Marilyn Chin Chin, Marilyn - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Marilyn Chin 1955-

(Full name Marilyn Mei Ling Chin) Chinese-born American poet.

Chin is known for producing spare, often confrontational, poetry that explores her experience as a first-generation Chinese-American and a woman of color in the United States, as well as social and political injustices in her native China.

Biographical Information

Chin was born in Hong Kong in 1955 to George and Rose Chin, who emigrated to the American Northwest shortly after her birth. In a well-known poem, “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation,” Chin meditated on the fact that her father, a restaurant proprietor in Oregon, incongruously named her after the American film and cultural icon Marilyn Monroe—an occurrence that helped form Chin's thoughts on the experience of assimilation in America. Chin received her B.A. at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1977 and her M.F.A. at the University of Iowa in 1981. She worked as a translator and editor in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa from 1978 to 1982. In 1988 Chin took a position as an assistant professor of creative writing at San Diego State University, becoming a full professor of English and Asian-American studies in 1996. Chin has won numerous fellowships and awards for her writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1984-1985 and 1991; the Josephine Miles Award from PEN in 1994; and the Pushcart Prize in 1994, 1995, and 1997.

Major Works

Chin's first collection of verse, Dwarf Bamboo (1987), which she dedicated to the Communist poet and revolutionary Ai Qing, contains many poems that focus on the immigrant experience in the United States. Chin continued this theme in her second collection, The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994). In this volume Chin began to explore more deeply the damaging effects of Western standards on women of color, notably in the autobiographical poem “How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation,” in which Chin bluntly describes her father's naming her after “some tragic white woman / swollen with gin and Nembutal.” The Phoenix Gone also contains a section entitled “Beijing Spring,” a group of poems dealing with the 1989 student uprising in China's Tiananmen Square. Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2001), Chin's third volume of poetry, again examines the struggle between heritage and the new world, mostly in poems exploring her relationship with her parents and grandparents. In this collection Chin drew inspiration for the forms and rhythms of her poems from Chinese music as well as Persian ghazals and American blues music.

Critical Reception

Critics have praised Chin's poetry for its unflinching examination of the contradictory feelings brought on by immigration in general and for Asian Americans specifically. Chin's openness about female sexuality and the social roles of women of color—in particular the image of Asian women as exotic and doll-like—and her frequent references to the revolutionary movement in China have earned her a reputation as an important political feminist poet.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Dwarf Bamboo 1987

The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty 1994

Rhapsody in Plain Yellow 2001

George Uba (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Uba, George. “Versions of Identity in Post-Activist Asian American Poetry.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, pp. 33-48. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Uba includes Chin in a discussion of Asian-American poets writing after the 1960s and 1970s, noting that Chin, in her poetry, is skeptical of the very source of personal and ethnic identity to which she is drawn.]

The raw energy of Asian-Pacific American “activist” poets of the late 1960s and early 1970s gave impetus to a literature in the process of self-discovery. By refereeing unexplored spaces of Asian American existence, these poets helped preside over an emerging ethnic consciousness and helped plot the sociopolitical vectors of the age. Seeking to “unmask” poetry by removing it from the elitist academy (which had sealed meanings in the esoteric and the arcane, renounced plainness of speech, and conferred shamanistic status on university professors), the activist writers sought to deliver poetry to the People, who, apprehending its “essentials,” would renew it in the spirit of emerging political freedom. The activist spirit survives in the bristling warning contained in Janice Mirikitani's “We, the Dangerous”:1

We, the dangerous,
Dwelling in the ocean.
Akin to the jungle.
Close to the earth.
          Tule Lake
And yet we were not devoured.
And yet we were not humbled.
And yet we are not broken.

(Ayumi, 211)

Not uncommonly, activist poems resorted to linguistic shock tactics as well, as in these lines from Merle Woo's “Yellow Woman Speaks”:

Yellow woman, a revolutionary speaks:
“They have mutilated our genitals, but I will
          restore them
                    I will create armies of … descendants.
And I will expose the lies and ridicule
the impotence of those who have called us
          slanted cunts
in order to abuse and exploit us.
                    And I will destroy them.”

