Chinese Poets and June Fourth 1989: A Human Response

Introduction to June Fourth 1989 Poetry Essay This essay was written in the spring of 1995, after receiving an invitation from Professor Michelle Yeh 奚密 of the University of California, Davis, to present a paper at that institution in June. My motives for writing it are clearly expressed in the first part of the essay. To my knowledge, there has been no other essay written on this subject in English, and for this reason I have been approached on the Internet by university students and others for access to it. At the time in 1995, a then somewhat restricted access to relevant poetry led me to focus on the work of only Bai Hua 柏桦, Han Dong 韩东, Zhou Lunyou 周伦佑, and Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 respectively. If I chose to rewrite it today, it could be greatly expanded, as suggested by Chapter 11 of China’s Second World of Poetry here on DACHS. Finally, when this poetry was written – in 1989 – avant-garde poetry, most of it apolitical, truly was underground again, after a period (1986-1989) when avant-garde poetry of all sorts was for the most part merely unofficial, but officially publishable. Chinese Poets and June Fourth 1989: A Human Response Michael Day, May 1995 “Based on my experience, the creativity of Chinese writers today is fairly good, better than at any time in the past. A writer is able to write whatever he wants to write. ...” “However, I feel that a writer who truly pursues art of high taste should be able to find the ways and the confidence to resolve these problems [regarding sensitive political and moral issues], because a writer truly in pursuit of art will not let his work become political propaganda, no matter whether it be positive or negative [propaganda]. ...” - from an interview with Wang Meng 王蒙, noted novelist and former P.R.C. Minister of Culture, published in the Vancouver, Canada, edition of The Sing-tao Daily星岛日报, April 14, 1995, p. A9 And what if this so-called "art of high taste" requires the denial of one's true feelings and thoughts? Is this definition also meant to apply to art that might be deemed political by the Chinese communist Party (CCP) but is, in fact, a spontaneous, honest, human response to whatever situation the writer may find himself in? Perhaps these sentiments might be valid for Chinese writers of fiction who must devote a great deal of time and thought to their work, always with the end-goal of publication in establishment literary journals in mind. Possibly Wang Meng is simply saying what he knows he must say in order to preserve his position and privileges in China (better to be the big fish in the little pond -- or is it a dry pond? -¬- than a little fish in the big pond of non-Chinese speakers, the world outside of China). But what of poetry, of the lyric response to a situation, personal or social, in which a poet may find him or herself? What if the satisfactory expression of lyrical impulse requires reference to the real world as the poet perceives it? and what if this intrudes upon the world of politics? are writers like Wang Meng denying the validity and value of such expression? Is this "art of high taste" not false if it does not address, or only partially addresses, the actual experience and emotions of the artist? And being false, what sort of art can this be that Wang and others laud before their dull-witted audiences? For my part, I will simply venture the observation that this falsehood is readily apparent to audiences for fiction, poetry and the other modern arts in China today, and this is one of the major reasons why there is a greater interest in the cultural ‘snuff’ imported into China from Hongkong, Taiwan and Western nations than in what Wang Meng calls the "art of high taste" being produced in China today. What is written below is proof that, at the least, not all of China's poets are as insensate and compliant as the CCP and Wang Meng would have us believe Chinese artists and people to be. *What follows is loosely based on a lecture delivered in Mandarin Chinese before a Modern Chinese Literature class at the University of British Columbia on March 30, 1995. It is easy for us to forget what we ourselves never directly participated in. The pictures that flash on television screens and somehow lodge in our minds are all too easily dislodged by new, even more fantastic images the nature of which all too often lends a mimetic quality to what it is we can only half-believe we see (or hear) in the first place. How many people of Chinese ethnicity still remember what it was they heard or saw when the first news of the massacre in Beijing drifted around the world on the night of June 3, 1989? How many are still willing to mouth the “M”-word itself? (None of my students were willing to say it, instead referring to it, as one did, as “the thing”. And none of the students offered an opinion when I asked them what