Poetry from Peking's Democracy Wall
Beijing Street Voices: The Poetry and Politics of China's Democracy Movement, by David S. G. Goodman. Boston, Mass./Salem, N.H.: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. 192 pp. $20.
The short-lived ''spring'' of the Beijing Democracy Movement was brought to a close by a number of cold gusts in late March of 1979. After arrests of activists, including the well-known Wei Jingsheng, and publication on the last day of March of a restrictive ''public notice'' of the Beijing (Peking) Municipal Revolutionary Committee, foreign attention was focused on events at ''Democracy Wall'' the next day. In describing a scene of aroused emotions, several observers noted one young man's progress through the crowd to the wall. He posted a poem and left without saying a word.
The young man's poem, ''For You . . .,'' and some 50 other poems and statements of the ''democracy movement'' have reached us in a fascinating thin volume compiled by David S. G. Goodman, who was in the Chinese capital for the academic year 1978-1979. ''Beijing Street Voices: The Poetry and Politics of China's Democracy Movement'' chronicles the progress of the movement from birth in November 1978 to demise in April 1979.
The democracy movement, like so many other movements in Chinese history, was in a number of respects a literary movement, and it brought forth a unique flowering of poetry. This happened both because of the popularity of poetry in China, where it has traditionally been a more political form than in the West, and because of the prominent role played by poets in the Tian An Men incident of April 5, 1976. On that day Tian An Men Square in Beijing was filled by an enormous demonstration in memory of Zhou Enlai and against the leftist leaders, which culminated in clashes with the police.
The democracy movement was born in the excited reaction to the official reversal of verdicts on the Tian An Men incident in mid-November 1978. Starting cautiously, in the re-publication of the same Tian An Men poetry that was appearing in the official press, and in enthusiastic repetition of the official positions on the ''Four Modernizations'' and ''Democracy,'' the movement rapidly developed in a number of different directions. The poetry of the hopeful months that followed the official declaration that the Tian An Men incident was ''a completely revolutionary event'' provides a special glimpse of the soul of China's ''lost generation.'' We can see these young people, though we are no longer in touch with their present thoughts, in Shi Zhi's ''A Story of Fish'':
Beneath a sheet of frozen
ice, fish drift with the flow,
One cannot hear their pain-
As Goodman makes clear, the voices of the democracy movement are those of only select ''fish.'' While the prospect of advanced education was lost to almost all urban youth during the decade of the Cultural Revolution, not all were caught in the forced movement of the young to the countryside. A limited number of well-connected young people were able to avoid the trains and managed to stay in Beijing and other cities to witness the warming trend that followed the fall of the ''gang of four.'' The aroused hopes of this limited group, their numbers increased by others who flocked back to the cities, gave life to the ''spring'' at Democracy Wall, following long years of winter.
In the old days, at the Spring
Festival, people called on
friends and relatives,
As today brave men visit the
Yet spring lasted only a few short months. The stronger voices in the movement attracted both foreign and official attention. In poems published as wall posters and in small journals the ''fish'' expressed divergent thoughts on literature, the state of society, democracy, law, and human rights.
Because they are still young,
their nature so persistent,
Ardently thirsting after free-
dom and the sun,
They leap from the water
Only to land on a floe which
will finally melt and be gone.
Democracy Wall has been closed. Wei Jingsheng's appeal was rejected, and he is serving a sentence of 15 years in prison. Another activist, Liu Qing, has recently smuggled out a manuscript that shows that the silenced idealists believe still, in jail.
The pseudonymous author of ''For You . . .'' wrote that although parting time was coming, ''I ought instead to talk of happiness, Tomorrow's happiness.'' Though obliged to part with the wall, he can pen one more affirmation of faith:
That you will not vanish,
That you will not die.
We are fortunate to have the voices of the poets of the Beijing Democracy Movement available in English translation.