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Berlin Sinosphere

Dagmar Yu-Dembski (2019)

Keynote. FernostBerlin. Parataxe Symposium V. May 23, 2019.

The Chinese-speaking literary figures of Berlin of past and present

Contemporary Chinese poetry is the only contribution China makes to world literature. (Wolfgang Kubin)

The history of Chinese-speaking writers who take part in German literary life raises more questions than answers. What literary figures are we talking about? In which language is their literature presented? Do we refer to Chinese-speaking writers in Berlin as authors-of-exile? And perhaps, most importantly, to what extent do these literatures reveal a reciprocal cultural transfer? The literary figures presented in this article are intended to provide exemplary insights into the significance of Chinese-speaking authors in the past and present.

Let’s begin with Li Jinfa, 李金发 who in 1922, wrote the poem “Zärtlichkeit” (温柔, wen rou) in Berlin, probably for his German lover at the time. Li (1900-1976) was first enrolled at the art academies in Dijon and Paris studying sculpture and painting – like his friend Lin Fengmian. During his time in France, he took a keen interest in European cultural history. He discovered the poets Baudelaire and Verlaine and began to write his own poems. His lyrical work, which was influenced by French symbolism, thematised love, death and transience. During the inflation years he moved with his artist friend Lin to Berlin, where he compiled an anthology of his poems, which was published in China in 1925 and titled “Drizzle” (微雨, weiyu). Among other things, it contained four of his pieces created between 1922 and 1923, which were translated into German in 1999 and published in Harald Jeschke’s “Orientierungen”. What is striking about his work is the authorial ego of the poems, whose mood, marked by melancholy and ennui, is illustrated through morbid images such as “faded bones”. As with Baudelaire, Li Jinfa’s poetry thematizes motifs of fatigue and impermanence. In his poem “Lebensmühsal” (生殖疲乏, shengzhi pifa) he even incorporates the French word morosité (en. Annoyance): “I can’t understand your morosité…/golden sunshine/ sleeping on a sandbank.” During his stay in Berlin Li closely studied German literature as his “ABC of German Literature” (1928) demonstrates. In addition to translating French poems into Chinese, he additionally translated texts by German poets such as Heinrich Heine. Sinologist Eva Müller rightly acknowledges his influence on modern Chinese poetry, he even made his mark on the “obscure poetry” (朦胧诗, menglongshi) of the 1980s. In China Li was described as a “poetic eccentric” whose poetics had difficulty finding acceptance: “…the break with traditional lyrical stylistic means, blatant ellipticism, dark metaphors, unusual associations of ideas and unharmonious verses, however, made reception in China more difficult…”.

Born in China in 1958, Yan Geling 严歌令 is known to the Western public primarily through several film adaptations of her texts. Her novels and stories were transcribed into screenplays by Joan Chen, Feng Xiaogang and Zhang Yimou. The author was born in Shanghai and comes from a family of writers. At the age of 12 she was accepted into a dance ensemble of the People’s Army. She began writing and became a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association in 1986; Yan published several texts in China and Taiwan. She left her homeland in 1989 and went to study in the USA, where her first translated novel, “The Lost Daughter of Happiness”, established her success as a writer abroad. A large contigent of her short stories, novels and stories have since been awarded prizes and have been translated into various languages; so far only “Die Mädchen von Nanking” (2012) was published in German. Her first novel in English, “The Uninvited” (also: The Banquet Bug), is a ironic story about bribery and social injustice in a society that is increasingly breaking apart. Yan Geling has been married to an American diplomat and translator since 1992. She lives a relatively secluded life in Berlin although she is deeply embedded in its film scene and maintains close contacts to fellow authors in China and in English-speaking countries.

Some of the Chinese writers who are considered to belong to the subgenre of obscure poetry (or “hermetic poetry”) were exposed to various political campaigns in their home countries at an early age. One of the most interesting Chinese writers, who has composed several essays contemplating the situation of the writer in exile, is the poet Yang Lian (杨炼). Born in 1955 in Bern (Switzerland) as the son of a diplomat, he was sent to the Chinese countryside, like many of his contemporaries, for re-education during the 1974 Cultural Revolution, where he began writing poetry in the classical style. After his return to Beijing in 1979, he became co-editor of the literary magazine “Jintian”, in which Yang was able to publish his poems for the first time. During the Anti-Spiritual-Pollution-Campaign in 1983/84, he was severely criticized for his poetry cycle Norlang (诺日朗, nuorilang), named after a Tibetan deity, and his works have since been subjected to censorship. In June 1989, on a lecture tour in New Zealand and Yang decided to leave Beijing for good. He sees himself as a writer in exile, resided in London for many years and has lived in Berlin with his wife YoYo since 2012. Yang Lian is regarded as an important individual voice in world literature, whose poems and essays (“ghost speeches”) deal with the traditions of Chinese cultural history and reflect on the role of the poet. The conversation between him and Gao Xingjian “Was hat uns das Exil gebracht?” (en. What have we gained from exile) published in 2001 summarize his experiences of living in exile. Writing of the role of the poet from the perspective of the “blissful demon,” Yang Lian surmises: “With each poem I transform the outer world into the world of my poetry.” (From: Reflections. The Home of the Exile Poet, 162.)

