China's Second World of Poetry (Ch. 2)
CHAPTER 2: ZHOU LUNYOU: UNDERGROUND POETRY DURING THE 1970s As with the poets who coalesced into the Today poetry group in Beijing in 1978, there was also clandestine poetry activity in Sichuan before that time. To date the best account of this scene in Sichuan, and the most complete collection of such poetry, can be found in A Selection of the Poetry of Zhou Lunyou: Burning Brambles (周伦佑诗选：燃烧的荆棘). Zhou Lunyou is the oldest of the poets to be dealt with over the course of this text (born 1952), but also one of the most active during the period in question (1982-1992) and to this day. A resident of Xichang, a smallish city in the southwest of the province, nearer to Yunnan and Tibet than Chengdu, Zhou’s poetry circulated among trusted acquaintances in that area prior to the death of Mao and the Fall of the Gang of Four in 1976. However, none of this poetry was officially published until 1999 in Taiwan. By his own account, Zhou began writing poetry in July 1969 – a poem entitled
(青春寄语), said by him to be heavily influenced by pre-1949 poets Wen Yiduo and Xu Zhimo. Before this, he states that he and his elder twin brother, Zhou Lunzuo, had been able to obtain a good number of valuable texts to read in Xichang and its environs, where several encampments of rusticated educated-youths were located. These included the works of Pushkin, Lermontov and Byron, A Selection of China’s New Poetry (中国新诗选), The Compilation of China’s New Literature – Poetry Collection (中国新文学大系—诗集), A Selection of the Poetry and Other Writings of Feng Zhi (冯至诗文选集), A Selection of the Poetry and Other Writings of Wen Yiduo (闻一多诗文选集), and Poems of the Dadu River (大渡河诗抄) by the contemporary Sichuan poet Yan Yi. Unfortunately, these early poems of Zhou’s were lost or destroyed as a result of efforts to hide them during periods of high political tension, when Zhou felt there was a danger of having his accommodations searched in 1972, and again in 1973 after Zhou Lunzuo had been arrested for writing a big character poster entitled (疑问).
A lifelong interest in Daoism seemingly began in 1971 when Zhou read Laozi and Zhuangzi, and this was followed, in 1972, by the reading of CCP-internal publications of the works of Bakunin and Kropotkin, as well as the poetry of Tagore, Liang Zongdai, and Wang Jingzhi. It is from this year that the first of the eighteen poems in Zhou’s extant collection dates:
Watching over a mountain of ice
mouthful by mouthful
I swallow cold ice
hot emotion melts pieces of ice
the ice consumes hot emotion
ice, little by little lessens
the heart, colder with each passing instant
I cannot melt the whole mountain of ice
----- limited resources of heat about spent
but I’m not discouraged: [if I] swallow a bit
this world is a little less cold
there’s a bit more warmth in the world of man
more true feeling
Watching over a mountain of ice
mouthful by mouthful
I swallow cold ice
Here there are evident influences of symbolism, intense subjectivity, no use of rhyme (in the Chinese original), and a notable lack of punctuation – altogether strong indications of a young poet who wishes to be ‘modernist,’ certainly with respect to poetry publicly available at this time. It is also unforgivably – if not criminally – bourgeois, as the protagonist stands alone in his view of the world in which he lives, this at a time when all published poetry was written in the name of the workers, peasants, soldiers or the collective nation in general – with Mao’s published classical verse the lone exception which proved the rule. This is somewhat tempered by an apparently humanist desire to melt the ‘ice’ of China’s Cultural Revolution world.
Zhou goes on to record reading, in 1973, several internal CCP publications, including On Liberty (1859) by Jonathan Mills, and Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism (1917) and Principles of Social Reconstruction (1917) by Bertrand Russell. From his friend Wang Ning, he was able to borrow copies of the discontinued bi-monthly journal, World Literature (世界文学) in which he read Chen Jingrong’s translations of Baudelaire’s poetry and a critical essay by Aragon on Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.
Later that year, in November, Zhou put together his first poetry collection under the name of Melodies of Youth (青春的旋律), which contained 25 poems and an article in lieu of a preface (代序) for the poet, who was supposedly already dead – a simple protective device in case copies of the collection fell into the wrong hands.
