A Future Without History Is a Wild Horse

A poetry reading and conversation with Yu Jian about modernity and modernism in Chinese contemporary poetry


Organizing Institutions



Jean-Michel Rabaté

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce A Future Without History Is a Wild Horse, a poetry reading and conversation with Yu Jian about modernity and modernism in Chinese contemporary poetry, on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 from 5-7pm. Yu Jian is a Chinese poet, essayist and documentary film director, and is currently the director of the New Poetry Institute of Southwest Associated University, affiliated to Yunnan Normal University, as well as a professor in the department of Chinese Literature. The reading will be followed by a conversation with professor Lei Yanni from Sun-Yat Sen University and scholar Jean-Michel Rabaté, a Senior Curator at Slought.

Yu Jian started writing poetry in 1971, and was able to publish some of his poems after 1976, when poetry writing became legal. His poems were copied and circulated. In 1980, Yu Jian left the factory where he had worked for 10 years as a riveter and welder during the Cultural Revolution and was registered in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of Yunnan University. There, he became a literary activist, helping to establish several literary clubs, organizing literary events and editing several publications. In 1984, Yu Jian graduated from college and became an editor of Yunnan Literature and Art Review. In 1985, he participated in and became one of the leading figures in China's "third generation" poetry movement. The main purpose of this movement was to write poems in common spoken language, and to express the life and philosophy of ordinary people more profoundly from an intrinsic perspective. In the same year, he and several other poets founded the underground literary publication Them. It is one of the most important underground journals in China in the 20th century and has a profound influence on contemporary Chinese literary history.

"No. 6 Shangyi Street", a poem Yu Jian published in the leading poetry magazine Shikan in 1986, was the first major success in his career. The deliberate plain and down-to-earth style was immediately hailed as heroic on the one hand and was severely condemned on the other. By the 1990's, Yu Jian was considered a major poet in contemporary China and he wrote two long poems during this decade, "File 0" and "Flight." Mimicking a style of dossier writing, "File 0" records the lives of anonymous urban Chinese person's life in 306 lines, filed into 5 volumes, with a prelude and an epilogue at the beginning and the end respectively. The whole poem, like most of his other poems, has no punctuation marks, pausing and lining up only semantically through spaces.

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"The interactions between American poetry and contemporary Chinese poetry are subtle and interesting. There once was a famous literary movement in China, which was called nalai zhuyi (拿来主义), which means "to bring foreign ideas and technology in an active and selective way," advocated by Lu Xun. For Lu Xun's generation, it means a direct import of Western ideas and styles; for my generation this has now become a reality.

As a young man, reading poems written by American poets, I didn't take them as foreign poets, I felt as if they were Chinese. The first Western collection I read was an American book, in the 60s, when I was a fifth grader and did not know much about poetry. It was Longfellow's poetry that I first read! However, when I started writing poetry as an adolescent, I wrote in the classical Chinese style, using metrical poetry. Later, many books had to go underground during the Cultural Revolution. Good books that we kept and shared secretly. At that time, I read Leaves of Grass by Whitman and was deeply influenced by the book. I stopped writing in classical style. I tried the new style.

Then in the 1980s, Ezra Pound's poetry was introduced in China. Reading his poems gave me a déjà-vu feeling. It was as if I had already read them in my dreams. In a way, the Cultural Revolution cut the connection between classical Chinese literature and contemporary literature, and thus translation, translations like Pound's, helped me revisit my own tradition. Here lies the subtle character of the Chinese-American literary exchange. Even though I understood the excellence of Chinese classical poetry, I didn't gain this understanding through a direct reading but via Pound, when I grasped his message.

In the past, China was an enclosed and self-contained society, it lacked a mirror, and was similar to like Narcissus in Greek mythology. The introduction of Western culture was a mirror for us; we now can see ourselves in this mirror. Goethe once put forward the idea of world literature, but when he presented this concept, he was not clear enough as to what world literature actually means. That is because at his time, globalization had not really started. Today we have come to a real understanding of what world literature means."

— Yu Jian

"I left my old home and set off for distant places I had left behind the home where I dwelt so long

in time's backyard there is no arriving at the beginning of things

drawing away from beginnings towards what comes later and yet barging into the lobby of the future arriving at the station

arranged in alphabetical order Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter noon"

— Yu Jian, Flight (Extract 3), translated by Simon Patton