MODERN POETRY IN CHINA

POETRY IN CHINA

20080302-heidachun Today poet poetry reaidng in 1980.jpg
A poetry reading in 1980
Modern poets like Zhai Yongming, Ouyang Jianghe, Wang Xiaoni, Wang Jiaxin and Xi Chuan are not widely read but are respected by scholars both inside and outside China. Al Qing, one of China's best known poets, was purged by the Communist in 1957. He died in 1996 at the age of 86.

Sheng Yun wrote in the London Review of Books: In the 1980s ‘poet’ was a prestigious job-description, and did wonders for your love life. Now none of the papers would waste space on a poem, even as filler; if a self-advertised ‘poet’ turned up on a dating site there’d be no takers and plenty of eye-rolling: poets must be weird or poor, or both. Modern poetry was more or less buried, along with China’s golden 1980s, in the year we’re not suppose to mention.: [Source: Sheng Yun, London Review of Books, November 11, 2014]

Wu Huaiyao, compiler of a annual ranking of rich writers, wrote in the Changjiang Times, “Over the four years that the rankings have been drawn up, it has never seen anyone who was purely a poet. Poets and wealth seem to be entirely insulated from each other. Poetry is snubbed, and poets pursue an existence on the margins where they are forgotten or even looked on with disdain. This is an era in which poets have been “made lonely.” “Through the course of our many interviews we found that in the mind of most people, poets are “destitute, divorced from reality, shabby, irresponsible, boring,” and even “mentally disturbed.” And they believe that there are only a few people writing poetry today. Is this truly the case? After our extensive investigation we wish to announce the truth: these days, poets are undercover right beside you!

The Chinese Poetry Festival was launched in 2005 and has since been held every three years since then. The first four festivals were held in Ma'anshan, East China's Anhui province; Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi province; Xiamen, East China's Fujian province; and Mianyang, Southwest China's Sichuan province. In 2017 I was held in Yichang city of Central China's Hubei province. More than 30 Chinese artists, including renowned TV host Chen Duo and actor Han Tongsheng participated. Featured poets included winners of the Lu Xun Literary Prize, one of China's top literary prizes, and poets from 10 Chinese ethnic groups. [Source: China Daily, September 5, 2017]

Modern Chinese Writers and Literature: MCLC Resource Center mclc.osu.edu ; Modern Chinese literature in translation Paper Republic paper-republic.org ;

Communist Slogans in China

Perhaps Communist China’s greatest contribution to literature has been its slogans. Slogans in big Chinese characters are painting in almost every village and town, urging people to support the Communist Party, pay taxes, limit the number of children and support government projects. Some the characters are big enough to cover a whole mountain sides.

There are thousands of Communist party functionaries who write slogans for the Propaganda Department and other government agencies. Good slogans are short, to the point, easy to chant and convey the Communist's party ideology of the moment. One slogan writer in Shanghai's Propaganda Department told the New York Times: "Slogans require the writing techniques and rhythms of classical poetry to make them palatable to the people."

There are special slogans for certain groups of people. Teachers and students are expected to shout "Value knowledge!" and "Reinvigorate the nation with science and technology!" Government workers are urged to psyche themselves up with chants like "Strengthen the legal system!" "Serve the people whole heartedly" and "Stick to the principal line of the Communist Party and never waver for 100 years."

Among the dozen or so slogans released by the Propaganda Department to celebrate China's 50th anniversary in 1999 were: 1) "Unite as one, fear no difficulties, struggle hard, be persistent, dare to win!"; 2) "Rely on the working class wholeheartedly." 3) "Develop public health and physical culture and improve people's physique."

Xu Zhimo

“Born in Zhejiang, Xu Zhimo (1987-1931) is one of China's best-loved poets. In the 1920s, Xu studied at King's College in Cambridge University. His poem, Farewell to Cambridge, written in 1928 when he made a later visit, is one of his most widely known pieces, learned by millions of schoolchildren across China. The Xu Zhimo Memorial Museum is located in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou on Lane 600 in the city's Xicheng district. [Source: China Daily, April 9, 2018]

Eleanor Goodman wrote in Sup China: “ Xu was a founding member of the Crescent Moon Society ( Xīn Yuè Shè), which promoted new forms and the vernacular in poetry. He is often mentioned in the same breath with other luminaries as Wen Yiduo , Shen Congwen , Liu Bannong , Bing Xin , and Hu Shi. Although Xu Zhimo is largely unknown in the Wesr his poems have been translated into English, primarily in a volume published by Oleander Press in 2012. [Source: Eleanor Goodman Sup China, November 16, 2017]

“At 18, he was compelled to enter into an arranged marriage and managed to father two children while attending college, and traveling to the US (which he hated) and the UK (which he loved) for post-graduate studies. While at Cambridge, he fell in love with Lin Huiyin , a woman who would go on to become a well known architect (her niece is Maya Lin), but who was betrothed at the time to the son of Liang Qichao . Xu divorced his wife, a highly controversial move at the time, and returned to China, where he became involved with the painter and singer Lu Xiaoman , who divorced her husband and married Xu. Along with way, Xu is rumored to have had love affairs with other women, including luminaries such as Pearl S. Buck.

