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Jun Feng - from underground poet to philosopher

Photo: Tine Harden

Under the pseudonym of Jimbut, Jun Feng became a well-known underground poet in China during the 1980s. Forced to leave the country in 1989, Jun Feng today lives in Odense, has a Danish degree in philosophy, and has created a new life for himself as a writer and translator.

Jun Feng tells his story in "New Men in Denmark", a series of portraits of ethnic minority men living in Denmark.

 
 

KVINFO/7.2.2008 As a child I didn’t have too much contact with my parents. My father was an officer in the army and worked out in the provinces. And my father and mother only met up once a year at Chinese New Year when my father was given leave. My mother, in particular, was a fervent believer in the communist system and worked as editor of the Party’s education publication in Shanghai. She worked so much that she forgot her family. For the first five years after I was born, my mother left me with her mother. I loved living with her but one day my father’s mother decided to take me in. Her world was not a pleasant one.

From being a happy young boy I turned into a problem child at school. This was my way of rebelling. My grandmother on my father’s side couldn’t handle me any more and I was sent to live with my father in a military area in Sichuan province. My sister, seven years my junior, was left to grow up with our mother. My father brought me up with an iron fist and tried to make me an obedient child, but I continued to create mischief. One day I wrote "Down with Chairman Mao" in the school gymnasium. This was a serious offence during the Cultural Revolution and it nearly cost my father his job.

Underground poet
It wasn’t until I graduated from university with a bachelors’ degree in mathematics that I began to have a closer and warmer relationship with my father. After graduation I worked as a maths teacher in a Shanghai college. I started writing poetry from an early age, and I continued to do so throughout university. To start with, I wrote poems for a girl who I was in love with. But later I formed the underground group "Sayjiaoism" with the poet Momo. In Chinese the word Sayjiaoism describes "the way a spoilt child behaves". Soon other poets began to join our group.

We represented a completely new way of using poetry and we held a lot of poetry readings at different universities. At the same time, we produced an underground magazine which contained our poems and satirised the communist leadership. We often met in my home and my father listened with interest to our discussions and our poems. My father and I began to see each other in a different light.

Reconciled with father
At that time in his life, my father was a very disillusioned man. To me he was a man of the system. "I had to keep up appearances," he would later explain. As a child, I often saw him reading Hans Christian Andersen and his bookshelf was filled with all of his fairytales translated into Chinese. His particular favourite was The Little Matchstick Girl. An old Chinese proverb says that even if you disappear into the darkness, there is still a small light burning somewhere. Now I could understand why he loved that story and we began to be able to talk properly with one another. Finally, I gained the respect of my father – something I had missed so much throughout my childhood and formative years. He was proud of me and admired my courage.

At this time, my mother became mentally ill. When her god, Chairman Mao, died in 1976, and those responsible for the Cultural Revolution were arrested, her world began to crumble. All of this brought my father, me and my little sister even closer together. 

A rebel 
I spent two years writing my 11,000-verse poem The First Question Why under the pseudonym of Jimbut. It achieved cult status among students throughout all of China. Even though it wasn’t really a political poem, the police viewed the work as a threat to the government and I was taken in for questioning at the police station. At this time I was experiencing problems with the management at the college where I was teaching. And not without reason – one day I turned up having written "My beloved party" on the seat of my trousers.

In both my poetry and in my life I have always expressed that no one has the right to stop another person thinking, writing and speaking as he or she wishes to. I had no desire to work in a school where neither students nor teachers could express themselves freely. And after a while, the school board had had enough of me and I was fired.

Escape from Shanghai
1986 was the year in which the massive student demonstrations started in Shanghai. I took part, but not without a lot of prior consideration. The students demanded freedom and democracy without understanding what these things really were. Because I was already known to the police, my house was ransacked and I was taken for interrogation for several days. Luckily, they didn’t find the manuscript of my book I am Always Humble which was very critical towards the regime.

Eventually, I felt that my every move was being watched and monitored so I moved to Xishuangbanna in southern China. This meant saying goodbye to my girlfriend and my friends. To begin with I worked as a secondary school teacher. Later, I managed to set up a hotel with a friend for backpacker tourists, particularly those from Sweden and Germany. We called it "The Anarchistic Hotel". We knew nothing about running a hotel and it wasn’t long before we went bankrupt.

Buddhist monk
Buddhism has been a source of interest to me from back in my student days. I particularly liked the idea that one has to be responsible for one’s self and one’s actions. I applied to join a Buddhist monastery in another province and was taken in. I spent a year living here until the police came to talk to me. The head of the monastery refused to hand me over.

Again, I had to flee – this time out of China completely. I was very lucky to meet a friend who wanted to accompany me. We trekked along the long route through the jungles of Burma and over mountain ranges to a monastery in Thailand. I spent 18 months living as a monk here until I moved on to Laos. Upon entering Laos, the authorities discovered that my passport was false and I was put in prison. Here I sat for another 18 months without anyone knowing where I was. This was a terrible period in my life filled with hunger, torture and humiliation. The worst part was not knowing whether or not I would ever be released from prison again. Had I not lived as a monk before this time, I wouldn’t have made it.

It was only once I had managed to smuggle a letter out to friends, who contacted the UN, that I was released. The Danish Consulate in Geneva offered me asylum in Denmark. And that’s how I ended up in a little village, Korup, near Odense, in 1992 – still clothed in my dirty robes from the monastery.

New clothes and a bank account
Now I had to start my life from scratch in a country I knew little about. All I knew about Denmark was that there was a beautiful queen and that it was the country of Hans Christian Andersen. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that it had also been the home of a philosopher whose work I had read in China, namely Søren Kierkegaard.

