An Empty Chair Grows into a Forest—30 Years’ Poetry of Resistance in China – by Ming Di


It has become a tradition that many Chinese write poems in June of each year in memory of the 1989 Student Movement in China. 1989 was the year that Berlin Wall collapsed, followed by tremendous changes in Europe but in China the pro-democracy movement ended in tragedy: hundreds of students were killed around the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Liao Yiwu wrote a long poem titled “Massacre” and was jailed for four years. Over ten people in Sichuan were arrested because they spread Liao’s recording of this poem, five of them spent two years in jail including poets Wan Xia and Li Yawei. Other poets happened to be outside of China at that moment, such as Bei Dao and Yang Lian, but they protested the massacre too. Duo Duo witnessed the massacre as a journalist. He left China in the morning of June 4th to participate in the Poetry International Rotterdam via London and was stopped by BBC at the airport. “Did you witness the killing in Beijing?” Duo Duo answered Yes and as a result had to stay in exile for 15 years in Canada, USA and Netherlands.

1989 was turbulent in China with a series of events related or unrelated. In Feb, Bei Dao and thirty two other writers signed a petition to free political prisoners in China. In March, Hai Zi committed suicide and became a legendary figure later on. On April 15, a student demonstration broke out as an anti-corruption campaign, calling for freedom of speech and freedom of press. On May 13, Luo Yihe (1961-1989), poet and Hai Zi’s editor, joined the hunger strike on the Tiananmen Square but passed out the following day. He died in the hospital on May 31 becoming the first martyr of the democratic movement.

This year’s spring storms
will seize us.
Everything grows around the heaven,
and even the heaven itself is growing
like a lush pine-forest
growing something called “inseparable.”

—From “Splendid, suppressed” By Luo Yihe, 5/10/1989

Chinese poets that died in the last thirty years, in or out of prison, such as Li Hong (1958-2010), Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017), Meng Lang (1961-2018), are inseparable from the 1989 Student Movement as well as the 30 years’ poetry of resistance in China. Liu Xiaobo was a visiting scholar at Columbia University but returned to China on April 26 to join the 1989 movement in Beijing which spread to 400 cities in China and many major cities in the US, Germany and Australia. Meng Lang was a young instructor in Shen Zhen and was actively involved in the demonstration there in southern China. Song Lin took his students to the streets in Shanghai. Yang Xiaobin joined the demonstration in Shanghai too and wrote about the hunger strike in Beijing:


These hungry, hardened and grinding stomachs!

These shiny and singing stomachs!

Let hunger spread and shine over China!

You! The only death! Hollowing the toxic China!

—From “Hunger Over China” by Yang Xiaobin, 5/19/1989

Here we hear an ironic echo of the “Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow. Did Yang Xiaobin foresee the death? Martial Law was declared on May 20 followed by military crackdown on the night of June 3rd and early morning of June 4th.

I hear many skulls crushed under iron wheels.

I hear the sound from the North! And cries of shadows

that fall in a hail of gunfire.

I see stars of eyes fading with the last drops of

tears—immersing into fish smell in the air.

I feel the fresh blood burned into ashes.


From lies to knives there’s only one night.

—From “Elegies” by Yang Xiaobin, June 6-7, 1989


Flying birds freeze in the air


Their wounds are flying, their blood

not reaching the surface of the earth yet.

—From “Target” by Meng Lang



A revolution for a democratic China was suppressed. The young free spirits freeze in the air, their blood dripping for 30 years. Why haven’t the wounds been healed? The denial by the officials that tanks and machine guns killed students and civilians. Song Lin was jailed for nine months and went in exile in 1991 (he returned to China in 2003, a year before Duo Duo).

I walk along the old river bank, waves surging

like chased dogs—they want you

to take them home. Sea,

the only sea, expanding far, ten thousand hectares

of nostalgia spilling from the stars in your eyes.

— From “Fragments and Songs of Departure”


In the book long poem of sequences, Song Lin writes about his wandering, his loss, about Paul Celan, about his search for a meaningful exile.

You dig with your hands,

dig toward death.

The death of the shameful living

in a myriad of deaths.

This feeling of “shameful living” after the bloody massacre was shared by many other poets. Facing the mothers of the dead, the survivors wished they were standing with the innocent students on the Tiananmen Square in Beijing or with those on the blacklist hunted by the government months after the movement ended.


Wind says into my ear: June.

