Of Flesh and Spirit – Wang Ping

This is a column by Vinita Agrawal.

Wang Ping (born August 14, 1957) is a Chinese-American poet, writer, photographer, performance and installation artist, dancer, singer, and professor of English at Macalester College.

Born in Shanghai, she spent her childhood in China and went on to do her BA in English Literature from Beijing University. Wang emigrated to the United States in 1986 and did her MA in English Literature from Long Island University.

She is the founder and director of the Kinship of Rivers project, a project that builds a sense of kinship among the people who live along the Mississippi and Yangtze Rivers.

Her publications include Life of Miracles along the Yangtze and Mississippi, a memoir (forthcoming from Calumet Press), Ten Thousand Waves, Wings Press, 2014, American Visa (short stories, 1994), Foreign Devil (novel, 1996), Of Flesh and Spirit (poetry, 1998), The Magic Whip (poetry, 2003), The Last Communist Virgin (stories, 2007), all from Coffee House, New Generation: Poetry from China Today, 1999 from Hanging Loose Press, Flash Cards: Poems by Yu Jian, co-translation with Ron Padgett, 2010 from Zephyr Press.

Her books, Of Flesh & Spirit and The Magic Whip, focus more intently on what divides the bi-cultural self, how language and family heritage shape the psyche, what it means to be a Chinese-American woman bearing up under the weight of generations of brutal treatment. In the poem “The Splintered Eye”, she tells us, “There’s a sleeping wolf in everyone’s head.” She deconstructs this assertion in poems that move from image to narrative and back, poems about foot binding, about the drowning of newborn girls, about girls being given names that reflect disappointment.

Her book Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (2000, University of Minnesota Press, 2002 paperback by Random House) won the Eugene Kayden Award for the Best Book in Humanities. The Last Communist Virgin won 2008 Minnesota Book Award and Asian American Studies Award.

In midst of life’s shifts and turns, one thing that remained constant in Wang Ping’s life was a river flowing through the landscape, whether in her homeland, or in the U.S. — a river that also flows through her work on a crown of sonnets, titled “The River In Our Blood”. Though the poems focus on the Mississippi, and are driven by imagery and symbols that celebrate chunfeng, the Spring Equinox, the sentiments connect the scene and the speaker back to China in a happy ritual.

She also writes of her American experiences with Chinatown, with stereotyping, with love, sex, and motherhood, about war, consumerism, and the victims of September 11th all affirming that the world is a brutal place.

The sonnets also explore the brevity of life along the Silk Route, past Damascus and Dubai, pulling the reader along to witness scenes of war and destruction. Yet despite this, the call to prayer survives, the Dervish continues to whirl, the belief in God’s goodness is palpable. Clearly, the great sense of unity in these poems is the result of Wang Ping’s deep involvement in the “Kinship of Rivers” project.

Her writing and her poetry in particular reflects her Chinese ancestry and identity and addresses the complexities of language, culture, and gender. Her poems are testimonies to a blend of the American and Chinese culture — the unlikely meeting space between widely different languages and traditions, between the past and the present, ethnicity and iconoclasm, aggression and vulnerability, the personal and dispassionate.

A haiku titled “A FLASH OF THOUGHT FROM THE RIVER” Ping says

“I really think I have nothing to do with humans / though I occasionally drown a few / to remind them of their origin.” 

Readers can learn more about Wang Ping by visiting her website at  www.wangping.com and the Kinship of Rivers project at www.kinshipofrivers.org

Two Poems by Wang Ping:

from The River in Our Blood 

A Sonnet Crown


The geese are painting the sky with a V, my lord

The Mississippi laughs with its white teeth

How fast winter flees from the lowland, my lord

And how’s the highland where songs forever seethe?

At the confluence, I sing of the prairie, my lord

My joy and sorrow soar with rolling spring

Its thunder half bird, half mermaid, my lord

No poppies on hills, only ghost warriors’ calling

Today is chunfeng—share of spring, my lord

Two spirits, one on phoenix wings, one on lion’s seat

Across the sea, kindred spirits, my lord

Prayer through breaths, laughing children on the street

Let’s open our gift, acorn of small things

Let river move us without wants or needs  

Moon on river’s bend, long day of mayfly

No sound or word from Damascus’ desert

Limestone ridge along Silk Route—face of Dubai

Crumbles—wind in hyssop, thyme, wild mustard

This flayed land, so raw, parched, only seeds fly

To take roots in the conquerors’ footprints

Dusk weeps like sand through hands, pulling first cry

From Azan’s throat, a black slave as god’s imprints

Home under the ash cloud, darting swallows

From hospitals, roses on broken walls

Tanks at the border. Shadows at ghettos 

Remorse in maze—the last muezzin calls

The Dervish whirls, palm to earth, palm to sky

Who gave us the hand to feel your sublime?


Today Soek-Fang Accepted My Friend Request from Another World

It’s mid-April and the river Is under a new blizzard

Kate comes over and we walk into the snow That carries the weight of the entire Mississippi

Trees bend into lizards, crocodiles, wolves
An eagle leads us to robins, snow owls, yellow finches

We chat about kids, schools, divorce, race
We follow the footprints of turkeys, dogs, coyotes

At the confluence, Fort Snelling is still besieged Cries of Dakota warriors peel from the Pike Island

Far away in Houston, Fady, a rising star Vows patience, his fever for love and beauty

So breathless, the earth trembles under our boots The river whirls like dervish, white skirt swelling

We halt at the silence that seizes our breath
And I know you’re with us, Soek-Fang, keeping us alive 


vinitaagrawalprofilephotoAuthor of three books of poetry, Vinita is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence her poems have appeared in Asiancha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review and over a 100 other national and international journals. She was awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest thrice. Her poems have found a place in significant national anthologies like Suvarnarekha and Dance with the Peacocks in several international anthologies compiled in Australia and Israel. She was co-judge for the Asian Cha Poetry Contest, 2015. 

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