Hermits and butterflies: the resurgence of nature writing in China

Translator and editor Dave Haysom traces the revival of the genre, from poet recluses of the past to a darker shade of dystopia that colours writing today

Nature writing in China has deep roots. At the turn of the fifth century, poets like Tao Yuanming (陶渊明) were extolling the benefits of a simple bucolic existence, renouncing the crass vulgarity of court life in favour of honest agricultural labour, good wine, and lengthy contemplation of chrysanthemums – most people’s archetypal image of the classical Chinese poet. Yet it’s also a patch of literature that has been highly receptive to pollination from western writers. As we were putting together our nature issue of Pathlight magazine, one figure who loomed up at every turn, bewhiskered and faintly malodorous, was Henry David Thoreau.

The spirit of the transcendentalist hermit of nineteenth-century Massachusetts may still be smarting from the hatchet job he was recently subjected to in The New Yorker by Kathryn Shultz (who derided his “hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn”), but he can take some solace in the influence his work has exerted in China.

Walden, Thoreau’s quintessential memoir of life in the wilderness, was first translated into Chinese by Wu Mingshi (吴明实) in 1978, but the version that came to be regarded as definitive was the 1982 translation by Xu Chi (徐迟). There have been as many as 33 more Chinese translations released since then.

Thoreau himself was influenced by Chinese thought, having been introduced to the works of Confucius and Mencius by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the decades following the the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Thoreau’s anti-capitalist spirit earned him the approval of scholars – but it was his spiky individualism and love of nature that inspired a generation of young poets in the relatively liberal atmosphere of the mid-eighties.

This Thoreau’s got brains

There is nothing else in his hands

He grabs a stick

and the stick hits me

hits me hard

the way spring hits me

— from “This Thoreau’s Got Brains” by Hai Zi (1986) – translated by Ye Chun

Hai Zi (海子)
has come to serve as the symbol of this generation. His lyrical poems, written in a five-year flurry of productivity, are a swathe of sun-soaked wheat fields, where autumn never ends. Their apparent dreamy simplicity belies their poetic depth; unexpected images nestle within them (the moon is a white ape; fingers are frostbitten candles), often providing an unsettling twist of melancholy. The poetry of his close friend Luo Yihe (骆一禾) took similar inspiration from nature – although his work is more opaque, overlaying the visceral (blood, flesh, bone) onto the elemental (snow, rivers, rain) in a way that defies easy interpretation.

Another writer who was close to them, Wei An (苇岸), writes in his essay “Thoreau and I” (translated for Pathlight by Eleanor Goodman) of how he filled reams of notes with his impressions of Walden after first receiving a copy from Hai Zi in 1986. It was not just his ideas that had an impact, but also his use of language. “What finally turned me from poetry towards prose was Thoreau’s Walden,” he wrote. “When I read this unparalleled book, I felt joyfully that my love for it surpassed that of any poetry.”

But the poet who seems to have made the most determined effort to emulate the Thoreau model of self-sustaining isolation is Gu Cheng (顾城). Eliot Weinberger describes how Gu Cheng and his wife Xie Ye (谢烨) attempted to make a life for themselves after moving to New Zealand in 1988:

The couple moved into a dilapidated house without electricity or running water on Waiheke, a small island in the Bay of Auckland. It was Gu Cheng’s attempt to regain the paradise of his childhood. They gathered shellfish and roots and berries – he wouldn’t let Xie Ye cook – and got ill from eating the wrong things; they made spring rolls and crude pottery that they tried to sell in a local market.

Their rural existence was no idyll, and it ended in tragedy: in 1993 Gu Cheng killed Xie Ye with an axe before hanging himself. By that point Hai Zi and Luo Yihe were also dead: Hai Zi committed suicide in 1989 by throwing himself under a train (leaving his copy of Walden in his bag alongside the tracks); Luo Yihe died from a brain haemorrhage just a few months later, apparently from the strain of his editorial efforts to secure Hai Zi’s poetic legacy. Wei An died from liver cancer in 1999.

Their untimely deaths seem to have sealed these poets behind the curtain of history – but many of their contemporaries are still with us, and still producing poetry that engages with the same themes. Last year Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河) published Phoenix, a 400-line mini-epic in which the spiritual and environmental strains of China’s feverish development are embodied in the vast avian sculpture of artist Xu Bing (徐冰). The polymath writer, artist, editor and filmmaker Ou Ning (欧宁) is perhaps the closest thing contemporary China has to a Thoreau figure, having founded his own rural commune in Bishan, Anhui, as part of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. Xi Chuan (西川) was a classmate of Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, and after the deaths of his friends he switched from lyric poetry to a looser, prose-poem style, in which nature is seldom idealised.

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

— from “Exhortions” by Xi Chuan – translated by Lucas Klein

As Jennifer Kronovet observes: “This is not nature poetry and yet it is.”

