autumn in nanjing
this is the more southerly capital, the capital that isn’t one anymore. its government palace is not european. its government palace is as european as a colonial villa. you can visit its government palace for ¥40, and then you get to stay all day. the government stayed till the winter of 1937. when they left, the city gates were locked. over the next six weeks, the japanese army killed 400,000 civilians. over the next four weeks, the japanese army raped 20,000 women. the city wall still stands, it can be viewed for ¥20, and then you get to stay all day. it’s the only fully preserved city wall in china. i didn’t know that.
the heat sticks to you in wulongtan park. everything could be very new or very old, the difference refuses to be pinned down. i’m writing letters to t., who’s lying beside me in the shade. i’m writing letters to c., who’ll read them in a european town, which means i’m writing letters into the past. l. says that’s because everything here happens at the same time, because the present here is simultaneity sped up to 350km/h.
that’s precisely the problem, says b., reaching for her beer: we have no time to stop and think. my students take 30 years to realize what they really want – after they’ve already done what everyone else does. what we need badly, says b., is individualism. which means different things to her and to me.
x. says individualism is coming, just a little while longer.
h. says lately he can’t help thinking about the ’70s all the time, it feels like they’re coming back, and i wonder about all the things i wouldn’t take for granted if i were of my parents’ generation, or the generation before them, what i’d fight harder for, what i’d be more afraid of. in the ’70s there was no press, just government newspapers, says h. three months ago he quit his job as editor-in-chief and started up an advertising company.
this is not the city of swallows. it’s the city that has been forgotten. forgotten: wàngjì, literally: to forget to make a mental note of something. naturally, you can it differently. this is not a poem about the too narrowly considered connection between language and thought. this is at best: a hole in paper that is big enough to want to go through it. big enough to see the fish swimming behind it. the pokémon.
so collect everything because everything’s going to disappear: the ginger slices and nutmeg soup, the 20x20cm paving slabs, each a circle, four arcs and sixteen squares along the edge– an eye with plenty of sleep in the corners. the noodle stall and the pancake stall, the man from the mobile locksmith service reading his paper by the side of the road, a hose in the university garden. the fat sleeping campus cats, radios, pa announcements, a car alarm that gets caught in the plane trees, red ribbons in the branches and bikes, carrier bicycles – zìxíngchē. liùshí niándàii de zìxíngchē, says s., bikes as from the ’60s: wherever they go, they go through the dusty afternoon light.
nostalgia, says s.: a heat in which you sleep through everything, everything grows heavy and loses importance. the streets run along some hills, something familiarly mediterranean. in nanjing i think first of italy and then of something i like without needing to compare it to anything else.
in nanjing i see a poverty that looks like weariness, a poverty that sells everything it can get its hands on, things i didn’t know could be sold, a poverty that lugs huge plastic bags around, a poverty that sleeps i know not where.
in nanjing i see plane trees wherever i go, most of them were planted before the government left. nanjing is a city of plane trees, a city of parks and lakes. The great history of its ups and downs has yet to be written. in nanjing there’s a constant sawing, which isn’t that, a pushing of hoarse chirpers off the branch. when i walk by, the cicadas dim the volume. as though they were embarrassed.
this country is complicated, says b. hard to say whether that’s good or bad, in any case it’s interesting. no idea what it will be like in two years; i can hardly remember what it was like two years ago.
so collect everything because it’ll all disappear: parasols, tomatoes glacé, the long row of bars behind campus, lake xuanwu viewed from atop the city wall, the rowing regatta course – tiny needles between the islands, which are fat cauliflowers in the lake. y. says she used to come here after school when she wanted to be alone. y. says i should drink more, duō hē diǎn, and that’s what everyone says. boiled water, kāishuǐ: opened water.
y. says everyone’s waiting for the housing bubble to burst; y. says she doesn’t know yet if she’ll go back to berlin then. the first time y. went to berlin, it took two months for the wall to come down. 1989, that was an awful year for china, says y., i didn’t come back for a long time after that. taking her into my heart, i ask myself what i really want to hear from her. y. works for the state. y. says she’s had her fill of foreign cultural policy that consists of nothing but calligraphy classes; y. says china is more complicated than that. yes, i say, and that’s why it’s so interesting. y. smiles wearily.
and beneath us lies the lake, lies the quiet of a city forgotten, in chinese: the quiet of a city people have forgotten to remember; the quiet of a city somehow overlooked since the ‘50s; the quiet of a city of 8 million people.
Lea Schneider (b. 1989 in Cologne), after studying extensively in China and Taiwan, is now a freelance author and translator in Berlin, where she works with the poetry collective G13 on poetry performances and collective writing formats. Her debut volume of prose poems, Invasion rückwärts (“Invasion Backwards”), was published in 2014 by Verlagshaus Berlin and won the Dresden Poetry Prize, among other honours. It was followed in 2016 by an e-book, O0 (in collaboration with Tillmann and Sebastian Severin), a work at the interface between poetry, prose and visual art. Schneider has served as a translator and curator of contemporary Chinese poetry for the poesiefestival berlin, lyrikline.org and the German Federal Cultural Foundation. Her latest published works are translations of the Chinese poet Yan Jun (internationaler tag der reparatur (“international day of repair”), Berlin, hochroth, 2016) and CHINABOX. Neue Lyrik aus der Volksrepublik, an anthology of “new poetry from the People’s Republic”, which she translated and edited herself.