Yang Lian

4 April, 2023

Swiss-born Chinese poet Yang Lian, who is associated with China’s Misty Poets, lives in London. His latest book translated into English, A Tower Build Downwards, won an English PEN Award.



Researching Evil

Yang Lian

translated by Brian Holton

Prefatory Note

The foundations of this poem were two important events in 2022: first, the Ukraine War; second, China’s Chained Woman. She was a sex slave kidnapped and sold by traffickers to Shifeng County, Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province. When she was found her tongue had been cut out, all her teeth extracted, and around her neck was an iron chain: her psychological state and her powers of speech had been grossly impaired and she had been left with severe disabilities; she had also been raped and had borne eight children as a result of “traditional” treatment by the peasants who bought the use of her. This incident has reduced “Mother” to the dirtiest word in the vocabulary of the Chinese language. After this was exposed on the Internet, it set off a tidal wave of popular anger, gaining tens of millions of hits, shares, and comments in no time at all, as well as fierce attacks on the official media and the legal system which cover up underworld vice. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing, this is the first time the Chinese people have exploded in a massive movement of spiritual enlightenment. I have called it “An off-street Tiananmen.” 


white snow can be an infernal machine too
to crush     so many dying of a life
so many ghosts released by one death
Pushkin’s tears
Tsvetaeva’s tears
pile on the shoulders of bronze statues    unmelting metal
pawning rhymes of nothingness     dragged through
the hearts set up as empty shells
a poem might also be     (can only be)    the mass grave of poetry
burial locking up pain too deep for tears
the same early spring ten thousand miles away
nailed into a collarbone    a catastrophe
drowns another catastrophe     recycled flesh and blood
recycled into forgetting     so many ghosts
still crawling from resurrection-emptied graves
motionless ruins reduced to rubble in their mouths
making us mistakenly think
an era of despair is new

why has this muddy and inert road no ending?
this grey-green conifer forest     gaze ice-cold
why has it only left rancid meaning the same as the pale sun?
charming Katya     Natasha     shrapnel sticking to their chests
like new-picked blood mushrooms
is this the homecoming you were all waiting for?
a bird flushed into flight from someone else’s hometown
was it granted the power to appear in your dreams?
big-eyed skulls gaze straight at bombed-out streets
only one question     why destroy all this?
how much longer must this downhill ladder go     till it arrives at
the terror of children     a vacuum like a fireball exploding
hanging deep in the heart     could the world have been blinded by fire long ago?

that tunnel in a mother’s body
leads to chains     leads to lying
a vast grand piano smashed to pieces every day
ocean waves slap     human needlegrass shivers in the wind
mother     the humblest word     the filthiest word
leads to layers of bloodstain strata
and another dumbstruck morning
watching her locked on a butchered mother-tongue
watching us locked in the bomb shelter of shame
the same tattered shirts and crawling on the ground         scrape away human bubbles
the umbilical tunnel lets us witness a road under guard
dug into our bodies     corpses folded onto corpses
forever empty     oh listen     the wind’s wail has no history
a species that can’t save mothers doesn’t even deserve doomsday

but this really is doomsday
a maggot wears countless shades of grey     shrivelled names
on every stone squat hordes of refugee ghosts
this is spring     the worst bloodstained news sprouts faster than green leaves
bloodstains cover over bloodstains     our dried-up surfaces
almost equal to fictions     a loss before our very eyes
the phantoms of home scatter and vanish faster than tear-filled eyes
a mother’s used-up vagina     must still go on being used up
draw a planet’s orbit the non-distance between death and death
a never-past March asks     is there truly a way back?
Spring’s face that leaves behind some enchantment     being clearly and clearly stroked
like a false emblem

a crime     can’t remember the beginning but only the weight of shadows
fills in none of Death Row but only human-shaped shell holes
stops at the shape of a sleeper left by a deserted road
the dirty hand on the red button lightly twists the stamen of destruction
twirls the topic on the dinner table     glasses and plates daintily jingle
corpselike tongues licking child-charring fires
timidity so tasty     saves your body
makes it quietly and softly putrify     saves your silence
explosively chokes your lungs     saves a life seeping away each second
it isn’t anything at all     but crime itself
staring at the madness of a branch of peach blossom    like madness
created by fingers     March collapsing     March soaked in sweat
seeing us tied to a ghost’s bed     falling further than ghosts into
nowhere     no word more shameless than innocence
no little hand stretching from the soil that hasn’t gripped my body odor
no iron umbilical cord that hasn’t pulled out a bone-grey river
it knows no other future     but disappearance itself
disappearing in the shocking sight of a branch of peach blossom
beauty layer on layer     palms all sticky with farewell train windows
a whistle blows everything away

this is an unwritable poem     an impossible poem
there is no one in this poem     all that’s left is everyone
facing the mirror of crime   the mirror of evil
Li Shangyin’s tears fall independently of ours
who is who’s counterfeit     the illusion cursing in the mirror
recognize the only division is real     shattered on a reef
mended in thick fog     feeble echoes
wiped and wiped away again     from white snow to peach blossom     hear
poetry reciting with no heart     a history arises from an empty shell
painlessly walks out of itself

we have always lived like this


Yang Lian’s A Tower Built Downwards is published by Bloodaxe Books.


