Yang Lian

Article Bio Works Projects
death, exile
Written and spoken word (essay, poetry)
Asia, Eastern, Europe, Western
China, England (UK)
Bejing, London
created on:
May 30, 2003
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since May 16, 2009. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
information provided by:
Yang Lian
Yang Lian © Ekko von Schwichow


Language as a homeland

Yang Lian is one of the main poets now using Chinese and is the most translated into German. His vast output is marked by pathos, a concern for style, and a zest for experimentation. Since the bloody suppression of the Chinese movement for democracy on 4th June, 1989, he has chosen to live abroad. He received grants from many German cultural institutions in the 90s but is now living in London.
Whether or not Yang Lian’s poems are the greatest Chinese poems of our time, they are certainly the most translated, at least into German. This is due to several translators who have chosen specific examples of his very different phases.

Formally he belongs to the hermetic school (menglong shipai), which arose under the sway of Western modernism at the end of the cultural revolution (1966-1976). It dominated the literary scene in China, especially in Beijing, up to the death of the movement for democracy in 1989. Together with Bei Dao, with an eye on the Nobel Prize, and the genius Gu Cheng (1955-1993), he may be the best known writer of Chinese poetry today and is certainly the most prolific.

Yang Lian’s work may be classified roughly into two phases, up to and after 1989, the year in which the movement for democracy died. This tragic event greatly influenced Yang Lian’s life and writing, but he can no longer be called a dissident living in exile in London. Indeed he often travels back to his homeland, where his works are published and acclaimed. The same is true of his wife You You, whose novel’s are there published and sell well. The importance of 1989 for his career is due to his then deciding to leave China. A New Zealand passport enabled him to migrate through Australia, America and Berlin to London.

He has since become cosmopolitan not only in his location but also in his style. It is hard to say exactly what roles Chinese tradition and Western modernism play in his works. Roughly speaking his concern for style goes back to the writings of Chinese antiquity – for instance to the shamanist ´Songs of the South´, or to the oracular ´Book of Changes´, to which he owes his pathos. But after 1989 he changed, under the influence figures as Nietzsche, Kundera, Eliot and Pound, from penning hymns to Chinese history to experimenting with forms of various length. His tone is often cool, and his theme is often the poet abroad. Unlike many Chinese writers who left China and fell silent in 1989, Yang Lian has revelled in new opportunities. He calls his westernised and privatised Chinese ´Yanglish´.

Typical of his vast opus is not only the zest for style and experimentation but also the use of leitmotifs. His mother’s death touched him deeply, and since then he has seen and portrayed death in all nooks and niches. To him, language is sedimentation laden with the fossils of its users, so a poet need only dig down to free ‘souls of the dead’.

His strong sense of history has led him back to his Chinese roots. Taking a poem to be a mandala, a microcosm whose parts rove or rest in accordance with tao, he now views his ´Sun-Man´ (Yi) as his main work. In years of penning this epic, he has drawn inspiration from the ´Book of Changes´ and the spirit of shamanism. So far he has declined to have it translated, as its pathos may be too alien for Western readers.

Author: Wolfgang Kubin


Born in 1955 in Bern as the son of a diplomat, Yang Lian grew up in Beijing. He was early brought into contact with classical Chinese poetry by his father, and his own writing was prompted by the cultural revolution and his mother’s death in 1976. At the time of the first Beijing movement for democracy (1978-80), he became one of the main writers concerned with renewing literature. In 1986 he travelled for the first time to the West, where he took part in Germany in an international conference on contemporary Chinese writing. He used further trips, especially to Australia and New Zealand after the tragic events of 1989, as a means to emigrate. After living in Berlin as a guest of DAAD for a year in 1991 and returning in 1994-95 to Germany for a stay in Schloss Solitude, he took the opportunity of moving to London.


Unreal City

Published Written,
Auckland University Press: Auckland

Concentric Circles

Published Written,
Poems. Bloodaxe: Tarset

Notes of a Blissful Ghost

Published Written,
Essays. Chinese University: Hong Kong


Published Written,
Poems. Green Integer: Købnhavn

Where the Sea Stands Still

Published Written,
Poems. Wellsweep: London

Non-Person Singular

Published Written,
Poems. Wellsweep: London

The Dead in Exile

Published Written,
Poems. Tiananmen Publ.: Kingston

Masks & Crocodiles

Published Written,
Poems. Wild Peony: Broadway


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

1989 - Global Histories

Theme days

(19 February 09 - 22 February 09)


Exhibition, Films, Literature, Dance, Conference

(13 March 08 - 18 May 08)