? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 1

Creative Nonfiction

Roger Garside

China 's Prophet of Freedom: The Poet Huang Xiang

On 24 November 1978 , in the heart of Beijing , on Tian An Men Square, I encountered the longest wall poster I had ever seen: ninety-four giant sheets of paper ran seventy yards alon g a high wooden wall. From the top of an embankment, they stared down at the mausoleum of Mao Zedong. A thousand people filed along the embankment reading them, wholly absorbed by their message - a set of poems, each one of which was political dynamite. The most explosive, The Fallen Idol , began:

“The tyrant of this era has fallen

From the pinnacle of unrighteous power

From the tip of a rusty bayonet

From the buckled backs of a generation

And within billions of gasping bleeding souls

He has fallen

He is dead”

The tyrant was not named, but any Chinese could see that the poet was writing of Chairman Mao, whom they had been forced to worship as an idol, and who had “moved billions of people around/ As though whipping billions of tops”. The poem was dated 9 September 1976 , the day on which Mao had died. Two years on, his successors were still trying to immortalise him by honouring his corpse, and whitewashing his record of horrendous misrule, yet here was a poem denouncing Mao to his embalmed face – and declaring that he was dead, quite dead, and that all he stood for was either dead, or dying.

Never before in the three decades of Communist rule had anyone in mainland China dared to challenge the regime in this way. And this was only one of some nine poems posted there, most of which showed a total disregard for the central tenets of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, which had been given the status of holy scripture.

The sequence of poems began with the Song of the Torches , which tells in a vision how a spiritual army will liberate men and women whose feelings have been deadened, whose spirits have been confined, and on whose mouths “there is carven a hopeless despair”. These are the opening lines:


“Underway on the far-off horizon

A-sway in the dark azure sky

Is a luminous legion, an army

A mute-flowing fire

That lights up the long-curtained windows

And flows into doorways long shut to each other”

The river of fire illumines, purges and baptises. The poem ends thus:

“Mankind is baptised in this wondrous fire

The World is transformed in this wondrous fire

In its flames the decrepit and old is destroyed

While a new world, all bloody, leaps forth from the womb.”

It had been written in August 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. How many in China then had dared to believe that one day a new world would leap from the womb of the old?

The third poem, I See a War, also written in 1969, denounced the ideological war waged ceaselessly by a totalitarian regime to control the minds and spirits of every individual. It began:


“I see a war, an invisible war.

It is being fought in everyone's facial expression

Being fought in countless loudspeakers

Being fought in the persistent terror

expressed in everyone's eyes”

With image after image, it described the myriad manifestations of totalitarian dictatorship: in every home, in primary school books, in mass-meetings, in the gestures and words of every actor on every stage, and in “soldiers patrolling the lines of my poems, to search into everyone's conscience”.


“In face of this terrible unprecedented attack

I see sexual relations in decay

The living with psychic disorders

Schizophrenia burgeoning, individuality destroyed”.

But the poet had hope: he ends the poem with this assertion:


“Human nature does not die, conscience does not die, the people's freedom of spirit does not die”.

In a fourth poem, The Great Wall , written in 1972, the poet had used this ancient barrier between China and the rest of the world as a metaphor for the dictatorship that the poet believed to be ultimately doomed. The Wall speaks, thus:


“I am laid out between man and man

Separating this group of people from that

They want to pull me down, destroy me…


In order to pass on to their descendants for the first time a legacy of science and democracy”

As the poem progresses the Wall emerges as a metaphor for Mao Zedong himself, again not named, and still four years from his death at the time of writing.

In a fifth poem, The Fire God, the poet returns to the theme of liberation of man, but this time man is freed by God rather than a spiritual army. This was a flagrant heresy when it was written, in 1976. Mao had denied the existence of God, while he himself still enjoyed the status of a demigod.


