Academic journal article African American Review

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings!": Dunbar in China

Academic journal article African American Review

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings!": Dunbar in China

Article excerpt

Paul Laurence Dunbar used his poetry to express frustration and disappointment at the ways that his country treated his fellow African Americans. One hundred years after his death, however, he might be consoled to know that in a different part of the world many people have been reading him with sympathy and empathy, and the Chinese have answered the black poet out loud: we know why the caged bird sings!

This paper presents a brief account of the Chinese response to Paul Laurence Dunbar since the early 1920s. The presence of the African American writer in China reflects a general pattern in the century-long process of the Chinese reception of American literature. Roughly speaking, Dunbar's presence in China can be divided into three periods: the first period, from the early 1920s, when Dunbar's first poem was translated into Chinese and published, to 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded; the second period, from 1949 to 1978, when Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution was officially brought to its end; and the third period, from 1978 to the present, coinciding with China's opening up to the world and its drive toward modernization.

Modern Chinese literature is usually thought to have had its beginning during the May Fourth Student Movement in 1919, but the serious introduction of foreign literature started at the turn of the century with the translation of Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux Camelias and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin on China was inestimable. Many Chinese came to know for the first time about black people in America. Numerous testimonies by well-known scholars, translators, and writers who lived at the time have proved that the Chinese public was moved to tears over the fate of American slaves. It seemed natural for the Chinese to bond with African Americans since the two peoples shared a similar condition of subjection. The Chinese were then ruled by the Manchurians, a minority Chinese nationality, and China had been bullied and humiliated by western powers and Japan time and again. For the Han people, the imposed pigtail was as much a sign of servitude as the chains on the black body.

In June 1920, a Shanghai magazine titled Liberation Illustrated printed the translation of a short poem under the Chinese title "xinhui" meaning "heartbreak" (Gu). It is actually Dunbar's "Conscience and Remorse." The original author, Dunbar, was introduced by the Chinese translator as "a black man" and "a famous poet" from "Nanmei" meaning "South America" or "American South." Information including the dates of his birth and death was given along with his portrait, but there was no mention of Ohio as Dunbar's birthplace. It is not clear why the translator made the apparent geographical mistake about the US poet. Dunbar's debut might have been modest, but there is indeed no cause for remorse as this poem marked the translation of African American poetry into Chinese for the first time.

Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and other black writers began to appear in Chinese literary journals and newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s. Although he was to be outshone by McKay and Hughes, who quickly caught more attention and enjoyed more translations of their work, Dunbar was usually praised for his role as the first black poet to enjoy wide acclaim. For instance, in 1928, Zhao Jinsheng, a famous writer and editor, noted Dunbar's epoch-making contribution to African American poetry by claiming that, with the publication in 1892 of Dunbar's Oak and Ivy, "the flame of American black poetry had been rekindled from the ashes which had died down for over a hundred years" since the death of Phillis Wheatley (Zhao 1359).

In 1932 in a newspaper article entitled "North American Black Poet Dunbar," Zhang Shaozhen made a glowing comment on the form and matter of Dunbar's poetry: "There are pictures in his poetry, passionate and imaginative pictures. Therefore his poems are able to move us into tears and we are left in deep thought"; Zhang went on to say that the poet "gave voice to the weak, attacking all forms of inequalities, racial, social, and political. …

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