Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Yinglian (story)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Yinglian was dead tired. No wonder – this had been the second full day of the International Conference on Poetry, and the third day since she had left China for the first time in her life, sat through the long flight across the Eurasian Land Mass, and set foot on the strange, Capitalistic soil of Europe anno 1985. The combination of jet lag and the stream of new impressions was almost too much. Since her first moment of physical contact with the West at the Zürich airport with its well-lighted, well-kept halls and shops, intact floors, clean curtains, and well-fed smiling attendants, she had been walking as if within a placenta, peering out at her new environment through a dizzying membrane of inferiority feelings. What did she know, what could she do that was applicable here? A nine-year old blonde Swiss girl with a walkman in a snow-white trouser suit and neon-green roller skates, sitting in the waiting room reading a magazine in a Western language, knew infinitely more about the world than she did now at thirty-two.
Now, sitting at the little desk in her hotel room, she thought back to that girl in white. She had wanted to sit down next to her, put her arm around her, kiss her – Westerners did that, she knew, they kissed – but she had to keep walking fast to keep up with Delegation Chief Li, terribly nervous but also proud of the new Western-style suit that the Writers’ League had given him for the occasion. Nervous, because they had been met at the airport by people from the Chinese Embassy, and Delegation Chief Li knew how important it was to make a good impression on them – he would need their help in the coming days when he applied for permission to stay abroad longer than officially planned, and for visas to travel to other European countries. Proud, not only of the suit but also because his own rank in the Party was undoubtedly higher than that of the ‘writing-brush lickers’ at the Embassy.
Delegation Chief Li was a big man nowadays in the world of modern Chinese literature studies. On the basis of his article ‘On the Lasting Importance of National Characteristics in the New Chinese Poetry,’ which had been published in the English-language magazine Chinese Literary Creation, last year he had been offered a guest professorship at an American university. At the last moment he had declined the invitation, officially because of illness but actually because he felt he needed to be personally present in Beijing to consolidate his personal relationships with higher-ups in the Party. He had been attacked in the press when the news leaked out that he had personally bullied a vice-Chairman of the Writers’ League into cancelling a proposed visit by the young experimental poet Mou Mouren to the Congress of Asian Writers at Oxford. Mou’s friends, including a member of the State Council, had taken their grievances to the top levels and almost won their case. But Li had friends of his own, and eventually a compromise was worked out. Li’s personal criticism of Mou was shunted into a harmless academic discussion; a university in Eastern China held a workshop on the theme ‘International versus National Characteristics of Imagery in New Poetry.’ As keynote speaker, Li had written a cycle of poems in the ‘New Folksong’ form and published them in the People’s Daily; subsequently he was entrusted with the final editing of the report on the workshop before it appeared in the authoritative Wuming bao. During the workshop Yinglian, as one of the young poets in attendance, had shared Li’s bed several times. In his report, she was duly mentioned as ‘the embodiment of certain healthy tendencies among the younger poets of our country.’ Those words, quoted on her application form, had been decisive in getting her permission to go abroad.
Li was not only a veteran apparatchik skilled in navigating officialdom. He was also a heavy drinker. During one of his bed sessions with Yinglian, in the course of drinking a whole bottle of straight Dukang jiu he had told her more and more things about himself: about the sex life he had led since his wife jumped out of a 16th-story window during the Cultural Revolution; about the years he had spent as a convicted ‘Revisionist Element’ condemned to cleaning latrines in a labor camp; about his son who was now studying in America and had a black girlfriend – and about his own plans to emigrate as soon as his son could find a job in a Western country.
Yinglian had listened, fascinated. On the one hand it was a relief to hear that even a successful high bureaucrat like Li, whose public pronouncements were all firmly against ‘bourgeois-liberalist trends,’ did not plan to spend his own future in China. On the other hand, it was dangerous that she now knew so much about him. She hoped he had been too drunk to remember quite what he had said, but she would never know for sure.
        That night she had lain up against him and cried. Not, as Li thought, because his embraces had released tensions long pent-up in her, but because even though six weeks had passed, she kept missing Mouren. Mouren had broken off their secret affair because she had not dared to support him during the controversy. A ‘cowardly whore’ he had called her. Those were heart-breaking words to hear from the first man with whom she had shared her body since the time during the Cultural Revolution when a group of Red Guards had held a pistol against her head and raped her.
