The Poetic Heart of the Columnist and Scientist Yangyang Cheng. How She Captures The Fraught Spirit of Our Time

Chinese American Columnist and Scientist Yangyang Cheng

A Found Poem

I cannot recall

when I entered a state

of perpetual mourning. I grieve

for the country I left

with no certain prospect

of return, the direction

it’s heading in, the plight

of the world, the foreclosed possibilities. Sorrow

tears into my organs

and gnaws at my bones.

But what I fear more

than pain is numbness:

to give in to the powers that be, and give up

on imagining otherwise.

Yangyang Cheng from The Guardian, Tuesday, October 25th, 2022

A scientist with a poet’s heart. And a woman who captures the spirit of our time is such a heart-wrenching way! Or at least that is how I experience the Chinese American scientist and columnist, Yangyang Cheng. What a discovery when I read her recent Guardian column this week. There she refers to Xi Jinping’s custom-breaking third term as China’s supreme leader and reflects on what it means to the world and to her, someone who left China many years ago. And in that reflection I came across the lines I took the liberty of lineating into a poem.

I was struck on the breastbone by her words. Not just on China but the world. And how, too, I have been mourning so many things. Extreme climate, a rise of autocracies and iron-fisted rulers and on and on. How this scientist makes so real the fears that assail me daily and how I so need to be reminded not to go numb.

Cheng, after coming to the US for University, spent ten years working  at the Large Hadron Collider and now is a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai Center where her research focuses on the development of science and technology in China and U.S.-China relations. And she is an active writer for the Guardian and the China File among other publications. That’s where I see the heart of a poet.

In a column for the China Files in 2019, after China landed a craft on the far side of the moon, she began with this poetic reference:

“What manner of things are the darkness and light? . . Whose compass measured out the nine-fold skies? . . How does heaven coordinate its motions? . . What is the virtue of the moon, the brightness of the night? . .”

2,300 years ago, the exiled statesman and poet Qu Yuan pondered these questions on the bank of the Yangtze River, as his Kingdom of Chu fell to the Qin. The Qin would defeat all other Warring States and establish the first Chinese empire.

She goes on in her column to discuss the dangers of our long-term interest in the heavens moving from a place of scientific curiosity to an exercise of imperial conquest. She ends with this lovely personal reflection:

My family came from Jingzhou, the ancient capital of Chu. From the Yangtze, my ancestors gazed at the same nightly skies as the Egyptians from the port of Alexandria and the Mayans along the Gulf of Mexico. Empires rose and fell in blinks of time in our shared cosmological history. It is easy to see space programs through the lens of great power competition, but the more fundamental question is whether science and technology should be claimed by individual states or developed for our common humanity.

May human borders never extend beyond the edge of the Earth. In the final frontier, we are all passengers on the same ship.

She says something similar and as poetic in her recent Guardian piece:

The fundamental choice is between clinging to an old order crumbling under its own weight, and forging a new world while there’s still time. We’re all exiles from a past we thought we knew, stranded on an ice cap amid warming seas. We can fight each other for the receding higher ground, or build lifeboats together: alternative futures of mutual care in which value is not conditional on exclusion or domination.

This chilling line: We’re all exiles from a past we thought we knew, stranded on an ice cap amid warming seas.

And this last paragraph from her column. How it calls out to us all. Especially in these days where Iranian women and others have taken to the streets to protest the religious autocracy they live under.

I remind myself that for a Chinese woman, learning how to read and moving to a foreign country were once revolutionary acts conceived in fugitive spaces. No control is absolute. Power at its most menacing and totalising is also insecure and unsustainable. I hold no illusions about the long night ahead, but each refusal of injustice preserves an opening. Every act of rebellion, however spectacular or humble, is a reclamation of the self and a love letter to a stranger. Across the darkness, another searching gaze catches the flicker, and a sacred bond is cast: I see you. I feel you. We are still here.

Oh, how I cherish the reality and call to action and prayer for hope in these words. Especially these lines:

 
Every act of rebellion, however spectacular or humble, is a reclamation of the self and a love letter to a stranger. Across the darkness, another searching gaze catches the flicker, and a sacred bond is cast: I see you. I feel you. We are still here.

And I would change her words slightly and say:

Every act of poetry, however spectacular or humble, is a reclamation of the self and a love letter to a stranger. Across the darkness, another searching gaze catches the flicker, and a sacred bond is cast: I see you. I feel you. We are still here.

I see you in your words Yangyang. I feel you. And in this way I see and feel my self. And I am called to action the best ways I am able. For me, now, with poetry.

I am grateful for the words of Yangyang Cheng. Grateful also for a scientist with a poet’s heart.

2 Comments

  1. Frances Warner
    Posted October 28, 2022 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Richard for sending this poem and your comments. I have not written any poetry since Doug died last Christmas – but I know I will write again and it will be about Doug over the years and it will also be about what is happening globally …. Thank you. Frances

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted October 28, 2022 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Frances:

    So good to hear from you. Your words matter. And our words heal!!!!! Much love to you and holding you and your loss of Dog in my heart.

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