How long is life? — Liu Shahe, Shi Tianhe and the Stars Poetry Disaster

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How long is life?

Liu Shahe, Shi Tianhe and the Stars Poetry Disaster



To be misunderstood by one person is troublesome.
To be misunderstood by many is tragedy.

No, that's not the message from a fortune cookie.  Liu Shahe's aphoristic "Written on a Wall in Baoji" is a bit of authentic Chinese wisdom, born of hard experience, and eloquent, in its muted simplicity, of untold human suffering.  It could only ever seem glib or easy to someone who does not know the story behind it, the story to which it stands today as a kind of bitter moral.  From "Let a hundred flowers bloom" to "Criticize-till-they-stink these great poisonous weeds"—and on to denunciation, mobbings, prison camps, ostracism, despair—this is the story of "Grasses and Trees," the poem that blighted ten thousand lives.


The fireworks of the traditional lunar New Year were still several weeks away, but as they hung up the new calendar on January 1, 1957, Liu Shahe, Shi Tianhe and their comrades in the Sichuan Arts League surely must have felt a sense of great beginnings.  In a series of statements over the previous spring and summer, Communist officials in Beijing had announced that they were ready at last to ease the rigid ideological control that had prevailed in China ever since the People's Liberation Army swept them to power seven years before.  "Let a hundred flowers bloom!"  went the rallying cry, "Let a hundred schools of thought contend!"  And now, in answer to the Great Helmsman's call, this group of ambitious young writers and editors had launched Stars, the first officially recognized poetry journal to be founded in China since the Revolution.  The hectic weeks of editing and proofing were behind them, and Issue One (all 25,000 copies of it!) was back from the printers, right on schedule for the first of the year.

The editors knew, of course, that publishing in Mao's China could be a risky business; they had come of age through years of revolutionary upheaval, and each seen their share of "rectification" campaigns and purges.  But like so many young poets, they were optimists and idealists too, and they were committed to the Revolution, however much they might sometimes have chafed under the restrictions it imposed on artistic expression.  And those restrictions were about to lift anyway—the Chairman himself had said so.  In their call for submissions the previous year, they had taken up the new spirit of the age, declaring (a little breathlessly), "We have no pedantic criteria whatsoever for submissions. . . . We have only one fundamental demand: poetry, for the people!"

The title Stars itself was charged with revolutionary connotations. In the winter of 1930, at one of the darkest moments for the nascent Communist cause, Mao Zedong had written to encourage Comrade Lin Biao, quoting an old proverb: "Mere sparks (in Chinese, literally, "fire of stars," hence stars) can set the plains ablaze."  For the "Stars" of the cover, the editors had used the characters in Mao's own hand, an iconic piece of calligraphy as recognizable in China as the manuscript of "We the People" is in the West.  As Shi Tianhe was to write many years later, it was like borrowing a bit of Chairman Mao's halo, a charm to keep bad spirits away.  No one, surely, could question their loyalty to the Revolution.


Even making allowances for the vitriolic rhetoric of Maoist China, the title still comes as a bit of a shock: "Letting a Hundred Flowers Bloom and Wildly Flinging Dead Rats."    The article, published in the mass-circulation Sichuan Daily on January 14, left no doubt as to which heading the newly launched Stars should come under.  This was no healthy contribution to the renewed flowering of Chinese culture; this, said the pseudonymous reviewer, Chun Sheng, was a crazed attempt to spread moral plague.  It was their first review.  To Shi Tianhe, editor and passionate advocate for the fledgling journal, the effect was like "being spat upon with a mouthful of blood."

If one wanted to find fault, of course, there doubtless was plenty to criticize.  But however naive or clumsy or clichéd a reader today might find the piece, it's hard to see much in the slight little poem "Kiss," by one Yue Bai, that could have inspired such moralistic fury:

      Like a cup of moonglow jade brimming with wine,
      your wine-dimpled cheeks, cupped in my hands . . .
      I drink deep, am
                drunk, drunk!

      Like a bee, clinging to a rose's stamen,
      from your bright red lips
      I sip, nectar so
                sweet, sweet!

      Like two apples on a single stem
      hanging on a branch in green shade,
      silently, we
                kiss, kiss!

What kind of Revolution would outlaw the giddy delight of a first kiss?  Indeed, to attack a poem like this for "immorality" was not good socialism; it was the reflexive expression of just the sort of feudalistic Confucian values that the Communists had promised to replace.  "Of course," Shi Tianhe wrote in a passionately argued rebuttal, "our poetry must teach people to love Country and love labour, yet it must also teach them, more broadly, to love life. . . . Socialist revolution is not just about more efficiently increasing production, it is, at the same time, about helping people live more happily in mutual love."

