The title of this post derives from one of the most important memoirs of the last century, Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, which came out in 1987. She recounts in that book her imprisonment by the Red Guard during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Politically speaking, her work represents what many of us would know about China during that time period.
Shortly after that book’s publication, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 took place in Beijing, in which upwards of 3,000 protesters, were killed or injured on orders from the Chinese goverment. These protesters, many of them students, were by and large calling for democracy.
Here we are, approximately two decades later again, and it is the year of the Beijing Olympic Games. Before the world supports, boycotts, or protests these games, or decides which grounds they will do this on; as events surrounding these issues surface through the media, we in the West may want to take a look at the heart of China, via the heart of one Chinese man, a poet. Media can blind us to a fact we well know, that a big part of China’s heart is in poetry, and we need this information.
Everything written below here is either written or translated by Luisetta Mudie, who begins with a letter to you, her reader.
–Clattery MacHinery on Poetry
A journalist friend of mine who is also a poet recently went back to China after 18 years in the US. He was on the Square the night of the Tiananmen massacre. Below are some prose reflections on his trip, but also some poems of his and mine relating to Tiananmen, to China, and about his son, who holds his sense of the future.
The prose and the poems were written by him in Chinese and rendered by me in English. There may be other poems written by me at the same time, or in answer to his poems, as we had an ongoing poetic dialogue. Chronologically, the poem sequence came before the prose, and is the culmination of a three-year dialogue between us, in which the poet is trying to move beyond both the concrete horrors of his student past, and, crucially, the numinous might-have-beens which haunt his generation.
It took those of his generation far longer to give up their longing for the idealized figures common to passionate young souls than it did for most of us, because those figures were made godlike and ultimately untouchable by the massacre that followed their emergence on the Square. This passion that should have carried them into human life was forced instead into a twilight world of denial and strange attraction by the deaths that night in Beijing, and the government’s largely successful attempts to rewrite history.
But if we have the inclination, a poetic bent towards shade as well as light, those too-good angelic figures will show their true nature, which is also daimonic, and lead us into realms proper to poetry.
He would rather use his pen-name, Dreamer Fei, to avoid being identified.
by Dreamer Fei
The Road Home
The giant Boeing 747 whistles through the thick dark cloud and white smog above the city, and touches down in a drastic way, reminding me that I am home again, after 18 hours of flight and 18 years of nostalgia.
It is about an hour’s drive from the airport to my parents’ apartment. My cousin wanted to pick me up at the airport and show off his new Toyota Camry, but I declined. I want to relax on the long journey home to adjust to the reverse culture shock of re-entry. I have been warned about it by many overseas Chinese. I get a cab; it costs 10 bucks. I doze off as it snakes through the city traffic.
I was born and grew up in China. Even after 18 years in America, I still eat Chinese food at least once a day. Reading Chinese books is one of my favorite pastimes. China is remote for me, yet it has continued to haunt my dreams.
I was a college student in 1989 and an eyewitness to the shootings and killings that night along Changan Avenue. I was almost shot when I tried to persuade the soldiers not to fire on us. I fled the country shortly after the tragedy. But the tear gas, tanks, and crushed bodies permeated my dreams. In one scene, I try to hold a fellow student crushed by a tank, and realize his two legs are gone, with only blood gushing from his body. Such scenes are rewound and played again, night after night. No time for healing after such an event.
It has been 18 years since I set foot in my hometown. The cab brakes a bit and I wake up. We are on the freeway. Surprisingly, it has 12 lanes and is as good as any interstate in the U.S., if not better. It is even more surprising that, along the freeway, you can see signs for W-Mart, Cosco, McDonalds, KFC, and Domino’s Pizza as well as Starbucks Coffee and IKEA, not to mention a Mobil gas station every 10 miles.
Am I in China? Did I take the right flight? In the days that follow, there are even more surprises in store.
Day one: Environment Day
The drum beats. Firecrackers plus the loudspeakers are deafening. In the unsettled dust and smoke caused by the fireworks, hundreds of retired women dance cheerfully. The government is holding Environment Day celebrations in a local park. Government officials take turns giving the usual long speeches, talking about how environment protection is vitally important. Everyone is a bit bored until, at the end of the ceremony, environmental officials and local primary school students release several hundred doves into the air, in a “back to the wild” gesture.
These doves fly high in the foggy sky for about 10 minutes before landing next to a huge pigeon coop to get their food on a cart in a corner of the same park. The cart is owned by a farmer who makes a living by hiring out his doves for exactly this sort of stunt around the area.
It would be unfair to say that local governments don’t take environmental issues seriously. In some areas, protecting the environment is more than a public show or a ceremony, because officials could lose their jobs if an environmental disaster happens. A big chemical group in my hometown, funded by the government, planned to spend three billion yuan (around US$40 million) to tackle air pollution problems by reducing chemical waste and planting trees. The river in my hometown—a mid-size city—used to be dirty and filled with industrial waste and dead animals. In my memory, the color of the river was the same black as Chinese calligrapher’s ink.
