How the Beats Came to China
By Jim Jones

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 company.

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 growing—if belated—influence 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 his teacher.

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 instant success.

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 Buddhist writings.

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.