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Lost verses

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:36 September 07 2010]
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Xi Chuan gives a lecture at Beijing's Transport (Cai Huo Che) Culture Salon on September 1. The activity was part of the 17th Beijing International Book Fair. Photo: Wang Zi

By Li Xiaoshu

Xi Chuan sits in an earth yellow armchair at a dim corner of his studio in Beijing, surrounded by tall bookshelves. The half-light of evening slants through the windows.

Looking down at the floor, he blows a smoke ring and presses his face down in his hands.

The expressive poet, whose real name is Liu Jun, is stuck for words when trying to explain how two of his closest friends died in three months during a period of great upheaval.

It was the evening of March 26, 1989. A rumbling train trundled slowly along its track near Shanhaiguan, some 300 kilometers east of the capital. The poet Hai Zi, pen name of Zha Haisheng, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Politics and Law, threw himself under the wheels.

Months later, poet Luo Yihe died of a brain hemorrhage on May 31, 18 days after he joined a strike and suddenly collapsed in Tiananmen Square.

Dressed in a dark-brown polo shirt and casual pants, Xi Chuan, one of the most dynamic poets in China today and also a literature professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, looks no different from most middle-aged men who have made a comfortable life for themselves among China's changing society

But Xi believes he will never truly fit in.

"I must stay independent, critical and skeptical. Poetry is a dignified and graceful way to improve the country and the quality of people's lives," he told the Global Times.


A Student from Peking University asks questions to Misty Poets, including Bei Dao and Gu Cheng, at the university's first Literature and Art Festival on December 15, 1986. Photo: Xinhua

Chaotic childhood

Born in 1963, Xi Chuan saw the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966- 76) as a young child.

"I grew up with the Red Guards and the 'cowshed' prisons where the denounced were imprisoned and even murdered," he said.

Xi's family didn't suffer much persecution during the class struggles since his father was a paratrooper in the PLA and his mother a worker at a textile factory.

Despite the attacks on traditional Chinese culture as the root of "old ways of thinking", Xi became obsessed with classic literature. Ironically, the only chance for him to access the heterodoxy was when books, such as the Three Character Scripture and Water Margin, were displayed to receive massive examination and criticism.

Xi grew to love reciting and writing traditional Chinese poems after entering the Beijing Foreign Languages Middle School in 1974. He even submitted his first writings to Poetry Monthly, an official magazine launched in 1957, but never got a response.

Xi was gradually aware of a rising intellectual current amid China's fundamental changes in the late 1970s.

"Just let me say, world, I don't believe! If a thousand challengers are under your feet, count me as challenger one-thousand-and-one," wrote poet Bei Dao, the most notable representative of the Misty Poets, after millions protested on April 5, 1976 at the Tiananmen Square after radi-cal political leaders removed memorials left for deceased Premier Zhou Enlai.

Bei Dao's epoch-making cry was followed by the death of Chairman Mao Zedong on September 9 and the pivotal Third Plenary of the 11th CPC Congress held on December 18, 1978, during which Deng Xiaoping ordered the party to "liberate thoughts" and "seek truth from facts."

Echoing with the ideological trend, a number of underground publications made their names on the "Democracy Wall" in Xidan, Xicheng District. The mile-long brick wall was established for dissidents and activists to put up news and ideas mainly criticizing outdated leaders and failed government policies during a period known as the Beijing Spring (1978-79). The bombards were often launched in big-character posters (dazibao), a form of political protest and accusation pioneered in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution.

One of the publications was Jintian (literally means today), a Beijing-based underground poetry magazine secretly printed by a group of poets, led by Bei Dao and Mang Ke, who reacted against political restrictions. They were known as the "misty poets" for their use of deliberately obscure imagery, a name they embraced after it was used as a term of condemnation by official literary critics.

"I noted many poems on Jintian. I got to know people can be different," Xi said.

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