Next stop, Forbidden City

Eliot Weinberger

‘The poet,’ Gu Cheng wrote in 1987, ‘is just like the fabled hunter who naps beside a tree, waiting for hares to break their skulls by running headlong into the tree trunk. After waiting for a long time, the poet discovers that he is the hare.’ These words turned out to be prophetic; six years later, his terrible and sordid crash against the tree would nearly obliterate what had come before. He had been a major cultural figure in China; now his poems were being read as flashbacks from his death.

He was born in 1956 in Beijing, the son of a well-known poet and army officer, Gu Gong. At 12, he wrote a two-line poem, ‘One Generation’, which was to become an emblem of the new unofficial poetry:

Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night
I go to seek the shining light[1]

In 1969, the Cultural Revolution sent his family into the salt desert of Shandong Province to herd pigs. The locals spoke a dialect Gu Cheng could not understand, and in his isolation he became absorbed in the natural world: ‘Nature’s voice became language in my heart. That was happiness.’ His favourite book was Jean-Henri Fabre’s 19th-century entomological notes and drawings; he collected insects and watched birds; he wrote poems in the sand with a twig, poems with titles like ‘The Nameless Little Flower’ or ‘The Dream of the White Cloud’. Like John Clare, he found his poems in the fields and wrote them down. ‘I heard a mysterious sound in nature,’ he later said. ‘That sound became poetry in my life.’ He wrote that his ‘earliest experience of the nature of poetry’ was a raindrop. His childhood was a vision of paradise from which he never recuperated.

He returned to Beijing in 1974, and worked in a factory. He wrote furiously, even – like Charles Olson – on the walls of his room. He hated the city, ‘those small light-filled boxes, the crucibles in which age-old humanity is melted down.’ He thought of himself as an insect, ‘pinned to a board with its legs dancing’. But he fell in with a group of poets, Bei Dao, Duo Duo, Yang Lian, Mang Ke, Shu Ting and others, most of them seven or ten years older than him, who were producing China’s first samizdat magazine, Jintian (‘Today’). The literary expression of the new Democracy Wall movement (their first ‘issue’ was a series of broadsides surreptitiously plastered on walls in Beijing), the group had rejected socialist realism, with its epics of revolutionary heroes and glorious harvests, to write first-person, introspective and imagistic lyrics.

Grey sky
grey road
grey buildings
in the grey rain
Through this wide dead greyness
walk two children
one bright red
one pale green

This, one of Gu Cheng’s earliest poems, was attacked by an official critic as menglong, and the word became attached to the group as a whole. Menglong literally means ‘misty’, but without the sentimental and ephemeral associations the word has in English: ‘obscure’ would be a more accurate translation. Bei Dao has suggested that they should simply be known as the Today Group, but unfortunately the Misty Poets has stuck in English. As Gu Cheng said at the time, ‘it’s not misty at all. In fact, some things are becoming clearer.’

They became the conscience of the generation and its pop stars. They read their poems in stadiums packed with young people, and had slapstick adventures, straight out of A Hard Day’s Night, escaping the throngs of adoring fans. Officialdom didn’t know what to do with them. Their work was banned, and they were condemned in the Anti-Spiritual Pollution and Anti-Bourgeois Liberalism campaigns. Gu Cheng’s father, Gu Gong, wrote an essay that begins: ‘I am growing more and more incapable of understanding my son’s poetry. I am getting more and more annoyed.’ Full of phrases such as ‘the more I read, the more angry I get,’ ‘I became furious,’ ‘I became disappointed, miserable,’ the article finally attempts a half-hearted reconciliation: Well, we must try to understand this new generation.

Gu Cheng’s work took a crazy leap from introspective lyricism in 1981 with ‘Bulin’s File’, the first of his poem sequences. Bulin is a trickster figure, much like the Monkey King of the classic Chinese novel, The Journey to the West – Gu Cheng himself was born in the Year of the Monkey – and ‘Bulin’s File’ is a set of goofy fairy tales and deranged nursery rhymes that seem to have been written by a child who accidentally ate some hallucinogenic mushrooms:

Everyone with long golden fingernails
should have them cut
because Bulin is out of work
the newly sprouted moon is thin and curved
because bars of gold and blocks of ice
are about to be wed
every home needs a combination lock
every purse, a zipper
because danger is born
the crab and round brown cupcake crawl
out of the film studio
down to the beach

‘Bulin’ was unlike anything that had ever been written in Chinese, but Gu Cheng didn’t considered it a breakthrough. That was to come a few years later.