In Odense, I got new clothes and I was given a bank account. But it was a while before I actually stopped wearing my monk’s robes. This wasn’t purely due to my religious convictions, but more because these robes had become such a part of me. In Thailand I had already broken my monk’s vows about not consuming alcohol and abstaining from women. The joys of life were all too tempting. In Korup I moved into a very small bed-sit with a kitchen and bathroom. All the other peopple in the building were foreigners. But I was happy. At last I had somewhere I could call my home.

I wanted to start earning my own money but my Danish social worker didn’t agree. "You must attend language classes and learn Danish. You don’t know much about Denmark and I think your way of thinking will change once you learn about our society here," I was told. However, I would much rather have started earning my own money than go to language school. Going there was awful. The language teaching was terrible and progression was painfully slow. Every day consisted of grammar and monotonous repetition of basic phrases such as "Yes I do" and "No I don’t".

Self-taught in Danish
Conversation, pronunciation and more of a challenge was what I needed. The language school wouldn’t accept that I had begun to teach myself, but the fact of the matter was that I was learning much faster by teaching myself. A few months after I had started at the language school, I was knocked down by a taxi and broke my left leg. The "good" thing about this was that I was allowed to stay at home and work on my Danish by myself.

 

I found a book about witches, which I didn’t only read, but copied out word for word. If there was a word I wasn’t familiar with, I’d look it up. After two months of intensive studying I passed my Danish exam with a B in written Danish and a C in spoken Danish.

Masters in philosophy
I was still a long way away from being able to hold discussions or conversations with real Danes about different topics. I was well aware of how quickly people tired of listening to my stilted Danish. Four months spent at a community college helped my Danish so much that I passed my level 2 certificate of Danish Proficiency (Danish Language entrance requirement for foreign applicants to higher education: Ed.).

Despite passing this exam, not one university in the country believed that I would be capable of studying philosophy. They recommended instead that I should study mathematics, but I no longer had the desire to do that. Philosophy was what I wanted to study. After completing a number of individual courses at university entry level, I was admitted to the Institute of Philosophy at Odense University.

Going to university was like coming home again. I was among like-minded individuals and I made lots of new friends who shared my interests. My life got easier – also because I found a small apartment near to Hans Christian Andersen’s house in Odense. Studying was hard work. Nonetheless, I managed to have time for girlfriends, parties and deep discussions with my fellow students conducted over a beer. In China I had read some works by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and after four years at university I wrote my masters dissertation about Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel.

My first book in Danish
In China I had found my identity as a well-known underground poet. I could play with language and use words to create new expressions. In Denmark this ability was lost, which gave me a sense of low self esteem. Not because I was vain, but because if I was to have a good life in Denmark I would have to be able to write about the real world in which I live.

I decided to write a book in Danish and in 1999 my autobiographical novel Time for Celebration was published. In 2000 I returned to China for the first time after I had left. When I was there, I managed to salvage half of my 1980s poetry collection and bring them back to Denmark. Among these was my poetry collection Facing North which I translated to Danish and published in 2004.

Tucholsky Award
Since completing my thesis I haven’t been in full-time employment but I have done lots of different things. The most exciting has been to translate some of Søren Kierkegaard’s works into Chinese. In 2003 I was presented with the Tucholsky Award from the Swedish PEN committee (a world-wide organisation of writers working towards freedom of speech: Ed.). Previous recipients include Salman Rushdie. The Prize of €15,000 has enabled me to continue writing and translating the work of Danish poets into Chinese.

During my years in Denmark I have translated poetry and modern drama works by a number of Danish writers: Gritt Uldall-Jessen, Line Knutzon, Bo hr. Hansen, Pia Juhl and the late Morti Vizki. The latter is, in my opinion, one of the greatest Danish poets of all time. I’m also a great admirer of Peter Laugesen’s rhythmical readings in which he performs with various musicians. Rhythm is an integral part of poetry. Unfortunately, you can’t translate a rhythm into Chinese without destroying it. I have tried, but the essence is lost.

The importance of love
Denmark gave me a home at a very difficult time in my life, and for that I am deeply grateful. Today I’m a Danish citizen and no longer just a guest in the country. With my red Danish passport in my pocket I have been able to visit my family in China several times. The first time, I was constantly hounded by the police who questioned me incessantly. A lot has changed in China. Instead of imprisoning those who criticise the system they now just harass them out of the sight of the public eye. By doing so, they appear more tolerant to the outside world.

I haven’t burned all of my bridges and I still continue to work with some of my artist friends in China, including the musician and dramatist Zhang Guangtian, who was interned in a labour camp for three years. We are working together to produce a play written by a Danish dramatist in China. Also, I took part in a poetry festival with new Chinese poets in Denmark. Whether or not I would like to live in China again is another matter. I don’t think I could keep my opinions to myself. However, my Danish girlfriend thinks moving to China would be great. She is an artist, too.

My girlfriend has given a new dimension to my life. When you fall in love it’s like being transported back to your youth. Before I met her I spent my time reminiscing about my past and I viewed Denmark as little more than a temporary stopping-off point. But having fallen in love I can say goodbye to my memories and concentrate on living in the present. Love is very important to me. It makes me a player in the game of life – not just a spectator. And next month my first collection of poems written entirely in Danish, Living in a Tale,  will be published.

 

Tranlator: Andrew Bell

 
Background:
 
Born in Shanghai in 1965
 
Fled to Thailand in 1989
 
Imprisoned in Laos
 
Came to Denmark as a political refugee in 1992
 
Graduated with a Masters in philosophy from the University of Odense in 2002
 
Awarded the Swedish Tucholsky prize, from the Swedish PEN committee,  for his poetry in 2003  
 
Published his autobiographical novel Time for Celebration in Danish in 1999
 
New Men in Denmark - read more stories here



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