Annetta Fotopoulos reads a poetry anthology in commemoration of Liu Xiaobo
A hot-blooded expression of collective grief and grievance at a time when such politically incorrect expression is being systematically silenced and erased from public consciousness, The Contemporary: A Poetry Anthology in Commemoration of Liu Xiaobo is at once a political statement, an artistic achievement, and a platform for the expression of uncensored human emotions. Inspired by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s definition of “the contemporary,” the collection shows Liu Xiaobo—the poet, thinker and political activist at the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement in China who published dozens of essays incisively analyzing and criticizing contemporary Chinese society and politics— to be an exemplary “contemporary”: removed enough from his own time to truly understand it, and bold enough to face down the darkness of contemporary China, place it in juxtaposition to international democracies past and present, and hold it up to the light of public scrutiny.
In this anthology, Liu’s death becomes the “wave that meets the dawn” (the character bo in Liu’s name literally means “wave” and the character xiao means “dawn;” this wordplay is picked up on in several poems), passing his torch to his own contemporaries: intimate friends, colleagues, students, and admirers of Liu’s who tearfully vow to inherit the burden of the disconnected critic. Their task begins with these poems, in which they express their grief, indignation, desperation, despair, admiration, and aspirations in response to Liu’s tragically inspiring life and death.
The volume, echoing a hallowed Chinese tradition of gathering songs from among the people as an indicator of popular sentiment and will, collects poems from various friends and admirers of Liu’s written in response to two horrific moments: when it was announced that he would belatedly be granted medical parole for his fatal liver cancer on June 26, 2017, and when Liu passed away on July 13, 2017 after which his remains were scattered in the ocean. Many of the poems written in solidarity with and commemoration of Liu were originally posted online where they were swiftly censored. The anthology project arose as an attempt by Langzi, a poet and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC, over which Liu Xiaobo formerly presided), to counteract the official silencing of mourners by collecting some of these scattered poems in the summer of 2017. Langzi’s efforts resulted in his arrest, and the project was then taken up by fellow ICPC member Meng Lang, who compiled and edited the volume for public consumption.
The anthology was released in Taiwan and Hong Kong on February 1, 2018 under the backdrop of a series of highly publicized events in which Hong Kong publishers were harassed and kidnapped for publishing politically sensitive content. The publication of the anthology can thus be understood as a bold assertion of the right to free speech in a time and place where that right has been repeatedly challenged. Of the 191 poets whose works are collected in the volume, all but 19 chose to use their real names despite the personal risk to themselves and their families. These poets’ conspicuous acts of mourning for an officially dubbed “dissident” tried and jailed for the alleged crime of state subversion heralds a new wave of resolve among Chinese pro-democracy activists to carry forward with Liu Xiaobo’s cause of democratization and free speech in China.
Indeed, one of the recurring themes of the volume is an impatience with and resentment toward mincing words to avoid political stigmas and using analogies to circumvent the censors. A poem by Liu Hantong begins sardonically:
People who play games paint their face with politics,
Black is white, true is false—
No one asks: if you give up citizenship can you be free?
Part of Liu’s greatness was in his having the audacity to contradict official accounts and “point out a deer as a deer and a horse as a horse.” As one anonymous poet wrote:
If you [Liu] go away, people will clean up all the analogies from the blinding snow
the Chinese language won’t need analogies anymore
it will just need a great bout of true, harsh snow
to serve as a notification of terminal illness.
The implication is that Liu’s death will shock the Chinese public into more overt action.
Another act of poetic defiance is the re-appropriation of the ocean taken on in dozens of poems. By preventing the burial of Liu’s body and instead having Liu’s remains scattered in the ocean (although it was claimed that this was at the request of Liu’s family), Chinese authorities were carrying over their confiscation of Liu’s rights into the afterlife and cheating the Chinese people of a sacred prerogative prescribed by thousands of years of tradition: the right to posthumously honor one’s ancestors and celebrated heroes at their gravesites. The poets of The Contemporary respond to this act of oppression by re-appropriating the ocean as Liu’s sacred tomb. In a poem called “Every Wave is You,” the poet Feng describes how the Chinese authorities, fearing that Liu’s gravesite would become a rallying site for his supporters, had his remains thrown in the ocean. Feng declares:
The entire ocean has become the poet’s gravesite
The entire sky has become the poet’s tombstone
The remaining mountains and water of the entire earth have become the poet’s tomb inscription
The poet has returned to the great ocean
Every wave is you.
