“Underground Fire” by Yu Jian

Yu Jian photo AUG 2014

Chinese poet 于坚 Yu Jian

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: During the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, Yu Jian set his mind on becoming a poet. At a time when both classical Chinese poetry and foreign literature circulated underground, and when it was virtually a crime to sit on a picture of the Great Leader, the task was a daunting one. Here, Yu recounts his struggle in an account that reminds us just how dangerous it can be to devote yourself to poetry. I’d like to thank Martin Alexander, editor of Asia Literary Review, who published an extract from this “Underground Fire” [地火] in the Spring 2017 issue.

In 1969, I was working in a factory in Kunming. Before finishing junior middle school, the State sent me to a factory in the northern suburbs of the city that specialised in making various kinds of machinery used in the mining industry. Here I worked as a riveter in the riveting and welding workshop.

When I wasn’t at work, I wrote poetry. In those early days, I composed a form of classical Chinese poetry known as gutishi, because in my Chinese classes at school only the classical-style poems of Mao Zedong were taught — I studied every single poem Mao wrote and could recite them off by heart. Owing to this influence, my first attempts to write poems was a kind of literary substitution, replacing some of the words in Mao’s poems with my own.

The factory was split in half by a broad aisle with workshops either side, and on both sides of this aisle, at the entrance to each workshop, there was a notice board for putting up dazibao or “big-character posters”. Big-character posters were used during the Cultural Revolution for the public expression of opinions about current issues — a bit like the internet today — and in the main streets and in workplaces there were notice boards everywhere where you could put up a poster. If you had some idea you wanted to get across, you wrote a big-character poster and stuck it on the board, unsigned if you wanted, although you would, of course, have to face the consequences yourself. It was a bogus attempt at freedom of speech: the number of people who actually dared say anything real was extremely small — people who sneaked out at night to put up a poster publicly expressing their pessimism with regard to the status quo were arrested at daybreak. Every month, each of the workshops would have to stick up a few new things on their notice board such as citations from Party leaders, extracts from newspaper editorials, expressions of gratitude written by workers, rhyming ditties of various kinds eulogizing of the Fatherland or singing in praise of scenes of prosperity and the overall excellence of the state of the nation, written in ink with a brush on a big white sheet of paper and accompanied by water-colour illustrations of the sun and floral motifs. The notice board of every workshop had its own name: the one outside the machining workshop was called “Spring Rain”, while that outside the riveting and welding workshop was named “The Red Riveter”. Not surprisingly, the casting workshop’s had been christened “Steel Flowers”. I had only just turned sixteen when I started work at the factory, and had written a poem in praise of International Labour Day based on the form of one of Mao’s; this was my first ever composition, and the propaganda officer published on “The Red Riveter”. But this didn’t spark any particular interest in writing on my part; it was just a one-off thing. Mao Zedong’s verse had led me to the Gate of Poetry, but beyond it was concealed the vast realm of classical Chinese poetry. These Gates of Civilization were as numerous as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin with her thousand arms — there wasn’t one single gate, and you could go through any of them in order to reach a higher level of skill until you reached civilization’s most profound inner chamber.

I spent the winter of 1970 at home recovering from an illness. At that time my father was in exile in the village of Shuige in Luliang County, so I went to the village temple where he was living to see him. The statue of the Buddha there had already been destroyed, and the main building had been converted into a storehouse in which the production team kept all sorts of bits and pieces in piles on the floor. I stayed with my father upstairs. Under a pile of rice-straw, I found a large bamboo basket containing several old books, and one of them was a selection of classical Chinese poems published in the 1960s, a restricted publication available only to Party cadres. More than thirty poems were printed in it. On that day, in our poorly-lit loft dwelling, I opened up this little book and the first thing I came across was a poem by Wang Wei entitled “Autumn Nightfall in the Hills”: In empty hills after recent rain / The air fills with belated autumn / A bright moon shines between the pine-trees / And clear spring water runs over the stones. It was if I had been struck by lightning and a blind-fold of black cloth was torn from my eyes — at once I was plunged into full light. Later, sitting in the back of a large truck on the road back to Kunming, I sat in a daze the whole way thinking of nothing but poetry. I have no idea how this little book came to be hidden away in a remote village. It was a restricted publication for organizations of the Chinese Communist Party provincial party committee. It couldn’t have been my father’s — he was a scholar of the old school steeped in classical literature, while this was only an elementary reader for beginners. Perhaps the god of the temple had made its presence felt; whatever the case, for many years it seemed to me that the discovery of this book in a pile of straw was altogether uncanny. I didn’t dare tell my father about it because I didn’t wanted to be deprived it, so I hid it away and when I left the village, I took it with me. With this book, Wang Wei, Su Shi, Chiang Pai-shi, Li Po, Du Fu, Wu Wên-ying, Hsin Ch’i-chi, Fan Ch’eng-ta . . . all of them in the darkness, and all of them people I had been forbidden to read. In the 1970s, after their wide-scale burning and banning in 1966, books were very hard to find. But you could find them if you put your mind to it, and many literary classics circulated secretly underground. My teenage years were spent secretly reading these banned works. Later, when I got hold of Wang Wei’s “Wang River Sequence”, it became my poetic Bible. I also managed to find a copy of a New Edition of Prosody [《诗韵新编》] and learned its rules off by heart. In 1973, I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for the first time: it made an enormous impact on me — I stopped writing poems in the traditional style and wrote free verse instead, stuff and nonsense about breezes and flowers and snow and the moon, the sorrows of being young, falling in love, and so on. My first poem in modern Chinese was about my heartfelt responses to a spring scene in a park.

