The Literary Shanghai Journal


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  Literary Shanghai is a community of readers, writers, and translators, Chinese and English, with a local and regional focus. Our goal is to bring our literary community together through events, workshops, and our literary journal. Read more.  

July Events

Sunday July 16, 10am

Outing: Shanghai Confucius Temple Book Market Visit


Nina Powles – two poems

Nina Powles is a writer and poet from New Zealand, currently living in Shanghai. She is the author of the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014) and several poetry zines. She blogs at Dumpling Queen and is the creator of Tiny Moons


The city of forbidden shrines


I was almost born in the lunar month of padded clothing

in the solar term of almost summer

in the season of ringing cicadas

in the city of forbidden shrines


almost spent a girlhood watching sandstorms

tearing through the almost golden sunlight

I almost scraped dust off my knees each day for fifteen years

almost painted paper tigers each year to burn


I could almost hold all the meanings of 家 in my mouth

without swallowing: [home, family, domestic

a measure word for every almost-place I’ve ever been]

like the swimming pool turning almost blue

or the mausoleum of almost ten thousand oranges


in the land of almost I would never breathe an ocean

never hold mountains in my arms

except in almost-dreams

in which long white clouds drift

almost close enough to touch



Forest City


They say they will build a forest city so that one day our lungs will know what it means to breathe. We won’t notice at first, just a windfall of flower stamens floating down around us one Wednesday afternoon. Then moss spreading through cracks in the pavement and vines curling around streetlights. Blossom trees leaning over balconies, reaching across inner-city highways. Yellow chrysanthemums floating inside water coolers, trees dropping ripe plums all over pedestrian crossings, painting them red. Ivy crawling down through the grates into the subway where I will climb over foxgloves and flowering aloes to get onto the train. We will carry umbrellas to protect ourselves from falling apricots. The street corner where we first met will become a sea of violets. The alleyway where we kissed will be submerged in a field of sunflowers all turning their heads towards us. The planes we saw flying overhead when we opened our eyes while kissing will be obscured by a canopy of giant ferns, the sound of their engines drowned out by leaves whispering. We will be unable to find the steps to your apartment among the plane trees. We will touch each other’s faces and realise our irises have changed colour due to the reflections of hydrangeas. We will retrace our steps to find our way home and when we cannot walk anymore we will lay our bodies down on the forest floor, skin against moss, lips touching the blooms, eyes open in the dark, imagining stars.

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Poetry, Translation

Xu Zhimo – ‘Listening to a Wagner Opera’ (translated by Shelly Bryant)

The translation of this poem was originally commissioned by Lynn Pan for use in her research for her most recent book When True Love Came to China. She has generously allowed us to reprint the work at AlluviumWhen True Love Came to China can be found at Amazon.

Listening to a Wagner Opera

by Xu Zhimo
powers divine or demonic
bring forth thunderous
sounds, a raw howl
like waves on the wild deep;
hellish fires’ rumbles
thrill, like a leonine roar
commanding the seas to split
the skies rent ‘twixt stars and sun;
a sudden silence; only soft
sounds of pine forest
its gentle birdcall before
the cabin’s fluttering curtains;
silence, a portent overshadowing
a barren snowy landscape
o’erflown by a solitary bird
singing its sorrowful song;
in sorrowful song, the reed
flute’s secret seduction
like hoofbeats on a frozen
arid land, armor’s beating rhythm;
beating rhythm, a flood of sound
booming, crashing, banging
to signal a new epoch, the tune
of hoofs pounding and blood flowing;
it is Prometheus, the theft
and the rebellion, chained
to his mountain peak, each meal
dug out from his breast;
it is romance, sorrowful and tragic
it is love, devoted and loyal
all-consuming, universal and miraculous
all-surpassing love;
the artist’s inspiration
the genius of heaven
beyond all powers of explanation
lasting beyond human bonds;
a brewing gloom’s complaint
a raging holy love
a tragic compassion’s spirit
– the genius of the arts.
brilliant, furious, fervent, tragic
out of the forge of love
the artistic impulse draws
the peerless opera of Wagner
• Published in March 10, 1923 “Current News · Learning Light” Volume 5.3.8
† translated by Shelly Bryant, October 2013


– 徐志摩



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Shelly Bryant – six poems
April 29, 2017

Josh Stenberg – ‘Reentry’

Josh Stenberg writes and translates fiction and poetry. Stints in Nanjing, Hong Kong and Taipei have led him to a job teaching Chinese literature, theatre, and language at The University of Sydney. 





Let me introduce you to Caroline Miao just as she is becoming Miao Tingting once again, the customs uniform wordlessly waving for her to go through, to pass on, to proceed already. She picks up her luggage at the carousel, missing it on the first go-round because she is distracted by an urgent dingle from her phone, now she zips the big suitcase open to check that none of the LV packages are missing, she has seen online that sometimes they are purloined, and now she struggles out to wait for the bus that will take her from Pudong back to her home across the Yangtze, in Yangang. She will need to take two buses, actually, but for the moment she can only wait for the first of these. Thanks for your understanding.

Oh, we are already three days later, at one of the inescapable banquets. Which one, neither she nor I can properly remember—they run together, like similes in the rain. Her father is showing her off to other men of his approximate age and status; the fathers of the eligible; the peers. They are complementing her prettiness, they do not know or care that their compliments are, objectively, appalling; thankfully it does not occur to her that if she were a little poorer and a little prettier they would want her as a mistress. She sees through, but not too far.

On her earlobes, where else, she is wearing her French earrings, her hair is bobbed and highlighted, everyone is sipping a red wine she has lugged back with her, which privately everyone thinks is too sour but which cannot be openly criticized. The airport duty-free woman at Charles De Gaulle suggested it; it is known to be very popular in China; it bears the name and sketch of an imaginary chateau. If deception is being practiced, it is remote, almost generous.

Since her father is executive assistant to the vice-mayor, the abalone is free; and how she loathes, how she execrates, abalone! She tries, unsuccessfully, to deflect it, to humble it off, when the server, mumbly in her submissiveness, flourishes it. To no avail. It gleams in front of Tingting returned, obscene blob, tasteless, self-indulgent; she politely amputates a corner; it jiggles. In her mouth it is warm and tasteless like homecoming.

The restaurant manager enters and theatrically says “Bonjou” and she rises and says “Bonjou” and everybody raucously echoes Bonjou and what fun, what fun. And also, before I forget: what fun.