the year 1989, which appears in the last line of a first poem I will discuss below, might mean to the people of China. If my audience had been a group of 20-year-olds of European origin, this might not be a remarkable event -- they were, however, all of Chinese ethnic background. It would appear that the CCP's propaganda has had its desired effect among overseas Chinese.) I had the dubious honor of being in China at the time of the massacre (I left Beijing for Si-chuan province on May 29) and was eventually expelled from China on October 30, 1991 for the minor part I had played in the summer of 1989. I was expelled and seven of my friends, all but one being poets, were imprisoned for periods ranging from 2-4 years. Understandably, my memories of the summer of 1989 are much sharper and more enduring than those of most, whether they be Chinese or not. This essay (and the lecture on which it is based) is a product of personal experience and emotional need, but was also triggered by the poetry translations I have produced over the past six months as part of my doctoral work. During this period, I have translated a number of poems touching on the massacre and found in them a compelling and timely subject for a lecture I had some months previously been scheduled to present. Limiting myself to the poems I have already translated, I selected only six poems for use in the lecture. Some may be surprised to learn that this number could have been greatly expanded. Poems can act as monuments, not merely for the poets that write them and who might vainly aspire to some form of immortality, but for the events and the emotions they describe -- events and emotions that might be shared by large numbers of people. I am aware that I have adopted an almost single-dimensional reading of these poems and will only be referring to those aspects of them that address my interests. In other words, I shall not address properly aesthetic issues in any detail. Instead I approach the poems as I would snapshots of varying quality in a photo-album not my own -- there are many pictures and I have chosen to address only those that, when laid out in the sequence that follows, tell a story which goes beyond a tale of the massacre itself. Finally, I find myself forced to write this because, to date, no one else has. I can understand why poets and writers in China have been silent, but I am somewhat surprised that those living outside of China have not seen fit to write about this poetry. I find it hard to believe I am the only person with access to these poems. I also do not wish to believe that others do not talk of them out of the fear of angering China's rulers, perhaps in fear of losing visitation rights (possibly viewing China's citizens as prison inmates?), and therefore avoiding the topic of the massacre and its poetry. Ergo, it is with some measure of sadness and frustration that I write this. With a few notable exceptions, poets in China were stunned or frightened into silence after the massacre. Instead, many poets found other areas into which to channel their energies once they had recovered their wits. It is this phenomenon that Bai Hua 柏桦, a Sichuan poet then resident in Nanjing, addresses in [纪念朱湘]: I noticed your form at a glance a figure raving in the autumn wind but so serene in a book A solitary seemingly unintelligent drinker a martyr of fathomless sensitivity before dying, he drinks another large cup bows his body down and enters into that long, inevitable sleep I know, since you were a child you've practiced the martyr's bearing your green spring had its fill of roving through gossip but your songs can only belong to heaven Ach, why did this exemplar only come to light at death and then leave us busy memorializing busy talking, corresponding busy with all that, up until 1989 Apart from the final line, what possible relation does this poem bear to the massacre? First, however, one must know who Zhu Xiang is, or was. Many will know him to be a poet who wrote good verse during the 1920s and 1930s. A smaller number of people will know that he committed suicide in 1933 at the age of 30. And an even smaller number will know that he did himself in by jumping into a river. Knowing all this, the poem takes on some very odd undertones. In fact, I feel the temptation to retitle it -- but I get ahead of myself. To my knowledge, Zhu Xiang is not remembered as "a figure raving [谵狂] in the autumn wind.” It would seem to me that this is an image attributed to Qu Yuan屈原, said to have lived in the third and fourth centuries B.C.E., who tradition holds to be China's first known poet. According to this tradition, consumed by frustration and sorrow as a result of the foolish ways of his king and the corrupt state of the nation, Qu is also said to have drowned himself in a river. However, I have no knowledge of Zhu Xiang taking an overt interest in politics and there is no evidence that he killed