“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. Continue reading ““Underground Fire” by Yu Jian”