“So it seems. Xu wrote what he lived, and lived what he wrote. To be reminded by these poems of Keats or of Shelley (“I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers, / From the seas and the streams; / I bear light shade for the leaves when laid / In their noonday dreams”) is right on target. These Western poets were a direct influence on the Crescent Moon Society, and their Romanticism — a reliance on natural images, gestures toward the sublime, an emphasis on individual sensual experience — became the main model for this innovative group of Chinese poets, Xu primary among them.

“Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again” goes:
Quietly I go,
As quietly as I came;
Quietly I wave
farewell to the western clouds.

The golden willow by the banks
is the bride of the setting sun.
“Reflections shimmer on the water
and ripple through my mind.

In the poem “By Chance” Xu writes:
I am a cloud in the sky,
that shadows your stirred heart by chance.
“No need for you to feel surprise,
still less to be delighted,
in a flash, every trace of me will be gone.

Poetry in Post-Cultural Revolution China

The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “The 1980s were the heyday of modern Chinese poetry. Poetry was like pop culture then — it played the role karaoke has today. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as karaoke, and every small city or town would have a place where people would get together after dinner and read poetry. It was such an everyday thing, so lively. Every night was like a mini-poetry carnival. These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities — art, film, literature — but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development.” [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China July 15, 2011]

Contemporary Chinese literature only really has about a thirty-year history — from 1978 or 1979 on. Within these thirty years poetry has held a relatively special position because compared with novels, drama and film, it was the first to start to develop after Mao’s restrictions on art. The modern Chinese novel only really only began around 1980, but modern poetry had already started before 1978.

This is why so many people read poetry in the early 1980s — because poetry had had a head start, and had played an important role in liberating people’s ways of thinking after the Mao period. So when you look at the contemporary poetry scene in China today, its readership might be small, but it still has great historical significance. Bei Dao, Duo Duo, Wang Ke — these poets of the 1980s all have this role of the cultural hero.

Underground, self-published books and events that became known as “zines”.were driving forces in the poetry movement in the 1980s. Hu told Artspace China, “These have been huge in China. One reason poetry has played such an important role in China these last thirty years is because it began as this kind of zine. Contemporary Chinese poetry began around 1978 in these kinds of underground openings and events. Beijing University, for example, had a particularly important publication called Today — or Jintian — but they couldn’t distribute it. They just made a small number of copies and distributed them amongst their friends and peers. Before that, from 1949 to 1979, there was absolutely nothing like this; for thirty years, anything that was going to be printed had to go through the government authorities. So when this phenomenon emerged it went crazy and was extremely popular.

“People had their own equipment — very simple rolling machines, a very ancient method. I printed on these myself. While I was at university everybody could operate this thing. And so later it became a massive phenomenon. Everywhere — anywhere that had a university, and a group of people who liked literature — people would get together and make these books. Throughout the “80s, it was common for a university to have up to hundreds of these zines, all circulating among friends and peers. But then after 1989 it all ended. Not simply because of political pressure, but because especially around 1992 China had its 'accelerated reform', Deng Xiaoping conducted his “tour of the South”, and the economic changes that resulted had a big impact on cultural activities.

Hu Xudong is Associate Professor at the Institute of World Literature at Beijing University. He’s also a poet, and was one of China’s first internet technicians, co-running an early website called New Youth (Xin Qingnian) which innovated with technology and language. What better person to give a lowdown on contemporary Chinese poetry, its origins in an “80s zine scene, and its internet iterations”.Read on for a bird’s eye view.

Underground Poetry in Deng Era

The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “A lot of historians break recent Chinese history into stages with June 4 1989, but it was actually 1992 where things really changed. There were still a lot of ideas after 1989 — they continued — but there was just no way of expressing them. So for example an oppositional stance, or some kind of dissatisfaction — after 1992 the very basic foundations through which you might express this started to change. Between 1989 and 1992, there were still many emotions and dreams, yearnings and hopes. But from 1992 the whole structure of society was replaced by economic reform. Things became more Westernised, more commercialised, and you saw fewer and fewer of these zines.

In the 1980s the zines were huge, like a massive newspaper — the bigger the better. But in the 1990s they became tiny, a very elegant. I was still collecting them then, but some were only as small as a napkin. We called these little “xiao zazhi”, or “little magazines”, and they were mostly poetry. After 2000, when the internet became popular, they really began to dwindle. You still see them, but there are fewer and fewer these days.

The Chinese poet Haizi (1964-89) committed suicide in March of 1989, only months before many others died on June 4th of that same year. A relatively obscure poet at the time of his death, Haizi is now hailed as the epitome of the “hero of poetry”.whose writings represent the idealistic 1980s. Three aspects of Haizi’s texts contribute heavily to his acclamation. the literary theme of minjian contesting the official narratives of “history”.and “nation;”.the writing of epic aiming at creating a national canon; and the rhetorization of Christian symbols and motifs which shares ideological grounds with the “Mao style”.in their prescription of a ‘sublime”.poet-hero.

Gui Lusheng, one of China's most famous underground poets, suffered a nervous breakdown in the 1970s and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has spent the last 20 years living in a sanitarium outside of Beijing.