himself for political reasons. Line two of the third stanza would also seem to indicate Qu Yuan -- ¬in Qu's classic poem, [离骚], he records a complaint about "roving through gossip" in the court -- gossip which ultimately resulted in loss of the king's favor and his suicide. It is also possible that Bai Hua is again referring to Qu's claim to have been raised to proper moral conduct and a position at court, when he writes of "the martyr's bearing.” Indeed, Qu Yuan did become an "exemplar" for later Chinese poets. Given all this, what can be made of the second stanza? Bai writes an idealized portrait of death far removed from suicides and rivers. Perhaps this is deliberate nose tweaking on Bai’s part. What poet would not like to die in such a relaxed fashion after a couple of large cups of wine? "But your songs can only belong to heaven.” The poet is dead and the poetry he has left behind would seem to have little to say to those who remain behind on the earth. Now the irony of the final stanza is readily apparent. Is this truly an "exemplar" worthy of the name? And were poets truly "memorializing", "talking, corresponding" about Zhu Xiang "up until 1989"? Obviously not. I am not aware of Zhu Xiang's suicide being an issue since the 1930s. There is even less likelihood that poets of Bai Hua's generation (in their 30s and 40s) would concern themselves with him. So, whose suicide is Bai Hua really talking about? Qu Yuan's certainly, but there is a third suicide to which the final stanza can only be referring -- that of Haizi海子, a Beijing poet, 30 years of age, who threw himself under a train in the spring of 1989. However, the poem's last line indicates that poets were "busy with all that, up until 1989". Not true! as Bai Hua well knows -- in fact, the public "memorializing" did not really start until after the massacre, and continued into 1990 and 1991. And Bai Hua's poem was written in February 1991. The poem would seem to be a cry of "Enough already!" from Bai Hua. Like Zhu Xiang, in Haizi we have another poet who ends his life at the age of 30 for reasons that no one is quite certain of. These are not exemplars. Meanwhile, there has been a massacre, thousands are dead, and countless others suffer real anguish. Instead, China's poets devote their energies to the eulogies of a pointless suicide, ignoring the numerous, more meaningful deaths that now litter the landscape. Memorializing Haizi up until the massacre in 1989 would have been a human response, a relevant response. After the massacre, it becomes something else entirely. (The suicide of the "Misty" poet, Gu Cheng顾城, and his brutal murder of his wife before killing himself in the winter of 1993, resulted in a renewed orgy of "memorializing" in 1994.) The first response to the massacre by the vast majority of China's poets was a silence resulting from stunned amazement and fear. The uncharitable might consider this cowardice, however it should be remembered that the consequences of speech at that time would have been equally as real and as terrifying as the massacre itself. Also, China's poets had been struggling to divorce poetry from politics ever since the end of the Cultural Revolution and in doing so had effectively divorced themselves from China's social realities. The so-called misty poets (including Bei Dao北岛, Gu Cheng, Yang Lian杨炼 and others who have been residing in the west since the 1980s) were the last group of poets to make any attempt to speak for their generation (high school graduates who were sent to live in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution), if not for all the people of China. With the invasion of the great "I am" and every conceivable poetry "-ism" from the West during the 1980s (making up for time lost during the previous 50 years of isolation), few poets felt any close link to "the people" or even to others of their generation by 1989. As a result, it should come as no surprise that elegies for the massacred were not forthcoming (nor were they written "for the drawer"), and that, instead, readers were treated to poems and essays on the suicides or deaths of poets known personally by the authors -- presumably there was art to be found in these "poetic" deaths, while there was only politics in the deaths of the massacred. And, so, poetry does in fact become little more than the correspondence and chatter between poets that Bai Hua refers to in the last stanza of his poem. A few poets treated the terrified silence that fell over China after the massacre. [今天], written by a Nanjing poet, Han Dong韩东, on June 8, 1989, is possibly the best example of this sort of poem: Today and in similar situations A person uses his legs to stand between a table and a chair Within the preordained order I run into myself The mirror is so bleak, without depth surmounting the smooth, clear boundaries Everything embodying emotions has yielded already There's a mechanism in the