In her room, which thankfully her mother has not touched, except to clean, weekly and once especially thoroughly before her daughter’s return, Tingting texts her friends. She wants to be texting with France, or at least to be known in Yangang to be texting with France, but the people she knows there do not use WeChat and Facebook is of course blocked. With her gift of moderate foresight, she forced some of them download WeChat before she left but time has shown that none of them will ever check it, despite promises, despite friendship signals and parleys; Pauline had tried to explain her that WeChat was a mechanism of authoritarian control and therefore to be principled against in the desultory, relativistic European way. French people talked a great deal of nonsense about China—suspicious of WeChat but supportive of the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile, stretched out on her bed like a depilated cat, Tingting can feel her store of French words eroding, depleting, like a talent or an illness slowing being shed. Leaving a foreign country is like dementia, you know that you are forgetting, you are permitted to be conscious of the fact that you are losing it, there is a grace available somewhere. Forgiveness is a rearrangement of foreignness. Tingting memorises words like “memory” so that the next time she meets a French person she can talk about her affliction and by so talking to deny it. To have something, almost someone, to blame. Oh, beloved.

I should mention: everybody is at home from Shanghai or Beijing or Hong Kong and comparing, exchanging boredoms for the holidays. They do not go out and meet each other, everything is closed anyway, the staff is in its villages, but society is not totally eradicated, they send each other cartoon images indicating New Year’s celebrations. So raucous. In the real world, of course, firecrackers have been banned in the city centre for eleven years; it is a prosperous and a civilized city. Tingting’s district was named Jiangsu Province Class Two Civilised City only months ago. Older people speak of celebration as if it were a bygone era.

Around the bend, it will be the year of the Rooster: most often in her wish-messages Tingting deploys the picture of two red roosters, joined at the tail in an imitation of a paper-cutting, with lanterns dangling from their beaks with “Auspicious” printed upon them and the characters flowing together. Furthermore circulating are many videos of fat babies and stacks of gold ingots and memes that purport to show Justin Bieber wishing a happy year of the rooster, and these zip around between the youngish people with their phones on beds and their doors shut and the heating on. The laziest kids, the worst ones, or maybe the ones with secret lives in the real world, just answer every message with to you too.

She googles (well, since she cannot get on Google, she Baidus, but you knew what I meant) several horoscopes. She is going to have an outstanding a mediocre a lucky and/or a cautious year. She applies all these prognostications to Peng, because Peng is somehow still the point to which everything tends, the pivot around which meaning arranged, or else he is emphatically not the point; which amounts to the same thing, men being a question of emphasis, of stress on a syllable (in French) or of tonality (in Chinese). Peng is not back yet, he is working in Shanghai, and won’t come home until the day before New Year’s, he is said to claim it is on account of work, but she believes him to be designing to keep her waiting. She does not text him yet. She is very forbearing, self-abnegating. She wants him to believe that he does not occur to her. Both occur to one another constantly, and the courtship of silences and punishments is raising their respective temperature, like any bug, like any chronic, low-grade inflammation. Is love a parasite you host?

Every day she wonders whether, when he arrives, she will deign to see him or not, and decides the issue firmly one way; and then firmly the other way hours later. These twice-daily final resolutions give her a sense of accomplishment, of progress, of newness and rebirth that charms with the endless and endlessly delayed promise of the festival. And there is a joy, like opening a present, to start reconsidering the issue, the interminable nostalgia of Peng, the next morning, or after the lunchtime nap.

Once, thankfully, almost by sleight of hand, she escapes to the lake park with her friend Yuli. Tingting’s mother is subsumed with an aunt in the kitchen-cooking crackle and her father is at a banquet (her father has always been at a banquet; it is his habitat); she is not missed. Yuli rewards her with news.

Yuli has been recently engaged to be married to the manager of a factory that manufactures the machines that make sewage pipes. “No one makes them anywhere else, anymore” exclaims Yuli, proud-embarrassed-humble, “It’s practically a monopoly.” They are young and it seems like the market situation of sewage pipe manufacturing machines will continue unchanged forever. Tingting wishes Yuli luck and happiness. She will try to be there for the wedding. She does not inquire but Yuli volunteers that the factory town where she will live, where they make the machines, does not especially smell. Why would it?

Yuli’s forever future established, admired, and discarded, they round the manmade lake and sit on a bench of the concrete pavilion with the crude plastic dragons on the eaves, and Yuli extrudes the crumbly little haw roundlets that Tingting does not know she has been missing. As they fall to pieces in her mouth, Tingting realizes that she had thought them gone forever, one more feature snuffed out by progress, by development, by the march towards special characteristics, one does not quite know of what. She feels guilty for almost having missed them.

Meanwhile, Yuli shows Tingting some tricks about how not to breathe too deeply when outside. The air pollution is better than in the north, but still one has to be artful, one must take care if one has just arrived from abroad; she has read so online. A school of carp has been collecting nearby them, and against coins they grind feed from a machine and watch the carps nip one another for the treats. They stretch and move on; the girls try to keep talking, but any depth of conversation is rendered impossible by the spectacle of the cloud of hungry carp now following the girls along the riverbank. Tingting asks whether the carp would eat Yuli if she fell in and Yuli says it is more dangerous for Tingting because she is sweeter. Tingting answers that they will both taste of haw.

They do not talk about boys because it is only three days to New Year and everybody has come to air their children in stuffed jackets and so they could be too easily overheard. Yangang has a population of 1.1 million, but somehow everybody is a cousin, a classmate, or a hybrid of the two. The park children clamour for candied fruits; a migrant sells rooster with glowing green eyes that will, if you do not suppress it, crow for a full minute.

Already!— the round of New Year’s visits. The women cook all day and the men smoke and eat sunflower seeds and young people sit in the other room and play on their phones or watch replays of the patriotic highlights and homages to mothers and soldiers from the New Year’s Gala. Then they eat, always too much, religiously too much. The parents sit on the furniture, in the half-dark, and discuss the marriageability, job prospects, and weights of one another’s progeny. Tingting has been to France and come back, they think, with some kind of degree, or certificate; they grant her leeway. At least France is not a country that makes fat. But in a month of her two her immunity will wear off. One or two of the aunts is preparing a comment, perhaps for next year, about how the make-up can no longer quite mask the crow’s-eye, the droop. Twenty-six in autumn.

New Year’s brings the man. The first time she meets Peng again, they arrange to go to the bakery that Koreans have opened, with the stickers of the Eiffel tower on the coffee-bean wallpaper. He knows the chain from Shanghai; he has familiar objects to order. Tingting doesn’t bother saying that it is not like in France; it is understood. But it is the most Parisian thing Yangang has to offer, and Peng was polite to pay this homage.

Their conversation is awkward, tetchy. They ask about each other’s parents, but everybody is fine, there is so little say. Peng’s cousin is to be married. Yuli is to be married. Quiet girls in their class that they didn’t know or like are to be married.

