Translation by Deliriumliberty
The following essay is by Xi Chuan, a friend of the poet Haizi as well as an eminent Chinese poet in his own right. It’s an enlightening essay both with regard to gaining an understanding of the character of this rare “cold-and-heat-knowing flower”–and with regard to understanding his poems.
Xi Chuan 西川
The corpse is not furious or ill—
Harbors weariness, sorrow, and genius.
–Haizi (Earth Prince) (1987)
The poet Haizi appears destined as one of the myths of our modern times. As the years pass, it becomes increasingly clear what a precious and authentic friend we lost on March 26, 1989.
We lost, on top of that, a tremendous inspiration, a dream, a part of our lives, an echo. While we thought of Haizi as a genius, he regarded himself as the eternally lonely king, the temporary lover of the material, the village intellectual. In the last two of his seven years of sustained writing, he had become like a constellation blazing, filling up each moment with a determined light that ended in an explosion.
- Xi Chuan
On the day of Haizi’s death, I received the news in disbelief. This violence, how could it be? He had to be alive! Only two weeks before, Haizi, Luo Yihe, Lao Mu and I had been discussing Goethe’s interpretation of “In the beginning was the word.” We had discussed the barrenness that follows harvest, and on another occasion, the heroic couplets of Alexander the Great.
It was on the slow train line that runs between Shanhaiguan and Longjiagong where Haizi laid himself down. Four books were on his person: The Old and New Testament, the Short Stories of Joseph Conrad, Kon Tiki, and Walden Pond. A suicide note read, “My death has nothing to do with anyone.”
A number of commentaries have spread regarding the reasons for Haizi’s suicide, most of them ridiculously short on evidence. Haizi left behind close to 2 million words, including three diaries. On February 18, 1986, he wrote in a diary, “I have come close to suicide . . . Yet, this is another me, another corpse. I have already tried a number of ways of ending my existence. However, I continue living. I live again in a state of purity.” This is from the young poet who once wrote of Holderlin and Goethe, “Their holy stupidity; their foolish brilliance!” Writing about Van Gogh, he declared, “The majority of my compositions are chestnuts; they are pulled from the fire. Those who do not trust the sun have turned their backs on the gods.”
After Haizi’s death, Yihe referred to Haizi as a “newborn”. That was, in fact, an accurate assessment. Haizi left behind enough personal commentary that we were able to uncover a Haizi that was pure, keen, rich in creativity—but also short-fused and oversensitive. He was addicted to the remote and dedicated himself to the vanishing, the eternal, the high, and the brilliant. We can only hope, in his stead, to imitate this sort of care and deep belief.
When I entered his place in Chang Ping in order to sort through his belongings, I stepped through the door with a palpitating heart. Within the two rooms clung the personality and spirit of its host. Across from the doorway hung a reprint of Van Gogh’s “Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles”. On the left, below the covered south window, stone carvings Haizi had brought back from Tibet sat on the table next to a reprint from the Spanish painter El Greco. To the right, against the west wall, were several bookshelves, all stuffed with books, and there yet another bookshelf against the east wall. Within the rooms were two tables, and upon the table near the door sat the occupant’s beloved seven-volumes Indian History: the Ramayana. Before leaving, the host had cleaned the room, leaving it swept, like a tomb.
- Hospital in Arles, Van Gogh
The small city of Chang Ping, sixty miles from Beijing, was Haizi’s home from the fall of 1983 to the spring of 1989. (He first lived in the eastern end of the city and then moved west to his final address at the University of Politics and Law). To the east, Chang Ping reaches the Taixing Mountains; to the north, Yan Mountain; and to the east, the bluffs of the Judu Mountains. The poet would have faced these ridges each day as he composed “Earth”, “The Great Spreading”, “Sun”, “Murder”, “Heavenly Messiah”, and others. Here, Haizi dreamed of Wheat, Grasslands, Young Girl, and other entities. Haizi’s life revolved around such remote objects, especially during his time in Chang Ping.
You can mock an emperor in his wealth but never a poet in his poverty. While dreaming of heaven, most of us look for some small happiness on earth, but in contrast to such poets as the Spaniard Juan Ramon Jimenez, Haizi never found the joy he sought. This could be attributed to his extremism. In lonely and drab surroundings, in a space with neither a tv or radio or even a recorder, he lived and wrote in poverty. He had given up dancing, swimming. He did not even ride a bicycle. In the years following his departure from Beijing University, he saw one movie. That was in the summer of ’86, when I visited Chang Ping to see Haizi and drug him to a performance of a Kafka short story. While in Chang Ping, Haizi went twice to Tibet. He carried out his classes for his students. Each day was more or less the same. After beginning his writing in the evening, he would write through till seven in the morning. He slept each noon. In the afternoon, he studied. Occasionally, he ate something. At seven in the evening, he again set to work. And yet, Haizi was no introvert. He spoke with animation of his childhood, stories of stealing rice shoots and chewing on them with buttocks bare to the rain. He invented odd sayings, such as “From the good, the good arises.” He might confide that Laozi was blind—or that Lei Feng was a great man.
