Through the Nan Da Gate: A China Journey


63 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-920633-22-6






Reviewed by Marilyn Chapman

Marily Chapman was a freelance writer living in Kitchener, Ontario.


Ken Mitchell’s love affair with China has, to date, resulted in two dramas (“The Great Cultural Revolution” and “Gone the Burning Sun,” a one-man play on Norman Bethune) and this volume of poetry (Through the Nan Da Gate), which is based on the author’s experiences in China as a visiting professor of English at the University of Nanjing in 1981.

This is an attractive, classy little book. It has been designed with care and love, and I could not read it, and look at its twenty-four photographs and exquisite Chinese calligraphy, without becoming fascinated by this ancient civilization where “balance and paradox run together.”

I like looking at this book, I like the feel of it in my hands. I also like the way some of Mitchell’s images leap off the page and take on a visual or aural immediacy that stirs the imagination:

Against the American Embassy wall

grows a fungus of squatters’ shacks.

Sa-ni girls run laughing
through the chaos.
Fireworks rearrange the night.

Mitchell is at his best when he explains deftly China’s endless fascination with the acquisition of face:

Face is everything
lost or won
in a single gesture
a thoughtful gift
a careless lie.

But for the most part, the poetry does not measure up to the book’s appearance. Mitchell has not found a voice compelling enough to unify his various experiences into a poetic whole. As his focus shifts from philosophy, to social customs, to history, to polities, to the landscape—and sometimes back again — the reader has no sense of a unifying personality. Oh, we get a lot of personal details, but somehow these don’t coalesce. Furthermore, the voice is often self-indulgent and lead-footed. When the author and his son get on their new bike, for instance, we read:

Then we’re off to Fuzimiao
the old market district
across town by the south gate.
We totter a bit at first,

Brian Bunch the bell clanging in blind panic.

Watch those potholes in the street!

Mitchell should have stuck to prose.



Mitchell, Ken, “Through the Nan Da Gate: A China Journey,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 13, 2024,