But then, in a pinch, it turns out that Tingting’s aunt is sick; it is a serious disease, not as serious as cancer, but she has forgotten the name. Oh yes it is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Tingting has not forgotten after all. The aunt lives on the fifth floor, and wheezes on the stairs. Peng is surprised to learn from Tingting that French apartments on the fifth-floor might also have no elevator, or only a very small one. Tingting remarks, a little professionally, that is not clear whether the aunt will have to be moved. The air in the countryside is also no longer, etc.

Peng attempts a joke about everyone having to move, by which he means to hint at mortality, which ought to come back to age and therefore love, but Tingting understands him to mean that all the buildings are always being torn down and that he is alluding to his relative security in his Shanghai apartment, which is only seven years old. A three-legged dog passes the window and they agree that it is to be pitied.

They understand each other poorly, which is as it should be, but eventually, awkwardly, the opening generated by allusion, confusion, interpretation permits Tingting to ask him about girls, how his life with girls is progressing, but Peng murmuringly disavows girls, it is not clear whether as a subject or as the object. She presses; he begins to mumble about Shanghai girls, he stutters to a stop. This was perhaps the declaration; she cannot tell. Tingting says, in the name of freedom but accusingly, that she had told him not to think of her; not to miss her—she, in Paris, had not waited for him, or thought of him too much. She thought she had made this very clear. No missing was to be permitted; certainly none to be logged as virtue.

He agrees, meekly, meekly, that she made this very clear, but a man cannot help himself, which objectively speaking sounds like compulsive self-satisfaction but is interpreted by both, for reasons of decency, as romance.

For what it matters, she is not bluffing. Tingting, or at least Caroline, has a creditable experience of French men. Several kinds. Some of them had intruded, become memorable or at least nude. They were always telling her how something she was for a Chinese girl—elegant, tall, good at rolling the French r; they conceived of compliments as distinction among a gallery of Chinese girls, most of them fantastical, with whom she understood herself to be competing.

One such Frenchman, Christian, had of course claimed to be a Buddhist, she thought it was meant to explain his failure to text or show up on time, rudeness gussied up as transience. The world was changeable, Christian told her, especially the self. He expected her to understand and perhaps his reason for vanishing was that it was necessary for the illusion of Christian to dissolve once he was truly understood. In any event, there is something to be said for the dispersal of some men.

She tries now to explain to Peng how French people, for (at present she had digested them and they can be processed and generalized en masse) always seemed to have a chessboard in front of them, to have many chessboards in front of them, always making moves in a game which wavered between downright seduction, mere possibility and the faintest tinges of suggestion. Not everybody cared whether they won; often there were no stakes. But everybody played, constantly, as though this were the business of life, and this made them joyful, confused, incessantly talkative—it furnished their movies and their television and their songs and their imaginations. It was hopelessly complex and also perversely single-minded, but it lent a tension, not always unpleasant, to the act of buying a croque-monsieur from a baker, or sharing a seat on a bus—even with an older gentleman, or a teenage girl. Of course, Tingting opines, eroticism is being slowly criminalized and it promises to be a bad century for the French. But for now it is still in the air. Peng nods, trying to look grave.

And she has learnt things from them. Tristan, for instance, taught her to mix café nihilism with pleasure; how to skip classes with insouciance, even panache; how to make use of one another within the bounds of morality. If she had understood Tristan correctly, the self was incapable of truly apprehending the other—and for this reason one could only appear to solicit consent and mutuality from the other being, the beloved (there was something in here about virgins and prostitutes)—but it could not actually understand an alien humanity. Therefore humans had no choice but treat each other as tools to whom they attributed, intellectually, realization—but without access to the realization, without feedback from the other. When comprehensible she found his ideas idiotic, but she enjoyed the consequences, and the sense of perceiving the foolishness at the heart of all his lofty abstraction, and even the delicious pain she could inflict on him with the merest breath of mockery, perceived momentarily before his natural arrogance once again took him in hand.

On the earthly plane, she understood that with Tristan, too, there would be body and metaphor but very little, for instance, marriage. And all around her were Chinese women and their French boyfriends who refused to help them get status. It seemed that a fear of religion had destroyed the men’s sense of responsibility. Whereas Chineseness seemed to soldier blindly through, across belief. She was young enough to like it, to like them, to accept pleasure and friendship inconsequentially. She had known she was a bad girl, and a modern woman, and French men were apparently placed within reach for no better reason than to prove it.

Peng is listening politely. Purity is a laughable, faraway, television thing; and he quite agrees that European men, as Tingting is saying, do not partake of reality. He feigns concern at her exploits; that is the least he could do for her. They part with him telling her that he will have to think over all she has told him. He does concern, doubt, and disillusion rather well.

In good time the school will send her parents a letter of expulsion in French; she will have told them it was a commendation. Of course, by then, she will need no certificates.

It is the second time they meet, Peng and she, to which we now turn our attention. A week later, perhaps; actually six days, as either one could have told you instantly. It is a sushi restaurant, and none of their parents’ generation is likely to have their moles in here, so she allows herself a Kirin and imposes a Kirin on him too; and, do you know what?, she is imagining the ridge of his muscle, she has forgotten its name, the one that holds the thigh together. She applies a little bit of pressure under the table to his front toe, because otherwise he will continue to act too maidenly.

The toe pressure does its work, because she is able to take him, though he smells of that orange Japanese fish egg stuff, back to the traveller’s hotel, the one run by the train station. The same room—the same bank card that her father never queries and which fills up with money from some subterranean source—even the same discreet out-of-towner at the desk, aged more since last time than was reasonable. Poor people from the provinces are safe, they can be told anything, they are so hopelessly unconnected, and therefore have no access to the determinations of truth, even when they have the facts.

He wants the lights off but she has dispensed with this decorum, she tells him that this is a custom she has unlearnt in France. He makes no objection; he says very little anymore. He is not averse to experiments in style. If she insists on it, Tingting will be captured by means of what she calls her liberation.

Too late, in too deep, she grows concerned by the smile on his face, the beatitude, the triumph which is male bliss even when the woman has done all the work. Of course, she cannot be sure, because she is right up against him and half turned away from him, too close to see him and not at the kind of angle that allows expressions to be properly interpreted. But he is feverish with sleep and she can feel the smugness radiating off his bare skin.

Ah, but he takes her to the breakfast place they used to go to, he shows sign of a will reviving, and it is the congee with the pickled vegetables and the divine fried dough. The fried dough, he tells her, as he has told her on three previous occasions (one of them at this very table) is a reminder of the traitor to the Chinese people and his wife, who are bound together in this spiral and fried forever for opening the capital to the Mongol hordes.

Tingting says it looks like a spiral of DNA. She wants to be pleasant, but doesn’t know how to handle the fact that he is still too greatly pleased, too obviously satisfied. Defensively, she talks about going to France again, perhaps she will do another degree.

