Illustration: People standing on a world map with Europe flag at bottom left.

Europe and its Dance Partners

More and more cultures are inviting Europe to dance with them on the stage of the ‘brave new world’. Based on their own cultural experiences, these distant cultures all expect Europe to be ready and willing to read from the same book and establish opportunities for meaningful dialogue.

We can certainly say that China, for example, has changed more over the last thirty years than in the previous three thousand. A culture where the same language had been spoken for more than three thousand years and where the same thought patterns and systems of ideas had reigned supreme has now in a short space of time battled its way through what should have been centuries of change and emerged looking brand new. In my poem “In Symmetry with Death”, which is at heart a poem about history, I wrote “Being reborn in the form of death is really being born for the first time”.

It is difficult for outsiders to imagine this process. Change has a far greater impact on ideology than on external reality. Politics is just a wave blown by the wind across the deep ocean of culture. Even the term “Communist Party” is a cultural monstrosity, a mask borrowed from the West so that the emperors could hide the true face of their absolute rule. I once coined the phrase “nightmare inspiration” to describe modern China from the Cultural Revolution to the present day. The kind of pain which tears the flesh and pierces the heart allows our questioning and searching to become a symbol for life itself.

Disasters do not simply wash over us without leaving a trace. They open up layer upon layer of reflection on reality, history, culture, language, mindsets and the subconscious until we come upon strange forms which bring these layers together, like a Chinese character which cannot be conjugated. And this takes us back to the synchronicity which is so peculiar to Chinese thought. It is something much more despairing than “the pain of the times”; it is nothing less than “timeless pain”.

Depths of Human Existence

It is this kind of profundity that makes contemporary Chinese literature so amazing. This has nothing to do with the exoticism of the Far East but with the depths of human existence, with experiencing the greatest possible “impossibility”. Writing – that is the will to live which proclaims: “Start with the impossible”.

After a gap of thirty years I once again visited the famous thatched hut of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu in Chengdu and quietly read to myself the well-known lines which he penned in exile “In ten thousand miles often a guest of melancholy”. This has made me realise that my own works are not part of the Chinese tradition but instead are an attempt to revive it.

Du Fu’s exile, Dante’s exile, and my own, comparatively modest, exile are all part of the same syntax: using a poem to convey extreme human suffering through extreme creative beauty.

The people of modern-day China need to learn from the relics of their past culture. If they are to breathe fresh life into Chinese culture they have to learn to push the boundaries, as this is where the opportunities and fountains of rebirth will be found. And it is to be hoped that the high price that China has paid will be worth it in the end.

In the ‘brave new world’ it is no longer enough for cultures to simply stretch as far as their historical and geographical conditions permit. Today it is necessary to have an active capacity for understanding another culture. I believe the driving force behind this understanding should not be curiosity, but the knowledge of one’s own needs in times of crisis.

The people of modern-day China need to learn from the relics of their past culture.

If it is true that China has still not emerged from the bloody shadows of Mao Zedong and the ineptitude of its nouveau riche has inevitably led to the country acting like a clown on the international stage, then it would be an absolute tragedy if Europe were to be pressurised by money to give up its own ways of thinking and get embroiled in this egotistical and cynical competition. As long as all the talk of human rights and democracy is nothing more than political correctness and is totally divorced from concrete actions, then we are facing a very sad reality. These empty phrases hide a yawning chasm which represents perhaps the biggest crisis of human civilisation.

Of course history has always also been a history of lies, but I have the impression that the liars have become even more cynical in their desire for profits and a fast buck. They not only feel no remorse about lying, they actually think it’s quite normal. Their logic is simple – if I don’t make a profit then someone else will. If we take the example of foreign firms who have invested in China, it is clear that they are profiting from the fact that China has cheap labour with no social security benefits, no union representation and no right to strike. It would be something of an exaggeration to talk about double standards here, because in truth there is only one standard – ruthless competition.

These empty phrases hide a yawning chasm which represents perhaps the biggest crisis of human civilisation.

In this respect, China has become a symbol of the crisis in international thinking which is much more serious than the economic crisis. Nowadays, everyone feels they are simply at its mercy. We stand and watch the decline without being able to do anything about it. It is not hard to recognise the extent of the problem, and one thing we can be sure of is that it is neither superficial nor temporary.