brain narrating all the incident's details precisely and calmly, like scrapping the enamel off an incisor ………. Where an arm has been severed I become conscious of a severed arm The real hand knocks against the form of a cup, only the form Liquid has streamed through the interiors of plants or flower stems The blank space is as large as fifty football fields But can also shrink to become a cavity Darkness is merely a negligent net altogether without an objective to catch hold of its only purpose to leak I am isolated from appearances of all mutually imposed outcomes A multitude of feet slide on glass An enormous, sober sheet of glass and the sounds of sliding, falling For poetic reasons I have deliberately mistranslated the first line of this poem. In the original, it reads "Today and similar outward appearances.” The weight of the line is on "outward appearances" [情形] which is a term generally used in reference to physical objects. Making "today" a physical object leads the reader to assume that something is amiss in all that the poet sees on this day. Outwardly, perhaps, nothing has changed (in Nanjing, in the poet's apartment), but the stress placed on the outward appearances of things indicates that this may be the only thing that has not changed. Today he runs into himself in the mirror (as one would everyday). But Han's mirror is no longer bright, as in the Buddhist aphorism "the mind is like a bright mirror" [心如明镜], but, instead, "bleak, without depth" [荒凉,没有深度]. Han's bleak heart [心] has permeated all objects and his mind mechanically, automatically recalls what he has seen and heard of the "incident" -- an obvious reference to the massacre, and a term that the CCP later adopted in its references to it. (At the time of the massacre, Han was in Nanjing and had the courage to demonstrate with a small group of writers and artists on June 5 -- he was later to lose his teaching position as a result.) Up to this point, Han holds the reader away at a distance, everything is surface ... until the calm, precise narration of details is likened to "scrapping the enamel off an incisor.” Pain! Piercing, numbing, incapacitating pain. Brutal and inhuman, as any of us who have spent time in a dentist's chair can attest to. The next line is deliberately left blank to allow the pain to grow and fill the reader's mind. The poet also becomes "conscious" that there should be pain, that it is necessary; however, the poet is merely acknowledging it -- he only has knowledge of forms, of movement, of a wound. Everything is empty, the pain is empty, "a blank space ... as large as fifty football fields" -- in other words, the size of Tian’anmen Square, an empty space that had not been empty long before. But this emptiness "can also shrink to become a cavity.” Back to the tooth and its excruciating pain, the pain of the vast, all-embracing emptiness that now is associated with death (the Square). And darkness descends. Like a net that traps its victims, but has no specific victims, and, thus, in which all are victims. It leaks, but what it leaks is darkness, emptiness, death. Finally, in this vast enveloping darkness, on the surface of that understandably bleak mirror, on a mirror that is no longer a mirror but just "an enormous, sober sheet of glass", the multitude (all of us) are unseen and mute -- there are only the terrifying, lonely sounds of "sliding, falling". And so there was silence. But not complete and utter silence. While others were muted, a handful of poets were compelled to speak directly to the issue. Some were forced by circumstances to voice their feelings or to perish (in the spiritual, if not physical, sense). Into this category falls Zhou Lunyou周伦佑. Before 1989, Zhou was known for his involvement in the Not-Not [非非] group of poets, which he co-founded with another Sichuan poet, Lan Ma蓝马, in 1985. Zhou was the editor-in-chief of the group's samizdat poetry journal, Not-Not非非, and oversaw the publication of four issues prior to the massacre. While not overtly political, the journal published several theoretical articles of a dadaesque-cum-postmodernist nature that amounted to an assault on the value systems that are the foundations of current Chinese linguistic usage and meaning, but which, at the same time, were also attacks on the "new spiritual civilization" which the CCP is continually attempting to establish in China. Therefore, although Zhou did not involve himself in any political activities during April, May, and June 1989, it came as no surprise to himself when he was "detained" by the authorities on August 15 in his hometown of Xichang (China's commercial satellite launching center to the west of Chengdu). Zhou was never officially arrested or charged, and after seven months in a local prison, he was finally sentenced administratively to three years in a labour-reform camp on the slopes of mount Emei. He was found guilty of the then ubiquitous