Environmental Sci-fi

Novelist Liu Cixin (刘慈欣) was born in 1963 – the same year as Xi Chuan – but in 1989 he was a world away, working as a computer programmer at a power station in distant rural Shanxi. Today, Liu is regarded as the godfather of science fiction in China, and it is sci-fi writers who are producing some of the most interesting eco-aware work. Beijing-based author Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆), for example, set his best-known novel The Waste Tide on an island built from e-waste, while his story “The Smog Society” (translated by Ken Liu and Carmen Yiling Yan) explores the psychological as well as the physiological impact of living with pollution.

For these authors there is another American writer who serves as a more accessible touchstone than Thoreau: Rachel Carson, whose 1962 work Silent Spring opened the world’s eyes to the dangers of synthetic pesticides. The main plot of The Three Body Problem, part one of Liu Cixin’s epic sci-fi trilogy, is triggered by a character named Ye Wenjie being hauled before a tribunal for reading an illicit Chinese translation of Silent Spring in 1969. As the Red Guards tear the forest around them to the ground, Ye’s conception of the world is profoundly altered:

The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper – or at least, neutral – act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to the environment.

(translated by Ken Liu)

Later on in the book, Ye will encounter an American environmentalist named Mike Evans, who outlines his vision of a “pan-species Communism” where the life of every living creature is equal in value. His dream at the age of thirteen, he tells her, was to save some neglected species from extinction – an unattractive type of bird, perhaps, or “a beetle that no one would even notice”, or “a drab butterfly”.

Butterflies pinwheel through the oeuvre of Taiwanese writer, lepidopterist and environmental activist Wu Ming-Yi (吴明益). In “Death is a Tiger Butterfly,” his profoundly moving meditation on mortality and forgetting, Wu quotes from a letter written by Rachel Carson which describes how she watched the migration of monarch butterflies in Maine. Later on in the essay he pictures a forest where “from every twig, from every hole in every tree, from every pine needle there hung clumps of stiffened monarch butterflies” – frozen to death, following the loss of their migratory habitat.

Wu’s fiction might not technically qualify as sci-fi, but his novel The Man with the Compound Eyes has earned the praise of no less a luminary of the genre than Ursula K. Le Guin, who heralded the book as “a new way of telling our new reality.” Its two main protagonists are Taiwanese academic Alice Shih, who begins the book contemplating suicide as she watches the sea-levels rising around her rural beachside house; and Atile’i, a young man from the remote Pacific island of Wayo Wayo. Life on this island is not romanticised: sentiments about the preciousness of nature are followed closely by descriptions of the constipation the islanders endure as a result of their salty diet. As a second son, Atile’i is destined to paddle away from the island in his handmade canoe-like talawaka – but when he does, he finds himself beached on a trash vortex, a vast agglomeration of the kind of waste he has never seen before. He is able to subsist on the resources on the artificial island, but finds himself surrounded by dead sea creatures who have been poisoned by the toxic mass:

When the sky cleared, Atile’i was surprised to find a long shadow lying like a ribbon on the sea. He swam over to take a closer look. The ribbon was composed of butterflies’ corpses, which had floated here from who knows where.

(translated by Darryl Sterk)

In interviews, Wu Ming-Yi has spoken of the need for writers to resist the urge to retreat into their studies, to turn their back on the world outside in favour of the kind of serene seclusion that Tao Yuanming has come to emblemise. It is from a piece of Tao’s prose writing that the traditional Chinese equivalent of the word “utopia” – “the Peach Blossom Spring” – is derived. In today’s China it is a darker shade of dystopia that colours the writing of those authors – like Wu Ming-Yi, Liu Cixin and Chen Qiufan – who continue to face outwards.

Dave Haysom ( has been living and working in Beijing since graduating from Leeds University with a degree in Classical Literature and English in 2007. He has written on contemporary Chinese literature for publications including Words Without Borders and has translated short stories by authors including Shi Tiesheng and Ge Fei. He is joint managing editor of Pathlight magazine and editor-in-chief of the Read Paper Republic project.

Further reading:

Poems by Hai Zi and Luo Yihe can be found in issue 11 of Pathlight magazine, along with Wei An’s essay “Thoreau and I” and “Death is a Tiger Butterfly” by Wu Ming-Yi

Extracts from Phoenix by Ouyang Jianghe (translated by Austin Woerner) were featured in issue 10 of Pathlight; the entire work is available in a bilingual edition from Zephyr Press.

Ou Ning’s book How to Start Your Own Utopia (translated by Mai Corlin and Austin Woerner) can be ordered from OVO press.

Notes on the Mosquito, a selection of Xi Chuan’s poetry translated by Lucas Klein, is available from New Directions.

The first two volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three Body trilogy The Three Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu) and The Dark Forest (translated by Joel Martinsen) are available from Tor Books in the US and Head of Zeus in the UK. Joel Martinsen’s translation of one of Liu’s short stories, “The Thinkers” can be read online at Read Paper Republic.

Wu Ming-Yi’s novel The Man with the Compound Eyes (translated by Darryl Sterk) is available from Vintage Books.