After my initial travels throughout eastern China in 2010, the writer and curator Fred Joiner made me aware of Hoke Glover’s (Bro. Yao’s) plans to travel there as well. We even began to bat around the idea of doing some kind of public event to share our ideas and writing on travelling to China, but, as is often the case, the idea for programming did not quite make it to the American Poetry Museum’s programming schedule. (It also took me a while to process my initial experience in China, and so I did not have much in terms of writing to offer.) My second trip to China was, for me, explicitly focused on writing—a novel (with no direct connection to China or Chinese culture) and a series of poems I eventually titled “The China Cycle.” Thus I returned with poems, something to actually share, and decided it was a good idea to revisit hosting the event with Bro. Yao and Fred Joiner. Yao was the one who informed me about Michael Afaa Weaver’s writing about China and Taiwan. I had known Afaa Weaver as an elder in the African-American poetry community for some time, but I was more familiar with his earlier writing. “The Plum Flower Trilogy” was all new to me, but discovering it only strengthened the impetus to host an event with African-American poets discussing their experiences in China.
I brought Afaa down from Massachusetts, and we held the event in January 2015 at the American Poetry Museum’s storefront gallery in Brookland. It was a very rich conversation—which Yao and I mostly allowed Afaa to carry—and after that moment, we kept thinking about how to recreate or disseminate the dialogue. Both Lawrence-Minh Davis and Lily Wong were in attendance and wanted, also, to create ways to continue the conversation. Lawrence brought up the idea of publishing a roundtable for AALR. Once we decided on the roundtable format, I wanted to bring in a female perspective as I had seen firsthand that travelling in China as a female foreigner, especially an African-American woman, is very different than doing so as a man. Lawrence knew of Aaliyah Bilal’s travels to China, and she graciously agreed to join in the discussion.
Impressions / Encounters
Lily Wong: To begin with, could you all share how you first encountered China and/ or Chinese culture? What drew you to it?
Aaliyah Bilal: I first encountered China through my father. After leaving the military he struggled to find decent work. It wasn’t until he developed a professional relationship with a Cantonese businessman in Washington, DC, that his life stabilized. I believe it was a combination of his gratitude as well as the sense of order that he found in the culture (reminiscent of his formation in the Nation of Islam) that made China a constant topic of discussion. The motivation on his part came out of a need to replace something that was lost. The Nation of Islam has had three major iterations. It was only before the dawning of the second iteration or “rise” of the Nation of Islam that it would take on the militaristic character with which it is commonly associated today. It was something he really took to. After the temporary dissolution of the organization (at least, as it was) I gather that an appreciation for Chinese culture (particularly martial arts) became more important to him.
My personal interest in China really grew out of a sense of lack. Growing up I was always frustrated that despite my proximity to Chinese culture through my father, I didn’t have a sense of Chinese meanings. There’s a lot built into that phrase. For one, it assumes a kind of distance between Chinese and non-Chinese subjects. In that sense, “Chinese meanings” are not things I feel that I can memorize and somehow command. It also pokes not only at Chinese concepts of their world, but where non-Chinese like me fit therein. I’m asking, “Who are you (to you)?” and “Who am I to you?” For writing’s sake, I still live in that space of lack.
Kyle Dargan: My initial exposure, thinking back as far as I can, would have been the permanent collection of Tibetan art at the Newark Museum. (I was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey.) In the Mayor’s Office, where my mother worked as a mayoral aide and eventually chief of staff, there were large posters announcing the establishment of the collection. But even then, I sensed that there was some distance or tension between the ideas of Tibet and China or “Chineseness.” Later, the Wu-Tang Clan would become a huge cultural force during my hip hopscored adolescence, but again, I was leery of the actual connection between their appropriation of projected Chinese culture and native Chinese culture. (I never actually felt I was learning anything about Chinese culture from Wu-Tang.) My sincere interest in China peaked when I was a young adult learning more about the United States economy and the national debt. Who, I wondered, were all these people willing to buy and continue to believe in the value—or promise—of U.S. treasury bonds and bills? Of course, it is not the people but the government holding those marketable securities—and, unsurprisingly, one of things that I found in my travels to China is that average Chinese citizens don’t seem to consider their country’s investment in U.S. debt to be a concern. (Although a few apparatchiks did pull me aside and tell me that the government does, in fact, weigh such things seriously.)
Yao Glover: My first encounter with China was conceptually. As a young child I remember hearing of missionaries who traveled to an Anti-Christian, Communist China, and though it did not register then, sensing a polemical distance in the portrayal of the country somehow reconciled with the way African American history operated in America. There was the sense of great distance and mystery. My understanding of such distance came mostly from visiting my father’s small town in Georgia. Those trips helped define my sense of life itself and the mystery of parents. It absolutely fascinated me that he knew of a world I did not. It was a world separated from ours by poverty, distance, time, and knowledge. If my father was the vehicle for my transportation beyond mystery and distance into the small town, literature provided me with the approach to China.
I only return to this thought now many years after learning more about African American history and culture, which helped me better understand my mother and my father. The similarity with China is that my approach to a few of the classics popular in the U.S. made clear there was more to the country than the images I had been given. My travel to the country was rooted in a clear need to reconcile some of the ideas with the practicalities everyday travel brings.
