The Poetry of Liu Hongbin

By David Hawkes
See also translations/originals of Liu Hongbin’s poems

MCLC Resource Center Publication (May 2007)

Cover of Liu Hongbin's collection Iron Circle (Tie huan) (Calendar 1992)

Cover of Liu Hongbin’s collection Iron Circle (Tie huan) (Calendar 1992)

An Iron Circle

You are the evil spirit
lmprisoning my heart in your blockade.
You are the mighty padlock
Locking the chains with which my thoughts are weighed.
You came from the Solar City
Dazzling us with the brightness that you made.
I hung you, a shining gift, round the neck of my lover,
And now you have rusted, I wander, lost, in the shade.

This is my English version of a poem written by the exiled poet Liu Hongbin in China twenty-five years ago when he was a nineteen-year-old student. The original poem is written, like all his poems, in a kind of verse called xin shi or New Poetry, invented in the course of a movement initiated by young intellectuals in the 1920s, which, rather than the decade of destructive madness unleashed by the Great Helmsman half a century later, was China’s real Cultural Revolution. New Poetry rejected the syllabic verse-forms of Classical Poetry (still the favoured medium of many amateurs) in which lines of fixed length are made up of syllables each having an equal stress, using instead the stressed and unstressed syllables of colloquial speech and often dispensing altogether with rhyme, which is mandatory in all kinds of Classical Poetry. This early poem by Liu Hongbin does in fact use rhyme – the same rhyme throughout in alternate lines – but the attempt in the English version to imitate this rhyming pattern has been made at a price, distorting the sense of the original by the importation of two new metaphors, as can be seen from the following literal rendering:

You are an evil demon
You incarcerate my heart’s atrium
You are a giant lock
Clamping down on my thought
You came from sun city
Utopia gleaming dazzlingly
you are the (neck-)chain on my lover’s neck I gave as a
I wander uncertainly in the shady cool of iron rust

No amount of distortion could have suggested the original Chinese poem’s rhythms, however. Although, like English verse, Chinese New Poetry achieves its rhythmic effects by combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables, it has a heavier tread. Its spondees, molossi, bacchics and antibacchics make a more plangent rhythm than our ambling, more relaxed iambic measures.

Ni shi e mo
[L S L L]

Jin gu wo di xin fang
[L L L S L L]

Ni shi ju suo
[L S L L]

Qian zhi wo di si xiang
[L L L S L L]

Ni lai zi tai yang cheng
[L L S L L L]

wu tuo bang ci yan di shan guang
[L L L L L S L L]

Ni shi ai ren jing shang wo zeng di xiang lian
[L S L L L L L L S L L]

Wo zai tie xiu yin liang zhong pang huang
[L S L L L L S LL]

Almost all the English versions of poems by Liu Hongbin collected in this volume are a product of his collaboration with the Anglo-Australian poet Peter Porter (read Porter’s “Introduction” to Liu’s collection A Day Within Days). Peter Porter is a poet of infinite variety, wit and skill who could rhyme the socks off most contemporary English poets and whose brilliant translations of epigrams by Martial often deliver the coup de grâce with a rhyming couplet and sometimes rhyme throughout, yet in translating Liu’s poems he seems, except in the case of “This Poem,” where the poet self-consciously discusses his own art, to have deliberately avoided rhyme or any other device for imitating their outward form, trusting, no doubt, that their integrity and the vividness of their imagery would be enough for the true poet to be recognizable under his disguise without any need for the sort of remodelling that, for example, Ted Hughes and Christopher Logue thought necessary in order to make Ovid and Homer presentable to a fashionable modern audience.

That this has succeeded is shown by the fact that these English versions of Liu’s poems are capable of moving us, and we must be grateful, poet and readers alike, that their Englishing was undertaken by such skilled and sensitive hands; but reading translations, however successful, is like listening to an interpreter. In praising them we should spare a thought for the anguish of an exiled poet living among people whose language is not his own: a singer who has lost his voice.