But now, the river glitters on a sunny day (not that you get very many of them) and there are many weeping willows along the banks. Several public parks have been built along the river as well; you can even see water lilies in one while standing under the traditional Chinese pavilions. Along the newly built main avenue in the south side of the city, there are lawns with green grass, where huge plastic elephants and giraffes stand.
The locals say these projects are all done for the sake of face and to show off to top officials and tourists. But hey, trees and grass are good, a glittering river is better than a dark one, and the “face” of the city really looks better than before.
Day Two: Where is my old neighborhood?
One of the things that surprises me the most, is that I get lost when trying to find my own home, even though my folks still live in the same neighborhood I grew up in. Now, most of the shabby old shacks that the poorer residents used to live in have been demolished, and the area is filled with high-rise buildings and commercial complexes. Many of my old neighbors live in two-, three- or even four-bedroomed apartments with hardwood floors and all the modern utilities like refrigerators and washing machines. These were luxuries for most Chinese 20 years ago.
“Life is good!” my old classmate tells me. He now works at a law firm and bought a big condo two years ago. He couldn’t afford the half a million yuan (U.S.$60,000) condo on his own, but his parents and his wife’s parents helped with the downpayment. “Property prices are skyrocketing now. If we hadn’t bought it, pretty soon we wouldn’t have been able to afford it at all. And without that condo, my wife wouldn’t marry me,” he jokes. I can feel his confidence about his future, though; he makes around 5,000 RMB (US$600) per month now. “The monthly mortgage payment will remain the same, but our income will grow steadily,” he says.
But not everyone is as lucky and confident as my old classmate. One day, as I am buying a pot of tall bamboos for my father in a farmer’s market, the old saleswoman asks me why I am buying it. I tell her that my parents have moved into a new apartment and need some plants there. She says she envies them. She tells me that she used to have an old-style house in the downtown area where everybody knew everybody. Now she has moved to the outskirts of the city. “I miss the old neighborhood. Sometimes I go back to see the old neighbors who live in the high-rise buildings and chat with them.” Tears start from her eyes. I ask why she doesn’t return. She says the compensation she received when her old home was demolished for development wasn’t enough to afford a place there. I don’t know what to say to her.
This city used to have many state-owned enterprises (SOEs), but since the early 90s, most SOEs have gone bankrupt, and thousands of workers have lost their jobs, many forced into early retirement. The city is clearly divided into haves and have-nots, and in recent years, the gap between them has widened. When you go to a luxury store, you can see Burberry shirts and golf clubs at prices higher than in London or New York. Mercedes and BMWs prowl the streets, but in the farmer’s market, customers are haggling over a penny. There are restaurants where you can spend US$100 per person for a seafood buffet, but you can also have a feast for only US$1 in a roadside vendor’s stand.
Day three: Is social harmony possible?
In front of the gates of the city government, hundreds of tricycle taxis stage a quiet demonstration; they have signs on their tricycles saying “Legalize the tricycle!” “we want to survive!” “We want to pay taxes!”. Since the systemic reforms and privatisation of the SOEs, strikes and demonstrations like this have been happening quite often in this city. Some unemployed workers have managed to get some compensation due to the attention paid to the strikes and demonstrations, but it is barely enough to get them by, meaning they won’t be starving, but not enough to support their family, or pay for their kids to go to school, or for medical expenses like the occasional hospital visit. Thus, some of the unemployed workers have made new jobs for themselves by using tricycles to taxi people around the city. This has found favor with other people on a low income, especially the elderly, because they are cheaper than the bus and more convenient. But now the cab drivers have had their noses put out of joint, and have complained to the police. Others complain that the city’s 3,000 tricyle rickshaws are blocking traffic in the downtown area. The police are always fining them, but they carry on with their business afterwards.
“They shouldn’t be legalized. Shame on the city for letting them loose!” said the driver of one cab I rode in.
“We should be legalized. We need to eat! It is better than stealing!” a tricycle-man told me while I took a ride with him.
I found out later that this saga has already dragged on for more than a year. “The city government has a dilemma,” an old classmate who works for the municipality told me. “If we legalize the tricycles, then more tricyclers will come out to make money, and we will get more complaints from taxi drivers, and traffic will be worse; but at the same time, we are under pressure to find those unemployed workers jobs. If we ban all the tricycles, they will come to us for jobs. Now what we do, we keep our eyes half open on this issue, which means we do nothing at this point, we only contain the amount of tricycles.”
One sunny afternoon, I take a walk into a riverside park. I see the big rally going on. Hundreds of old men and women all wearing Mao suits are listening to an old man’s speech. He says: “Our representatives went to Beijing to petition and they handed over the paperwork. Now they are back; let us welcome them!” People burst into applause, welcoming the petitioners home as heroes. Later I found out that the man giving the speech was a former Party secretary at a big factory who led the workers and cadres to complain about corruption on the part of the factory manager and asked for more compensation. It seems to me that they are able to take a swipe at social injustice, including Communist Party officials without fear.
