Shadows of rebellion


[slideshow_deploy id=’8278′]

In a series of rare interviews, Glass speaks to four of China’s greatest poets to discover the underground movement that inspired a nation.

I’m a poet, I’m the shadow of rebellion.
Let it be torn to shreds.
But its blood falling will reflect light. I’m a poet,
I’m blood-stained paper.
Let it pass from hands to hands,
Let heart firmly connect heart…
(Wo shi ge shiren: gei Bei Dao by Mang Ke; translated by Dian Li, 2006)

“I’m a poet, I’m the shadow of rebellion.” So opens a verse by Mang Ke dedicated to his friend, the Chinese poet and icon Bei Dao.
It was printed in the inaugural issue of Jintian, or Today, the first unofficial literary journal to emerge after the Cultural Revolution. As one of its founders, Bei Dao and his writing became symbolic of China’s struggle for freedom. He was revered as a rebel, called democracy’s conscience, and his poem, Huida, or The Answer – written in response to the first Tiananmen protests in 1976 – would appear on banners carried through that square on June 4, 1989.

Debasement is the passport of the base,
Nobility is the epitaph of the noble.
Look at the gold-plated sky
Filled with the drifting rippled reflections of the dead.
The Ice Age is over,
Why then are there ice peaks everywhere?
The Cape of Good [Hope] has already been discovered,
Why then do a thousand sails compete on a Dead Sea?

I’ll tell you, world,
I do not believe!
If a thousand challengers already lie under your feet,
Count me number one thousand and one.
I do not believe the sky is blue;
I do not believe in the echoes of thunder;
I do not believe that dreams are false;
I do not believe that death brings no recompense.

The new departure and the sparkling Dipper
Are patching together a sky with nothing to hide.
It is a five thousand years’ pictogram,
It is the gaze in the eyes of people yet to come.
(Huida, by Bei Dao; transl. and ellipses, Haun Saussy, Stanford University, 1999)

Now Professor of Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Bei Dao went on years after the tragedy of that day to distance himself from the political role that was thrust upon him (perhaps not unjustly) in the years immediately following the Cultural Revolution, when a new, fairer order seemed within the Chinese people’s reach.

“I’m not a political figure,” he insisted, “I am considered a dissident writer but that is a label enforced on me.” Bei Dao seemed, however, to accept the politicised nature of his work. Addressing a question about the Tiananmen Square massacre, he says, “My feelings about it are complicated because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t at the Square … I even feel guilt that my poems [encouraged] students to die. They sacrificed themselves with my poetry.”

His response may sound dramatic, but it is difficult to overstate the importance poets held in that twilit hour of China’s recent past.
“I don’t want to say that the poets were prophets,” says Xi Chuan, an eminent poet who began writing as a student in the early 1980s and now teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, “but they were heroes. They criticised, they raised a lot of questions, and they tried to bring people to new ways of looking at society, at the world and at the language of literature itself.” The language they challenged was that of the government, which by then controlled all official writing.

As the first of China’s “three sister arts” (along with calligraphy and painting), poetry has been glorified by the Chinese people for millennia. Mao Zedong was a poet in the Confucian tradition, and composed verse that spoke to a time when civil servants were required, by examination, to write poetry for functional purposes. By the height of Mao’s power, the Communist Party leader had pushed art into the service of the state, and poetry – in its newly dominant ‘social realist’ form – became no more than propaganda.

Yu Jian, an eminent “people’s” poet from Yunnan province, reflects, “Literature based on propaganda is not literature. Essays are for revealing truths [and should be] used to fight for justice. They should not be used purposefully for image building. Writing is mankind’s highest form of (spiritual) freedom. Without this kind of freedom, there would be no civilisation; there would be no Confucius, Lao Tze, Mencius, Jesus or Buddha, all of whom remain the greatest and most noble authors on freedom. If literature needs to be approved [by the powers that be], is that still true literature?”

Bei Dao and his Today peers were the first group of poets to break with the standard of the poem as political lyric. “When I saw Today magazine at the end of the ’70s, I was astonished – literature as it should be had been revived,” remembers Yu Jian.
Official critics condemned the new movement’s style as obscure or “misty” (menglong shi), out of line with Maoist discourse and confusing to the ordinary Chinese people. This is how the “Misty Poets” came to be.