Shi Tianhe's rebuttal was not published; the editors at Sichuan Daily sat on the manuscript for weeks, and ultimately never returned it to him.  Doubtless it would have been lost forever, but for one thing: it was entered into the evidence at his trial.


By Liu Shahe's own admission, "Grasses and Trees" is not a great poem.  "It's a trivial thing," as he puts it in his 1988 memoir A Record of Saw-Tooth Scars, "hardly worth talking about."  Bored during a long train ride in late October 1956, he had whiled away an hour with a series of brief prose vignettes, sketching out an allegorical garden of personality types thinly disguised as plants—and in one case, to be technically correct, a fungus.  Looked at objectively, there's not much to say on its behalf.  The conception is naive, the writing awkward and unpolished, the allegorical "readings" entirely too predictable (the climber is—surprise!—a climber, and the cactus is full of thorns).  It is, in short, an amateurish and undistinguished piece of writing.  When Liu arrived back in Sichuan, he put the manuscript away in a desk drawer, no doubt intending to leave it there.

Of course, as we have seen above, hostile critics had already found cause for scandal in Stars.  There was, for starters, the bourgeois self-indulgence of "Kiss."  And senior editor Bai Hang's enthusiastic comment to a reporter that the new Hundred Flowers policy represented a great "thaw" for literature soon proved dangerously injudicious.  (Did he really mean to suggest that China's first seven years under Chairman Mao had been nothing more than frozen waste?)  No doubt there were plenty of openings for anyone looking to attack.

One thing, however, is certain.  When the editors, doing final layout in late December of 1956, discovered that they had some extra space to fill and that a prose poem would be just the thing—hadn't they said they were open to all kinds of poetry?  what better way to prove it?—they set in motion a chain of events that would have vast and devastating consequences.  For Liu Shahe's "Grasses and Trees," dragged from the desk drawer and pressed hastily into service for Issue One, soon would offer the enemies of Stars an ideal target of opportunity.  Here was something that went beyond the merely naive or decadent or even "bourgeois"—here was something, the critics cried, that was actively counter-revolutionary.  And in Chairman Mao's China, being called counter-revolutionary was a charge that could get you killed.


Shi wu da gu: "A poem has no final reading."  As a principle of literary criticism, the expression goes back some two-thousand years in China, enjoying all the authority that age and long usage confer.  But of course, it's simple common sense too.  Zhang Mosheng, Professor of Literature at Sichuan University, must have wondered why he even had to mention it.  "When a poet writes a poem," he said to the assembled Party cadres, "it's because he cannot express his intentions explicitly—otherwise there'd be no reason for a poem in the first place.  He uses techniques like simile and metaphor to express his thoughts and feelings, and in the end only he understands what he means by it."  Surely, in cases of doubt, "the best thing is to let the author give his own interpretation."

The author, of course, insisted on his innocence.  But more than four months after the first attacks on Liu Shahe's "Grasses and Trees" appeared in the Sichuan press, the controversy over the poem was still simmering.  Did it, as the poem's defenders contended, merely poke fun at a handful of personality types known to Liu Shahe—and for that matter, to anyone else living in human society—or did it not also have a hidden, specifically political intent?


Grasses and Trees

I say to those who'd raise themselves
Don't copy the weakling vine.
Bai Juyi, 772-846

      The Poplar
      A long sword shining with green light, she stands alone in the plain, pointing high into the blue sky.  Perhaps a blast of wind might uproot her.  But even if she should die, she will bow to no one.

      The Climber
      He wraps himself around the lilac and climbs up, up, up . . . until at last he hangs his flowers from the top of the tree.  Strangled, the lilac is chopped into firewood and burned.  He writhes on the ground, panting, looking about for another tree . . .

      The Cactus
      She will not use flowers to flatter the Master; her whole body bristles with bayonets.  The Master drives her from the garden, will not even give her water to drink.  On the plains, in the desert, she lives on, raising her daughters . . .

      The Flowering Plum
      Among all the sisters, love comes to her last.  In spring, when a hundred flowers lure butterflies with flattering smiles, she secretly gives herself to winter snows.  The fickle butterflies are not good enough to kiss her, just as the other flowers aren't good enough to be caressed by the snow.  Among all the sisters, she smiles last, but her smile is most beautiful.

