Wen Chu-an is definitely
one of those people who are "mad to talk, mad to live,"
as Jack Kerouac described them in On the Road.
In every other respect
the Chinese translator of Kerouac's most famous novel
is the picture of sanity and respectability: a university
professor in his hometown of Chengdu, Sichuan; a member
of the Association of Chinese Writers; a married man (his
wife is a nurse) with two children, one in college, the
other a successful salesman for a Japanese joint venture
But for the past five years
Wen has been on a mission: to introduce the writers of
the Beat Generation to China. His translation of On
the Road, which appeared in 1998, is still a best
seller. More than 10,000 copies have been sold, mostly
to college students. More recently, Wen has published
a bilingual edition of selected poems of Allen Ginsberg,
which includes several pieces Ginsberg wrote while visiting
China in the mid-1980s. This volume is also on its way
to becoming a best seller.
It is only a partial coincidence
that Wen's passion for the Beats paralleled the opening-up
policy initiated by Deng Xiao Ping in 1981. Lacking the
new dispensation, of course, not only would this work
have been banned, but Wen might have lost his job and
been exiled to the countryside. It is a good measure of
how far China has come in the last twenty years that the
writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are now widely
available in Chinese and disseminated by the state-owned
Xin Hua bookstore.
Under Mao Zedong the Beats
were considered "quadiao," or decadent, a corrupting influence
because of their drug use and homosexuality, and Wen still
occasionally finds himself forced to defend his translation
of authors with such lifestyles. But neither he nor the
Beats can be accused of introducing either drug use or
homosexuality into Chinese culture, which recorded both
phenomena thousands of years ago.
And Wen also has a substantial
reputation to back up his championing of the Beats. Among
his fifteen published volumes of translation is a Chinese
version of Jung: Man and Myth. Professor Wen spent
a year at Harvard as a research fellow, and in May 2002
he will take a five-week academic trip to Canada, to be
followed in the fall with a term as visiting professor
at Hong Kong University.
Personally, at age 60 Wen
is a somewhat comic figure. Being around him is like being
in a slapstick routine. The first time I met him, he rushed
into the pleasant apartment he had reserved for me in
the guest house at the west campus of Sichuan University
gesturing wildly, dropping student papers (an armload
of dissertations on Kerouac by Chinese graduate students
inspired by his translation and his more than thirty articles
on the Beat Generation), and taking off and putting on
his glasses with the folding temples every thirty seconds.
Wen Chu-an looks like he
could have stepped right out of the pages of The Subterraneans.
When you walk down the
chaotic, bicycle-choked streets of Chengdu with Wen pushing
his bicycle beside you, he often stops suddenly to fix
you in his intense gaze. "So, you know," he begins in
English and concludes with a pointed observation about
Kerouac or Ginsberg.
Wen's movements are spastic,
almost violent. At lunch he knocks dishes off the table,
jogs your elbow as you are lifting a cup of bamboo-leaf
tea to your lips, pokes you in the arm to emphasize his
belief in the growingif belatedinfluence of
the Beats on contemporary Chinese culture.
It is an influence he sees
everywhere, from the red and yellow dyed hair that has
only recently begun to catch on in China's provincial
cities, to the Westernized local rock clubs where you
can drink Budweiser at American prices and listen to C
& W (Chinese and Western) music, to the loosening
of gender roles and sexual mores all over the mainland.
Professor Wen's favorite
ejaculation, which he utters with a British inflection,
even in the midst of a Chinese sentence, is "Oh, terrible!"
When I accused him tongue in cheek of contributing heavily
to the Westernization of his homeland (a trend that he
paradoxically deplores) and of corrupting the morals of
Chinese youth, he throws up his hand, rears back his balding
head, and shouts in mock horror, "Oh, terrible!"
Because of this idiosyncrasy,
his students, all English majors with medical training
to prepare them to translate Western scientific texts,
who obviously love their highly experienced mentor, call
him (behind his back) "the terrible professor."
Besides making his mark
as a translator in his own country, Wen has earned himself
a place in the annals of Western literature as well. After
his year at Harvard, during which he attended the Lowell
Celebrates Kerouac! festival and met many of Kerouac's
relatives, fans, and scholars, he brought out his translation
of On the Road, a book he had first read more than
twenty years after it was originally published.
At about the same time
that the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, was hosting
the legendary twenty-fifth anniversary conference on the
publication of On the Road in 1982, a former student
of Professor Wen's who was working in a hotel in Shanghai
found a tattered copy of Kerouac's novel that had been
left behind by an American guest. The book was unavailable
in China at the time, so the student passed it along to
Though Wen responded to
the novel with immediate enthusiasm, he knew the time
was not yet ripe for China to publish such a revolutionary
book (tame as it now seems by American standards). So
he nursed his interest in the Beats and bided his time.
When his translation was finally published, it met with
Wen soon began to receive
notes and letters from students who had read Kerouac's
novel and needed help understanding its ramifications.
It remains an open question what effect it will have on
Chinese students, who are much more conservative than
Western students, and who still have to have government
permission to move around within their own country. Even
in 2002 it's hard to imagine a Chinese Kerouac or a Chinese
On the Road.
Early in 2001, Wen brought
out Howl: Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems (1947-1997).
The flyleaf of this strikingly designed book reproduces
a letter to Wen Chu-an from Ginsberg commenting on the
translation process. The book features four poems written
in China, including the perceptive "One Morning I Took
a Walk in China," which contains sights and sounds Ginsberg
observed in Baoding, Hebei, in 1984.
If Wen's passion for spreading
the word in Chinese about the Beat Generation is manifest,
his precise plans for the future are less clear. In Hong
Kong next fall he will devote his time to studying the
influence of Buddhism on Kerouac's writing, a fertile
area for inquiry. Wen hints that his studies may lead
to a Chinese translation of The Dharma Bums, the
sequel to On the Road. Southwest China has been
far more heavily influenced by Buddhism than other parts
of the country, and as a native of Sichuan, Wen would
have an intuitive grasp of the religious content of Kerouac's
Ask if he intends to do
the obvious, that is, translate the most influential work
of the third member of the Beat triumvirate, Wen admits
that he finds William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch
incomprehensible and despairs that it can ever be adequately
translated into Chinese.
So the world's largest
population of avid readers may have to wait for one of
Wen's disciples to complete the literary canon of the
Beats. But meanwhile, Wen continues to write scholarly
articles defending his propagation of Beat ideals of freedom
in thought, expression, and lifestyle. China at present
is perhaps more receptive to Western influences than at
any other time in its 5000-year history, and once the
writings of Kerouac and Ginsberg have taken root, it will
probably be impossible to eradicate them.
Wen Chu-an is well aware
of his place in the history of contemporary Chinese culture.
If readers of his translations of On the Road and
Ginsberg's "Improvisation in Beijing" find that American
writers were also calling for an opening up, and if they
also find that this opening up spreads far beyond the
business sector into the very fabric of their daily lives,
they will have this "mad" professor partly to thank.
It's a service Wen tirelessly
continues to render, both to China and to the already
sizeable international reputation of the Beat Generation.
His work is exploding like a Roman candle over the land
that invented fireworks.