The school, which along with Bei Dao enveloped figures like Mang Ke, Yang Lian, and the tragic prodigy Gu Cheng (the youngest of the Misty Poets, he suffered from mental illness and finally took his own life after murdering his wife in New Zealand in 1993), is linked inextricably with the political upheaval of the time. Although many of them wrote and talked about poetry in Beijing’s clandestine literary salons during the Cultural Revolution, it was only after it ended, in 1976, that the poets emerged.

“It was during the darkest period of Chinese contemporary history that I started writing poetry,” Bei Dao explains, “It was a forbidden game; reading and writing books were banned and even cost one’s life.” Despite the threat from Communist Party authorities, Bei Dao persevered, raising from underground a personal voice to poetry that China had not glimpsed since 1949.

“We thought it was time to go above ground,” he offers, “because we had been underground for so long. The motivation was very simple – we wanted to express ourselves and have some influence. When we founded [Today], we never thought it would have such a big impact on Chinese literature and official discourse.”

Reluctantly, it seems now, they became the articulators of free thought, and the paladins of those who would try to avenge its loss. With more influence than they could have known at the time, the Today poets followed rebellion like its shadow. To the extent that contemporary Chinese poetry is, as one leading scholar, Dian Li, has said, “built in oppositional stance against the state”, Bei Dao and his peers can be seen as the makers of this art.

Xi Chuan, like a number of his contemporaries, was their disciple. “The Today Poets were very popular [in the 1980s], especially among the young, educated people,” he recalls, “At the time, I was a student at Peking University. I went to their lectures, and I was encouraged by what they were doing. We really felt they were doing something new; we felt they were changing the whole country. We called the 1980s the Decade of Enlightenment.”

In 1988, Xi Chuan started the unofficial magazine Qingxiang, or Tendency, with fellow poets and critics Wang Jiaxin, Cheng Dongdong and Cheng Guangwei. Though banned after three issues, the journal determined the concept of
“It was like a dream when I think about it today. We were superstitious then; we saw the future as a saviour from a nightmare …”
Yu Jian

Intellectual (zhishi fenzi) poetry and established the 25-year-old Xi Chuan as leader of this school. Later, when the debate intensified between the Intellectuals and a group known as the Minjian or People’s poets, Xi Chuan described his cabal as “those of superior intelligence who are rich in the spirit of independence, the spirit of scepticism, and moral fibre, and who, through the means of literature, write about the most important contemporary affairs for educated ordinary readers. Their chief characteristic is to offer a critique of thought” (Dian Li, 2008).

The People’s Poets, headed by Yu Jian, Xie Youshun, Ouyang Jianghe and Han Dong among others, championed poetry about daily life drawn from ordinary experience in China and written in regional or vernacular Chinese. Xie Youshun, whom Dian Li describes as “the most outspoken advocate of minjian poetry”, explained the movement as follows:

“The spirit of minjian poetry is that it never depends on colossal monsters; it exists for the purpose of poetry only … The minjian position is no more than an expression of the unwillingness to be contained by certain systems or certain institutions of knowledge.”
A sensational row between the Intellectual and People’s poets sparked in the late 1990s and persisted for many years. Now, Xi Chuan admits, “the debate is dimming”. Although he rejects the nationalistic approach of the People’s poets, “I feel to be a contemporary Chinese [person], you need to open your mind to the whole world.” Xi Chuan believes that the two groups have at least one opinion in common: “We share something, which is that we need a new culture. We need to keep our creativity. We need to write, and be honest in facing the problems not only of our society but also of ourselves.”

The problems have been legion for the Chinese people, to the extent that, Xi Chuan feels, Western writers struggle to relate to his work, and he to theirs. “There has been such mayhem these past years; we have suffered a lot,” he asserts, “and [that makes] your writing darker. Poets from other countries, especially young poets – they’re nice, but not strong enough.”