Liu Hongbin was born in Qingdao, or Tsingtao as it used to be romanized, in 1962, the youngest of five children. Qingdao is a great Port, headquarters of China’s northern fleet, a city of more than 2 ½ million souls, famous for its Tsingtao Beer and its Beer Festival, nowadays offering preferential treatment to foreign businessmen seeking investment opportunities and a smiling welcome to tourists looking for golden beaches or bicycle tours in the scenic hinterland, but not to the homesick native son whose poems with their uncomfortable reminders of the bloody repression on which the present prosperity is founded, are deemed to be unhelpful and perhaps treasonous.

Symbols of this new prosperity rise above the sea-front, gleaming new skyscrapers of white concrete and glass. Behind them, out of sight, is the old red-roofed German town with its Catholic cathedral. Qingdao became German in the last years of the nineteenth century. It was the Germans who built the first brewery and made the famous Tsingtao beer. It remained German until 1914 when, with token help from us, our gallant ally Japan took it by siege. China got it back for a few years between thewars but lost it to Japan again in 1938. In 1945 it became an American naval base. It has only been continuously Chinese since 1949.

There are references in Liu’s poems to the European-style buildings and the sound of church bells, uncharacteristic of Chinese cities; but much more frequent in them are the sights and sounds of the sea, scarce mentioned by the landlocked Chinese poets of past centuries, whose waves are those of the lakes and rivers and whose waters are seldom salty. Sometimes Liu himself becomes part of the sea:

That song has been drowned
Within the rushing waves, the surging, glancing light
I have found my voice……
Sea-gulls nestling in light mist
The wings of dreams in the air….
I am a demented wave thrown down on the reef
Instantly torn apart to reveal the explosion of light….

The first few years of his life, though, were spent not by the sea but with his grandparents on a commune in the countryside, many hours journey from Qingdao, where he was taken by his parents, both of them at work all day and too busy to look after an infant. He became a little evacuee from the Sino-Soviet War that many thought soon likely to break out. These were the hard times caused by the Great Leap Forward and the famine that followed, made more terrible by the ending of Soviet aid, but as a little boy he would not be aware of the hardship and poverty that was shared by all, and though lonely and left to his own devices, his memory of himself in those early years is of a happy child, feeding his imagination on the natural world around him.

The iron first entered his soul at a very early age. In 1967, when he was only five, his parents, whom he had until then seen only on rare visits, fetched him back to Qingdao, and shortly after his arrival, having been put down to take a daytime nap in his father’s office, he woke to find his father gone. This was at the height of the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao, in pursuit of his vendetta against the head of state Liu Shaoqi and most of the Party leadership, released his Red Guards-frenzied hordes of students and schoolchildren, each clutching a copy of the little red book which enshrined his sanctified Sayings – to rampage up and down the land, attacking first their own teachers and then more or less anyone in a position of authority or thought to be so.

Front and back cover of Czech edition of Liu's poems Poetry in Exile

Front and back cover of Czech edition of Liu’s poems Poetry in Exile

Liu’s father was one of these, a railway administrator. He had been carried off by a group of Red Guards, arrested as a “counterrevolutionary” and imprisoned. Liu was not to see him again. In 1970, with the soldiers now in charge (Mao had called them in when the Red Guards showed signs of getting beyond his control), he was hauled from prison for public execution and shot. His father’s execution ground is where the grotesque dream-review of China’s history begins in his longest poem, “A Day Within Days,” that he wrote twenty years later.

The surname of Liu’s father was Wang and the poet was born Wang Hongbin, but because of the cruel ordinance that criminalized the families of the convicted and marked the children of those judged “counterrevolutionaries” or “rightists” with the same stigma as their parents, he and his siblings took their mother’s name and he became Liu Hongbin. In the same way, by a curious coincidence, the family of the famous translator of Chinese poetry took their mother’s name in the anti-German frenzy of the First World War and Arthur David Schloss became Arthur Waley.

Liu and his family suffered from discrimination nevertheless, adding to the burden of their brave and resourceful mother who had a struggle to maintain them now that she was the only breadwinner – sometimes driven almost to despair as the older children were one by one denounced and sent into the countryside for “re-education.”

Unsurprisingly, Liu became a ‘difficult’ child at school, but by haunting libraries and bookshops and reading voraciously whatever he could find to read, he somehow contrived to educate himself. He became, as clever children sometimes will, intoxicated by words and early on tried his hand at writing poems, essays and stories.

