This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Review section
Most poetry is to some degree about experience. Much of it, though, filters experience in such a way as to partially or wholly uncouple itself from events. Often, as a result, the “what” it may be said to be about seems secondary to the “how” it goes about engendering meaning or meanings.
Liu Xiaobo is not beyond deploying metaphor or (nightmarish) dream-reality to say things pointedly, but his work is decidedly not of an abstract mould. And there can be no misapprehension about the subject matter in his collected June Fourth Elegies: these poems, written every year since 1990 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and the massacre of hundreds if not thousands of civilians under martial law, are an act of remembrance and an explicit response to events which have left a dark shadow on Liu’s own life and on China as a whole.
“Of such poetry it is profoundly apparent how impossible it is to contrive the live sparks of experience through which an aesthetic arises,” is how, in his afterword, Jeffrey Yang – the translator of Liu’s poetry into English for the first time – assesses the latter’s sensibilities as a writer. And in his 1992 offering, Suffocating City Square, in which he describes an un-named woman being mown down by gunfire, Liu seems to acknowledge that the poetic form is unequal to the task of rendering events whose horror, scarred in his memory, speaks for itself. “The death-cast girl”, he concludes, “has become a line of pure poetry/ that surrenders all ideograms.”
The translations come somewhat late in the day. Better known perhaps as a literary critic and campaigner for human rights, Liu has long railed against China’s collective amnesia about 1989, but he too is a victim of the government’s efforts at forgetting and containing the legacy of the crackdown.
It is said most on mainland China have not heard of him, even after he became the only Chinese to have won a Nobel Prize, in 2010, for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights.” And Yang, himself a US-based poet, publisher and editor, only read these “elegies” for the first time in 2009. His work, he says, was made all the harder for not being able to consult with Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”, having been involved in drafting the 2008 “Charter 08” manifesto, a blueprint for democracy and basic freedoms; nor even Liu’s wife Liu Xia, who is under house arrest.
Under the circumstances, then, he has made rather a good job of it, helped, so far as the non-Chinese reader can tell, by Liu’s meandering but direct, almost conversational style. Liu may not be a “wildly imaginative innovator”, as Yang remarks, but the avoidance of elaborate metaphorical deviation adds to the unflinching visceral and emotional intensity of his ventings. Poetic verisimilitude really doesn’t come much starker than this couplet from 1990’s Experiencing Death: “Open fire – kill people/ kill people – open fire.”
And if there is an immediacy about this first effort at reliving that “bayonet-inflamed dawn”, it wanes little in subsequent years. By 2002’s June Fourth: A Tomb we are still being met with “Heads sliced off by bayonets/ … /bodies pulverised by tanks.” Blood and corpses, bones and despoiled flesh: the images of carnage echo throughout the volume, somehow liturgical in their reiteration.
Liu was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York when the pro-democracy movement erupted in ’89, but he returned to support it. He found himself at odds with many of the student leaders – he believed they should abandon the ideology of class struggle and had little time for their espoused patriotism – but he gained their trust. He and others declared a three-day hunger strike on June 2 in an attempt to pull focus on the campaign for democracy, but when it became clear that Tiananmen Square was to be forcibly cleared, he was among those who pleaded with students to leave of their own volition, which intervention saved countless lives.
On June 6, he was arrested and detained for two years. He was expelled from the Beijing Normal University and branded a “black hand” by state media. Since then, he has resisted the temptation to seek refuge abroad, even though his activism and articles (many published in Hong Kong) criticising the central government have curtailed his freedom: Liu has spent much of the last two decades either in prison or under house arrest.
It would be strange indeed if these experiences did not inform his outlook. If Experiencing Death (“that once familiar world/ cannot find a handful of dirt to bury itself in”) is apocalyptic, then the collection becomes progressively more so. Written from a place of spiritual darkness if not literal confinement, much of this poetry is haunted, even disturbed. Closing in and Breaking Through, from 1998, develops one recurring nightmare: “In order to escape the abortion/ the baby inside the mother’s belly/ learns to commit suicide.”
This hellish reductio ad finem cannot be explained, however, without acknowledging Liu’s sense not only of grief at the slaughter of innocent youth, but guilt, which he alludes to in an introduction to this book culled from a collection of his verse published in Hong Kong in 2000, and again in his Dedication to an un-named victim at the beginning of For 17, from 1991: “I’m still alive, already 36. Now, facing your departed spirit, being alive is a crime.”
That self-reproach would tend to suggest he is moved by survivor’s guilt, but there may be more to it. Of the June Fourth Movement, Liu was writing as early as 1994 that the events had actually “delayed the Communist Party’s democratisation process” and that students and intellectuals in 1989 had become conceited, “as though we had reverted to the time of the Cultural Revolution and felt ourselves to be the most revolutionary.” As though, indeed, things had been pushed too far too soon.
Liu’s statement during his 2008 trial, later read out in his absence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, let it be known “I have no enemies” and there is a degree of martyrdom (one hesitates to call it Christ-like) in his acceptance of his own persecution. In Experiencing Death, there is even compassion for the executioners: “Young soldiers/ … / still haven’t felt/ the intoxication of a girl’s kiss/ but now in an instant/ experience the bloodthirsty pleasure/ of murder, their youth’s beginnings”.
It would be wrong, however, to accept that Liu does not make enemies for himself or that his poems are bereft of political ire. His essays are often scathing of Chinese history and culture: whether due to Confucianism or millenia of absolutism, he sees his compatriots as being too apathetic to challenge the system. And in his introduction, he states: “Today [in 2000] I lean toward ‘comprehensive westernisation’, in the sense of ‘westernisation’ meaning humanisation: to treat people equally as human beings. For in China, past and present, the government has never treated its citizens as buman beings.”
His subversion of the elegy, then – a literary form ubiquitous in classical Chinese poetry – may well be intentional, all the better to chafe the “educated elite”, who he says, in I Will Give My Soul Free Rein, from 1996, “had no time to clean the traces of blood from their turn-ups/ but plunged headfirst into the vast seas of trade.”
There is an element of the old Marxist charge of “false consciousness” about Liu’s denunciation of China’s “flashy bubble of prosperity” and “The ease with which money/ forgives bayonets and lies”. But it is worth reminding ourselves what it is he inveighs against: a state gorged on economic miracles but refusing to acknowledge responsibility for crimes against its own citizens and bullyragging anyone who in any way attempts to honour the democracy movement’s memory or ideals. And “a nation that tolerates a murderous regime and forgets the killed,” as Liu has it in 2004’s Fifteen Years of Darkness.
June Fourth Elegies is an almanac of rage against such injustice and betrayal. But it is also more than that: a plea for the nation to recognise its shame, finally mourn for the massacred and by so doing let human dignity take its place in public life. “The departed souls have left us a legacy and a test,” Liu writes in The Dead Souls of Spring, from 2007. Purposeful poetry is easy to denounce as propaganda. In this instance that would also be to denounce as powerful a case for humanity as you will find.