#100PENMembers No. 78: Yang Lian

Yang Lian is a Chinese poet and essayist, a founder-member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and an active member of the board of PEN International. 

In 1974, as a teenager growing up in communist China, he was sent to Changping country near Beijing to undergo ‘re-education through labour’, where he undertook a range of hard physical tasks such as digging graves.

His poetry became well-known in the West in the 1980s when his sequence ‘Noriland’ was criticised by the Chinese authorities.

This was part of a drive by the Chinese authorities to curb the influence of Western liberal ideas within the Chinese populace. 

Associated with the so-called “misty poets”, Yang Lian’s work was seen as challenging to the Chinese regime because it refused to engage in Communist propaganda:

On his website, he tells Villa La Pietraabout these early experiences: ‘the reasons we had been called misty or ménglóng to me was very simple: because, as I have said, we tried to use our own language to express our own feelings, but an ‘our own language’ means to use the words and the language we can feel, which we can understand, which we feel is linked to our real experience.’ 

‘In this sense, all those huge political empty words like “socialism”, “capitalism”, “history”, “materialism” and so on are empty concepts not real feelings.’ 

He was out of the country visiting the University of Auckland in 1989 when the Tiannanmen Square massacre took place and was involved in protests against the actions of the Chinese government. His work was blacklisted after 4 June 1989 and two collections awaiting publication were pulped. Since then he has lived in exile in New Zealand.

In 2001 Yang Lian helped to found Independent Chinese PEN Centre alongside #100PENMembers Liu Xiaobo

He remains outspoken on issues of censorship in China and elsewhere, describing a worsening in state censorship in his home country which he attributes to a slide backward in recent years, as ‘the government [is] trying to pursue the communist tradition of controlling expression and thoughts’ in an interview with Deutsche Wellewebsite.

His own work is still censored in China and Chinese territories. As recently as 2011, Lian’s ‘The Narrative Poem,’ an autobiographical work, only survived one day in China’s bookshops before all 3,000 copies were withdrawn and destroyed because one part of the poem referred to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

As the poet himself describes in a recent interview, ‘Since the crackdown of the democratic movement and the massacre in June 1989 is still taboo, the poem was registered and watched very closely. The publishing company Huaxia got a warning directly from the government. The very sad result was that the book died.’

‘The awful fact that the book was destroyed actually was a kind of approval of the depth and power of poetry which also meant that even in a time when people said nobody reads poetry, poems were indeed being read.’

Lian has been an active member of the board of PEN International since 2008, advising on PEN’s Free the Word festival events and working as artistic director on the seminar series Unique Mother Tongue.

In 2012 he read and discussed his work at the PEN America Centre

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