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Voice of Protest: Political Poetry in the Post-Mao Era*

  • Shiao-Ling Yu

Poetry in the People's Republic of China during the past 30 years has been dominated by works intensely political in nature – a kind of poetry known by the name zhengzhi shuqing shi (political lyric). The function of this poetry was to eulogize current political movements and to generate public support for them. This phenomenon reached its height during the xin minge yundong (New Folksong Movement) of 1958 when millions of peasants were mobilized to write poetry to praise the Great Leap Forward and the people's commune. Even when the Great Leap backfired and a widespread famine ensued, poetry was still boasting of “commune members piling rice all the way to the sky.” The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76) proved a greater disaster than the Great Leap Forward, hence, the greater need for poetry to supply optimism. It was also a time of personality cult and xiandai mixin (modern superstition); poetry was therefore obliged to provide eulogies. To meet these demands, large quantities of what poet Gong Liu called “huanhu shi” (hail-to-the-chief poems) flooded the market. Many of them were considered to be little more than “rhymed lies.”

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1. For a study of this mass-produced poetry, see Chen, S. H., “Multiplicity in uniformity: poetry and the Great Leap Forward,” The China Quarterly, No. 3 (0709 1960), pp. 115.

2. Hongqi geyao (Songs of the Red Flag), edited by Yang, Zhou and Moro, Guo (Beijing: Hongqi zazhishe, 1959), p. 218.

3. Liu, Gong, “Shi yu chengshi” (“Poetry and sincerity”), Wenyi bao. No. 4 (1979), p. 37.

4. Ai Qing shixuan (Selected Poems of Ai Qing) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1979), p. 366. Subsequent citations to this publication will appear in the text. An English translation of this work has just been published by Indiana University: Selected Poems by Ai Qing, edited with an introduction and notes by Eugene Chen Eoyang, translated by Eugene Chen Eoyang, Peng Wenlan and Marilyn Chin.

5. Shao Yanxiang, “Zhi Dou Shoufang tongzhi” (“To comrade Dou Shoufang”); Ye Wenfu, “Leiyu zhong de haiyan” (“A petrel in the storm”); Lei Shuyan, “Tagechang zai baofengyu de qianbian” (“He sings in front of the storm”). All inShikan, No. 1, 1979.

6. Yanxiang, Shao, “To comrade Dou Shoufang,” p. 66.

7. Quoted in Xiao, Han, “Chentong de huiyan” (“A heavy-hearted reply”), Shikan, No. 6 (1980), p. 44.

8. For some of these poems, see Ke, Yu, Gang, Xu, Guizhen, Sun, “Xiangei Zhang Zhixin lieshi” (“Dedicated to martyr Zhang Zhixin”), Shikan, No. 7, 1979; Huojiong, Xiong, “Qiangkou duizhun le Zhongguo de liangxin” (“Gun pointed at China's conscience”), Shikan, No. 8, 1979; Man Rui, “Juebie” (“Farewell”); Liu Shahe, “Ku” (“Weep”); HeXianquan, , “Shengdai” (“Vocal chord”), the above three all in Shikan, No. 9, 1979; Zhiyan, Shu, “Zhencheng” (“Sincerity”), Shikan, No. 8, 1980.

9. Huojiong, Xiong, “Gun pointed at China's conscience,” Shikan, No. 8 (1979), p. 24.

10. Han, Han, “Zhongliang” (“Weight”), Qing ming, No. 2, 1979; quoted inXinshi de xianzhuang yu zhanwang (The Present Situation and Future Prospect of New Poetry) (hereafter abbreviated as Present Situation and Future Prospect) (Nanning: Guangxi renmin chubanshe, 1981), p. 81.

11. Shikan, No. 8 (1979), pp. 2223.

12. Min, Chen, “Xuewo zhongyuan fei jingcao – du ‘Xiaocao zai gechang’” (“Blood soaks the central plains and nurtures sturdy grass: reading ‘Little grasses are singing’”), Shikan, No. 8 (1979), p. 73.

13. These three points are contained in the “Communiqué of the Third Plenum”. adopted on 22 December 1978 and published in Renmin ribao, 24 December 1978.

14. For a study of the poetry associated with this movement, see Goodman, David S. G., Beijing Street Voices: The Poetry and Politics of China's Democracy Movement (London and Boston: Marion Boyars, 1981).

15. Jintian (Today), No. 3, pp. 30–31.

16. Jintian, No. 4, p. 6.

17. Qijiao, Cai, “Lei sa dadi” (“Tears sprinkled on the ground”), Shikan, No. 2 (1979), p. 34.

18. Hua, Bai, “Zhenzhu” (“Pearl”), Shikan, No. 10 (1979), p. 13.

19. Shaozheng, Sun, “Juexing de yidai” (“The awakened generation”), Shikan, No. 4 (1979), p. 36.

20. Zhousheng, Li, “Huo” (“Fire”), Shikan, No. 1 (1979), p. 84.

21. Xinghan, He, “Wei minzhu zhengbian” (“The case for democracy”), Shikan, No. 4 (1979), p. 30.

22. See Beijing Street Voices, p. 5.

23. Shikan, No. 11, 1980.

24. For some views on this “crisis,” see the following articles in Present Situation and Future Prospect: Ai Qing, “Xinshi yinggai shoudao jianyan” (“New poetry should be subjected to inspection”), Gong Liu, “Cong ‘shige weiji tanqi’” (“Beginning with the ‘Crisis in Poetry’”), Liu Denghan, “Xinshi de fanrong he weiji” (“The flourishing growth and crisis of new poetry”). Ai Qing does not agree with the assessment that there are more poets than readers. As for the “crisis,” it was the result of the politicization of poetry that prevented poets from telling what was really in their hearts. For poetry to pass the “inspection” of the people, poets must tell the truth and speak up for the people. Liu Denghan thinks that the current “crisis” resulted from the public's higher expectation of poetry. He agrees with Ai Qing that the poor showing of modern Chinese poetry during the past 30 years was mainly due to political reasons. He calls for a revival of the legacy of May Fourth poetry: to absorb nourishment from western poetry and to restore the poet's “self” in poetry. Gong Liu is also of the opinion that the “crisis” has been exaggerated. Good poetry still has readers. He concedes that the good name of poetry has been tainted by too many “rhymed rumours and rhymed lies.”