In 1975, the violent storms of the Cultural Revolution eased somewhat, libraries opened their doors again, and it became possible to borrow certain classics. In addition, a large number of banned books hidden away in storage were removed by ordinary civilians and put back into circulation underground. I read a great deal of Russian, French, English and American literature, but there was little poetry among all this clandestine material. My only access was to Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Leaves of Grass. One day while riding my battered old bike along West Huashan Road not far from where I lived, I came across a rather flustered-looking middle-aged man outside an old photography studio surround by two or three other people. He was waving around a small book with a yellow cover in his hand. My eyes lit up and I jumped off my bike, walking it back to where he was; flicking down the kick-stand with my foot, I parked my bike and went over to him. He held the book in his hand and muttered something in a very hesitant fashion about wanting to sell it, frequently looking to his left and right down the road. Someone had already made him a counter-offer, thinking the asking price to high. One look was enough to tell me that what he was selling was a banned book. I said I wanted to take a look at it: reluctantly he handed it over, holding onto one half which he would not let go of. I know he was worried that I wanted to report him to the authorities rather than buy his book. In those days, people were always reporting others to the authorities, or informing, or betraying people they knew — these were glorious acts encouraged by the State. He was taking an enormous risk: the private buying or selling of anything was forbidden, and he was selling a banned book. Anything served as a pretext to inform on people in those days: if you were seen looking out a window several days in a row, someone could report to the authorities about it — it was a way to earn the Organization’s trust, to get given an important position, to win a bright future with boundless prospect. I told him: Let me have a look first. I don’t have the faintest idea who you are! He relaxed a bit and let go his grip. Because books had been banned for so many years, I was used to taking in ten lines in a single glance; no matter what kind of writing it was, a glance was enough to tell me. At that time, reading itself was an underground activity: if a friend lent to a banned book, you had to read it in secret in two or three days, and return it as quickly as possible. What counted as a banned book? The Dream of the Red Chamber, Resurrection, Goethe’s Faust, The Poems of Hsu Chih-mo . . . Bloody hell [我靠]! Tolstoy’s War and Peace would be concealed inside a wrapper of thick brown paper with the word “PHYSICS” written on it. I am the holder of the record for reading the four volumes of Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe in five days — within that time I also filled a notebook with quotes from it as well as ate, slept, and went to work. I took the book from it and read through it at lightning speed. It was a thin book of only 60 pages with a yellow cover entitled Stray Birds, written by someone called “Rabindranath Tagore”. I didn’t have a clue who Tagore was, and there was a lot of red underlining on the pages — If you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars — stuff that blew me apart when I read it! In the Chinese-language environment of those days, to come across lines of poetry like this really did blow you to smithereens — this was solid gold dancing on paper! To call it the music of the spheres really didn’t do it justice. To give you some idea of what the Chinese around me was like, just around the corner there were a couple of posters written in large characters criticizing my father: FERRET Out that Kuomintang Spy So-and-So. When my father was a student at Nanjing Central University in 1948, he founded a literary society with some classmates called the Camel Society. This made him a “spy”, and for this reason he was sent into exile. The recommended retail price of Stray Birds was 15 cents. He wanted to sell it for three dollars, twenty times as much! Back in those days I only earned 15 dollars a month, but without a moment’s hesitation I bought that book. It was the most I ever paid for a book in my whole life. With it tucked under my jacket, I jumped on my bike and pedalled off as fast as I could, afraid the seller would have second-thoughts. The book was full of reactionary phrases of incredible beauty and, when I’d finished reading it, at once I secretly passed it on to friends in the factory — everyone was bowled over by it. People wanted to read it over and over, so we decided to make copies, and we bought stencil paper and, individually, worked on the cutting of the stencils. One of my friends had a girl-friend called Xiao Ping. She worked as a typist in the office of the factory, and we passed the prepared stencils onto here so that she could make ten copies using paper and a mimeograph that belonged to the State. Two copies each went to the five of us — me, Fuyuan, Jianhui, Tangping, and Chongming — and Xiao Ping made an extra one for herself. Once the copies were printed, we burned the stencils. I still remember that night. As we lit a fire in a basin and burned the stencils we enjoyed the enticing smell of printing ink given off by the copies of Tagore’s poetry. Youthful faces were lit up by the flames, as if we’d conjured up a spirit. Love is a sacrifice, and we didn’t really think about anything we did then, but what that young woman did was tantamount to courting disaster. Many years later when we recalled the incident, we all accused ourselves of being shockingly irresponsible — but at the time we had no idea about the consequences. It was an incomparably beautiful book of poems, and poetry always enables one to forget reality’s cruelties. When I was 21, Tagore came into my life, the poet best suited to that age. With his god-like voice he praised nature, human existence, love. Everything had a spirit — this was precisely the spiritual experience the Yunnan High Plateau gave to me. Yunnan was an expanse of plain, primitive soil [原始淳朴的土地], and all the gods lived in the tribes of the various ethnic minorities, the rivers, the mountains, the forests, and all the animals were their incarnations, across the whole of Yunnan there were 30,000 gods, and even the blaring loud-speakers of the Cultural Revolution could not drive them away, they had already hidden themselves away in the depths of our youthful hearts, and I had already encountered them on the shores of Lake Dian. But it was only when I ready Tagore’s poetry that they made their presence felt in my soul. Tagore was the messenger of these gods.

