Over Autumn Rooftops:
Poems by Hai Zi

By Dan Murphy

Reviewed by Michelle Yeh
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2012)

Book cover for Over Autumn Rooftops

Hai Zi.
Over Autumn Rooftops:
Poems by Hai Zi.
Tr. Dan Murphy.
Austin, TX: Host Publications, 2011. pp. 271.
ISBN: 978-0-924047-75-6 (Cloth);
ISBN: 978-0-924047-76-3 (Paper)

Born in 1964 into a peasant family in a small village in Anhui province, Hai Zi (“Son of the Sea” or “Little Sea”), penname of Zha Haisheng, entered the Department of Law at Peking University at the age of fifteen and, at nineteen, became a lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law. In his junior year in college, he started writing poetry and, in his senior year, began to publish it in campus periodicals and underground poetry journals around the country. In the span of five short years, from 1984 to 1989, he produced a large body of creative works, including “250 short poems, a number of poetic plays, long poems totaling over 400 pages, and several short stories” (i). On March 2, 1989, around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Hai Zi lay down on the railroad track near the Shanhai Pass outside Beijing and ended his life.

Today, the life story of Hai Zi is known to millions of people in China. The mystery surrounding his suicide, the meteoric career of a prodigious young poet, and, last but not least, the time of his tragic death which overlapped with the student-led democracy movement in the Spring of 1989 have jointly contributed to the myth of Hai Zi. What we have witnessed in the past two decades or so is canonization in both senses of the word: the admission into literary history and the literary canon on the one hand, and the glorification and elevation of the poet to sainthood on the other. More than a genius who has posthumously inspired a large following among poets, he is widely regarded as a martyr whose dedication to poetry cost him his life. Moreover, his death symbolizes the end to the idealism of the 1980s embodied in the brutal crackdown on the democracy movement. Hai Zi has not only become an icon among poets in China, but he is popular among the general public as well. His signature poem “Facing the Ocean, Spring Warms Flowers Open” is included in high-school textbooks, quoted in at least one film, and used in a real estate advertisement. We cannot help but note the irony in the contrast between his relative obscurity when he was alive and his posthumous fame, between his abject poverty during his lifetime and the commercial exploitations after his death, between his idealistic pursuit of pure art and the vulgarization of his work by followers and fans. In his poetry, Hai Zi more than once invokes Van Gogh, whom he calls “my emaciated brother” (8-9). The self-identification is eerily prescient.

It is no wonder, then, that a large number of essays, critical studies, poetry selections, and biographies have appeared in Chinese over the course of the two decades since Hai Zi’s death. The most accurate (and well-written) biography thus far is A Critical Biography of Hai Zi (Haizi pingzhuan) by Liao Yuan, which was originally published in 2001, revised in 2006, and revised again in 2011. In English, we have two outstanding studies: Maghiel Van Crevel’s chapter in Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (2008) and the recently published Struggle and Symbiosis: The Canonization of the Poet Haizi and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary China (2011) by Rui Kunze. While Haizi has been translated into English in several anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry and in one individual collection (2005), Dan Murphy’s new translation Over Autumn Rooftops is a welcome addition. There is much to recommend about this volume: the succinct introduction is informative and illuminating; the selection of ninety-one poems represents well the scope and trajectory of the poet’s work from 1983 to 1989; the Chinese-English bilingual format makes it highly desirable to students and scholars of Chinese literature; the footnotes to poems, aptly kept to a minimum, provide essential information that is helpful to both general and specialized readers. Last but not least, Dan Murphy’s translation is fluent, engaging, and true to the spirit of Hai Zi’s poetry.

Any literary translation is a challenge, and I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “perfect” or “definitive” translation when it comes to Chinese poetry in English. In his introduction, Murphy states his philosophy of translation this way: “I believe that the words on the page point the way to the poem. It is not just the words that we translate, but rather that which is pointed to” (v). This is a perfectly reasonable position. In practice, it is up to the translator to recreate the texture of the original through careful choices of diction, syntax, rhythm, and tone. Should one preserve the different levels of parallelism in the originals? Should one keep the repetitions so common in modern Chinese poetry, or omit them for the sake of succinctness in English? Should one use the singular or the plural form of noun and verb? Should one, at the risk of wordiness, replicate the length of a line such as “Ni zheme changjiu de chenshui jiujing wei le shenme?,” or opt for a straightforward rendition: “why your long, long sleep?” (263) In most cases, Murphy exercises sound judgment.

What readers will find—and enjoy—in Over Autumn Rooftops is a poetry of considerable complexity. Hai Zi draws on a wide range of literary sources: from the Book of Odes and Qu Yuan to Homer and Greek mythology, from canonical works to folk literature. His early poetry suggests influences by his older contemporaries, such as Shu Ting and Duo Duo. His images exhibit a tendency toward the primal (water, fire, sky, earth, fish, bird, seasons) and the sublime (“the king,” God), and he often identifies with village, sun, prairie, and wheat (“beautiful, wounded wheat” [237], “wheat in despair”). His language is simple yet tinged with mysticism, effortlessly crossing the boundary between the inner and the external world.

The choice of the book’s title—taken from “Fourteen Lines: The Crown” (121)—nicely captures the essence of Hai Zi’s oeuvre. Autumn is not only a recurrent image in Hai Zi’s poetry, but it points to a paradox central to the poet’s world: harvest and decay, euphoria and loss, peacefulness and sorrow. In the bitter-sweetness of autumn, the poet seeks–and finds in the end–something that transcends and endures.

whose voice can arrive at autumn’s midnight       permanently reverberating
covering our bones laid on the earth—
autumn comes.
without a particle of forgiveness or tenderness: autumn comes (“Autumn,” 127)

Michelle Yeh
University of California, Davis