Writing on the wall

Scholars and poets around the world consider dissident poet Huang Xiang the Whitman of China, but his work is still banned there.

by Susan Hutton

It’s a warm, windy day in the Mexican War Streets district of Pittsburgh, and I am looking for the house where the exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang has been settled for nearly two years. The street is so narrow that it might easily be mistaken for an alley. Finally I find what I’ve heard described: a house with Huang Xiang’s poetry painted on its brown clapboard exterior in vast, spidery characters. Some of the characters are almost six feet tall.

Huang Xiang is a Chinese poet who is sponsored by the Pittsburgh branch of the North American Network of Cities of Asylum (NANCA), an organization that seeks to aid and defend writers who are persecuted in their home countries. Founded in 2003 by Russell Banks, Wole Soyinka, and Salman Rushdie, NANCA was born out of the International Parliament of Writers. Huang Xiang began his residency in Pittsburgh in 2004 and writes from the house he refers to as “Poet’s House, Dream Nest.”

The ancient Chinese poets wrote on walls and in caves, and carved their words in stone. “I want to preserve and expand this Chinese tradition,” he says, referring to the poems painted on his house, “where the poem is on the street, on the stones, in the gardens. I want to beautify every corner.”

Born in 1941 in the Chinese province of Hunan, Huang Xiang is a compact, well-kept man who meets me at the door in a white pressed shirt. Nothing about his appearance betrays the 12 years he spent in Chinese prisons and labor camps. He was first arrested in 1959 for leaving one province without official permission and seeking employment in another. For this he was sentenced to four years in laogai, a reform camp similar to the Russian gulag. In 1965 he was arrested for engaging in counterrevolutionary activities–primarily writing, reading, and discussing issues related to human rights–and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in laogai and forbidden to read or write. By the time he was 25, he’d served more than seven years in laogai. His writings were banned in China for 40 years.

Though he avoided prison for the next decade, he was officially forbidden to write. He continued to do so anyway, secretly; his rooms were regularly searched, and any discovered writing was confiscated. Out of necessity, he made it a habit to commit his poems to memory, sometimes reciting them privately for a small circle of friends.

In 1978 Huang Xiang traveled 1,500 miles to Beijing to post his poems in huge character posters on what became known as the Democracy Wall. His act sparked the Democracy Wall Movement, in which dissidents posted news and ideas on a wall in the Xidan district of Beijing. Over a six-month period, Huang Xiang returned to Beijing on three separate occasions to post more poems, to advocate for democracy and human rights, and to criticize Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. Arrests and imprisonments followed for decades until 1996, when Huang Xiang discovered he’d again been named the leader of a counterrevolutionary clique because of his literary pursuits. Fearing another arrest, he and his wife, Zhang Ling, fled China and were granted asylum in the United States in February 1997.

Huang Xiang is widely regarded as China’s Walt Whitman. His poetry ranges widely in subject matter, touching on politics, philosophy, love, the beauty of the rural provinces, spiritual life, and his beloved literary ancestors–Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu in particular. There is a quality of feeling in his poems that is consistently, essentially human. Take, for example, the closing lines of his poem “Dry Bones”:

After millions of years,
Millions of years in the layered earth
A future anthropologist
Or archeologist
When digging up my dead bones
Will, please, under this same burning sun
Raise up these remains of water and air, and
Seek out the Man.

He wrote this poem when he was 27 years old. It’s a striking thing by itself, but it is even more striking when one considers the context in which it was written. Millions died as the People’s Republic gained power, and their stories were lost forever. Even as a young man, Huang Xiang was determined to keep his story alive even as his persecuted body became mere “remains.”

It is moving to see his house, covered in characters as it is, as an echo of the act of the young man who traveled to Beijing in order to post his poems, holding a bucket of flour paste in front of a growing crowd of sympathizers who linked arms to protect him. Like the poems on the Democracy Wall, the house poems are public objects of art.

“When I posted my poems on the Democracy Wall, a huge crowd gathered. It was very risky, and the consequences were dear. Here, on the house, it was not risky. It was safe. The first time it was an act of rebellion; this time it is an expression of art. And if the two are combined, it reflects my pursuit of spiritual, artistic freedom.”

This is his ultimate aim, he says, leaning forward intently. “I want to write my poems on the sky,” he says, “so everyone can read them.”

Later, reviewing my notes, I recognized the line. It comes from the poem for which he is best known: “Song of the Torches.” The translation I have reads: “It seemed to me that there was nobody else in the church, nor / In the city, nor in the whole world. The sky was my paper, / And I was holding an immense brush to write on it.”

Susan Hutton’s first book of poems is On the Vanishing of Large Creatures. She lives in Ann Arbor.

© 2007 by Susan Hutton. All rights reserved.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Huang Xiang has recently moved to New York City.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.


~ by ericedits on March 5, 2008.

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