      The Toadstool
      He appears low on the river bank, where the sun does not reach.  With a coat of beautiful colours by day, with a gloomy phosphorescence at night, he seeks to lure humans in.  But then, not even a three-year-old child would stoop to gather him.  For Mother has said, That's the spit of a poisonous snake . . .

The problem, as Liu himself acknowledged in an interview with the mass Shanghai daily Culture Report, was that "[the poem's] method of expression is too murky and its observation of life too one-sided; it fails to make readers understand that it's not a miniature of society as a whole."  And of course, there's no saying that Liu, for all his protests to the contrary, may not have had a broader satirical intent anyway.  Indeed, in that sense Professor Zhang's principle of "just ask the author" seems wantonly naive, not to say self-contradictory; it is obvious that writers can and sometimes do lie about their intentions.  A writer's interpretation of his or her own work is just that—one more interpretation.  A poem truly has no "final reading," and the best one can hope for from readers is a fair and principled consideration of competing alternatives.

Still, in its original context, Professor Zhang's point no doubt was one that needed making.  For in the firestorm of criticism that engulfed "Grasses and Trees" in the spring and summer of 1957, fair and principled consideration was about the last thing Liu Shahe could hope for.


"But you, writer-of-poems Liu Shahe!   Today, when hot blood has burst forth into flowers, and tears have changed into joyous laughter, you make me the slave of your pen, deliberately misinterpret my spirit, set out to destroy all I am!"

So spoke "the Poplar," and her words would set the tone for all who followed.  "Arrogant," she spat, "unprincipled," a "hard case" who "despises the people."  In a wildly escalated reversal of the old Red-baiting go-move-to-Russia taunt, she proclaimed in summation, "If you hate this world so much, you'd best just leave the planet."  Go kill yourself, Liu Shahe.

"The Poplar's Reply" appeared in the Sichuan Daily on January 17, just three days after the first attack on Stars and Yue Bai's "Kiss."  Whatever the justice of Chun Sheng's original accusation, the beleaguered editors of Stars, and Liu Shahe in particular, soon must have felt they were the ones having dead rats flung at them.  Within the space of little over a month, some twenty-four articles would appear in the Sichuan Daily, the Chengdu Daily and the local Party organ Caodi ("Prairie"), all attacking Liu Shahe and "Grasses and Trees," all playing on the theme (to use one Yu Buzhi's formulation) that "'Grasses and Trees' is not a poem, it is a violent provocation directed at the People."  Within another month, the story would go national.  It would even reach the ears of Chairman Mao.

The reason why critical fury shifted so decisively from "Kiss" to "Grasses and Trees" is not hard to fathom: the latter simply offered that much more scope for "interpretation."  The author of "The Poplar's Reply," for example, clearly interprets Liu's upright, unyielding tree as a symbol of the Party and its Revolution, seeing in its characterization—its unbending rigidity, perhaps—an implicit criticism of both.  After so much blood shed in sorrow, after the tears of civil war and the joyous release of Liberation, how could a mere "writer-of-poems" dare to "deliberately misinterpret" the spirit of the age in such a willful manner?  So the Poplar speaks out, in fierce indignation.

Yet six months later, still flogging the same horse, the poet Sha Ou could come to the exact opposite reading—the Poplar is Liu Shahe himself:

      He inhabits a burning world of hatred.  Despite his understanding that he himself is "standing forth in the midst of solitude," he intends to fight bravely, vows to defy the people's will and bend his back for no one.  He has lost his mind.  His statement that he would persist "even if he were going to die" merely indicates his determination to defy us. . . . There can be no doubt that [Liu Shahe] is aiming his sword directly at the Party.

The slight differences in the translation need not distract anyone here; Sha Ou is clearly referring to the same green Poplar, standing alone like a shining sword in the plain, and that Poplar is Liu Shahe.  It doesn't seem to bother Sha Ou at all that he has to make "she" into a "he" for the identification to stick.

Nor, no doubt, would it have bothered him to know how far his interpretation differed from that of "The Poplar's Reply."  For the righteous defenders of Revolution that year, "Grasses and Trees" became a magic mirror of sorts, a Rorschach's blot from which a clever critic could extract almost any subversive design.  Sha Ou would see in the story of "The Cactus" a bitter denunciation of the current regime: "the Master" identified as the Communist Party (who else could it be?), driving the People to want and desperation in the wilderness.  But another critic might look at the same text and see a historical allusion to Chiang Kai-shek's defeat of the Jiangxi Soviet in 1934, and the subsequent exile of the Communists to the wilderness of Yan'an.  (What did that make Mao Zedong and the heroes of the Long March—cactuses?!) Perhaps the most ingeniously sinister interpretation took the Flowering Plum's quiet longing for the snows of winter as a veiled expression of nostalgia for the old regime.  Liu Shahe wanted to overthrow the Party and return China to the predations of the capitalist running dogs . . . and the proof was in the plum tree.