Chinese Poets in with Allen Ginsberg in New York in the 1980s and 1990s

Bei Ling wrote in the South China Morning,” In the late 80s and early 90s, American beat generation writer Allen Ginsberg set up reading events with mainland poets in New York. Ginsberg organised visits to the US by several Chinese poets he called "heretic". They were to take part in a conference with American poets. The invited writers were Gong Liu and Li Gang, from Sichuan province, as well as Bei Dao, Jiang He, Gu Cheng and others from Beijing. Yan and I were already in New York. We had a sort of underground status in the mainland, because Public Security kept tabs on us, so we couldn't be part of any official Chinese team, but Ginsberg let us tag along. The American-Chinese poetry conference took place in a posh building in downtown Manhattan. Because they had grown up in "the New China", the Chinese poets couldn't speak English. Ai Weiwei was called in by his friend Ginsberg as interpreter. [Source: Bei Ling, South China Morning Post Magazine August 28, 2011, Translation by Jacqueline and Martin Winter ]

Every one of the poets, Chinese and American, sat erect around the large conference table as Ginsberg made a serious opening speech. Then came a recitation; it was Gong, reading a prepared thank you note from the National Chinese Writers' Association. And then the conference began. Every poet got his chance to say a few pleasantries to one or all of the poets from the other country. Hardly anybody understood what anybody said, but Ai started to translate everything seriously.

This was during a time in the mainland when the official writers' association was very powerful. Any poet or writer who was invited abroad had to be vetted. You had a better chance of being allowed to travel if you held any kind of office in the writers' society. And if they let you go abroad, you had to remain disciplined, you could not go anywhere alone during the day and had to return to your hotel by nightfall. And once you returned to the mainland, you had to write an official report. So the Chinese poets at the conference kept very calm and chose their words very carefully.

Ginsberg had eyes only for Bei. The whole conference became a dialogue between these two writers while the others made polite faces, like distant relatives at a wedding. Ai had to translate every question and answer between them. After a while he started to add some spice. When Ginsberg asked Bei about a deeper topic in his poems, Ai began to add the word "sex" into every sentence. "What is the deeper sexual topic in your poetry?" The Chinese poets were dumbstruck and started to whisper among themselves. Maybe this was the famous decadent spirit of the beat poet coming out into the open.

Bei was embarrassed. He started to explain in Chinese: "Sex is not the main topic, not the deeper topic in my poems ..." He had not yet finished when Ai began to translate: "Sex is essential for poetry, everything in my poems points towards sex." When the American poets heard this, their eyes lit up. They were all in agreement about the power of the poet and his poetry. So Ginsberg was even more interested. Now Ai didn't even have to add anything to the question: "In what way do you let sex appear in your poetry?"

The Chinese poets looked at each other. Bei finally muttered: "My poetry ... has nothing to do with sex." Ai kept a serious expression and translated this sentence into something completely different that made Ginsberg and the other American poets even more curious. Several of them asked him something in English.

Without blinking an eye, he said in Chinese: "The American poets would like each of you to recite two poems on the topic of sex. I will try to translate them into English." The invented request left the Chinese side speechless. Gong and Bei went pale. But everybody in the audience was laughing. Ai had succeeded in turning a serious international conference into a travesty. Then the poets noticed what had been going on. They didn't know if they should laugh or cry. Ai was laughing out loud; he was proud to have brought about the first Chinese-American poetry sex-exchange.

In the Southern Weekend interview, Ai said: "Bei Dao was the most boring person. Sometimes he would pass by New York, then he told me he wanted to see Allen Ginsberg. So I went with him and we all had a little chat. But, [for the rest of the time,] Bei was at some American university, [as part of] his bread-winning efforts."

In the autumn of 2000, I was deported to the US from a Beijing prison. For the next few years, every time I set foot in the East Village, I would imagine running into Ai again, although he had returned to the mainland several years earlier. I would look for his basement on East 7th Street, between First Avenue and Second Avenue, and walk back and forth around the entrance, expecting him to come out. In my mind, he was a fixture of the place: without that guy in his Chinese army coat it just wasn't the East Village any more.

Bei Dao

right

Bei Dao is an exiled Chinese poet. He has been suggested as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Once reporters showed up at his in expectation that he would win. Describing Chinese history, he once wrote, "Cast on a shield of bronze/She leans against a darkening museum wall." Bei was born in 1949. In 1989 he wrote an open letter urging the release of political prisoners. Since Tiananmen Square, he has not been allowed in China. He taught at the University of Michigan and is a board member of the New York-based Human Rights of China organization. He lived for a while in Paris. Bei moved to Hong Kong in 2007, where he is the Chair Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Bei Dao, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai, pioneered a new genre of Chinese poetry in the early 1980s. One of his best known poems is "The Answer," which was written in the 1970s. Although Bei's poetry isn't overtly political it has inspired people with political intentions. The poem “The Answer” has been particularly embraced. Bei was a citizen of China from 1949 to 1989. He was stateless from 1989 to 2009. He became an American citizen in 2009.

Bei Dao was a red guard during the Cultural Revolution in China and was then sent away from his native Beijing for re-education as a construction worker.I n 1994, Bei attempted to return to China through Beijing. He was questioned and detained for 12 hours at the airport before being deported. In December 2001, he was allowed to visit China for the first time in 11 years to visit his ailing father. In August 2011, the China Daily reported, “The 62-year-old poet Bei Dao surprised nearly everyone when he appeared at the Qinghai Lake Poetry Festival in Xining as he has been absent from the Chinese mainland for more than 20 years, except for a brief stay for his father's funeral in Beijing in 2001.