25. Shikan, No. 8 (1979), pp. 5055. References to this work will appear in the text.

26. The term “shijian” was coined by Yang Kuanghan and Yang Kuangman in their article, “Shilun shitan xinxiu” (“Tentative evaluation of the new talents on the poetic scene”), Present Situation and Future Prospect, p. 73.

27. Quoted in ibid. p. 83.

28. See Wenfu's, Ye account of the reaction to this poem in Yalu jiang, No. 11, 1979.

29. In Shiyue(October), No. 3, 1981.

30. This poem was published in Lian chi (Lotus Pond), No. 1, 1981. Parts of the poem were quoted in Zhou Shenming's article, “Cong ‘Jiangjun haohao xiyixi’ kan Ye Wenfu de chuangzuo qingxiang” (“Ye Wenfu's creative tendencies as seen from ‘General, you'd better take a bath’”), Wenyi bao, No. 23 (1981), pp. 2629.

31. Ibid. p. 26.

32. Wang's, speech is carried in Hongqi (Red Flag), No. 5, 1982. An abridged translation appears in Beijing Review, 5 April 1982.

33. Changjiang wenyi, No. 1, 1980; rpt. in Yixie you zhengyi de zuopin (Some Controversial Works) (no date or place of publication), pp. 19–29. References to this work will appear in the text.

34. Kuangman, , “Wei renmin gu yu hu – du ‘Qing juqi senlin yiban deshou, zhizhi!’” (“To be a drummer and crier for the people: reading ‘Please raise your forest-like hand, stop that!’”), Wenyi bao, No. 6 (1980), p. 52.

35. Yipian you yanzhong quedian cuowu de zuopin” (“A work with serious shortcomings and mistakes”), Changjiang wenyi, No. 11, 1981; rpt. in Zhongguoxiandai dangdai wenxue yanjiu (Studies of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature), No. 6 (1981), pp. 30–33.

36. For some of the opinions for and against, see the discussions of this poem carried in Changjiang wenyi, Nos. 11 and 12, 1980; Nos. 1 and 3, 1981. Rpt. in Studies of Modem and Contemporary Chinese Literature, Nos. 4, 6, 8, 1981.

37. Jingxuan, Sun, “Weixian de qingxiang, shengke de jiaoxun” (“Dangerous tendencies, profound lessons”), Wenyi bao, No. 22, 1981.

38. Chang'an, No. 1 (1981), pp. 8, 9.

39. Sun Jingxuan, “Weixian de qingxiang, shengke de jiaoxun.”

40. Ibid.

41. This quotation is translated from the Chinese version provided by the author.

42. Bei'ou, Chi, “Feng, liu, zheng, wu, sipai renwu lianpu” (“The facial make-up of four types of characters: the fence-sitters, the sneakers, the shakers, and the coveruppers”), and Zheng, Liu, “Jie chou siyun” (“Four poems to uncover the villains”), both in Shikan, No. 4, 1978.

43. Bei'ou, Chi, “Four types of characters,” p. 47.

44. Heyuan, Yi, “Xin you yuzui”(“Intoxicated heart”), Shikan, No. 2, 1979.

45. Xianrong, Chen, “Hei sanjiao” (“The black 30 cents”), Shikan, No. 2, 1980.

46. Xianrong, Chen, “Qundai feng” (“Wind of kinsman nepotism”), Shikan, No. 3, 1981.

47. Shuji, Zhang, “Miao xiao shenling da” (“The temple is small, but its power is big”), Shikan, No. 2 (1981), p. 35.

48. Xianrong, Chen, “Zhuanmen lindao” (“Special leadership”), Shikan, No. 2 (1980), p. 35.

49. Shikan, No. 5, 1979.

50. Shikan, No. 4, 1979.

51. See Qu's introductory remark to his poem, ibid. p. 64. English translation of this poem can be found in Marshall, Herbert T. (trans, and ed.), Mayakovsky (London: Denise Dobson, 1965).

52. Mu, Gong, Jing, Zhu, “‘Chizi chi xin’ – du Qu Youyuan de zhengzhi shuqingshi” (“‘Having the heart of a newborn baby’: reading Qu Youyuan's political lyric”), Wenyi bao, No. 10 (1980), p. 38.

53. Shikan, No. 3 (1980), p. 48.

54. Shikan, No. 7, 1979. References to this work will appear in the text.

55. Yongyu, Huang, “Liqiu yanshu renzhen sikaode zhaji” (“Notes from the most serious and careful thinking”), Shikan, No. 2 (1982), pp. 3334.

56. “Rhymed salt” was the title of a poem by Xinqi, Zhang and Mengfan, He, Shikan, No. 4 (1979), p. 26.

* The author wishes to thank Professors Joseph S. M. Lau, William Nienhauser, Jr., and Alsace Yen of the University of Wisconsin for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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