Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Wit of Eternity"

For twenty years, I have had nothing to say about Tiananmen Square. I still have nothing, really. Just a very short story and a translation.

A few days ago, some acquaintances told me that, during the 1989 democracy movement, they had initially supported the protesters. They had admired their zeal and shared the disgust they felt for the corrupt government. But later, when they got a closer look at the leaders of the protest, my acquaintances changed their minds. "Those leaders were so hypocritical," they told me. "They'd whip the crowds up into a frenzy, then go out for a big meal in a fancy restaurant while everyone else stayed behind at the demonstration. They were just as corrupt as any official."

OK, but they weren't the ones with the tanks, right? I didn't say that out loud, but perhaps something in my expression suggested what I was thinking, because one of my acquaintances seemed anxious to explain. "There's nothing we Chinese fear more than instability. Nothing. With our history, what we've lived though, anything seems better than that."

This time I found my voice. "So they reminded you of the Red Guards? Is that it? Because they were agitated, and reckless, and so incredibly young?"

Actually, I didn't think it was such a bad excuse. Not for the crackdown, I mean, but for the fear. If I'd lived through the Cultural Revolution, I'd probably be terrified of rebellious teenagers for the rest of my days. But someone else, joining the conversation, seemed to hear the censure implicit in my tone.

"The government had to crack down. They had to be stopped. But, yes, the measures taken were too extreme."

You think?

Someone else countered, "Actually, what other measures could they have taken? There were too many protesters, all out of control. It was terrible, but what else could be done?"

I didn't say anything more. I just tried to forget about the conversation as soon as possible. And I did pretty much forget about it. But while I was busy pushing it down to the bottom of my mind, something else floated lightly to the top. It was a poem by Liu Xiaobo. I had translated it for a commemorative anthology a couple of years before.

For Seventeen

(You didn’t listen to your parents’ warnings, jumped out the bathroom window, snuck away. When you fell, holding up a banner, you were just seventeen. But I lived; I am already thirty-six. In the presence of your shade, to survive is a crime, and to give you a poem is even grosser shame. The living ought to keep their mouths shut, ought to listen to the murmurs from the grave. That I should write a poem for you! I am unfit. Your age, seventeen, is worth more than any word or work – more than any thing that can be made.)

I live,
even sustain a certain notoriety.
I want the courage, or the quality,
to proffer a handful of flowers and a poem,
to come before a seventeen-year-old’s faint grin,
though I know – I know –
Seventeen doesn’t carry the slightest grudge.

Your age (seventeen) tells me this:
life is plain. It lacks splendor,
like gazing at a desert with no borders:
with no need for trees, no need for water,
no need for the dappled touch of flowers,
you take the sun’s malice; that is all.

At seventeen, you fell on the road,
and so the way was lost.
At seventeen, eyes open in the mud,
you were peaceful as a book.
Here, in this world,
you clung to nothing,
nothing but your pure, white, spotless youth.

When, at seventeen, your breathing stopped –
well, it was like a miracle –
you had not lost hope.
The bullets ripped through the mountains,
convulsed the seas,
as, for a time, all the flowers in the world
took on one color only.
Seventeen, you didn’t lose hope,
couldn’t lose hope.
Take the love you never spent,
give it to your mother;
her hair is white now.

Your mother, who once locked you away.
Her line was broken
under the red and five-starred flag.
High and fine,
your mother,
your own blood,
shout-roused by your dying glance.
She carries with her your last will,
walks among the tombs.
When she herself is ready to fall,
with your ghost breath
you brace her up,
you set her on the road.

Past age or youth,
past death,

As I explained a minute ago, it's been twenty years, and in all that time I've had nothing to say.


Willow said...

Your blog once again leaves me shaking my head, speechless. For some things poetry is truly the only appropriate language.

Nelson said...

stay strong. though we may have an emic, outsider view, sometimes someone else has to tell us when we can't see the spot on our own backs.

A 64 Surviver said...

"As I explained a minute ago, it's been twenty years, and in all that time I've had nothing to say."

Let me take a wild guess. You have praised Obama on your blog. You have admitted that you are a liberal. Can one expect a liberal to have moral clarity? Not the last I checked.

flyingfish said...

Umm . . . bracketing for a moment the question of whether it is appropriate to expect an Obama-praising -- wait for it, yes -- LIBERAL to have moral clarity, I rather wonder if you understood what I meant when I said I had nothing to say.

I meant I was speechless. You know, like, shocked, horrified, saddened beyond words. In this I was joined by most of the rest of the world -- though of course some, with greater command of their thoughts and responses than I can ever hope to muster, managed to articulate their views.

It seems to me that our responses to suffering on the scale of 6/4 -- or, for that matter, 9/11 -- do a great deal to transcend political conviction. Horror has a unifying principle; we all share the same nightmares. The unification may not last long, but it is no less genuine for all its brevity.

As for "admitting" I'm a liberal -- what a very refreshing way to put it! I should have said that I CLAIM to be a liberal, in the same way many others claim to be Christian. That is, I do my best.

You have signed your comment "64 surviver." I suppose you mean you were at the center of events then. My heart goes out to you.

Anonymous said...

Hey, this is beautiful, you liberal you. I had no idea you were in Beijing--that's amazing and wonderful. I find, whenever I come back to thinking about 6/4, that... well, you're lucky as your interests have led you to poetry, and maybe poetry is the only right response. Since I'm all about bao-bian and historical judgments on complex events... I always feel like I ought to have an opinion--and yet, as you say--what can one say?

flyingfish said...

Thanks, Esther!

I can imagine that the pressure to pull a Grand Historian must be wearing at times. In such cases it is rather refreshing to stick with admiring the autumn lotuses.

Yes, this is my second year here in Beijing. My teaching duties are exceedingly light and also very rewarding -- a good combination for anyone, but especially for me, as the health issues still get in the way quite a bit.

I think I remember your mentioning a defense scheduled early next year? Good luck! I wish I could be there to cheer you on. :)