Editor’s note: The following is part of a Q & A transcript between Richard Nelson of the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Dr. Ming Wang. Dr. Wang is a prominent eye surgeon and holds and M.D. from Harvard Medical School, as well as a PhD in laser physics from MIT.
Richard Nelson: I’m here with Dr. Ming Wang in downtown Nashville on this Saturday morning, August 13th, 2011. Dr. Wang, as we’ve been talking with your background in China, the research question of my dissertation is what impact does contemporary poetry from 1950 to the present have on society. This is a question that is particularly apropos to America, yes, but I’m so interested in your perspective coming from China and being here for a long time now, since ’86, I think? If you, perhaps, could share some of your own background from the angle of what impact you saw of poetry in China growing up, if that affected people in general, if it affected the politic of the country. My arbitrary time of 1950 is quite close to 1949 when there was a big political change through Chairman Mao Tse-tung in China. Please feel free to share if there’s anything about poetry, if it was that influence of politic or the politics after that were changed, how it might have affected you, and maybe it didn’t, but if it did, if you’ve written any—not that you need to, but anything you feel relevant about the arts, music, what you’ve done that might shed light on the impact that contemporary poetry has if you are up on China, of course, or America. Whatever you feel to share is fine.
Dr. Ming Wang: Ok. Thank you, Richard. In thinking about your question in terms of the impact of poetry to modern China, modern China pretty much, as you said, started with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. I was born in 1960 and so from that point on I pretty much grew up in this Communistic country at the heart of a period that has gone through rather significant changes. In thinking about your question in terms of poetry, number one: poetry to me is a description of feelings of people going through life but it’s a lot more than just a description. It’s an elevation into—it’s not just describing what happened in life, but also elevates into a conceptual height that reveals some insight about life. So to me, what poetry means is it’s a product of humans’ inner heart, inner mind as a reflection of experience of life. For example, one can just write a story about something happening in life, you call that a report, you call that a descriptive article about something that happened in society, to me that is not poetry.
Poetry means not only describing what happened but that taking to one’s mind and heart and digest it and reflect what it means into a more conceptual high, an intellectual high, a more emotional response to what happened in the world. To me, that’s what poetry is about even though I’m not a professional poet. I see poetry as an emotional inner response to events; things in the world by human beings. So, in that extent I can cite several examples of poetry as I so generally define in the broader sense.
For example, I grew up in the period called the Cultural Revolution. The poetry that reflected the people’s life and spirit during that time, which was from 1966 to 1976, were these songs that the Communist government forced people to learn, to sing, to dance to in praising the dictator, Mao Tse-tung. I remember as a kid, Mao Tse-tung said, “Study every day and looking up and improve every day.” So it was an era of socialism/ communism that the government basically brainwashed all of the children and the students with teaching the doctrines of Marxism and Communism being the only way to life. It was a period of time in which there was what I call not Cultural Revolution during this ten year period of 1966 to 1976, but it’s more like a cultural holocaust. It was taking away the thousand years of culture and replacing it with Communist doctrine in those songs as I said.
I can reflect—there was a time of conflict between those governmentally enforced programs of Communist ideology and the traditional Chinese history; cultural background, which people had been so engrained to for thousands of years. I remember in my hometown, Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, there is a lake called West Lake. There are parks around West Lake and as a kid I used to walk around this lake. I remember this one Pagoda Temple and there are two lines of poetry on each side of the pole. It says:
“Mountain, water; sometimes that things will surprise you. Cloud and raining; sometimes it will arouse your curiosity.”
Chinese culture’s very rich. For poetry, I can cite you one of the famous poems by a poet called the Bai Li. He lived in the Tang Dynasty about 1300-1400 years ago. The Tang Dynasty in China’s history is almost like the Elizabethan Period in England, a cultural height with encouraged innovation and creativity. Li wrote many poems. I will just cite two. One poem is called, “Holding Up a Cup, Inviting the Moon”. I will translate right, but it’s not an accurate translation.
“Among the flowers there’s a bottle of wine. I’m drinking all by myself with no companion. Oh, I can invite the moon. The moon, myself and my shadow; we all can drink together. When I sing, the moon hangs around and does not want to leave. When I dance, my shadow closely follows me. The moon cannot really hear my singing, and the shadow that dances around me doesn’t mean much, but you know, life is about capturing the moment; capturing the happy times in our lives…”
Reflect on a poet in a beautiful setting and try to imagine him interacting with the moon and his shadow. The main point is even if you’re by yourself you can still enjoy life; life is about capturing the moment. Mr. Bai Li wrote another poem describing a natural scene in the middle of China called “Three Gorges” where, in fact, in the last decade it was a very famous river with lots of beautiful scenes on both sides of the river. You can ride a little boat along the side for thousands of miles. That river is now being stopped or banked by the government and they’re trying to make a hydraulic water dam out of it. Mr. Bai Li’s poem describing the scenery of the Three Gorges River, fourteen, thirteen hundred years ago was:
“Leaving the Dubai City in the morning among the clouds, I sailed along the river down the stream in the little boat. On both sides of the river I can see the little animals singing and the monkeys dancing among the trees, but time goes so fast because before I realize my little boat has darted down the stream thousands of miles.”
This poem is to reflect the natural beauty and to reflect the interaction between man and nature. Coming back to the Cultural Revolution, it was a conflict and struggle between the traditional Chinese culture, its appreciation of nature, its reflective thinking culture appreciating the spirit of life versus the all powerful indoctrination of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. The government started a very forceful deportation program where they figured the best way to keep on dictating is to keep people ignorant; to destroy the traditional Chinese culture. The way to keep people ignorant and to destroy the traditional Chinese culture is to basically stop the educational process of all of the young people. So it started from 1966, the Communist government basically shut sown most of the colleges and started a deportation program and re-educational program for all high school graduates. So if one graduated from high school from 1966-1976, one would not be allowed to go to college. Most of the colleges were shut down. One would be forcefully deported by the government to the poorest part of the country and condemned to a life of poverty and hard labor. If one dared to escape back to the city, one could be jailed or killed. That’s called the Cultural Revolution Holocaust which destroyed the future of many, many young people through a ten year period from 1966-1976. It destroyed the lives of twenty million young people. So, I caught that. In the mid 1970s I was fourteen and was graduating from junior high. The government made it very clear that if I would go on to senior high they would deport me like millions of others. Against their wish, my parents (who always emphasized the value of education and learning; they’re both university professors), against this devastating prospect of deportation if I attended senior high, my parents, having no choice, took me out of school after junior high.
At the time when most people were looking toward the future for education and learning, my education abruptly stopped. I could not go on to school anymore. I was taken out of school after ninth grade at age fourteen. I lost all hope of studying and of a better life. At that time one of the most common ways that kids were trying to avoid the deportation program was to have a talent that the communist government would find to be useful. Being a musician was one since the Communist government had song and dance troops. So my parents bought me a little Chinese violin Erhu which cost eighty cents, US. This was a little two-stringed instrument with a little sound box covered with snake skin. The bow sits between the two strings. It’s a very flimsy, simple instrument because the bow can only hit one string at any one time. So by definition it cannot produce harmony. It’s only a singular song at any one time. Such a simple instrument when played correctly can produce poetry and produce a dynamic expression of human emotions with this gentle, soulful sound. So I picked up an Erhu at age fourteen and I played really not as an appreciation or love for music but for the sheer need to survive. I remember I was playing fifteen hours a day. There was no heater in our house so I had to play in the cold and my fingers all got frozen up all the time. I had to play fifteen hours a day just to try to make it as a musician into the song and dance troop of the Communist party.