In short, the critics could and did disagree with each other in their readings of "Grasses and Trees"—in that sense they would do old Professor Zhang proud.  But whatever the poem "really" meant in its details, one thing apparently was obvious to all: the author's intentions could only be subversive, and for that he deserved to be punished.


The consensus of the critics notwithstanding, Liu Shahe's case did, however, receive some powerful support, and from a rather surprising source.

      Let a few flowers bloom, and everyone's all in a fuss.  This is not trusting the People, this is not trusting the ability of the People to make critical distinctions.  Don't be so scared!   Some "Grasses and Trees" spring up, and you carry on like that?  Tell me, don't the Book of Songs and the Songs of Chu have some "grasses and trees"?  Isn't the first poem in the Book of Songs a piece very much like "Kiss"? . . . Just because there are some "Grasses and Trees," some cow demons and snake spirits, there's no need to get so frightened!

It was March 8, not quite two months after the controversy over Stars first erupted in the provincial papers.  Delegates from the Sichuan Arts League were in Beijing for a conference, and they took the opportunity to consult with a higher authority.  Evidently Chairman Mao was not impressed.

Of course, the bit about "cow demons and snake spirits" did have rather troubling connotations.  Drawn from the vocabulary of the traditional drama, it was a favourite phrase of the Chairman's, liberally applied to the bogeyman of rightist "class enemies."  And indeed, years later during the madness of the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shahe would be paraded through the streets of his hometown wearing a dunce cap while being forced to shout "The Dictatorship of the Masses is good!  Cow demons and snake spirits cannot escape, and neither can I!" in front of jeering crowds.  At the end of the march, he would be beaten by the Red Guards, then sent home with a stern warning to keep the hat: he'd be needing it again.

But that particular nightmare was still nearly a decade away.  In the spring of 1957, the easy indifference expressed in Mao's remarks came as an unhoped-for boon.  Even the great trump card of the hostile critics in Sichuan—the fact that Liu's father, a minor rural landlord, had been killed in the land reform campaign of the late 1940s—apparently left the Chairman unmoved: "We [i.e., the Party] must unite all people in friendship, even Liu Shahe, with his father's death to avenge.  He too is the object of our desire for unity."  It was the spirit of the Hundred Flowers declaration affirmed.  Amazingly, the great man really seemed to mean it.


To this day, of course, the mystery of Mao's "real purpose" in launching the Hundred Flowers movement remains one of the great unresolved questions of Chinese history.  Some commentators insist that it was a set-up from the start, a Machiavellian ploy designed to "lure the snakes from their holes," as the saying would later have it.  Others, less hostile to Mao perhaps, see the affair as a kind of grand experiment gone wrong: Mao genuinely wanted to open the Party to constructive criticism, but later cracked down in panic when he got more than he bargained for.  Either way, however, there's no question that the Chairman pushed hard to promote the policy.  By late April of 1957, he was practically pleading with the nation's intellectuals to step up and do their duty.  "Help Rectify the Party," cried the headline in The People's Daily: "To speak is no crime; to listen is to learn."

It was an extraordinary vindication for the editors of Stars.  Mandarinism, factionalism, subjectivism—the "Three Great Isms" singled out by Mao for rectification within the Party—were these not the very same evils that had been so prominently on display in the campaign against "Grasses and Trees"?  Indeed, that had always been the most galling part of the whole affair.  Despite the pseudonyms and the high-flown rhetoric of "impartial" critique, no one was fooled: they knew who their persecutors were.  After all, they regularly rubbed shoulders with them in the offices of the Sichuan Arts League—their own fellow writers, colleagues, comrades.

Sure "Grasses and Trees" was a sorry excuse for a poem, sure "Kiss" was a little coy, even a little naughty, but the critics had taken what at most were some youthful lapses of judgment and tried to use them to destroy whole careers.  It was petty personal politics masquerading as defence of Party and People.  How could the arts, how could healthy criticism—how indeed could honest and free commitment to Revolution itself thrive in such an environment?

