Invisible Walls, Whose Walls?

Where are we going
Smoke is curling
Galaxies, fossils, modern living
Streets and cities footsteps thronging
Stars arranged in rows of buttons
Gravesites chewing streams of people
Phosphor spittle rinsing memories
Treeroots, grassroots touch the sunlight
Lao Tzu, Confucius, one after the other
Wandering soul in lonely craniums
Five thousand years beating diamond grains
An earthworm a pendulum going through back and forth
Empty shell
Crackling universe
The city’s sharp teeth
Abacus moved so quickly by whom
Crowded earth like a flood
Crowded and crowded again
Wind’s soft fingers flicking tree boughs
Organ music in the clouds
Doves in the folds of the roof hide their wings
Green bacilli jumping in the remains
Your claws are teasing mother’s nipples
Under wrinkles
Uterus exposed
Universe exploded
Images shattered
Blood stream voyage
Foundering on reefs distant comets
Amniotic fluid with seven duckweeds
Root of life in water and fire burns into one fish after the other
What kind of fish are we then
Why are there no duckweeds for us to repair our roofs on this world
Pale blue flames scorching the heavens
Stars like flies blinking eyes in the bloom of the night
Fu river rubbing the feet of the city
Crows return and hide with the sunset
Fireflies flickering
Amber, the moon and the stars
A box
Of pearls pressed by clouds into marble pillows
Shining hermits
Wings take flight from mother’s breasts
Many fishhooks
Desire controlling lines of time the rod of the mind
Under the bait of life
Long, long necks stretching out from the soil
Mouths pitted against other mouths
Head fish emit psychedelic drugs
Innumerable mothers in labor float down a bottle
Hungry feet stretch out fingers with the kid’s leaky bowls going begging
Lamps, lamps, lamps
Who occupied the everburning lamp that shines on all things
Yellow earth everywhere
So many people
So many boats
Many pairs of soft oars killed by their feathers
Night’s frosty cave
Fallen leaves splashing splinters of jade
Dark snakes build their nests on ancient roofs
Water fowls trample ripples like pearls
Eyes look up and down picking food in the eyelashes
Stepping into the River of Chu and the border of Han
I am looking for flowers in the mist
Our family’s flowers, where do they bloom?
Who cut away the writing at will
On the Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth
Emperors spinning tops with their whips
“Tied up mouths as the Middle
Whips surrounding as Kingdom”
Misty waves and rolling waters
Sunken ships pile up five thousand years
Reeds blooming, sails billowing, random whistling, pulling the net
Hopping about at the harbour fish market
Stone steps at the ferry crowded with beggars hunting for fleas
We, you, they
So many people, so many mouths, so much blood
Heads flocking in front of the temple
Countless bugs jumping in crotches
Two oval scalpels dismember people rapidly into millions of fish
It is raining
It is raining
Who poured a big pot over the skies
So many people, so many mouths, many underlings
Flood, famine over heaven and earth
Where is King Yu
People are drowning themselves
Living space
Where is their living space
Ruins remain
Ruins of temples and palaces inscribed with laws and color glaze
Only the dead are classless
So many skulls under our shoes in silent protest
Ignored by the living
Harmonica tune comes from afar
Whose little mouth swallowed up
In this world
In the museum’s display cases
Stuffed with rigid ears and eyes
Terracotta warriors phalanx
Sent to battle
Sculpted by the Qin and Han
Skulls are cast with molten lead
So many people
Many contests in a row
Who will reach the goal most slowly
Sun sucking blood out of the earth
Draught, the fields are cracking up
Empty souls in rustling leaves
From the wind the brains go wandering
Some shriveled seeds taking root, sprout and bloom, forming fruits
In the end in harvest’s empty spaces
Waiting to be cast into fire
In the ashes
We are but nursery attendants and arsonists
In the year of
Someone set fire at his own door
Rows and rows of golden crowns
Holding down tear-drenched history records
Gravestones of characters buried alive
Banquets all over
Heaps of bones on plates and bowls
Wipe the night’s impurity
Sun drunk as a fish
Wind meridians
Play on glazed tiles
My old dad
Last night hugging mother drunk and tired in the dregs
Did he try to count the grain
He would need to buy wine
How many baskets of cowries
Facing the heavens
My blazing eyes put out by thunderstorms long ago
To be alive is a wall
Death is the only plasterer
Snowstorms raging in winter
People are still building laws with ice-cubes
Waiting for the sun in spring
Only the sea, ever surging with spirits
Steaming, leaping, ejected, dispersed
Prison van, raising wind, moving clouds
Water forced into rain, into ice, into mist, into fire
Since time immemorial
Who has refused sugar-coated bullets
I only heard many times someone said
That he could
Eat the sugar and hand the bullets back to the bribers
Hemmed in by swamps
We look for wood piles, saws, screws and chains
Gods leaking fluids in their coffin-like statues
Death rippling deep under the skin eroding supports
Oh my helmsman!
Are you still steering my taxi boat paddling back and forth between water and land?
Home is a broken branch going down by the day
Green claws rip up sunlight
Stars go out in your mouth one by one
Bees fly by soft moist pistils
In rubber teats
Art, philosophy, religion mixed in a magic liquid
Ants in a row carry one rotten leaf after the other into their cave
Countless explorers dig out from the hole of that full stop one shiny gold coin after the other
Tablets collapsed
Human heads evolve into squares
Scales shell hairy verdigris covers your vision
Pained eyes reflect blood-dripping holes
Maple leaves sweep autumn shades
Footsteps from afar coming
Who pounds at my study windows
Chains are coming debt collecting
Usury for generations
From our fathers, forefathers
Debt bills flowing in our blood
Down from the peaks of our ancestors
Inheritance is our spring
Whether it is clear or muddy
We can’t change it anymore
No-one can pay back
The debts of his forefathers
Tell me
Who will press out our last drop of blood
Then hand us back to the underworld banks
When we go to our deaths
Who will go to their lives
Go on, take it
My skull is my capital
Where are we going
Where are we going
Oh my god
Your hips are clasping me, it hurts
I cannot move
Heavenly dog eating the moon
Fish heads jump in a row before the rain
Storms crushes the balls of the stars
With one fist I punch out my own eye
Rushing blood in river beds
Warden dressed up as the sun
Walking back and forth outside
Traitors with a million reasons short of one drop of blood
Cheaters with a million features short of one honest look
Tyrants with a million knives short of one human heart
Destiny with a million chances short of one past
The world has always been like this
After aeons
Life is a blank page every time

