Ginsberg and China

Allen Ginsberg,  Li River, Guilin,  China, 1984 – Photograph © The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems –1947-1997, (Chinese translation by Wen Chu-An)  (2000)

Allen Ginsberg in China is our focus this weekend.

Allen and China – great news! -.a new (first-time!) edition of his Collected Poems is due out very soon in that country  (hopefully in November)  – translated and edited by the young Ming Hui and published by  Shanghai ’99.…..

There’s, a little Chinese background.

From our friend Jim Cohn‘s estimable web-site, The Museum of American Poetics:
“In 1982, Allen Ginsberg was a member of a U.S. Writers’ Delegation that hosted writers from the Peking Writers’ Union of the People’s Republic of China at a conference at UCLA. In 1984, Ginsberg traveled to China as a member of this American writers’ delegation that also included Beat Generation poet Gary Snyder and others. During his China trip, which he extended beyond the one-month official delegation visit, Allen gave lectures and readings in Beijing and Shanghai. Wishing to see Chinese Buddhism in practice, he visited the Han Shan temple in Suzhou and the Xixia Temple in Nanjing where, in the sangha (community) meditation room, he sat cross-legged with the abbot for about 20 minutes and then joined the monks for a late class. Returning to Shanghai, (he) purchased a stone seal with his Buddhist name, “Dharma Lion,” engraved on it. In Baoding, (he) composed poems that were published in White Shroud (1986) – “I Love Old Whitman So,” “Written in My Dream by W.C. Williams,” “One Morning I Took a Walk in China” and “Reading Bai Juyi.”

Here’s the opening lines of “ One Morning I Took a Walk in China”:

“Students danced with wooden silvered swords, twirling on hard packed muddy earth/as I walked out Hebei University’s concrete North Gate,/across the road a blue capped man sold fried sweet dough-sticks, brown as new boiled the gray light of sky, past popular  tree trunks, white washed cylinders topped/with red band the height of a boy – Children with school satchels sang & walked past me…”

And here’s the opening lines of “Reading Bai Juyi “:

“I’m a traveler in a strange country/China and I’ve been to many cities/Now I’m back in Shanghai, days/under warm covers in a room with electric heat -/ a rare commodity in this country -/hundreds of millions shiver in the north/students rise at dawn and ran around the soccer field/Workmen sing songs in the dark to keep themselves warm/while I sleep late, smoke too much, cough…”

Caption: “Downtown Baoding, across from Department store, behind walled gate, this huge public garden’s kept up – it was attached to some rich Merchant-official before Revolution – Photo snapped by student interpreter, everyone seemed interested. I liked the moon-bridge’s mirror-mouth oval – November 1984.  Allen Ginsberg”

David S Wills, writing in Beatdom, in October of last year:

“Ginsberg’s work is always going to be difficult to publish. [though not impossible – sic] – Earlier this year, I had a shipment of Ginsberg books sent from Scotland, but sadly they were confiscated due to references to the Dalai Lama. I’m sure that events surrounding Ginsberg’s old friend, Ai Weiwei, have also impacted the availability of his work in Chinese in recent years.

It was to my great surprise that I found his most famous poem, Howl,” being taught (uncensored) at my deeply conservative university a few months ago as part of their American Literature course. Yet there is a big difference between what is allowed to be said in English and what is allowed to be said in Chinese… especially when it can be contextualized as part of a foreign culture and not applicable to China.”

The somewhat more conservative Fulbright scholar, Angela Sorby, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education some five years earlier, in her memoir, seems to back this up:

“A poem like “Howl,” which feels dated and lugubrious to many of us professors [sic] , still has the power to inspire young people whose freedom of expression is constricted ….. “Howl” might not be so frivolous after all [sic]. Chinese people are more free now than they’ve been in several generations, but many of them remain acutely aware of the paternalistic limitations imposed upon them by their families and by the government. Their Confucian heritage stresses filial piety, so they tend not to be noisily rebellious in the Allen Ginsberg mode, but that does not mean they are complacent or content..”.

One such non-complacent Chinese student was/is writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Duo – Her essay “Reading Howl in China” may be found here

Regarding Beat Generation literature in translation  Jim Cohn has just recently put up two new pages spotlighting the two pre-eminent scholars and translators of the Beats in China – Zhang Ziqing and the late Wen Chu-an (1941-2005)

Wen Chu-an is wonderfully evoked here in this piece, by Jim Jones – “How The Beats Came To China” 

Wen Chu-an (1941-2005)

Zhang Ziqing,, sometime professor at Nanjing University, and editor of  the ambitious and impressive Ershi Shiji Meiguo Shige Shi (A History of 20th Century American Poetry), 1995, 1997 – new edition forthcoming)  remains a strong and inspiring presence.

Zhang is colloborating with Jim Cohn and David Cope on Bridges Across The Pacific – An Anthology of Chinese and American Empathy Poems (similarly forthcoming). For more on that project -see Kirpal Gordon’s interview with David Cope – here

More Ginsberg and China tomorrow

Caption: Downtown Baoding, Hebei University English Language school student guide that afternoon, November 1984, he was a friend of the young translator-student who rendered “Homework” poem into Chinese – Photograph © The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Allen in China, 1984 (with Zhu Li( left), teacher of English and Tao Jie, professor of American Literature at Beijing University). Photographer Unknown


  1. I was just looking at the photo of Allen Ginsberg on the river boat. Great photo!!! It is wonderful he had an opportunity to visit China and create a great exchange in poetry between the two countries. It is fantastic you created with website. It is not extremely important but I just wanted to point out that technically speaking that is not a photo of Allen Ginsberg on the Yangtze River but is a photo of him on the Li River in Guilin in 1984.

    I am not sure if Guilin was an official visit as part of his tour and talk with other famous American poets in 1984 or if he stayed on after the official visit and toured the country but regardless he gave a short talk at Guangxi Normal University in Guilin in 1984. I was there in Guilin in the room when he spoke. I don’t recall Gary Synder being there in Guilin who was also was on the official tour. But I do recall a professor from UCLA being in the room and also speaking. I was there in Guilin as a student on a China-U.S. college exchange trip and my father arranged his boat trip on the Li River in Guilin. Ask anyone who has been on the Li River a few times and it is easily recognizable as the Li River. I am sure he also visited the three gorges on the Yangtze River as well but that was completely separate from the pic on the Li River in Guilin.

  2. By the way, after searching the Internet for a while, I actually found a picture of him on the Yangtze river. The boat is clearly bigger. The mountains are bigger. But there’s one issue: it’s a very small photo. If you want it, I can send it to you.

  3. I knew Zhu Li, the English teacher with the big glasses in your last photo. Her dream was to go to Harvard. I remember a 1989 newspaper report that quoted someone with the same name as saying that Deng Xiaoping had “raped the party.” I often wonder what happened to her.

  4. Ted– I have often wondered that about so many of the professors and teachers I met in China as well– many I thought for sure we would be hearing about them later in their careers. I remember when I was in Guilin, I met a guy who scored no. 2 in the English examination in the entire province of Guangxi. Current population of 50 million. No Internet search will ever bring-up anything on him. If they are not on facebook, it really becomes difficult. Isn’t there a Chinese equivalent of facebook in China? I forget the name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *