Winter Sun: Poems

By Shi Zhi

Tr. by Jonathan Stalling

Introduction by Zhang Qinghua

Reviewed by Birgit Linder
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2013)

Book cover for Winter Sun

Shi Zhi.
Winter Sun:
Tr. Jonathan Stalling, Introduction by Zhang Qinghua.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.
ISBN: 9780806142418.

Winter Sun is a bilingual collection of poetry by one of China’s most widely known contemporary poets. Translated by Jonathan Stalling, it marks the first collection of Shi Zhi’s 食指 poetry in English, and it is an important addition to Chinese literary history and the study of contemporary Chinese poetry in translation. The roughly eighty poems in the book span the years from 1965 to 2005 and give a comprehensive overview of the work and life of a Shi Zhi, who first came to fame as an underground poet during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and has continued with his work until now. In addition, the chronologically arranged collection offers a twleve-page introduction by literary scholar Zhang Qinghua 张清华, a “Letter to My American Friends” by the poet, and a “Translator’s Afterword” by Jonathan Stalling that explains his choice of free verse translation over a more formal approach.

Shi Zhi (Index finger), whose real name is Guo Lusheng 郭路生, was born in 1948 in Shandong province. During the Cultural Revolution, Shi Zhi was widely admired for his daring and persistent poetry that, with a few exceptions, circumvented prescribed ideological content and conventional revolutionary imagery. Following his premature retirement from the army in 1971, he experienced a prolonged period of silence and suicidal depression and was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1973. He spent many years in a mental hospital, until he was released in 2005. Shi Zhi lives with his second wife in Beijing and continues to write poetry.

Most critics do not consider his poetry great, but admit that his tenacity and personal resilience are remarkable. His distinct status derives from the fact that he was able to write lyrical and honest poetry in the midst of harsh political and ideological restrictions. Van Crevel has described the poet as a “torch-bearer of non-orthodox poetry”[ 1 ], and as a writer who was able to speak “with the voice of something like an individual self.”[ 2 ] It is in this sense that Shi Zhi has established his legacy and has become a vicarious, therapeutically honest collective voice, expressing the painful scars of history, the terror of displacement, and the “puzzled anomie” felt by many, especially after Mao’s death in 1976. In addition, while he never belonged to the menglong 朦胧 school, most of themenglong poets acknowledge their indebtedness to his daring lyricism. In the Introduction, Zhang Qinghua assigns his poetry “heterodox individuality and emotional power” and goes on to explain that “The principal image he has created in his poems is one of humanity, mental conflict, kindheartedness, firm convictions, sensitive emotions, unshakable willpower, and a somewhat tragic personality” (xvi).[ 3 ]

In the late 1990s, owing to the effort of a group of friends and scholars[ 4 ], Shi Zhi experienced something of a revival, culminating in the winning of the People’s Literature Poetry Award (人民文学奖诗歌奖 ) in 2001 and the China Free Culture and Poetry Award (中国自由文化诗奖) in 2009, both commenting on his role in bridging the gap between modern and contemporary poetry. This battle between his role as a vox populi at a certain juncture in national history and his self-identity as a poet with an ongoing poetic voice is apparent and touching. In “The Poet’s Laurel” (诗人的桂冠; 1986), Shi Zhi complains that his fame only rests on his role as a poet during the Cultural Revolution: “The Laurel of a poet wasn’t in my stars/I only serve to record the instant of joy and grief /And even if I have written many poems/They are not worth a penny. . . . People would ask me who the hell I am/I can be anyone but a poet/I exist in this unjust age/A Nobody, an insignificant victim.” (p. 91) His authentic struggle with contradictory life forces always wants to come into a poetic existence and generates a degree of frustration, not only about the lack of an audience, but also about the nature of words that “half conceal the Soul within” (Tenneyson).

Shi Zhi’s early poems are often full of youthful passion. In the long “Ocean Trilogy” (海洋三部曲; 1965-8), he praises the times of youthful passion during the Cultural Revolution, but already asks, referencing Maxim Gorky, “where are you leading this boat?/To hell?/Or heaven?” (pp. 3-10). “Fish Trilogy” (鱼儿三部曲; 1967-8) describes a fish full of passion that dies in its pursuit of freedom. The famous poem “This Is Beijing at 4:08” (这是四点零八分的北京; 1968) condenses the common experience of the youth sent to the countryside. Shi Zhi’s quintessential early poem “Believe in the Future” (相信未来; 1968) is a somewhat melodramatic appeal to carry on with passion and to love life no matter what the hurdles might be. The last stanza reads: “Friend, believe unfailingly in the future/Believe in the never-bending struggle/Believe in death-conquering youth/Believe in the future, and love life” (p. 41). His later poems often are reflections on his past and on his life as a poet, expressing his life philosophy of simplicity and peace of mind. “This Is How I Write My Songs” (我这样写歌; 1997) is a touching poem that picks up on his poetic identity again: “Everyone suffers, everyone does/But a poet far more keenly/When solitude challenges my imagination/I write my songs with a trembling heart” (p. 125). “Sunlight of Winter” (冬日的阳光) and “Home” () are both dedicated to his wife Han Le 寒乐. “Home” describes life in winter after returning home to a warm cup of tea. It speaks of great simplicity and is reminiscent of the poetry of Tao Yuanming 陶渊明. He is satisfied with very little, and the warmth he finds is always in the midst of winter chill. “Sunlight of Winter,” which is the poem that inspired the title of the collection, also summarizes his commitment to a simple life and to cherishing the warmth of the winter sun that symbolizes the gentle love of the latter part of life.

Shi Zhi’s poetry is at its best when he conveys the need and the pain of controlling himself in difficult situations. In “Fury” (愤怒; 1974), for example, he speaks of the anger of the past and the “unrestrained fire within my chest” (p. 59). Now, however, probably in the isolation of the hospital and on medication, “My fury has been turned into a terrifying silence” (p. 58). It is typical of Shi Zhi’s poetry that even though it speaks of “torrents of tears,” “vengeance,” “strings of arguments,” and “shouting or screaming,” it is a strictly regulated poem, featuring five dun in each of the twelve lines and the same repetition (我的/也不/更不/尽管) at the beginning of the lines in each stanza, with only a small customary variation in the last stanza. It is in poems like “Fury,” “Mad Dog” (疯狗; 1978), “My Injured Soul” (受伤的心灵; 1987), “The Chill of Autumn” (秋意; 1987), “This Is How I Write My Songs,” etc. that Shi Zhi becomes engaging. As in all his other poems, he contains his anger and disappointment in a formal style, but they don’t end on the didactic note that seems to be a (sometimes unfortunate) characteristic of Shi Zhi’s poetry.

One of the most interesting aspects about a collection that is both highly lyrical-autobiographical as well as chronological is the ways in which the poems reflect upon each other. Over ten years after “Believe in the Future,” for example, Shi Zhi turns the communal optimistic appeal into something more personal. In the 1979 poem “Love Life” (热爱生命), he writes: “Yet I have an obstinate mind/and though beaten time and again, I will not stay down/But stand up and keep moving on/For I believe in the future and love life” (p. 67). This poem reflects the transition from speaking of a common experience to expressing his personal experience. Likewise, many of Shi Zhi’s later poems look back at his perilious life, albeit still always coming to the same conclusion. In the 1991 poem “In the Asylum” (在精神病院), for example, he repeats what he has said in other poems written in the mental hospital:

I would rather exhaust my mind to find poetry
But I can’t rack my brains here in this grating ward
Hearing vulgar jokes and clever quips coming out
I couldn’t write even a single line with a pen in my hand
At times rage welled up and teetered on the edge of expression
But the consequences would be inconceivable
God! Why time and again
Was I forced to waste my days in this insane asylum!
When the stormy waves receded from my mind
In my heart only emptiness and desolation remained…
I feared others might see my eyes welling up with tears
So I look down, and stroll away as if nothing happened (p. 97)

In “Thawing Tide of Emotion” (解冻的心潮), which was written twelve years later, the uncivilized others, his isolation, and his heart-breaking self-control are turned into a plea for compassion for those he previously condemned, and the poet now sees himself as part of them:

Recalling the bleak winter mornings in the mental asylum
I still felt the pressing cold of this place without sun
Patients driven off their beds, pull hands up into their sleeves and recoiling their necks
With their ill-fitting clothes tightly binding their bodies
In the sickroom vulgarities are unavoidable
Beatings and scoldings mingle with patients’ screaming to chill me through
In this despair I secretly pray for spring’s approach
Finally, I walked out the cold iron gate of the mental Institution (p. 145)

Shi Zhi’s poetry is defined by a lyrical will to vulnerability, conflictedness, and idealism, and a regulated if not rigid formal style that has remained almost unchanged for over five decades. His tendency to compress all emotions into the same poetic form reflects an admirable constraint that in turn might also reflect the way in which he deals with his illness and his life. He credits his mentor He Qifang 何其芳(1912-77) with introducing the formal poetry of “new style poetry” (jintishi 近体诗) to him.[ 5 ] He Qifang and others postulated a style that departed from traditional Chinese regulated verse (gelüshi 格律诗), but adhered to strict rhyme schemes, versification, musicality, tone variations, and so on. Because thoughts and feelings must be manipulated into a structure, form plays a key role in the ordering effect of poetry and can itself be a mode of reflexivity. Through meter, tone, rhyme variations, parallelism, and juxtaposition, Shi Zhi consciously endeavors to reflect the undulations of life and the oscillation between joy and grief. In his afterword, Stalling explicitly states that he has attempted to translate the poems with “lyrically charged free verse able to impart Shi Zhi’s voice without interference from the static of the history of English formalism” (p. 182). For the most part, he does this convincingly. It comes to the fore especially in the easy flow of alliterations and parallelisms that well substitute for the loss of rhyme and meter in translation. “This Is What I Say” (我这样说; 1968) is a good example of shifting from rhythm and rhyme to alliteration. It has a regular meter of four dun (feet) and an abcb rhyme scheme. Stalling translates it into free verse, but substitutes it with alliteration:

当在/秋天/伤心的/黎明 4a In autumn a broken-hearted day breaks
甜蜜的/瓜果/离开了/枝头 4b A honied fruit falls from its stem
果枝/和藤蔓/含着/秋露 4c Fruit-bearing branches and vines full of dew
永别了/她那/心爱的/朋友 4b Her beloved friends are forever left behind (p. 31)

These types of effective translation shifts are found throughout the collection. Translation, especially when it comes to poetry, is about striking a balance between fidelity and fluency, and it should preserve its distinctive voice. If that does not always sound fluent or contemporary, it is partly the poet who is to “blame.” Many of Shi Zhi’s older poems now sound outdated and his imagery doesn’t easily translate into a contemporary feel. Some of his metaphors–such that in this line from “You” (你;1991), “Older, you appear so ordinary/Like a rose whose bloom is already spent/Even your green leaves have withered away” (p. 98)–read like stock imagery. As Zhang Qinghua acknowledges in his Introduction, many of the poems feature “out-of-date forms imbued with old moral codes and values,” and one cannot fault Stalling for translating them equivalently.