China Daily reported, "Bei Dao covered his thin body with a brick-red jacket and grey pants as he made a short speech at the opening ceremony before being surrounded by fans clamoring for his autograph and hoping to be photographed with him. Away from admirers, he looked introspective, as he gazed into the distance or wandered alone, sometimes snapping photos. "I wish to convey my meditation on the world after years of travelling through poetry," he said in his baritone voice. "My wandering life of 20 years is precious to me, and my life and poems run in parallel lines -- sometimes crossing," Bei Dao told Xinhua. He said he seldom recites it these days, unless a friend requests it. "For a poet, it's hard to pick a favorite among all your works, but I've always believed my best poem should be the next one," he said. "Poets should always challenge themselves."

Bei Dao said he's currently writing long poems and still considers poetry "the most important and challenging artistic expression" in his writing career. But "the paradox of writing poetry is that you have to utter the unutterable, and it's the only way to the heart of all that matters," he said.

Bei Dao said he greatly enjoys his life with family in Hong Kong, and his six-year-old son has brought him "irreplaceable comfort." "He often indulges himself in his own fantasy, loves painting and can appreciate literature," he said. He's currently working on two international poetry projects, apart from teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The first project, "International Poets in Hong Kong," invites two world renown poets to visit Hong Kong every year, carrying out poetry activities and publishing a bilingual poetry collection for each poet. The other project, the annual International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, started in 2010. It aims to make quality poetry teaching universal.

Bei Dao on Chinese Literature Today

In Bei Dao’s eyes, compared to the prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s, today's Chinese literature is uninspired. "It's true not only in China but also across the world, and it's related to many factors, like materialism oriented by consumption, the nationwide trend of seeking entertainment, information dissemination brought by new technologies. All these things are making bubbles in language and literature," he said.

He pointed out that previously a clear-cut division existed between "vulgar" culture and "serious" culture, but today vulgar culture is swallowing serious culture like a black hole, and unfortunately, many writers are forced to lower their writing standards to cater to vulgarity in today's society.

There are other reasons for the devolution of Chinese poetry, Bei Dao said, such as the absence of a system of construction. "Poetry needs good guides, and a good critic is a good guide who can lead or shape a group of well-educated readers through unscrambling and analyzing poets." He said that college students and scholars who used to read poetry have lost their enthusiasm for it amid China's social transformation, and now poetry only evokes nostalgia for them.

Meanwhile, the poet noted, the young generation of readers who grew up in the era of commercialization could not escape the impact of the times on them. "In such a populous country, it would only take a niche audience to reignite the development of poetry, so it's a pity that such reader groups have not yet formed," he said. "Modern education kills young people's imagination and creativity, so we need to promote poetry instruction to sharpen their awareness of literature," he added.

Bei Dao’s Poetry

“The Answer” goes:
“Let me tell you, world
I-do-not-believe!
If a thousand challengers lie
beneath your feet,
Count me as number thousand and one.”

Another famous poem by Bei Dao goes:
“I do not believe that the sky is blue,
I do not believe that thunder has echo,
I do not believe that dreams are false,
I do not believe that death defies retribution. “

“Translation of Bei Dao's poems online
"Debasement is the password of the base
Nobility the epitaph of the noble"
Each and every moment's a shortcut.
— The Answer

I follow it through the meaning of the East
returning home, closing death's door".
— New Year

"To be lost is a kind of leaving
and poetry rectifying life
rectifies poetry's echo".
— Requiem

"Wolves of music weave their way at a run
hawthorns wheeze with clandestine laughter"
"Beneath a tree grown from the pit I once spit out
I've hung nets to
trap birds, and waited how many years".
— Pastoral [Source: Global Times, November 2, 2016]

Poetry in Modern China

Lucas Klein wrote in the LA Review of Books: In 2015 poets Bei Dao , Ouyang Jianghe , Xi Chuan , Zhai Yongming, and Zhou Zan gave a reading at a packed St. John’s cathedral in Manhattan with Charles Bernstein, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Pierre Joris, and others. And while no single-author collections by poets living in mainland China were published in English until 2008 (in contrast to at least 11 anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry since 1990 and a sizable number of books by Taiwanese poets or Chinese writers in exile), since then we have been living in a golden age of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation, with three presses in particular — New Directions, University of Oklahoma, and Zephyr — putting out the most and the best titles (I have been a participant in this resurgence myself, translating poetry books for two of these presses). But the drawback has been relegating premodern China to “tradition,” even as expressed in American poetry. [Source: Lucas Klein, LA Review of Books, July 14, 2016]

The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “China is still very influenced by traditional ideas of what poetry is. Our best poets are more concerned with the issues of high modernism. In other countries, you can just have a normal department of literature, your mission as a writer is simply to express your spirit, your thoughts, to express your perception of the world. In other countries there’s been a period of transition — a time where poets could adjust and explore the role of poetry, and through that investigate the visual effects, or the vocal effects of poetry. But in China we’ve only recently dropped from this position of the hero, and are not quite used yet to our new role. It’s a question of stability, or having the right foundation. [Source: Christen Cornell, Artspace China July 15, 2011]

On whether Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers still seem to feel a sense of responsibility towards society, Xu said, “They’re less likely to think that making art is a matter of play, of fun. They feel a sense of pressure — even a sense of burden. So contemporary Chinese poets are in an awkward position. One the one hand, they’re not respected at all, but on the other, they can remember just how powerful they were so recently. Together these positions make for a tension In real life, the poet is a bit of “loser”, while in our minds the poet is still a star. Every new generation has its own force. But if you compare them to contemporary Chinese novelists, filmmakers, and artists, China's contemporary poets are currently kind of out on their own.

