A Suite of Poems from the Borderlands

Archery and Dancing
LEFT: Archery Festival, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, 2013. Photo by Mark Bender. RIGHT: Nuosu Yi women performing a welcoming dance, Puti Village, Zhaojue County, Sichuan, 2012. Photo by Mark Bender.


As a multi-ethnic state, China is comprised of fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups. The Han ethnic group (Hanzu) is the majority group, comprising over 91 percent of the population. The fifty-five ethnic minority groups (shaoshu minzu) live mostly in China’s vast borderlands, an arc stretching from northeast to southwest, traversing ecosystems that range from birch and evergreen forest to steppe, to broken uplands, to jungle. In recent decades individuals and communities from many of these ethnic groups have increasingly interfaced with modern urban culture via political programs and economic development. As China has opened and globalized, traditional cultures across the land have been impacted and dynamically transformed. Resource extraction, floating populations of young workers, new technologies, and localized phenomena like ethnic tourism and “intangible cultural heritage” projects are all part of the complex nature of ethnic minority communities today. Since the 1980s the vibrant voices of literally thousands of ethnic minority writers and poets have been heard from all over the country. Among the most exciting voices are those of poets who, in this era of great change, often express uncertainty and ambivalence over the rapidity and nature of the change taking place before their very eyes.

Some ethnic minority poets who began writing in the 1980s were from rural backgrounds and were steeped deeply in local traditions. Many others were reared in urban environments and later in life desired to seek out their roots in the remaining rural communities. Stances of poets from differing backgrounds and ethnicities vary, but many share written Standard Chinese as a medium for poetic production. Even poets writing in native tongues may also write in Chinese as a means to reach wider audiences. Themes range from celebrating local color, to angst over dynamic cultural change, to individual musings on existence. Some authors deploy select meaning-laden imagery from traditional culture, folk literature, and the local environment in their poems, which tend to be written in modernist free-verse styles. Many have been influenced by literature from the West, mainstream Han poets, and magical realism from South American poets. Their poems seem to speak as much from an ethnic consciousness as for an individual voice, though some younger poets are branching out into deeper probing of the self on a variety of subject matters.

The accompanying suite of poems introduces the works of a range of poets from southwest China, which is the most multicultural area of China, and Inner Mongolia, far to the north. Poets from Yunnan Province include Burao Yilu, a journalist of the Wa ethnic group from Kunming, and Mo Du, a teacher from the Hani ethnic group who writes in both Hani and Chinese. Several poets from a very active community of Yi (Nuosu) poets in Sichuan Province include Aku Wuwu, who is a native tongue poet and Dean of Yi Studies at Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu; Sha Ma, a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association and winner of various ethnic literature awards; Asuyue’er, an official in a local cultural bureau in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in southern Sichuan; and Lu Juan (Adu Axi), a county leader in Sichuan Province. A representative of the many ethnic Mongol poets active in China today is Baoyinhexige from Inner Mongolia, who writes in Standard Chinese and Mongolian. This suite of poems was stimulated by translations initially made by graduate students in a class on Chinese ethnic minority literature offered by Professor Mark Bender at The Ohio State University in spring 2013.

References to elements of ethnic culture and local environments are common in these poems. There are also occasional references to classical Chinese literature, as in Yangzi’s poem on the Qiang flute. While many of the poems can succeed on their own, uncontextualized, information about the local culture is helpful in understanding the poems from the perspective of informed cultural insiders. Although space limits addressing all of the specific references, a few examples will alert readers to the depth of specialized knowledge often needed to interpret the meaning of the poems. For instance, Sha Ma’s poem “Firebird” reflects the Yi people’s reverence for fire, as evidenced in local lore by imagery from myth, epic, and the annual summer Torch Festival. In approaching Mo Du’s poem about the village gate, it helps to understand that such gates are not only symbols of divine power, but are also regarded as the boundary between human beings and the realms of ghosts. In the poem by Eni Mushasijia, the needle image evokes the fanged water deer ( Hydropotes inermis), an animal imbued with magical powers in Yi folklore that is often seen as being protective. The wide variety of poems in this collection provides us with a glimpse into the rich oral material and intangible culture of several ethnic minority groups in the Chinese borderlands.— Mark Bender

Featured Poets:


Poem Sources

“Grass Effigy” by Aku Wuwu

Apkup Vytvy. “Ry bbur” (“Grass Effigy”) in Lat jjup (Tiger Traces). Chengdu: Sichuan minzu chuban- she, 1998, 113.

“Deep into the Steppe” by Altai
Altai 阿尔泰. “Caoyuan Shenchu” 草原深处 (“Deep into the Steppe”). Translated from Mongolian by Zha Keqin 查刻勤. Shiyue 十月 (October), no. 6 (2005): 220.

“The Village Girl” by Asu Yue’er
Asu Yue’er 阿苏越尔. “Shancun Nühai” 山村女孩 (“The Village Girl”) in Asu Yue’er shixuan 阿苏越尔诗选 (Selected Poems of Asu Yue’er). Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 2005, 86.