For a few hopeful weeks in May and early June, the group around Stars took courage, and answered the Chairman's call.  They could not have known that events elsewhere—in particular, mass unrest on the nation's campuses—would soon persuade Mao that his experiment in free speech had gone too far.  Indeed by May 15, he had already written "The Situation Has Now Changed," but the memo was strictly for Party cadres only.  The Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 was about to begin.  All who had spoken out were to be presumed guilty, and this time there would be no reprieve.


Half a century, perhaps, is time enough to gain perspective on any experience, however painful.  In June 2007, at an international conference held at the University of California in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Liu Shahe was able to look back at his own "contribution" to the events of the year with a certain grimly wistful humour:

      In reality, I was a big help in the struggle against rightist elements.  You see, later on during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, they would always make sure to show everyone "Grasses and Trees."  If anyone said, "So, what about it?"—just like that, they were branded as a rightist.  Using this method for branding rightists got you "More, Faster, Better, Cheaper"; it would really "Reduce Unnecessary Revolution."  You could catch out the rightists in under a minute.  In this way, the number of people swept up across the country, all implicated in connection with that toxic little poem, reached more than ten thousand.

That last claim may seem scarcely credible at first, and yet it is confirmed by other sources.  In his 2006 memoir, "Prelude to the Sichuan Anti-Rightist Struggle: The 'Grasses and Trees' Incident," journalist Xiao Feng, himself a victim of the purges, writes, "It's widely believed that not less than ten thousand people were branded as rightists on account of this one prose poem: peasant, worker, soldier, student, merchant, old, middle-aged, young—all were included."  In another essay, also from 2006, Shi Tianhe says only that the victims "numbered in the thousands," but adds that "that is no more than a conservative estimate, based on the fact that full statistics cannot be compiled."  No doubt the true number may never be known.

For those close to Liu Shahe—and especially those who had rallied around him in protest during the false spring of Mao's "Help Rectify the Party" appeal—the results of course were catastrophic.  Branded the "Sichuan Anti-Party Cell," some two dozen were singled out for the severest punishment.  The one death sentence handed down would eventually be commuted, but all faced long terms—in some cases, of twenty years or more—in prison and forced labour camps.  At least one man, Qiu Yuan, would die by his own hand; and another, Xu Hang, nineteen at the time of his arrest, would be savagely beaten to death at a "reeducation" camp for stealing a handful of corn.

Even those with the most passing connection to the scandal—students who wrote supportive letters to the editor, unwary readers who took too long to cancel their subscriptions to Stars—could wake up one morning and find their lives turned upside down.  When the critics first attacked "Kiss" back at the start of the year, print shop labourer Shen Zhen had jokingly asked, "What, do people have to shout 'Long live Communism!' every time they kiss?" For answer, he would be fired from his job, and forcibly separated from wife and family; his daughter was expelled from school.  Zhang Mosheng, the professor of literature who argued that "A poem has no final reading," would later find himself, at the venerable age of seventy-two, pressed into years of forced labour as a janitor in his own university, jeered at by the Red Guards who once were his students.  A group of four girls from the local high school who came to visit Liu Shahe, curious to meet the newly famous author, would be confronted, on a return visit, with a large poster pasted to his gate.  Depicted: a slab of rotting meat, red with blood . . . and four black flies.

"Regret can never suffice," Liu Shahe would later say of the experience.  "I am a bird of ill omen, a spirit who brings harm to all."


And forgiveness, of course, does not always come easily.  In September of 2008, eighty-four-year-old Shi Tianhe completed his extaordinary memoir, Remembrance of Rivers Past: A Personal Account of the Stars Poetry Disaster, and made it freely available online.  This enormous text (it would run to seven or eight hundred pages, printed as a book) contains many revelations, but none so troubling as those that relate to Liu Shahe.  For with document after document, reproduced in full from the archives of the Sichuan Arts League and the papers of the day, Shi Tianhe makes one thing, above all, clear: in looking to save himself, during that nightmare summer of 1957, Liu Shahe had not refrained from falsely and recklessly betraying his friends.

Liu Shahe's "My Confession," as reproduced in the appendix to chapter 17 of Remembrance of Rivers Past, makes for thoroughly dismal reading.  On the face of it, the document is absurd.  "I began to conspire with Shi Tianhe last year when I was in Beijing," it breathlessly begins.  "Our common goal: to oppose Socialist Realism under the banner of anti-dogmatism."  It's hard to imagine Mao Zedong feeling very threatened.

