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Duo Duo: Master of Wishful Thinking.

Chinese poet and scholar Mai Mang (Yibing Huang) submitted the following nominating statement in 2009 when he chose Duo Duo as his candidate for the Neustadt Prize.

Duo Duo is a great lone traveler crossing borders of nation, language, and history as well as a resolute seer of some of the most basic, universal human values that have often been shadowed in our troubled modern time: creativity, nature, love, dreams, and wishful thinking.

Born in 1951, Duo Duo's poetry career began in the early 1970s in Beijing during the isolated, midnight hours of the Cultural Revolution. As a lone, disillusioned Red Guard youth, he was inspired by his clandestine reading of Baudelaire and other Western authors. His very first poems immediately strike one with unusually intense and abstract yet vivid visions, such as in the beginning lines of the short poem "Untitled" (1972): "The sound of singing eclipses the blood stench of revolution / August is stretched like a cruel bow." Or, in "Untitled" (1973): "The blood of one class has drained away / The archers of another class are still loosing their arrows." Or, in "To the Sun" (1973), whereas the entire poem sounds like a reformulated ode to the omnipresence and omnipotence of the sun, an orthodox reference to the "great helmsman" Chairman Mao at that time, the last line underscores, or exposes, the paradoxical fate of the sun itself: "You create, rising in the East / You are unfree, like a universally circulating coin!" These powerful, bare-boned epiphanies all critiqued the Cultural Revolution from an insider's point of view and in a highly sophisticated, dialectical, and original style. In Duo Duo's 1976 poem "Instructions," he further summarizes his and his contemporaries' artistic deeds conducted in the underground of the Cultural Revolution and delivers a sober conclusion: "What they have experienced--is only the tragedy of birth."

Through such negative visions, Duo Duo gained his own historical subjectivity and individual agency. He paid a high price for these insights. An abandoned, bad-blooded bastard child of revolution and modernism, Duo Duo from the very onset of his career foresees a life that is exiled from but also imprisoned by history: "From that superstitious moment on / The motherland was led away by another father" ("Blessings," 1972); "Ah moonlight, hinting at the clearly seen exile ..." ("Night," 1973). In "Marguerite's Travels with Me" (1974), Duo Duo reveals the ultimate existential gap faced by the lyrical protagonist torn between a real China and an imaginary West. The poem's first part starts with lines "Like you promised the Sun / Get crazy, Marguerite," echoing Baudelaire's famous "Invitation to the Voyage," and inviting a certain Marguerite to a spontaneous, freewheeling rhapsody of cosmopolitan travel. But such a fantastic voyage only ends up, in the second part, in pledging this imaginary "Ah, noble Marguerite / Ignorant Marguerite" to take an alternate, heavyhearted, utterly sobering visit to the impoverished Chinese countryside that had been hopelessly stuck in the mire of a failed revolutionary utopia. The idealized, romantic bond between Marguerite and "me" thus has to be rendered as an impossible culde-sac. Duo Duo's early poetry hence generates meaningful and nuanced reflections on history and revolution as well as on modernity and modernism, sketching a Sisyphean fate imposed upon individuals from within and without the borders of nation and history.

Duo Duo's poems of the 1980s continued but also expanded on his poetic experimentation. In particular, Duo Duo proves himself to be a great innovator of linguistic forms and poetic craft whose liberating power is always inspiring and sublime. Constantly, Duo Duo bets on "wishful thinking": "If the making of language comes from the kitchen / The heart is the bedroom. They say: / If the heart is the bedroom / Wishful thinking is the bedroom's master" ("Language Is Made In the Kitchen," 1984). Meanwhile, Duo Duo increasingly focuses on the theme of the northern landscapes of China, intending to invoke and restore an abundant correspondence between nature and ancient human spirit against the ensnarement of modern history and its rigid, harsh noise that lacks any human or natural breath. This elemental tendency is shown in his poem "Northern Voices" (1985), whose ending lines remind one of Laozi, the ancient Taoist philosopher's teaching that "the greatest utterance is silence": "All languages / Shall be shattered by the wordless voice."

But it would be a grave mistake to say that Duo Duo is a poet who has renounced hope and the prospect of human communication. While cleansing and reforming a polluted, ossified language, Duo Duo seeks to speak, nevertheless, through a different medium, and pays tribute to its great power and awe. Another poem in this "North" sequence, "Northern Sea" (1984), depicts a vast, almost eschatological, panoramic scene of solitude, alienation, and desolateness. And yet the same poem closes with an ultimate affirmation of human love, even if such love may be merely a phantom evoked from the past: "But from a large basket lifted up high / I see all those who have loved me / Closely, closely, closely--huddled together...."