My second meaningful encounter, which began my current stage, was the occasion of finding The Tao Teh Ching in the old B. Dalton bookstore in Landover Mall, where for many years we operated an African American bookstore. The encounter was by chance and still striking for a memory that seems like it is failing. I can remember the isles of the store and pulling the book out to read the first section and being profoundly affected by the words. That Penguin Classic translation is still my translation of choice.
What struck me most was the perfect sense the passage seemed to make of my life. I experienced a union with the text that has stayed with me since.
More than two and half decades later, I am still investigating and exploring the culture of China. About a decade ago, I began to study the I-Ching extensively, along with the development of a Tai Chi practice. For many years, I read the Art of War on a seasonal basis. What fascinates me about the texts and culture is the diversity they offer in lieu of a Western view of the world.
A quest for a practical philosophy that could integrate knowledge of mind, body, and spirit, combined with an African American need for and idealism about alternatives to the West, led me towards China.
In the summer of 2010 I visited Jiangsui Province and taught teachers of English for a month. During my short stay, I had the opportunity to experience portions of the “small towns” and operate briefly as a foreigner and observer in rapidly changing China.
The trip was spawned by a bankruptcy that made me contemplate something I wanted to do, I never figured I had the time to do.
Afaa Michael Weaver: In the 1960s, Asian culture came into American popular culture via television and film. That was my first exposure. Harold Sakata, the Hawaiian actor who played Odd Job in the film version of Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger, brought Asia to my imagination. I read several of the novels when I was a young teenager during that turbulent time in America. I felt the need to be able to defend myself, for which I had good reason. Racial tensions were high with the rioting and violence. In that regard, there was Bruce Lee who played Kato in The Green Hornet. I was fourteen years old in 1966 when that show premiered. The now defamed Bill Cosby did a judo move in the opening of the I Spy program. When that premiered in 1965, I was in my first year of high school. When I graduated high school in 1968 and went to the University of Maryland, I found my way into naïve student discussions of Maoist Marxism. I bought a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book from a revolutionary bookstore in downtown Baltimore. When I read his thoughts on art and the culture of workers, I felt validated in my decision to leave the university and become a writer, principally a poet. I was light years from understanding that my real challenge and mission as a poet would become the articulation of black working class and working class interiority. That exploration of my interior was launched when I received my first copy of the Dao De Jing in 1973, and when I began studying Taijiquan five years later when I was twenty-seven years old. Somewhere in that five-year period I read Alan Watts’ Tao: The Watercourse Way. Of course, I was a factory worker all along. I went into the steel mill in 1970, and in 1971, I took the job at Procter & Gamble in South Baltimore, where I worked and wrote for fourteen years.
LW: It seems like, for many of you, your interests in China and Chinese culture were activated through family ties and textual encounters. I am curious about how your impressions of Chinese culture developed when you were physically traveling and living in China. Were there specific experiences that were particularly rewarding and/or disorienting for you?
AB: The most rewarding experiences I’ve had in China have always been in the countryside. It’s the place where I have formed the deepest connections to the land. Places like Yangshuo, rural Fujian, and various parts of Yunnan province have given me a glimpse of a China stripped of pretense. The “economic miracle” narrative has no weight for me in this space. Instead in the countryside I feel invited to contemplate life pared back to the essentials. The African American concept of soul—beauty through pain and struggle—is what I consider my emotional passport to the world; it’s where I connect across difference. Where cities often feel vapid in the ways that they impose abstract/non-essential concerns on the individual, the countryside resonates with this idea of “soul.” It is in these rare moments that I feel I have a window into something core to this place.
I couldn’t say I’ve ever felt disoriented. Superficially, China and the U.S. are too similar in the sense that they are countries faced with similar realities around demographics, ideology, and social stratification. Also, the ways they address these matters are remarkably similar. It’s easy to look at the record right around the time of China’s re-opening to see how aspects of its modernization were patterned after American models. Further, given China’s history (let’s say from the 18th century on) and the ways it parallels my history—the history of Africans and their descendants in America—there are certain sympathies that arise for me living here. There are any number of ways to take this point, but I think the essence here is that, to the extent that history intrudes on identity, I’ve made certain observations about the psychological profile of politically astute Chinese citizens and noted how those overlap with my own self-concept. For one, a sense of “national humiliation” tugs at our interior lives. In a sense, looking at each other provides a mirror into self, so that I can ask the questions, “how are you recovering?” and “what can I learn from you to help in my own recovery?” Where these sympathies are not met with equal enthusiasm, at least they help direct my writing interests as they relate to China.
