Outside of China, critics often compare dissident poet Huang Xiang to Walt Whitman. But in his homeland, nobody reads his work, a fact that’s just fine with the Chinese government. Cities of Asylum brought Xiang to Pittsburgh. Susan Hutton spoke with him at the house he painted over with Chinese characters, about his exile, his protest, and his dream to write poems on the sky.
It’s a warm, windy day on Pittsburgh’s weary, slowly gentrifying north side. I am in the Mexican War Streets district, trying to find the house where the exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang has been settled for nearly two years. The street is so narrow that it might easily be mistaken for an alley. Abandoned grocery carts and BMWs compete for space. For a few blocks there are no street signs, and very few addresses. Finally I find what I’ve heard described: a house showing its age, with Huang Xiang’s poetry painted on its brown clapboard exterior in vast, spidery characters. Some of the characters are almost six feet tall.
Huang Xiang is a Chinese poet who is sponsored by the Pittsburgh branch of the North American Network of Cities of Asylum (NANCA), an organization that seeks to aid and defend writers who are persecuted in their home countries. Founded in 2003 by Russell Banks, Wole Soyinka, and Salman Rushdie, NANCA was born out of the International Parliament of Writers. NANCA helps match persecuted writers with participating cities: Las Vegas, Ithaca, Santa Fe, and, most recently, Pittsburgh. These cities agree to organize the financial, social, and institutional support necessary to host a writer for two years. While NANCA operates as an umbrella organization, each city’s program is run and funded independently, typically through volunteer efforts. And though it is a relatively new organization, its executive and advisory boards read like a Who’s Who of contemporary writers: Carolyn Forché, Derek Walcott, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, and Charles Simic, among others.
To date, NANCA has hosted three writers. Syl Cheney-Coker, from Sierra Leone, was hosted in Las Vegas from 2000 to 2003. Jianhua Li, who writes under the name Yi Ping, is a poet and essayist from China who was hosted in Ithaca from 2001 to 2003. And Huang Xiang, who began his residency in Pittsburgh in 2004, writes from the house he refers to as “Poet’s House, Dream Nest.”
The ancient Chinese poets wrote on walls and in caves, and carved their words in stone. “I want to preserve and expand this Chinese tradition,” he says, referring to the poems painted on his house, “where the poem is on the street, on the stones, in the gardens. I want to beautify every corner.”
Born in 1941 in the Chinese province of Hunan, Huang Xiang is a compact, well-kept man who meets me at the door in a white pressed shirt. Nothing about his appearance betrays the 12 years he spent in Chinese prisons and labor camps. He was first arrested in 1959 for leaving one province without official permission and seeking employment in another. For this he was sentenced to four years in laogai, a reform camp similar to the Russian gulag. In 1965 he was arrested for engaging in counterrevolutionary activities—primarily writing, reading, and discussing issues related to human rights—and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in laogai and forbidden to read or write. By the time he was 25, he’d served more than seven years in laogai. His writings were banned in China for 40 years.
Though he avoided prison for the next decade, he was officially forbidden to write. He continued to do so anyway, secretly; his rooms were regularly searched, and any discovered writing was confiscated. Out of necessity, he made it a habit to commit his poems to memory, sometimes reciting them privately for a small circle of friends.
In 1978 Huang Xiang traveled 1,500 miles to Beijing to post his poems in huge character posters on what became known as the Democracy Wall. His act sparked the Democracy Wall Movement, in which dissidents posted news and ideas on a wall in the Xidan district of Beijing. Over a six-month period, Huang Xiang returned to Beijing on three separate occasions to post more poems, to advocate for democracy and human rights, and to criticize Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.
In October of that same year, Huang Xiang created and distributed Enlightenment, the first of many literary journals that appeared in this era and initiated the New Modern Poets Movement, which paved the path that Bei Dao, Shu Ting, and other Misty poets followed.
In April 1979, he was arrested and held for weeks in solitary confinement, and then sentenced to his third three-year term in laogai for his role in the Democracy Wall Movement. Other arrests followed: in 1984, for violating communist morality (held on death row for two months, then released for lack of evidence); and in 1986, for creating social disturbance and inciting student unrest (three years in laogai, and an additional year without civil rights).