In 1983, he married a pretty student poet he had met on a train, Xie Ye. On their wedding day, he said to her: ‘Let’s commit suicide together.’ She was vivacious and practical; he was lost in a dream and often melancholic. He persuaded her to drop out of school so that they would remain inseparable.

In 1985, he had a revelation. Before, he had ‘tried to be a human being’, but now he realised that the world was an illusion, and he learned to leave his self behind and inhabit a shadow existence. Before, he had written ‘mainly lyrical poetry’. Now he ‘discovered a strange and unique phenomenon: that words themselves acted like drops of liquid mercury splashing about, moving in any direction’. He called one of his long sequences ‘Liquid Mercury’. ‘Any word may be as beautiful as water so long as it is free of restraints,’ he wrote.

In an interview with the translator Simon Patton, he said:

I thought the important thing about language at that time was not to change its form, not a question of how you used it – it wasn’t a matter of taking this piece of wood and making a plank out of it … The important thing was to rap it – it turns into glass; rap it again and it turns to brass; again and to water. Changes in the texture of language.

‘Many of the characteristics of Gu Cheng’s previous work (predictable rhyme, organisation into stanzas, recoverable metaphor, recognisable themes),’ Patton writes, ‘were jettisoned in an effort to forge new principles of organisation. These principles – which include homophony, homography, graphic association (exploitation of various features of written Chinese characters), parataxis, deviant syntax and nonsense strings – were all inspired by an intensely anti-lyrical desire.’

One of the ‘Liquid Mercury’ poems reads:

The overturned pail is seen from afar
dee dee da
delicate fish
dancing in the air

dee dee da dee da

fish bring trees into the air
Dee dee da

Fish bring trees into the
air
rust coloured legs sticking up in the
air

It is extraordinary that Gu Cheng, largely ignorant of Western Modernism – the few poets he knew and admired in translation were Lorca, Tagore, Elytis and Paz – independently recreated much of the Western literary history of the 20th century. From the Imagism and Symbolism of the early lyrics, he moved on to Dadaism or one of the Futurisms. (Two earlier translators, Sean Golden and Chu Chiyu, said they were continually reminded of Gertrude Stein, whom Gu Cheng had never read.) He ultimately landed in a completely idiosyncratic corner of Surrealism. It is probably safe to say that Gu Cheng was the most radical poet in all of China’s 2500 years of written poetry.

In 1988, Gu Cheng and Xie Ye moved to New Zealand. At first, he had a job at the University of Auckland, teaching conversational Chinese. He would sit silently staring at his students, waiting for them to begin the conversation, and they would sit waiting for him to speak. Soon the students stopped coming to class, and when eventually this was discovered, he was fired.

The couple moved into a dilapidated house without electricity or running water on Waiheke, a small island in the Bay of Auckland. It was Gu Cheng’s attempt to regain the paradise of his childhood. They gathered shellfish and roots and berries – he wouldn’t let Xie Ye cook – and got ill from eating the wrong things; they made spring rolls and crude pottery that they tried to sell in a local market; they had a son whom they named Mu’er (‘Wood-Ear’), after a fungus that grows on rotten wood, common in Chinese cuisine. Xie Ye typed and edited all Gu Cheng’s manuscripts, and he paid her in gold and silver play money that he painted. He refused to learn English, or any other language: ‘If a Chinese person learns another language,’ he explained, ‘he will then lose his feeling of the existence of the Self, his being.’ He ruined their kitchen pots making lead casts of their footprints. He was always seen wearing a tall cylindrical hat that had been made from the leg of a pair of blue jeans.

This was more or less what I knew about Gu Cheng, and what was generally known, when I met him in 1992. That year, he was living in Berlin on a DAAD fellowship, and was visiting New York with four other poets from the Today Group, in connection with an anthology of their earliest poems, A Splintered Mirror, edited by Donald Finkel and Carolyn Kizer (who referred to them as the ‘Misties’).

The first night, Gu Cheng, Xie Ye and I went to a restaurant in Chinatown. As we sat down, my first question, predictably, was about his hat. He told me that he always wore it so that none of his thoughts would escape his head. Xie Ye said that he also slept in it, in order not to lose his dreams.

Gu Cheng picked up the menu and chose a dish. Xie Ye was amazed. He had never before ordered anything in a restaurant, preferring to eat whatever he was served. She then put a tape recorder on the table. She told me that everything Gu Cheng said should be preserved.