KD: While I was in Binhai Tianjin, I couldn’t really work out at a gym, so I’d returned to my track and field workouts, as tracks abound in the Tanggu region. There, an African-American working out on a track, I’d become somewhat of a spectacle. One day I was trying to buy new training shoes at an outdoor mall, and I attempted to ask the clerk if they had this pair of track shoes I wanted in my size. Admittedly, I am much better at writing hanzi than I am at speaking in correct tones. So I wrote down the size on a slip of paper and proceeded to show it to the clerk. She just waived her hands no—not no, we don’t have it but no, I’m not even going to try to decipher what you are attempting to communicate—and walked away from me in a fluster. I left very angry because I assumed it was a racially driven denial of interaction. I carried that feeling in my mind for a week. Some time later, I walked with another member of our cohort of international writers to the farmer’s market. He was trying to haggle over some fruit, and I was trying to hurry along the transaction by, again, writing the numbers down as hanzi. Again, it proved a failure. My hanzi were correct, but it was clearer in this instance that the reason we could not communicate via written characters is that the rural farmer could not read hanzi. And when I went to research the illiteracy rates in China, especially away from the major cities, I was shocked to see they were so high. And while I was often interacting with school-age children in Tanggu (the ones who would stalk me at the track) who clearly were not only literate but knew some English, I eventually came to learn, through research, that public education in China was not mandated until the last thirty to forty years. I then began to observe, too, what could be, controlling for age, a correlation between ethnicity, class, and literacy. Though I’d just read Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, it wasn’t until that moment of realization regarding literacy that I could really grasp the sense of how much change China had experienced since the 1960s. I suddenly felt like I was walking through two worlds.
YG: For me China was good food and a sense of clarity that fit in with an inner desire to visit a place I had read so much about. My time was spent in Xiansui, Pizhou, and Yangzhou, though I flew into Nanjing by way of Beijing.
There seemed to be little odd about the trip though I could address a wide variety of experiences that captured my traveler’s gaze. My trip was fueled by cultural studies and the emerging practice of Tai Chi in relationship to my daily activities. In the first city, I was allowed to practice with some of the resident experts. That experience was the highlight of my trip. I was engaged as a neophyte worthy of some special attention and presented with the opportunity to practice both in the mornings and evenings for extended period of times. My escape from my duties here allowed me to take longs run in the morning and sometimes in the evening in addition to the Tai Chi. I seemed more fit than ever, though a bit run down by the constant liquor and toasting. Many years ago, I accepted social drinking, and China seemed to challenge my concept of the social. The liquor and the cigarettes (I smoke) seemed to offer a strange counter balance to all the working out I did. It seemed everywhere I went I got a drink or a box of cigarettes. An enduring image was looking at a lazy Susan that had cigarettes spinning around as though they were food.
In terms of cultural interactions, the food was fabulous. I especially enjoyed vegetables in the morning and warm soy milk, which are practices I planned on continuing once I arrived back home, but alas, that did not occur.
Interactions with people were navigated through the bridge between languages though all of my students and guides spoke better English than I spoke Mandarin (my Mandarin is still basically non-existent). I imagined the ideal culture established as a result of my reading clashing with the reality of China’s huge population. The people and the setting seemed oddly like my father’s small town in Georgia. One could see the sophistication of the people, the advanced etiquette used to engage the stranger, and also imagine the secrets of knowledge you were not privy to, though you were there. None of it seemed odd or disorientating. If anything it seemed too familiar. The simplicity of it all was partially a traveler’s luxury—the advantage of being a stranger; but I could also see the reconciliation of the culture I envisioned mostly via literature with the reality of people living their everyday lives.
I imagined the Tai Chi practitioners like those dudes who have mastered basketball in certain neighborhoods when a middle aged man waved the Tai Chi ball magically in dim light after interrupting his work breaking down a moon bounce for children in one of the parks of Pizhou. His attitude, the brief smile, and the execution of the movement rung with the bravado and ego of someone operating in the culture on the highest levels without the publicity or fame. I count the experience among my greatest rewards.
The only disorientating experience, I can describe now, occurred when I took the bus from Xiansui to Yangzhou without guide or traveling companion. Part of my trepidation occurred when I informed one of my guides in Xiansui I intended to take the trip alone and spend a few days in the city. He said, “Alone. Not so good.” I suddenly became aware of being alone in a gigantic country that I felt familiar with. I had underestimated my guides who had provided me with everything since my arrival. I contacted a young woman in Pizhou who found me a guide for my days in Yangzhou in response.
On the bus ride, I was amazed to see the bus stop in the middle of a highway and let a group of people off who then disappeared into the tall grass. It was nothing short of amazing. I watched movies anxious on the ride and imagined my father traveling from the southern town of Humboldt, Tennessee, to New York City after graduating college to escape the job of being a teacher for the rest of his life.
AMW: I have lived in Taiwan on several occasions, including an eight month stay in 2004-2005, when I studied Mandarin at Taipei Language Institute. My first time there was as a Fulbright scholar in 2002 for the spring semester when I taught at National Taiwan University, my home base, and Taipei National University of the Arts. The joy of being inside the culture that had meant so much to me was a thrill I can hardly express in words. My teacher gave me my first Dao meditation instructions just a few days before I left to serve my term as a Fulbrighter. It was fourteen years ago, in January, just a few short months after 9/11. I had an apartment reserved for foreigners on the 4th floor, which is bad luck for Chinese people but okay for foreigners. That should give you some sense of how the Chinese world is an entire world unto itself, and for me to intersect in the way that I have been is to build a house out of paradoxes. Irony is the mortar. Iconoclasm is the power source. It is a world of fractal lights, constantly reinventing themselves, falling into and out of themselves, and becoming these particular suns, exploding stars.