In a poem by Shi Daohuosuo, the ocean is transformed into a means of communion with Liu’s defiant spirit, which is pervasive, reaching everyone everywhere:
On the uncovered streets
On the temporary shelters
On the unborn mountain peaks
On the industrial areas that have halted production
On the capital, on the frontiers
The rain is continuously falling
Bringing the ocean
Upon everyone’s shoulders, before everyone’s chests
However, for many of the poets, admiration for Liu and his legacy is coupled with remorse for their own inaction and guilt for what Liu suffered on their behalf. In one poem, Liu’s former student Li Yun describes going to the ocean to pay his respects to Liu and declaring: “Before I always thought that you were a frivolous poet in a study / I was wrong.” However, he finds that he is talking to empty waves; Liu cannot hear him. The deep sense of shame that many of the poets feel comes through in their focus on his sufferings, with Li Hui writing:
For a person who was imprisoned
I wasn’t able to do anything
For a person who got late-term cancer
I wasn’t able to do anything
For a person’s eventual death
I wasn’t able to do anything
Liu’s suffering is underscored by the settings that recur throughout many of the poems: the jail cell, the hospital, the sick bed, and the empty chair. Liu served four prison sentences in his lifetime, the first because of his participation in the Tiananmen Square Protests in May and June of 1989, and the last for spearheading the publication of Charter 08, a document demanding democratic rights in China. For the latter act, he was convicted of inciting subversion of state power and sentenced to eleven years in prison beginning in 2009. In May 2016, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and moved under guard to Shenyang’s First Hospital at China Medical University in June, where he passed away on July 13, 2017.
Many of the poets in the anthology express anguish over Liu’s lack of proper medical treatment and their powerlessness to help him. Xu Lin writes,
How can I
By using my hot blood
or cries that shake heaven?
Hurry and give him back his freedom!
Many poems also present Liu as a “warrior,” “martyr,” or “saint,” and associate him with the iconography of the empty chair—a reference to the chair that was left unoccupied in his honor when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but was unable to attend because he was serving out his last prison sentence. Because of his outspoken calls for reform, Liu was forced to give up his mobility, his relationships, his right to speak out, his health, and ultimately his life.
One of the tensions that arises from these ruminations on Liu’s sacrifice is the incongruity between his greatness of spirit and frailty of body; between Liu Xiaobo the famous political prisoner and Liu Xiaobo the old friend, uncle, husband, colleague; between Liu Xiaobo the sacred martyr and Liu Xiaobo the weary mortal. This tension is revealed in Cai Chu’s poem where people’s expectations of Liu as an admired political activist are juxtaposed with a humanized Liu whose wife calls him to come home:
People say you’re soft like rainwater, not firm enough
People say your slow successes have already vanished
I say don’t hold you up to an altar
Liu Xia calls you back home.
Another poem by Wen Kejian contrasts the friend who he used to meet freely and casually with the absent Liu who has become a martyr:
Before, I ate with you in a humble room,
Listening to you talk cheerfully,
Before, I rubbed shoulders with you in the long streets
Walking forward to meet the darkness
Before, I hurriedly said goodbye
Not paying attention to your retreating figure
Before, I would imagine from time to time
How we would meet soon
Now I can only silently pray for you
But I don’t know what I should pray for
When I was with you everything looked pale white
When I was with you there was no need for language
When Socrates drank that glass of poisoned wine
When Jesus was nailed on the cross
Whether or not there were prayers
Heaven had already seen it
Ultimately it is in his human frailty—his lack of freedom, forced silence, and illness—that Liu achieves transcendence, becomes divine and immortal. In Wang Jiaxin’s poem “Cancer Ward,” Liu Xiaobo in his striped prisoner’s clothes and his wife Liu Xia, bald from her forced house-arrest, smile and dance together:
They use the last bit of their strength to embrace
and move within a wave of light we cannot see
becoming two saints.
Liu the man, who has audaciously turned to his torturers and declared that he has “no enemies” (a line from an essay originally meant to be read at his trial, which he was prevented from delivering) ultimately finds liberation and fulfillment in poetry. The ocean becomes a medium for Liu’s spirit of freedom to reach everywhere. The empty chair becomes a symbol of his defiance in the face of censorship. In one poem by Zou Jin, Liu’s failing liver even transforms into a bird “bringing another bird / flying high going far away” (a reference to a poem by Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, “One Bird and Another”).
In honoring their fallen compatriot, the poets allude to figures from China’s own literary tradition, such as the poets Tao Yuanming and Yu Xin and the historian Sima Qian, and merge them with figures from various times and places like Christianity’s Jesus, ancient Greece’s Socrates, the Russian political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the American poet Marianne Moore. They take Chinese classical poetic genres and tropes and skillfully inject them with modern words and images to create something distinctively 21st century, yet unmistakably Chinese. In this way, they take on the role of “the contemporary,” looking at their own time and society through the lens of the observer and placing them in juxtaposition with other times, places, and images; they are acutely aware of their own historicity.
Liu’s political activism began with the protests at Tiananmen square in May 1989 after a group of students placed flowers at Hu Yaobang’s grave in a defiant act of commemoration for a figure who had officially fallen out of political favor. Liu, who had not previously taken part in political activities, was galvanized by the students’ passion and promptly abandoned a prestigious position at Columbia University as a visiting scholar to stand among the students in the square and lend his voice to theirs in demanding democratization for China. Now, Liu’s life has become a new chapter in the unfinished six-four movement, and it is his loved ones, students, colleagues, and supporters who are coming to kneel at his ocean grave and join their voices in calling for a free and democratic China. ∎