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Upon Reading “Tanks and Poetry”: An Essay

June 4, 2009

Yi Ping

To a foreign guest, China, with the sheen of prosperity, appears to be free: one is free to become rich, make a name for oneself, start a business, or sell a public office, writes poet Yi Ping. In his essay on Tanks and Poetry, a collection of poetry and writing banned in China, Yi Ping shows the reader the other China, where words must not touch upon politics or go against those in power. As made obvious by this collection, Yi Ping says, although free literary expression cannot stop tanks, it needs to exist because it is the wellspring that nourishes life and irrigates the earth.

Tanks and Poetry1 is an unforgettable title. It is like a demarcating sign defining an era. It will be recognizable to anyone who has lived through this era, as it calls to mind the lone figure of Wang Weilin blocking the tank motorcade in Beijing and the young Czech girl placing a rose into the pitch black muzzle of the soldier’s gun in Prague. The editors of Tanks and Poetry: An Anthology of Writing by Independent Chinese PEN Center Members/Volumes in Literature, have picked this title with a clear message in mind. It draws attention to our era, points to the truth, and invokes human spirit and decency.

A few years ago, when I taught at a university in the state of New York, a professor of Chinese studies and I were having a chat, and he said: “China is quite free now. Nobody interferes with you poets writing poetry.” “But don’t touch politics,” I thought to myself. I was a visiting scholar, a guest,  so I didn’t want to argue. This professor frequently goes to China to lecture and study archaeology. His China and my China are not the same. Poets such as Huang Xiang, Shi Tao, Liao Yiwu, and Yang Tianshui, whose writing is included in Tanks and Poetry, are not able to publish many of their works in China. Zheng Yi’s books cannot be published, Wan Zhi’s plays cannot be staged, and there are still poets and writers locked up in prison. Several poems I wrote during June Fourth still remain hidden in a corner in China.2 People who had to flee their country are one thing. Those who are invited in are another. The disparity is huge. This professor, whom I respect, does not realize that he enjoys special treatment and privileges in China. Like many other foreigners, he hasn’t seen the other side of China, beyond the newly-sprouted clusters of buildings.

There have indeed been enormous changes in China. Especially after the 1990s, with the great opening and relaxing of, particularly, the economy, one could say that in a big way and with great strides China has entered its “age of prosperity.” In the Mao era, the people had to pledge their loyalty. If they resisted, they were society’s public enemies. But after ’89, individuals have great “freedom.” They can become rich, make a name for themselves, speculate, start a business, sell a public office, smuggle, gamble, go to prostitutes, and play hard. As long as they don’t go against those in power, they can do as they please. In this respect, there is no country more “free” than China. Without beliefs, and also without principles, everything in China depends on “guts” and “skill.” But behind the “guts” and “skill” everything hinges on power that is ubiquitous and is put to use everywhere. The evil clutch of power controls the enormous gambling table that is China. Therefore, in China, the boundaries that cannot be crossed are extensive and clear, and the penalty is harsh. If even Yahoo! and Google must hand over  evidence of dissent to the authorities and allow them to infiltrate information, then one can imagine the scope and means of China’s control.

Chinese writers should do some examining as to what are the taboo topics after all?What touches upon power and hinders stability? Land enclosure, forced demolition, the one-child policy, unemployment, the selling of blood, pollution, corruption, the Falun Gong, house churches… If none of these can be written about, and land reform, the suppression of counterrevolutionaries, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Famine, and June Fourth are also off-limits, then how small has the scope of writing become? What has been lost? For over half a century, what aspect of life in China has not touched upon power and politics? Chinese power and politics are not confined to the conventional definition, but include Chinese people’s specific way of life, and run through all the particulars and the subconscious, penetrating the depths of human nature. It’s true that there is more freedom than there was for writers 30 years ago, but don’t forget that the important words still cannot be uttered.Only by facing this problem head on can we transcend it.

A few years ago, when I taught at a university in the state of New York, a professor of Chinese studies and I were having a chat, and he said: “China is quite free now. Nobody interferes with you poets writing poetry.” “But don’t touch politics,” I thought to myself.