In those days there was no outlet for poetry; all the literary magazines had been shut down. Occasionally the newspapers would print a few slogans and catch-cries divided into lines, and a few of the lines in these would be a little more polished than your average slogan, making use of a thinking in images. Such poems would also carry the poet’s name at the end: “A, worker” or “B, of the People’s Liberation Army”, or “C, Commune Member”. I couldn’t publish my poems in the newspapers — I’d already started writing the “new poetry” in free-verse — nor could I even tell people that I was writing poetry. Casually showing people what I wrote was out of the question, and that included my own mother and father.

One day, and elder cousin of mine who had finished his high-schooling lent me an anthology of poems wrapped in an old newspaper. In in, translated by Zha Liangzheng, was Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:

O, wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O, thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds . . .

What terrible words! Just to read them was enough to get me killed. I recall how hard I found it to get this demonic language out of my head [梦魂牵绕], so free it was, so forthright, and black was black, and white was white, indignation was indignation, terror was terror, disgust was disgust. There was no beating around the bush, or referring to one thing by means of another, or any hemming and hawing, or misty obscurity. I was afraid, afraid that these words had put a curse on me, that they had cast some mad spell on me, that it was these words that I would mutter aloud in my sleep, and that someone would hear one night and report to the authorities. In those days I lived in dormitory at the factory, eight of us in a room twelve metres square.

Another time, I nearly got into very serious trouble. I’d written a longish poem with the title “Moonlight Tune”: Like a girl with jade-smooth arms / The moon pulls aside her silver bed-curtains / The world is soundly sleeping / Quietly night is roaming . . . I was feeling so pleased with myself that I decided to go and buy a brand-new iridium-point fountain pen and some manuscript paper to make a fair copy. I went to the stationery store, bought a Hero fountain pen, and a stack of new squared manuscript paper. I still remember that pen. I’d never seen another one like it: there was a small cap on it near the nib, and if you unscrewed it, there was a small button underneath — all you had to do was push this button for the pen to take in ink. It had a dark-green shaft and a gold nib; I was as pleased as punch with it. I clipped it to the breast-pocket of my shirt, and rode my bike triumphantly back home to copy out my poem. When I went to get it out of my pocket, I couldn’t for the life of me find my “Moonlight Tune” — I must have taken it out of my shirt pocket and left it on the counter of the stationery shop before I put my new pen in it. Blind panic! I wasn’t concerned that I’d lost me poem and that I’d never be able to remember some of the magical lines in it; I was concerned that someone else would read those lines. I went back to the shop, but the person working at the counter there gave me a meaningful look so I didn’t dare ask about my poem. I just took another look around and then went home. I was beside myself for a week, imagining that they couldn’t from the look of me tell which danwei or work-unit I was from, and wondering whether they would trace the hand-writing. I even tried to work out how I could argue that the images in the poem had a healthy, positive meaning. I had several nightmares.