In 1974, Zhou read an internally published copy of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, a pre-’49 edition of The Complete Works of Lu Xun (鲁迅全集), Research Materials of the Wei-Jin, North-South Dynasties Literary History (魏晋南北朝文学史参考资料), Ji Kang’s Works (嵇康集), and The History of Chinese Thought (中国思想通史), edited by Hou Wailu. Like many others at this time, Zhou also began to try his hand at classical regulated verse. Zhou states that he was led to this by way of Lu Xun, leading onto an even greater interest in Ji Kang. Ji came from a fatherless, impoverished background and studied hard to master literature, metaphysical thought and music. His poetry exhibited a detached, critical viewpoint of society that understandably appealed to Zhou at the time. However, as noted previously, this was also an era greatly influenced by the person and writings of Mao Zedong, and Mao’s regulated verse was one of the few permitted literary materials of the time. Nevertheless, it must be said that Zhou’s subject matter more closely resembles that of Ji than Mao, even though Zhou does state that he also experimented with ci (词), or classical lyric meters, a form that did not come into existence until long after Ji’s death, and which Mao favored.
In 1975, Zhou identified with the thesis of Lu Xun’s translation of The Symbols of Depression (苦闷的象征) by the Japanese aesthetic theorist Kuriyagawa Hakuson厨川白村. In this book, for the first time, he came across the names of Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson and their theories concerning the powers of intuition and the irrational, and felt himself drawn more to Freud (an influence which becomes readily apparent in Zhou’s work in the 1980s). In addition, during this year, Zhou read The History of Russian Literature, On Classical Russian Authors, Selected Writings of Vassarion Belinsky, and The Aesthetic Writings of Chernyshevsky. Zhou goes on to state that he was impressed by the sense of personal mission with regard to literature and other pursuits exhibited by Herzen, Belinskii, Chernyshevsky, and others.
Zhou’s idealism and reaction against CCP cultural repression was further evidenced by (试验; 1975/05/21):
enclosed in a black room
roundabout no sign of light
It thirsts for radiance
shakes wings, and pecks
at the four walls
The master opens a window ---
A firefly flashes in front of the window
[the rooster] shouts: it’s daybreak
The master empties a bowl of cold water over it
Some stars peek in the window
it sings loud: daybreak……
The master rewards it with a stone
The moon rises
it thinks, then says: day……
The master awards it a beating with a stick
Day breaks, it is silent
and mistakenly takes day for night
The master says: This is a sick chicken
This poem seems allegorical – perhaps a comment on how poets and others may react when presented with a glimmer of freedom or hope of it? The master can be read as the CCP, or Mao, and this may be a comment on the second fall of Deng Xiaoping as a result of Gang of Four machinations in 1975, or just the way in which CCP political movements have terrorized Chinese people and made them unsure of even the most basic truths in life – the test revealing their inability to live in truth. Clearly, however, the reference to the rooster might more productively be indicative of Chinese intellectuals in general, especially of the post-May Fourth variety, who had, prior to 1949, been heralds of a new and greater age for a modern China, but who had been locked in a ‘dark room’ for decades and were no longer able to discern what true light, or freedom, might be, or how to respond to it.
In 1976, Zhou Lunyou continued his self-education with reading by Schopenhauer and Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy (1945), in which he found himself particularly attracted to Russell’s introductions to the thought of Nietzsche and Bergson. He was also able to obtain copies of Selected Poetry of Alberti and Selected Poetry of Aragon, both editions published before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In addition, he was able to get his hands on a 1957-edition of The Selected Works of Mayakovsky and found himself particularly drawn to his early, short poems written while a representative of the school of Futurism.
Many of these texts were also the reading material of other budding poets at this time, such as those of Today. Denied university educations, often sent to live in the countryside and learn from the farmers, such individuals were forced to become autodictats if they wanted to pursue intellectual interests. The knowledge of, and the willingness to accept, the risks they ran are indicative of the strength of their character, their devotedness to the art of poetry, as well as that of their reaction against the current state of the art in China.
How did all this affect Zhou’s poetry?