Reflections on the life of a work of art
(In response to Ai Weiwei)


is this fate?     uprooted     exposed     sun-blasted     charred
forged into iron     iron that day and night growls low

creases flow backwards     skeletons shed from
the figure     clutch an invisible body

the starting point is grotesque     those fingers drag you down
track a set of bronze bells’ droning hum stuck to the dead

carved from underground to above ground     wooden labia
keep on cracking open     ghosts hang back at the wooden womb’s neck

the end point is grotesque     look back then see
false seasons     false petals

false reincarnation      carrying a point of green on a wooden fingertip
standing tall enough then see      ruin is once only

those internal organs     this heap of flesh-pink rusting stones
collected     pried open     poked in     tightly embedded

a hand pushes the bells’ droning hum      your karma
is here     sunk in the rare flower of death

root     recorded noise of collapse everywhere on its body
there is no creation myth     your last day of life

is here     wearing a million gold-colored lifejackets
facing the sky to fall into the always bottomless seabed


touch yourself and know     the root is in your body
the room a forest    dead tree after dead tree
all say     pain is a luxury
the endless exhibition hall hangs on the hook of the sky
wood at flood tide     slapping    to love pain is an ability
the rippling blue at your side also retells a hole that will choke you
root in your body     and your dried-up desire
decorating the ocean’s arabesques wall to wall
the end is everywhere     the drowned are between ends
drifting grotesquely     the starting point has locked up the finish
the endpoint fishes out a beginning from empty internal organs
someone lying on the seabed lies down into the horizon of a bird’s nest
to a dead-again shore still not there   you don’t need to seek
black     the one and only direction of flow that is woodgrain crying for help
dismantled flesh and blood     a million shiny saws hunt birdsong
tree scars and throats     wildfire held in masturbating gall
on a dry bone     where is your hometown?
lost and lost again    what does shame mean?
you hug a unique history of leaking     the empty sea merely heaves billows
the empty room    emptier once it has caught a man’s shadow
endlessly drifting down like a falling leaf     hieroglyph of the dead
write once     invent once
invention     then sinks into unmoving remorse
the root doesn’t need to look for me     this seabed comes looking for you
a wooden whirlpool installs the water’s depth of someone who stabs sight
dried out aesthetic reproduces as it bares its teeth     your desert likenesses
step in single file into blue brine     shining white draws near lips
smelling a perfume that there’s no time can change
is this fate?     you are ruined to become a poem


February 5, 2020


Yang Lian was one of the original Misty Poets who reacted against the strictures of the Cultural Revolution. Born in Switzerland, the son of a diplomat, he grew up in Beijing and began writing when he was sent to the countryside in the 1970s. On his return he joined the influential literary magazine Jintian (Today). His work was criticized in China in 1983 and formally banned in 1989 when he organized memorial services for the dead of Tiananmen while in New Zealand. He was a Chinese poet in exile from 1989 to 1995, finally settling in London in 1997, also living for some periods in Berlin. Translations of his poetry include five collections with Bloodaxe, Where the Sea Stands Still (1999), Concentric Circles (2005), Lee Valley Poems (2009), Narrative Poem (2017) and A Tower Built Downwards (2023), as well as his long poem Yi (Green Integer, USA, 2002), Anniversary Snow (Shearsman, 2019), and Riding Pisces: Poems from Five Collections (Shearsman, 2008), a compilation of earlier work. He is co-editor with W.N. Herbert of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2012), and was awarded the International Nonino Prize in 2012. Both Where the Sea Stands Still and Narrative Poem are Poetry Book Society Recommended Translations.

His translator, Brian Holton, was born in Galashiels in the Scottish Border country but grew up partly in Nigeria. After being educated in Greek, French and Latin, he studied Chinese at the universities of Edinburgh and Durham and was the first Programme Director of the Chinese-English/English-Chinese translation programme at Newcastle University. He taught translation for ten years at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and in 1992 he began a continuing working relationship with the poet Yang Lian, which has so far resulted in a dozen books of translated poetry, including Where the Sea Stands Still (Bloodaxe Books, 1999), a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation, Concentric Circles (with Agnes Hung-Chong Chan) (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), Lee Valley Poems (with Agnes Hung-Chong Chan and seven poets) (Bloodaxe Books, 2009), Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe Books, 2017), Anniversary Snow (Shearsman Books, 2019) and A Tower Built Downwards (Bloodaxe Books, 2023). He is the lead translator and associate editor of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2012). He also translates into Scots and is the only currently-publishing Chinese- Scots translator in the world. His latest Chinese-Scots translations are Hard Roads an Cauld Hairst Winds: Li Bai and Du Fu in Scots (Taproot Press, 2022) and Aa Cled Wi Clouds She Cam: Saxty Sang Lyrics (Irish Pages, 2022).

Ai WeiweiBeijingChinese poetryMisty PoetsrevolutionTiananmen Square


  1. It is a very powerful section of my poems! I am so grateful to the Markaz Review! Yang Lian

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