There were many words we couldn’t use in that period — it was dangerous to write them down, and it was dangerous to use them. Writing the character fan — one of the meanings of which is “revolt; rebel” — on a blank sheet of paper could get you into all sorts of trouble. With my own eyes I once saw an eight-year-old boy subject to pidou (a form of public meeting at which people are criticized and denounced). His name was Fan Chixing, someone I used to hang around with as a kid. When he sat down on a poster depicting our Mighty Leader [一张领袖像], another youngster dobbed him in; a struggle meeting was called by the grown-ups, and they ordered his father to slap him across the face in front of everyone. It was an event I will never forget. China during the Cultural Revolution was different from the Soviet Union under Stalin: Stalin crated the gulag archipelagos, but he could tolerate Pushkin and Shostakovich. Neither a violin nor a poem was tolerated by the Cultural Revolution. Thought was strictly controlled during that time, and the short-cut to controlling thought was controlling language. The connotations, metaphorical associations and symbolic aspects of any word had to be pondered at length, examined, and verified. “Ocean” stood for “the people”, “the sun” and the constellation of “the Big Dipper” stood for the Leader, “east wind” stood for the strength of the people, “flies” and “noxious weeds” stood for “the enemy”, and so on. If the metaphors of a poem could be interpreted in a reactionary, negative way, the writer was bound to get into trouble. A poem written in praise of the west wind was certain to be taken as praising Western imperialism — if you said by way of explanation that the west wind was a wind that blew from a westerly direction, that it was a movement of air relative to the surface of the Earth, that is was the direction of an air-current, you’d be accused of sophistry. The reason why I later put forward the idea of “refusing metaphor” had a lot to do with the linguistic environment of that era — I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Poetry is a never-ending campaign for the liberation of language; it is language’s Carnival. Words are only words, but like colours, what can you paint if you’re only allowed to use red?

Actually, there was nothing reactionary in my thinking when I was a young man — I was a bit negative, perhaps but this was merely something I had picked up from Lao Tzu’s Taoism (“the Tao models itself on that which is naturally so”), a kind of thinking implicit in the poetry of Wang Wei and Su Tung-p’o and which exerted an imperceptible influence on me. But I was still very much afraid: the language I used in my poetry was pretty over the top [我诗中的语词很可怕], much of it seldom seen at that time. The Chinese of that period was coarse, simplistic, and crude; there were only a few hundred words that you had to make do with [只有几百个词勉强准用] — and even those words that had been graciously given the nod had to be used with the utmost caution. Writing poetry was by nature reactionary: the State encouraged everyone to become a jijifenzi (an “active element”), while to be negative was a reactionary and hostile state of mind. In contrast, from ancient times the tone of poetry had been Again last night the east wind filled my room / O gaze not on the lost kingdom under this bright moon (Li Yü) — a negative tradition that has a very long history. I had immersed myself in classical Chinese poetry, and had as a result been deeply influenced by this negative sentiment, deeply worried about the state of the nation and saddened by the things of this world [伤世感物] — Thinking of the eternal nature of heaven and earth, / I am alone and grief-stricken, my tears streaming down (Ch’en Tzu-ang). Poetry was extremely dangerous: it was an account of oneself freely offered without the least coercion, a confession, and evidence of a dark and gloomy inner life. If someone had reported my to the authorities, the consequences didn’t bear thinking about. The only place I wrote my poems down was in a notebook, and I only showed this to my most trusted friends.