“Oh, Fire-God, I know you are already approaching me

Under the jet-black heaven I listen silently for your foot-falls,

My heart is listening excitedly, exulting,

You have come

To shatter the bastions of superstition, the inner courts of


To sweep aside the sundered walls of a toppled faith

Ah, you are this fire's Prometheus”

God liberates man from a dictatorship whose time has gone, tears down the intangible Great Wall that has isolated the poet's homeland from the world and his fellow-citizens from each other, restores trust between men, and establishes freedom, truth and democracy. This God is not a crude deus ex machina , but a spirit who reaches deep into the human psyche.

These five poems from which I have quoted amounted to some 540 lines in Chinese. They bore the title The God of Fire Symphony . A full reading of them shows that they are informed by a philosophy and a faith that are rich, deep and subtle; they are far from being simplistic tracts. The poet had written them over a seven-year period beginning in 1969 when the Cultural Revolution was at its height. All traditional cultures and all true faiths, whether of Chinese or foreign origin, were under physical and moral attack, and their adherents were being persecuted, in many cases to death. Idolatry and xenophobia were the order of the day. Mao Zedong had launched and was leadin g a n undeclared civil war. Terror reigned.

If the police or Red Guards had discovered such poems at that time, it would have meant instant imprisonment, beating, and almost certain death, for their author. The crowd amongst whom I stood on Tian An Men Square that November morning did not share their thoughts with me, a diplomat in the British Embassy in Beijing .

Who, I asked myself, had dared to write them? What kind of Chinese, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, would proclaim his faith in God, and personal freedom? Who would write in terms that resonated with the Christian gospel, and the prophet Isaiah? How had anyone acquired the kind of education that would equip him or her to write like this? Who would know about Prometheus? In twenty years of socialist realism, how had anyone nurtured such an imagination, and become a master of poetic structure and rhythm, often cumulative in their effect, that cannot be judged from the fragments quoted here ? Only later, much later, would I find answers to these questions, but the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party had already taken steps to find out as much as it could about the author. Six weeks' before these poems appeared on the vast Square, they had appeared in smaller format in a narrow alley in Beijing 's central district, and had created a first sensation. Recognising their importance, the Communist Party had ordered the security files of the poet and his friends to be flown from their home city to be studied in Beijing .

Among the facts on those files would have been the following. The poet, whose name was Huang Xiang, had been born into a landowning family in Hunan province in south-central China in 1941. His father was at that time a young General in the army of the anti-communist President Chiang Kai-shek. Shortly after the Communists gained control of the mainland in 1949, and established there the People's Republic of China , General Huang had been executed. Young Huang Xiang was brought up first by his paternal grandparents in Hunan province. Then at 15, with the help of an uncle, he moved to the capital city of Guizhou , a poor and remote province in south-west China , where he found work in a metals factory. His first poem to be published appeared there in 1958, when he was 17, but his non-conformism and his class background told against him and he was soon expelled from the official All-China Writers' Association.

His file would have shown that, in the following year, he was sentenced to three years' hard labour for having had the temerity to set off, without official permission, in search of freedom in the even poorer and more remote province of Qinghai , on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. It would also have shown that he had been sentenced to a second three-year term of forced labour in 1965, because he was guilty of having been born into a landowning family. Perhaps it also showed that in 1966 Huang had profited from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to escape from labour camp, and had found work in a knitting mill, to earn his keep.

What it would not have shown is that at the age of 10 Huang had begun to educate himself in the work of some of the world's great writers and thinkers when he discovered, in the roof of the family home, a cache of books and notebooks brought back by his father from his university days in Japan.

Nor would the file have shown that, as the Cultural Revolution raged on, and Huang worked quietly in the mill by day, he wrote poetry by night, and, on evenings when he was not writing, he often met with a group of like-minded friends to share his writing with them and listen to theirs. He found the peace and privacy he needed by making his home in the tower of a Roman Catholic church that had been abandoned by its persecuted congregation at the start of the Cultural Revolution. The gatherings with literary friends took place, astonishingly, in the home of one of them whose family had been leading merchants in the city before the Communist era. At these gatherings, Huang would astound, move and alarm his friends by reciting with passion his politically explosive poetry.

