My poems, in Chinese, can be read in (at least!) two directions. Their meaning is fluid, and depends on the path the reader chooses to read them. Translation to English demands a doubling and an inverting — perhaps an unfolding as much as a translation. I call them palindromes (回文). How I came to that form, from far away, requires some explication.
Not until I read Les deux raisons de la pensée chinoise: Divination et idéographie (2013) by the French sinologist Léon Vandermeersch did I become self-conscious about my own mother tongue. The translated Chinese version appeared in 2017; I had been living in Germany, and had ceased speaking Mandarin Chinese on a daily basis, which allowed me to focus on the written world and to immerse myself, in a different way, in those Chinese characters that I was so familiar with. The distance from the daily utility of what was once the only language I spoke brought a novel estrangement. It kindled both rational analysis and word games.
A younger version of me sat in Chinese philology class, drawing pictographic characters. I was in awe of them, and of their etymologies. I learned the etymology for 牛 (niú, meaning ox), for 羊 (yáng, meaning sheep), for 鹿 (lù, meaning deer). In that old textbook’s pages, the words began to dance in front of my eyes. Later I read the American sinologist David Keightley’s inquiries into the origins of Chinese writing. « All writing », Keightley noted, « depends upon the conventional taking of one thing, the sign, for another, the word. » All writing depends on abstraction; Keightley posed a formative harmony between Chinese logography and « the aesthetics of ancestor worship ». Ancestor worship is itself an abstraction-game: for the dead to be worshippable, after all, they must be abstracted into ancestors.
Words have ancestries.