In a most dramatic fashion, Duo Duo left China on precisely June 4, 1989, after witnessing the incidents of Tiananmen Square at first hand. During the ensuing fifteen years, Duo Duo lived in exile and traveled throughout western Europe, North America, and many other parts of the world, seeming to literally fulfill the dark prophecies of his own early poetry written during the Cultural Revolution. In poems written shortly after he settled in the West, such as "Rivers of Amsterdam" (1989), "In England" (1989-90), and "Watching the Sea" (1989-90), Duo Duo conjures his lyrical power and wrestles most bravely and indigenously with that giant beast called "exile." While cursed with a nightmarish and claustrophobic history, Duo Duo, this lone, exiled traveler and one of the "Nails far removed from the motherland" ("Map," 1990), actually succeeds in opening up a great, alien expanse of space for his poetry and creating a post-exilic and post-historical universe of deprivation and ineffability. And, as in his 1993 poem "Just Like It Used to Be," he presents an utterly defiant, haughty, and insuppressible "burst of a furious growth" and "ubiquitous powers of persuasion" that "No arrangement whatsoever can reproduce." Against the gravity of nihilism and desert of exile, this shamanistic, steadfast reaffirmation of "like it used to be" crystallizes a positive, primitive, and badly needed universal message: a persistent, heroic reclamation of the possibility of human speech and power of memory rising above differences of human tongues.

Among the esteemed so-called Misty poets of his generation, Duo Duo was nearly the last to emerge aboveground. His only book of poetry officially published in China prior to his exile was a thin volume, Salute (1988). However, his stature was universally revered, as evidenced by the fact he was awarded the first (and, until this day, only) Today Poetry Prize in 1988. The prize was presented to him by none other than Bei Dao himself, the other leading Misty poet and co-founder of the legendary samizdat literary journal Today. The award statement reads: "Since the early 1970s, Duo Duo's solitary and tireless exploration of the art of poetry has always inspired and influenced many of his contemporaries." Between 1989 and 2004, while sojourning in the West, Duo Duo kept up a strong output of poetry and prose writing and was invited to numerous international poetry readings and literary events. Duo Duo returned to China in 2004 to assume a professorship at Hainan University. Since his return, he has been steadily "rediscovered" by a younger generation of Chinese writers and poets. Duo Duo is an extremely fastidious craftsman of poetry as well as dedicated servant of the Muse. He does not publish his work regularly or professionally, as do most of his Western counterparts. Instead, he prefers to date his finished poems and let them sit in manuscript for extended periods, sometimes more than a decade, before he is willing to allow them to come to light, a habit that may have been directly derived from his experience of writing clandestinely during the Cultural Revolution. Such inclination to marginality and anonymity, on the other hand, like a Cain's mark, has haunted Duo Duo and kept him, almost criminally, from the recognition he truly deserves.


Duo Duo is one of the most original, penetrating, inspiring, and unforgettable voices ever heard in contemporary Chinese poetry. He is also, as Eliot Weinberger put it, "one of the mountains in the topographical map of contemporary world poetry." Duo Duo's contribution to both contemporary Chinese and world poetry is astounding and will be, in a definitive term, everlasting. Duo Duo is not an easy poet, whose obsessive, sometimes schizophrenic pursuit "to preserve / That which orders the stripes on the tiger's back / His madness!" ("The Winter Night Woman," 1985) poses great intellectual and aesthetic challenges to both his readers and his translators in other languages, who may not be readily familiar with the gigantic scope and difficulty of his odyssey beyond borders. Even the most able translations available today may not always do adequate justice to the brilliance of his Chinese originals. But it is precisely in this sense that I believe the 2010 Neustadt Prize belongs to Duo Duo, this marvelous, bold, persistent, if underappreciated Chinese genius of poetry. The Neustadt Prize will provide a perfect venue and forum for the world to listen to Duo Duo's distinctive voice issued from the dark depths of an alternate, labyrinth-like world that we used to live in but often tend to leave in oblivion.

Author note: Of the poems cited in this nomination

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Mai Mang (Yibing Huang) was born in Changde, Hunan, in 1967 and inherited Tujia ethnic minority blood from his mother. He established himself as a poet in the 1980s and received his BA, MA, and PhD in Chinese literature from Beijing University. Mai Mang moved to the United States in 1993 and earned a second PhD in comparative literature from UCLA. He is the author of two books of poetry, Stone Turtle: Poems 1987-2000 and Approaching Blindness, as well as Contemporary Chinese Literature: From the Cultural Revolution to the Future (2007). Mai Mang is currently Associate Professor of Chinese at Connecticut College.
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Title Annotation:COVER FEATURE
Author:Mai Mang
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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