We talked for hours, but I understood little of it. Every topic immediately led to a disquisition on cosmic forces: the Cultural Revolution was like the chaos before creation in Chinese mythology, before things separated into yin and yang, and Tiananmen Square represented their continuing imbalance; Mao Zedong, in a way I couldn’t follow, was somehow the embodiment of wubuwei, Taoist non-non-action. Xie Ye gazed at him adoringly the whole time, and both of them radiated an innocent sweetness. I felt I was in the presence of one of those crazy mountain sages of Chinese tradition.

Somewhere in the evening, Gu Cheng left for the bathroom, and as soon as he was out of sight, Xie Ye turned to me smiling and said: ‘I hope he dies.’ She explained that, in New Zealand, he had forced her to give their son to a Maori couple to raise, as he demanded her undivided attention and wanted to be the only male in the house. ‘I can’t get my baby back unless he is dead,’ she said. I had met them for the first time just a few hours before.

Their private travails would soon become public knowledge. Before leaving for New Zealand, Gu Cheng had fallen in love – but had not yet had an affair – with a student, Li Ying, known as Ying’er. They continued to correspond, and Xie Ye came up with the scheme that by inviting Ying’er to Waiheke Island, she could be replaced as wife, leave Gu Cheng, and be reunited with her son. She paid for Ying’er’s ticket. Gu Cheng, however, wanted to live the life of the hero of The Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone), as the prince of the ‘Kingdom of Daughters’, surrounded by women improvising poetry in a pleasure garden far from the world. (Women, he said, were only beautiful when they did nothing.) Ying’er, in turn, though she did become Gu Cheng’s lover, was appalled by their living conditions. After a year, Gu Cheng and Xie Ye left for Berlin to earn some money to fix up the house. Ying’er was supposed to wait for them, but disappeared, supposedly with a much older English martial arts instructor.

In Berlin, Gu Cheng wrote one of the strangest books ever written: Ying’er, which he called his ‘dream of the Gu Cheng chamber’, a barely fictionalised account, with long passages of physical detail, of the love affair and its break-up. It is obsessive and hallucinated, narcissistic and self-pitying, precise and incoherent, kitschy and terrifying – in the end perhaps more of a document than a piece of literature, and now impossible to read at a purely aesthetic distance. Gu Cheng dictated the book on tape, and Xie Ye transcribed it, adding some paragraphs and chapters of her own. She also began seeing another man. ‘My way is the way of death,’ she told a friend.

At the same time, Gu Cheng was writing some of his best poetry, particularly his last sequence, Cheng (‘City’), a panoramic and simultaneist evocation of the Beijing he had hated and lost. (Under the chestnut trees in a park that summer, Gu Cheng was heard muttering to himself over and over: ‘I wonder what China looks like now.’) The poem was autobiographical in ways that were not always apparent. The title was the Cheng of his name, and at a public reading he introduced the poem by talking about his ‘horror of bus trips across Beijing, when the conductor yelled out, “Next stop, Forbidden City (Gugong),” for it sounded like “Next stop, Gu Gong,” my father.’ (‘Family,’ he once wrote, ‘is the place where destruction begins.’) Its occasional moments of violence are now read as auguries:

They watched you
they were not wearing clothes
you did not feel it lasted long
you were not wearing anything either
I said there would be other programmes that night

I put my hand under my shirt
one of my knives was gone

I didn’t believe leaving would be like this
the knife was too short
I let you walk ahead as swiftly as the wind
The most annoying thing about committing
murder is finding the opportunity
she caught up with us
what the hell was she doing
I stared at her in the hallway
girls cannot be killed

But yesterday they killed four
two in the bedroom two at her door
you showed her the knife
saying you were going to die
she smiled asking how many kids you had

But, most of all, its collage of vignettes – as though written by a hallucinated William Carlos Williams – were meant to be self-erasing illusions in an illusory world. ‘In my poetry,’ Gu Cheng once wrote, ‘the city disappears and what appears instead is a piece of grazing land.’ In its way, it is the Taoist version of the slogan the Situationists had written on the Democracy Walls of Paris in 1968: ‘Under the pavement, the beach.’

