“Rooted in my homeland by the Red River”: An Interview with ethnic Hani poet Gebu – curated by Ming Di

Gebu 哥布 (1964) is the first Hani 哈尼 poet in China. He was born in Reshuitang (hot water pond) Village of Yuanyang County by the Red River of Yunnan province in southwest China. He has published ten books of poetry and prose in Hani language including Mother Tongue, Ruins and Sacred Village and received important awards such as the Junma (Gallant Horse) Literature Award, the highest recognition for minority writers in China. Gebu is bilingual and translates his poetry from Hani into Chinese. I have interviewed over 30 “minority” poets in China and Gebu is one of these extraordinary writers. 

Ming Di: Hi Gebu, what is your first language, Chinese or Hani?

Gebu: Hani is my mother tongue. I grew up speaking Hani. 

MD: Did you learn to write in Hani?

G: Yes. Our written language is lost. But a new writing system was developed in 1957 using the Roman alphabet. So when I went to school, I learned this new writing script. It’s easy to master.

MD: When did you learn Chinese?

G: In school too. I started learning Chinese at age 8 but in our village everything was taught in Hani. I learned Hani first. After I graduated from middle school, I had intensive training for one month and became a bilingual teacher in the local elementary school. That was the beginning of bilingual education in the Hani community in the 1980s. I was learning Chinese from a dictionary every night.

MD: That’s amazing. You are fluent in both Hani and Chinese.

G: Yes. 

MD: When did you start writing poetry? In which language?

G: I started writing poems in Chinese in 1984 and started publishing my work in 1986 in journals such as Southwestern Literature, Shenchi, Poetry, and Ethnic Literature

MD: Did you participate in the Grand Exhibition of Modernist Poetry in 1986?

G: No. I read about it then but I wasn’t invited. Even today I feel ignored by the mainstream independent poetry circles. 

MD: But you have received the Junma Literature Award.

G: Yes. But we are in a different world. Minority means marginal. The independent poetry with all those “schools of poetry (流派)” is what’s considered Chinese Poetry to the outside world.  It’s ok though. I’m not interested in getting into the “center.” Peripheral is a perfect place for a poet. 

MD: The internationally well known Yi poet Aku Wuwu feels the same way. He says he is ignored by both sides. But I think many people, including myself, are very interested in minority language writing. When did you start writing in Hani and why?

G: I started writing poetry in Hani in 1989 because I felt the need to have my own cultural and ethnic identity. I gave up my success as a Chinese language poet and started experimenting with Hani. We have a long history of oral literature but to see it in a written form is something new and that’s something I would like to devote my life to. 

MD: Can you talk about Hani? 

G: Hani is one of the 55 ethnic minority groups 少数民族 in China, ranking number 16 in terms of populations, mostly indigenous in Yunnan of China but also in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Yunnan is a very diversified province with 26 minority groups. Hani has a unique culture in the lifestyle, agriculture, worship and burial system, and unique names. Our creation stories may sound similar to other cultures but we have our own epics that have been carried on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

MD: The story of a sister and a brother who started human life occurred in many creation epics across ethnic groups in China. What do you do with Hani creation epics? 

G: I try to preserve the oral literature in the new written form but in a creative way. I try to incorporate oral epics into personal stories. I try to recite ancient stories as if they are my own. I try to be connected with my tradition.

MD: I do feel the ancient aroma in your poems... By the way, the mushroom-shaped houses and rice terraced mountains in your hometown are very impressive and unique. Especially the endless rice fields sweeping around mountains as if from the sky, that’s where I see Hani from ancient time continuing to the present day.

G: I try to write about contemporary Hani life too, including our rice fields. 

MD: Yes I see that. Are there other poets who have influenced your writing?

G: I think I have been influenced by Yu Jian from our own Yunnan. And lots of influence from foreign literature through reading the translation in Chinese. But mostly from Hani tradition. My father was a Mopi (religious clergy among Hani people). He could recite many verses and stories. He was the most influential figure to me when he was alive and he was the source of motivation and inspiration. I try to stay away from the mainstream Misty or Post-Posty poetry. 

MD: I see how you are connected to your cultural roots. I feel a special rhythm of “spoken language” in your poetry and I thought of Yu Jian. What do you think of tradition vs modernism?

G: I often think about what Hani poetry means in the global context. Writing in Hani can sound very traditional because it doesn’t have modern expressions. But I think the only way to make Hani present in world literature is to keep the Hani language.

MD: What if a community has lost its language?

G: That’s exactly what I was thinking about. Look at the Dangxiang people and Khitan people, etc. etc. After they lost their languages, their ethnic and cultural identities gradually faded out.

MD: How do you see Hani in Yunnan province?

G: Unique in a diversified region. We get along with other ethnic people. I think diversity brings about vitality. I like the mixed environment, each preserving something ancient.

MD: How do you feel about living in Yunnan?

G: It’s my home. I’m rooted in my homeland by the Red River in Yunnan. I’ve lived my whole life here and I’m still amazed everyday by the nature here, mountains after mountains and rivers after rivers. The climate is good for all kinds of plants. It’s the kingdom of vegetation and animals. 

MD: And you know the story of how Hani people settled in Yunnan?

G: Yes. It says we are descendants of the ancient Qiang people. Our ancestors wandered around the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and Gansu Plateau and migrated to Yunnan through Sichuan. 

MD: Your first book of poems, Mother Tongue, is the first book of literature in Hani language in China. How do you feel about it?

G: I think I have done something for my ancestors and my children.

MD: What obstacles, if any, did you encounter when translating your own poetry from Hani to Chinese?

G: It’s very difficult. I can write in both Chinese or Hani. But translating Hani into Chinese is different. As I mentioned before, Hani doesn’t have modern words. Hani sounds like a language from a primitive society. After I finished the book length poem “Sacred Village” in 3 months, I struggled for 4 years but couldn’t translate a word of it. Then suddenly I found a rhythm and translated the long poem in almost one breath (actually in one year).

M: It’s a hybrid of poetry and drama. The characters are interesting. You become a persona. You write about yourself as if about another person. I actually like your short poems better. But you have a creative way of translating your poetry into Chinese. You translate the sound of Hani places and certain names that only exist in Hani and use footnotes to explain what they are, so the flow of poetry is not interrupted by the strange vocabulary, which is very peculiar, almost your signature style. How are you connected with other local poets?

G: We used to have a magazine called Red River Journal. I was a contributor and one of the editors. It was folded after the chief editor passed away. I promote Hani poetry by going from village to village and reading poetry to the villagers.

MD: How are you connected with Hani writers in the neighboring countries?

G: I don’t know any Hani writers in other Asian countries yet, but I’ve met Yani scholars.

MD: What do you think of contemporary Chinese poetry in general?

G: It’s like a man-made forest with artificial trees. Everyone looks the same like everyone else. Homogeneity kills poetry. Writing in Hani is my way of keeping a distance from the mainstream, whether it’s called official poetry or independent poetry. 

MD: I’d like to cite a portion of your poem to end this interview. Like most of your poems, it’s about the rural life in the Hani prefecture but it’s somewhere between real and surreal: 

the cowboy from the wild mountains

talks to the sun during the day

and talks to the thunder and rain

while herding cows in the wilderness

night comes like the mouth of a leopard

right away the cows are nowhere to see

           —from “The Cowboy of the Wild Mountains” by Gebu

Translated from Chinese by Ming Di