Yi Wu 依乌 (1969), original name Ashuo Yiwu, is a Yi poet from the Cold Mountains in Sichuan, China. As a novelist and playwright, he didn’t write poetry until 2016. He has published three books of poems so far, all in Chinese even though he is fluent in Yi and teaches Yi at Southwest Minzu University. He rejects the concept of “cultural writing”. He refuses to write about Yi culture or Yi mythologies in the way expected by the mainstream. He writes about the indigenous life and geography of the Cold Mountains – which is about Yi but he doesn’t use big words or lofty tones. His poems are short, with vernacular language, very daily-life, very down to earth.
I didn’t choose the best soil
I even made a few cuts with my knife
but they are here, as real as life
sprouting in the summer
one by one
like the riddles we’ve guessed right
—from “Let’s Talk about Potatoes”
I found Yi Wu in “Rubber Eraser: Chinese Avant-garde Literature”橡皮先鋒文學 (founded by Yang Li, Han Dong, He Xiaozhu and Wu Qing in 2000).
Ming Di: Were you ever influenced by Not Not Poetry or Rubber Eraser Poetry?
Yi Wu: No. I’ve never been influenced by any poetry group or poetic style.
MD: Jimu Langge praised you several times. I can see they really like your stuff and they take you as their kind.
YW: They are all my friends. But when it comes to poetry, I don’t want to be influenced by anyone.
MD: Is there any reason why you don’t write in Yi?
YW: I wrote a novella in Yi and published in episodes in a Yi newspaper until it suddenly stopped. Then I changed to Chinese and found it comfortable to play with. So I started writing novels in Chinese.
MD: So you have continued writing in Chinese?
YW: Yes, up till today I have been writing in Chinese only.
MD: But you teach Yi and you are 100% fluent in Yi.
YW: Yes. But I don’t want to be labeled as a Yi poet.
MD: Is Yi your first language?
YW: Yes, Yi is my mother tongue and I grew up speaking Yi. The village next to us had Chinese, so I picked up some Chinese but I was never fluent in Chinese until I went to school. Bilingual education started when I went to elementary school.
MD: Do you think in Yi or Chinese? Do you ever translate your poems from Yi to Chinese or vice versa?
YW: Oh no, never. I don’t translate my poems, on paper or mentally. I might have mentally switched between Yi dialects.
when I put on big-bottom pants
I become another person
the big pants, thirty feet long blue cotton
makes my lower body bigger
from left to right or right to left
blown up in just one blow of breath
mountain breeze goes in and out
I become broad-minded as well
I can take a mountain
a wild boar
or even a woman
—from “My Big-bottom Pants”
(Yi dialects are named after the costumes men wear in each region. The dialect of the region where Yi men wear pleated pants with big-bottoms is called Big Pants Speech. In the Cold Mountain Region of Sichuan, Yi men wear pleated pants with medium-sized bottoms, so the regional dialect Shyp Nra Hxop 圣乍土语 is called Medium Pants Speech 中裤脚话 which is the dialect that the modern standard Yi is based on. In the above poem, Yi Wu is making fun of the Yi tradition. The size of the biggest bottom is two feet but he exaggerates as 30 feet. In the middle section of the poem, not cited here, he talks about running into the woods with the big pants, “I want to go into the jungle and race with a chamois,” and then he ends the poem like this:
I gotta wear the ripped denim
like a dead dog
and continue the rest of my life
There is a clever pun here. “Lower body” is xia ban shen 下半身 and “the rest of the life” is xia ban sheng 下半生 in standard Chinese but in Sichuan dialect they sound exactly the same (-ng becomes -n in many southwestern dialects in China), so the joke is widely understood. He seems to be making fun of the Lower Body Poetry as well. —MD)
MD: I’ve read this poem before.
YW: Oh you’ve even read my big pants.
MD: You seem to have enjoyed making fun of people in your poetry.
YW: Just for fun. Here is another one I wrote:
please listen to my answer
World: I got it I got it
YW: You know Jidi Majia’s poem “Self Portrait”?
MD: Of course. It has been translated into more than 30 languages and this line “I––am––Yi––” is well known internationally.
YW: I have another poem. Guess what I’m referring to here:
Calling Back the Soul
Soul says: I’m coming I’m coming
MD: Of course I know.