Some poets are known for their political activity. In August 2017, “Wu Mingliang, who is better known by his pen name Langzi, was taken from his home by police officers and criminally detained for “illegal business operations” for helping to produce an anthology of poems commemorating the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

300 Modern Chinese Poems

Martin Winter wrote on his blog: Zhao Siyun, has a list of authors and poems on his Blog for a Chinese-English anthology of over 300 modern Chinese poems 300. Compiled by an institution called International Poetry Translation and Research Centre, IPTRC, it is very welcoming, diverse and expansive, including writers from Taiwan, and many young voices. Liao Yiwu is included, though not with his most representative work, probably. Lü Yuan is there. Bei Dao is well represented in this new effort, although I miss the mosquito. It’s very hard to include one or two significant poems from an author who is obviously politically significant. [Source: Martin Winter's blog, September 1, 2012]

Interesting to compare this with other anthologies, in Chinese and other languages. Zhongguo Xin Shi (Fudan UP 2000), ed. Zhang Xinying, has two poems by Zhou Zuoren , one against unnecessary water dams and a drinking song, both very impressive. Zhou Zuoren has not made it onto the IPTRC list. Of course it’s rather easy to come up with some of your favorites who are not represented, compared to shifting through many thousand poems and coming up with such a list. Huang Xiang is included, despite his dissident status, but he is already in Zhongguo Xin Shi. As usual, I am looking at newer people first, although I only recognize two from those born in 1970 or later. Zhou Yunpeng is there, the blind folk singer. But not Cui Jian . Woeser is there, which is great! But in general there are hardly any poets from minority nations in China.

Ha Jin is missing, but he writes in English. Gao Xingjian does not appear, but is mostly known for fiction and drama. So who else hasn’t made it? Yang Ze Hsiang Yang Hung Hung Mai Mang (Huang Yibing ), who sometimes writes in English and teaches at Connecticut (there is another Mai Mang in China, known for one-liners). On with the non-list: Sun Wenbo, Li Nan, Yang Jian, Zhu Wen, Yin Lichuan, Zheng Xiaoqiong, Ma Lan, Hong Ying, Pang Pei, Che Qianzi and Yan Jun. I would have included Yan Jun’s Against All Organized Deception(translated by Maghiel van Crevel) and Ma Lan’s The accident and the reason, maybe even combined with As If. And How We Kill a Glove, if it wouldn’t be too long. Hong Ying’s Hunger, also written abroad. And one of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s new female migrant worker’s portraits.

Then there would be others. Not compatible, maybe. Wu Yinning and Li Ch’in’an are very much from Taiwan. Wu Yinning is more well-known for her reportages. The poems contain many fascinating local expressions, hard to translate. I’ve only read two poems by Li Ch’in’an , in a three-volume anthology of about 100 years of poetry in Taiwan. One of these two poems is a personal favorite, After Martial Law Was Lifted — In Commemoration of Lifting Martial Law in Taiwan on July 15th, 1987.

Ha Zi: Poet Who Killed Himself at 25

Tristan Shaw wrote in Sup China: “On the evening of March 24, 1989, Zha Haisheng — a poet and teacher at Beijing’s China University of Political Science and Law — wrote a bizarre note complaining that two of his friends were attacking him by inducing auditory hallucinations in his ears. Zha claimed that the men were trying to turn him schizophrenic, or pushing him to kill himself. Over the next day and a half, Zha wrote other similar notes, saying that the two men should be held accountable if he were to die or commit suicide. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Sup China, April 17, 2019]

“On the 26th, Zha gathered a bag with four books, including the Bible, and laid himself on a railroad near the Shanhaiguan District in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. Before his death, he left behind one final note, titled “My Last Will.” According to a translation in scholar Zhao Lin’s The Poetic Development of the Chinese Poet Haizi (1964-1989), the note read in part that “My suicide has nothing to do with anyone and all my previous notes will be null and void accordingly, except that my manuscripts shall be handled by Yihe Luo from October Magazine.” The young poet was 25 years old, with only bits and pieces of his work having been published.

“Completely obscure during his lifetime, Zha has since become one of the most popular and influential poets of contemporary China, remembered by his pen name, Hai Zi . A strong sense of mysticism pervades his work, with references to Christianity, Hinduism, and other religions and myths. He wrote about nature, but also darker themes, such as loneliness and death. “His most famous poem is "Facing the Sea, with Spring Blossoms". In 1988, Haizi traveled to Delingha on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and wrote the poem Sister, “Tonight I am in Delingha”, a sentimental work that reflected the poet's loneliness on a dark night.