During my first time in Taiwan, I traveled to Mainland alone for a short vacation in Beijing, where I knew no one. After I convened the first of two international conferences on Chinese poetry at Simmons in 2004, I visited poets I knew in Mainland in the spring of 2005, and that was unforgettable. In Beijing, I had incredible moments with poets, including a trip to the Printing University for a reading. Students were so excited to see the black man, the poet who had brought Chinese poets to Boston. I also met Shi Zhi, whom some regard as the father of the latter 20th century lyric in Chinese poetry on Mainland.
Matchmakers still wait for me when I land in Taiwan and Mainland, hoping to get me into a family situation. If I go back again unattached, I might be disappeared into a small village in Taiwan where I will be straightened out and given in marriage, which is to say handed over to a sweet but no nonsense woman so my life will be as it should be. Or I will be taken into that monastery where I taught Taiji to the nuns in the spring of 2005, there to spend the rest of my life with my wayward proclivities.
What can I say? I go to Taiwan and feel as if I am home. Part of me is there.
Once when I was there electric storms filled the sky for the entire time I was there, as if in affirmation. Taiwan is where I began my Dao mediation, the next major step into exploring my interiority, and that monastery is where I began writing The Government of Nature, my fourth U Pittsburgh book, and my twelfth book overall. There is something in the math of that which makes sense.
I have been to Macao. It is the holy land for all who love gambling. If you have never been, just imagine Portuguese and Chinese cuisine combined and walking along streets in China that look like streets in Portugal but with one difference. You can walk right into Mainland from Macao.
LW: It strikes me that there is a sense of relationality, or even “kinship,” that emerges from your encounters in China—be it developed sympathies in Aaliyah’s and Kyle’s depictions, the odd sense of familiarity experienced by Yao, or the feeling of home as described by Afaa. I wonder, then, what does this transpacific move towards Asia, or China in particular, open up for you conceptually, institutionally, politically, personally, or otherwise? Does this thinking in relation to the East enable particular kinds of possibilities for identity, community, or social imaginings for you?
AB: China is a useful counterpoint to any discussion of America and its global exercise of power. At the polemic level that’s where my interest lies—prodding at American meanings from the perch of an emerging empire in the East. As someone coming out of a black nationalist consciousness, an examination of this society also sates my curiosity about what success looks like in a second/third world liberation context. I am able to work through a lot of hypotheticals—the things I may see as desirable or necessary for the advancement of my causes—by exploring those ideas as they are manifest in Chinese society.
I see that as a separate question from the imaginative possibilities for creative work. These are endless; the challenge is blending audiences and I suppose that’s where the community piece comes in. On a mass scale, this hasn’t happened outside of the hip-hop movement, and even this discourse is circumscribed in its way. This in the sense that the protest function the music serves in its original cultural context is limited here, especially of late. It would be useful to define what community could or should look like across our differences. As for a contemporary portrait, there is a lot of suspicion and reductive thinking to be called out and worked through. Strong tendencies exist in both our political traditions whereby we are moved to assert a kind of innocence before history. It works like an emotional circuit breaker, trivializing and outright dismissing any serious reckoning with the ways we misunderstand and harm others based on a perception of our own suffering as superior. Of course, the injury is multidirectional.
This question is also gendered in a sense, which may reflect the caution in my response. Global patriarchies interact in ways that often limit the kinds of access “foreign” women can have. Depending on the metric, this culture seems less severe than some others.
KD: I don’t know if “opening” is the word I would use. So much of the exchange with China—closer to the surface, not at the political depths—still seems onedirectional to me. I felt as though there were ideas or perceptions that I could take from my experience there to complicate or destabilize my Western views, but there did not seem to be much that I could introduce. Things don’t work that way here, seemed to be a common response. Whereas in America, where we have these governing ideals that our social and civic realities have never quite matched or realized (and thus those ideas hover in the air as aspirational beacons for ourselves and the world), I don’t get a sense of a dominant “controlling metaphor” in China. As Yao said, there seems to be such a diversity of philosophy and ideology—maybe not as strong a need to displace or supersede others in the name of establishing dominance. (If true, I imagine that a result of China being a much older civilization that has seen the rise and fall of its empires.) Although that certainly does not apply to religion, and I think that is why religion is such a contentious issue there (though religious conflict, and battles for natural resources and political capital in the guise of religious conflict, has been a defining human struggle for some time now.)
I have to note, too, that both of my trips to China were sponsored and mostly led by the Chinese government, and discussing certain subjects and extending certain ideas would have been, shall we say, discourteous. I can’t really say I’ve had an unmitigated dialogue or exchange with “China” or the Chinese people yet. Unlike Aaliyah and Yao, I’ve had none of that folk exchange that they seem to have had. Maybe that is why I don’t feel any opening, as such open exchange of ideas threatens the imposed harmony the CCP works very hard to maintain and project. The fact that while I was there, being treated very kindly, the Chinese government was persecuting underground and dissident writers feeds a certain skepticism about my experiences.
Being there did make me think a lot about globalization and, emanating from the metropolises, this drive towards capitalist sameness. In a way, looking at China is like looking at a potential future where GDP growth is god and the boom/ bust cycles are so frequent that towns become these blends of gleaming luxury development and young ruin. The environment gives me the same feeling—a look into a future when we have declared the dollar absolutely worthier than maintaining the environment.
