Letter to City of Asylum/Pittsburgh
Translated by Michelle Yeh
Before the Tiananmen Massacre took place on June 4, 1989, I had been engaged in literary activities at five universities in Beijing. In 1987, I was charged with “disturbing peace of society” and incarcerated in Wang Wu Labor Camp in Guiyang, Guizhou Province. After the Tiananmen incident, I was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to receive any visitors. I only learned about the incident when I heard demonstrators shouting outside the barbed-wire prison walls.
As a poet and independent thinker, I have insisted on “singing solo” since the 1950s. I have maintained this attitude throughout my life and have never wavered from it. Ever since my youth, I have had nothing but disdain for the “great chorus”—the entire people singing praises of political leaders—nor have I taken part in the “little chorus” of cliques motivated by utilitarianism and self-interest. However, I have never abandoned social conscience or shunned moral responsibilities, whether directly through my action or indirectly through my writing. My spiritual life can be defined as standing alone between Heaven and Earth, in pursuit of a poetic life of authenticity. I have no desire for power; I seek only freedom, and I defend every citizen’s legal rights—including the freedom of expression, in speech and writing, and the freedom to publish.
I embrace society and the boundless life of the universe, not to be restricted to any party, organization, or group. I pursue the meaning and value of every individual existence, the true premise of any collective entity.
China’s progress and interaction with the world should not depend on political movements that have been repeated in a vicious cycle throughout history. Instead, it should be based on the humanist spirit to increase communications between the East and the West, transform the national soul, and elevate the national spirit. China needs to complete the social and cultural reform that was spearheaded by the May Fourth Movement in 1919.
In 1978-1979, the Democracy Wall nurtured a Democracy Wall culture: re-assessing the leadership of Mao Zedong, rejecting the Cultural Revolution, raising the issue of human rights in a global context, openly founding civilian organizations and journals for the first time in the totalitarian system. All of this had universal relevance and social-cultural significance. Ten years later, socially concerned college students protested against corruption, but the government suppressed them in a bloody crackdown. On the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, society and history are still owed justice. As late as it is, people today are still owed clarity of historical responsibility.
We don’t want to be clay oxen mired in the mud of history, but neither can we forget the bloodshed. We must remind ourselves of the lessons of history. What we leave to posterity should be neither fiction passed off as history, nor murkiness of right and wrong, but truth that no history should turn its back on.
Compared with the Cultural Revolution period, the Chinese people now enjoy a lot more freedom to express themselves verbally. But there is still control of the freedoms of thought, speech, and publication. Dissent is still not tolerated. This is the general situation. In my personal case, all my writings and art are still banned. For half a century now, none of my works can be published in mainland China. As a Chinese citizen, my work of a lifetime has been rendered invisible. This situation is hardly changing in a society that emphasizes “harmony.”
Recently, I was interviewed by a Japanese TV station. One question posed by the journalist was sharp, realistic, and truthful. He said, “In 2008, before the Olympics in Beijing, China opened its doors to you. Your physical body was allowed in, but what about your ‘cultural body’? Please give me an honest answer.”
I answered flatly: “No.”
As a young man, my rage led me to express resistance in both spirit and action. To this day I have not given up the fight for individual freedom and the freedom to write, but my heart is at peace. What I feel is an unbearable sense of shame for a nation and an era.
Recently, China launched the “National Plan of Action for Human Rights.” It deserves positive recognition. I hope this is not another case of “talking the talk” without walking the walk” that we have seen in the past. I hope this time unity of words and actions will win the people’s trust and let these universal values become a reality in China.
As a poet, my highest ideal is global harmony. So long as the world is filled with bloody struggles motivated by ambitions and desires, it is the poet’s right to face such evils by taking on the moral responsibility of challenging them. Anyone who compromises on principles is a hypocrite.
READ HUANG XIANG’S POETRY AT Well Founded Fear,
POV on PBS
READ ABOUT OF HUAN XIANG’S NEW BOOK,
A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep
THE WISP OF LIGHT
A new poem in sixteen lines
There is a kind of space
that’s a different vastness
There is a heavenly body
that’s a different great arch
Each cell in my body
is an unattainable distance
The unreachable constellations
find shelter in my flesh in my blood
Death, not to be denied
rises as it slowly falls
Life, not to be denied
advances as it rushes away from us
Under the luminous sky over this
world of dust
I grow old day after day
In the space beyond space
alone, I blossom like a child
Huang Xiang has been called the Walt Whitman of China. Born in China’s Hunan Province in 1941, he has been writing poems since 1950 and has suffered several imprisonments and torture because of his work. In 1978, Huang Xiang founded an underground writers’ society and a literary magazine both named Enlightenment. He posted the magazine articles calling for human rights and demanding a reevaluation of the Cultural Revolution in Tiananmen Square, an action that would lead to his arrest and sentencing to three years of labor nearly a decade later. Due to near-constant police harassment, Huang Xiang and his wife have lived in exile in the United States since 1997. He was a resident at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh from 2004–2007, and he and his family now live in New York. Here are his reflections upon the massacre at Tiananmen Square:
Read Huang Xiang’s bio.