Recently I read Shi Tao’s poem that recalls June Fourth: “But the truth of brutality easily / knocks me down. An ache without the warmth of moonlight / I am in a steel box full of lies / struggling, I strive to persuade myself to be a calm / patient, to gulp the mouthful of fumes into the motherland’s heart.”3 Good poems become a part of history, but this type of poem is not permitted in China, and the writer is still locked in jail. Liao Yiwu’s books Gulag Love Songs, The Corpse Walker, Records of Conversations on Injustice, Testimony, and Victims of Land Reform are as significant to China as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is to Russia. However, they are banned in China. Humans need spirit, society needs morality and justice, and history needs memory. If these are all cut down, then civilization will eventually wither and die. People are not yet aware of the wreckage of Mao’s destruction of civilization. If the wellsprings are cut off, how will the rivers flow, and what will irrigate the earth and give it life?

Seamus Heaney has said: “In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.”4 Jing Wa used this quotation as the epigraph to one of her poems, and called the poem “Tanks and Poetry,” which then also became the title of this collection. She writes, “Rolling over the soil again / as the center of all things you should not be unfamiliar,” “the days of love are covered in bloodstains / thus there is no funeral to part with the end of life.”

Chinese power and politics are not confined to the conventional definition, but include Chinese people’s specific way of life, and run through all the particulars and the subconscious, penetrating the depths of human nature.

The issue is not romantic. The muzzle of a gun fires bullets, the treads of tanks crush. The students who fell on Chang’an Boulevard, weren’t they just the blossom that loved the motherland? The power of tanks, darkness, and brutality is real and strong. Those more than a thousand corpses of the fallen are not a joke. Since 1949 the color on the face of history has been ashen. “The entire spine of the prison  / a larger gate opened on the spine / the prison is like a wound that can’t heal  / the crowds of bailiffs flow out the wound  / carrying pistols, handcuffs and flashlights / the prison van stops in the valley, outside the warehouse of human flesh  / Hands tied behind my back, I fall straight down the steps  / This is the moment each prisoner dreams of” (Liao Yiwu, “Court Appearance”).5 What can we say about this? How do we face it?

I am a pessimist. Tanks master the world, not poems or bouquets. Mankind’s existence does not demand perfection; it can only seek what is not too bad and how to restrict and improve what is bad. Tanks are tanks, and they will never disappear. The important thing is to have poems and flowers, to have open space and gentleness, not just the shadows of tanks, but also wind, sunshine high above, and fragrance. I have wondered what power allowed Wang Weilin to block the tanks all by himself. Before it happened, he didn’t know how it would end. What if that photo didn’t exist, if the tanks had run him over? But he still raised his arms.What was he thinking? It was just an instant, not enough time to think. It is the quality, justice, and faith in life that dissolve matter and death. This is the infinity of which Heaney spoke. In that instant, he was a Poem of Life. I am not at all being romantic; I am discussing the essential meaning of civilization. I am bearing witness over the caterpillar tracks and rumble of tanks. It is as if in that night that was smashed to pieces, in the midst of gunshots and tanks, I heard the exultant and expansive sound of the Internationale. Besides matter, death, tanks, and darkness, mankind has another direction to take—one that abides in Life, elevated high above, gloriously shining on this world.

Translated by Human Rights in China

Editor's Notes

1. Meng Lang and Yu Jie, eds. [孟浪及余杰编], Shi Yu Tanke—Duli Zhongwen Bihui Huiyuan Zuopin Xuanji/Wenxue Juan [诗与坦克——独立中文笔会会员作品选集/ 文学卷] {Tanks and Poetry, An Anthology of Writing by Independent Chinese PEN CenterMembers/Volumes in Literature} (Hong Kong: Chenzhong Publishing, January 2007 [香港版: 晨钟书局, 2007年1月]). ^

2. All the writers and their workmentioned in this essay, including the author himself, are represented in the anthology. ^

3. Shi Tao, “Ache,” written on January 6, 2004, in Taiyuan. Chinese original can be found at: http://www.boxun.com/hero/shitao/71_1.shtml. ^

4. Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978–1987 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989). ^

5. Liao Yiwu, “Court Appearance,”written on May 19, 1992, http://www.mitbbs.cn/pc/pccon.php?id=3918&tid=813&nid=46881&s=all. ^

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