

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