CCCSF was incredibly fortunate to host A Special Reading by Poet Yu Xinqiao 俞心樵, an event on April 28, 2016, featuring the dissident poet Yu Xinqiao.
Yu’s poetry glows with the incendiary fire of political dissent as well as the golden light of an abiding love for language. He was jailed for eight years for advocating for a “Chinese Renaissance Movement” in response to government crackdown on the arts. Fearing censorship, many mainstream Chinese journals have shied away from publishing his work. But Yu’s poetry continues to be tremendously popular amongst regular Chinese readers.
In alignment with our goals of earnest intercultural exchange and shifting dominant narratives, CCC was honored to present an American platform for this subversive, authentic voice from contemporary China.
The following is Yu's opening address from that evening, a meditation on art and liberation.
San Francisco, April 28th, 2016
Dear compatriots, my fellow art workers at Chinese Culture Center, and friends from around the world, good afternoon!
My long journey in America is coming to an end. Tomorrow I will return to China with my wife and child. In this moment, I am moved and thankful for Chinese Culture Center’s invitation to speak to you today. The organizer of today’s event, Ms. Abby Chen, had told me that some of you do not speak Chinese, and as my English is not good enough for public speaking, this address of mine will have to be translated. As such, I hope you will please forgive the delay that translation necessitates.
My trip was prompted by an invitation from the Dweck Center at Brooklyn Public Library, where I participated in its International Writers reading series. I have also had opportunities to meet with the Poetry Society of Peking University Alumni, Yixiang Literature Society, and representatives from independent booksellers in Los Angeles. In addition, I have received invitations from Yale, Harvard, and Loyola Marymount University to participate in recitations and lectures. Although busy, this active schedule has brought me many rewards.
Within the contemporary world order, the United States is far from a perfect country, as it contends with many problems and difficulties of its own. At the same time, as the most real, confident, accepting, open-minded and open-hearted, with an ability to timely correct a wrong course, the United States is without a doubt the world’s most powerful nation. This is a discernible and publicly acknowledged fact. While the history of the United States is relatively short, its culture has origins in Europe, with roots equally ancient as that venerable continent. It can be argued that at present the quality and capacity of American culture has surpassed that of Europe, especially with regards to political institutions. Although I am not one who believes in the absolute supremacy of institutions. As such, I am more drawn to the history of American thought and its spirit, especially the history that can be glimpsed through its poetry and art, whose tradition and present were born out of kindred spirits who had received God’s blessing. Topics such as these were also of interest to Albert Einstein, who turned his attention to it after achieving many of his scientific triumphs.
Today, technology and its powers are causing our world to become increasingly uniform and flat. Some people despair at this reality. But these people have underestimated the power of poetry and art. Poetry and art will protect the world’s differences, subtleties, and richness. Technological developments and modernization of production methods have allowed the human race to continually break through dilemmas, yet technology and progress are also the chief causes of our continually reappearing dilemmas. Whereas poetry and art are capable of giving people a sense of security, while making life more complete.
In recent years, the concept of individualism has appeared with increasing frequency in my writing and commentaries. People are often surprised why someone like me, who has had certain unique experiences, would be drawn to individualism. Why would I be wary and skeptical of nationalism, patriotism, and collectivism? To fully answer these questions requires much more time than we have today. What is obvious is that all of the above “isms” lack a love for the person and humanity, lack a love for the individual and the collective. As a result, much of the suffering inflicted throughout human history have these “isms” as the root cause. Is there anything more terrifying than a person without self-knowledge vainly attempting to change society? What I must clarify is, individualism can only be a fundamental position and attitude. To emphasize individualism is to protect dignity and freedom. Individualism is not self-centeredness; it continues to need divinity as example and reference.
My country and my personal history are difficult to explain in a short period of time. To protect my family’s safety, I have distanced myself from many different people and things. Increasingly, I have chosen to remain silent on many questions, which has inevitably led to unfounded guesswork and absurd speculations. But I can only remain true to the highest appeals inside my heart. Sometimes, I regard the external misinformation and rumors with admiration. Some people want to compare me to Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz, but I do not want to be labeled as an “exiled poet”. In my view, these Soviet and Eastern European poets were not “exiled”, but rather liberated and freed. Unlike the people who remain inside the countries, who were the true exiles. On the other hand, as a Chinese poet, I am not as lucky as they. The degrees to which I have been trampled and derided is far less than their experiences. I am more lonely and deserted than they. Fortunately, by the grace of God, whether inside the country or out, the people who give me support and warmth increase day by day. For example, to write a good poem, to draw a good painting, to sing a good song, for a person to do their best and fulfill their duties, this represents a most profound political state.
If life is like a game of cards, then I know that for me, to play certain cards could quickly bring me great rewards. But I want myself to slow down. I am more willing to play the two cards of poetry and art, which is consistent with the transcendent game played between me and the unified body of my spirit.
Before I visited America for the first time in 2013, I had thought that I understood this country. But now that I have come again, I have more uncertainty and questions about the deeper realms of worldly and existential landscapes. To me, America seems thoroughly more strange and unfamiliar. Other than limited experiences with its self-confident political system and mighty educational institutions, what else do I know about this country? Even here in San Francisco, I only know some of the more obvious facts; for example, the Beat movement, hippies, yuppies, gay liberation, Berkeley, Stanford, Silicon Valley, Golden Gate bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the fact that here the overseas Chinese population is only second to New York, so on and so forth. It is all very superficial. How do I dare assume the role of an insider to talk about the United States of America, a country that is inhabited by very few native peoples and which many people from all over the world call home? As a writer, any praise or criticism that I heap upon America feels premature. More importantly, as a poet and artist, I have a preference for and fascination with the untold secrets of this world, instead of talking about things that can be easily found using a search engine such as Google of Baidu. But this does not mean that I have less interest in the world or plan to abandon observing and talking about America.
Alright, let my ramblings stop here. Guided by the moderator, we now begin this afternoon’s program of poetry reading, question and answer, and further exchanges. Again, I wish to thank everyone for coming here today and for your friendship!
(Translated by Jiajing Liu)