Although the congee looks very good, he looks suitably downcast at this. She remarks that perhaps China could use another Mongol horde. He laughs and tells her a story about a camel tour his colleagues made in Inner Mongolia and he shows her a picture they have sent him on WeChat with a yurt replica. With this distraction, with this dismissal of any last-ditch escape she might design, Peng has squelched Tristan and Christian—snuffed them out— has suffocated France.

She is driven to take him to the hotel a few more times; she is sure that it is not a revenge. Perhaps she can in some way break him? Or if it is a vengeance, it is not against him. In fact, she is very sure that it is carefree, and shows a healthy interest in life, and demonstrates that she is in control of her body and her destiny.

But she can glimpse it now, sometimes, before she wriggles out of his arms: every repetition of the act grants Peng another layer of security, she senses that he believes that things will turn out alright now, in the social sense, that she has come around, come back. It is that post-coital male satisfaction, that fantasy of taming, that illusion of ownership that the best of them cannot disguise. Surely this is how all the stories of werewolves come from—the revelations on the face, through the body, during the act, in the wake of it. And the guilty men, feeling their power, translate their own possession into fairy tales about snake-women and fox-girls.

And so on the seventh morning, when he comes up behind her to join her in admiring herself in the mirror, she says, you know that this is just for fun, right?

            He smiles, bashful in his boxers, and assents to the fact of the fun.

She goes on: We’re both adults, right? It doesn’t mean anything. I mean it’s nice, but it’s not…enduring.

He asks whether she wants him to hold back for longer before—

No, what I mean is: all this, it doesn’t mean we’re back together. We both have our freedoms, right? I mean, I’m glad that China has progressed, in our generation. But we aren’t built for marriage. That goes without saying.   

            He gives the grunt which is reaction, acknowledgment, agreement, and dissent. He sits on the edge of the bed; then reaches for his phone. He begins to play Lost Planet: Devolution a game which has only recently come out for Androids, and which he downloaded yesterday when he went to the bathroom at 2 am. This sulky intentness is the expression she hates most about him, and it makes it easier for her to concentrate on delivering the message.

If I had known you were so immature, she murmurs. I would have.

            But he laughs, not exactly at her. Nevertheless, she has figured it out.

It is in the order of things for Yuli to be the first to congratulate her; they arrange to have their weddings two weeks apart; close enough together that they can share and maybe disperse some of the planning stress.

Her father is not especially pleased with Peng—rumours have reached him— but the boy’s family will pay for the wedding and of course there is the Shanghai apartment; and so Peng is technically unexceptionable.

The invitation sits in Tristan’s WeChat forever, unread, because he drops his cell phone in the Rhone accidentally, when he and a girl and another couple take the Marne canal down to near Strasbourg. He is going through a technocratic phase, and never, until his death at 57 in a mountain-climbing accident, will he download WeChat again. Pauline sends her congratulations, three weeks after the message is sent, but does not mention coming. And Christian has reached anatta; understandably, since he no longer has any Self, he cannot be expected to reply to wedding invites.

And, unless I am mistaken, or lying, a mere seventy years later an engineering student in Padua is saying to her girlfriend—yeah, she even had a French guy, then, before the war, before she married my grandpa—with the lung disease, you remember? But she was herself always so healthy. She used to try to pull up the pictures on this old gadget she had, and I could never explain to her that they were all inconvertible now—you should have seen the phones then, they were as big as your hand. I never understood her much; she’d forgotten all her French, and my Chinese is hopeless. I would have liked to say goodbye, but she died right in the middle of exams, and you can’t even get a visa that quick. 

Furthermore, it is my understanding that there are various man-made satellites which orbit the earth and then burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry, on account of friction or speed or various astrophysical variables which you can look up if you so choose or which perhaps you know already. Sometimes they fail to burn up entirely and hit the earth. But since Earth is mostly water, desert, taiga and ice, very rarely is anyone harmed, and even if they were they would have to be very isolated, disconnected people to be hit individually, so if anyone actually were hurt or killed by a reentry likely we would never hear about it.

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Karolina Pawlik – from the ‘Migraintion’ series

Karolina Pawlik is a Shanghai-based researcher, lecturer and writer of mixed Polish and Russian origins. Trained in anthropology, she is mostly interested in visual culture, especially typography evolving in Shanghai since the Republican era. Some of her poems in Polish have been published in Poland. “Migraintion” is the first poetry series she has written in English. 



my roots grow secretly
into a path
for lonely wanderers



the boundary evolved
and hope
is the only way in


an exercise in trust and patience
in the entry-exit office


word embolism
I learn to live
on moonless nights


haiku half-dreamed
Wet Monday morning
downpour on my old roof


less light
is more renewal
moon lesson at the crossroads


the only clarity
is of this night
received with gratitude

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Ryan Foo – two poems

Ryan Foo is an undergraduate reading the liberal arts at Yale-NUS College. 


I stopped.




I stopped going to church at 17.

All my life, the link seemed tenuous, Jesus

didn’t hold on too tight and I hardly snapped along

to gospel anyway. They were strumming

different chords to mine, really.

Earlier, the holy ghost

of a girl had led her hips and lips to mine,

spectral communion on Sunday afternoons.

My catechism ended when I was caught and

stoned. He didn’t send any thunderbolts.




I stopped going to temples and qingming at 18.

I decided that spirituality was too much work;

my grandfather, ever the investor, would probably

have set up a hedge fund by now. The Mercedes

we bought him would be swathed sacrifice along

with hell notes from six dynasties,

and his gravestone will still be

swept of cobwebs every year whilst his body lies beyond

recognition. Joss sticks become substitutes for cremations,

and the farce of bowing three times stands stark;

a naked emperor — my cousin grudgingly elbows me:

‘nobody ever finds love at a funeral.’

How about we care a little more for the living instead?




I stopped respecting my family at 21.

Insolent fool, what do you know of struggle? You

spilled from my seed, and I raised you

from naught till now —

But Zeus rose up and imprisoned Kronus,

and Oedipus himself was a liminal figure

between sphinx and new gods, Laius.




punchup in a garden


what does it mean to have authority?

to bend and snap at the bough

from family trees to attention.


now titrate me someone who can lead

a household, muster and marshal.

i no longer need verbose phraseology,


nor half moves, nor pacifier

once again, shoved in uniforms

enthralled to sugared canes and dining chairs.


love, your bark is worse than your bite,

and the cold fertilises better than emotions. now

germinate anything but the withered shell that


threatens self-immolation before me today.

seeds for growth she sows, she says, but all she does is decay.