It breeds anger and hate, as has been shown all too clearly in the shootings carried out by Andres Brevik on the Norwegian island of Ytteroy and in the Molotov cocktails thrown by black children in the Tottenham area of London. If lies and profits mean that everything else is mere window-dressing (including most of what is considered to be art), then what is the point of our existence? And is there any point to literature?

A Clown on the International Stage

Europe has allowed itself be driven into a dead end by its own theory of the linearity of history. Some people may be familiar with a few lines from the poem written by Tang-dynasty poet Wang Wei: “To be at the place where the waters stop and wait for the rainclouds to form”. They are an example of a kind of synchronicity which will never disappear – seeing the movement of the earth at the end of the world. Time cannot change anything. It is a steady drip of water which seeps inside us and forms the sediment of our thoughts. Every human being is always starting out afresh and finding his way forward, hand-in-hand with the cosmos.

But we should not forget that there is more than one Europe. Eastern and Central Europe were once nothing more than “black holes”. Before the end of the Cold War suddenly catapulted them back into the public’s consciousness, they had long been removed from the centres of politics and business, drinking without memory or speech from the bitter cup of history. Perhaps it is this special situation that has provided Eastern Europe’s intellectuals with their sharp insight and level-headed powers of reasoning.

In early January 2011 I visited Warsaw and met up with colleagues from the Polish Writers’ Association to discuss their various experiences under communism.

As part of these discussions, there was also an exchange of views on history and traditions, such as the role of national consciousness or the Church during the Cold War and their influence on the present day. We agreed that the idea that the Cold War ended on a particular date is totally absurd, as I had already argued in my essay “Was uns der Kalte Krieg heute noch sagt“ ( “What the Cold War still has to teach us today”). Its significance goes way beyond just being a label for a historical era.

It stands for a situation which changes human character, so the fall of the communist parties does not automatically mean an end to this situation. Today’s global cynicism is also character-changing and we, as intellectuals, should not overlook the ideological consequences of this. I believe that, as writers, we would have been unable to have this kind of profound cross-cultural dialogue without our experiences of present-day crises.

Drinking without memory or speech from the bitter cup of history.

In a much wider context, I had a similar experience in 2002 when I led a series of discussions with the Arab poet Adonis. The result was quite fascinating. We were amazed to discover that the fate of creative people and thinkers was basically one and the same within both the Arab and Chinese cultures, despite the geographical distance between the two. On the inside, these countries are going through a complex process of cultural transformation, while on the outside their politics is becoming increasingly schematic. Whether in China’s ideological battles or the Palestinian conflict, moral concepts are being constantly reduced to mere slogans.

Creative Vigour

My reflections on China are mingled with the hope that a creative vigour will once again come to the fore, rather than the old combative, destructive mindset. Adonis criticised the dogmatism of Islam because he is hoping for a revival of Arab culture.

Above all, our literature is personal literature. Our poetic self is willing to ask the questions, in strong contrast to the emotional and agitated noises of the masses. It was quite wonderful for me to have the opportunity to talk directly to an Arab poet. Adonis was of the opinion that our two worlds did not need to be mediated by a third party (such as the West). Thanks to independence of thought, beautiful art will always find its allies, regardless of where they come from, and provide the perfect way to create a broad-based dialogue.

While the rapidly changing “brave new world” of the 21st century seems to be falling apart outwardly, it is somehow coming together again inwardly. Faced with the uncertainties of an ever-changing world, each culture is thinking first and foremost about how to redefine its own position. Indeed, it is right and proper that they should be aware of their own limitations when taking part in meaningful intercultural dialogue and should become an “active other” amongst the countless others. For me, active simply means being sensitive and aware.

I have learned from personal experience that I have not inherited anything from old China in a historically linear way. I can only create my idea of a living Chinese cultural tradition by developing my own thinking from a synthesis of different times and places and reinventing them in a creative way. This invisible “Chinese other” is certainly the biggest challenge that I face. In this respect, Europe should also be aware that the times of one culture having a claim to universality are long gone. The vocabulary of Europe and America which dominates the world is now little more than a spectre consisting of empty phrases that are often misused.