Possibly the title of the next poem translated here – (青春的挽歌) — indicates the influence of Schopenhauer. In fact, it is a very personal cry of rage and despair, written by Zhou for his generation of youth. He himself was not sent to the countryside or border regions – except for the years his family spent there from the early-1960s on as a result of both his parents being minor functionaries in the pre-1949 Nationalist government in the area — instead Zhou had the ‘luck’ to be forced to work as a furnace operator in a Xichang pharmaceuticals plant while his friends and Zhou Lunzuo were sent out of the city. Zhou Lunyou, Zhou Lunzuo, and an older brother (driven mad by Cultural Revolution persecution for writing an essay critical of CCP policies at university) had insisted on a course of self-education, despite the objections of their parents who feared that a little education was a harmful thing under the prevailing political circumstances.
O, has there ever been an age in which youth has suffered this fate
In which country have the young experienced our pain
The spirit suffocated, breathing restricted
The shadow of a smile in a dream will also carry terror
We thirst for knowledge, [but] books [we] open are full of empty slogans
We search for truth, but what we get are lies and fallacies
We have hope, ideals, and also millstones
However what await us are shit buckets, metal hoes --- a life of forced labor
The whip of destiny drives us to the borderlands, the countryside ---
Like those columns of prisoners of yesteryear exiled to Siberia
It is of interest to note that this poem was written on the day of, and the day after, the death of Zhou Enlai (Jan. 8-9, 1976) and contains no apparent reference to this fact. Instead, one week later, on Jan. 15, Zhou Lunyou wrote (民主死了，民主万岁—悼周恩来总理). What makes this poem remarkable is its use of colloquial Chinese and modern poetics – the vast majority of commemorative poems written for Zhou were written in a classical style in the classical language. These poems did not appear in public until the massive public outpouring that occurred on April 5, the traditional Chinese grave cleaning holiday, when thousands of individuals gathered in Tian’anmen Square in Beijing to present wreaths and recite poems written in honor of Zhou Enlai. Mao and the Gang of Four had banned any public ceremonies for Zhou at the time of his death, and the ‘illegal’ public activity in Beijing and elsewhere in April was quickly crushed by the police and military and deemed counter-revolutionary in nature. At four stanzas of nine long, rhymed lines, Zhou Lunyou’s poem is much longer than poems later seen and heard in Beijing, and, being written in the modern, colloquial language, was a very dangerous act at the time. Some lines from the poem indicate just how dangerous:
no solemn rites, also no right to assemble,
For many years, he used an enormous body to protect the people’s interests,
Ah, who can make historical judgment, evaluate the feats and crimes of his life?
Us --- the scales in the hearts of the people are best able to weigh right and wrong.
Written lies can never conceal bloody acts!
Here Zhou Lunyou is apparently referring to the political attacks on Zhou Enlai by the Gang of Four, both before and after his death. So far, none of this departs from the other poetry written to commemorate Zhou’s death and vilify the Gang of Four (if not also Mao). However, the last stanza is very unusual and deserves a full translation:
Ah, we mourn him, but don’t excessively praise,
in a lofty position, yet he was different from that gang of power seekers.
Diligently working, although [he] never gave us special kindness,
we respect him, only because of his upright character and magnanimousness.
Ah, weep! People, mournfully sigh over your fate.
Ah, go berserk! Butchers, quickly give free play to your despotic ways!
Is he dead? I ask the rivers, I ask the earth ---
No, in the silence of eight hundred million I can already hear rumbling thunder.
--- O, democracy, democracy is dead, long live democracy!
What is very different here is the apparently objective view of Zhou Enlai, a man who had been in the top echelons of the party since before 1949, and who, by that very fact, could not be absolved of all blame for what followed. There are very few, if any, other poems of that time attempting such a balanced view of the man. He was ‘good’ in comparison to many others, but the man was no saint. To this day, this is an assessment of Zhou Enlai that is seldom heard or read in China. Part of the reason for this is the fact that Zhou was a mentor and protector of Deng Xiaoping. Certainly, ‘democracy’ – as Zhou Lunyou refers to it in this poem – was never something Zhou Enlai or Deng had much interest in.
In December 1976, Zhou Lunyou compiled his second collection of poetry, bringing together 31 poems written during 1975-1976, giving it the name Dirge of Youth from the above poem. At the same time, he also compiled a collection of old-style classical verse under the name of Bamboo by the North Window (北窗竹), a grouping of 70 poems altogether.