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Tyree Campbell – ‘That I Might Sleep…’

Tyree Campbell is a military retiree with eight novels, four novellas, and over a hundred short stories on his resumé.  In addition, he writes three different superheroine series—Bombay Sapphire, Peridot, and Voyeuse.  The fourth novel in his female assassin series, Nyx: Pangaea, was published earlier this spring.  He also runs Alban Lake Publishing. At present he is working on several different writing projects, including an urban fantasy. His collection Quantum Women, available in print and as an eBook, contains more stories of strong and independent female protagonists. 

That I might sleep…

The boulder of white feldspar in the center of the Shavrrna village square was empty of meaning.  Neither pictographs nor ideographs did it bear, nor any marks or inscriptions that might serve to convey information.  Not ten seasons of rain ago had I visited Shavrrna to leave my own marks.  These, too, were gone.

Obliterated?  If so, why?  To what possible end?

Or had some dark magic swept them away.  But again, why?

The sense of foreboding was a lizard scurrying up my spine, its tiny claws raking my scales.  I shrugged it off.  Things happen for a reason.  Even dark magic does not act of its own accord, but is directed, purposeful.  The erasure of the feldspar had not been a random, senseless event.  Someone had willed it so.

Passing adult Shavarrsh scarcely acknowledged me with a glance, but the young gazed fixedly, their inquisitive vermilion eyes remaining on me until their parents tugged at their tails, urging them away.  The season of sun had fallen upon Shavrrna in full force, tanning their wintry olive drab hides to a vivid verdant green, and all around me hung the ripe, intoxicating aroma of old cabbage.  The harvest of the season’s first crops had begun, the vegetables and fruits and berries not eaten prepared for storage during the season of the chills, and after long days in the fields and over the hearths, surely the Shavarrsh still had need of quiet moments around the storystone.

I sat on the grass at the base of the feldspar, in the shade of the massive kerka, waiting, but no one stopped to hear my tales or to watch while I recorded them.  A light breeze bade the fresh green leaves above speak to me, their rustling reminding me of a tale I had once told, long long ago.  From a pouch at my side I withdrew a plume and a welljar of tinte and prepared to inscribe the parable of The Tulip and the Chainsaw onto the white face of rock worn smooth by the abrasive they had used to eradicate the earlier inscriptions.  I remained alone in my task, so I thought, but when I neared the end of the parable, and began to inscribe the explicit lesson–that regardless of the damage inflicted on a flower by those of a mindless, destructive bent, a flower will bloom again the following year–I was startled to hear the tiny, plaintive voice behind me.

“Why are you smearing paint onto that stone?”

I turned around, almost spilling the tinte.  The question had been asked of me by a young female Shavarrsh, surely no more than seven or eight seasons of rain on this land.  Could she not interpret the ideograms I had so carefully scriven onto the stone?  Had the adults not taught her?

I started to respond, but her female parent appeared, tugging at her to draw her from my work.  Voices faded as they departed in the direction of the dwellings.

“But mahr, I just want to know why she—“

“I’ve told you time and time again to stay away from…”

It occurred to me, hearing these fragments, that there is nothing so desolate as a storyteller without an audience, nor so plaintive as a tale which reaches no other ears.  I felt as if I had carried this boulder on my shoulders, from village to village, for a century of seasons.  For reasons not evident, the adults in Shavrrna had stopped listening, and had neglected to teach their young that there was something to be listened to.

What could have happened here?

My stomach began to rumble.

During visits past, the Shavarrsh had brought in the middle of the day and just before dark tureens and ewers and amphora containing nourishment of which I and those gathered around me might partake.  Aromas tantalized me, but nothing was brought.  If I desired sustenance, I would have to rummage through the kibikopila at my side.  I touched the drawstring looped over my shoulder, and thought better.  Food might wait, and it is ever useful to assert control over one’s internal functions.

So I sat once more, and waited once more.  The leaves above continued to sing.  In a sea of movement, of living, I was alone.  I recalled some lines lilted to me by my own mahr, further back in years than I cared to remember:

Be not alarmed when troubles come

And you find that I am alone

Please only rock me quietly

That I might sleep until this passes

With another color of tinte I began to inscribe this fragment onto the feldspar.  From behind, someone approached.  I could hear the blades of grass double and snap under their weight, and feel the vibrations of their footfalls.  Finished, I put away the tools of my life, and turned around, my heart beginning to skip like a child on the first day of the season of sun.

Seeing the two adult males, my heart thudded into the pit of my first stomach.  Already I knew that nothing good could come of this.

The closest one said, “You are being detained.  Come with us.  Do not resist.”

Armed with only a kibikopila of dried fruit and vegetable matter and some scrivener’s tools, I had scant means of resistance.  At least, I thought, as they led me away, I might in time learn the facts as they pertained to the erasure of the storystone.

* * *

But they told me nothing helpful.  Thrust into a dank cavern in the north face of a limestone cliff, and secured within by a portcullis whose counterweight was a boulder of approximately my size, I was reduced to simple meditations upon the tales I told and to waiting for someone to explain the need for my incarceration.  The orientation of the entrance denied me direct sunlight in which I might warm myself for the coming cool night, but I found that, late in the day, I might capture the energy I needed in a sliver of light from the west.

Unfortunately, that spot had already been taken.

Her name, she said, was Mashrrv, and she had been in this cell since the onset of the season of chills–a circumstance which moved me to allow her first turn in the warmth, what there was of it.  I did not think her so old, but after a speculative tilting of her head, an appraisal of eyes pale yellow in this dim light, she concluded that she remembered me.

“I was but a nestling at the time, Storyteller,” she told me, “only recently come from the egg, clumsy and without guile.  My mahr brought me to the storystone the night before your arrival, to await your coming.  There were fresh berries from the mountain shrubs, and tubers from the soil moistened by the last of the seasonal rains, and much gaiety.  We had gathered in circles, the shorter of stature in front the better so as to see and hear you…and oh, as the disk of light arose from the horizon you came, on foot, as if you had just emerged from that disk.  Did you intend that effect, I wonder?  I’ve always wondered that.”

“It is customary for the storyteller to approach from the east at the birth of the day,” I said.  “I do not know the origin or purpose of the custom.”

“You are the only storyteller I have ever seen,” said Mashrrv.  “No others have come after you.”

I could scarcely credit the sounds which reached my timpana.  “Oh, surely not!  What about Glembethth?  And Orrthag?  And I know Ffazgl spent a full season of sun in this region.”

Mashrrv’s tailtip fluttered in distress.  “None of them, Storyteller, oh, none know I.  Nor have I heard these names.  None has visited since you.”

“And why have they placed you in here, Mashrrv?”

Her green skin paled to chartreuse, and she averted her eyes.  Again her tailtip tattooed the dirt.  “I invoked the parable of The Tulip and the Chainsaw to demonstrate the futility of fighting,” she confided.

I wondered whether we were being overheard.  Though I saw not so much as a shadow outside, I began to suspect as much when Mashrrv led me to the cool rear of the cavern, and I kept my voice low.  “Which fighting is this you speak of?”

