Campus & Community

Tian loves poetry – from Plath to Yuanming

7 min read

'Beacon, fire, and shooting star'

Xiaofei Tian, a youthful looking Harvard scholar of Chinese poetry, could easily be mistaken for an undergraduate in the halls of 2 Divinity Ave., where she works in a book-lined office.

Last September, at age 34, Tian got word of her tenure in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

To celebrate, she and her husband went to dinner with the department chair at a Cambridge restaurant — where she was asked for proof of age.

She laughs about it now, but Tian (now 35) is someone who all her life has been doing big things at a young age.

She was a precocious reader and writer who wrote her first poem at age 6. By age 8, Tian was a prize-winning poet in an international contest sponsored by the United Nations.

Throughout her education — until getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard in 1998 — Tian skipped too fast through school to attend any official commencements. She never officially graduated from grammar school or high school, and was at Beijing University (at age 13) before her honorary high school diploma caught up with her.

At age 19, with a two-year master’s program at the University of Nebraska already behind her (she skipped her M.A. commencement), Tian was in her first semester of classes as a doctoral student at Harvard.

Even as a child poet, “I started pretty early, I guess,” she said, with characteristic modesty. But starting early has been her life’s leitmotif.

Born in Harbin in northeast China, near the border with Russia, Tian received what she called “a classical education in Chinese language and culture” at home. Her father was a professor of modern Chinese literature, and her mother — a former university literature student — taught Chinese in a high school.

Four years after she was born, Tian and her family moved to Tianjin, an hour from Beijing. They rode out the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in a household made serene by the presence of books. The children (Tian has an older brother) grew up memorizing poems in classical Chinese. A considerable family library was later supplemented by the books Tian’s father had at his disposal as the editor of a literary magazine.

“I read quite widely” in English and Chinese, said Tian — including translations of English, American, French, German, Spanish, and Russian novels and poetry. “In that sense, I was quite privileged.”

As a literary exercise, Tian translated English fiction into Chinese, including — at age 10 — a modern English version of “Beowulf.”

Her early schooling “was rather irregular” because of bouts with asthma, said Tian, but that allowed her extra time to read and write — including a string of essays, poems, and stories for Chinese newspapers. “I used my time rather well.”

By the time she was 13, two Chinese universities were vying to enroll Tian as a special student. By 1989, in her senior year at Beijing University, the 17-year-old was writing her senior thesis on Hemingway — as well as taking part in the increasingly zealous and edgy student protests that led to the June 4, 1989, massacre at Tiananmen Square. (That day, she was in the library.)

As a teenage graduate student, just a few months after the fatal protests, Tian went from a huge city in communist China to a small city in democratic America — Lincoln, Neb. “It was like double culture shock,” she said.

On top of those shocks was another: Tian had no idea what happened to her protesting friends. She said, “I felt pain.”

All the more reason to read Sylvia Plath, said Tian. It was poetry “filled with anger and despair,” she said, and became the young Chinese scholar’s first literary pursuit in the United States. Add to that the steady diet of William Carlos Williams, and the Victorian novels and Romantic poetry Tian consumed for her master’s in English literature.

But it was “world literature” that remained a core attraction for Tian, who was still drawn to the wide, diverse, encompassing assortment of fiction and poetry that opened itself to her during her childhood in China.

At Harvard, Tian rediscovered the classical Chinese poetry she had memorized as a child. “I still had affection for it, but it had stopped at that,” she said. “Chinese poetry didn’t become an intellectual inquiry until Harvard. I came to it with new eyes — and I quickly realized it appealed to me immensely.”

In addition to scholarly books in Chinese, Tian has written two books in English, including “Tao Yuanming and Manuscript Culture: The Record of a Dusty Table” (University of Washington Press, 2005). It’s an exploration of a fourth century poet and essayist who in China is still revered as the “poet of the fields” for his idyllic evocations of pastoral life. Yuanming’s simple, nature-bound syntax imparts a Thoreau-like resonance, and has for centuries provided a chastening counterpoint to a court-centered tradition of poetry in China that is more florid, ornate, and romantic.

“The caged bird wants the old trees and air,” reads one poem, about Yuanming’s escape from the city to the country. “Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.”

Tian’s next book, “Beacon Fire and Shooting Star,” due this year from Harvard University Asia Center Press, is a re-evaluation of the literary culture of the Liang dynasty (502-557).

“The past is a foreign country,” said Tian, quoting British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley — and it is as if traveling to the past that she explores the ancient poems whose rhythms she internalized as a child. “The Chinese literary past is still very alive in many ways,” she said. (For one, a memorial to Tao Yuanming was dedicated in 1985, more than 1,500 years after the poet’s death.)

But at the same time, “the temporal barrier is hard to break,” said Tian, who sees her scholarship as a way to “uncover historical and cultural contexts” for modern readers.

The book about Tao Yuanming uses the poet as a case study of the limitations of deriving a canon of poems from long-lost paper manuscripts that were repeatedly hand-copied, 500 years before being printed.

The problem of multiple textual variants for poems is a problem for Chinese scholars, whose literary subjects were often writing hundreds of years before the appearance of print in 11th century China.

“We don’t have the authoritative Tao Yuanming manuscript in hand any more,” said Tian. “It complicates his image — a fixed image of a serene, reclusive person.”

With so many variant poems possible, she said, “this cultural icon [has] mud feet.” It’s an idea that makes her book in China “a subversive book,” said Tian.

Her book on the literary culture of the Liang dynasty is meant to be subversive, too. The Liang was one of a series of short-lived ruling realms in South China. Conventional wisdom says that its demise, by conquest, was the result of an effete culture dominated by a coterie of aristocratic poets, who were addled by emotions and romantic love.

But in fact the Liang emperor was an austere man — a vegetarian who in middle age abstained from sex. His princes were competent poets experimenting with new literary forms, and the countryside he commanded was flourishing. “Its downfall was a historical accident,” said Tian of the Liang dynasty. Her book, she said, “offers an alternate way of reading [Liang] poems.”

Tian is a movie buff in her spare time, and her scholarship sometimes veers into popular culture. One 2001 paper, in Chinese, was about iconic Hong Kong screenwriter Jin Yong, and his martial arts films.

But at Harvard, more sober scholarship is the rule of the day for Tian, including explorations of spatial and visual imagery, and how Chinese poetry has reimagined the feminine. This semester, she is teaching a graduate seminar on poetry of the second through seventh centuries in China, and a freshman seminar on how to read Chinese poetry. (Hint: Know the context, since so much of Chinese poetry was conceived as a social act.)

There’s a move afoot in China to reclaim Chinese literature as an artifact of nationalism — but “it really belongs to all human beings,” said Tian, a champion of humanities education. “In this globalizing world, we really need to know world literatures.”