One might argue that English poetry features a great variety of formal structures not limited to rhyme schemes, pentameter, or ‘Victorian’ poetry. In order to avoid artificiality, it is reasonable to argue as Stalling did that not the entire collection can be rendered into formal verse equivalent to the Chinese. Sometimes, however, the translations are too literal to be read comfortably and would benefit from such techniques as omission, shift of perspective, or combination, if not blank verse. The poems about the asylum above, for example, have several lines that could be shortened so as to reflect the length and therefore rhythm of the original. Why not, for instance, translate the line 被轰出被窝的病人袖手缩脖 (“Patients driven off their beds, pull hands up into their sleeves and recoiling their necks”) as something like “Driven off their beds, patients pull in their hands and cower their heads” or even “driven off their beds, patients shrink into themselves.” The line 打骂中夹杂的惨叫更令人寒心 (“Beatings and scoldings mingle with patients’ screaming to chill me through”) could be rendered into a shorter version without losing meaning. Moreover, it would be more precise not to switch tenses within the poems. Since the first poem was written in the hospital and the second in retrospect, it is fitting to use present tense in the first poem in order to translate the feel of immediacy the original has, and past tense in the later poem, since it is a lyrical retrospect. For the older poem, I suggest as one alternative to make use of omission, amplification, and shift of perspective, and to use present tense:

At times I ache to vent my anger,
But the outcome I cannot bear foresee,
Heavens! What is it that year after year
Makes me idle away in a mental ward?

When the perils retreat from the mind,
The heart harbors only emptiness and despair. . .
Afraid others might see my tears well up,
I wander with my head bent, as though at ease. . .

Again using omission and now past tense, the last stanza of the 2003 poem could read:

In the ward, vulgar spectacles were inescapable
amid rebukes and beatings, screams added to the chill
in this terror I secretly prayed for spring to come
when I would walk out of these ice cold iron gates

Throughout the collection, the poet’s quiet voice hankers for hope, and is sometimes rueful, sometimes didactic, sometimes optimistic and idealistic, but most of all, contained. Most of his images are common nouns drawn from nature: the sun, the seasons, the ocean, etc. They tend to be conceptual and hypernymic, with only very few specific details or names or people appearing in his poems. Therefore, the focus remains on his feelings and on his general perception of the world around him. Authenticity seems sacred to Shi Zhi, but his rigid style (in Chinese) and repetitive imagery, and his continued focus on himself and his emotions at times arouse pity rather than admiration or poetic appreciation. The careful construction of verse gives a sense of accomplishment and aesthetic delight, but with so little variation, his poetry becomes repetitive. It might have been better to either be more selective with the collection, or to break the mold with a few thematic subheadings or images. Since Shi Zhi himself outlined five distinctive periods of his writing in his “Letter”, those could easily serve as headings.

As shown above, for bilingual readers and translation students, the book has a lot to offer. Side by side versions of each poem make interesting comparisons and discussions possible in terms of language, poetic style, and translation. The translator’s brief commentary about his choice of translation is informative and helpful. Stalling’s translations appropriately reflect the pathos, the desire for authenticity, and altogether, the book offers many interesting angles for discussion and further research with regard to translation, translation studies, and literary history.

Shi Zhi’s “Letter to My American Readers” also gives an overview over the several phases of his writing and adds some thoughts about American-Chinese cultural differences. In the first section, he classifies his poems into five different groups that are all related to his personal life context. In the second section, he uses general dichotomies and truisms to talk about the major differences between American and Chinese cultures. He does offer a refreshing view of contemporary Chinese society, and a tender tolerance for the younger generation who is still trying to find its own voice (p. 180). In spite of feeling a little arbitrary and simplistic, the “Letter” gives readers a good idea of the poet’s sense of self.