Some of his early poems were inspired by the romantic fantasies of adolescence, more poignant when you consider the restraints under which young people in China were living at this time. To the politics of fear and suspicion were added the sexual repressiveness of a régime which frowned on any sort of tender relationship between the sexes as threatening the love which should be reserved for the Party and its deified Leader. In the rather beautiful poem “So Let Us Part” there is a dreamlike shift between wood and harbour, moonlight, darkness and dawn; and the imaginary lover to whom the poet bids a touching farewell at the end of the poem leaves him before they have even kissed:

You never embraced me.
At that very moment the rush of wind through the trees
Rumbling like a flood
Beat against our rocking ark.
You are leaving now.
Before the flood of night descends,
I wish you well.
Take my torch please- it will light the way.
So, let us part.

Several of his poems are of dreams or have this dream-like quality or seem to have been born out of loneliness and introspection.

In the uncertain times following the death of Mao Zedong, when waves of relaxation and repression seemed to follow each other in alternating succession, 1978 looked likely to be a good year. A policy of reform was announced. China would open up to the West. For a time Democracy Wall and the students’ big character posters were tolerated. In 1980, Liu Hongbin was enrolled as a student in the Shandong Foreign Trade School in Qingdao.

Apart from the time spent studying English, Liu cannot have had much real interest in foreign trade or the classes in economics which were compulsory for those studying it and spent much of the time that he should have devoted to course-work in reading classical poetry and in finding his own voice as a poet. The result of this unauthorized self-cultivation was an outburst of poetic creativity in 1982, when, in the months before and after his twentieth birthday, he produced fifteen poems in little more than seven months. His poems by this time were getting to be known among his fellow-students.

They were shortly to become known on a much wider scale. In 1981, the year in which An Iron Circle was written, Professor K. L. Chung of Stanford University, a distinguished mathematician with a deep interest in Chinese literature and a wide circle of literary acquaintances chanced to meet Liu while on a visit to China and read a short story he had written. Afterwards he wrote enthusiastically to his friend, the great novelist Shen Congwen, about this remarkable new talent.

Liu’s extra-curricular activities had all this time been a source of dissatisfaction among his teachers and were arousing the suspicion of the authorities. In 1983,as a result of a tapped telephone conversation with a visiting American professor, he was expelled from the college, accused of unpatriotic behaviour, and warned of the dire consequences of further offence.

Shortly after, in defiance of this threat, he went to Jinan to study American Literature at Shandong University. There Professor Wu Fuheng, student of the critic I. A. Richards in China and later at Harvard, and a colleague of the poet William Empson, together with his wife, professor Lu Fan, took him on as their protégé, offering him books, conversation on literature, friendship and letters of recommendation to study in the United States. Wu Fuheng founded the China Association for the Study of American Literature, and was a friend of John Fairbank at Harvard. The Wus protected Liu in anyway they could until Liu left China. Liu also made a small selection of his poems and circulated handwritten copies of it in Qingdao, Jinan (the Shandong provincial capital) and Beijing. A copy was taken by a returning student to the professor in Stanford, who once more wrote to Shen Congwen on his behalf. Shen Congwen was all for publishing one of the poems, “Sparrow,” in an officially sponsored magazine, but it was censored by the authorities as politically unsound. Six years later, in June 1989, it was published in a Taiwanese newspaper.

If any criticism could be offered about “Sparrow,” a poem which many have found inspiring, it is that the last stanza, in which the freedom-loving little bird voluntarily throws itself into the flames to provide a sustaining roast snack for a hungry, ragged child, is a shade sentimental and would be likely to remind a cynical English reader of Gilbert’s unfortunate little tom-tit; but an infelicitous association of that kind is one of the unforeseeable hazards of culture-crossing. It defies belief that anyone could take exception to the poem on political grounds.

Liu’s misfortunes at this time are partly to be explained by the fact that 1983 was the year in which the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign was launched by the conservatives in the Party, who feared that the opening to the West that had been advocated a few years previously would end in laxity and indiscipline and weaken the Party’s hold. Long hair and rock music were signs of moral depravity; words like “humanism” were anathema, the conservatives’ feelings about “democracy” were much like those of our Stuart kings; and talk of “freedom,” even in little birds, was deeply suspect.