By all accounts, Gu Cheng had grown increasingly megalomaniacal and violent. He had taken the parables of Chuang Tzu too literally and turned them into a kind of ‘all things are permitted’ to the Nietzschean superman. In a speech in Frankfurt, he said: ‘He who follows the Tao is entitled to kill, to kill himself, and in fact to do anything, as he is actually engaged in doing nothing.’ Asked about Buddhism in an interview, he replied: ‘Buddhism is for those who don’t know. If you already know, then it no longer exists … But,’ he characteristically added, ‘everything is yours.’ He announced that he had stopped writing and spent a great deal of his time sleeping: that was his real work. ‘I only realise how cold the human heart is when I wake up.’ He claimed that his favourite book, after Fabre, was now Othello. He talked about buying a gun, tried to strangle Xie Ye, ended up in a mental hospital, and was released a few days later when she refused to press charges and assumed responsibility for him. He said that his greatest happiness would be if Xie Ye killed him.

They returned to New Zealand via Tahiti, where they visited the grave of Paul Gauguin, and arrived back on Waiheke Island on 24 September 1993, Gu Cheng’s 37th birthday. On 8 October, he murdered Xie Ye with an axe and then hanged himself.

Ying’er was published in China a few weeks later, and the story became a sensation for highbrows and lowbrows. In New Zealand, it was treated as an extreme example of spousal abuse, but in China it was seen as symbolic of the spiritual desolation of the generation that had come of age in the Cultural Revolution, or the tortured life of the exile, or the tortured life of the artist, or the oppressiveness of the Chinese male, or the tragic life of the muse. It seemed that everyone who had ever known them weighed in with a book or article, some calling Gu Cheng a monster, some saying Xie Ye had turned him into one. Gu Cheng’s mother said that the troubles had begun when he fell out of a window as a child and suffered brain damage. Ying’er herself wrote a book called Heartbroken on Waiheke, which had a preface by an ex-boyfriend to show that Gu Cheng was not the only man in her life. There was even a drippy movie, The Poet, with a beautiful unclothed Japanese starlet as Ying’er. Gu Cheng and Xie Ye had become the Chinese Ted and Sylvia.

It is a Taoist paradox: When you forget about Gu Cheng, you can begin to read him. There are five books available in English translation. An excellent Selected Poems, going up to 1987, edited by Sean Golden and Chu Chiyu, was published by Renditions in Hong Kong in 1990. Ying’er (with the subtitle ‘The Kingdom of Daughters’), translated by Li Xia, oddly appeared in Dortmund (1995) and is almost impossible to find. Li Xia, the leading Gu Cheng scholar in English, has also compiled Essays, Interviews, Recollections and Unpublished Material of Gu Cheng, 20th-Century Chinese Poet: The Poetics of Death (1999) – a useful collection that also includes contradictory accounts of Gu Cheng and Xie Ye’s last months.

Two new books have just been published simultaneously. Nameless Flowers, edited and translated by Aaron Crippen, takes its title from a poem Gu Cheng wrote at 15 and, from the thousands of poems he wrote, favours the corniest short lyrics (‘I will give my love pollen/to the first wild bee’), omits all of the major sequences, and ends early, five years before his death. Crippen, alas, seems to believe that Ernest Dowson was the last word in poetic language: ‘I doff my straw hat’; ‘lowly I have spoken your name’; ‘alone I smile in the mountain wild.’ Flowers waft their fragrance, poets gravely gaze, and no one sleeps when they could slumber.[2]

Despite its equally bad title, Joseph Allen’s Sea of Dreams is far superior.[3] The book surveys the poetry from beginning to end; all the sequences are present in their entirety; and there is a short selection from Gu Cheng’s essays, interviews and stories, as well as a brief excerpt from Ying’er. The translation is in contemporary American English. (Where Crippen has ‘gloaming’, Allen has ‘evening’.) Allen’s Gu Cheng is, as he should be, colloquial, wacky, startling, and sometimes incomprehensible.

In one of his last letters, Gu Cheng wrote: ‘If you read my book, you’ll know that I’m completely mad. Only my hands are normal.’

He wrote: ‘When I walk the road of my imagination, between heaven and earth there is only myself and a type of light green grass.’

He wrote: ‘The deepest of me has never been more than eight years old.’

[1] All the poetry translations in this piece are Joseph Allen’s and are from Sea of Dreams: Selected Writings (New Directions, 176 pp., $15.95, June, 0 8112 1887 3).

[2] Braziller, 168 pp., $24.95, April, 0 8076 1549 8.

[3] I was originally commissioned to write an introduction to the book, but after the Gu Cheng estate insisted that there be no mention of the murder-suicide, I withdrew.