The late 1970s and 1980s was a period of great optimism in China. After Mao’s death and the arrest of the extremist Gang of Four in 1976, Bei Dao says, “We were still not sure what was going on, but there was hope. We were sure China would change soon.”
Yu Jian evokes a time of breathless renaissance in his hometown of Kunming. “It was my nineteenth century”, he muses, referring to the heyday of European literature, “The thinkers who had been suppressed by the Cultural Revolution gathered and rushed out then. It was a time of communication, discussion, exploration and creation. I remember my poet friends and I would run around the streets talking about poetry until dawn, just like Franz Kafka did in Prague.”

In his ardour to spread ideas as widely as he could, and to nurture what he calls “a huge spiritual change”, Yu Jian went to illiterate friends and colleagues and narrated to them, from memory, whole books he had read through the underground salons. He remembers one time when, for a week, he retold Victor Hugo’s last novel, Quatre-vingt treize.

Yu Jian pauses, as though annoyed with this younger self for his audacity. “That time was too utopian and too idealistic,” he chastens, “It was like a dream when I think about it today. We were superstitious then; we saw the future as a saviour from a nightmare…”
The Hong Kong author Leung Ping-kwan, who has published eleven volumes of poetry under the pen name Ye Si and who teaches Comparative Literature at Lingnan University, calls the years between 1985 and 1989 the “golden time of the [Chinese] contemporary scene”.

Though he claims his own work was not affected by the changes taking place in mainland China then, he nonetheless wrote a book of essays chronicling them. After studying in the United States, Leung returned to his native Hong Kong in the mid-1980s. “For the first time,” he remembers, “I had the freedom to travel within China and to meet some of the young writers, film directors and composers. I was impressed by the changes at the time and wrote a series of articles about the landscape and the people. The book covered a very definite period, from 1985 to 1989. After that I didn’t go to China for a long time.”

The cataclysm was the massacre at Tiananmen Square. “After 1989, everything changed,” Xi Chuan says, “In ‘89, ‘90, ‘91 and some days in ‘92, I almost stopped writing. Because in ‘89… Wow, so much happened. It was a turning point for many of the artists, for many of the writers and poets, because of June 4. But for me, other people –”

He catches himself, and goes on to describe the deaths of two dear friends that year. One was the poet Hai Zi, who once said “today’s poetry is the rhythm of starvation”. He committed suicide on March 26, 1989, when he was 25 years old. “I was very depressed,” remembers Xi Chuan, “So it seemed … I don’t know … the ways I knew of writing were not enough for me.”

Xi Chuan responded to the start of the new decade by casting off the belles-lettres fashion of writing he’d cultivated in the 1980s. Rejecting more and more the regularity of language and form that had shaped his previous work, he moved towards the long prose poetry that became his trademark style. Xi Chuan was influenced by Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and WB Yeats, as well as Paul Valéry and Rilke. His awakening came thanks to Marcel Proust.

“One day,” the poet recalls, “I went to the bookstore and I bought one volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I opened that book and I started to read it, because I was eager to know what he wrote. And my feeling was, ‘this is a wonderful book, so wonderful, but it has nothing to do with me’. I realised I needed some way to express myself. I had so many dark feelings; I needed a way to vomit them.” An excerpt from one of Xi Chuan’s early prose poems, Free Association, reveals the deep sadness he was trying to expel:

The bald man doesn’t need a comb, the tiger doesn’t need weapons, the fool doesn’t need thought. The person with no needs is practically a sage, but the sage needs to go and count the great big rivets on the iron bridge as a diversion. This is the difference between the sage and the idiot.

Nietzsche said a person must discover 24 truths every day before he can sleep well. First of all, if a person found that many truths, the supply of truth in the world would exceed demand. Secondly, a person who discovers that many truths isn’t going to want to go to sleep. (Translated by Lucas Klein)

After a moment of crisis for contemporary Chinese poetry in the early 1990s, the advent of the internet has helped bring about a resurgence of the art form and a turn towards the avant-gardism that we see among bloggers and poets published online in China today. As the century advances, Chinese poetry will no doubt continue its metamorphosis and its guardians their reach, ultimately, for the promise of the people and the beauty of free thought.

by Samantha Kuok Leese

Interviews with Bei Dao and Leung Ping-kwan by Robert Chan
Interview with Yu Jian by Yang Yu, translated by Alison Huang

Taken from the Glass archive – Issue three – Promise

To subscribe to the print edition of Glass Magazine, please go here