Since The Book of Songs (诗经, shijing), poetry has been regarded as a highly esteemed literary genre in China, while prose is pejoratively referred to as small talk (小说, xiao shuo). During the Ming period (1368-1644) the genre developed its aesthetic autonomy. To this day, Chinese prose literature is regarded in the Western world through the translated classics (Dream of the Red Chamber, Pilgrimage to the West, The Robbers of the Liangshan Moor). The author Luo Lingyuan (罗令源), born 1963 in the province of Jiangxi, made a name for herself with her stories and novels in the German-speaking literary scene since 2000. Luo, who has lived in Berlin since 1990, does not see herself as an writer in exile. She explains that the loss of her language and isolation in her new home forced her to write. She received the renowned Chamisso Preis for her very first volume of poetry written entirely in German, “Du fliegst jetzt für mein Sohn aus dem fünf Stock!” which depicts stories of everyday Chinese life, of the arbitrary and the unfree. Since 2005, the German-Chinese author has devoted herself to the stories of a life between cultures (The Chinese Delegation, Night Swimming in the Rhine), in which she often, laconically and with a keen eye for details, illustrates the intercultural clash. In her latest novel “The Chinese Orchid” (2019), she unfolds a melodrama of corruption, power and intrigue in contemporary China in the style of a classical moral tale. Through this political drama set in contemporary China, and which resembles a roman a clef, Luo Lingyuan once again demonstrates her talent for literary fantacism.

Since his escape from China via Vietnam, the author, poet and musician Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 has lived in Berlin. He was born in 1958 in the Sichuan province and, like many of his contemporaries, had his life thrown off track during the Cultural Revolution. Liao dropped out of school, moved across the country as a cook and truck driver and began to study Western poetry. At the beginning of the 1980s he published his poems in underground literary journals. As part of the Anti-Spiritual-Pollution-Campaign, Liao’s work was criticised and black-listed. For his poem commenting on the events of June 4th, 1989 (“Massacre”), he was sentenced to four years in prison. He recorded his humiliating experiences in prison in tiny writing. In Germany, the text smuggled out of the cell was published under the title “Die Wiedergeburt der Ameisen” (“The rebirth of ants”). After his imprisonment and the international support which succeeded it, Liao was unable to accept any invitations to literature festivals and book fairs. During this time, he lived as a simple day labourer in Chengdu and began to collect the voices of the oppressed and marginalised in contemporary China (“Miss Hello and the Peasant Emperor”, 2009). Liao Yiwu’s texts, which have been translated into numerous languages and have been honoured with several awards, make him an important chronicler of the darker sides of the new China.

Born in 1973, Guo Xiaolu 郭小橹 belongs to a different generation. She began her studies at the Beijing Film Academy at the age of twenty and went to London to study in 2002. Since she was unable not realize her film projects in China, she began to publish her texts. She comments on her beginning as a writer as follows: “It was this anger and bitterness that threw me into the world of literature”. To be confronted with a new language and a new culture, was humorously and inimitably recorded in the “Kleiner Wörterbuch für Liebende” (Little Dictionary for Lovers, 2007). Since her arrival in Europe, Guo has repeatedly devoted herself to the subject of a hybrid culture. In her work in video, film and literature, she sees herself as part of an international network of migration writers. In her “An Ufo She Thought”, produced by Fatih Akin, and “She, a Chinese”, in which she expands on Godard’s “The Chinese”, she explores life between worlds. Guo is an artist who transcends cultural boundaries and, through her work, refuses an exotic China. Since 2017 she lives Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, with her daughter, the city that gives her “harmony”, as she says.


Chinese Writers on Writing. Ed. By Arthur Sze. San Antonio: 2010.

Lexicon of Chinese literature. Edited by Volker Klöpsch and Eva Müller. Munich: 2004.

Li Jinfa: Feelings. From the Chinese by Harald Jeschke, in: Orientierungen 11 (1999) H. 2, S. 66.

Yu-Dembski, Dagmar: West-Eastern reflections. Cultural Encounters in the Interwar Period (Klabund – Lin Fengmian – Li Jinfa), in: German-Chinese Approaches. Cultural exchange and mutual perception in the interwar period. Edited by Almut Hille, Gregor Streim and Pan Lu. Cologne: 2011, 35-48

Yang Lian: Records of a blissful demon. Poems and reflections. From the Chinese by Karin Betz and Wolfgang Kubin. Frankfurt/M.: 2009. Reflections, 141-265.


Translated from the German by Joey Bahlsen

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