And yet, comical as it may seem, this supposed "plot" between the two young editors of a provincial poetry journal would be built up into a far-reaching conspiracy to oppose Party and People, and undermine the Revolution.  With charges like that, you could get rid of people you didn't like—and there was glory to be won, too, in foiling a threat to the nation.  Li Lei, Party Secretary of the Sichuan Arts League, detested Shi Tianhe: he had once given a negative critique of one of Li's plays.  Give us Shi Tianhe, they no doubt said, and we will go easy on you.  Since a conspiracy needs conspirators, there would have to be a few more names—and so Liu Shahe gave them names.  They were already in trouble for speaking out in his defence anyway; what more could it hurt?  The whole deal probably was as simple—and as squalid—as that.


To his credit, while hiding neither his anger nor his disgust, Shi Tianhe does try to be understanding.  In 1957 Liu Shahe was still a young man, and naive about the world.  And his father really had been a minor landlord, murdered by the Communists.  Once the political winds shifted decisively to Anti-Rightism in June, his class background alone would have made him a target.  And the critics of "Grasses and Trees," briefly silenced by the Rectification Campaign in May, were back in full-throated fury as well—it was their chance, after all, to prove that they'd been right all along.  Under the circumstances, it could not have been too difficult to persuade Liu that he was in danger of sharing his father's fate.  And really, why should he have?  Who wants to die for one lousy little poem?

Ultimately, that may well be the most important legacy of Mao Zedong's cruelly botched experiment in free expression during the months of the Hundred Flowers Campaign: its radical undermining of the whole idea of ideals.  The Party had called on the writers and thinkers of the nation to speak truth to power—the Party's own power—playing upon the idealism of intellectuals willing to risk fierce denunciation for the sake of a more open and honest public sphere.  And what had been the result?  The Party had proven, once and for all, that it was not worthy of such idealism.  The preposterous clichés of "Socialist Realism" would continue to be recycled, and slogans would continue to decorate the walls, but henceforth everyone knew it was a sham.  As Perry Link, the American historian of modern China has put it, "Before '57 perhaps you could not tell the truth, but after '57 you could not not lie."

Indeed, from that point of view, one could say that it was Shi Tianhe who was the naive one.  And while it doesn't make for much of a defence, perhaps, it is nonetheless true that in betraying him, Liu Shahe was in a sense giving him exactly what he wanted.

In late May, recuperating from an illness outside the city, Shi had written a long critical essay outlining various problems in the governance of the Sichuan Arts League—especially as revealed in the recent ugly power struggle over "Grasses and Trees."  It was a frank, unsparing critique, an honest attempt to "Help Rectify the Party"—just what the Chairman had ordered.  He sent the manuscript to Liu in Chengdu, with instructions to read it at the next meeting of the Arts League.

Liu Shahe, of course, could do nothing of the sort.  He knew then, as Shi Tianhe still did not, just how explosive such a document would be.  The time for high ideals was over.  On June 4, he wrote to his friend, trying to make him see reason: "How long is life?  You've already endured more than enough unjust abuse, do you want to endure another round?  Write, write, write, write things!   Don't worry about the rest!"

But Shi Tianhe would have none of it.  He had been studying the classics during his convalescence, and his feverish idealism burned only the brighter.  In reading the "works of the wise," he decided, the important thing was not to learn "tricks or clever ideas," but rather precisely "to learn their folly—their folly for seeking the truth, their folly for martyrdom!"  On June 8—the very day, as it turned out, that Chairman Mao would officially launch the Anti-Rightist Campaign—he wrote back to Liu:

      How long is life?  To "write, write, write, write things" is important, of course, but I wonder if just muddling along that way one can really become a great writer.  I am ever searching for the meaning of life, and up to the present I have often been pained by my own blindness and ignorance.  There is one point, however, that I've really come to feel from experience, and that is: To suffer together with the truth, to stay with the truth through misfortune—such a life is a life with meaning.

Six weeks later, both letters would appear in the pages of the Shanghai Culture Report, under the headline, "Liu Shahe Surrenders Black Letters; Shi Tianhe's Traitorous Reactionary Plot Exposed."  Shi Tianhe's twenty-two year ordeal for the truth had begun.



Sources and Abbreviations

The following four texts provided the bulk of material for the paper; for convenience, they are listed here once, and will be referred to by abbreviations in the notes below.  Other sources will be listed as needed in the notes themselves.  The letters used for the abbreviations refer to the titles in Chinese.  Numbers beside the abbreviated forms indicate the relevant section (chapter) for those texts which are spread across multiple web pages.  Except for the quotation from Sha Ou in section vi, all translations are my own.

Right-click on hyperlinks to open.


