When Feng Tang, one of China's most popular writers, decided to begin in the summer of 2014 a three month-long project translating the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, it was meant to be a welcome escape. For two decades, Feng has been one of China's most controversial writers.
His six novels, three essay collections and one work of poetry have been read by millions. His widely-read trilogy that presented a no-holds-barred look at growing up in a changing Beijing established Feng as a voice for the youth-and as an irreverent, even subversive, writer who told it like it is; a writer who spoke in the language of the people, writing vividly of youth discovering sex and poking fun at Communist dogmas, a writer who did not dress up his often profanity-littered language in the formalities beloved by the political establishment.
But little did Feng expect that his translation of 'Stray Birds', a collection of 300-odd short verses penned by Tagore in 1916, would turn out to be perhaps his most controversial. In early December, a number of commentaries in the Chinese State-run press took aim at Feng, accusing him of 'vulgarity' and of blaspheming the Indian poet, who has been revered in China as a saintly 'poet-sage' figure since his 1920s Shanghai visit.
The English-language government mouthpiece, China Daily, published an extraordinary commentary by its film critic, Raymond Zhou, describing Feng's translation as a 'vulgar selfie'. Zhou called him a 'hormone-obsessed' writer with a 'colossal insecurity'. The Party mouthpiece, People's Daily, penned a similar commentary, rattling the publishers who on December 28 took the unprecedented step of removing Feng's translation from all the shelves of bookstores across the country.
This storm of anger has left Feng puzzled. "Out of 326 poems," he says, "it is just three verses, and in those only five words, that they are upset about." The commentaries all pointed to three specific translations. In the first instance, where Tagore writes, 'the great earth makes herself hospitable with the help of the grass', Feng in Chinese used a more suggestive word for hospitable that means coquettish or flirtatious. In the second instance, where Tagore writes of the world removing its 'mask of vastness to its lover' and becoming 'one kiss of the eternal', Feng interprets this verse sexually, speaking of a world removing its 'underwear of vastness' and one 'French kiss of the eternal'. The third offence was Feng's use of a colloquial Chinese character, used by young Internet users, instead of a formal article, seen by some critics as disrespecting Tagore.
"Most of the people criticising the book only read those three poems," says Feng. He says most of the 323 other verses have been rendered more faithfully, and are more similar to Tagore's original haiku-like verse than the widely used translation, done by Chinese writer Zheng Zhenduo in the 1920s. "When Zheng translated Tagore, the modern Chinese language he was using was at an early stage so it actually feels awkward in many places." Feng says he wanted to more closely reflect Tagore's own brevity. For instance, where Tagore writes, 'O Beauty, find thyself in love, not in the flattery of thy mirror', Feng uses only 8 Chinese characters to rather neatly capture the verse, in comparison with Zheng's rather flowery 23.
Not everyone shares his opinion. The work has divided China's literary world, to some extent on generational lines. Many older scholars have been appalled by his sexualised rendering. One Chinese academic who has been translating Indian works for two decades said it was "good that Feng's unprofessional work" was taken off the shelves. His view was shared by a Chinese Indologist in Beijing who said his work was needlessly "crude".
On the other hand, many younger Chinese writers have come to his support, expressing outrage at the move to remove his books from the shelves-all because the sensibilities of some scholars and critics were offended. Even if Feng was 'vulgar', they argue, his right to expression shouldn't have been curtailed. Leading Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe, who has written pioneering studies on sex in China, praised Feng, saying his version "was not bad but just a version where the translator's individual style is strong." In her view, Feng's version was 'the best Chinese translation so far.' Several writers, including the prominent feminist writer Liu Liu who praised his interpretation as 'fantastic', have taken to Chinese social media to defend Feng, where, especially from his 8 million followers, he's received more bouquets than brickbats.
Priyadarsi Mukherji, professor in Chinese language, literature and culture studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says he can, to some extent, understand the ire of Feng's critics. "There were two or three poems that come across as obscene in the translation," he says.
Mukherji, however, adds that he had an 'open mind' about Feng's interpretation and some of the other poems were, in fact, rendered well. Rather than 'merely criticising' Feng, Mukherji was hoping 'to engage him in dialogue so he can explain his choices and interpretations'. Feng was scheduled to speak with Mukherji at the New Delhi World Book Fair on January 11.
This controversy, however, has forced him to pull out, after the Chinese partners in the event, the China National Publications Import & Export Company, the biggest official publishing company, advised Feng to not go to India. Feng is saddened he cannot travel, more so by "the labelling of the entire work as vulgar", including by Indian media. When the China Daily published the article, it was picked up by Indian media outlets which Feng notes faithfully reproduced as fact the accusation that his entire work was 'vulgar' without either reading the other poems or bothering to speak to him. He has since received death threats from Indian Internet users. Whether it was the reaction in India or the Chinese State media's campaign against Feng that prompted the official publishers to cancel his trip is unclear. Feng says his translation-and the reaction-have been illuminating.
One reason for the anger is that as schoolchildren read Tagore, Feng has been accused of trying to corrupt them by sexualising the revered poet.
Another reason, he suggests, is that Chinese tend to worship their writers and philosophers, whether Confucius or Tagore. "They want to see Tagore as a saintly figure. But his verse is not soft, gentle, a children's book as people in China think. He also speaks of love, and of making love. He writes also of darkness: 'I am none of the wheels of power but I am one with the living creatures crushed by it'. Do they think children will understand this?"
Beyond 'Stray Birds', the uproar, Feng says, reflects the unease in China with anyone who swims against the current. "Tagore himself was irreverent, and not someone who liked worship. What makes me uncomfortable is how they can decide what it is that Tagore meant. People hate to have something that challenges their historical view of things. The tree should be green. The flower should be red. If I write about a yellow flower, wrong! Change the colour back to red! It surprises me after so many years in this modern economy, of opening up, so little has changed."
The one silver lining, he says, is that thanks to the attention, more young Chinese are again reading Tagore. When first published in July-months before State media took aim at Feng-his translation sold 50,000 copies, the most for any poem collection in China this year. That is, until his book was pulled off the shelves.
The reviewer is China correspondent & Associate Editor of India Today