YG: China is a culture that has been documented for millennia. The presence of literature and culture for such an extensive period of time contradicts many of the myths fed to African Americans via white supremacy. I often conceptually speak of China as “a third rail” to the black/white binary that seems to dominate the conceptual framework of America. Of course, one could add India or the Middle East as alternatives that serve the same purpose. Yet China has been the culture that I have been drawn to. The yin and yang symbol, which acknowledges a binary relationship held in balance complete with designation for contradictions, serves as a useful practical tool for conceptual alternatives. We are fond of imagining black and white as opposites that can somehow be mutually exclusive. Chinese culture seems to have preserved a more complex and nuanced view of the relationship between opposites than the one present in the binary that dominates the African American relationship with America.
China is also important in relationship to the contemporary world stage. The size of its economy and the large amount of business it does with America is of great importance to members of our society. One must also add the presence of China in Africa and the efforts of the Government to gain access to Africa’s natural resources. On the most practical level a citizen of the world cannot afford to ignore China.
Institutionally, I have promoted China as an area of focus for HBCUs. Xavier, Spellman, and a few other HBCUs have Confucius Institutes. My home institution, Bowie State University, currently has a few students studying in China for semesters as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Government. China is a good focus for African American Institutions. As an African American one engages China with the advantage of being American, but if properly grounded, one also possesses a perspective that represents African American consciousness derived from our unique experience in the country. My study of China and Taoism has led to my contemplation of African American culture as a “yin” culture. African American responses to the conditions of our history have often demanded we cultivate nonaggressive forms of power to maintain our survival. To engage China with this understanding is a conceptual and tactical advantage.
The move towards China serves as a “third rail” for reconciling the encounter with knowledge via a system that operates outside of the Western binary. Often in my classes when teaching binary thinking, I ask students to give me the opposite of heaven. Students always respond with hell. For in the binary of Western religion the opposite of heaven is hell. When I explain the opposite of heaven in the I-Ching hexagrams is earth, students appear to be a bit confused. Earth could easily be considered an opposite to heaven, and the differences between earth and hell are profound. The distinction is as profound (when contemplated or meditated) as the concept of reversion mentioned in the Tao and practiced in Tai Chi. These two examples, though idealistic, begin to suggest the role of Chinese culture in my life. When teaching primarily African American students, I often set the Chinese philosophy or view of the world against the traditional views we have of Western culture.
AMW: The experience of being the only black person in a culture with very little familiarity is a matter of having your sensory systems stripped naked, having little or no access to prompts which you understand. That is a good thing. It is disorienting at first, and sometimes frightening in that there is a sense of being alone that can be overwhelming at times. It’s then that you have the chance to build a new system. Identity on an obvious level refers to the ways in which we attach ourselves to signs that indicate who we think we are, or who other people think we are. However, internally identity is the sense of how we respond to ourselves, of our inner lives. Traveling in Chinese culture in the way that I have for over a decade, I have come to the States with a renewed ability to move in the context of the other, of that which is outside African American or black references. It is a sojourn across spaces many perceive as impossible, and it is not without its challenges. Still there is the chance to have an enlarged sensibility, an extended consciousness.
In the space of the engagement of race in the United States, I feel as if I have alternative ways of perceiving, responding, and moving. These feelings of alternative actions may not materialize in the outer world, but the fact that they exist in my consciousness enlarges the way in which I see myself.
The familiarity with Chinese culture can translate into a new set of tools for forming communities of artists and cultural workers here in the U.S. Familiarity is a crucial aspect of bridge-building across cultures. We move away from clichéd ways of trying to build rapport when we have experiential knowledge of Chinese culture as a result of working in that culture. It begins with fundamental awakenings, such as to the wide diversity that is contained in Chinese culture, and of influences and tensions with other Asian and South Asian cultures.
As we find ourselves immersed in this important stage of history after the ending of formal European colonialism, we have the heavy lifting of a multitude of considerations if we are to call ourselves conscious working artists.
Finally, there is the other dimension of real personal change that happens when you practice important aspects of Chinese culture, such as the Daoist internal arts and internal cultivation. Your physiognomy changes. The ways your body moves in space, the phenomenological inquiry attendant to such changes, are profoundly intimate and affect your life in ways that are sometimes simply ineffable.
LW: Hearing your responses, it seems like China and/or Chinese cultural thought has provided ways to think through, for one, issues of empire (be it America’s “global exercise of power” which Aaliyah points to, or China’s rise as an emergent empire as Kyle and Yao both address); for another, concepts of identity and racial formation that to Yao offer a “third rail” to complicate ideological binaries and to Afaa “enlarge and extend” consciousness, phenomenological inquiry, and modes of communitybuilding.
This rumination reminds me of a number of African American thinkers who have also traveled to China and written on black consciousness in relation to Chinese cultural thought (i.e. W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, etc.) in the past. Do you read your writings on China to be alongside, intervening in, departing from, or being in non-relation to such a genealogy?
AB: I believe that my work echoes the writings of black thinkers who have pondered China and its meanings. There is certainly a departure in my writing, in the sense that I work against romanticism and ardently resist any impulse to authenticate my voice to this place. I take issue with the panacea envisioned in so much black writing about China.