“Zha’s tragic life has as much to do with his popularity as his beautiful poetry. He was intelligent and spiritual, very much devoted to his art, but he could also be emotional and naive. Zha was born sometime in March 1964, to a family in rural Anhui. At the age of five, as the Cultural Revolution was tearing through China, Zha impressed his parents and neighbors by reciting dozens of sayings by Mao Zedong in a recitation contest. Young Zha was a big help on the family farm, and in between his hobbies of reading and fishing, performed well in school. When he was 15, Zha scored phenomenal results on his college entrance exam, and was admitted to the elite Peking University in Beijing.

Around 1984, Zha adopted the name Hai Zi, and became a teacher of philosophy. In one of his classes, Hai Zi ended up falling in love with a student who announced to him and the rest of the class that he was her favorite poet. The relationship was brief, and ended in heartbreak for Hai Zi, but it inspired hundreds of poems. During his years as a teacher, Hai Zi took trips to western China, and developed interests in qigong, mysticism, and Tibetan culture. More of his poems began to appear in print, and in 1986, he even won a small literary prize. Unfortunately, Hai Zi also took up heavy drinking and smoking, and his love affairs never lasted long.

“Between 1984 and his death, Hai Zi is estimated to have written two million words worth of work, spanning lyrics, epics, and verse dramas. For all his output, however, Hai Zi’s poems attracted little attention from his contemporaries. There is still debate today over his mental state, and why he decided to commit suicide, but one theory might have been his lack of success. Some have pinned his suicide on an idealization of death; others believe, as his final notes indicate, that he suffered from delusions. Another factor might have been a meeting with his former student; Hai Zi was greatly upset when he learned that his old flame was married and planning to move to the United States.

“At any rate, in the aftermath of Hai Zi’s suicide, his friends Luo Yihe and Xi Chuan helped to spread his work. Posthumous publications of Hai Zi’s work in the 1990s earned him a cult following, with some fans considering him a martyr to poetry. Critics embraced him, scholars studied him, and foreigners translated him. In 1990, Xi Chuan prophesied that “the death of Haizi the poet will become one of the myths of our time.” For his young Chinese fans, who still follow in his path and makes pilgrimages to the places connected to him, Hai Zi has become a mystical, legendary figure.

Yu Xiuhua: Farmer to Celebrity Poet

Kiki Zhao wrote in the New York Times: “The woman who has become one of China’s most-read poets — even hailed as its Emily Dickinson — spent most of her 41 years in a brick farmhouse tucked away behind trees and surrounded by wheat fields. Most days she would limp down a dirt lane to a pond to feed the fish. She cut grass, grasping a sickle with hands that did not always obey her, to feed her rabbits. In the shade near the house she wrote at a low table, struggling to control her shaking body — a symptom of the cerebral palsy that she has lived with since she was born in this village in the central province of Hubei. [Source: Kiki Zhao, New York Times, August 18, 2017]

“Then, in 2014, her life changed. That year, Yu Xiuhua posted the following lines from her poem “Crossing More Than Half of China to Sleep With You” on her blog and created a sensation:
“Across China, everything is happening:
volcanoes erupting, rivers running dry,
prisoners and exiles are abandoned,
elk and red-crowned cranes are under fire.
I brave a hail of bullets to sleep with you.
I compress countless dark nights into one dawn to sleep with you.”

Her poems were discovered by Liu Nian, an editor at Poetry, a leading Chinese literary journal. Mr. Liu wrote about her and reprinted some of her works, and by February 2015 two volumes of her poetry had been published: “In Such a Staggering World” and “Moonlight Drops on My Left Hand.” The latter became the best-selling book of poetry in China in 30 years.

“Swarms of journalists descended on her farmhouse, eager to see for themselves the disabled peasant woman who wrote of erotic longing with such startling vividness. She was appointed deputy chairwoman of the Federation of Literary and Art Circles in the nearby city of Zhongxiang. Mr. Liu invited Ms. Yu to a poetry reading at Renmin University of China in Beijing, where she was interviewed by People’s Daily, CCTV and other national news outlets. 2016 saw the release of a documentary about her, “Still Tomorrow,” by the filmmaker Fan Jian, and the publication of another volume of poetry, “We Forget That We Loved.” This year she left China for the first time, appearing at Stanford and other American universities for film showings and seminars. “I think Yu Xiuhua is China’s Emily Dickinson: extraordinary imagination and a striking power with language,” Shen Rui, a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta specializing in Chinese literature and feminism, wrote in the preface to “Moonlight Drops on My Left Hand.”

“Born in 1976 in Hengdian, Ms. Yu never finished high school. At 19 she married a construction worker 12 years older, in a wedding arranged by her parents, who were concerned that she would never be able to care for herself. At 27, she began writing poetry. “I needed to do something to keep my spirit up,” she said. “Each day, I wrote one or two poems, and I felt I had accomplished something. Many of her writings centered on life in her village. In a poem about the wheat her father grew, she wrote: “Your happiness is the brown wheat hull, your pain the white wheat core.” “For the record, Ms. Yu says she dislikes being compared with Dickinson, whom she has never read.

“And often she writes about love and its turmoils. From her poem “I Am Not Alone”:
“I believe what he has with others is love.
It’s only with me that it’s not.”

