The Chinese metals trader with a knack for poetry

Ma Tinghua enjoys his day job of selling rare earths, but says his true passion lies in writing poetry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 4:16pm

MA TINGHUA has been selling rare earths, used in products such as mobile phones and electric cars, for 15 years and now manages one of China’s leading producers of the metals, but his passion for poetry, starting with a few verses written in high school, is ever growing. Ahead of the publication of his fourth poetry collection, 39-year-old Ma, whose pen name is Dark Horse, spoke to FRANK TANG about pursuing his dream to become a great poet in an increasingly materialistic China.

When did you first get interested in poetry?

My passion for poetry started in childhood. I grew up in rural areas of Xuzhou in eastern China’s Jiangsu province and was mainly influenced by traditional Chinese poems, proverbs and ballads.

When did you start writing poetry?

My first poem was written in high school. It was composed of short sentences passed to a girl I liked in class. I believe that was my purest and most creative piece. Later, with the recommendation of my professor in college, a poem of mine was published in the Tongshan Daily, a local newspaper. Many more were then disseminated through a campus magazine and a local TV station. I’ve already published three poetry collections, including Big Wind, A Portrait of North Jiangsu and Looking for Absent Recluses, while another will be published in two months’ time.

Why do you choose to be a rare earth trader rather than a full-time poet?

I majored in law back in college, but was hired as a trader by Jiangsu Jinshi Rare Earth Company in 2002. Now, I’m its deputy general manager. The vast majority of Chinese poets need a stable job to support themselves. It’s nothing strange, nor humiliating. Famous Chinese poets in ancient times such as Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi and Wang Wei had their own occupations, but were better known as poets.

How do you reconcile the two jobs?

Rare earths and poetry are great but different things, but they share the same characteristics – scarcity and elitism. Rare earths have wide applications and a great future, so does poetry. Poetry is literature’s literature and a distillation of emotion and events. Personally, I regard the two as yin and yang, two opposite components as in tai chi, the traditional Chinese philosophy. They can be exchanged and integrated. Rare earths can also be a topic for poetry. I have written some rare earth related poems as well.

Which one is harder to sell, rare earth or poetry?

Rare earth elements have extensive applications in industry, but poetry is dedicated to “a few”. I have published several poetry collections, but paid little attention to their sales volume. Instead, I care more about their value. Poetry belongs to a few elites. It has its own rules and destiny.

Why did you choose Dark Horse as a pen name?

Dark is originated from coal. Xuzhou, my home town, is an important coal mining base and my employer started from coal prospecting. My surname Ma means horse in Chinese. I regard Liu Bang, who was born here and founded the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), as my spiritual mentor and hope to create great poems in our era. He was a dark horse in the years-long fight for the crown. He once wrote a famous poem Big Wind, which I used as the title of my first poetry collection.

Do you discuss poems with family members, friends or readers?

My wife, a middle school history teacher, will occasionally argue with me over a line or two. She is always the winner, with the support of our son. Readers discuss poems more through emails, blog comments or instant messaging on WeChat. I respect their understanding of my poems, no matter if they have praise or criticism. The main task of a poet is to present rather than argue.

Are Chinese more interested in literature and poetry after Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012?

Sales of his books increased a lot after the award and probably a sense of national pride grew among some Chinese readers. It brought no change to the environment surrounding literature in China. A Nobel Prize is not enough to measure the value of Chinese literature.

What is the biggest problem for Chinese poets or others who write literature or comment on it?

The biggest problem is isolation from the people. After the boom in 1980s, Chinese poets leaned more to personal writing. Some are devoted to describing their personal life and feelings which are vague to outsiders. Poetry is not a riddle.

Do you receive any salary from a local writers association?

I receive no salary, but pay a membership fee. However, some of my poetry collections were funded by an association. Some writers receive a salary, but not poets. I have no plans to become a professional poet.

What do you think of internet celebrity and poetry?

Internet celebrity is the by-product of an impetuous era and is the spiritual opium of human beings. They [celebrities] gain overnight fame by attracting people’s curiosity, but they can’t replace sunlight and water, two necessities for life. Many internet celebrities in poets’ circle, such as Zhao Lihua, Chen Yanqiang, Che Yangao and Yu Xiuhua, are good friends on WeChat. They are quite different from how the media portrays them. I choose to cautiously keep a distance from them. My life is warm and simple. That’s what I need and it’s fine.

What does poetry mean to you? Any life goal?

Poetry is the sole shelter of my spirit, a romantic affair and cultivates the spirit. I advocate a return to national characteristics and traditions, plus the adoption of some Western techniques to find new elements and vigour for Chinese poetry. My goal is to devote my life to poetry.