Ya Hsien - A Life that Sings

Surrealism and Humanistic Concerns

The necessity of tenderness
The necessity of affirmation
The necessity of some wine and sweet-scented Osmanthus
The necessity to pay attention when a woman walks past…

After completing this popular poem in 1964, Ya Hsien devoted himself to the work of an editor, and stopped publishing poems altogether in 1966. This is one poet who published one volume of poetry in the middle of the last century. And yet, his influence continues to ripple out. What magical quality does the poet possess? What stories are told through poetry? The documentary follows its subject from Vancouver to Nanyang in Henan Province, from the traveling library of his childhood to his basement study today. We open the books and love letters collected over six decades, and unlock the treasure trove of the poet’s memory, to present to viewers Ya Hsien’s devotion to and relationship with literature and its circles. In the film, the momentous times that the poet lived through and his life in literature are told vividly and elegantly through images that recall a lyrical poem.

"I like to say, once a poet, always a poet. For me, probably the only thing in the world that can resist time is poetry."—— Ya Hsien

Poet and Editor Par Excellence

Ya Hsien is the pen name of Wang Ching-lin, who was born in Nanyang County, Henan Province, China. He adopted the pen name, which means “mute strings”, because in his youth he had loved the muted sound of the erhu (a Chinese two-string instrument similar to the Western fiddle). Ya Hsien was studying at the Yuheng Associated High School in 1949, but joined the Nationalist army in Hunan Province during the civil war to fight against the communists. Soon after, he relocated with the army to Taiwan, where he served as a private specialist in the Republic of China Army.

In 1953, Ya Hsien enrolled in the Department of Film, TV and Theater of the Political Warfare Cadres Academy. He excelled in the theater, and his poems often contained references to dramatic theories and a fine musicality and rhythm. Ya Hsien won Best Male Actor in the Spoken Drama category of the Second Golden Tripod Award for portraying the founding father of the Republic of China in The Story of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which toured the island in more than 70 performances. He would later return to teach at his alma mater, offering courses such as “History of Chinese Dance” and “Introduction to Art”. After graduation, he was assigned to work at the military radio station at Zuoying, where he met Chang Mo and Lo Fu. The two invited him to join the Epoch Poetry Society, and together they became the three founding members, dubbed the “iron triangle” of the poetry scene in Taiwan.

Ya Hsien retired from the army in 1966 and became the editor in chief of the Youth Literary monthly that same year. He spared no effort in supporting aspiring writers; even manuscripts that he returned were accompanied by earnest comments. He loved editing, and did his job with a firm hand and true devotion. Ya Hsien once commented, humbly, that he was “a poor poet”, but “a fine editor”. Lin Hwai-min, Chiang Hsun and Xi Mu-rong all received his guidance and help when they were just starting out as writers. Even now, Ya Hsien is both mentor and friend to the new generation poet Yuyu Lin and is held in high esteem by many writers.

One Poetry Collection for the Ages

Ya Hsien began writing poems in 1954, but gave it up all together in 1965. He never said why. In any case, of the less than one hundred extant poems he wrote, many have become well-loved classics. He has been called one of the ten great modernist poets of Taiwan, and is known as the “scholar poet”.

Ya Hsien’s early poems were fresh and straightforward, but by the time he published works such as Starting from Feelings and Abyss, from 1959 onwards, his command of surrealist techniques was obvious, and he immediately gained the attention of the poetry circle. However, Ya Hsien did not limit himself to surrealism, instead believing in a style that blends all the poetic techniques; one that does not abandon tradition but can also incorporate the vernacular.

Director Chen Hwai-eng

Chen Hwai-eng graduated from the printing and photography department of Shih Hsin University. He joined the movie industry in 1983, just as the first movies of the Taiwanese New Wave Cinema were being made. Starting from The Sandwich Man, he has worked in the film industry for more than 20 years, working his way up from script supervisor, movie photographer, assistant director, to cinematographer, collaborating along the way with renowned Taiwanese directors such as Yang De-chang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Over the years, he has shot more than one hundred films, shorts and commercials in collaboration with directors both at home and abroad. In the 2007 film Island Etude, he was responsible for screenplay, directing, and cinematography. The movie, which featured a hearing-impaired youth on a week-long cycling trip around Taiwan, was a blockbuster beloved by audiences, launching a trend of cycling around Taiwan that continues to this day.

More Photos from the Set

The documentary film itself is infused with poetic sentiments.
——Luo Zhi-cheng, poet

A three-hour film that moved my soul more than a trip through a worm hole would have.
——Online comment from jazzstanley

I am deeply moved. In addition to learning more about Mr. Ya Hsien, I enjoyed the exquisite images, words and dialogues.
——Online comment from nuo

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Ya Hsien Chronology

Born in Nanyang County,
Henan Province, China.
Relocates to Taiwan with the Nationalist government.
Publishes “I am a Small, Quiet and Pretty Blossom” in the Modernist Poetry journal. Befriends Ji Xian.

In October, meets Lo Fu at the military camp in Zuoying.

In November, meets Chang Mo and joins Epoch Poetry Society.
In September, publishes first volume of poems, One Night in the Chinaberry Grove. The title is later changed to Poems by Ya Hsien.
Marries. Plays the founding father of the Republic of China in the play The Story of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons.
Joins the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Becomes editor-in-chief of Youth Literary monthly.
Co-founds Hong Fan Books.
Becomes deputy editor-in-chief for the literary supplement of United Daily News.
Hong Fan Books publishes Ya-hsien Poetry Anthology.
Becomes publisher and deputy editor-in-chief of the newly founded literary monthly Unitas.
Retires from United Daily News and immigrates to Vancouver, Canada.