An Introduction to Huang Xiang’s Poetry

by Michelle Yeh    /  August 8, 2009  / No comments

In October 1978 Huang Xiang, Li Jiahua, Fang Jiahua, and Mo Jiangang traveled from Guiyang to the capital for the first time. Arriving on the tenth, they posted the inaugural issue of the underground journal Enlightenment on a wall in downtown Beijing. Huang also recited his long poem “God of Fire: A Symphonic Poem” to the large crowd that had gathered spontaneously. The wall on which Enlightenment was posted soon came to be known as the Democracy Wall. From October 1978 to April 1981, the Democracy Wall witnessed a golden age of underground journals, such as Exploration, in which the essay “The Fifth Modernization—Democracy and Other Things,” by Wei Jingsheng (b. 1950), was published; April Fifth Forum, founded by Liu Qing (b. 1946), Yang Jing, Xu Wenli, and Zhao Nan; League of Human Rights, in which “A Manifesto of Human Rights in China,” by its founder Ren Wanding (b. 1944), was published; the purely literary journal Today, founded by Bei Dao (b. 1949) and Mang Ke (b. 1950); Thaw, by Li Jiahua; and Beijing Spring, by Hu Ping (b. 1947) and Wang Juntao (b. 1958). The name of the last journal has come to designate this hopeful period, which came to an abrupt end with the arrests, under the order of Deng Xiaoping (1904-1977), of some of the editors and writers.

The same day Enlightenment appeared in Beijing, Huang wrote “I” (p. 11) on the spur of the moment. The three couplets present three images of incremental somberness and power. The human voice cannot be muffled, the brilliance of a shattered diamond cannot be covered up, and life cannot be eradicated. The violence implied in the images is overcome in each case by the “I” (and “me” in Chinese), a word that appears six times in the last couplet. The repetition affirms the self (“I am I”) and suggests a transcendence of the physical destruction (“obituary”) visited upon him. In light of his personal experience, we now understand why Huang Xiang would name his study The Morgue and his residence Dream-Tomb. When compared to “Singing Solo” written sixteen years earlier, “I” brings to the fore the human courage and strength in the face of oppression and death.

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For most of his life, Huang Xiang has been denied access to official outlets in China. After the country opened up to the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he became known to the underground poetry scene as a pioneer, but even there he remained an outsider for two main reasons. First, he lived far away from Beijing, where the underground poetry movement in post-Mao China attracted national and international attention. In the heyday of underground poetry in the 1980s and 1990s, he had few ties to the various groups active in Beijing and other urban centers and was almost completely left out of literary history until recent years. The second and equally important reason is that Huang was in and out of jail multiple times from the 1970s through the 1990s for defending human rights and civil liberty. Unlike many “exile poets” from China, he has endured years of imprisonment and torture and has refused to yield to political pressure. To this day, he is a persona non grata in China, where his work is banned.

From Michelle Yeh, trans. and intro., A Lifetime Is a Promise to Keep: Poems of Huang Xiang. China Research Monograph 63. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2009. Pp. xiv-xv, 2-3, 10-11, 20-23, 36-37. Copyright © 2009 by The Regents of the University of California. Reproduced by permission.

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A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep

Huang Xiang

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A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep

Huang Xiang
translated by Michelle Yeh

About the Author

Michelle Yeh is a professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Davis. Her new publications are A Lifetime Is a Promise to Meet: Poems of Huang Xiang, forthcoming from the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley; and the last chapter of Cambridge History of Chinese Literature (2 volumes), forthcoming from the Cambridge University Press.

View all articles by Michelle Yeh

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