YW: Aku Wuwu is known for chanting “O la, O la” on the stage with his long poem “Calling Back the Soul of Zhyge Alu.”
MD: I know.
YW: He and I are both from Mianning county, speaking the same dialect. But we are on two opposite ends.
MD: What’s good poetry to you?
YW: Speaking like normal people 说人话.
MD: I heard you scolded your students who were writing poetry in Yi.
YW: Oh yes, but I was just asking them not to write reviews for each other when they spoke too highly of each other. It’s not a big deal to be able to write in Yi. The most important thing is to write good poetry, no matter what language they use. They all imitate Aku Wuwu and they’ve lost their personalities in their poetry.
MD: What do you think about the concept of writing in the Mother Tongue?
YW: Isn’t it even better that I can write poetry in a language that’s not even my mother tongue?
MD: What about preserving the native culture?
YW: What is there that needs to be preserved? Poetry is not a trash can. Prose works better for that purpose. I wrote a book of poems about each county in our Big and Small Cold Mountains. There is geography, eco-system, folklore, customs and daily life in my poems. I like to write fun stuff, funny stories and interesting people, things that make people laugh, in a language that everybody understands.
(Yi Wu’s open denouncing of his Yi tradition and his predecessor’s poetic style is a gesture of opposing the authoritative “cannon” of Yi writing, similar to Han Dong’s two poems, “Of the Wild Goose Pagoda” (making fun of Yang Lian) and “So You’ve Seen the Sea” (making fun of Shu Ting.) Literary Oedipus complex is very common in Chinese poetry. —MD)
MD: Do you have a Chinese name?
YW: No I don’t.
MD: Is Yi Wu your legal name?
YW: Yes, it’s the name on my ID card. My family name is too long, 施勒惹古阿說嘉司 (clan + branch + family + family branch). It can be shortened as Ashuo. But I like to use my given name alone.
MD: Yi Wu means “still black” in Chinese. Does it mean anything in Yi?
YW: Wu can mean wild, take, buy, bruise, dark...depending on the context.
I hold on to my skin color
bite on my accent
sometimes quiet sometimes humming a tune
but alway walking toward
So I think my name Yi Wu means to hold fast.
MD: Was black the ruling class in Yi? And therefore black means aristocracy in the Yi community?
YW: No. That’s a misinterpretation by some Yi people.
MD: How do you feel being an ethnic minority?
YW: I feel privileged, being protected, being taken care of too much. I don’t like this feeling.
MD: When did you become aware of your minority status?
YW: From very early on. The Chinese in the neighboring villages call us Manzi or Lolo.
MD: Really? Is that a neutral or a derogatory word? Archeologists and molecular biologists have discovered that Chu Kingdom was built by Miao people. As a Chu descendant, I’m a Manzi too, a southern barbarian.
YW: I like the term Black Manzi乌蛮, or Southern Manzi南蛮.
MD: Ok we are both Southern Manzi.
YW: Sounds very strong, not puppies.
MD: But your name 乌(black crow) sometimes looks like 鸟(bird).
YW: Yes. Some people call me Yi Niao (Still a bird).
MD: Do you think it’s necessary to show one’s ethnic identity in poetry writing?
YW: I wouldn’t. I would choose another genre. Look what I wrote, A Dictionary of Yi-Chinese as a Lolo.
MD: I haven’t read this before. This is hilarious! My stomach hurts. I’m laughing too much.
YW: A publishing house has contacted me about this.
MD: That’s great. Do you understand all the other Yi dialects?
YW: Not really. The Yi dialects in other provinces are hard to guess. Look at this. A few artists and I opened a restaurant yesterday. We made this beer.
MD: Is that your poem printed on the can?
YW: No. This is actually our collective signature.
MD: You could have printed your short funny poems on it. But laughing too much is not good at dinner time. Ok a serious question. Do you think you can express everything you want to say in Chinese?
MD: Your 90% is better than many poets whose native tongue is Chinese.
YW: Thank you. I write novels, movie scripts, lyrics and drama. Everything needs imagination, not just poetry.
I hold on to my look and my skin color
and bite on my accent when I walk out
sometimes solemn sometimes humming a song
but always keep my head toward south—
south, a warm word
but sometimes a bird can replace it
Translated from Chinese by Ming Di