Something else that I’ve accepted about the terms of the Chinese discourse on China, where it concerns outsiders, is that we non-Chinese can possess no understanding. It’s a hard thing to take into the spirit, but it’s the rule one must play by in order to survive the environment. Some of the shooing away at “foreign” attempts to understand this place is a bit knee jerk, but there is a strong argument underneath the posturing that I respect. In light of this, I have come to believe that black thinkers have our purposes with Chinese narratives and Chinese thinkers have their purposes with ours. In my writing I try to imagine our realities as separate spheres, conveying my genuine longing for connection but emphasizing questions around that project over answers.
KD: Well, I don’t want to judge DuBois for what he said in the mid-twentieth century because who can really see the future, but China was somewhat of a communist wet dream for him. “You know America and France and Britain to your sorrow,” he said from China, speaking to Africa and peoples of its diaspora. “Now know the Soviet Union and its allied nations, but particularly know China.” (His sentiment was likely fueled by disillusionment with America and its brand of racism.) But today, many Chinese are functioning as robber barons in Africa— providing infrastructure in exchange for exorbitant compensation in the form of natural resources. So I guess I am not writing with the intent of situating my American minority struggles within the politics of the Chinese people. Though, yes, I do feel a solidarity with many of the people there, but that is mostly economic. I see the people of my generation in China and recognize a similar struggle to escape the capitalist finger trap. (And I’m not just throwing that metaphor out there as cultural pandering. Think about the similarities between the finger trap and corporate capitalism.) It’s too expensive to live in D.C., New York, and San Francisco, and it’s too expensive to live in Beijing and Shanghai, and too expensive to raise a child. When I can see it in China rather than having to assume these things, it strengthens my conviction to write about this global struggle against greed and debtorship. Maybe in that way I am stepping into DuBois’ territory in regard to contemplating China, but I think my allegiance lies with the people—just the people—more so than it does with the nation. I don’t think I have a reason to trust my government any more than a Chinese citizen does, and vice versa. The mutual struggle to govern ourselves and remain human—particularly in the face of late capitalism—is what my writing on China is concerned with. But in terms of writing with cultural awareness and in a sincere spirit of exploration, I definitely take Afaa’s work as model. Compared to what he is doing, most of what I am writing is only scratching the surface.
YG: In my responses thus far, I have often referred to the idealistic. The idealistic for African Americans often functions as a retreat to the symbolic and the conceptual, which many take to be an abandonment of practicality. Elijah Muhammad calling the white man the devil, or a revolutionary blackness that ends in arms, represents expressions of our search for practical ideological expressions of our freedom. Maoist thought has fed some of these idealistic drives, but hinges itself on a different cultural model that is grounded in the particulars of Chinese culture and history, and most importantly, the specifics of the Chinese population. Writings that engage the politics of China and the practicality of Chinese tactics for waging revolutionary struggle represent a different expression of engagement with China than the one I seek.
My genre of choice is poetry, and seems different from the engagement of other African American scholars of the past on the subject. Though the work of Afaa in particular offers an objective I admire and desire to move towards. What I find in his work is a fusion of African American and Chinese culture concepts held together by the craft of poetry and a working class perspective. If one studies the two cultures or even contemplates the meaning of “working class” one finds the commonalities that give rise to a firm connection between African Americans and the Chinese. In my opinion Afaa’s nuanced integration represents a refinement of written expression that reflects the best of what I know about Chinese and African American culture. It can be symbolized by the many movements of jazz through different modalities held together by the performer’s stance on the stage in a particular time. It is the way Tai Chi though presented in forms and movements gives one an opportunity to sense the particular energy of the day through the body. Afaa’s work in particular represents a refined representation of the continuum of African American “struggle,” for lack of a better word; for his work seems to defy the concept of struggle. It seems to express that there is a way to resolve, refine, and integrate the culture into forms that suggest a balance can always be achieved. So while it represents a generation or movement forward, his relationship with China suggests a completely different possibility. In some ways, the work is so grounded in the everyday one at times imagines that there is little concept being employed. In this regard Afaa’s work represents a Chinese sensibility that mirrors some of the highest expressions of its culture that I have been exposed to. If my writings aspire to something it would be that, though desire towards such an objective seems to be a paradox, which could easily limit one’s ability to execute the task.
AMW: I would say my own writings on China or my writings influenced by Chinese cultural thought are more aligned with Huey Newton in terms of class, but the content of my poetry is more that of the cultural nationalist thinking of that period in the U.S. I am not saying I am a nationalist, and that clarification is evidence, at least to me, of a further point of departure from my influences. The confessional content of The Government of Nature does not tow the party line, so to speak.
My awareness of oppositional energies and contradictory narratives involved in being a black man from America are informed by DuBois’ overall project, for sure, not in his interest in Maoist thought—I would have to say he could only have known general things. I am not sure what he knew of Taiwan or what he thought of the Cross-Strait issues. I suspect he would have laughed to know of someone like me who was following a martial artist’s pathway in the name of self-realization as a serious poet. He might have thought that odd. I know Chinese people who find it odd.
