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Remembering the Departed Spirits: Liu Xiaobo’s “June Fourth Elegies”

By Alisha Kaplan

“Let the darkness transform into rock across the wilderness of my memory.”

From “Fifteen Years of Darkness,” June Fourth Elegies

Every year since the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo has written poetic elegies commemorating the tragedy. Graywolf Press recently published twenty years of those poems in the collection June Fourth Elegies, the first publication of Liu’s poetry in North America. The original Chinese poems appear next to English translations by Jeffrey Yang, a poet and an editor at New Directions Publishing. On August 2, Yang read from the collection at the Museum of Chinese in America and after the reading spoke with PEN American Center’s Larry Siems about the book, Liu Xiaobo, and translating Chinese poetry.   

The event was associated with the exhibit “June 4, 1989: Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square” (which closed September 10) which consists of Asian American and Chinese-language periodicals from the MOCA collections of coverage and responses to the protests in America. Journals on display such as AsianWeek, East West, Zhong Bao, China Daily News, and World Journal, which contain numerous powerful photographs, tell the story of the outcry that the dispatches ignited among Chinese Americans and of their efforts to support the Chinese dissidents overseas.

The June Fourth Elegies event was a well-chosen supplement to the exhibit and a moving tribute to Tiananmen. Though titled a reading, it was also multimedia, incorporating videos of interviews with Liu Xiaobo and Taiwanese popstar Hou Dejian; footage from Tiananmen Square, the hunger strike and the “songs for democracy” that the protests spurred; and a video clip of Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia.

Ryan Lee Wong, the curator of the exhibit, opened the evening with background on Tiananmen Square and Liu Xiaobo. In the spring of 1989, millions of Chinese rallied in a student-led movement demanding democratic reform. The government responded in a violent military crackdown on June 4, killing several hundred to thousands of people (the exact number of deaths is uncertain). Liu Xiaobo supported the movement and was arrested because of his alleged role in it. From 2003 to 2007 Liu served as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and remained on the board until he was detained for six months due to his involvement in composing the Charter 08 manifesto. He was formally arrested in 2009 for “incitement to state power”—the evidence was 224 characters from the charter—and was sentenced to eleven years in prison. In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” the first Chinese citizen living in China to be awarded a Nobel of any kind.

Liu Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia was placed under house arrest right after her husband was notified about the award, and she remains there, incommunicado, to this day, surrounded by guard gates and unable to receive visits from diplomats. Before she was placed under house arrest, in March of 2010, Larry Siems had the rare opportunity of meeting her. Liu Xia gave him two books: a collection of poems the couple wrote to each other, and Liu Xiaobo’s elegies along with Liu Xia’s photographs. Siems took the books back with him to New York. With funding from the Lannan Translation Series, Yang translated the elegies and Graywolf published them. While the Chinese government may have stolen some of Liu’s best lines, as Yang explains, and confiscated his words, as Liu Xia describes, Liu Xiaobo’s poems made it out of China and into welcoming hands.

When Yang read Liu’s poems in his soft, gentle voice, slowly and with care, he conveyed the simplicity and grace of Liu’s words. Yang spoke of Liu Xiaobo with respect and of the poems with modesty, as though he were merely the vessel channeling the poet from his prison cell in northeast China. The writing placed us next to Liu, as the poet imagines “being there beneath sunlight / with the procession of martyrs”; as he is “handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged / thrown into a prison van heading nowhere”[1]; as he relives the past, both personal and communal.

When Yang read one of the elegies in Chinese, I couldn’t help but feel that an English translation will never capture the essence of these poems. While I don’t know the language, on a purely experiential, aural level, the English version that followed sounded less direct, sparse and gritty than the Chinese. With words such as “paralysis,” “apertures,” and “dissidence,” the English seemed bulky, but only when juxtaposed to the Chinese with its monosyllabic rhythm, its space and simplicity.

After the reading, Yang described to Siems the challenges he faced in working on this collection; most notably, translating a writer who is inaccessible to his translator. Liu Xiaobo is in prison until 2020, not allowed to communicate with the outside world, and so, as Yang writes in the book’s afterword: “The only conversation I could have with Liu is through his poems, through the verb of translation.” He couldn’t ask Liu what he thought about a certain word choice or the meaning of a metaphor.

Perhaps the most powerful portion of the evening was the clip of Liu Xia speaking with Larry Siems. As we watched the video of Liu Xia, a beautiful woman with her head shaved, speaking solemnly yet also laughing in a noisy hotel lobby, Siems described how bold and fearless she was. Toward the end of the clip, Liu Xia read a poem her husband wrote for her entitled “Greed’s Prisoner,” in which he portrays the guilt he feels about the burden he has placed on her. It ends with the haunting lines: “why do you / choose me alone to endure.”

Guilt is one of the prominent themes that appear throughout June Fourth Elegies, along with rage and a cry for justice. The collection’s most prevalent message is the importance of not forgetting. Before each elegy Liu notes the place of composition, the date of completion and the number of years since Tiananmen Square. For instance, at the beginning of “Fifteen Years of Darkness” he writes, “Before dawn at home in Beijing, 6/4/2004 / Fifteenth anniversary offering for 6/4.” Yang explained that Liu calls his poems “offerings” because the act of offering in honor of someone who has passed away is an act of remembering, and there is a longstanding tradition in Chinese poetry of memorializing people and events through writing. Siems asked Yang if he thought that Liu’s need to memorialize the victims of Tiananmen is an obsessive project or if there is some progression in the elegies, to which Yang replied, “There is a bit of both.” In one of the video clips, Liu says, “From the moment I walked out of the square, my heart was heavy … I’ve never gotten over it.” This is apparent throughout the collection, though Liu also seems to have found something to hold on to: the very act of remembering. As Liu writes in “Fifteen Years of Darkness,” “But in such desperation / remembering the departed spirits / is the only hope left.”

When Siems asked Yang whether poetry can convey human rights across borders, Yang replied, “As a poet, I have to say yes.” In his bilingual collection, Liu Xiaobo certainly does just that. June Fourth Elegies as a whole, including Liu Xiaobo’s essay “From the Tremors of a Tomb” (even when Liu writes prose he speaks poetry), is as powerful as the six or so poems that Yang read. The most recent issue of PEN America includes a number of poems from the book as well as a conversation between Siems and Yang that covers similar topics as they discussed at the MOCA event.

Liu Xiaobo’s offerings are not only commemorations; they are a gift to us as well. Through Yang’s translation, we can better understand the shadow Tiananmen has cast over China, one that has remained for over two decades. We can understand a fraction of what it is like to see the world through Liu Xiaobo’s eyes, to inhabit his memories and most intimate emotions: guilty, angry, hardened, hopeful, still protesting.

[1] Both quotations are from the first anniversary offering in June Fourth Elegies titled “Experiencing Death.”

Published Sep 12, 2012   Copyright 2012 Alisha Kaplan

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