Shortly after the breakup with Mouren, in desperation she had gone to bed with Li. She assumed that now, here in Switzerland, he would expect more of the same. There was no way she could refuse. It was thanks to him that she had been given the invitation and permission to come here in the first place. And thanks to his rank, the Embassy staff had not dared to intimidate the members of the Writers’ Delegation. Unlike the Chinese visiting scholars at certain European universities, of whom it was rumored that they were pressured into turning over their return-trip air tickets to the local Chinese embassy and saving up money for a new ticket out of the living allowance that they received from the host country, this time the Chinese writers were allowed to keep the expense money which a Western foundation had provided for them. Obviously some or much of it would find its way into the hands of Delegation Chief Li – he had the authority to sign permission for all manner of desirable things – but she hoped she would still have some left over, maybe even enough to escape from the Delegation once in a while and taste for herself the pleasures of the affluent West. There was even a term for that nowadays: kai yang hun, ‘eat foreign meat after the long fast.’ But she would have to do it sometime when Delegation Chief Li was busy with other things.
Like tonight, for example. Li had been invited by a group of Western scholars to join them on a trip to Montreux. They were going to stay the night and come back tomorrow. That had given Yinglian the freedom to accept the strange proposal of a young Western free-lance translator whom she had met at the opening reception: to join him in going to a monastery in the mountains where tonight, in a local Catholic church, there would be a Vigil of the Slavic-Byzantine Rite. She knew next to nothing of the Catholic religion, not even to mention the distinction between the ‘Western’ and the East European or ‘Byzantine’ Rite, but at the very least, she would undoubtedly be able to write up her experience of the evening and publish it later.
She had no idea exactly what the Westerner’s intentions were, but she assumed he was planning sooner or later, in the back seat of the car or in a hotel room, to ‘perform the Rites of Zhou’ with her. Maybe he would even ask her to marry her: one of her girl friends had been accosted on the street in Kunming by an American tourist, who chatted with her for fifteen minutes before proposing marriage. Yinglian was certain of only one thing: if during my priceless hours over here, any Westerner is idiotic enough to want to marry me, I’ll accept immediately. Even if he’s ugly and clumsy and stinks, even if it’s clear that he only needs me to be his ‘long-haired dictionary’ and help him in his future career as a sinologist, even if he wants me to do things in bed that in China only whores do – because then at last, at last, at last I can get away.
In another half hour the Westerner would be here to pick her up. She wanted to write down some notes in the meantime; a publisher in Guangxi had already agreed to bring out a book of her travel sketches when she got back. For the so-manieth time, she straightened up the little note pad that lay in front of her. At the top of the first page she had already written in oversize characters: ‘Jottings from a Land of Mountains.’ The rest was blank.
While she rolled the ballpoint between her fingers, she looked out through the window at the street below. An old man in a dark beret was walking past, leading a horse pulling a wagon filled with bundled piles of newspapers.
Would there be teenagers lying under those bundles, boys and girls risking the clandestine journey from their assigned workplaces in the countryside back to their homes in the city? Just like her classmate who had been ‘sent down’ to Anhui during the Cultural Revolution and tried to get back with the help of a local peasant, who in exchange for a bout of sex would supposedly smuggle her into the district capital, but who turned her over to a couple of demobilized soldiers just back from Vietnam, who blindfolded and raped her and left her unconscious by the roadside?
No, she thought, that couldn’t happen here. In Western countries, she had heard, there were no ‘rusticated youths.’
But – was the man with the horse actually a Westerner? The more she looked at him, the more he looked somehow Oriental, even Chinese. Those cheekbones...What race did the Swiss belong to? They were Caucasians, ‘whites,’ but wasn’t Switzerland fairly near to Soviet Russia with its Asian minorities? She had never learned much geography, even in the days when she could still go to school, before her father had decided it was too dangerous for such a pretty young daughter to walk around in the city, and sent her with her brother to live with relatives in the countryside where the school system had already broken down.
The man with the horse walked slowly past – and suddenly she was sure he was Chinese. He walked exactly like a character in a movie she had seen years ago. It was a Polish film about the cruel oppression of the Chinese during the Manchu Dynasty. In the opening scene, a group of Chinese teamsters on their way to market had just entered Peking with their mules and horses, not knowing that on this particular day it was forbidden for Chinese to appear on the streets without special permission. Suddenly their way was cut off by a troop of heavily armed Manchu soldiers, who forthwith clubbed the driver of the lead wagon to death, then hit the others in their faces with whips so that many for the rest of their lives would never again use one or both eyes.