(Bruchac, 286)

Woo's poem eschews the conventional finesse of Euro-American poetry in an effort to confront directly the oppressors who have developed and perpetuated racist stereotypes. The revolutionary's vow is to multiply and to “destroy.” Less confrontational, Mirikitani's approach is to assert the vitalizing power to endure. Nevertheless, she too warns that “we” are “dangerous.” The impetus behind these poems is not only politics in the conventional sense but also the politics of poetry. Both poems align themselves self-consciously with an oral tradition. Woo's poem demands that it be spoken aloud (“a revolutionary speaks”); in the process it also contests standard Euro-American definitions of poetry by embracing polemic. Mirikitani's poem violates the contemporary “rules” of poetry by relying heavily on political slogans and the rhetoric of abstraction. Her poem aligns itself not with a theory of poetry as written inscription but with an oral tradition that blurs the distinction between poem and chant, and privileges performance over inscription. Moreover, the poem's paratactical linking of “Hiroshima / Vietnam / Tule Lake” reflects Russell Leong's notion of a “tribal” impulse common to poets of the late 1960s and early 1970s, an impulse that highlighted the “shared experience[s] of subjugation” among people of color and that actively sought to “unlock the … keys to memory and to provide a base for unity” (166).

This tribalism was a common way of negotiating identity, especially valuable as an ethnographic signifier of resistance to an oppressive, well-armed, and thoroughly entrenched dominant culture. It was a means of resisting the assimilationist ethic for so long spreading insidiously across the American ethnic landscape by focusing on and celebrating differences between whites and people of color, while acknowledging both similarities and differences among the latter as well.2 To some degree, much of contemporary Asian American poetry presupposes this activist base.

The situation has altered, however, in the sense that many of today's poets express at once an affinity for and a sense of distance from the activist tradition. In the wake of the profound demographic changes affecting Asian America, changes which have resulted in a diversity unimaginable twenty years ago, the reification of the “tribal” has become increasingly problematic.3 The dimensions of the effort to achieve a communal or “tribalistic” connection have multiplied, even as the results of such effort have grown less certain. Keenly aware of heterogeneity, as well as the absence of geographical centers, today's poets may yearn for a connection they can only ratify in a compromised form. They have been thrust back upon their sense of an individual self, an alteration implying the forfeiture of oral traditions. Joined with a loss of faith in the efficacy of language as an agent of social reform and as a reliable tool of representation, this individualizing tendency has redirected poets toward Euro-American poetics.

But with a difference. Today's poets tend to appropriate such poetics for their own ethnographic purposes. If, in acknowledging the provisional conduct of poetry, post-activist poets hold that identity, whether tribal or otherwise, is always in doubt, it is not that the issue of identity has ceased to demand their attention. Indeed, the post-activist poem tends to recognize problematics of language and event both as a way of approaching identity and of renouncing its stability. Although these recognitions extend to an increasing number of poets, recent works by Marilyn Chin and David Mura and the special case of John Yau reveal some of the distinct contours that Asian American poetry currently describes. For Chin and Mura—although in different ways—conceiving identity is only possible by foregrounding its partialities, while for Yau every version of identity is radically contestable because of the unstable nature of the tools used to conceptualize it.


In dedicating her book Dwarf Bamboo to the Communist poet and revolutionary Ai Qing, Marilyn Chin reveals an affinity with the collectivist politics of the activist poets. However, her skepticism toward unificatory gestures and her intense recognition of identity as process rather than as cultural preserve lead her to question the very impulses toward which she is otherwise drawn. The poem “Segments of a Bamboo Screen,” for example, conjoins the centrifugal tendencies of world politics with the inability to negotiate pictorial unity out of the “segments” of the bamboo screen. The speaker questions the bamboo screen artist's ability to “sit there on top of the world” and gain a perspective “that I cannot”(18)—a centrist position around which all others supposedly revolve. For this speaker, the partial replaces the whole: “The moon is gibbous. Just say / She shall no longer pay you her full attention” (17).

Chin is also acutely aware of how historical contingencies intrude upon every version of identity. Rather than stabilizing a connection to her “Parent Node,” Chin's frequent use of historicized personae reveals the provisional nature of all identity. The poems “The Landlord's Wife” and “Untrimmed Mourning” offer contrasting portraits of the widows of two Chinese men, one a wealthy landlord slain in the course of political ferment in 1919 and the other a poor man who had “only small pink babies / and one good hog” (14). Years later in post-revolutionary China, the landlord's wife, who still regrets her loss of status as “the wealthiest woman in Guang Dung,” nevertheless repudiates her husband's memory and proclaims her allegiance to Chairman Mao. “‘I never loved him, never. / The only man I love now, the only man I believe—/ The man from above, from Yenan’” (12). For the impoverished widow remaining in prerevolutionary China, however, who for ten years has “gulped down / this loneliness,” the continuing pressures of survival have forced her to drag the hog to market where she will proclaim in broken dialect, “‘Rich man, have you no / dollars to taste?’” (14). The “Chinese” identity of these two survivors is self-consciously multiple, deriving from no acknowledged center but negotiated among historical contingencies. In severing her allegiance to her landlord husband's estate, the rich widow responds to a far-reaching alteration in political circumstances, while the poor widow responds to an immediate change in her personal environment. At the same time, it is evident that each woman's sense of identity is subject to further internal shift, depending on forces beyond her control.