charge of "counterrevolutionary incitement" [煽动反革命], and achieved the dubious honor of being one of the few people imprisoned for samizdat poetry activity since the Cultural Revolution. During Zhou's imprisonment, he wrote a series of poems that can be best appreciated as personally necessary responses to his plight, as tools for mental and physical survival. One of these poems, written in April 1990 while still imprisoned in Xichang, is a commemoration of the events of the previous year. (The former CCP Secretary-General, Hu Yaobang胡耀邦, died in April 1989 and this touched off the first student demonstrations which eventually led to the massacre in June.) Nothing is crueler than this To watch a candle ignite, and then die out … Of course, this candle is symbolic of hope and life, and implies the darkness that must exist before the lighting of candles is necessary. … I didn't see how the candle was lit Only remember one sentence, one gesture The candle flame leaps from this eye to that More hands are lifted up in the candlelight At the light's core is the blood and fat of youth Beams of light in all directions The entire sky is filled with the face of a dove … The symbolism is obvious. Hope spreads until it is everywhere and in all people. But then there is: … A thin sound of thunder treading over yellow skin I never saw how the candle flame died only felt the graceful breaking of those arms The exquisite fracturing of more arms Wax tears cover the stair Death creates the coldest landscapes out of summer After a brilliant twinkle the candle has become ash Objects shot through by candlelight staunchly darken … And so those at the "light's core,” those who had reached out for hope, have their arms broken off -- in effect, they die for their hopes. Thus "... In darkness, I can only, silently, send up this smoke,” not hope, just a poem, just a memory of the dead. Later on, in October 1990, now an inmate at the labour-reform camp, Zhou describes his situation there, but at the same time also may be describing his plight in the larger prison that china had become for himself and many others at that time: This is a situation I have never before entered deeply into It takes violent hold of you. Atop a colossal stone Rocks containing iron pile up coldly And form into columns and walls … The "colossal stone" might be Mount E, or it might be China. "Rocks containing iron" appear to refer to those who act as camp guards and the prison itself. Later on, it becomes clear that the stones are also personifications of his fellow inmates (in either prison): … This isn't some kind of game of the imagination At the cost of your life you are on the scene For all of three years, you must accept these stones Become one component in this arrangement Only through murder can you experience that intensity Forcing itself in on all sides Compelling you to become small, smaller Until you skip into a stone and become a form of a thing Break open a stone and there's still a stone From wall to wall. From the soul out to the eyes You have to love these stones, stone people And stoney things, love and be intimate with them Nod a greeting, sometimes the bumps will leave your head bleeding Heavier stones on top, occupy commanding positions You can't look up at them but can sense them at all times Always so indubitable and brutal They can smash your body to pieces at any time … "Heavier stones"? Not merely the guards or camp wardens, but also those stones that are the CCP and its leadership in Beijing. In a situation such as this, how does a poet survive? … To penetrate a tiger and not be eaten by it To penetrate a stone and not become a stone To pass through burning brambles and still be your old self Requires perseverance. You must hold fast to yourself … And it is through writing poetry like this that Zhou is able to persevere. And, by extension, perhaps it is because they did not write that many other poets in far more comfortable situations were not able to. Zhou commemorates his pain, his struggle, he dwells in it, writes of it and, thus, does not become a stone: … The iron stones continue to pile up around you In the arrangement of stones you light a candle Illuminating each of your wounds more brightly The poem proves that the poet is not yet stone. The poem is hope, is life. Yet, four months later in [忍者意象], Zhou recognizes the double-edged nature of perseverance that can easily be transformed into tolerance and forbearance. And this, given the humiliation and suffering inflicted on one, can only lead to insensitivity -- in other words, you may ..."skip into a stone and become a form of a thing" (from the previous poem). Eat Eastern philosophy and attain the Tao of Laozi and the Yellow Emperor The chrysanthemum of antiquity enters into your bone marrow Subdue the hard with the soft endure all humiliations But don't believe they humiliate accept his every blow But don't feel their weight