Other poems that he read to them described the degradation and brutalisation he had undergone. In a poem entitled Wild Beasts , he described how the beatings and persecution he had suffered in labour camp and elsewhere had made him feel and act at times like a wild beast:

“I am a wild beast hunted down

I am a captured wild beast

I am a wild beast trampled by wild beasts

I am a wild beast trampling wild beasts”

He protested that “this age viciously seizes me…its feet stomp on the bridge of my nose, tearing, biting, gnawing, gnawing until a barely a bone of me is left.” The Chinese words he used for tearing, biting, etc. convey the sound of flesh being torn, and of a wild animal uttering ferocious sounds as it sinks its teeth into a victim. In another poem of this period, Song of Life , Huang expressed his outrage when his son died of pneumonia at the age of nine months because he was denied proper medical treatment on the grounds that Huang had a “bad” class background. Huang tried to kill his work-place supervisor who was responsible for the denial of treatment.

The poems Huang read to friends during this Cultural Revolution period show that he kept his spirit free while hundreds of millions of his compatriots had theirs enslaved. In one of the darkest nights of the twentieth century, he kept alive within himself his capacity to hope, his faith in a living God who would empower man to free himself from tyranny, and his belief that goodness can never be entirely erased from the heart of man. As his friends listened to his impassioned readings, they realised that this hope, this faith, and this belief were flames burning within him, flames that set him on fire, spiritually, making of him a human torch, which burned as a lamp of freedom and of enlightenment.

After reading of The Song of the Torches , his host declaimed these lines, impromptu:


“You are not a poet

You are a fighter

You are not recitin g a poem

You are a cry from the soul

Writing in a man's ink-blood

The eternal yearnings of mankind”

As order was restored after the worst chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Huang's spirit calmed. Then a new period of political instability, before and after Mao's death, gave him and his friends hope that they could fight and win greater freedom, not just for themselves personally but for all China . By the autumn of 1978, two years after Mao died, the political balance in China was swingin g a way from Mao's designated successor, Hua Guofeng, towards Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had struck from power shortly before he died. Deng's two-year struggle to return to power and become the supreme leader was succeeding but would not be complete until December. In the meantime, he and his allies wanted him to be seen as a liberator. As a result, China was enjoyin g a moment of freedom without precedent since 1949.

Huang and his friends seized the moment to come to Beijing, to display his most political poems without official permission, and to take an equally bold initiative on the organisational front: after pasting up his poems on Tian An Men Square, they held a short ceremony there to proclaim the founding of the Enlightenment Society, whose aim was nothing less than the far-reaching reform of Chinese society. This was the first non-government and non-party, civil association to be created in China since 1949. They distributed copies of the first edition of the Society's equally unofficial magazine, also called Enlightenment , which was devoted to their writin g a nd to their ideas on reform. These were further audacious challenges to the regime. The response from the public was electric. In the days that followed, the Democracy Movement was born. Many other groups of human rights activists sprang up and a bare brick wall of a Beijing bus terminal burst into life as Democracy Wall, as people plastered on it posters bearing their grievances, hopes and demands.

Two months later, on 1 January 1979, Huang displayed on that Wall an open letter to the then President of the USA, Jimmy Carter, calling on him to put the issue of human rights in China on the international political agenda, the first time a citizen of the People's republic of China had dared to appeal publicly to a foreign statesman to intervene in its politics.

In March 1979, Deng Xiaoping and his allies, having gained a firm grip on supreme power, cracked down on those who had been leading the demands for democracy in China . Huang was arrested and sentenced to a further period of “reform through labour”. But later in the year he and his fellow leaders of the Enlightenment Society were summoned to Beijing by the Secretary-General of the Communist Party who tried to persuade them to give a public endorsement, in the presence of the international press corps, of the policies of Deng Xiaoping. How should they respond? They believed that Deng would open China to the world, put an end to internecine class struggle and establish much economic freedom, but retain for the Communist Party a monopoly of political power; under his influence China would be half-free. They refused to endorse Deng's policies. So, Huang was returned to prison until the following year, and the Central Committee banned publication of his works.