The final poem in the collection under discussion is of interest in how it addresses Zhou Lunyou’s state of mind at the time (December 1976) and as a milestone to judge what occurred later with regard to his choice of poetic themes, diction, and technique:
(发现) [Dec. 20, 1976]
From cracks between tiles
down drips a little sunlight
I quickly gather it in hands
afraid it will scatter on the ground
a hot current spreads from my hands
the splitting of cells accelerates
blood speeds in circulation
muscles grow tense
Sunlight beats on my hands
I fear it’ll leak
through fingers to the ground
scoop it up, drink it down ---
a hot current spreads in my mouth
the tongue becomes straight
the brain becomes rich
the heart, burning hot
Given that Zhou Lunyou had no access to the poetry of the Today poets and their Beijing literary salons (there apparently were none in Xichang), there are still some similarities in themes and poetic stance – the loner outside of society, the desire to speak for others of similar experience, the stress on the humanity of the Big ‘I’. However, Zhou’s poetry seems to lack the optimism and the belief in the possibility of creating a new, more humane ‘order’ in China often seen in Misty poetry in general, and seems to be more directly critical of current events in China. Ultimately, as seen in this early poetry, he appears to adopt a more adversarial position vis-à-vis the CCP than most Misty poets. This may have come about because of his family’s experiences of CCP political repression during the Cultural Revolution.
Zhou describes how his attempts to have some of these poems published in official journals in 1979 and 1980 were all rebuffed ( , above, was very nearly published, but finally rejected) and attributes these rejections to this more openly critical poetic stance.
Looking back on these poems, Zhou sees an over-reliance on rhyme, staid line patterns and poetic form, and an inability to rise beyond critical-realist and humanist stances. However, given his confining circumstances in Xichang, Zhou does not feel that this work compares badly with much of what was written at the same time by Today poets and others.
Like many others of his age and interests in China, Zhou read the poetry of the Today group avidly and set out to imitate them after they appeared in establishment literary journals, such as Poetry, from 1978 on. Ultimately, this course of self-study did lead to the publication of Zhou’s poetry in various journals. Zhou’s (孤松) was published in the October 1981 issue of Poetry. Feitian Literature Monthly (飞天文学月刊) of Lanzhou, in Gansu province, published a group of three poems in its August 1982 issue – (春节), (错误), and (回忆). From this time until 1985, several other Misty-style poems of Zhou’s were published in the above-mentioned nationally circulated journals as well as Sichuan Literature Monthly (四川文学月刊) and Stars Poetry Monthly (星星诗刊) of Chengdu, and People’s Literature of Beijing.
Two of these Misty-style poems follow:
Strolls alone on the high plateau
Time has played a joke on him
He has lost the way home
He stands on a precipice
staring off into the distance
The stars take the place of his stern gaze
All that remains is a clear head
He continues in his undertaking
Writing his life into chronicles
The rings of the wheel of time
Are a history that will never decay
I’m a honeybee
Flying out of a traditional Oriental painting,
On each festival day along my way,
From mugwort leaf and calamus I gather honey
in bitter delicate fragrances
I collect a trace of poetic mood
From a mooncake as round as the moon
And a moon as round as a mooncake
I gather a fulfilling desire
From the scattered oblique shadows of chrysanthemums
And cornel, I harvest a homesick melody
Carrying so many stories and legends
I descend upon your pistil
And gather a little pollen
To make a spring of colors
Compared to his earlier poetry, it is evident why this verse is clearly more acceptable to the CCP literary establishment. Both poems make use of traditional symbolism – the pine representative of the long-suffering, upright loner-intellectual who remains standing firm in his task after much trial and torment; and the honey bee doing what honey bees do in the spring. No direct or otherwise obvious social criticism here, but this was not a game that Zhou would go on with for long. In the meantime, however, he was learning his craft and enjoying the sight of his name in print, achieving some of the recognition that all aspiring poets desire.
However, at about the same time Zhou was being officially published for the first time, in the provincial capital of Chengdu much else was afoot, as a group of poets began to organize their own version of the Today poetry journal for newcomers to the art who were still learning at the feet of the Misty poets.