Today the problems of the world are also Europe’s problems; global reality is the very flesh and blood of its thinking. One could even say that the world has penetrated Europe and quietly gone about replacing Europe’s identity with its own. This hybridisation is going to continue, whether we like it or not. The difference is that only an “active other” can generate fruitful dialogue, while remaining passive will achieve nothing. The brave new world is a super-sized reality and evokes a new tradition made up of all-encompassing and independent thought.

Ideas are only of benefit to the whole of humanity if they are removed from the self-adulation of their own culture.

Literature would call it the “revolt of individual aesthetics”. It has to be individual because there are no groups. On a political level there are no longer rigid social models as was the case during the Cold War. And on a cultural level there is no longer one, universal culture. Here some people might talk of an unprecedented impoverishment of thought, but I personally believe that it is actually very rich! No-one needs to give up their own benchmarks for making judgements and decisions; they just have to test them against their knowledge and understanding of other cultures and then either revise or expand them. Our ideas are our convergence. They represent the lowest common denominator of various traditions, levels of culture and methods of expression.

It is not important what kind of art, politics or philosophy forms the object of our reflections or whether it is a question of accepting a particular religion. Ideas are only of benefit to the whole of humanity if they are removed from the self-adulation of their own culture and dare to go out and put their validity to the test. When I talk about individualism in thought I probably sound very “European”, but this could just as easily refer to one of the wonderful characteristics of the golden age of Chinese philosophy: of Laozi, Confuscius and Qu Yuan, who all lived long before the unification of China.

History as Concentric Circle

Their ideas fascinate me just as much as the many great thinkers from a wide range of disciplines who emerged in Europe in the period before the First World War, a time of great intellectual creativity. Together, they make up our intellectual wealth. I much prefer to think of history as not being tied to time and place but as being a concentric circle, rather than a linear development. The creativity which is inherent in international dialogues can only be brought about by mutual stimulation of the creative potential that every culture possesses.

The brave new world has to break out of the old patterns of dialogue and open itself up to questions and inspiration from all sides. I would like to take as an example another event which I was involved in a few years ago. It was a meeting on the subject of “dialect literature” in the tiny country of Slovenia and it inspired me – a Chinese poet from a country of 1.3 billion people – to revise my totalitarian linguistic tendencies stemming from two thousand years of Chinese literature.

The two-way translation project of an English-speaking poet and a Chinese poet resulted in a wonderful dialogue which touched the very core of both cultures. The best thing was how an African poet writing in English with his tradition of oral storytelling was so easily able to enter into a musical dialogue with the tonality of the classical Chinese tradition.

Difficulty is a synonym for ability. I have often referred to poetry as the “only native language”; poetic thought provides a formula for transcending languages which goes beyond translation. It is the perfect way to bring people’s “active” element to the fore by delving deep into a problem in order to gain new insights in a kind of aesthetic transcendency. Every completed line of a poem is an “impossibility” yet at the same time a “beginning”. The more impossible it is, the more powerful the beginning.

Will this “brave new world” finally bestow upon us Goethe’s Weltliteratur? I take Weltliteratur to mean individual literature which has withstood all the tests thrown at it by the world. It is no longer an illusion, but indeed has long been a reality.

About the Author
Yang Lian

Yang Lian is a Chinese poet currently based in Berlin and won the prestigious International Nonino Literature Prize in 2012. He was born in Switzerland in 1955 as the son of diplomats and grew up in Beijing. In 1979, he joined a group of poets who published the magazine "Jintian". At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he was in New Zealand, where he took part in the protests against the Chinese government's actions. Shortly thereafter, his works were censored in China and Yang Lian was stripped of his Chinese citizenship. Recent publications: Narrative Poem. a book-length poem. Translated by Brian Holton, Published by Bloodaxe Book, UK. (2016), Venice Elegy. a sequence of poems. Translated by Brian Holton. published by Damocle Edizioni, Italy. (2018), Anniversary Snow. a collection of poems. translated by Brian Holton and others. published by Shearsman Books (2019), A tower built downwards, translated by Brian Holton. Published by Bloodaxe (2023).

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.