As history destabilizes identity, so can ideology. The poem “After My Last Paycheck from the Factory …” takes as its epigraph, “For the Chinese Cultural Revolution and all that was wrong with my life” (21)—a satirical thrust at the notion that Mao's Cultural Revolution conferred a stable identity upon everyone of Chinese descent. And, indeed, in the poem a youthful Chinese American expatriate working in a Communist factory experiences a profound revulsion when she invites an elderly Chinese man for an afternoon meal. The sight of old Liu eating dog and smacking “his greasy lips” is enough to make the woman yearn for “home” and her “lover's gentle kisses” (21). Although the sight of two girls wearing uniforms, bandanas, and armbands and “shouting slogans and Maoish songs” momentarily reminds her of why she has come to China in the first place, “the realist Liu” disrupts this “mirage” by revealing that the raw conditions of life have not changed for him, for as he declares, “‘It's the dog I ordered and am eating still!’” (21). The dog has spots, “rampant colonies of scabies and fleas,” and a forehead that “bled with worms” (21-22). The woman says, “I rubbed my eyes, readjusted the world” (22). But through Chin's lenses, the world must be read justed yet again. For a neighboring patron, a “stout provincial governor” who dines for free on fine “Chinese pug, twenty-five yuan a leg” and who afterwards flaunts his wealth, is destined, according to Liu, to pay a drastic penalty for his reactionary ways: “‘and he as dead as the four-legged he ate / two short kilometers before home’” (22).

By setting itself skeptically on the shifting borders of ideological rectitude, the poem complicates the leftist political identification that constitutes the radical base of an “authentic” Asian American identity. Obviously, though, it also prohibits the retreat into bourgeois complacency. At the end of the poem, the woman is given no firm ideological hold on her own identity. Whatever she thought it was is now called into question; whatever it may become remains in a state of flux.

If history and ideology move toward the destabilization of identity, their “absence” exacts a similar price. Originally from Hong Kong, Chin has spent most of her life in America. In the poem “Repulse Bay,” the “dead and swimming creatures of the sea” are images of the speaker herself, struggling to remain culturally afloat in a defamiliarized locale, a part of “the country I have lost” (64). In the poem “A Chinaman's Chance,” Chin acknowledges the special difficulties faced by the American-born Chinese attempting to recover the Chinese American past when only its fragments remain. The inability to pattern oneself after Chinese ancestors in America is stated succinctly in the lines “The railroad killed your great-grandfather / His arms here, his legs there. … / How can we remake ourselves in his image?” (29). That is, how can a connection be forged with an image that has been rent, scattered, and left unpreserved? With an ancestor who can only be recalled—both physically and otherwise—in pieces? Such a dilemma can be exacerbated by alienation from traditional systems of belief, an alienation manifested in the sardonic question posed at the poem's start:

If you were a Chinese born in America, who would you believe
Plato who said what Socrates said
Or Confucius in his bawdy way:
          “So a male child is born to you
          I am happy, very very happy.”


The repudiation of traditional beliefs further problematizes the effort to recover a “lost” identity.

Yet, despite their instabilities, it is wrong to assume that Chin's views of identity inevitably testify to loss. In the poem “I confess …” the speaker expresses a dialogic relationship between cultures by reading alternately Bachelard's “The Poetics of Space” and chapters from “The Compassionate Buddha.” She pens ironic “letters of progress”:

one day I am filial
monkey, practicing reading
and writing. Next day
I wear ink
eyeliner, open up
Mandarin frock for the boys.


The speaker's mischievous “confession” regarding her obsessive movement between cultures is partly an acknowledgment of the intellectual tradition of the West, which she willingly inherits. But more to the point, it is simultaneously a defense of an identity kept vital by its own instability. For Chin, the question of identity is engaging precisely because it is never still. The alternative—to snatch “a quick decision—/ to marry Chinese, / to succeed in business, / to buy that slow boat” (54)—is to avoid the vexations and rewards of...

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Doris Lynch (review date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lynch, Doris. Review of The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, by Marilyn Chin. Library Journal 119, no. 3 (15 February 1994): 164.

[In the following review, Lynch offers high praise for most of the poems in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty.]

The strongest poems in Chin's second collection [The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty.] (after Dwarf Bamboo, Greenfield, 1987) present an immigrant's view, combining old stories and sensibilities with an American idiom. In “How I Got That Name,” the author reveals how she received her name from two cultures. In adopting a new land and renouncing the old, she writes, “My loss is your loss, a dialect here, a memory there.” Her verse is full of mysterious images, gifts from another culture, details that enlarge our world: “her lotus feet,” “almond grass-jelly and guava,” “my umbilical cord wrapped in rice-paper.” As in every collection, there are weaker entries, especially those set at Crestwood Psychiatric Hospital. Of particular interest is the section entitled “Beijing Spring,” in which Chin writes about Tiananmen Square and the Chinese Democratic Movement from a Chinese American perspective. We take away from these poems “the song within the song, the weeping within the willow.”