— Li Bifeng
1992, Sichuan #1 Prison, Nanchong

In 1989, dissident poet Li Bifeng was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. After his release in 1994, he became a labor rights activist. He was arrested in again in 1998 and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was arrested again in 2011 and given 12 years in prison for “contract fraud.” He is currently in Chuanbei Prison in Sichuan province.


Leap! Howl! Fly! Run!
Freedom feels so good!
Snuffing out freedom feels so good!
Power will be triumphant forever.
Will be passed down from generation to generation forever.
Freedom will also come back from the dead.
It will come back to life in generation after generation.
Like that dim light just before the dawn.
No. There’s no light.
At Utopia’s core there can never be light.
Our hearts are pitch black.
Black and scalding.
Like a corpse incinerator.
A trace of the phantoms of the burned dead.
We will exist.
The government that dominates us will exist.
Daylight comes quickly.
It feels so good.
The butchers are still ranting!
Children. Children, your bodies all cold.
Children, your hands grasping stones.
Let’s go home.
Brothers and sisters, your shattered bodies littering the earth.
Let’s go home.
We walk noiselessly.
Walk three feet above the ground.
All the time forward, there must be a place to rest.
There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot
be heard.
We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass.
A leaf.
Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy.
How much farther till we’re home?
We have no home.
Everyone knows.
Chinese people have no home.
Home is a comforting desire.
Let us die in this desire.
Let us die in freedom.
Righteousness. Equality. Universal love.
Peace, in these vague desires.
Stand on the horizon.
Attract more of the living to death!
It rains.
Don’t know if it is rain or transparent ashes.
Run quickly, Mummy!
Run quickly, son!
Run quickly, elder brother!
Run quickly, little brother!
The butchers will not let up.
An even more terrifying day is approaching.
GOOD! . . .
Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry

We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink.

In this historically unprecedented massacre only the spawn of dogs
can survive.

— Liao Yiwu
(Trans. by Wenguang Huang)

Chinese poet Liao Yiwu wrote Massacre on the morning of June 4, 1989, to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests. He dedicated it to both his compatriots who were killed by the Chinese military on June 4, 1989, and to the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Believing it would never be published, he recorded the poem on tape — the words here are symbolic of his own voice howling. For his support of the democracy movement, Liao was imprisoned for four years. His writings are banned in China.

Self-Help for Fellow Refugees

If your name suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment

or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons
or the birthdays of gods and demons,

it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States.
And try not to talk too loud.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck

before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother too harshly.

Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing,
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if you meet someone
in your adopted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far away.

* *

Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace,
a country twice erased,
once by fire, once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you’re standing too close.

In any case, try not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.

And if you’re one of those
whose left side of the face doesn’t match
the right, it might be a clue

looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival.
Don’t lament not being beautiful.

Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering while forgetting.
Dying to live while not wanting to go on.

Very likely, your ancestors decorated
their bells of every shape and size
with elaborate calendars
and diagrams of distant star systems,
but with no maps for scattered descendants.

* *
And I bet you can’t say what language
your father spoke when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”

Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.
Maybe it was a forbidden language.
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping and the noise of guns in the streets.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.

Thinking is good.
But living is better.

Alone in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.

— Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had been exiled from China after a falling out with Mao Tse-tsung. Lee’s father was arrested in Indonesia and spent 18 months in prison. After his release, the family fled, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan to reach the United States. Lee was 7 years old when his family settled in Pennsylvania in 1964.

[Research note: Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008): 16]

June 2, 1989

— for Xiaobo

This isn’t good weather
I said to myself
standing under the lush sun.

Standing behind you
I patted your head
and your hair pricked my palm
making it strange to me.