I wrote poetry for eight years, without ever coming across another poet in my immediate circle. Friends were happy to read my poems, but they didn’t write themselves — you needed a lot of courage to write poetry since everything was there to see in black and white, absolute proof, but I think I had come to terms with the risk [我算是豁出去了]. I felt very isolated, and was desperate to find some others on the same path. Of course, I knew that there were a lot of people writing in secret in China, but I had no idea where they were. I recall one day in 1974. It was noon, and we were off work, all the machine tools were switched off and silent as the grave [停下来死]. With peace in the workshops, the riveter Chen Shi came sneaking around and dragged me off to a quiet spot. After looking around to make sure the coast was clear, we sat ourselves down on an ingot of steel and he took out a sheet of very creased letter paper — the paper had already begun to tear along some of the folds. There was a poem written on it: it was called “Believe in the Future”, not the whole eleven verses, only the first seven had been copied, without the name of the poet, but Chen Shi said that it was written by a young Beijing school-leaver. I was taken by the spider webs, the cooking stove, the desolate Earth, the melancholy of losing one’s way, and lines such as “My flowers nestle in the arms of another’s feelings”. Lines like this, and their appearance in this poem, really did break fresh ground. Take “When spider webs seal my stove without mercy”, for example. At that time, “seal” occurred with great frequency and referred specifically to class enemies, but in this poem the subject of “seal” was “spider webs” and alluded to time, and so was truly very bold. I knew what the writer meant by his “belief in the future”: wasn’t it the same thing as Shelley’s If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? The metaphorical force of words cannot be controlled, the signified changes over the course of time, confusing one thing with another, or attacking someone by means of innuendos and insinuations, even God cannot control this. In the past “the future” and “spring” referred to those areas in China liberated by communist forces. In the 1970s, when “all the rivers and the mountains of the nation were red”, you couldn’t have “believe in the future” — since the present was that mighty “future”, how could you not believe in it? That was pretty reactionary. For this reason, the poem had to be circulated in a furtive manner underground. I’d read through it twice when Chen Shi snatched it from my hands, folded it up carefully, and put it back in the pocket of his undershirt. I wanted to make a copy but he wouldn’t let me. To this day I have no idea where Chen Shi got a hold of the poem. This secret put him on a higher footing than me: he had channels that gave him access to underground poetry, giving him a contact with “the future”. Ever since that episode, I wanted to meet the man that wrote the poem. After more than twenty years, I saw him in Beijing: it was Shi Zhi.

After the convening of the Third Plenum in December 1978, I had the feeling that a new age was on its way. Imitating the style of Vladimir Mayakovski, I wrote a long lyric poem criticizing the Gang of Four entitled “Justice will be Done”. There was a famous film-actor from the 1960s in the factory by the name of Xu — he once played a traitor in a film and for this “crime” he was exiled to Kunming from the August First Film Studio during the Cultural Revolution — and he was in the same workshop as me. Xu was very fond of this poem, and he copied it out for me with a writing brush and ink onto full-width, poster-size sheets of paper which he then put up on the notice-board outside the factory canteen — when you unscrolled it, it was over ten metres long, a veritable outpouring of eloquence, a mighty torrent. The workers would tap their aluminium mess tins as they made their way to the canteen to get something to eat, but when they saw the poem, they would fall as silent as the machines when everyone had gone home after work. People would edge up to me and pat me on the shoulder, saying Boy, have you got guts, brother! I was the only poet in this factory of over three hundred workers.

In the Spring of 1979, I was walking past the big department store building in the centre of Kunming when I noticed a crowd of people gathered along a stretch of grey wall outside the provincial Pharmaceutical Company on which the pages of a mimeographed magazine had been pasted up on separately. The writing was a bit blurry — perhaps the silk-screen had moved during the printing process — and the name of it was Underground Fire. The Pharmaceutical Company was a Western-style building dating from the 1930s; stuck there on a grey-black wall made out of bits of rock we called “horse’s teeth” [马牙石] and cement, Underground Fire stood out all the more conspicuously. I skimmed through the whole thing as fast as I could: there were short stories, poems, prose pieces, and all of them dealt with human life, sentimental topics typical “of the writings of the exploiting classes”, and love — it was if it had been edited by some latter-day Hsu Chih-mo, that tall, handsome poet slightly notorious for his love affairs. I went hot all over: these were my confederates and I had found them at last. There was an address — people had faith in the arrival of a new age, and so they felt bold enough to make their contact address public.

