Mexican wordsmith delves into Chinese culture
By Juan Carlos Aguilar  ·  2022-07-26  ·   Source: NO.30 JULY 28, 2022
Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, lights up landmarks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Mexico on February 14 (CNSPHOTO)

For Mexican poet Manuel Cuautle, born in 1971, Chinese poetry possesses two qualities that make it stand out: naturalness and simplicity. "It is a literature of modernity and tradition, a combination that lends it a remarkable uniqueness, which is why it has so many great works," the writer said.

Cuautle knows what he's talking about. From a very young age he has maintained a close relationship with Chinese literature. First as an obsessive reader and later as director of the Mexico City International Poetry Festival, which he has been organizing for a decade within the framework of the Zócalo International Book Fair—one of the largest of its kind in Mexico.

As part of this festival, Cuautle, author of nine collections of poems and the children's book La Nariz de Manuel (Manuel's Nose), has invited two Chinese poets every year for nine years to present their works and give readings in front of a Mexican public. Among his favorites are Liu Chang, Yu Jian and Li Cheng'en.

A literary bond

The relationship grew even closer in 2013, when his collection of poems The Suicide of the Snail, published in Argentina in 2005, was translated into Chinese by Zhang Jin, a teacher of classical Chinese literature. Since then, the book has been kept in a drawer, but in 2022 it will be published in a bilingual edition by Itacate Ediciones under the Mexican Academy of Language and the Confucius Institute, a public educational and cultural promotion program run by the Chinese International Education Foundation.

His book, which contains 18 poems, is a reflection on snails, pleasure and life itself. "I drew a parallel between human life and the life of snails, because these animals also have the need to enjoy life. They're here for a reason, and I turn that reason into poetry; it's an ode to life. I think my views relate closely to Eastern philosophy," he explained.

Listening to his work being recited in Chinese gives it a whole new dimension. "It's beautiful to listen to oneself in another language. Some of my books have been translated into English, French, German and Italian, but in Chinese, it's different. It fascinates me."

A bilingual edition of Cuautle’s poem collection The Suicide of the Snail (COURTESY PHOTO)

Cultural connections

Digging deeper into the topic of language, Cuautle believes that contemporary standard Chinese bears a strong phonetic likeness to the language families found in Mesoamerica, a term that refers to a geographical and cultural area which extends from central Mexico down through Central America, including the territory which is now made up of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Theirs is a kind of brotherhood based on musicality. "Suddenly I saw the connections. Just to give you an example: If you speak neither standard Chinese nor Purépecha [spoken by roughly 175,000 people in the northwestern region of Michoacán, Mexico], you'll likely think they're the same. They can almost be used interchangeably," he added.

Cuautle went on to state that the Chinese and Mexicans share many physical traits. "If we compare ourselves with the Chinese, we realize there are similarities in the eyes, in the skin, in the hair. All these features are attractive to both cultures," he said.

"Nowadays, people are finding closer ties with the East and especially with China. We can also draw parallels between formalities, like a respect for your seniors, and even spot some gastronomic similarities." 

Cuautle in Mexico City (JUAN CARLOS AGUILAR)


A Conversation With Manuel Cuautle

In poetry, silence is essential. How do you incorporate this in Chinese literature?

If I have learned anything, it's that silence occurs when there is a very faint sound. That little sound seemingly coming out of nowhere is something the Chinese have mastered like no other; it's a magical thing to me. Silence is fundamental because poetry, among its many creative aspects, is music. Without those tiny silences, the poem does not have rhythm.

How has the Mexican public received Chinese poetry?

Reception has been two-fold. First, you have the more biased writers with a Western vision [on literature]. They have a rather strange view of the Oriental languages, and an even stranger one of Chinese. Then there's the general public attending the Zócalo fair. They are very open to it. One reading attracts 700 to 900 attendees. As the readings are bilingual, people have the ability to listen to the translation, but also the phonetics, which adds to their cultural and creative richness. I personally would love to get to know more Chinese authors.

In 2015 you were invited to participate in the Qinghai Lake International Poetry Festival. What was your experience there like?

Arriving in Beijing and seeing giant cities coexisting with simple, traditional places, it was amazing, I loved that. Those contrasts, which I myself build into my writings, were very attractive to me because they allow you to travel through different worlds.

I imagined a different China because I had only seen the country in movies when I was a child. The truth is reality was nothing like what I'd seen on the big screen. China has grown a lot. Even in the midst of the pandemic, it was the only country in the world to witness economic growth. Something that really surprised me was seeing entire cities under construction. Yes, I was expecting a different China.

I remember that we traveled to the beautiful lakes of Qinghai, not far from Tibet, and the whole journey there was wonderful. When we reached our destination, people there told me my appearance resembled that of some ethnic groups, such as the Mongols. They were right.

What do you plan to do on your next trip to China?

I want to travel deep into China, into the China I know from my own cultural background, from having a Purépecha, Otomí, Mexica, Tlaxcalteca and Choluteca family. I want to reconnect with ethnic groups similar to my own. Cross the world and rediscover myself in China: That is my wish.

(Print Edition Title: Poetry in Motion)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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