I didn’t have a chance
to say a word before you became
a character in the news,
everyone looking up to you
as I was worn down
at the edge of the crowd

just smoking
and watching the sky.

A new myth, maybe,
was forming there
but the sun was so bright
I couldn’t see it.

— Liu Xia

Chinese poet Liu Xia has been under house arrest since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned human rights activist and scholar, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize prize in October 2010. She has yet to be charged with a crime.

Singing Solo

Who am I
I am the lonely ghost of a waterfall
A poem
Living apart from the crowd forever
My drifting song follows an itinerant
My only audience

— Huang Xiang
(Trans. by Michelle Yeh)

Chinese poet Huang Xiang was arrested in 1959 and sentenced to four years in prison for crossing provincial borders without government permission. In 1965 he was arrested and sentenced to an additional three years for his criticism of the government’s record on human rights. All of his writing was subsequently banned. In October 1978 he helped post the inaugural issue of the underground journal Enlightenment on a wall in the Xidan district of Beijing. Later known as the “Democracy Wall,” the site became the favored means of publication for underground writers in the capital. Huang was jailed for three years for his participation in the Democracy Wall Movement. In 1996, he sought and was granted asylum in the United States.

[Research note: Michelle Yeh, Ed., A Lifetime Is a Promise to Keep: Poems of Huang Xiang, China Research Monograph 63 (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2009)]

Our eyes are two dry wells

Eyes — these two dry wells
Deep in the puzzled gazes there
once fertile ground is hidden
The seedlings of love were
burned out through the fire of tears
We live on the other side of grief

Over the high wall, we watch
the sun from afar and
the mountains from afar
In the dreams of nights, we see
people from afar

Using the net of yearning we salvage
those scattered memories and then we let
the bones grow into the bones.

— Li Bifeng

In 1989, dissident poet Li Bifeng was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. After his release in 1994, he became a labor rights activist. He was arrested in again in 1998 and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was arrested again in 2011 and given 12 years in prison for “contract fraud.” He is currently in Chuanbei Prison in Sichuan province.

[Research note: “Chinese poet Li Bifeng jailed for 12 years,” Guardian (November 19, 2012).]


The night is rushing to perfection
I drift inside language
the musical instruments of death
are filled with ice

who sings on the crevice
of days, water turns bitter
flames hemorrhage
pouncing like pumas to the stars
there must be form
for there to be dreams

in the chill of early morning
a wide-awake bird
gets closer to the truth
while my poems and I
sink as one

February in books:
certain movements, certain shadows

— Bei Dao
(Trans. by Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein)

Bei Dao is the pseudonym used by Chinese poet Zhao Zhenkai. Several of Dao’s poems were read aloud during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He was subsequently exiled and now lives in the United States.

Crimson Flooding into the River

Just a short stay at the Capital
But it is already the mid autumn festival
Chrysanthemums infect the landscape
Fall is making its mark
The infernal isolation has become unbearable here
All eight years of it make me long for my home
It is the bitter guile of them forcing us women into femininity
We cannot win!
Despite our ability, men hold the highest rank
But while our hearts are pure, those of men are rank
My insides are afire in anger at such an outrage
How could vile men claim to know who I am?
Heroism is borne out of this kind of torment
To think that so putrid a society can provide no camaraderie
Brings me to tears!

— Qiu Jin

Qiu Jin (Jianhu Nüxia) fought for women’s rights during the late Qing Dynasty, demanding an end to the subjugation of women, including arranged marriage and footbinding. Together with poet Xu Zihua, she founded a feminist newspaper called “China Women’s News” in 1906. When interrogated about her revolutionary activities, she remained silent. When given a brush to write a confession, she wrote her surname, Qiu, followed by six other characters: Qiu yu qiu feng chou sha ren (Autumn rain and autumn wind, such eviscerating, life-smothering sorrow!). On July 15, 1907, at the age of 32, Qiu Jin was beheaded for fomenting a revolution against the government.

[Research note: see Kang-i Sun, Haun Sassy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong, Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticisim (Stanford University Press, 1999): 634.]

One Bird After Another

We saw it
A little reflection left on the glass
It had been printed there for a long time without leaving . . .
Every year on July 15 of the lunar calendar
The river would be covered with water lanterns
But they could not call back your soul…
The train heading for the concentration camp
Sobbingly ran over my body
But I could not hold your hand . . .

— Liu Xia
(Trans. by Yu Zhang)

Liu Xia has been under house arrest since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize prize in October 2010. She has yet to be charged with a crime.

Immigrant Blues

People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It’s an old story from the previous century
about my father and me.

The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.

It’s called “Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation.”

It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”

called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”

Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.

But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?

And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?

You’re always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body’s finitude,
at peace with the soul’s disregard
of space and time.

Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.

If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,
she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,
at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.

It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening
called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”

called “Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,”

called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”

— Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had been exiled from China after a falling out with Mao Tse-tsung. Lee’s father was arrested in Indonesia and spent 18 months in prison. After his release, the family fled, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan to reach the United States. Lee was 7 years old when his family settled in Pennsylvania in 1964. The first line of this poem comes from something his father said to him when he was young.