“Crows” and “Sorrow” by Baoyin Hexige
Baoyin Hexige 宝音贺希格. “Wuya” 乌鸦 (“Crows”) in “Dongjing zhuiyi zhi si: wuya” 东京追忆之四:乌鸦 (“Memory in Tokyo no. 4: Crows”). Babai nian ru yi ri 八百年如一日, last modified April 11, 2007, accessed May 12, 2014, http://www.blogbus.com/ongod-logs/13288227.html.
Baoyin Hexige 宝音贺希格. “Beiai” 悲哀 (“Sorrow”) from Baoyin Hexige’s blog, last modified April 11, 2007, accessed May 12, 2014, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4997561e0100grdi.html

“Cow Bells” by Burao Yilu
Burao Yilu 布饶依露. “Niu Ling” 牛铃 (“Cowbells”). Remin Wenxue 人民文学 (People’s Literature), no. 12 (2000): 113.

“The Embroidery Needle Made from a Water-Deer Fang” by Mushasijia Eni
Mushasijia Eni 俄尼牧莎斯加. “Zhangya Mojiu de Huazhen” 獐牙磨就的绣花针 (“The Embroidery Needle Made from a Water-Deer Fang”) in Buluo yu Qingren 部落与情人 (The Tribe and the Lover). Bei- jing: Zuojia chubanshe, 1999, 30–31.

“Funeral Tune” by Lu Juan
Lu Juan 鲁娟. “Sangqu” 丧曲 (“Funeral Tune”) in Wuyue de Lan 五月的蓝 (Indigo May). Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe, 2006, 79.

“Eagle in the Sky” by Ma Deqing
Ma Deqing马德清. “Tianshang de Xiongying” 天上的雄鹰 (“Eagle in the Sky”) in Ma Deqing shige xuan 马德清诗歌选 (Selected Poems of Ma Deqing). Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 2004, 59–60.

“Turban” and “A Village Gate” by Mo Du
Mo Du 莫独. “Baotou” 包头 (“Turban”) in Baotou 包头 (Turban). Yunnan: Minzu chubanshe, 2000, 12–14.
Mo Du 莫独. “Zhaimen” 寨门 (“A Village Gate”) in Zhaimen 寨门 (A Village Gate). Yunnan: Minzu chubanshe, 2000, 3–5.

“Journey” by Qiangrenliu
Qiangrenliu 羌人六. “Lütu” 旅途 (“Journey”) in “Muyu de meili” 母语的魅力 (“Glamour of Mother Tongue”). Zhongguo Shige 中国诗歌 (Chinese Poetry) 22, no. 10 (2011): 33–37.

“Firebirds” by Sha Ma
Sha Ma 沙马. “Huo zhi Niao” 火之鸟 (“Firebirds”) in Mengzhong de ganlanshu 梦中的橄榄树 (The Olive Tree in My Dreams). Beijing: Dazhong chubanshe, 1999, 12–14.

“The Holy Drum and the Qiang Flute” by Yangzi
Yangzi 羊子. “Shengu yu Qiangdi” 神鼓与羌笛 (“The Holy Drum and the Qiang Flute”) in Wenchuan Qiang 汶川羌 (Qiang of Wenchuan County). Chengdu: Sichuan wenyi chubanshe, 2010, 11–13.


From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1

Current Issue
March 2011 Issue

Table of Contents



  • 6 Ring Flower, by Ge Fei
  • 12 Time in Imagery, by Ge Fei
  • 16 The Psychic Split in Chinese Contemporary Literature: Ge Fei and Zhang Ning in Dialogue, by Zhang Ning
  • 24 Song of Liangzhou, by Ge Fei
  • 29 The Myriad Things Retain Their Mystery for Me, by Jing Wendong

SECTION TWO: Selected Works

  • 32 Reminiscing about My Childhood, by Yang Jiang
  • 36 Five Poems, by Yang Jian

Chinese Literature

  • 39 Whether to Write Classical or Modern Poems: A Speech Given at the Gulangyu, Xiamen Poetry Festival, by Lü Yue
  • 44 Writers’ Exchange, by Sun Yu and Zhang Ning

SECTION FOUR: 2013 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature: Yang Mu (Guest Editor: Michelle Yeh)

  • 48 Introduction to the Newman Prize
  • 50 The Newman Prize for Chinese Literature: Nomination Statement for Yang Mu, by Michelle Yeh
  • 54 The Wellsprings of Poetry in Taiwan, by Yang Mu
  • 56 “Imagine a Symbol in a Dream”: Translating Yang Mu, by Andrea Lingenfelter
  • 64 “Language Is Our Religion”: An Interview with Yang Mu, by Zhai Yueqin
  • 69 Selected Poems, by Yang Mu

SECTION FIVE: Special Feature on Chinese Minority Poetry (Guest Editor: Mark Bende)

SECTION SIX: Special Memorial Feature
for C. T. Hsia


  • 3 Editor’s Note
  • 4 Contributors
  • 128 Chinese Literature in Review
  • 156 Pacific Bridge

ON THE COVER Xiao Wu Ji (detail), by
Chen Fei, 2012


Subscribe or download to the digital edition at www.zinio.com.