In “Crossing More Than Half of China to Sleep With You,” she says:
There is little difference between me sleeping with you, and you sleeping with me.
It’s no more than a collision of two bodies, composing a force under which the flowers blossom.”

“Before she began writing poetry in her late 20s, she said, “I rarely read literature. I only started to read more famous works on my mobile phone after 2006. But I knew how to write before I read.” “I like writing poems, because they’re simple and don’t have many words,” she said, speaking haltingly as her mouth twitched. “This suits me because I’m lazy.” In an epilogue to “Moonlight”, she wrote: “What is poetry?...I don’t know and can’t tell. It’s when my heart roars, it emerges like a newborn. It’s like a crutch when one walks unsteadily in this unsteady world. Only when I write poetry do I feel complete, at peace and content.”

Poetry in the Internet Age

Wu Huaiyao, compiler of a annual ranking of rich writers, wrote in the Changjiang Times, ““Our incomplete statistics reveal that in the past few years, the Internet alone is host to roughly 5 million people writing poetry, and whose lives are intimately connected to poems. The poets we interviewed included a rich businesspeople and successful politicians. Even more thought-provoking is that in spot-interviews across the country, we found that as many as 85 percent of people have dreamed of becoming a poet. In light of this fact, we dug up four poets “hiding”.in various fields and had them tell the story of their encounters with poetry.” [Source: Wu Huaiyao, Changjiang Times, Danwei.org, November, 30, 2009]

The poet Hu Xudong told Artspace China, “These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities — art, film, literature — but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development. Novels have their publishing houses, and are already relatively commercialised — and of course novels have a far greater readership. Then you have music, contemporary art. They have their dealers and agents, their galleries and labels. They have “real capital”.

But poetry only has symbolic capital. So it’s rare for poets to get a publishing house to take on their work. Very few people look after them. They need something like the internet to find their community. This community isn’t going to be like those of twenty years ago, where a group of people gather together in the one city — in a café, or in a university — it might be one person in the North of China, another in the South, another might be studying overseas. They’ll use a particular forum or internet group to make this tiny poetry community.

Food Courier Wins on TV Poetry Quiz Show

In 2018, a food courier from eastern China amazed viewers and judges with with his unrivalled knowledge of poets and poetry to win first prize in a popular verse-themed television quiz show. Yujing Liu wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Lei Haiwei, who works in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, said he was as surprised as anyone when he emerged victorious in the latest series of Chinese Poetry Competition, aired by state broadcaster CCTV, The Beijing News reported. “I didn’t expect to win at all,” the 37-year-old was quoted as saying. “I heard that 100,000 people signed up for the contest, so you are lucky to get among the top 100.” [Source:Yujing Liu, South China Morning Post, April 2018]

“But Lei’s win had nothing to do with luck. Despite not coming from an academic or literary background, he is a voracious consumer of all things poetic. Whenever he has a break during his working day, or even if he is waiting at a traffic light, he recites verse to himself, the report said. Lei said that although he came from a relatively poor family in central China’s Hunan province, and never had money for books, he always had a love for poetry. His favourite pastime after school was to visit his local bookshop, where he would sit and try to memorise all the works he could find.

“He was quoted as saying that after all that “revision” he could now recite about 800 poems from memory. His encyclopaedic knowledge was exactly what steered him to glory in the television show. And he needed to be on top form, as his final opponent was a man called Peng Min, who not only has a master’s degree in literature from Peking University — one of China’s top schools — but is also the editor of a poetry magazine, the report said. “Not that Lei was fazed by his adversary’s credentials. He said he knew he was up against it from the outset. “Many of the participants had impressive degrees and experiences,” he said. But none of them could match Lei in the contest, which tested the competitors on such things as their ability to name poems, link works to their authors and recite lines.

Poems by the Foxconn Worker Who Committed Suicide at 24

Xu Lizhi threw himself from a Foxconn workers’ dormitory building in Shenzhen on September. 30, 2014. Sheng Yun wrote in the London Review of Books: “He was 24 years old, a migrant worker and a poet: neither line of work looks promising in China at the moment. “Xu started working at Foxconn in 2010. He left in February this year and went to join his girlfriend in Suzhou. Six months later he was back in Shenzhen. He looked for work elsewhere in the city — what he really wanted was to be a librarian — but didn’t get any of the jobs he applied for. He returned to Foxconn” two weeks before his death. There were been 18 suicide attempts at Foxconn factories from 2009 to 2014. . As the main manufacturer of Apple products, employing hundreds of thousands of people, the company’s image is sexy and cutting-edge. The factory compound in Shenzhen is clean and well managed; the recruitment fair always attracts a lot of young workers. The company’s chairman, Terry Gou (he’s from Taiwan), built it from nothing and liked to hire migrant workers without experience of assembly work: compliant twentysomethings with no great future and no land to cultivate at home. [Source:Sheng Yun, London Review of Books, November 11, 2014]

“If a minor character in a movie asked the hero what it took to be a good private eye and the hero answered ‘a big bladder’, it would be funny. But at Foxconn it’s no joke. Workers have ten minutes maximum for visits to the toilet, which are possible only if a supervisor is available to stand in for them on the shop floor. The toilets are equipped with cameras. When your time’s up, a loudspeaker calls for you by name. Most workers don’t drink anything before or during a shift. To insure against a united workforce the company puts workers from the same parts of the country in different dormitories. Roommates barely have time to fraternise in any case. You could jump off the building and nobody would have a clue. After six suicides in 2010. It later set up ‘venting rooms’ where distressed workers can hit punchbags with the faces of Foxconn execs on them.