This is a surprise for me. As a young student, I always admired Hyde Park in London where people can voice whatever opinions they want, and here they are having a public rally on such a sensitive issue; in China! Even though the mass media are tightly controlled, people really do have some personal freedom now. They can talk about politics and even say “President Hu Jintao sucks” in a restaurant, teahouse or even in the office. Nobody holds you responsible or reports you to the police for that, because people just don’t care much about politics any more.
Day four: The way back
My cousin insists on driving me to airport. He says: “You are impressed by too many good things. I will show you something on the way back.” We take a detour instead of the highway.
The road is dusty and bumpy, and the buildings and factories are the old ones I recognize from 20 years ago. They are exactly the same, which is a shock. I just can’t piece the two pictures together.
Now I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly side of China. I don’t know where it is heading. China is changing drastically, and it’s impossible to say whether for the better or the worse.
June 4, 2006
by Dreamer Fei
Tomorrow we will rise like the sun
Your images have floated outside my window
in I don’t know how many dreams,
suspended in endless youth.
Hand in hand, you stand, staring.
I push open the window, call softly:
Are you hungry? Cold?
Eyes look back like dark tunnels,
unknowing. The mouths make no sound.
They follow me, these eyes,
as shade follows shadow—
I know I should find your graves;
pay my respects to your families.
My son bounces along beside me,
fists full of yellow flowers—
but I don’t know where to find them.
You seem to ask how I could have fallen so,
from the night we drank, smoked, and sang the same song,
hand-in-hand on the Square.
It is the years that have fallen, I reply,
garlanded in mourning flowers, now rotting.
Wait for me, I say, follow me!
We’ll go see the world
or maybe our families will intermarry.
You kept me company for years
until one day on the June grass
you sat down and said:
Tomorrow we will rise like the sun
and scatter warmth on the green earth.
Don’t forget to bring your child.
Bring the future
and we’ll set off together
on the long road home.
June 4, 2004
by Luisetta Mudie
for the survivors of Tiananmen Square
The Price of the Asking
First love: the quavering call
to the cosmos,
the soul in ashes shudders in desire,
yet still imprisoned
Fresh loves succeed, first love gone by.
It’s you, of course, and you too—
love as the answer!
Fresh loves mature, no longer enough.
We ask again, work, drink, smoke,
take the veils of flesh, or words.
And all the time the forgotten soul
is waiting, knowing that the first love
is always, always
for which the price of the asking
is life’s deepest response,
the price of the answer
the soul’s great work,
the price of the loving
a self given up to the whole story.
February 13, 2005
by Dreamer Fei
to Christopher, at one year old
Nestled in the crook of my arm, you sleep,
Fingers hooked around my shirt-button.
I carry you like a stringed instrument,
whose milky chords permeate the night.
Since you were born, I have held
The light of your arriving cry that night
When your first ray of life broke through
Big snows and winter dark, guiding
My soul-ship in its wandering ways,
A song thrummed from a well-earthed string.
So many days and nights lie before you,
My son! Ready to ensnare your heart
As you grow through wind and storm,
A far cry from tonight’s soft moonlight. Here,
Now, I am mindful of your spring fragility:
That I will be gone before you fully bloom.
What dream will sustain you, or what path
Your feet will take, I cannot know.
Soon, all that time will be as tonight, when I
Stand at the doorway, watch you on the way
to your heart’s home.
by Luisetta Mudie
I have followed you
To a small island near the courtyards
of the Huangpu Military Academy
where the river sleeps its long siesta
Mud-sluggish down past Tiger’s Gate,
bathing the estuary in oblivion—memories
of shame and gunfire are left for humans
To where a northern township lies
battered in a sea of bitter dust, the earth
and its people tortured by history
Along the sand of a Delaware beach,
voice crackling across microwaves—the cry
of lonely ghosts swept away by the wind
Out on the dark wings of memory to a night
that changed the world’s dream forever,
leaving us to pick up lost echoes of love
With the hot closeness of words in the throat,
words fought for, bought and paid for, picked
up by the roadside and between train carriages
Into poems as unanswerable as the weather
at the rain-soaked borders of sea-country,
poems that promise the storm but can never hold it
And there I saw you first, still see you, happy
on a boat in yellow, fish held high in the sea-sway,
your brave and careful eyes asking one question. When?
by Dreamer Fei
How I wish
I could rock you to sleep
like carrying a baby, telling stories
under unknown stars
I could guide and protect you
wipe away tears
bring back a smile
Or one Saturday at the piano
I could just hear you
then read you my poems
with the sun streaming through the window
We could stand, hands idly linking
in the front garden, watching the children
Or later, in the back, watch the sun sleep
and the night fall, and come gently to each
other in the flesh
We could explore the whole world then
sail the impossible blue
Later still, when the deadline is near,
we could say together in fragile voices
that we are not sure if there’s a paradise ahead of us
but didn’t we just live one on earth?
Strangely, it’s already enough, my love
with the present to share and a future out there
We have the dream fulfilled and beyond the dream’s scope
poetry, imagination and a growing passion
Now I know that a bittersweet teardrop
can serve to moisten a dry old heart
Dissolve me; make a better man