Hu Shangyuan and Cai Lingzhi "Liu Shahe and the 'Grasses and Trees' Injustice" (胡尚元 • 蔡灵芝《流沙河与<草木篇>冤案》), originally published in 《文史精华》, January 2005.  Abbreviated below as CMPYA.

Liu Shahe Record of  Saw-Tooth Scars (流沙河《锯齿啮痕录》), originally published by Sanlian shudian三联书店出版, Beijing, 1988.  Abbreviated below as JCNHL.

Shi Tianhe Remembrance of Rivers Past: A Personal Account of the Stars Poetry Disaster  (石天河《逝川忆语——<星星>诗祸亲历记》), September 2008.  Abbreviated below as SCYY.

Xiao Feng  "Prelude to the Sichuan Anti-Rightist Struggle: The 'Grasses and Trees' Incident." (晓枫《四川反右斗争前奏——<草木篇>事件》), originally published in《观察》("The Observer"), August, 2006, p. 1.  Referred to below as Xiao Feng "Prelude."


Notes by Section

*  "To be misunderstood . . . " 被一个人误解了 / 这是烦恼 / 被很多人误解了 / 这是悲剧 (《宝鸡旅次题壁》); from 《流沙河诗集》, accessed online here.

* "Criticize till they stink . . . " 批臭大毒草  One of a variety of expressions common during the period, used to attack "reactionary" elements among the Hundred Flowers.  See Xiao Feng "Prelude" and SCYY 22.  The distinction between "fragrant flowers" and "poisonous weeds" traces to Mao's 1957 speech "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People."  The adjective "great" 大 would be added later by eager editorialists.


* "We have no pedantic criteria . . . " 我们对于诗歌来稿,没有任何呆板的尺寸 . . . . . . 我们只有一个原则性的要求:诗歌,为了人民! SCYY 1.

* "Mere stars . . . " 星星之火,可以燎原  SCYY1.  For the phrase written in  Mao's own hand, see image here.   (The characters for "Stars," as used for the magazine cover, are the first pair on the top left.)


* "Letting a Hundred Flowers Bloom . . . Rats" 《百花齐放与死鼠乱抛》SCYY 2.

* "like being spat on . . . " 而且是含血喷人的污蔑 SCYY 2a.

* "Of course our poetry . . . "  我们的诗歌,当然要教人爱祖国,爱劳动,但也还要教人更广阔地爱生活。懂得这一点是有好处的:社会主义革命,并不仅仅是为了能更好地发展生产,同时,也正是为了使人能更幸福的相爱。SCYY 2a.

For the full text of "Kiss" 《吻》see SCYY 2.


* "It's a trivial thing . . . " 本来是微不足道的东西  JCNHL 1.  For background on the circumstances surrounding the composition of "Grasses and Trees," as well as Bai Hang's injudicious comment about "thaw" (解冻) see CMPYA 1.  For the reasoning behind choosing a prose poem in particular, see SCYY 4.


* "A poem has no final reading" 诗无达诂 The phrase itself is from the Han Dynasty text Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋繁露 .  For background on Zhang Mosheng's use of the term, see SCYY 22 and CMPYA 3.

* "When a poet writes a poem . . . " 诗人写诗的时候,是不可能把他的思想用意具体地表现出来的,不然就不能成为诗了。他是用“比” “兴“ 的手法去表达思想感情的,只有他本人才懂。 SCYY 22.

* "the best thing . . . " 最好是让作者自己去加以注解 SCYY 22.

The full text of "Grasses and Trees" 《草木篇》is available in many places online.  (See CMPYA 1.)  For alternative translations, see Liu Binyan et al., Fragrant Weeds: Chinese short stories once labelled as "poisonous weeds" (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1983), pp. 123-4, and Hualing Nieh, ed., Literature of the Hundred Flowers (New York: Columbia UP, 1981), vol. 2, pp. 101-2.

* "[the poem's] method of expression . . . "  表现手法太隐晦,生活观察又带片面性,没能让 读者了解并非是整个社会的缩影。CMPYA 3.  See also SCYY 24.


* "But you, writer of poems . . . " 可是你呵,写诗的流 沙河!在鲜血绽出花朵、眼泪变为欢笑的今天,却把我当作你笔下的奴仆,曲解我的精神,任意把我作践!  CMPYA 2.

* "Arrogant . . . If you hate . . . " 所流露的“孤傲”情绪,是宣扬“无原则的硬骨头”,带有“敌视人民”的倾向,从而大加挞伐,说“假若你仇视这个世界,最好离开地球。”  Quoted in SCYY 4.  See also SCYY 24.

