By Alyssa Gautieri
Two Chinese poets broke the language barrier with their commanding poetry performances on Tuesday, Oct. 20, in the Social Sciences Building.
Jiayan Mi, professor of English and world languages and cultures and director of Chinese programs at the College, introduced Huang Xiang and Meng Lang to the stage to read their “inspiring and very touching poems.”
Xiang is recognized internationally as a poet, Chinese calligrapher and thrilling performer.
Xiang, a rock and heavy metal poet, spent 14 years in and out of prison due to his continued publication of poems which were considered taboo in China. His close friend, who later became his muse, was in attendance for the poetry reading. She preserved Xiang’s manuscripts while he was imprisoned, an act that could have gotten her executed in China.
English professor Michael Robertson said Xiang’s works were banned in China, and ever since, Xiang has been living in exile. According to Robertson, Americans do not consider poetry a sense of power and danger as the Chinese do.
“In the United States, where anything can be published, nothing matters,” Robertson said. “Huang Xiang is a poet, an artist who must ultimately challenge all authority.”
For Xiang’s final performance, he had Mi translate an introduction for the audience. His final poem was entitled “Hero” which was about his real life experiences in prison.
Flailing his arms like a bird while reading the line which translates to, “in the eyes, a single bird overhead,” Xiang performed his poem with exuberance.
Following Xiang’s performance, English professor David Venturo introduced Lang to the audience. According to Venturo, Lang became active in human rights activities during his college years, promoting cultural freedom and intellectual freedom of expression. He was a representative figure in China’s poetry movement in the 1980s and 1990s.
Later, Lang worked as the chief editor at a well-known Chinese literary and humanities journal where he was responsible for publishing nearly 20 books from independent intellectuals. Lang has also published four of his own poetry collections, which have been translated in English, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.
According to Venturo, most of Lang’s poems commemorate the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Each year, Lang writes one poem for the anniversary of the massacre. In one of his poems Lang read, “He who carries the motherland wherever he might go, is carried by the motherland as well.”
Lang’s country rock poetry has a calmer, soothing tone in comparison to Xiang’s poetry. However, both poets write powerful messages.
Xiang and Lang stood in front of the audience with immense emotions reflected in hand gestures, tone of voice, eye contact and delivery of words. While they each spoke a foreign language to the majority of the audience, they compensated for the language barrier with their expressive performances.
After each poem was performed, a volunteer from the audience read the English translation aloud to the room. Corinne Petersen, a freshman English and special education double major, volunteered to read one of the poems in a lively and interactive manner, moved by Xiang’s work.
“It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had so far at TCNJ,” Petersen said. “It showed how sincere words can be despite the language barrier.”
She also said hearing poetry in a different language gave her a new perspective on poetry, as she is accustomed to hearing it in English.
According to Mi, Xiang has been writing poetry his entire life.
“I was born dreaming of writing poems,” Xiang said. “I will be writing poems even after my death. I don’t believe I will ever leave this world.”