Every few steps the man with the horse looked around, as if watching for any movement on the road ahead and behind. Could he be a Chinese, paid by the Embassy to report on the activities of the Writers’ Delegation? It was entirely possible. She thought back to what had happened to her niece several years ago, while she was learning English as a student of the Television University in Hangzhou. One beautiful autumn afternoon, while walking along Su Dongpo Causeway near West Lake, she had been asked the way by a Belgian sinologist with a camera. After a brief friendly exchange, she had given permission for him to take her picture. Suddenly a Chinese man in ordinary workers’ clothing, who had been sweeping the path a few yards away, walked over. Without showing any proof of his own identity, he asked her in a tone of authority what relation, if any, she was to this Foreigner and whether the nature of her work or studies required any communication with him. Dismissing her claim to be a student, he required her to write down her name and address in a notebook that he carried with him.
In the long run, things worked out: a few days later, when she appeared for a quiz, she received an Official Reprimand, but that was all. After a few months, she stopped having nightmares.
No, Yinglian thought, you just never could be sure. And even here, where so many Chinese were starting to apply for political asylum, the tentacles of the Apparatus could be long and subtle. It was known that the Chinese students in foreign countries were required to join ‘study groups’; besides their surveillance function, these served as a channel for instructions from the Embassy that were not meant for public consumption. But even the local sleepy-looking Chinese restaurants, despite the aura of ennui exuded by the plump fishes floating dazed in their big aquariums, could be full of quick-eared informers.
Just as the man with the horse turned a corner, Yinglian realized she still had some preparations to make; the Westerner could be here any moment. She laid the ballpoint down and opened the top drawer of the desk. It was full of manuscripts – handwritten copies of her own poems, homemade booklets of mimeographed poems by her friends with title pages in correct or incorrect English. She planned to turn the poems over to Western sinologists and translators who might see to it that the writers were invited to visit their countries. But which ones should she give the Westerner tonight, and which should she save for later encounters? She would be in the West for six more days now. In that time, how likely was she to meet somebody else with whom she could talk out of earshot of Chief Li and the other Delegation members, and who might have better influence and connections in academic circles than the Westerner, about whom she still knew nothing at all?
She would postpone the decision. She was already planning to take along several gifts for the Westerner this evening. She could take along the whole pile of manuscripts in the same bag, and depending on the impression the Westerner made on her, she could give him all, none, or just a few.
She stood up and walked over to the closet. From the little pile of potential gifts and souvenirs, she chose two: a rolled-up silk print of a painting of a horse by Xu Beihong, and a folded piece of rice paper inscribed with a classical Chinese poem by Li Bai in the calligraphy of the current Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs. From the top shelf she took down her canvas travel bag printed with a stylized image of the Temple of Heaven, and laid the rolled-up painting in it. To protect the calligraphy, she tucked it between two of the manuscript booklets. She kept wondering if she should leave some of the poetry behind, here in the hotel, in case she lost the bag tonight. She also still wanted to touch up her hair – but the doorbell rang.
She smiled, waited a moment, opened the door, and said ‘Hello!’ in English. The rest of the English phrases she had practiced, hoping to make at least a bit of a cosmopolitan impression, were gone with the wind as soon as she saw the Westerner – for although she was shocked anew by his physical height, daunted anew by his blond goatee – at the sight of his eyes and the sound of his voice, her knees began to shake.
They were still shaking, down on the street, while he held open the door of his steel-blue Volvo for her. It was the first time in her life that she had gotten into a privately owned automobile. While she settled down on the pluche-and-leather seat, the thought crossed her mind that all the attributes of her adult life – her education, her writing, her status as an invited Writer at an international Conference – had stayed behind in the hotel room, at the airport, in China. What was left of her in this rich ambience of chrome, panel lights, leather and tobacco was a young girl with no name and no history, who knew only that she was now alone with a man.
That she could be his wife. All the way to the church, that was the thought that played in her mind, in her limbs, in her belly while her mouth kept up a perfectly plausible conversation on current trends in Chinese literature. The Westerner spoke quite good Chinese, but what interested her was that on brisk winter mornings in his undoubtedly modern, luxurious, well-equipped kitchen she could cook breakfast for him and for the well-fed, healthy, free-spirited child that she wanted to have with him.
He was reasonably well informed about cultural developments in China, but more important to her was the way he drove a car and smoked a pipe and talked with unhurried confidence about his future plans. Even the thought that she knew nothing of his political background, that he could very well be a C.I.A. man, that even now they might be shadowed by employees of the Embassy or friends of Delegation Chief Li – faded into a vague haze, much less fascinating than the illuminated numbers on the car radio which was pouring forth poignantly harmonious Western classical music.