Publishers Weekly (review date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, by Marilyn Chin.Publishers Weekly 241, no. 9 (28 February 1994): 79.

[In the following review, the critic praises Chin's simplicity of imagery and language in The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty.]

[In The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty] Chin (Dwarf Bamboo) writes with a toughened lyricism that persuades us of the poet's firm life knowledge: she never imputes to experience (or poetry) a false or wishful glamour. Yet Chin refuses to sacrifice her sensibility to cynicism, either, though at times she is willing to acknowledge bitterness, contempt or disappointment as her lot. Instead, she seems to strike a balance between ideal and tatty, pure and spoiled, a balance that is literary and also cultural, considering her own position as one whose father, “a petty thug, / who bought a chain of chopsuey joints / in Piss River, Oregon,” named his Asian American daughter after Marilyn Monroe: “And there I was, a wayward pink baby, / named after some tragic white woman / swollen with gin and Nembutal.” Chin's habit of stalwart declaration gives the poetry a grounded force, line to line; and her imagery, simple and spare, lifts up those same lines. Directness and indirection can be tools of equal use, she shows, and though not all the poetry calls fully on them both, the work that does is unsentimentally courageous.

Matthew Rothschild (review date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothschild, Matthew. “A Feast of Poetry.” Progressive 58 (May 1994): 48-50.

[In the following excerpt, Rothschild praises Chin's intensely personal depiction of cultural assimilation.]

Marilyn Chin has a voice all her own—witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy. In The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, she covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Oregon, she pours herself into her poetry.

“How I Got That Name: An Essay on Assimilation” begins with the declaration, “I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,” and recounts how her father “obsessed with a bombshell...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Mary Slowik (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Slowik, Mary. “Beyond Lot's Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2000): 221-42.

[In the following essay, Slowik examines the ways in which Chin and other Asian-American poets address their need to examine their cultural roots while continuing to assimilate into their new culture.]

When God tells Lot to flee Soddam and Gomorrah, he cautions him not to look back. Lot's wife cannot resist the temptation and, as they rush from the great fire storm erupting behind them, she does look back and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. The fear of looking back and yet the...

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Adrienne McCormick (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McCormick, Adrienne. “‘Being Without’: Marilyn Chin's Poems as Feminist Acts of Theorizing.” Hitting Critical Mass 6, no. 2 (spring 2000): 1-16.

[In the following essay, McCormick places Chin's poems that examine the poet's identity in the company of feminist theory that seeks to claim both a history and a language for women of color.]

Marilyn Chin's “I” poems do not merely reflect the rich and varied modes of Asian American feminist literary theory which predate her work, but are themselves acts of theorizing. By referring to Chin's poems as such, I intentionally riff on the work of Barbara Christian, Katie King, and Lisa Lowe. In the influential...

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John Gery (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gery, John. “Mocking My Own Ripeness: Authenticity, Heritage, and Self-Erasure in the Poetry of Marilyn Chin.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 12, no. 1 (April 2001): 25-45.

[In the following essay, Gery maintains that Chin finds her own voice, and transcends the constraints confronted by women writers of color, through “articulate emptinesses” and “imaginative reconstruction of the diverse resources she inherits.”]

Although ensnared in a complex nexus of gender, race, ancient traditions, and literary conventions, Marilyn Chin's poetry at its most resilient invites all these cultural and literary forces into it, whether explicitly as subject...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, by Marilyn Chin. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 43 (22 October 2001): 71.

[In the following review, the critic offers overall praise for Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.]

Chin's concerns for heritage and descent, matched with confrontational rhetoric, seem to make her an old-school poet of Asian-American identity, while a liberal use of autobiographical material (her grandmother, her parents, her neighborhood, her lovers, her English department) positions her speaker as a representative witness to modern, multicultural, middle-class California. This third collection's [Rhapsody in Plain Yellow] jagged rhythms and...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Dove, Rita. “Poet's Choice.” Washington Post (6 February 2000): X12.

Brief admiration of Chin's poetry by a former U.S. Poet Laureate.

Scott, Whitney. Review of The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, by Marilyn Chin. Booklist 90, no. 14 (15 March 1994): 1322.

Offers a positive assessment of The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty.

Seaman, Donna. Review of Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, by Marilyn Chin. Booklist, (1 January 2002): 796.

Offers a positive assessment of Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Zheng, Da. Review of Dwarf...

(The entire section is 150 words.)