The Republic of Poetry

Liu Hongbin
4 March 2004

Poetry has often had to fight for its integrity against two forms of misunderstanding – as either effete, a form of luxury in idleness; or as a kind of weapon of identity, closely aligned to a political statement. Mostly, poetry is strong enough to resist these subtle forms of denigration or elevation. Yet they do reveal, as if in a distorting mirror, poetry’s intimate connection with what lies ‘beneath’ and ‘above’ it – the world of private or public freedom.

Whether it’s haiku or rap, lyrical or comical, bawdy or bardic, poetry at the very least has something to do with freedom – and not just of expression, but of thought itself. Poetry is more than an attempt to crystallise an interior landscape so that others might see it. It is also an assertion that the landscape is your own. As Jonathan Franzen puts it in his novel The Corrections: “Without privacy there’d be no point in being individual.” What you do in private can turn out to be a triumph of the personal in a public world.

In this precise sense poetry can by its nature be regarded as not just political but democratic: a whispered demand for the right to a voice. An incendiary quality that can give even the most delicate scraps of verse their power.

Liu Hongbin is an exiled Chinese poet, resident in London, whose work exemplifies this quiet truth. Arthur Miller has described him as “a fine poet of deep democratic convictions and powerful talent.” Most of his poems are far from explicitly political, yet they were enough to provoke the authorities during China’s “May and June days” of 1989 which culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre. Their very existence as ‘poetry’ was enough to give them an edge of danger in the authorities’ eyes.

“If Hongbin’s language of exile can teach us one thing,” wrote John Ashbery, “it is that belief in freedom can (and will) transcend a regime of prejudice – even if it comes from within.”

Liu Hongbin: extracts from an interview

Pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square (photo: Christus Rex Inc / www.christusrex.org)
Pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, 1989

One of my favourite poets, W. H. Auden, wrote: “poetry makes nothing happen”. When I came to England, at the age of 27, I believed that poetry could make things happen. I had been involved in the China democracy movement in 1989 and I believed that my poetry could be a vehicle for advocating social and political change. Now, my views have changed.

In 1994, I completed a long poem – A day within days. Its opening line is: “China, you are my sodden nightmare”. In 1997, on a visit to China, I was arrested, detained, and expelled for “making counter-revolutionary remarks overseas” and for “activities incompatible with a tourist status”. Later, this long poem was broadcasted from the United States to China via Radio Free Asia. Critics, Liu Binyan for example, described it as a landmark in Chinese literature. Well, perhaps. But even though it anticipated the current human rights situation in China by a decade, it cannot be judged in terms of advancing the progress of Chinese reality. Only the poet makes progress – gaining a reputation, or notoriety.

Today, this is how I see the function of poetry. It can make things happen, definitely – but only in the reality within, not outside us. Like music and philosophy, poetry can enter our lives and transform our inner reality. For me, poetry also has a healing function; both writing and reading poetry can be a good therapy.

When I first fell in love with poetry, I fell in love with the words and language. I still see every Chinese character as alive, with a life, a skin, a nervous system. But as I grew up, my understanding of pain invaded the world of my imagination. I felt the urge to become concerned with social and political problems. The choices everyone has to make: human dilemmas of value, morality, ethics and aesthetics.

Tanks approach to quash the Tiananmen protests (image: National Security Archive, www.nsarchive.org)
Tanks approach to quash the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests

As there is no democracy in China, intellectuals have had to play the role of an alternative government. It is very unfortunate that poets and artists in the former Soviet Union, China and other autocratic societies have to play such a role, and undertake social responsibilities. It is not a role that poets and artists play in the west.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, literature served in many ways as a kind of critical reflection of social and political change in China. It could even be seen as a thermometer of the political climate. But the art and aesthetics of writing were neglected.

Now, in many ways, China is changing for the better. Chinese literature will gradually gain independence as an art, not as a tool for political propaganda. Perhaps we can measure the progress of Chinese society in how literature no longer has to be used as a mouthpiece for politics.

I believe we are what we read. These days I read lots of Chinese classics, but I also translate a great deal of western poetry into Chinese via English. Whatever the language, we have a common humanity and common reality. In the world of poetry, there are no national boundaries. You don’t have to have a national passport to travel in poetry from one country to another – you can call it the Republic of Poetry, if you like.

There has been a long debate over translatability of poetry. Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation. For me, the formation of words and the structure of sentences is a kind of linguistic physics. Translating can be an exciting literary exercise and adventure. In such an intensive reading of a text, you can follow the track of the poet’s nerves; it leads you to the very core of the poem.

