by Tian Yuan
translated by David Boyd

Tian Yuan was born in Henan Province, China in 1965. In the nineties, he moved to Japan, where he currently lives and works as a teacher, translator and poet.

For Tian, translation and poetry are inseparable. As a translator, he is responsible for the Chinese versions of work by several prominent Japanese poets, including Tanikawa Shuntarō and Tamura Ryūichi. As a poet, Tian writes in Chinese and Japanese, his work shuffling between the languages.

Tian has likened writing in Japanese to wandering through a “forest of words,” some more recognizable than others. While the Japanese language long ago adopted and adapted the Chinese writing system, the underlying languages are fundamentally unrelated. As Tian puts it: “Many Chinese words can be found in the Japanese language today. Although some have retained their meaning upon arrival in Japan, others have expanded, or even contracted.” In this way, Tian views writing in Japanese as simultaneously novel and familiar.

—David Boyd



This summer
Under the loquat tree
I learned the cries of all the insects
And when I did my best imitation
They took me as their friend
Probably because all of us
Were insects once
Myself included


Every day
I cross the stream in front of my house
The nameless river runs to the ocean
Where it goes from there
I don’t know
At high tide
The monkfish swims around like a lost child
At low tide
Something slithers in the black mud
The skinny trail of water is like a thermometer
Telling us when the crooked ocean
Is going to send a tsunami over to punish us


The mosquito steals my sleep
When I turn out the light
A B-52 buzzes in my ear
When I turn it on again
A stealth bomber

At seventy kilos
I’m no match for this bug
Even though it’s so small
It weighs next to nothing
What a monster!


If you want to get closer to God
you only need to bring more cash
If you want the old days back
you only need to reverse time
If you want out of the desert
you only need to know the oasis
If you want to swim in the milky way
you only need to shine like a star
If you want to make it to the distant future
you only need to experience many deaths
If people want to put an end to war
they only need to learn from plants
If you want to stay in this moment forever
you only have to keep time from moving


Sometimes I remember
The yellow dog I had when I was a kid
How he was taller than me when he got up on his hind legs
How handsome he was
I remember him running off
Then coming home with a rabbit in his mouth
We ate everything he caught for us

I’m not sure he ever howled at the moon
But he had a wild side
When spring came
He was always jumping hard on the backs of the female dogs in town
And gobbling up the warm turds left by the kid next door

My dog knew me better than anybody
Then one day he disappeared
My brother came back from the next village a few days later
With my dog’s big yellow coat
They had killed him and eaten him
And all that was left was that coat
Which my mom still holds dear to this day


I’ll never forget that lake
Or the low hills that stood on either side
The grass swaying in the breeze
Was like a giant brush to me
I wanted to dip the blades in the water
And write “love” as big as I could
All around me — on the ground and on the walls of the cliffs


Sometimes I wonder
If the only real silence is buried away
In some ancient tomb

What would it be like to live there?
To meet the dead
To breathe the air of a world long gone
To hold the offerings left for them
To speak with the dead
And hear what Japanese sounded like a thousand years ago


I want to walk clockwise around the earth
Not to see what distant lands look like
But to pick up the pieces of old bombs and missiles
And make them into toys for children
I want my footsteps
To ease the pain of the damaged earth
Even if I end up stepping on a landmine


From the day I first dove
Into the sea of imagination
I started learning the language of the fish
And with the permission of the dragon king
I entered the sunken ship
And had a look around
Time rusted, my soul withered
But not everything was dark
The sinking moon stayed bright


They used to say that the old mausoleum
South of the poplar trees
Was haunted
When I was a kid
I was too scared to see for myself
As an adult
I’ve stopped by a few times
With a friend
We never found anything
But spider webs and a few strange bugs
Ghosts are the same as gods
Things made by men


If there were no twilight
the lights in town would never come on
If there were no birds
the sky would feel lonely
If there were no floods
the horizon would never vanish
Even if we had no wars
friends would still kill one another
Because we have glaciers
we know how water tasted a million years ago
Nothing is beyond time
but there are things it can’t destroy


I used to love to listen to the chirping crickets
I loved catching them and cooking them and eating them
But I hated making them fight each other for our entertainment
Those brown bugs are spirits of the earth
Always singing
I still think
They have the best voices I’ve ever heard

Published on April 11, 2019