Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Revisiting Liu Xiaobo's "Experiencing Death"

Yu Jie

A little over a year ago, I posted a blog entry openly wondering about Liu Xiaobo's choice of Christian martyrdom imagery in a poem written on an anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, "Experiencing Death," from which I excerpted the first two stanzas:
I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy

Faraway place
I've exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ's birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I've drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring's
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

I borrowed these from an article in the New York Times ("Words a Cell Can't Hold," December 8, 2010), translated by Jeffrey Yang (who reads the entire poem on this website), and I asked a number of interpretive questions, culminating in these final two:
Why the use of Christian imagery? I've found nothing to link Liu directly to Christianity, so how are we to read these allusions?

Well, I may now have a bit more insight through a recent NYT article by Edward Wong, "From Virginia Suburb, a Dissident Chinese Writer Continues His Mission" (February 25, 2012), which tells of the dissident Yu Jie, who has just this year gone into exile from China and moved to the United States. From this article, I learned that Yu is a Christian and a friend of Liu:
"I said multiple times before that as long as my life was not threatened, I would not leave China," he said in the two-story house where he and his family live, which belongs to a church friend. "But after Liu Xiaobo's arrest, I was tortured by the government and almost lost my life."

Mr. Liu, one of Mr. Yu's closest friends, wrote Charter 08, a manifesto calling for gradual political reforms, and was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison, a move that contributed to Mr. Liu's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year. Mr. Yu, 38, was placed under house arrest in Beijing in October 2010, five days after the Nobel committee announced Mr. Liu's award, and then, in December, was detained. He was tortured for three hours.

Yu has not been a Christian so long, only since 2003, but he's been friends with Liu since around the turn of the millennium, so they've surely discussed Yu's spiritual views, especially since they've worked on religious issues together:
The two wrote together and led the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Their relationship extended through the writing of Charter 08, when Mr. Yu discussed drafts with Mr. Liu. Mr. Yu, who converted to Christianity in 2003, said he had extensive input on the part about religious freedom.

"Christianity gives me a very strong basis for my faith," he said. "I don't think that democracy can be a faith. Only a more ultimate goal would allow me to withstand all the difficulties I've gone through."

I think that this remark by Yu offers some insight into the martyrdom lines in Liu's poem above, for both are speaking of a Christian meaning in dying for one's beliefs, though they seem to stand upon different sides of the religious divide between Christian and non-Christian.

One problem is that I'm not certain when Liu's poem was written. One website says 1990, but Jeffrey Yang tells us in remarks before his reading of the poem that it is the fourth written on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, which would put it in 1993.

Either way, neither date would have prevented Liu from revisiting the poem and reworking parts of it later, after becoming friends with Yu, but I am merely guessing, and the question of a Christian influence still remains.

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