When I left the university in 1970, and began my fifteen-year life as a factory worker, I often reflected on a quote by Mao about the need for artists to be grounded in the proletariat. I used that as a rationale for leaving my university education, but I was too conflicted to do anything except intuit my way through the paradox of my own membership in the proletarian or working class. After the publication of Water Song, my first book of poetry, in 1985, I set out to try to write more of my interior in my second full-length book, My Father’s Geography. It was my third book, and my second full-length collection, and getting to that internal excavation would prove to be a process of decades. The seeds for my Plum Flower Trilogy are in that third book, which was published in 1992, seven years after my debut collection. I was working on the Marxist idea of the establishment of working class interiority as the more effective rebellion against class hegemony, but it was a personal, felt need as opposed to something I chose from intellectual wandering. I wish I could have had a chance to discuss all of this with DuBois. That would have been marvelous. In fact, I’d like to discuss it with Cornel West one day. He hosted me at Princeton to read from My Father’s Geography about twenty-five years ago. I wasn’t ready at the time to have that conversation.
So in some ways I think my work intervenes, but there is always some relation, but that may be a generational perception. I was born during the time of de jure segregation, when the U.S. Supreme Court Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 still held segregation to that national policy, one upheld in the north by the scaffolding of northern liberalism with its lack of social intent. So I see a collectivity that no longer exists as a state of consciousness the way it did when I was a child.
LW: You’ve all started articulating this in your responses already, but I would like to close with a question that focuses on literature and your writings in particular. What role do you see literature playing in your exploration of this cross-Pacific, crosscultural, cross-racial encounter and experience? How has this manifested in your work? How do you see your writings developing in the future?
AB: One of the areas where I am able to cultivate intimacy with the culture is through its literature. The literature of China has provided me with a deeper sense of China’s cultural foundations, how China sees itself, and how that self-perception interacts with/contradicts the historical record. Who does that vision include/exclude? One does get the sense when engaging this tradition, though, of grasping at shadows—something about the work available feels partial. I get a similar feeling when I contemplate pre-colonial African texts. There is so much interest, but at present there are so many more questions than answers, and some of the latter are forever lost.
I appreciate the prose tradition very much, especially the great classics. Even if you’re not a reader, you cannot survive an hour of Chinese television without a basic grasp of the Journey to the West storyline. I struggle with contemporary Chinese literature, though there are writers like Lu Xun, Yu Hua, Ye Shengtao, and Yu Dafu whose work to me is plainspoken, invigorating, and soul expanding.
In my own experience, sharing work by black writers has served as a means to form meaningful connections and to insist on a kind of visibility that meets my own terms. I remember teaching a course on black writers at Yunnan University. At the end one of the students told me that my pride in my heritage made her proud to be Chinese. That was a profound moment for me. Being the neophyte I was, I had no sense of the challenges history would pose to the self-esteem of the people I was meeting every day. Until then, in my perception, I was on the receiving end of hurt and harm. It was only then that I was forced to acknowledge that so many of the people I was encountering were in various states of emotional distress. It was moving to see the profound ways that exposure to black literature helped them grow a deserved sense of pride in their own heritage.
What manifests in my work is a kind of sympathy—an extended hand. I’m not interested in assuming a gaze from above; I try to write from a place of yearning. While in the past my China writings have been kind of obscure, I am more interested now in meeting the demands of the general reader, creating work that is easy and approachable, but where the ideas put forward meet a certain level of rigor. I respect that for Western audiences, interest in China is economically motivated. It’s difficult to have a cultural conversation that is not framed as tangential to this financial narrative. My challenge as a non-fiction writer is simply to see how my perspective as a black woman can intervene in the tradition of “foreign” China writing in a way that adds a new layer of richness, but my voice isn’t the one I’m most excited about. I look forward to a flowering of literature among black people raised in China as well as Afro-Chinese themselves writing about their experiences across cultures. They will have more illuminating and exciting things to say than may ever come to my mind, though it won’t keep me from trying.
KD: After my first visit to China in 2010, I left with a strong desire to edit an anthology of contemporary and modern African-American poetry translated in Chinese. I wanted to work with Rita Dove—a former teacher of mine—as adding someone of her stature to the project would give it a better shot at publication (particularly since she has had some of her work translated into Chinese). In mainland China—even in the larger cities where foreign culture has penetrated—I got a sense that African-Americans are very much an unknown entity. When I was walking through the Forbidden City in Beijing and being asked to stop and take pictures with school children, I kept wondering, “Who do they think I am, and would they believe me if I said I was a writer, a scholar and teacher?” (Yusef Komunyakaa has discussed having similar experiences in India where the popular assumption was that “black” people only rap and engage in no other lyrical production.) I think that creating a book which complicates and destabilizes the popular Chinese conception of African-Americans (mostly fueled by globalized corporate media and sports entertainment) is more important than anything I am writing about China right now. What’s sad, though, is that if I did that and did it honestly, I doubt such an anthology would be something sanctioned by the government. I doubt the complex stories and histories of African people in American would be censored because non-Han, ethnic minority people in China quietly suffer under similar conditions as “black” Americans do. At the same time, I doubt it would be easy to get access to writers who aren’t sanctioned by and ideologically aligned with the Communist Party’s Chinese Writers Association. If we were to attempt to get an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry out of China, it would only happen in spite of many sanitizing filters. I could go to Taiwan and connect with someone like Hsia Yü, but on the mainland, it is more sensitive. Writers that provide insight into the cultural “bottom” of China are the ones who tend to get detained. I would say the internet is the way to go (as opposed to publishing a tactile, traceable text), but then I think of what happened to Han Han (whether or not the change in his public political discourse is a result of weariness or government discouragement is unsettled) and feel that the CCP’s hand in the dissemination of art is still too strong for a really open and accessible cultural exchange to develop. For now, we’ll just write on our respective sides of the firewall, which will, one day, be toppled.