By the time Deng cracked down on the Democracy Movement, my posting to the British Embassy had run its course and I had moved to California , to write a book about the struggle for the succession to Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, and to explain how and why Deng had won. I devoted half a chapter of my book to Huan g a nd his poems. But, apart from his name, I knew little about him, except that his home was in Guizhou . For the next twenty-five years I neither heard nor read anythin g a bout him.

Then, in the summer of 2003, I put his name into Google and found a trail that led me to discover what he had done since his poems had confronted the corpse of Mao. His fortunes had waxed and waned as the political pendulum swung to and fro between rigid cultural dictatorship and periods of relaxation. At times, he was able to excite crowds by public readings of his great “public” poems, which are written for declamation. For brief periods he could campaign for human rights, and help bring a bout a resurgence of the democracy movement on Tian An Men in 1989. At other times, he was gao led for such actions, until he had been imprisoned six times for a total of twelve years. The ban on publication of his works was essentially maintained, denying him a wide public, and depriving him of feedback from critics. But his spirit was never broken. He was sustained in part by the inner faith evident in his poetry, but also by aspects of Chinese tradition: for thousands of years, Chinese poets have had a role as prophet-priests who interpret a puzzling universe to their fellow men, and who are prepared to sacrifice their liberty or even their lives for the truth.

Other Chinese poets took refuge in silence, in political subservience or in that timid, fuzzy language that earned them the sobriquet of Misty poets. Huang Xiang denounced the Misty ones in forthright terms, and challenged the public to contrast his poetry with that of the highly respected veteran Ai Qing, who had surrendered his artistic freedom to the Communist Party since 1949. He himself continued to write with undiminished force, vitality and passion. His body of work expanded until it covered a range that is extraordinary: from heroic public poems to the most tender of intimate love songs, and from rational analysis to those written in the grip of violent emotion that - during hours or even days of uninterrupted writing – took him to the brink of insanity.

In jail in the late 1980's he wrote the most tender and lyrical of love poems to his young second wife, Zhang Ling. Upon release, his energy burst forth in a suite of poems of a very different kind. These expressed his passionate response to great fellow artists: a musician Beethoven, and from modern times a painter, a dancer and a poet: Van Gogh, Isidora Duncan and Pablo Neruda. The poem on Beethoven has musical qualities and structure, and that on Van Gogh is a verbal equivalent of Van Gogh's painting.

Under Deng Xiaoping, the dictatorship of the Party was moderated from totalitarian to authoritarian. Huang Xiang could read more widely and in the 1980's he read both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The ban on travel abroad was relaxed, and in 1993 he was given permission to visit the United States ; his wife was denied permission to accompany him, presumably to restrain his utterances while abroad. Nevertheless, Zhang Ling urged him to stay in America , so that he could get his work published. He relished the freedom but observed that Chinese writers in exile there were cut off from the soil that nourished their art. He had no wish to share their fate, and returned home.

Soon afterwards, a leading Chinese publishing house judged the political climate propitious to the publication of a major collection of Huang's prose and poetry. The publisher completed the first print run, and was on the point of distributing books to retailers when a telephone call from “on high” led it to abandon the project. This convinced Huang that his only hope of getting published was to go abroad. Three years later, a new invitation to visit America came, and by this time the Communist Party was keen to see dissidents to seek voluntary exile. In 1997, he moved to the USA . Zhang Ling was allowed to go with him.

He brought with him a corpus of prose and poetry amounting to about three million words. Some of it he had succeeded in hiding from the authorities during the totalitarian years (wrapped in plastic bags and covered with wax to look like candles, or secreted in the loft of the church where he wrote them), and some he had recreated from memory, after their destruction. In the years following his arrival in the USA , Overseas Chinese publishers recognised his importance and brought out much of his work, in Chinese for their market. One émigré Chinese scholar wrote a critical biography on him, in Chinese, and another started translatin g a semi-autobiographical novel, an epic of 20 th century China , to the writing of which Huang devoted most of his time in exile. In China , although a few poems appeared in anthologies, the ban on his work remained: scholars who wrote about him or taught his work to their students were silenced or harassed, and an editor who bravely tried to publish his collected works came close to success but finally failed and lost his job.