Since I’d been searching for so long, I now decided to go and see them. I wanted to discuss poetry with real poets, to read my poetry to them — I still had no idea whether what I wrote was any good or not. Apart from seven or eight close friends, my readers were all hidden away in the darkness, and I often imagined reading my work out to all those poets in Heaven such as Wang Wei, Li Po, Su Tung-p’o, Pushkin, Lermontov, Charles Baudelaire . . . At that time, I was bold enough to try anything — I was 25, and my writing of poetry had turned me into something of an Antaeus. In secret, I had read A Hero of Our Times, Rudin, Don Quixote, Jean-Christophe, and Resurrection . . . These writings had endowed my youth with enormous force, a sacred force. At that time, I knew nothing of the Christian spirit they contained. I forgot all about feeling afraid: of course I knew that it was an underground journal, and I had long been aware of what had happened in 1957 when the government cracked down on writer in the “anti-Rightist” movement. I knew about the persecution of “the Seekers” literary group, and I knew of Han Dong’s father, who wrote under the name “Fangzhi”. Many years later, I would become friends with Han Dong and together we would set up the non-official journal They. In the course of the Cultural Revolution, I had witnessed — and experienced — many things. On day in 1966, members of a rebel faction came to the family house and asked me — I was twelve at the time — and asked me to tell them what my father usually talked about at home. I refused to tell them anything.

In 1979, one day at dusk at the beginning of spring, I paid a visit to the address provided in Underground Fire. As I walked along Yinhua Avenue — excited, scared — I saw in my mind’s eye there something reminiscent of the Médan soirées hosted by Emile Zola or one of Alexander Herzen’s literary salons, as well as faces that looked just like Pushkin’s or Lermontov’s. Underground Fire had its editorial office in the staff quarters located behind the Yunnan Provincial Library, in the second floor of a red-brick building. I knocked on a wooden door the colour of red earth and the door opened to reveal a young man a few years older than me wearing a white shirt: handsome, intelligent, and with the gleam of a raging furnace in his eyes. He shook me by the hand, and welcomed me to join them. This was the editor in chief of Underground Fire, Shi Anda, and its editorial office was his home. He was on the staff of the Provincial Library, having graduated from the Chinese Department of Yunnan University in 1968, and he was a member of the Lahu ethnic minority, his father being a famous Lahu chieftain. He invited me to come back on Thursday evening, when they would be holding a poetry reading.

When Thursday evening came round, I headed out, taking a few of my own poems with me. There were more than twenty people squeezed into a room just a bit over ten square metres in size in the centre of which hung a light globe giving off a dim light ― to me, however, it was like “the blazing heart of Danko” [像丹柯的心一样燃烧着]. Underground Fire was Kunming’s first underground publication to go public at the end of the 1970s, and its members included workers, teachers, high-school graduates, university students, and government functionaries; all of them were authors, poets, fiction writers, philosophers, musicians, singers, painters working away in secret . . . but I don’t recall there being any women, at least it seemed there weren’t. They belonged to all kinds of different groups, including small secret underground literary groups, small reading groups, and they were all thirsty for an exchange of ideas. From the outset we accepted one another as comrades with a common purpose, and we all shook hands heartily, looking each over carefully, like miners who had just crawled out of some pitch-black tunnel. Then, Shi Anda made an announcement: “Would the young poet Yu Jian please read us his poems?” This was the first time in my life I’d ever been called a “young poet” and, since there was nowhere to sit in the room, everyone stayed standing, making a circle around me. I read a poem of mine called “Dissatisfied”, which provoked “a storm of applause” — actually, it wasn’t really that loud, but to me it was a thunderstorm. I never imagined that I would ever get the chance to read my poems in public, nor that so many people would like them. When we broke up for the night, Shi Anda said to me: “You’re a small fledging eagle about to spread your wings and fly”. Someone else said: “He’s the Lermontov of Yunnan.” I was so excited and proud as I stepped out into the night and the sparse street-lights seemed to lie under my feet as I made my way home.

Two days later, there was a knock on the door of my tiny room, and when I opened it I saw a figure with hair as curly as Pushkin’s. I’d met him at the poetry-reading that night, a fiction-writer by the name of Zhu Xiaoyang, and we got down to talking about literature almost at once until late into the night, even wandering the streets at random. At that hour, there wasn’t much traffic around, and the streets belonged to those who travelled on foot. For the first time, I had a friend who shared a common interest in literature. I got to know the poet Du Ning, who wrote under the pen-name “Gaiding”, and another poet by the name of Wu Oleg ― he called himself “Oleg” after a character called in some work of Soviet fiction, and to this day I have no idea what his real name is. Other poets included Li Yamin, Guo Xiaobing, and then there were the fiction writers Li Bo and Su Jianzu . . . We were all friends from the moment we met, and all of us had the experience of writing, isolated and in secret, for years, as well as that of reading banned literature, and so, having a similar kind of intellectual background as well as a comparable level of achievement, we burst into flame at the touch of a match, like firewood that has been kept in storage for years. We plunged into various topics, in literature, philosophy, art and politics, in rooms, out on the streets, in parks ― we forgot all about China’s no-go zones. We loved each other, we passed around drafts of our work, we shared what we had learned individually, and we were hardly ever apart.