let him laugh Exist outside your body as a butterfly You feel the holiness of this wrong decisions are in the hands of others You can only give in the words are in other people's mouths Speechlessly you listen attentively allow the attacks to expand They touch on the soul again a face hangs Peacefully your thoughts turn to the unfathomable The image of the tolerant is a tortoise It draws its head back into its belly allows people to trample it underfoot You find pleasure in this ponder the suffering of mankind One hundred times yield a hundred times admit your guilt One hundred times crawl under the crotch of others Swallow your last tooth into your stomach Water is hurt by the stone water surrounds the stone The beauty of forbearance issues forth brilliance from the inner depths At crucial moments think of Han Xin And your conscience is set at ease the word tolerate is a knife in the heart The heart drips blood and still you talk and joke gleefully Oh, the mighty Tolerant! The stunned silence that fell over China in the wake of the massacre can be better understood in light of these poems. Zhou enunciates some of the reasons: The weaker succumb to the weight of the stones, adapting to the conditions of life in the society they must live in, and many of the stronger fall victim to traditional avenues of escape (Taoism, Buddhism, and so on). There was, however, one notable exception, one poet who responded immediately to the massacre and addressed the full horror of the event. For writing [屠杀], for circulating a dramatic reading of the poem in audiocassette form, and for attempting to make a videocassette version of said poem, Liao Yiwu廖亦武, together with five collaborators in the latter deed, was arrested in March 1990. Following the release of the others in February 1992, Liao was charged and sentenced retroactively to four years in a labour-reform camp near Chong-qing in his native province of Sichuan. The impetus to write was in fact rooted in an emotional experience during the summer of 1988 when, during a visit to Nanjing, Liao was struck by what he perceived to be the simultaneous physical and metaphysical 'slaughter' of Chinese civilization. When the massacre occurred in the following year, however, the poem was only partly written. Liao lived far away from Beijing in the mid-sized town of Fuling, on the banks of the Yangtse River in the east of Sichuan province. Like most Chinese, however, he had followed events in the nation's capital as closely as the official media allowed. I arrived in Fuling from Beijing on June 1 and presented Liao with a firsthand account of what I had witnessed and participated in during my three-week stay there. Finally, on the night of June 3, I called Liao to me as I heard the first live reports of the massacre on the BBC news service. Liao had no English, but listened to my simultaneous translation and heard the timbre of the reporters and interviewees voices, including the sounds of automatic weapons fire in the background. (The BBC had a number of radio-equipped jeeps stationed at strategic points around Beijing.) Liao did not have to hear much before he found the inspiration he had previously lacked to complete : Another sort of slaughter takes place at Utopia's core The prime minister catches cold, the people must cough; martial law is declared again and again The toothless, old machinery of the state rolls toward those who have the courage to resist the sickness Unarmed thugs fall by the thousands! Iron-clad professional killers swim in a sea of blood, set fires beneath tightly shuttered windows, wipe their regulation army boots with the skirts of dead maidens. They are incapable of trembling These heartless robots are incapable of trembling! Their electronic brains have only one programme: an official document full of holes In the name of the Fatherland slaughter the constitution! Replace the constitution, slaughter righteousness! In the name of mothers slaughter children! In the name of children sodomize fathers! In the name of wives murder husbands! In the name of urbanites blow up cities! OPEN FIRE! FIRE!... I do not believe Liao slept that night. when I saw him the next day, he had already completed the poem. Given the emotional tenor of most of Liao's previous poetry, its bleak nature, and agonized, almost frenzied, intensity, his reaction was almost predictable. successfully captures the horror and intensity of the massacre by way of the exaggerated, surrealistic techniques that are a trademark of Liao's poetry: ... Smash open a skull! Fry the skin on his head to a crisp! Make the brain gush out. The soul gush out. Splash on the overpass. Gatehouse. Railings. Splash on the road! Splash towards the sky where they become stars! Escaped stars! Stars with two human legs! Sky and earth have reversed positions. Mankind wears bright shining hats. Bright shining metal helmets. A troop of soldiers comes charging