She thought: too bad I’m on the pill because of Li, otherwise I could get pregnant tonight.

The Ukrainian woman in line just ahead of her – how old would she be, seventy-five? Yinglian watched while she slowly bent her head down toward the icon and kissed its varnished surface, took a step backward, made the sign of the cross and then crossed her arms again in front of her bosom. Yinglian studied her movements; she would soon have to make them herself.
Now the Ukrainian woman stretched out her right hand to straighten up one of the burning candles in front of the icon. Yinglian felt the movement in her own arm. She was not surprised. From the moment she had entered this chapel, it was as if the boundaries of her body had ceased to exist. The incense seemed to be pouring forth from her own lungs into every corner of the room; the light of the countless burning candles was a reflection of the warmth of her own eyes, constantly moist with tears in response to the hauntingly recognizable pre-modern harmonies of the choir chanting in the background. The movements of the human forms around her were signs, meaningful signals from another age, from no age, from realms of peace and beauty to which scents, sounds and shadows are our only entrances.
She was, as the Song-dynasty philosophers had called it, ‘one body with the all.’ And all the more because the forms, the gestures all around her lent themselves not just to one, but to every interpretation. The deacon in his glittering robe, raising his stola with his left hand at the beginning of every new litany, was also her uncle, who had made just that movement with his left hand whenever he prepared cold noodles in summer, in the days before the Red Guards took him away and locked him up in a damp cellar despite his asthma, so that he was never again seen alive.
But the deacon was also, like the priests and singers and lectors, an actor in the film she had seen, about the Manchus. She remembered a scene in which a group of patriotic, anti-Manchu Chinese had gathered together in a temple under cover of night. The leaders had clothed themselves in replicas of the robes of a Ming-Dynasty Emperor and his high Ministers – the rulers of the last truly Chinese dynasty. Together they had staged a Ritual of Installation, hoping their prayers would move the gods and spirits to take away the Heavenly Mandate from the Manchu usurpers, ushering in a new era of peace and love.
Informers had warned the Imperial troops, who raided the temple in force. The men were beheaded on the spot, the women raped and enslaved. The Heavenly Mandate stayed with the tyrants.
But that was then. Now Yinglian knew – tonight she had seen it, felt it in her own veins – that the Ming Loyalists were still alive. They were here. Standing around her in their magnificent robes, they were summoning all the world to prayer and righteousness; in their gestures of assurance and joy they bodied forth her uncle as he had been, together with her, in the brightest hours of his life; and their chants were calling down blessing upon her own imminent betrothal.
For that, too, she knew. She had felt it, just now, during the Gospel reading when she asked the Westerner to translate the text. When he came to the words: ‘Behold, when the sound of Your greeting touched my ears, in my womb the child leapt up with joy, blessed is she that has believed’ – he had unmistakably leaned more closely against her, and taken her elbow in his warm hand.
Now it was her turn to kiss the icon. It depicted ‘The Dormition of the Mother of God.’ The Mother of God – so the Westerner had explained – had had first to die in this world before subsequently being taken up to Heaven. Yinglian peered through the fragrant glow of the candles at the painted form of the Virgin Mary, lying in dark robes on a bier. The Westerner, standing in line behind her, gently nudged her, pointed at the image and whispered: ‘Look, that’s Jesus next to her. He has died, been buried, and risen from the dead. He’s holding his mother’s soul in his arm – that’s that little girl in white, see? He’s going to take her to Heaven with him.’
She saw the images, but what she felt was that Jesus was the Westerner, and she was the little girl in white. The resinous smoke of the incense wreathed her head in an aura of pines rooted deep in timeless mountains. She leaned over, kissed the image of Jesus, and made the sign of the cross as she had seen the Ukrainian woman make it.
With her arms crossed on her bosom she walked, still following the Ukrainian woman, a few steps further toward the priest, whose hand the Ukrainian woman had just kissed. Now it was her turn to receive the priest’s blessing. In his hands he held a small pointed paintbrush and a dish of fragrant oil. While she looked at him, he dipped the brush in the oil and traced with it, slowly and with calm conviction, a sign of the cross on her forehead. She bowed, kissed his hand, and walked back to her place among the worshippers.