In the years between 1983 and the time he left China in 1989 he seems to have made a livelihood in various ways, among them teaching and journalism. In 1986 he was in trouble with the security police for inviting American instructors to a self-expression’ session on Cultural Youth Day. Following student demonstrations in early 1987, he was placed under permanent surveillance as a dangerous person and the Literary Messenger, a journal of which he was a joint editor and regular columnist, was closed own. His letters were censored and on one occasion he was detained and questioned for a whole day for having had conversations with an American priest.

It was in that year, sitting solitary and despondent on his twenty-fifth birthday (which no-one but himself knew about) and with feelings near to despair, that he wrote “Who Are You?,” the poem which later, in London, caused Stephen Spender on hearing Liu reading it in Chinese while he himself read the translation, to leap from his chair and telephone to his nephew to ask why it had not yet been published. In this poem the questioner answers his own questions with a litany of images which, as they accumulate, become more and more violent and bizarre:

I am a baby prematurely born
I am a genius dying before I’m thirty…
I am a mouth venting suffering but gagged by a wall-
Like hand
I am a severed nose still wanting to smell roses
I am an unrequited lover expressing love with a
torn-out tongue
I am a pair of hands with amputated fingers holding
my beloved….
It ends fatalistically:
I’m nothing, really
I’m just what I am.

A contrast to this poem is his beautiful “Man and the Sea,” written on Christmas Day at the end of that same year-the last of his poems to be inspired by the seascapes of his native Qingdao-beginning with flocks of gulls wheeling in the dawn sky as the poet drifts into a reverie about the city and its inhabitants and then about the difference between human aspirations and their outcomes and concluding with a Botticelli-like vision of a scallop-borne woman advancing towards him from the sea –

Her hair styled by a typhoon
Her lips pressed wet with whales’ kisses.

Student activism in China belongs to a tradition which goes back to the third century A. D. when 3000 students of the Imperial College turned out in silent protest at the execution of the poet Xi Kang, put to death for no graver crime than his eccentric behaviour and a lack of respect for politicians. The activism in which Liu was involved in 1987 and which resulted in the closing down of the Literary Messenger and his labelling as a dangerous person had led to student demonstrations in many cities and is thought to have been the reason for the downfall of the Party’s genial General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, early in that year. Hu Yaobang had done much for the rehabilitation of victims of the Cultural Revolution, and the conservatives blamed his leniency for what was seen as a widespread lack of discipline. His death two years later, in mid-April 1989, caused widespread grief and is thought to have been one of the factors leading to the extraordinary series of events which ended in what Westerners refer to as the “Tiananmen Massacre.”

Democracy Wall was now a thing of the past, its hero, Wei Jingsheng, in prison, and a petition for his release signed by three dozen intellectuals contemptuously ignored. In the grieving atmosphere following Hu Yaobang’s death and with the Fourth of May approaching-anniversary of the day in l9l9 when the students of Beijing had initiated a national movement of liberation and reform-a march of students from all Beijing’s universities to protest against the corruption of the Party evoked a huge wave of sympathy in people frustrated and made desperate by decades of promises betrayed. During the whole of May more and more groups of demonstrators, first journalists demonstrating for freedom of speech, then professional people, members of staff from various institutions, workers, even some cadres and police, gathered to join the students in Tiananmen Square, until there was a multitude numbering hundreds of thousands, all united in demanding democracy and freedom.

Into this seething ferment of hope, optimism and excitement Liu threw himself with enthusiasm, both to contribute and, as a journalist, to observe. Moving between Peking University and the centre of the city he helped mobilize students with talks and discussions, spending no less than ten days and nights with them in Tiananmen Square. Four of his poems, including the rejected “Sparrow,” were prominently displayed there. On May 29, two days after martial law was declared, he received a warning from a government insider that his arrest was imminent. The night before the massacre, he returned to Qingdao. As soon as he arrived in Qingdao, he learned with horror what had happened in the Square after his departure and saw pictures of the bodies.

What had happened was that the Leader, Deng Xiaoping, frustrated when local forces sent to clear the Square had baulked at penetrating the defenceless ranks of civilians which opposed them, had secretly flown south to confer with the Army’s regional commanders and organise an efficient plan for terminating the disorder. As a result, in early June Beijing was surrounded by a huge military force and, a little before dawn on June 4th, tanks rolled through the city streets and into the Square, crushing or shooting several hundred mostly young people. Those of every age who perished in the streets are thought to have numbered thousands. Deng Xiaoping, hymned as his country’s saviour when he died a few years later, had declared war on his own people, a crime for which, in 1649, King Charles I was executed.

