A child of Chinese diplomats, Yang Lian was born in the Swiss capital Bern in 1955. He grew up in Beijing and in 1974 was sent to the countryside for »re-education by work«. He began working as an editor and programmer for the state broadcaster in 1977.
During the »Beijing Spring« (1978–1980) he published his first »modernistic« poetry in the underground literary journal »Jintian«. He travelled at length from 1978 to 1983, searching out traces of his country’s history. This gave rise to major poetic works, including the long-form poem »Nuorilang«, which was sharply criticized in an »Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign« in 1983. Between 1985 and 1989 Yang Lian worked on his most extensive cycle of poems, »Yi«, which encompassed over 200 pages and whose internal structure alluded to the »Book of Changes« (»I Ching«, c. 2800 BC). After his first trip to Europe in 1986, he took an invitation to travel to Australia and New Zealand. Yang Lian was abroad when he received reports of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Translator Wolfgang Kubin describes the resulting changes in the poet’s work: »The original pathos … starts to trail off, the long form … is replaced by the short form, the references to China recede in two respects: the Chinese world is no longer the immediate subject of his writings, and allusions to Chinese intellectual history give way to encounters with Western literature and philosophy«. What remains, however, are decisive motifs, particularly the constant references to mortality and death – however assertions such as that posited by Mark Renné, who claims that these can be attributed to the early death of his mother and Yang Lian’s experiences as a pallbearer. Eschewing melancholy he instead constantly finds new ways to shock, unexpectedly jolting readers out of the trance of everyday life, confronting them with the death and decrepitude of the body.
The exile, which has marked Yang Lian’s life for more than 25 years, has since »turned into world citizenship« (»Frankfurter Rundschau«). Stipends have allowed him to work at Schloss Solitude near Stuttgart in the 1990s, in Berlin as part of the DAAD’s Artists-in-Residence programme in 1991 as well as the Wissenschaftskolleg in 2012/2013. Among the numerous awards his works have attracted are the Nonino Prize (2012), the Chinese Tianduo Award for Long Poems (2013), and The International Capri Prize (2014). Yang Lian has organized poetry events in London since 2005 as head of the artists’ group Unique Mother Tongue. His last book in English is »Tower Built Downwards« (2023), published by Bloodaxe Books in UK. Lian lives in London and Berlin.