c Li Zhengsheng

from Underground Fire

Translated by: 
Simon Patton

with Ellen Chow




In 1969, before I’d finished middle school in Kunming, the State sent me to a factory in the northern suburbs of the city that specialised in making various kinds of machinery for the mining industry. Here I worked as a riveter in the riveting and welding workshop.

When I wasn’t at work, I wrote poetry. In those early days, I composed a form of classical Chinese poetry known as gutishi, because in my Chinese classes at school only the classical-style poems of Mao Zedong were taught – I studied every single poem Mao wrote and could recite them off by heart. Thanks to this influence, my first attempts at writing poems involved a kind of literary substitution, replacing some of the words in Mao’s poems with my own.

The factory was split in half by a broad aisle with workshops either side, and on both sides of this aisle, at the entrance to each workshop, there was a noticeboard for putting up dazibao or ‘big-character posters’. These were used during the Cultural Revolution for the public expression of opinions about current issues – a bit like the Internet today – and in the main streets and workplaces there were noticeboards everywhere where you could put up a poster. If you had some idea you wanted to get across, you wrote a big-character poster and stuck it on the board, unsigned if you wanted, although you would, of course, have to face the consequences if you were found out. It was a bogus attempt at freedom of speech: the number of people who actually dared say anything real was extremely small – people who sneaked out at night to put up a poster publicly expressing pessimism regarding the status quo were arrested at daybreak.

Every month, each of the workshops would have to stick up a few new things on their noticeboard, such as citations from Party leaders, extracts from newspaper editorials, expressions of gratitude written by workers, rhyming ditties of various kinds eulogising the Fatherland or singing in praise of scenes of prosperity and the overall excellence of the state of the nation. These were written in ink with a brush on a big white sheet of paper and accompanied by water-colour illustrations of the sun as well as flowers. The noticeboard of every workshop had its own name: the one outside the machining workshop was called ‘Spring Rain’, while that outside the riveting and welding workshop had the name ‘The Red Riveter’. Not surprisingly, the casting workshop’s had been christened ‘Steel Flowers’. I had only just turned sixteen when I started work at the factory, and had written a poem in praise of International Labour Day and based on the form of one of Mao’s; this was my first ever composition, and the propaganda officer published it on ‘The Red Riveter’.

But this didn’t yet spark any special interest in writing on my part; it was just a one-off thing. Mao Zedong’s verse had merely led me to the Gate of Poetry, beyond which was concealed the vast realm of classical Chinese poems. The many Gates of Civilisation would prove to be as numerous as the thousand arms of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. You could go through any one of them to reach a higher level of skill until you reached civilisation’s most profound inner chamber.

I spent the winter of 1970 at home recovering from an illness. At that time, my father was in exile in the village of Shuige in Luliang County, so I went to see him at the village temple where he was living. The statue of the Buddha there had already been destroyed, and the main building had been converted into a storehouse in which the production team kept all sorts of bits and pieces in piles on the floor. I stayed with my father upstairs. Under a pile of rice-straw, I found a large bamboo basket containing several old books, one of them a selection of classical Chinese poems published in the 1960s, a restricted publication available only to Party cadres. More than thirty poems were printed in it. On that day, in our poorly-lit loft dwelling, I opened up this little book and the first thing I came across was a poem by Wang Wei entitled ‘Autumn Nightfall in the Hills’:


In empty hills after recent rain

The air fills with belated autumn

A bright moon shines between the pine-trees

And clear spring water runs over the stones.


It was if I had been struck by lightning and a blindfold of black cloth was torn from my eyes – at once I was plunged into full light. 


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