Jiaqi Maria Ma (Yale University)
Obscure and sparsely published during his lifetime, the Chinese poet Haizi has rapidly gained both a large cult following and controversial mainstream recognition since his suicide in March, 1989. In his expansive oeuvre, Haizi drew widely upon the works of Eastern and Western artists and writers, and scholars have examined how he synthesized these diverse influences into a “poetic epistemological path” (Yang 2018) in pursuit of a cultural, spiritual, and intellectual identity (Wu 2011, Kunze 2012). This paper contributes to this discussion by considering Haizi’s response to a hybrid Chinese and Western tradition of mediating Sappho in his short poem To Sappho, and pays particular attention to the routes of transmission and translation through which Haizi encountered the Greek poet.
To Sappho sits amidst a number of dedicatory pieces, most of which overtly portray an immediate closeness and identification of Haizi with his objects of admiration. To Sappho, however, alludes to the so-far-yet-so-close elusiveness of Sappho through the repeated reframing of the poet and her name, which “now and then [Haizi] hear[s] youths mutter.” Haizi approaches Sappho through metaphors from the works of other Western authors such as Thoreau, but also surrounds her with the familiar imagery of barn and soil that is ubiquitous in his work on the nature of homeland, poetry, and the self.
Beyond examining the poem’s significance in Haizi’s corpus, this paper also considers the historical context of its composition around 1986 in the post-Mao era of re-energized literary production, when more systematic translations of Sappho’s poetry were underway (i.e. Shui 1988, Luo 1989). This “revival” of Sappho is palpable in Haizi’s poem, which also presupposes a history of early Chinese-language Sapphic transmission that took her contemporary anglophone reception as its basis. Major advocates for Sappho frequently supplemented selective translations of her poems with profuse biographies, compiling versions of her “life” as they rendered her name into various Chinese characters which each translator considered academically and aesthetically appropriate. Haizi’s poem echoes the language of this earlier history, but also offers a stark contrast in its positive framing of Sappho’s same-sex love (Chen 2021). Situating To Sappho in the transmission of Sappho in China, this paper will show how Haizi’s mediated encounter with the fugitive figure of Sappho informed his domestication of the Greek poet into his symbolic, rural landscape of poetry, thereby creating a paradigm to contemplate his own poetic identity and legacy.