Statement held at the Press Conference of the International Society for Human Rights/ISHR-IGFM on the occasion of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honour Chin October 13, 2009, Conference Room of the Press Centre of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany. (Foto: Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons)
Bei Ling: The State of Underground Literature in China
by Bei Ling, Chinese poet and editor in exile, founder of the publishing house “Trend” (Boston / Taipei)
Bei Ling, Chinese poet and editor in exile, at the ISHR Press Conference on October 13, 2009 in the Press Centre of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany
Let us say that an underground writer, owing to certain encounters, or due to nothing but his Heaven-intended lot, finds himself in a world where he can express himself without reservation, but where no one may want to listen. Whether he writes poetry, fiction, or prose, there are times when he needs to interrupt his beloved vocation. He must offer testimony and critique about the writings and people of the unfortunate milieu he lived through, and to which he devoted himself. This may entail running about giving lectures, which may not be a wise move, and may dissipate his creative energy.
I am neither the most outstanding figure from my literary milieu, not do I stand as a lack wit or charlatan among our ragged ranks. It would be fitting for a more outstanding colleague to stand at this podium and speak on underground literature and cultural history. But this is not to be. In our milieu there is no one to assume the image and role that Joseph Brodsky did for Russian underground literature. The reasons for this are the cruelty of recent Chinese history, and our own blindness. In our milieu the finest individuals were physically destroyed or mentally struck down, so it is left to me, a survivor who is weaker than they, to undertake this task.
In Beijing, somewhat more than ten years ago, in our corner of literary history, a prophet departed from this world. In Beijing the word we use is human marvel. He left without fanfare, without even attracting the notice of the hawk-eyed state police. His name was Zhao Yifan.
I do not call him prophet because of the timeless quality I found in his quiet presence. He was the true witness to our underground literature, its chief archivist and sponsor. There was certainly no one else, except in the State Security Agency and the Public Security Bureau, who collected and preserved so much material on underground culture, especially underground literary works, over several decades. He presided over China s first underground salon. He was an outstanding linguist. Though he had little formal education, he was a published author at 13. He was one of the most erudite proofreaders at Commercial Press, China s oldest publishing house. He did the proofreading for several editions of the most widely used dictionary of modern Chinese. I will never forget his unusual appearance: his shockingly large head, supported over massive shoulders and chest. His forehead was ex-tremely broad, smooth and shiny. (His countenance was fitting for a human marvel.)
Zhao Yifan had a handicap he was paralyzed from the waist down. Most of his life was spent in a chair, working or reading. When you went to visit him, and he raised his large, soft hands from the desk where he had been immersed in work, and when he spoke with you in his soft voice, you would indeed feel you were in the presence of a prophet or saint. His tile-roofed house in an old courtyard in East Beijing had tons of written material, collected over decades, piled up to the roof. He possessed an amazing memory. At any time, if asked, he would search within his house and find the source material you wanted. I know he had an entire set of underground periodicals of the Democracy Wall period. He had the fullest collection of underground poetry manuscripts from the Cultural Revolution. But this collection, which took him a lifetime of effort, was carted off by his family members, before anyone wised up to what was happening, and sold as rubbish at a trash dump. All of it disappeared, probably to be pulped.
I do not know how the successors to our century will view this incident. Not only because of our dull-wittedness, but as a retribution for such ignorance, the key cultural legacy of an era vanished with these sources. Such destruction and disappearance were not even due to acts of a totalitarian regime. It was an act of self-destruction. Taken in this sense, perhaps China s underground culture and literature was destined at that point to become an empty, illusory shadow, Or perhaps it was an ill omen, a warning that if we neglect to preserve underground literature, its most precious works will someday be destroyed through our ignorance and dull-wittedness. For us, this is nothing other than original sin.
Therefore I must say, the history in which I find myself that is, the history of underground literature confers a certain weight on me as I stand at this podium. This weight means that I am not just an individual. By virtue of my lucky survival this survival behind which crowd untold misfortunes and woes, I will testify for our era in history.
Writers in the underground milieu can be referred to by many particular terms, such as individual writer, anonymous writer, unorthodox writer, non-mainstream writer, writer of desk-drawer manuscripts, and unrecognized writer. Such writers are not mentioned in official accounts, and rarely appear in even the most ephemeral of print media. On this path of no return called literature, some of them lost their lives for its sake, and their writings were confiscated right away by state policemen. In other cases, writers responded to totalitarian cruelty by destroying their own work and forgetting it quickly. Such instances are plentiful. But to describe misery is not my aim at this podium. Let me mention a few individuals and what happened to them.