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  • Editor’s Note

I met Jidi Majia for the first time in summer 2016 when I spoke at the Lu Xun Institute of Literature in Beijing about publishing Chinese poetry in the West. The institute is housed in a large, modern building faced with red stone. Life-size bronze statues of prominent Chinese and international poets stand under the shade trees along the path that circles the building. Inside, memorial plaques celebrating other poets hang in the main hallway. An oversize tapestry portrait of Lu Xun—one of China’s most revered twentieth-century writers—billows from the ceiling.

Jidi Majia and I had lunch in a room off the hallway with several other Chinese translators, publishers, and scholars. In his late fifties, Jidi has a soft oval face and prominent eyes behind large square glasses. His shoulders are rounded, his body stout. When I was with him over the next two weeks, he dressed casually in a long-sleeve plaid shirt and trousers. Despite his status—Jidi Majia is a nationally acclaimed ethnic poet as well as a highly placed advocate for ethnic minorities throughout China—he seems unaffected and genuinely gracious.

Jidi Majia is a member of the Yi ethnic minority group, one of the fifty-five officially recognized minorities in China and the sixth largest, comprising about nine million people (0.6 percent of the country’s total population). Among the Yi there are several dozen subgroups—such as Lipo, Nisu, and Azhe. The subgroup to which Jidi Majia belongs, Nuosu, is the largest.

Several days after meeting in Beijing, we met again in Xichang, the capital city of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. Located in Sichuan and Yunan Provinces, about a thousand miles southwest of Beijing, the city stands at the eastern edge of the Himalayan plateau.

Jidi Majia grew up in Liangshan, the heartland of Yi-Nuosu culture. Most of the Yi in Xichang speak the Yi-Nuosu language. The city has Yi newspapers, radio stations, and karaoke bars; and parents can send their children to Nuosu schools. For centuries, Nuosu people have held on to their language, culture, and social structure, staving off assimilation by the majority Han. The area’s remoteness and rugged terrain have helped. Until recently, a large area of the mountains only had dirt roads, which turned to mud during the rainy season. Increasingly, however, paved roads, economic development, and urbanization have resulted in a changing relationship between Yi-Nuosu traditional ways and life in many modernized parts of Liangshan.

The area around Xichang is one of the most environmentally beautiful in southwest China. Nearby Qionghai Lake—seven miles long by three miles [End Page xi] wide, at the foot of the Lushan Mountains—is a stunning feature of that beauty. One evening I jogged beside its shore on a wide wooden walkway, past leisurely bicyclists, old men and women out for a walk, and young couples with their kids. The walkway projects out over lush, green wetlands that skirt the lake, attracting white cranes, herons, swallows, and an abundance of other birds and wildlife. Over eight million tourists visit each year, patronizing Xichang’s hotels, shops, and festivals. Together with the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, forty miles away, eco-tourism helps fuel the government’s efforts to lift up the rural poor.

The juxtaposition of high-tech space port and environmental beauty is emblematic of the region’s clash of modernization and traditional Nuosu cultural practices. In many of the poems in Words from the Fire, Jidi Majia worries about this clash. He is a man immersed in multiple eras, cultures, and languages. In “Self-Portrait,” the first poem, the speaker/self embraces his identity as a member of the Nuosu People, his soul nurtured by his Nuosu forebears. In this majestic land, he writes, he is attached to his people like an “an infant whose mother couldn’t cut the umbilical cord.” Yet in a later poem, “Split Self,” he expresses his unease with his internally divided situation—his conflicting selves embattled in what he calls a “life and death struggle.” On the one hand are the dazzling fields of wild buckwheat; on the other, skyscrapers clang with...