How was Huang received in those societies that are the homelands of the values of science and democracy for which he has staked his all? With indifference and neglect, for the most part. Those scholars to whom we look for guidance in the understanding of Chinese culture and politics greeted Huang Xiang's work with a silence that is deafening, and may have led China 's rulers to conclude that their writ runs on the campuses of American and British universities. But then one day a mutual friend introduced him to a man who many years before had learned Chinese in the US Navy. Andrew Emerson had forgotten most of the Chinese characters he had learned but was willing to revive his knowledge to translate Huang's poetry. Mrs Emerson persuaded Huang to collaborate when she told him her husband had the soul of a poet.

For the next five years Andrew Emerson earned his living by runnin g a small business by day, and gave much of the rest of his time to the translation. As he approached the age of seventy, he burned the midnight oil, unpaid, until the first-ever volume of translations of Huang's poetry into English was ready for publication. It was published in the spring of this year by The Edwin Mellen Press, of New York , under the horrendously cumbersome title of “A Bilingual Edition of Poetry Out of Communist China by Huang Xiang” . It contains some 180 pages of Huang's poetry, spanning the period 1962 to August 2002. Jeffrey Kinkley, Professor of Chinese History at St. John's University , New York State, wrote an authoritative Preface to the book, the first essay of a professional sinologist devoted to Huang.

The joy of Huang and his translator at seeing their work in print was great, but was soon marred by tragedy: in late August Emerson died, the victim of an unexpected heart attack. His work of translation will stand as a fine memorial to his labour of love, for which he may have paid by an untimely death.

Emerson's admirably clear translations allow the English-speaking world to see Huang Xian g a t his full stature. His task is eased by the fact that Huang's writing belongs for the most part to that genre of Chinese poetry that lies between prose, on the one hand, and poetry as we think of it, on the other. He seldom uses metre or rhyme, and his themes are often public rather than personal; one of his contemporaries has called him “the Walt Whitman of China ”. Emerson has found equivalents in English for Huang's masterful handling of the characteristics of the Chinese language. He has found ways of reflecting the whole range of Huang's poetry, from the tenderness of the love lyrics written in gao l, through the passionate intensity of Van Gogh , to the prophetic power and cosmic scope of the Fire God Symphony . (This poetry is often cumulative in its effect, and cannot be judged from the fragments quoted in this article.)

Although the Symphony was inspired by China 's history and the suffering inflicted by Mao, Huang never uses Mao's name and the word China appears only in two minor ones. The names are not omitted out of political caution, but because the poems transcend the boundaries of time and nationality. They are as true of Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany as they are of Mao's China . Yet what poems from Stalin's Soviet Union , or Hitler's Germany , can rival the Symphony in its denunciation of a totalitarian system and the tyrant who leads it, or its affirmation that goodness can never be rooted out of the hearts of men? What poet in the free democracies of our age has written as movingly on the great themes of dictatorship and liberation, and of the spirit of God bringing light into the darkness of fear and suspicion? Huang is more than a free spirit of rare courage, and more than a great Chinese writer. He is a poet of universal value. 

This book is not just for those who appreciate good writing, and those who care how men defy oppression. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand how China - and therefore our world – will evolve. In the 26 years since Huang Xiang pasted up his poems in Beijing , China 's economy has sustained a rate of growth faster than that of any country in history – it has multiplied seven times. But political reform has not yet matched economic reform, and China 's political structure is the greatest unresolved strategic issue of our time. This book shows with a force unique in the English language how deeply religious faith, cosmopolitan cultural values, and aspirations to freedom and democracy can take root in the mind of a modern Chinese.

I believe that, within ten years from now, the Chinese people may well win the right to elect their government. If so, the first democratically elected President in China 's history will stand on the Gate of Heavenly Peace to take his oath of office. A few steps away from him, I see a group of men and women whose words and deeds have hastened that day. Among them, wild of eye and passionate of voice, stands China 's prophet of freedom: the poet Huang Xiang.