out of the moon. OPEN FIRE! ALL BARRELS! BLAST AWAY! IT FEELS SO GOOD! Mankind and stars fall. Flee together. Can't make one out from the other. Chase them up to the clouds! Chase into the cracks of the earth and into their flesh and waste them! Blow another hole in the soul! Blow another hole in the stars! Souls dressed in red shirts! souls with white belts! Souls wearing running shoes doing gymnastics to radio! Where can you run to? We will dig you out of the flesh. Scoop you out of the air and water. OPEN FIRE! BLAST AWAY! IT FEELS GOOD! SO GOOD! ... Liao goes on to stress the hopelessness of the situation, hopelessness he had been writing about in his various elegies for Chinese civilization during the previous three years: ... Freedom feels so good! Snuffing out freedom feels so good! Power will be triumphant for ever. Will be passed down from generation to generation for ever. Freedom will also come back from the dead. It will come back to life in generation after generation. Like that dim light just before the dawn. No. There's no light. At Utopia's core there can never be light. Our hearts are pitch black. Black and scalding. Like a corpse incinerator. ... ... All the time forward, there must be a place to rest. There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot be heard. We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass. A leaf. Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy. How much farther till we're home? We have no home. Everyone knows. Chinese people have no home. Home is a comforting desire. Let us die in this desire OPEN FIRE, BLAST AWAY, FIRE! Let us die in freedom. Righteousness. Equality. Universal love. Peace. In these vague desires. Stand on the horizon. Attract more of the living to death! ... These hopes are not new -- and neither is the slaughter. Throughout this century the empty promises of these slogans, these catchwords, have been attracting countless thousands of Chinese to their deaths. Then, far off on the horizon, their images are erected as martyrs to lure the gullible on to certain death. Tears are all that are left to one -- tears that have been continuously shed over the course of the centuries in China. In the final section of , Liao utilizes imagery from The Songs of the South [楚辞], traditionally held to be the work of Qu Yuan, and in particular that of one poem, [招魂], in which one soul (said to be that of a king) is urged to return to its old home. In the original, the singers (shamaness') describe the horrors that await the soul in any direction it might travel. They also describe the comparative comfort of the soul's former residence. But in Liao's poem, the butchers are everywhere, there is no escape, no hope. Even the sun -- a traditional emblem of power, of the Son of Heaven, and, more recently, of Mao Zedong -- offers no comfort and is in league with the butchers. Faced with this reality the only course of action is terrified paralysis and tears: … The butchers come from the east of the city, from the west of city, from the north and south of the city Metal helmets glint in the light. They're singing..... The sun rises in the east, the sun rises in the west, the sun rises in the north and the south Putrid, sweltering summer, people and ghosts sing..... Don't go to the east, don't go to the west, don't go to the north and south We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink People with no understanding of the times, people in the midst of calamity, people who plot to shoot down the sun You can only cry, you're still crying, crycrycrycrycrycrycrycry! CRYCRY! CRY! … In this historically unprecedented slaughter only the spawn of dogs can survive. Of course, as Liao had earlier intimated, there is nothing 'historically unprecedented' about this 'slaughter'. Or, perhaps what is unprecedented is its duration, its continuous nature and its pervasiveness. In a world where it is so easy to 'forget' events such as the massacre in 1989, where it can become no more than an "incident" or a "thing,” how many are there that have not already been transformed into "the spawn of dogs"? The silence, the necessity of compromise that basic survival forces on some, the need to find the "golden mean" in the face of physical and spiritual horror can only ensure its continuation. In any case, not all of china's poets have rationalized the massacre into non-existence, or have buried it in a plethora of personal trivia. The creeping malaise of collective irresponsibility and pure self-interest may seem to have swept China in recent years but, as these six poems suggest, there remains some evidence of resistance. The question that remains to be answered is whether these are the final throes in the death agony of a once great civilization. And what new horrors might the amoral, dehumanized power that is apparently rising up out of its ashes inflict upon itself and the world if they are?

No comments: