East meets West
Where no line is
Nor neutral ground
—“East Meets West”, Man Wong
I found Between Two Worlds at the St. John’s College Library while wandering the basement stacks. In the midst of a sea of European names, it was the Traditional Chinese title that drew me in. I pulled the yellowing spine out with difficulty—a squeak of plastic, the smacking sound of separating hardbacks. Past the familiar bookplate on the front cover was an inscription: “With the author’s compliments (M. Wong, E2 New Court, 1913-1916.)”
By chance, I had found a book by a Hong Konger who, a little more than a century ago, had lived just a couple of staircases next to where I used to live—whose work now has a permanent home in the Johnian Collection at the University of Cambridge.
Google yields few results for Wong, who as far as I can tell published a translation of Poems from China in 1950 and then wrote one collection of verse which was published in Hong Kong in 1956. Elaine Ho and Julia Kuehn make brief mention of Wong in China Abroad: Travels, Subjects, Spaces, and his ambition of “translating modernist poetics into an aesthetics of left-wing opposition in the 1950s”—they note that the author was invested, above all, in the transformation and modernization of China through aesthetic and socio-political evolution.
But before Wong was—or even could be—a revolutionary, he was a student, trying to understand what it meant to be caught in the interstices. He dedicated his translations “To International Understanding”—he had a Romantic vision of the development of nationhood as a form of Bildung, of the advancement and flowering of communal existence that would one day coincide in every nation in a higher form of cultural and historical progress.
Between Two Worlds is, in many ways, an ode to this vision. Split into two parts—the left side is written in Chinese, the right in English—it is impossible to tell which part of the book was written first. The two sides are not translations of one another in the strict sense; the reader does not know which language is the source language and which the target language. The Chinese and English texts are rendered simultaneously by the reader on the same double-page spread—in the true sense of the Latin root for “translate”, meaning is “carried”, built across language, across oceans.
Co-existence, rather than convergence, becomes the way forward.
In “East meets West”, Wong’s speaker insists on the whole. He refuses demarcations of difference, hammers home anaphoric negations in defiance of expectation. Between East and West is a point in negative space, beyond hierarchy, violence, God. Then, a twist. East, Wong seems to say, folds into West, “as air to air, / Water to water, / Shade to shade;” but then, after a semi-colon pit-stop, difference returns, marking not only incompatibilities but incommensurabilities. Co-existence, rather than convergence, becomes the way forward. And that way is itself a way of conceptualizing the whole, not reducible to one but many realities.
Brother meets sister,
Right hand meets left hand;
Part of the whole,
Eye to eye,
Heart to heart.
Wong’s verse—ornate in English, immediate and expressive in Chinese—touches on Chinese history, Hong Kong city life, the experience of being a foreigner abroad. Through it all, the omnipresent third-person speaker demonstrates the same ability to not only see and understand but also mediate ideas and people that would otherwise simply exist in parallel, worlds apart.
I will not lie to you—the book is not the next Four Quartets. For example, when Wong writes about falling in love with a quintessentially English rose, he does with a longing that now seems tortured, comical, and grandiose. There is very little subtlety in his poems, and when there are rhetorical flourishes, they verge on overwrought more than anything else.
Even so, there is something endearing about Wong’s poetic persona—he sounds like what I imagine my dad would have sounded like when he was young and still figuring things out: determined, didactic. Defiant.
Love but an incident in the life of man,
Higher and sterner duties his there were
Than the blind end of comfort and family:
He knew however strict the watch he kept,
Affairs of the heart inevitably must
Impede the proper functioning of studies.
For him, nothing, including love, should intervene
In the dedication of his talents to his land:
For the Chinese student, many generations yet
At least to come, youth was not the time for love;
As to her future happiness he would rather would
Perish than even imperceptibly mar it.
Beyond any kind of formalistic analysis, I think there is something in Wong’s work that still resonates today. What lies between East and West is not an abstract conceptual space but a constellation of bodies and meanings coming together in unexpected ways. When they separate, they do so under the weight of new and different ways of being.
After footfalls had died into the stones
Of New Court cloisters and stillness once more reigned,
The wondrous night unleashed its pregnant splendours.
My room overlooks E staircase, New Court—the same place Wong lived during his degree. Today, the façade is covered in scaffolding—unrecognizable but for the ivy that still creeps, just about perceptible behind the illuminated mesh.
What lies between East and West is not an abstract conceptual space but a constellation of bodies and meanings coming together in unexpected ways.
One night in our first Michaelmas term, my friend and I sat beneath the spiral and talked for hours about belonging—if we would ever find someone, or some place, to which to belong. Two years on, I am still having the same conversations. But one of the most important things I’ve learned in my time here is that most people are, too.
Now, when the question comes to visit, we wander through the cloisters of New Court together like old friends. Sitting on the steps leading to the Backs, I look past the looming arches to see so much sky.
I like to think that Wong did the same, long ago. That he breathed in the crisp winter air—so different from the city smog—and decided that the distance between two points was nothing more than an abstraction, that even between two worlds, a strong enough will could be enough to fill the space between here and home.
The home return.