On one occasion, someone brought along a copy of the Beijing underground literary magazine Today! and at once it circulated among the members of Underground Fire. I read the poetry of Mang Ke, Bei Dao and others, and I was astonished. At that time, poets in Yunnan mainly wrote in conventional Romantic and realist modes — there was no style along the lines of a symbolist school. The images in Today! were both rich and rather chameleonesque, but they were never wilfully obscure. Poetry is not so much a question of understanding some meaning but of sensing a certain tension and space. I got some very strong feelings from the poetry in Today!, since I shared a lot in common experience-wise with those writers. The fact that official criticism branded the Today! poetry as menglong or “obscure” was a case of sheer ignorance.

One issue of Underground Fire had already appeared, and in the second my poem “Dissatisfied” would be published. The mimeograph stencils were cut by Yang Xiaobiao, an older representative of what they called “educated youth”, who — although he didn’t write himself — was devoted to Underground Fire. He also undertook the printing of the magazine on his own. Back in those days a lot of people knew how to print using the mimeograph process: it’s a very primitive kind of printing using sixteenmo sheets of waxed paper already incised with squares, a bit like graph paper. Chinese characters are incised on the wax paper with a steel needle set in a wooden handle. It had to be used with just the right amount of force: if you used too much strength, you could poke a hole in the sheet and then ink would leak through it during the printing. If that happened, you had to discard the whole sheet and begin all over again. If you wrote the wrong Chinese character, you’d light a match and wave it over the character in question for a moment so that it would melt away. When a stencil had been cut, it was attached to a silk-screen, ink was applied to the rubber cylinder, then a piece of paper cut to size was placed over it [再覆到裁好的纸张上], and with a turn of the cylinder, a copy would be printed. In this manner, sheet by sheet, you could make four or five hundred copies in a night. The first issue of Underground Fire contained over twenty pages, and 100 copies were made — this Yang Xiaobiao managed to do in a single night’s work. The stencils, however, took over a week to cut. Just when the second edition of Underground Fire had been printed but before it was distributed, an order was issued to cease publication. Since Wu Liege was a rather peripheral member of the group, Yang Xiaobo transferred all the printed copies of Underground Fire to his place to be hidden away. Giving off that distinctive smell of printer’s ink, Underground Fire was, to my great disappointment, locked away in a trunk. Beneath the headline of the poem was the pen-name I had wracked my brains to come up with: Niluo. This was the name of an African king from ancient times, and I chose it because people said I looked like an African — my skin was often tanned a dark brown by the sun of the Yunnan high plateau. We had no idea who it was that closed down Underground Fire. I still remember the last few days of spring that year — when a group of us, the youngest members of Underground Fire, would get together every day, helplessly awaiting our fate, a note already made in our personal files. There was no news of Shi Anda, although the rumour was that it was under investigation. At night, we heard the shrill screams of the police cars, baying like wolves in the wilderness. Wu Oleg’s room was in a very old building constructed from timber and rammed earth. It had a mouldy soil smell and lacked windows like a temple. In the outer wall there were two wooden doors attached to a pole that fitted into a kind of slot [插在枢纽里], and when you opened one of the doors it made a creaking sound like the cough of an old man. Li Yaming, an ardent young man with shoulder-length hair, looked like Elvis Presley, and there he was sitting in the large trunk in which the copies of Underground Fire were stashed away, reciting Maxim Gorky’s prose poem “Song of the Stormy Petrel” in a loud voice, a poem we were always reciting together. When he got to the line that goes Let the storm blow even more fiercely, everyone chimed in. At that moment, there was a sound at the door, as if someone had knocked hard on it. I’m coming, said Li Yaming and, imitating some actor playing a member of the resistance in some film, he tossed his hair the way they do, making his way to the door perfectly calm and collected. It was darkness he found standing there. It must have been a spring wind that had knocked on the door.

Translated by Simon Patton, with Ellen Chow.


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