“Many villages have we fought, Storyteller, in these few seasons.  Urtha’s Ford at the great bend of the Savernon.  And as far away as Windscape, at the edge of the great Cornukibi plains.  Even tiny Uthrrvna at the first cataract up the Savernon—“

I was unable to contain my horror.  “In the name of the Light of the First Day, why?  Mashrrv withdrew a pace; I had frightened her.  I slipped my tail over and under hers, reassuring with coils.  “Forgive me, young one.  I meant no trembling.”

“No one asks why,” she replied.  “No one dares.  But I know why.”

“You must tell me.”

Mashrrv gave me a sidelong, upward glance.  Now her eyes were darker than the tartfruit which flourishes along the banks of the Savernon.  Her voice dropped.  “It is said that at Urtha’s Ford it is possible to impede the flow of water.  It is said that the Urthash could do this.”  And she cast her eyes about furtively, fearing ears in the limestone.

“It is said?”

“It is what is heard.”

Scant light of day remained.  In our sliver of warmth our shadows had lengthened to the east wall of the cavern, and now they were dying, as was the day.  I felt a chill, but there was nothing to be done about it.  Mashrrv trudged to the west wall and curled into a ball there, to preserve what warmth she might until indirect light of the next sun roused her.  I might have followed her example, for surely she knew the caveways.

But she knew the caveways.  She had accepted her incarceration.  This I could not do, for two reasons.  First, to accept my circumstance without question gave my imprisoners sanction, for I would then have been placed here by my own permission.  And second…

Second came my duty as a Storyteller.  I had now an audience–a captive one, true, but an audience nevertheless.

On most rock the dark colors of tinte show best.  With light, they would show on the limestone.  But light and warmth were denied me.  I selected a broad plume and a fresh welljar of tinte and a vial of pulverized vozvor, a difficult substance to work with because it will burn through scales on contact.  Carefully I tapped three measures of vozvor into the tinte, capped it tightly, and shook it quickly.  In the confined space, and without sufficient air, the burning soon ceased.  The welljar felt warm in my hand.

In the now-almost-dark I cautiously approached the back wall of the cavern, and began to inscribe my tale.  Alive with vozvor, the pictographs and ideographs glowed, and gave me just enough illumination to finish my task.

*     *     *

At the next light Mashrrv clapped her hands together and crowed, at first in pleasure, then in dismay.  “They will see it,” she cried, with furtive glances over her shoulder.  “You must remove it.  Quickly!”

I began putting away the tools of my craft.  “No such thing will I do.”

She continued to fret.  “For this defiance they will not feed us.”

“And should we dwindle our days here, eating?”  But my presumption was improper:  alone, I might protest in my manner, accepting consequences.  But Mashrrv had neither been informed of my choices, nor had she acquiesced in them.

“Forgive me,” I said, and prepared an erasive solution which reeked faintly in the cave.

Her hand on mine stayed me.  “Perhaps you are correct, Storyteller.  The village would speak with one voice, muting ours in here.  About that, we can do nothing.  But we need not be silent for our own sakes.  Leave the story, please.”

I led Mashrrv toward the opening of the cave, there to absorb as much warmth as possible.  When we were comfortable, I said, “Tell me of your sight of the parable.  How came you to be here for it?”

Mashrrv flicked her tongue, uncomfortable with our possible proximity to the ears of others.  I nuzzled her with my nose, a reminder that our voices would not be stilled.  “The interpretation upon which I drew is standard,” she said slowly, thinking her way through it.  “Destroying the flower over and over again will not diminish it, for it returns each season.  Accommodation, with the flower here and you there, allows both to thrive.”

“Such a lesson we impart to the young.”

“But it was said the parable warns that we cannot defeat our enemies,” she continued.  “In this, it opposed the wishes of our village.”

“Of the leaders of the village.”


“Leaders change.”

“But if the young do not learn of the storyways, how will the leaders themselves grow differently?”  Her tail thumped against the wall of the cave, and she made a gurgling sound of mirth.  “So I asked them if they were at war with flowers,” she said.  “And after some consternation, they confined me within.  Storyteller…I’m hungry.”

I shared my morsels with Mashrrv, while the light brightened, and faded, and died.  We drew what warmth we could, and curled up together, still hungry.  Our captors had seen the glowing inscription on the wall, perhaps, and had condemned us to silence, condemning our words as well.  I touched my hand to Mashrrv’s neck and felt the life coursing, but slower than it should have coursed.  The strength of her voice had concealed her true weakness.  Deprived of warmth, of light, and now of food, she was falling into that ultimate torpidity.  Long ago our ancestors had survived the seasons of chills through such torpor, but they had done so on bodies filled with nutrients in preparation for that deep slumber.  For us, our hunger remained, the ache of stone on raw bone.

She would not awaken, come the next light.

* * *

Two lights have passed and Mashrrv remains still, her life coursing so feebly that this time I scarcely could find it.  When I touched her neck, I thought to hear a sound from her, but perhaps it was the settling of the stone around us, no more.

And so I resumed my task.  Tinte remains, and ought be used.  I have inscribed on these walls the Tale of Mashrrv and the Storyteller, the lines of words coming to a close on the wall above where I sit holding Mashrrv, sharing with her what little warmth remains.  Presently my hand will move, and inscribe a final word, and will then fall to my side as I curl around her and sigh the very last of my words with the very last of my strength.  One day, perhaps, the Tale will be found, and perhaps read, so that the readers will know that we clung to our ways and our truth—and perhaps the power of our truth will give them strength in their own times of troubles…for leaders cannot lead when no one will follow.

“Oh, Mashrrv,” I will whisper, and, gently rocking her, lay my face across her body, and bring my last story to an end.

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Literary Nonfiction

Ryan Thorpe – ‘Money for the Dead’

Dr. Ryan Thorpe teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute. He is the fiction and poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and manages a public workshop for anyone interested in creative writing. He writes columns for The Global Times, has published in numerous literary journals, and is currently working on a creative writing textbook. More information on his work can be found at


 Money for the Dead

When I first heard of tomb sweeping day in China, I worried about my own ancestors. As a friend described the ritualistic way that Chinese people burned fake money and other paper goods to the dead, I imagined what this system might actually look like if it were true. If only China burned money from the dead, then my ancestors might be destitute. As a Christian family, we prayed instead of burning paper gold ingots, so this Tomb Sweeping Day, I decided to fix this mass inequity that might exist in the afterlife. At this moment, my grandparents might be working in some wealthy Chinese household in the afterlife, sweating the day away while their employers counted money burned by their relatives.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this move to monetize the afterlife, though. If anyone were going to create a financial system for the forever after, it would be China. After two years of living there, I have seen parents’ dedication towards earning money and creating a better future for their children. Today, though, I wanted to even the playing field and help my ancestors overcome their circumstances and give them some of the peace they deserved.