While walking back, she felt her forehead tingling. It was the same tingling she had felt, watching the Polish film, when she saw the Manchu soldiers hitting the Chinese teamsters in their eyes with whips. For days afterward, at odd moments she had felt that tingling again. She was glad to feel it again here, now, in the company of other believers, other loyalists, other aspirants.
The Westerner was standing beside her again. The choir had begun a new, deeply emotional chant. She asked him to translate.
        ‘...Your death, o purest Virgin, was the bridge to a better and eternal life. It has brought You, o Unstained One, from this mortal life into that which knows no end and is truly divine, so that You may behold in joy Your son and Lord...’
She began to cry. While the Westerner took her gently by the arm she wept; her forehead tingled; she swayed on her feet.
        All during the rest of the Matins, her eyes stayed moist, and during the Divine Liturgy that followed it, when together with the Westerner she took Communion. It was as if each of her eyes was one vast tear in which the light of a thousand candle flames came together in a single glow.
That light stayed with her till the moment when the hours-long service was ended and the worshippers filed back out of the chapel. As soon as they came into the main hall where the coat rack stood in a corner, she saw – that her travel bag was gone! Like a sudden memory from a former incarnation, it came through to her that she had been very naive to believe the Westerner when he said it would be safe to leave her things here.
Or was the Westerner, her husband-to-be, involved in a plot against her, and were her manuscripts even now being examined at the local police station or in the Chinese Embassy? Now she saw that besides her own bag, other things were missing – raincoats, umbrellas, a wheelchair. Had the C.I.A. taken them, or the Manchus, or the Red Guards, to use as evidence in convicting all those present tonight?
She swayed, giddy from all the changes: from China three days ago to Europe now, from Chinese to Old Church Slavonic, from the scent of incense to the musty reek of old woodwork, from warm candle flames to matt light bulbs, from the consecrated Sanctum to her now unbridled anxiety. And from Delegation Chief Li to the Westerner, who once again was leading her by the arm.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘they’ve brought in coffee and cake, over there by the coat rack, see? They’ve moved all our stuff into the pantry.’ Next to the clothes rack stood two folding tables, with cake and pastry and a big metal coffee dispenser and paper cups.
The moment she saw it, all her inferiority feelings were back. A moment ago, she had half believed the disappearance of her bag had to do, albeit displaced by a couple of centuries, with a crackdown by Manchu troops. Now here she was again, with her feet on the ground, walking beside her new boyfriend. Yes, boyfriend.
        Her boyfriend kept being there till somewhere far along the road back, when in the half-light of the softly purring car she began nestling up against him in the front seat and he said he was really going to have to take her back now, his wife was waiting for him.
She had not realized he was married.
She had also not realized, not had any way of realizing, that when she and the Westerner got back to her hotel and stepped out of the lift on her floor, Delegation Chief Li would be there after all, standing in the hall in loud drunken conversation with a group of Westerners.
         ‘Yinglian! So there you are!’ he shouted in Chinese. ‘We missed you!’ His face was red as a lobster’s – always a sign that much liquor had flowed.
        ‘But – you were going to be in Montreux tonight!’ she answered with sajiao, the traditional Chinese flirtatious pout. ‘That’s why I didn’t come around looking for you!’
        ‘That’s okay, forget it...Come here, I want to introduce you, I’ve been telling them all about you – look, you guys, this is that great-looking chick I was telling you about...’
Twenty minutes later, she was alone in the hall with Li. She knew it was imperative to let him spend the rest of this night with her, now that he had seen her this late at night alone with the Westerner. The only question was whether he would demand, in addition to her body, new personal confessions to hold over her in future, just in case they ever ended up on opposite sides of some new political wrangle.
It turned out the physical side was enough. The procedures were troublesome, tedious, at cross purposes – but for Li, this was never a reason to stop strenuously trying to force an issue. Eventually she turned away from his heavy, alcohol-hot head and bit hard into the pillow with her pain and disgust. When the sudden cloudburst of his seed took possession of her underbelly, she was overwhelmed by the image of something she had seen years ago in the countryside: a baby girl, strangled immediately after birth and wrapped in a white cloth, being quickly buried at midnight under a superbly clear and star-filled firmament.
Seconds later, Li was fast asleep. Loyally sheltering in her memory of the baby girl in white, she shoved his cumbersome hulk off her limbs. On the way to the bathroom, she realized she had left her travel bag on the back seat of the Westerner’s car. If he looked at the contents, would he like her poems? Would he translate them, maybe send them on to a new birth somewhere in this world?
        When the first rays of a new day spread light across the curtains, she was still in bed, crying without a word.