- Haizi in Tibet
This man who longed to take flight was however doomed by his desire to die. Yet who can say that Haizi’s death was not a kind of flight? A flight in which he shook off the endless night, the suffering rooted deep in his soul in order that he could be free to echo the sonorous voice from his “Messiah”. Haizi professed himself to be a romantic poet with a mind full of chimeras. Yet he was quite unlike the romantics of Europe in the nineteenth century. An analogy may be constructed here based on the bible. Haiz’s pathway could be said to run from an “Old Testament” to a “New Testament.” The “New Testament” represents imagination while the “Old Testament” represents action; the New Testament is the head and the Old Testament, the headless hero; the New Testament is love, water, and motherhood, whereas the Old Testament is violence, fire, and the father. “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” is quite dissimilar to “If someone strikes your right cheek, offer him your left.” Thus the Young Girl of Haizi’s early period becomes a song in heaven of a nation and of Homer. I am not quite sure how it happened that the year 1987 found Haizi composing his extended poem “Earth” and undergoing a great transformation that resulted in his offering us a monumental earth and sky. Haizi sincerely wished, through the process of narration within epic poetry, to establish a great poetic empire incorporating to the Nile in the east, the Pacific in the west, the Mongolian steppes in the north, and the Indian subcontinent to the south.
According to my view, in order to enter into a discussion of Haizi with an apprehension of the meaning and significance behind the symbols that he fashioned out of our age and society, it is necessary to put in a great deal of time. Certainly, Haizi had seen and heard of a great many things of which I had neither seen nor heard. Yet it was precisely these things of which I had not seen nor heard that made Haizi one of the pioneers of our time. In a discussion about Rimbaud, Haizi commented that the brilliance of the French empire was its “martyrs of poetry”. In Haizi’s case—because prophesy out of experience became his life’s calling—the suffering, loneliness, rebellion, and flowing blood of a martyr of poetry is embodied in his verses, and we of the future are thus rewarded by the determination and brilliance that characterized Haizi’s life and art.
I can still remember meeting Haizi in the spring of 1983 in Beijing University in the student youth corps building which served also as the office for the student dormitory. He arrived, small, round-faced, with large eyes, very much like a child. (His whiskers came later). He was only nineteen when he graduated. I don’t quite remember what the content of his conversation was then, but I recall that he brought up Hegel, which caused me to look up to him with a kind of blind admiration. By the time he had been in College three years, he had begun to compose poetry.
In the face of Haizi’s brilliance, it was impossible not to truly admire him. At fifteen, he was admitted to the Beijing law department, and after graduation he was assigned to the China Institute of politics and law, first in the school magazine and later in the Department of Philosophy, where he successively introduced students to cybernetics, systems theory, and esthetics. His esthetics classes were particularly well-received. In one illustration class regarding the problem of imagination, Haizi told his students, “I would like you to imagine a sea-gull as the swimming trunks of God.” His students knew he was a poet and would request that after class he would recite his own poems. How fortunate were these students!
In his life, Haizi loved four women, but each relationship ended in disaster, especially his first love, who cast a shadow over Haizi’s entire life. At any rate, Haizi wrote many deeply moving poems about them. “In low, bleak hills, the four sisters stand/ To them, all winds blow; for them, all suns shatter.” (Four Sisters). The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth were employed according to different yet equally effective methods. Haizi had been inflicted with a great wound because of his love for these girls; thus we read, “My four wayfaring sisters: They are to me more than the goddess of destiny.” How fortunate were these girls!
Haizi lived in his village for fifteen years, and so he assumed that he would write about the village for fifteen more, but before he could cover that distance, he departed. Each person who has listened to Haizi, and each who has read his verses aloud can sense the turning of the seasons, the direction of the wind, and the growing of the wheat. The tender and the harsh, the mud of the light and of the darkness forms the essence of his poems and raise him to preeminence, revealing in concise, flowing and forceful poetic language a seemingly silent earth that had gotten hold of him and transformed him into its throat. How fortunate this barren village of China!
- Haizi’s Father
Haizi’s final poems, rich in their sense of destiny, stand among his entire works as the most important. A distinctive experiment of his is this: “The night rises from the earth/ conceals the lit sky/ After the harvest, earth is bereft/ Night is raised up from inside you.” Now, when I come in contact with these words, my very depths are stirred by these sentences that touch the elements, and I know deeply that this is the genuine poetry, and that he no longer needs to continue to speak these verses “Do not change the writing; change the sheepskin”, as his poems will continue to circulate in our blood. How fortunate for the new age of poetry in china!
version sung by Zhou Yunpeng
Wildflowers in the grass have witnessed deaths of gods . . ..
A wind from beyond distance slips over a distant beyond . . ..
And I return, with the music of my sobbing—
That invokes not a tear—
To the grasses of that distant beyond . . ..
This one: wood; this one: tail of horse.
The music of my sobbing—
Invokes not a tear.
Only in death does this steppe gather wildflowers.
Like a mirror, a high-hung prairie,
The moon has watched for ten centuries.
My musical sobbing . . . invokes not a tear
In grasslands where I once lashed my pony.
明月如镜 高悬草原 营照千年罗月
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