To accomplish this, I turned to my girlfriend, Melissa. As a native Chinese, she might be in a position to instruct me on the finer parts of sending money to the afterlife. She had once described the people in her village burning paper money to their ancestors along the river that ran through her small village in Hubei. She explained how their small mounds of a paper money, paper houses, and paper iPhones caught fire, and how the smoke rose farther and farther up in the sky until it collected in some kind of celestial inbox. She suggested the area around Dongbaoxing Road, not far from my apartment, because that area hosted a large crematorium, and of all the areas of Shanghai, that would be the most likely place to offer gifts to the dead.

As we walked, we tried to decide to whom we would burn gifts.

“My grandparents, of course,” I said. “Isn’t it bad luck to burn gifts to the living?”

She nodded seriously as if I had just stumbled onto some great truth, and I tried to not think about who I might want to curse by burning some money their way. If burning money to the dead might give them money, then maybe burning money to the living might take it away. I wasn’t sure how the check book of the universe worked, but the thought distracted me from the task of seriously sending gifts to my grandparents.

“You can send money to anyone dead,” she said. “What about someone famous? If they’re from America, then they could probably use the money.”

“Shakespeare?” I offered. “He might need a little something.”

“That’s one thick envelope,” she said.

As we boarded the subway towards the area near the crematorium, she tried to explain to me the way it all worked. First we would buy gifts and place them in a special envelope with the name of the recipient on the front with my name and the date in black marker. Then, we would draw a chalk circle on the ground, placing the gifts in the center, and then lighting them on fire. Everything had to burn completely. As the fire died down, I would light three sticks of incense, hold them in both of my hands, and bow towards the fire. After thinking good thoughts about the recipients of my gift, I would stick the incense in the ground near the burning site.

The entire ceremony sounded simple enough, but I felt unsure about enacting the process. With this ceremony, I walked on foreign territory. As I went through these motions, others would see me, judge me, question my sincerity as I tried to honor my ancestors with a foreign tongue. I also imagined Shakespeare’s face when he received all these gifts from some random American in China, two nations he barely knew. His lips fumbling over the slippery words.

“Do you think we should get Shakespeare something extra?” Melissa asked. “He’s one of your favorite authors. I feel like we should do something special.”

“Like what?”

“Let’s burn an iPhone to him. Shakespeare would be an Apple user if her were alive today.”

I tried to imagine that as well, but as I imagined Shakespeare compiling a music list, downloading his favorite apps, and navigating the Internet on his iPhone, he felt less like Shakespeare to me. The Shakespeare I knew stood locked away in a time vault with a quill in one ink-dyed hand. “Let’s see,” I said.

We exited the subway, and I followed my girlfriend around while she politely asked people where we could find a store that sold the gifts for the dead. No one was sure where we could find such a place. At the grocery store, the clerk hinted at a place closer to the subway station. Near the subway station, she asked a pedicab driver who told us that it was near and for 10 RMB, about a dollar and a half, he could take us there. My girlfriend thanked him, and we kept walking. At the front of a nice apartment complex, a security guard told her that it could be found down the road past the grocery store.

Melissa turned and announced our direction with a smile. “I knew I could find this place.”

I followed after her with the umbrella and her ten pound purse that contained a laptop, back up umbrella, and the other uncountable things hidden within the folds of a woman’s purse. As my arm ached, I thought about how Shakespeare might appreciate her MacBook and a few other items as an offering, but I stayed silent. Without her help, I would never come close to completing this ritual. Alone in Shanghai, my language abilities kept me restricted to certain activities, and burning money for dead ancestors required speaking only in Chinese. In this ritual, the dead were mono-lingual, and I required her translation services.

The rain fell slowly as if the sky felt unsure about what it wanted to do, but a light rain meant a safer ground. Melissa explained how we couldn’t carry around the gifts to the dead into other people’s shops because having these gifts near someone living caused bad luck. These were items that were purchased and then immediately burned to avoid contaminating the land of the living.

We found the store a half-kilometer beyond the grocery store in a small shop with metal racks and stacks and stacks of paper money, silver and gold paper ingots, and paper gold bars that could be burned as an offering. Melissa explained the situation to the old man who ran the shop and who nodded gravely at her description of our intentions. The old man felt concerned about the likelihood that my gifts would reach my ancestors, but he dug around until he found a large, yellow envelope with a large seal on the front in Chinese. He explained to Melissa its importance who then translated his message to me.

“He says that this is a special long distance envelope,” she said. “It’s like DHL for the afterlife.”

I nodded as if I understood the difference between one envelope and another, but I needed this man to understand that I was serious about giving money to my ancestors. He suggested sending only American money and hard currency like gold because he wasn’t sure if the spirit world would react well to Chinese money flying towards American and British recipients. After glancing over all the paper goods, we selected several stacks of hundred dollar bills and a box of gold ingots, which we felt would be valuable in any context. No matter what the exchange rate, gold carried some value. As I looked at the fake Chinese money that held denominations in the thousands and millions, I wondered if inflation were a serious concern in heaven, and maybe money lost all value due to its inflation over time. In this society, something random like tin or rosewood might carry the value of precious materials, but I decided to leave the economics of the afterlife to the Chinese experts. I would send whatever they recommended.

In this case, the shopkeeper recommended several bundles of tissue paper as an accelerant because unfortunately, American paper money failed to burn as well as some other currencies, and the man did not want us staring at a fire that failed to get going. Even the gods fell victim to the basic laws of thermodynamics. We selected a large bundle of tissue paper and piled our goods on the closest table.

After writing Shakespeare’s name on one envelope and my grandparents’ names on the other, Melissa consulted with the guy where to burn our pile of gifts. He gave us directions to a place by the river just a block away, and we thanked him several times. He thanked us with a thick smile for our purchase and handed us a stick of chalk and a small bundle of incense.

I wanted to photograph the old man, standing there in the frame of his little concrete store with the crowded shelves of cursed gifts for the dead, but it didn’t feel right. Like much related to death, I felt like he should only be observed rather than recorded, as if death suffered from a life-long affliction of camera shyness.

A short walk later, we found ourselves on a little pedestrian path next to a river. Behind some bushes, small groups of people stood beside their own burning offerings. Melissa and I skirted past the first group of people who maintained five offering piles burning and found ourselves an empty stretch of sidewalk. The air hung thick with smoke, and our eyes burned while we juggled the bags of offerings, the umbrella, the heavy purse. Melissa took everything from me and handed me one bag of offerings and the chalk.

“Make our circles like theirs,” she suggested with a glance at the ground next to us. I looked at their circle, which looked more like a long over with two lines jutting out from one of the long sides. In this way, the oval never closed but stood open, and I was sure that had some sort of significance, but I did not know what it was.