After the massacre, a hunt began for “counterrevolutionaries.” Thousands were arrested and some killed. Back in Qingdao Liu was detained for questioning. After ten days he was provisionally released, but, as news of his Tiananmen activities reached Qingdao, he went into hiding in order to avoid rearrest. Eventually he was able to escape and make his way to Britain, where he was granted asylum.

Liu had now become part of the widespread diaspora of Chinese artists and intellectuals, in some ways comparable to the dispersal of talented Austrian and German Jews in the 1930s. In London he early made contact with the poet Elaine Feinstein, some of whose poems he had translated while he was in China. She introduced him to other poets, among them Peter Porter, whose generous collaboration produced most of the translations in this book. But in spite of the welcome and recognition of other poets, in spite of the sympathy and the friendship, he had his own demons to contend with: the guilt of the survivor, the consuming homesickness of the exile, the appalling memories that bred nightmares and depression, an illness which at one point he believed himself unlikely to survive.

This was in 1994 when he several times applied, unsuccessfully, for a visa, hoping that if he had to die, at least it would be in China. Fortunately he did not die; but not all poets of the diaspora survived the trauma of exile. A year before this, poor, deranged Gu Cheng had finally succumbed to madness and killed himself and his wife on the little island of Waiheke off the coast of New Zealand. Both were poets.

The memories that tormented him were full of blood: the blood of Tiananmen Square (simply “the square” in one or two poems he wrote at this time). Memory itself had become a gory wound. One of his poems, written in 1990 not long after his arrival in Britain, begins

Memory is a shattered vase
New life will not be reborn from this jagged wound.

Elsewhere he speaks of the past lying like a puddle of water in his wound, into which he looks, as in a mirror, for his own image. Instead, he sees only the reflection of a bloody sky over Tiananmen Square.

When insomnia gives way to sleep, the memories become nightmares. In the prose-poem “The Unfamiliar Customs House” (itself, like many of his poems, a dream) he calls himself a dealer in nightmares:

Nightmares waylaid me. I could hardly make a declaration to
the customs officer. I had become a smuggler dealing in

He started to write “A Day Within Days,” the longest poem in this collection, in that same year (1990) but did not finish it for publication until 1994. “A Day Within Days” is a remarkable poem. The heroic old journalist Liu Binyan, China’s most famous exile when he died in December 2005 at the age of eighty, called it a landmark in Chinese literature. Liu Binyan was a lover of literature who read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev in the original Russian and was no mean writer himself, but I suspect that what most impressed him about this poem was its powerful evocation of the patriot’s mixed feelings of revulsion, love, and bewilderment toward the country which had rejected him rather than its statement of the poet’s predicament as a poet.

Liu Hongbin (courtesy of the photographer, Lucinda Douglas-Menzies)

Liu Hongbin
courtesy of the photographer: Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

The poem appears to be a dream in which the haunted poet addresses his country as a person. “China, you are my sodden nightmare,” it begins, and it ends on a note of exasperated affection, “China, my China.” In a somewhat bizarre passage he expresses a desire to make love with “his” China; but in China the leaders are all male and the poet is “not that way inclined.” Passing in his dream to the execution ground where his father was shot, which by a dream-transformation turns into Tiananmen Square, he embarks on a sort of burlesque Revue des Vingt Siècles – a series of sketches in which figures from the earlier centuries of China’s long cultural history are reprogrammed to suit the corrupt values of the present day represented by modern political figures like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

Some parts of this wildly funny review may be lost on the English reader. Confucius, obliged to enroll at the Open University because he lacks a diploma but later expelled by the school’s Party Committee, is a joke that needs no explaining; but an amount of exegesis that would kill any laughter would be required to explain, for example, that the fourth-century B.C. nobleman Qu Yuan, who was China’s earliest named poet, wrote, besides his famous “Li Sao,” a less well-known shorter poem, “The Orange Tree,” in praise of a virtuous young prince; which is why the sketch shows him denounced in an anonymous letter and his collection of orange seeds stolen by plain clothes police and sold as far afield as Siberia by speculating government officials. Neverthess the general drift of this section of the poem is clear enough and its savage satire of modern politicians, in which names are named, will confirm the labelling of Liu Hongbin by many people as a “dissident poet,” particularly as this is likely to become, whether he likes it or not, his best-known poem.

