America's poet of comrades: Walt Whitman in China
Though not completely closed to Western influence, China has been slower to open its cultural doors. In fact, when a mass market translation of the American poet Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass was due in 1989, the Chinese government prevented its release, possibly worried that it would add fuel to the fire of the democracy movement. Imagine then, only 11 years later, a flurry of scholars converging in Beijing, for a first-ever Whitman 2000: American Poetry in a Global Context conference.
Ed Folsom, professor of English at The University of Iowa, and Liu Shusen of Peking University codirected the conference, which included scholars from North America, Europe, and Asia. The conference was cosponsored by The University of Iowa and Peking University.
"What continues to amaze me about this place [The University of Iowa]," Folsom says, "is how administration and departmentsDean Linda Maxson, Vice President David Skorton, Jae-On Kim, director emeritus of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, the English Departmentall came together to support this conference, which took place half a world away."
Certainly, this conference reflects an opening, socially, for China, and a desire within its educational system to reassess the value of American culture. Walt Whitman, Folsom explains, is seen as a "revolutionary poet, the voice of democracy, a voice of inclusion."
Of course, other writers in English, such as Shakespeare, have had a dramatic effect on Chinese culture.
"But the difference," observes Folsom, "is that Shakespeare is seen as a British import, brought to teach the Chinese with."
Whitman comes into China by traveling Chinese poets who one way or another found his work and brought it home. They studied Whitman because they wanted to, because they connected with his lyricism and his content.
"My dream for this conference," says Folsom, "was to begin to pull Chinese Americanists into the mainstream of American studies worldwide." And was Folsoms dream realized?
"My fear was that because the Chinese scholars have been so isolated from discussions in American studies and American literature, theyd be on one side of the table, and there wouldnt be much interaction," Folsom admits.
"In fact, there was tremendous interaction with friendships forming immediately and easily," he affirms. This conference would have been the culmination of a dream for another scholar as well.
Zhao Luorui, a senior Americanist in China, studied at the University of Chicago and in 1948 received a Ph.D. Though her dissertation was on Henry James and one of her earliest publications was a translation of T.S. Eliot, she would rise to prominence and become the first translator of the entire text of Whitmans Leaves of Grass in Chinese.
A mass-market edition of her translation was to be released in 1989, but the democracy movement and Tianenmen Square demonstrations postponed its release. Originally, she had the vision for an international conference on Whitman to be held in Beijing. Unfortunately, she died before this event.
As a translator, scholar, and critic, she was well respected, enough so that Folsom and Liu carried on her vision and dedicated this conference to her memory.
Zhao may have marveled at the variety of perspectives on Whitman.
The participants at the conference presented papers and led discussions revealing the many ways Whitman translates into other cultures: from an examination of Whitmans unmistakable influence on the Arab poet Amin ar-Rayhani and Arab prose poetry and comparative analysis of the influential Chinese poet Xin Qiji and Whitman to explorations of Whitmans thoughts on immigration and Asian diasporas.
"Now, more and more, people in American studies are becoming fascinated with what happens with American writers as they take hold in other cultures, as they get translated into different languages," Folsom notes.
It seems that for as many editions of Whitmans signature Leaves of Grass, there are even more Walt Whitmans who emerge to fit the needs of readers.
"How many Walt Whitmans are out there? Walt Whitman in India whos a yoga master as opposed to Walt Whitman in the former Soviet Union whos a communist, working-mans poet," Folsom says.
As the study of Whitmans work develops internationally, so do interpretations evolve here. Whitman becomes the common ground for a world wide dialogue. Instead of being relegated to the realm of an American poet taught in American literature courses, Whitmans voices can be heard echoing throughout the world, "Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs," as he wrote in his famous poem, "I Hear America Singing."
In 2001, a collection of essays by participants of the conference will be jointly published with the imprint of the University of Iowa Press and University of Peking Press.
by David Hulm