YG: Ironically, I haven’t addressed China much in my writing as a subject/content. I was only in China for a short period of time. I plan to return for a much more lengthy stay in the near future, which will most likely change that. Though it seems it takes some time for an experience with China to distill into actual writing. I often use the term “reconciliation” to describe the approach I take to poems and writing. My understanding of Chinese culture broadens my concept of reconciliation between the poles of experience and words. Tai Chi often suggests that I will write less and enjoy the stillness of mind one experiences in a place beyond words. The presence of a wordless state as the pinnacle of the achievement (as compared to word production) excites me about the future more than anything.
AMW: My Plum Flower Trilogy is a project I began while I was in the Hualien temple and monastery on the eastern coast of Taiwan. It was the spring of 2005, and I had moved to Taiwan that previous fall to spend my sabbatical there studying Mandarin at the Taipei Language Institute. They were celebrating Buddha’s birthday around the time I started writing the poems that would become The Government of Nature. When I got back to the states I began compiling The Plum Flower Dance, the first book of the trilogy. The Government of Nature took seven years to complete, and I wrote the third book, City of Eternal Spring, in about two years, partly while simultaneously finishing up The Government of Nature. I was in my third year of daily Daoist sitting meditation when I began writing in the monastery. What’s significant for me in all this is that I had given up on poetry, and was considering resigning myself to the monastery for the rest of my life. The discovery of incest as my child trauma when I was in my late forties in the late 1990s had left me feeling very afraid of poetry. My lyric investigations had led me to the self-discovery, and writing terrified me because I realized the power of poetry. For me, my writing was soul work, and when I opened the door to my most inner worlds, all the monsters lifted their heads and spoke to me.
Daoism is a funny thing in the West. It gets interpreted in many ways, and I have had my encounters with racism from white Westerners who doubt I could be a Daoist. After all, I don’t wear black and white every day or have any affectation that one might call priestly. So I write and live with an inner conviction. The experience of meditation is a truthfulness not dependent on those who see themselves as genuine. I mean that kind of thinking gets into everything. So I guess what I am saying is once I began my meditation as one of my teacher’s disciples, I took the path of believing that Eastern pathways can only complement what religiosity or spiritual philosophy you already have. My path has been about integration of self over the fissures of what trauma does to people, the splitting and breaking apart. So Chinese culture is central to my soul awareness. When I am in the deepest part of my awareness, of who I know myself to be as a living being, it is the pathway laid out in ancient China and developed in following centuries, developed and refined. I can speak of opening qi channels, but the Daoist method is just that, a method. The accessibility of it, the universality of it, is in its barest application. There are, of course, the ritualistic Daoist practitioners, the deities, etc. But for me the experience of Daoist mediation is a filling in of the context of my Christian upbringing. Mine is what you might call a liberal belief, depending on where you are.
There are the American Buddhist poets, but I don’t know where the Daoists are. Well, Daoists can hide, I suppose. Buddhism is more formalized in many ways, with structures and the texts that spell out systems and places. Maybe that’s why they are more visible. I prefer the more anonymous way of being, a quieter phenomenology.
The meditation has affected my writing in the way I find myself moving associatively, but there is also the language study. I’m sure there are new neural pathways that have been opened in me as a result of studying Mandarin. The research is showing the effects of language study on the brain. So I am forever changed, and I doubt if it is good to spend too much time trying to analyze how my own brain is changed by all of this. I meditate for my health and calmness of mind, not to seek magic powers. The best teachers will tell you the latter is a path to ruination. It suffices to say my Plum Flower Trilogy would not have been possible without this level and manner of engagement with Chinese culture.
I mentioned this before, and I will say it again as I move toward some closure. There are alternative ways of being as a black person engaged in Chinese culture. There is a chance to opt out of race into something else. I am not saying you will cease being a black person, but your inner world can be reconfigured and rewired such that your perception of race and your need for identification vis a vis race will be altered. You might even say healed, if we think of America’s dance with the paradox of race as a sickness.
In closing, I want to go back to the second conference of Chinese poets I convened at Simmons College. It was where I altered the process of translation such that I used it for cultural exchange. A translator sat between native speaking poets of English and Chinese and extended the process of translation into a conversation. My goal was not so much to have them have a finished product as it was to have them experience the space between languages in poetry as a space wherein they can see each other reflected in each other, a space where they could move in consciousness. If language is the way of constructing realities, and if those constructions are not the genuine world, then maybe the genuine world is that walk among the various signs that flow in the existence of language as a thing in our minds. Maybe the poets are the ones with the most intimate connection with that space, living as we do for an art that makes language a self-conscious thing rather than an application, such as in the extended narratives of fiction or the architecture of theater. In that there may be hope.