The chalk kept breaking against the wet pavement, until I held a fragment of chalk less than a half an inch long. I used different fragments of chalk to finish my two circles, but after some effort, they were complete. Melissa suggested breaking the ingot box apart to use the lid as and boxes as bases for my offering, and I immediately liked the idea. I started on Shakespeare’s offering pile. I first layered several handfuls of tissue paper while trying to light the hundred dollar bills on fire. The entire process proved far harder than I imagined. With the rain dripping on my fire, the smoke of the other wet fires filling up our eyes, and the hundred dollar bills refusing to burn, several minutes passed before the small fire started going.

Melissa passed me a short length of plywood that she had found near someone else’s abandoned offering pile, and I used it to try and open up my fire a little and get all the layers of money to light up properly. After the fire started to burn, Melissa handed me the plastic bag of paper gold ingots, and I sprinkled those on sparingly, making sure each of them caught fire and burst into a strange green flame for a moment before succumbing to the heat. As the pile burned lower, I broke open the incense and grabbed three sticks. I lit them in the flames like Melissa instructed me, and I slowly bowed three times, trying to think of all the moments Shakespeare touched my life from England to Duke to Texas to Shanghai. He served as a drawstring that cinched up much of my past, and as I bowed for the third time, I thanked him as much as one can thank the dead. I did not say any words. Instead, I tried to feel thankful and hoped that the smoke would carry my sentiments beyond the clouds.

I planted the incense in the flowerbed near the offering site and started in on my grandparents’ pile. Melissa called my name, and I looked up. She was taking my picture, and I smiled in reaction.

“Don’t smile,” she said. “This isn’t a smiling time.”

My smiled faded, and I went back to focusing on the funeral pile. I repeated the process of offering up the paper gifts, and I only relaxed when I lit the incense. I bowed the first time, thinking about how long it had been since I had seen my grandparents. They died when I was still young and a lap grandchild that was passed from person to person like a puppy. I bowed a second time, trying to remember what they looked like, their faces buried in memories more than half a life ago. The thick grey eye brows of my grandfather that always looked like he was about to ask a question. The kind smile of my grandmother who always smiled like she had just finished baking something. I bowed a final time and focused on thanking them for making the man I was today. Despite their distance, I always felt like they surely maintained some hand in my life from the afterlife. Looking down on me from their position and shaping my will towards a man I would be proud to be. I planed the incense in the flowerbed and then poked the fire with my stick to try to ensure that it was completely burned through.

I joined Melissa under the umbrella. She couldn’t see due to the smoke. The smouldering remains of my offerings inside the smudged chalk circles still released little bursts of smoke, but for the most part they stood silent. We left the unburned incense and our plywood stick and tossed our garbage as we headed back to the subway. We passed other families waiting on the steps up to the street for a spot to open up next to the river. The bags containing their gifts to the dead hung from their hands. As I passed, they politely nodded. I nodded back. I did not smile.


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Juli Min – ‘Pictograph’

Juli Min is the Editor in Chief of The Shanghai Literary Review. TSLR is a biannual print magazine of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and translation, and its editors split time between New York and Shanghai. TSLR accepts submissions year-round and hosts a monthly open mic night in Shanghai. For more information about events and submissions, please visit

Min also co-founded the Jululu Independent Book Festival and is a Lecturer of writing at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. Her work has been published in Hazlitt, Real Life, SCMP, & Storychord.




outside the window a man paints

grey stone tiles with water with

the end of a long brush

each square a house for a letter



on tiles further away

already drying, strokes, shrinking

turning into dots


the cafe is warm the sun

the yellowed gingko

leaves shaking below

JingAn temple, gilded

I, slow,

expanding around me,

bookshelves, books, magazines

becoming dots


he walks with a small limp

across the street

the thicket of gingko, French plane


leaves in the autumn

gilded like the eaves

of the temple after


a while

a light rain falls


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Literary Nonfiction

Lian Hai Guang – Essay On Translating ‘Constellations’ by Todd Boss

Lian Hai Guang is currently a postgraduate at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Master’s of Translation and Interpretation (MTI) Program, located in Singapore. He can be reached at His translation of Todd Boss’s ‘Constellations’ appeared at Alluvium on 22nd May 2017.


Todd Boss attends to how a poem happens. Hence, Motionpoems emphasise movement and kinaesthetic action. His work is also about facilitating meaningful encounters with art[1]. “Constellations” is no exception.

An emphatic voice gives chase to an elusive and energetic star, but only manages to catch a glimpse of it. An apostrophe, short but forceful.

The poem attempts to capture a sublime encounter with a single gesture, somewhere between the impermanence of a shooting star and the constancy of a constellation. An encounter so elusive and fleeting, we can only gesticulate about with language.

To translate this poem on its terms is to appreciate its inherently performative nature—a mimesis demonstrating the temporal nature of an aesthetic encounter. Something that can only be performed, but not fixed, with words. Something impossible without an intimate reading.

An adequate translator is foremost an adequate reader. Reading is more than just understanding the signification of words, but also how they dance and contribute to a dynamic whole. Imagery, form, rhythm and rhyme. These are some of the poetic elements that require breaking down and reconstruction in the target language. Reconstruction because there is no natural or necessary equivalence between languages and their respective cultures. Translation is reading is rewriting.

The original has a lot of style. We have on page, a river of words gushing with too much force. A voice breaks the surface, now and then, when it can; the tone imploring, and desperate. Words are ejaculated, spat in passion. These exclamations are followed by long dashes of silence—as the voice succumbs to the drag of undercurrent emotions precariously balanced between ecstasy and hysteria. The lines of the poem look like an afterimage, a blur of motion. Just like an encounter with the ephemeral.

The river of words flows east, and arrives at a place where they can drop vertically down. In Chinese, words can cascade and fall. Much like stars. They are also complete and whole on their own, not just an assembly of letters. They now hang better in the sky; this being one of the low-hanging fruits. I hang the words up like stars, and build a constellation. Joining them dot-to-dot, I trace their intractable paths in this alternate linguistic universe, probing for my reclusive rocket.

Reclusive rocket. How does one ignore the sweet sounds of alliteration? I took the bait. More than just a falling star, I add the sense of a lone ranger travelling through endless space. Alone. Aloof. I allow some words to break out from the safety of the constellation, with one that ends up alone. Empty. Drawing nothing.

I ask myself if this is too much, but decide no. After all, Boss writes for the displaced[2].



[1] Boss, T. (2016). Retrieved May 12, 2017, from
[2] Boss, T. (2009). Retrieved May 12, 2017, from


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Lian Hai Guang – Translation of ‘Constellations’ by Todd Boss
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