Selected Poems by Xu Lizhi
“On My Deathbed”:
“I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime
I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost
I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light
But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.
— Xu Lizhi, 30 September 2014 [Source: Nao project, Zhuoyi Wang, Hamilton College, November, 2014].

“Conflict”
They all say
I’m a child of few words
This I don’t deny
But actually
Whether I speak or not
With this society I’ll still
Conflict.
— 7 June 2013

“I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That”
The paper before my eyes fades yellow
With a steel pen I chisel on it uneven black
Full of working words
...Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages…
They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion
When I first set foot in this place
I hoped only for that grey pay slip on the tenth of each month
To grant me some belated solace
For this I had to grind away my corners, grind away my words
Refuse to skip work, refuse sick leave, refuse leave for private reasons
Refuse to be late, refuse to leave early
By the assembly line I stood straight like iron, hands like flight,
How many days, how many nights
Did I — just like that — standing fall asleep?
— 20 August 2011.

“A Screw Fell to the Ground”
A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground.
— 9 January 2014

“A Kind of Prophecy”
Village elders say
I resemble my grandfather in his youth
I didn’t recognize it
But listening to them time and again
Won me over
My grandfather and I, Facial expressions
Temperaments, hobbies
Almost as if we came from the same womb
They nicknamed him “bamboo pole”
And me, “clothes hanger”
He often swallowed his feelings
I’m often obsequious
He liked guessing riddles
I like premonitions
1943, In the autumn of 1943, the Japanese devils invaded
and burned my grandfather alive
23? at the age of 23.
23? This year i turn 23.
— 18 June 2013

“The Last Graveyard”
Even the machine is nodding off
Sealed workshops store diseased iron
Wages concealed behind curtains
Like the love that young workers bury at the bottom of their hearts
With no time for expression, emotion crumbles into dust
They have stomachs forged of iron
Full of thick acid, sulfuric and nitric
Industry captures their tears before they have the chance to fall
Time flows by, their heads lost in fog
Output weighs down their age, pain works overtime day and night
In their lives, dizziness before their time is latent
The jig forces the skin to peel
And while it’s at it, plates on a layer of aluminum alloy
Some still endure, while others are taken by illness
I am dozing between them, guarding
The last graveyard of our youth.
— 21 December 2011

Does the Internet Help Modern Poetry in China?

In 2015, PRI reported: “In Beijing, a dozen well-known poets got together. Among them was an IT guy who wanted their help testing out a new app for a social network — not based on sharing friends, photos or business contacts, but about sharing poetry. He convinced them to each recite some of their work. Yibing Huang recorded his poem, “Shoulder to Shoulder We…” into an app called “Poem For You.” According to Yibing, the poets were skeptical. They weren’t “app” kind of guys. Was this really a good venue for poetry, they wondered? But, within minutes of the poets uploading their poems, he says, “there were hundreds of people ‘liking’ them and writing comments.” [Source: PRI, March 24, 2015]

“Hundreds of ‘likes’ within minutes. In the US, where poetry can feel like the exclusive domain of MFA grads and disaffected teens, I would never say to someone, “If you really want to understand America, read some modern poetry.” But in today’s China, where it seems like everyone is writing poetry, that might be just the thing to do. “Maybe you hear a poet like Zheng Xiaoqiong, who’s going to read a poem she wrote when she was a migrant worker in Southern China,” says Jonathan Stalling, editor of Chinese Literature Today, of the scene at a typical reading. “She’ll be talking about the vulnerable bodies of her co-workers, dancing like dust in the afternoon sun, reflecting off the machinery on the factory floor. The next poet could be Luo Ying, the pen name of Huang Nubo, who’s one of the most wealthy men in China and writes poetry from the point of view of a capitalist.”

“It’s hard not to feel good about social networks like WeChat if they can launch a woman like Yu Xiuhua into literary celebrity. And WeChat recently debuted a new program where every evening at 10pm it publishes a poem read by a “daily guest,” including luminaries like China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan. WeChat’s goal for the project is to help people “develop a deeper understanding of life.” Hard to imagine Twitter doing that. “In a way I would say there is a danger in contemporary Chinese poetry,” Yibing says. “There is a kind of intellectual laziness. Taking poetry more for its entertainment value or eyeball effect.” “Social media has ensured there’s a lot more poetry out there, but Yibing argues it also makes the good stuff harder to find. How many microblog posts do you really want to scroll through to get your poetic fix? True that, but I wonder if purists are also miffed because they believe poetry is supposed be difficult — and a little out of reach. For this crowd, clickability has taken away some of poetry’s luster, and that’s unlikely to change. But as a vehicle for enjoyment, poetry has always been more unicycle than bullet train. Even the simplest poem requires a lot more of us than settling back to watch a movie.

Image Sources: University of Washington, Ohio State University, Amazon.com, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Wikipedia, Achievement.org, Landberger posters

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021


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