In 1996 Huang Xiang discovered he’d again been named the leader of a counterrevolutionary clique because of his literary pursuits. Fearing another arrest, he and his wife, Zhang Ling, fled China and were granted asylum in the United States in February 1997.
Huang Xiang is widely regarded as China’s Walt Whitman. His poetry ranges widely in subject matter, touching on politics, philosophy, love, the beauty of the rural provinces, spiritual life, and his beloved literary ancestors—Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu in particular. There is a quality of feeling in his poems that is consistently, essentially human. Take, for example, the closing lines of his poem “Dry Bones”:
After millions of years,
Millions of years in the layered earth
A future anthropologist
When digging up my dead bones
Will, please, under this same burning sun
Raise up these remains of water and air, and
Seek out the Man.
He wrote this poem when he was 27 years old. It’s a striking thing by itself, but it is even more striking when one considers the context in which it was written. Millions died as the People’s Republic gained power, and their stories were lost forever. Even as a young man, Huang Xiang was determined to keep his story alive even as his persecuted body became mere “remains.”
His determination is finally starting to pay off: he has been published in the United States, France, Taiwan, Japan, Sweden, and Hong Kong. But his writing is still banned in China.
“I do not exist there,” he said. “The people of my generation do not know my work. Most of them don’t even know my name.”
He has been sparingly translated—in Japanese and in English—and speaks no English. Of his 20 books, only one of them, the slimmest, is a bilingual Chinese-English edition of poetry. It sells for $129 and was intended as a textbook for Asian studies. It has been reviewed well and widely in academic journals, but has not reached many readers. This is a source of great frustration for the poet.
It is moving to see his house, covered in characters as it is, as an echo of the act of the young man who traveled to Beijing in order to post his poems, holding a bucket of flour paste in front of a growing crowd of sympathizers who linked arms to protect him. Like the poems on the Democracy Wall, the house poems are public objects of art.
Inside the house, his wife taps expertly, efficiently through the Chinese-English dictionary on her laptop, in order to better translate our conversation. She’s accompanied by another translator named Mimi, a quick, confidently fluent, wiry woman with short, spiky hair. Sitting around a wide, round table overlooking the courtyard behind the kitchen, drinking tea—cool, a yellow gold, with a honeyed, floral flavor—the three native speakers struggle to turn Huang Xiang’s words into English for me. Both women stop frequently to compare English phrases. Sometimes they stop speaking entirely, their eyes closed, brows furrowed, while Huang Xiang writes out the Chinese characters and points to them repeatedly with his pen, as if the shape of a character might help me understand its meaning. When he notices how hard we are straining to get this right, he mimics our actions—hunched over, eyes closed, sighing with effort—then points at Mimi or Zhang Ling with his pen and starts laughing.
But Huang Xiang wants desperately to be understood, so we try again.
“When I posted my poems on the Democracy Wall, a huge crowd gathered. It was very risky, and the consequences were dear. Here, on the house, it was not risky. It was safe. The first time it was an act of rebellion; this time it is an expression of art. And if the two are combined, it reflects my pursuit of spiritual, artistic freedom.”
This is his ultimate aim, he says, leaning forward intently. “I want to write my poems on the sky,” he says, “so everyone can read them.”
Later, reviewing my notes, I recognized the line. It comes from the poem for which he is best known: “Song of the Torches.” The translation I have reads: “It seemed to me that there was nobody else in the church, nor / In the city, nor in the whole world. The sky was my paper, / And I was holding an immense brush to write on it.”
He explains, “I like to recite poems in a big voice, and I like to whisper, and sometimes I like to use silence. Silence in Eastern philosophy is a bigger voice—just one that’s not audible to our ears. When I perform my poems, I also use PowerPoint, so the English text is there on the screen—sometimes with images. Sometimes people say they understand me even without translation, as if they were watching me dance.”
The performance is understood, but the poems on the page? “It is so complicated!” Mimi cries. “Your Garden of Eden is our Garden of Peach Blossom.”
“Or would you say Arcadia?” asks Zhang Ling, looking through an online dictionary.
When asked about exile, he answers, “I am alive on this planet.” Later, he comes up with a metaphor. “I am like a bird that doesn’t have a final destination,” he says. “My poems are about the life process on this planet because the life process never stops. Like wind and the clouds in the sky.”
Susan Hutton is the author of On the Vanishing of Large Creatures (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007).