For me, the essence of writing poetry is an act of retaining time; poetry is a form for preserving time. Therefore poetry is memory. Every time we read poetry we can decipher and revive the passage of time at that particular moment. We can live through it again. When I left China, I was old enough to take the best of China with me – the words, the language, the imagination and the remembrance of the past. Everything I miss has been stored in my memory. So I don’t think I have lost China. I keep it all intact in my memory.

Of course, I went through a lot of crisis and emotional turmoil. But I have been strong enough to create a China of my own, where I can be the legislator and the citizen at the same time. China is following me in my exile, not the other way around.

When we think about England, we might say, “that’s Shakespeare’s England”. When we talk about America, we might think of the huge continent where Walt Whitman used to sing and labour. Then there’s Derek Walcott, who has made the small island of St. Lucia known to the whole world. That’s how I perceive the relationship between the poet and his country. I hope at the end of my day, my heart is still filled with gratitude not hatred. Right now I am still susceptible to all assaults of beauty. I’m very much alive.

This city of Prague has always been on the map of my heart. So much history has been created here! My late friend Allen Ginsberg was made the King of May here in 1965. When I woke up on the first morning I felt like getting out and looking for him.

When Prague was invaded in 1968, W. H. Auden was at his summer home outside Vienna with a couple staying as his guests. In the morning he rushed into their bedroom unannounced. The Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia, and Auden had just heard the news on the morning radio. He sat on the edge of his friend’s bed and they all wept. They had made plans to visit Prague the night before.

Now when I see all the beautiful cars in the streets I hope they will never turn into tanks.

This is part of an interview with Liu Hongbin conducted in October 2003 in Prague, Czech Republic, by Lucie Kalvachova. A collection of Liu Hongbin’s poetry has been translated into Czech by Olga Lomova of the city’s Charles University.

Spirit of The Sea, by Hongbin Liu

Spirit of The Sea

That song has been drowned
Within the rushing waves, the surging, glancing light
I have found my voice

That life has been destroyed
On half-submerged rock, torn by the waves of the sea
I have rediscovered my origins

I want to build a new life

Sea-gulls, nestling in light mist
the wings of dreams in the air –
time is a flock of gulls, taking wing and flying off
and it is the roar of the waves

I am a demented wave thrown down on a reef
instantly torn apart to reveal the explosion of light
The pieces gather up to form
a contemplative surface, a rising and falling mirror for our gaze

I am the petrel in the branches of sunlight
I am the fish that melts in the sea
I am the red-eyed lighthouse staring into the hurricane
I am the suffering sail gathering the power of the wind
I am the anchor that longs for the drifting wave

Moonlight embellishes white marble
now running with glistening tears
slowly slowly slowly fading

The blind man tears the sun apart

Through the colours of the night sea
I flee towards the edge of darkness
climbing a ladder of blue…

(Translated by John Cayley and the author)


Standing at the Doors of Dusk

Standing at the doors of dusk
I open words
I see
darkness amid the silence

The world emerges
a man writes
with mutilated fingers
the square in his mind is empty

Bring your hands together
move to a safe place to pray
sprinkle water on silence
watch the voices of light expanding
now rip up that very silence

The doors of the world
unlock –
thousands of imprisoned lives
flee in the wind of dusk
I hear the banging doors

Instantly I shut the doors again
and find the pursuing words
have already been decreed

(Translated by Peter Porter and the author)


You predicted my destiny, by Hongbin Liu

You predicted my destiny

You turn around and wave to me
The doors close like a camera lens
The tram moves on

Your image surges in my mind
A statue

I turn away
I'd like to take them home – this sky, the street, the tram

You predicted my destiny,
that I would become a poet
Since then your name has echoed in my blood

I chose the black and cold volcano
The crowded city bequeathed my space to others
A man came who would reclaim
the mountainous wild manuscripts

My bare feet bleeding
as I trod the twisting snake-like path
print the earth with exclamation marks
When the gold-helmeted sun was in the east
I died by the fountain I myself made -
Lavas of blood oozed from it
My supply of ink

When age is crawling on your forehead
and years have weathered your hair grey
you will open your green diary
immersed in memory like light
and recollect what happened then

My poetry is sacred water beating in your ears;
A young girl rises from the watery light –
When you regret your beauty is beyond words
perhaps then you will come to think of me.

(Translated by Peter Porter and the author)


Boyhood, by Hongbin Liu


Smoke, tear-damped, curls
from the nostrils
A grey wind wiping clean the wine glass
But my heart
wishes to withdraw into obscurity

My heart, soaked in wine,
is convulsed as it kisses my lips,
we utter
which others do not understand

Through the blue haze, I look for
that sun not yet doused with wine
A limpid wind whistles in the sunlight
an innocent child in the morning mist.

(Translated by D.J. Enright and the author)

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