June, a blacklist I missed

in time

—From “June” by Bei Dao


You are not here. Your handwriting gets

swept away by a gust of wind.

Emptiness like a dead bird flies on your face.

And the funeral moon, a fractured hand,

flips your days backward and stops

at the page where you are absent.

You write while watching yourself

being deleted page by page.


But look, all these skulls on the ground are

you, you, and you

aging overnight between words.

—From “The book of exile” by Yang Lian


Shen Haobo was 13 years old in 1989, a middle school student in his hometown in Jiangsu. He learned about the student movement through newspapers that criticized the movement. It was out of curiosity and longing to know the truth that he searched for information about what happened in 1989. When he went to Beijing Normal University (1995-1999) where Liu Xiaobo got his PhD in Chinese literature in 1988 and was fired from his teaching job in 1992, he was told he resembled Liu Xiaobo. The 1989 massacre started to haunt him for years and shaped his outlook of life.

I see my sleepless reflection in the deep water

not quivering or smashed

but opening its gray, drowning eyelids.


Crowds of people neatly stand by, like tanks

rumbling on their tracks. Crushed—

not only a statue, but lively bodies that don’t need

heavy rain, or a sprinkler truck.

—From “Beijing, My Phantom”, June 2009


Shen Haobo, an independent publisher in Beijing now, is among many other poets that graduated from Beijing Normal University, such as Yi Sha, Xu Jiang and Duo Yu, who have remained to be independent poets, a tradition from Liu Xiaobo’s alma mater. They wrote about Liu when he died in prison on July 13, 2017 and referred him as “teacher” who has become a symbol of resistance. A more wide spread nickname for Liu Xiaobo is “empty chair” as he was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in prison.


Empty Chair-ism


Finally the chair has no more owner.

It grinds, and grows bad cells. Wind hovers above it—

choked, swallowing its last breath.

No more nightmare, the prison guards no longer have to hallucinate.

The chair whizzes through midnight.

Finally it’s buried

in the graveyard of future.

Finally the chair becomes a ghost and wings its way

to the palace tramping on the throne.

Finally, a chair grows into a forest…

—By Yang Xiaobin, 7/13/2017




Over the past 30 years, some key words in dissident writing include “June”, “May 35” (implying June 4th tragedy), “that summer”, “square”, “tank”, “iron/metal”, “one night”, “Tiananmen mothers”, “survivors”, “teacher” or “empty chair”, “disappear”, “silent”, “exile”, “absent”, etc. The memory of the 1989 democratic movement and its tragic ending is not only shared by three generations but across ethnic nationalities. For people in Tibet, 1989 meant even more, the military crackdown of the Tibetan demonstration in March 1989 as well as the June 4th massacre in Beijing.


Finding another sentence, another word

that hits the nail on the head—flowering a thousand flowers

and I die in the arms of their arms, armless.

I should’ve died as an infant. This time it happens

at such a moment that things are no longer what they are.

I die. The way I fall like a melon, ripe, falling off its stem.


Behind that, how many deaths does it take

until truth becomes true?

—From “To Those Who Committed Suicide in a Dream” by Tsering Woeser, 7/1989


Diaspora writers have played an important role in the dissident voice of Chinese poetry. Many of them are not “dissident writers” per se as they don’t like that label. They belong to the avant garde circles inside China but living in Western countries have given them the freedom to write more openly. The anniversary of 1989 has been a recurrent theme in their poetry.

The black feet seem to possess a supreme power.

They simply want to tread on us, fooling and fouling us.

And we actually can but endure?

Until how many more twenty years?

—From “After the tank” by Tang Danhong, June 2009


It has been so many years since then.

Even the death at that time has grown up—

big enough that even obituaries would have had children

by now. But part of me stays in that year—

even that part of me has grown up.

—From “Even the sadness has become an adult” by Yan Li, 2015





While the diaspora poets and writers have been more exposed to the Western world, some poets inside China remain unknown. One of them is Li Hong (1958-2010) who was a major poet in mid 1980s but became exiled in his home town after 1989 and died of a strange illness in prison. I documented a few poets in “Poems from Prison” in the October 2017 issue of Tupelo Quarterly where I introduced poems by Shi Tao, Liao Yiwu, Li Bifeng, Liu Xiaobo, etc. One common feature is the lack of self-pity and love for small things in a confined prison.


Potato! When I try to describe the huge darkness

inside your little golden body,

the cruel spring is approaching its end.