Liu Hongbin belongs to a very ancient Chinese tradition which insists that one of the chief duties of poets is to bear witness: often a more vivid impression of the mute miseries of the poor and the iniquities which caused them is to be gained from poems than from the writings of historians. As a patriot and a free spirit Liu has been bold in bearing witness both in his poetry and when he has been called upon to testify in other ways.

Our voices which are spacious as the sky
Must not be frozen in us or we die

are the concluding lines of one of his poems-the only rhyming couplet in these translations.

But Liu is not really a political poet or a poet of protest, and it diminishes him to think of him only as a “dissident,” useful to his hosts when they are feeling righteous about his persecutors, an embarrassment when self-interest suggests a more accommodating attitude. Nor is he a “confessional” poet, though he bares more than his soul in these poems. (In one of them we see him through the steam of his bathroom and glimpse the stirring of sleeping lust in his naked body.) What runs through all these poems from the earliest ones written when he was a teenager in Qingdao to the later ones of his first years in London is the unswerving dedication to his art, the obsessive interest in words.

I live within words
Words loiter inside my head
When I don’t feel like sleeping with them
They rape me
They dance in glory and in malice
Kicking up the dust of voices

This obsession with words coupled with an imagination manifesting itself in vivid sequences of crowded, jostling images is reminiscent of Mallarmé. Mallarmé spoke of the purification of language (donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu) and Liu, too, has written in his essay “On the Poet, Poetry, and Poetics” of the damage done to the Chinese language during the past century in the name of “revolution” and the poet’s mission to restore it:

With the Chinese language abused and misused for too long, the poet should be a clinician for his mother tongue. The mission of the contemporary Chinese poet is to build a historical bridge between the glory of Chinese classical poetry and the ruins of modern Chinese language. This is the hope of Chinese poetry in its despair.

Liu Hongbin has now been in this country for almost twenty years. At first his memories prevented him from writing, and when he did begin writing again he spoke passionately of his desire to go back to his homeland and of his desire to go on writing poetry, as though the two were somehow linked. Since his naturalization he has in fact been back several times as a tourist, but each time he was treated as an enemy. On the last occasion, in October 2004 when he returned with his little daughter to visit his sick mother, he was subjected to maltreatment and told that he would under no circumstances be admitted again. Short of some major political change he faces a lifetime of banishment. What can an exiled poet do but continue to write poems in his own language? The foreigner who writes English prose can aspire to be a Conrad, and there are many good novelists today who did not speak English as their native tongue. A poet writing poems in a living language other than his own, like the young Milton writing sonnets in Italian, or Eliot turning out a poem in French, or Hopkins attempting Welsh verse, may say that he does so as a jeu d’esprit; but those who do so with serious intent, like young George Moore in Paris setting out to become a French poet, excite only the kind of admiration that Dr. Johnson reserved for women preachers and dogs who can walk on two legs: you are surprised not that they can do it well (which they can’t) but that they can do it at all. The exiled poet must plough a lonely furrow.

In 1991, only a year or so after his arrival in this country, Liu was, perhaps to keep his spirits up, philosophically accepting the loneliness, reminding himself (in “The Unfamiliar Customs House”) that solitariness is itself a kind of exile and that in dedicating himself to poetry as a teenager he was already condemning himself to voluntary exile.

Since this second, involuntary, exile his poems continue to be banned in China. Some have been published in Taiwan or London in the original Chinese; but in order to reach a wider audience in the country where he now lives he must depend on translation.

One of the best verse translations of Chinese poems in the past half century, The Five Seasons of a Golden Year by Fan Chengda, was made by the collaboration of a young Chinese writer, Ts’ui Chi, and an English poet, Gerald Bullett, who knew no Chinese. This book’s translations by the English poets who have befriended Liu Hongbin should give English speaking readers the best idea of his poetry they are likely to get short of mastering the Chinese language themselves.

David Hawkes.
Oxford. 2006