Zhang Qinghua’s introduction gives an overview over the poet’s life and his role in Chinese literary history. He describes Shi Zhi’s personal and political background and various phases of creativity, and places him within the context of the Cultural Revolution and after. It is useful as an example of the metatext that always surrounds Shi Zhi, though it does not add new information to what is already known from previous introductions in other Chinese collections. Zhang’s slightly hyperbolic style and associations are bound to confuse readers. On the one hand, he talks about the “mythical dimension” and “deeply introverted pathos” (p. xi) in Shi Zhi’s poetry, puts him on par with Shakespeare’s “somber and hesitant thinker” Hamlet, Lu Xun’s 鲁迅 madman, and Du Fu’s 杜甫 and Hölderlin’s “tragic implication of deep frustration.” On the other hand, he acknowledges his “out-of-date forms imbued with old moral codes and values.” A reader also might not readily understand why “Fish Trilogy” is equated with Lu Xun’s “madman,” or why Shi Zhi is praised for being “the first poet steeped in the didacticism of the modernist era,” equating “didacticism” with a moral code. The introduction is a plea to Western readers to understand Shi Zhi in the position he holds in Chinese history as a “modern day pioneer of Chinese poetry” (xii). Yet Zhang’s assessment also feels apologetic, and readers might wonder whether this effort to promote the poet means that his poetry doesn’t entirely speak for itself. Zhang is successful in his attempt to portray Shi Zhi as an eminent poet in the context of modern and contemporary Chinese literature, but less so in critically placing him in the context of world literature.

In general, to English-language readers, the book offers a glimpse into the life of a poet who has courageously faced the vicissitudes of his life, and who has found lyrical ways of expressing himself. Because of its formal style and simplicity of language, Shi Zhi’s poetry is easily accessible and, with only a few exceptions, does not require extensive knowledge of the political or cultural backgrounds it grew out of. Furthermore, the combination of the chronological arrangement together with an introduction and the afterword creates an appropriate representation of what this poet is about: It reflects the text and trajectory of Shi Zhi’s life, and also comments on the metatext that surrounds him as a poet of the Cultural Revolution and as someone who has suffered from a mental illness for the better part of his life.

Any translation of literature opens possibilities for academic exchange. In addition to the above mentioned aspects, Winter Sun also makes an important contribution to the largely unchartered field of cross-cultural Medical Humanities. Winter Sun is a tribute that gives weight to the historical trajectory of the poet’s life. As one of the few poets who write about mental illness experiences, Shi Zhi’s collection functions as a valuable resource for non-Chinese scholars in the field. It gives rare insights into what it feels like to be mentally ill, and how the chronicity of his condition has encroached upon the identity of this poet (and probably many other poets) suffering from a mental illness. Some have suggested that the lucidity and formal constraint of his poetry proves that he is not suffering from a mental illness. Medical Humanities, however, has shown that it is precisely this stringent ordering process and the inflexibility that are cognitive markers of the schizophrenic mind. Therefore, in addition to introducing an important poet to readers, and contributing materials for fertile discussions about translation and poetry, Shi Zhi’s poetry also offers a resource for cross-cultural Medical Humanities and cognitive poetics.

Any stylistically consistent translation of a poetry collection represents a major accomplishment. Winter Sun is a welcome contribution to Chinese studies teaching and scholarship and a solid addition to the corpus of modern Chinese poetry in translation. As such, it opens the way to many useful discussions about the complex field of poetry translation, literary history, and other fields of research.

Birgit Linder
City University of Hong Kong


[ 1 ] Maghiel van Crevel, Language Shattered: Contemporary Chinese Poetry and Duoduo (Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1996), 29.

[ 2 ] Maghiel van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 15.

[ 3 ] The page numbers for this and all the poems quoted here refer to their occurrence in the book under review.

[ 4 ] Hong Zicheng 洪子诚 and Liu Denghan 刘登翰Zhongguo dangdai xinshi shi 中国当代新诗史 (History of new contemporary poetry) (Beijing: Beijing daxue, 2005), 183. Hong explains that much of the revival of interest in his poetry happened under the tutelage of friends (Lin Mang, He Jingke, Cui Weiping and Li Hengjiu, to name but a few), but that he had no such status yet when he was an underground poet, or among poets in the 1980s.

[ 5 ] Cui Weiping 崔卫平, “Shishen juangu shouku de ren” 诗神眷顾受苦的人 (The poetry muse favors those who suffer), in Liao Yiwu 廖亦武Chenlun de shengdian 沉沦的圣殿 (Sinking gurdwara) (Urumqi: Xinjiang qingshaonian, 1999).