Sitting on this wet ground, a bowl of potatoes

within reach, I’m tasting the fake civilization

that’s distanced from my intestines.

On the true level of existence I see

the two substances being separated by rivers.

Rivers of lies.

Rivers of ignorance

running from the forehead of mankind.

Only potatoes, the golden birds,

quietly fly over, with the two meals a day

lingering on my cold lips

allowing my hunger to acquire the experience

and pain of a stone.

—From “Potato” By Li Hong, 2005


Poetry as witness of imprisonment and of 1989 massacre has been discussed in my essays in Chinese. Here I’m more interested in the function of introspection in poetry. Two poems written in 1990 still sound fresh today. One of them is actually the most complicated of all 1989 poems in terms of thoughts and perspectives: “Crossing the Square at Nightfall” by Ouyang Jianghe which places the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement in a much larger historical map. He begins the poem as if the one-year old incident took place long time ago.


I don’t know where a bygone square begins

or where it ends.

Some people spend an hour crossing it,

others a life time—


Then as he walks across the square, he sees from the rear mirror of a passing car the heroes that are instantly gone. Unlike other poets who hold fast the memory of the parade, demonstration, and occupying of the square, he seems to be the first poet reflecting on the role of the student leaders and when they should have retreated from the long occupancy:


A square where no one leaves is not a square.

Nor a square that no one falls.

The departed will return

but the fallen will be fallen forever.

Something called “stone” gathers

quickly and piles up one another, high—

unlike bones that need a hundred years to grow,

Nor like bones that are weak and feeble.


In the long winding poem he condemns the military suppression but also sees the naïve side of the students:


Gone forever—

An adolescent, first love, acne-filled square.

A square that never appears on the bills or death notices.


A once upon a time

fragile revolution that started on the paper and posted on the walls?


What’s surprising (and perhaps not abnormal) is that he finds the students as mortal as the speaker of the poem.



A square that no one falls is not a square.

Nor a square where no one stands up.

Did I ever stand? How much longer do I need to stand?

After all I’ve never been eternal,

same as those who fell.


It’s a disturbing poem that withstands the passing of time. He has presented the most profound sympathy to the dead souls but at the same time most intense critical view of them.The argument in the poem (not fully translated here) is so convincing that it has not been challenged. Poetry of resistance is a rebellion against all established ideas or prevailing mindset. It’s about independent thinking and unique expression. In the same year of 1990, Zhou Lunyou wrote about blind spot even in witnesses:


In the flames, the square suddenly becomes small—

It’s being raised high by the great enthusiasm,

then dropped.

The splintered light blinds the witness.


But unlike Ouyang Jianghe, he was more self-blaming than criticizing others.


Since then, the night soaked in metals has become my disease.

I feel sick of metals but can’t describe it as an anger.

I just pick up a few oranges to calm down.

In the age of no heroes or butterflies

we boil water and talk about cowards.

We just live like that, pretending to feel light-hearted

as if nothing has ever happened.

But deep inside, the wounds have inflamed.

We laugh and suddenly stop laughing.

We are sad, so sad as to be nothing,

like water without fish,

a sky without birds.

—From “Sick of metals” By Zhou Lunyou

Meng Lang saw himself more as a participant than a witness. He anticipated the failure of the movement like Song Lin and Yang Xiaobin (revolution is never easy!) but he accepted the failure and took a tragic role and it’s precisely the tragic role that empowered him with a humanistic perspective. For decades he promoted independent poetry in China and in diaspora communities. He hand-watered the empty chair that grew into a forest but passed away soon after publishing the poems in memory of Liu Xiaobo whohas now become the soul and spirit of the resistance movement in China. I will end this briefdiscussion with a poem that Meng Lang wrote in Shen Zhen on May 29, a few days before the military crackdown of the 1989 democratic movement. A die hard attitude with a bitter sense of humor:


My Body Collides with History


What do you want from failure

that’s lying ahead?

Brave enough,

a hand has held it upright

but full of give-up.


The other hands besieged

have formed a core.

But I’m more careless.

I beat the clouds above history with my fist!


A storm is determined to come.

Gun powder or mercury, each has a say.

I turn into an alchemist instantly and

take out from under my armpit

an imaginary pistol!

Or a thermometer.


In a savage way, my body clashes into history!



Note: all the above poems and fragments of poems are translated by Ming Di from the Chinese.