* "'Grasses and Trees' is not a poem . . . "  《草木篇》写的不是诗,而是向人民发出的一纸挑战书! CMPYA 2.  Hu and Cai are also the source for the number (24) of hostile reviews.

* "He inhabits a burning world of hatred. . . ." Sha Ou, "A Critique of 'A Family of Plants'" in Hualing Nieh, ed., Literature of the Hundred Flowers (New York: Columbia UP, 1981), vol. 2, pp. 108-9.  Translator not credited.

For a brief summary of the variety of "interpretations" critics brought to "Grasses and Trees," see CMPYA 2.


* "Let a few flowers bloom . . . " 放一下就大惊小怪,这是不相信人民, 不相信人民有鉴别的力量。不要怕。出一些《草木篇》,就那样惊慌?你说《诗经》、《楚辞》是不是也有草木篇?《诗经》第一篇是不是《吻》这类的作品?不过 现在发表不得吧?那《诗经》第一篇,我看也没有什么诗味。不要因为有些《草木篇》,有些牛鬼蛇神,就害怕得不得了!  CMPYA 2.

* "The dictatorship of the masses . . . " 群众专政就是好!牛鬼蛇神跑不了!我也跑不了! JCNHL 15.

* "We [i.e., the Party] . . . " 我们要团结一切人,包括有杀父之仇的流沙河,也是我们的团结的对象。  Xiao Feng "Prelude."


* "lure the snakes from their holes"  引蛇出洞  A traditional expression, widely used after the fact to describe the betrayal of the Hundred Flowers Campaign.  For background on the Rectification Campaign of May 1957, see SCYY 10.

* "To speak is no crime . . . " 言者无罪,闻者足戒  SCYY 10.

* "Mandarinism, factionalism, subjectivism" 官僚主义,宗派主义,主观主义  The first is often translated as "bureaucratism," but in practice it refers to the abuse of power by officials—in a traditional Chinese context, Mandarins—rather than the complexities of bureaucracy, per se.  It should not, at any rate, be confused with the promotion of the so-called Mandarin dialect of Chinese, which was and still is national policy in the PRC.

For the personal animosities that lay behind the attacks on Stars see SCYY 6.


* "In reality, I was a big help . . . "  实际上,我是帮了反右派斗争的大忙,因为在后来的反右运动中,规定要把 《草木篇》给大家看。如果有人说,这个算啥子嘛——对了,就划成右派。 用这个方法来划右派,是"多快好省","节约闹革命"。一分钟就可以把 右派抓出来。因此全国抓了好多右派,都和那一组害人的诗有牵连,其数上 万。 Summaries of Remarks and Short Biographies of Participants . . .  (反右运动五十周年国际研讨会发言纲要和作者简历) The phrases in  quotation marks ("More, Faster . . . " etc.) are well-known Maoist slogans dating from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

* "It's widely believed . . . " 据悉,为这组散文诗被划成右派的不下万人,农、工、兵、学、商,老、中、青、少,比比皆是。 Xiao Feng "Prelude."

* In another essay . . . Shi Tianhe "Commemorating Fifty Years of Stars" (石天河《纪念<星星>五十年》), October 19, 2006.  Incidentally, Stars was officially rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, and continues in print to this day.  Its website, proudly displaying the original calligraphy of Mao Zedong, can be found here.

* "Regret can never suffice . . . " 后悔莫及,我是不祥之鸟害人精啊。 Liu Shahe "Prologue to 'The Disaster of '58'" (流沙河《<五八劫>序》) October 26, 2007.

The details of the suffering experienced by the various victims of the "'Grasses and Trees' purge" are drawn from Xiao Feng "Prelude" and SCYY 20.


* "I began to conspire . . . Our common goal . . . " 去年我在北京时就和石天河勾结上了. . . . . . 我们有共同的目的:在反教条主义的旗帜下反对社会主义现实主义。SCYY 17a.

On the enmity between Li Lei and Shi Tianhe, see SCYY 6.


* "Before '57 perhaps . . . " 五七以前也许你不能说真话,但是五七以后你不能不说假话。From Link's comments at the UC Irvine conference (originally in Chinese).  The link to the original article is broken, but the text has been preserved here.  In an op-ed in the Washington Post from July 2007, Link translated the phrase himself with a slightly differing emphasis: "Before 1957, there were certain truths one could not utter; after 1957, there were certain falsities one had to utter."  That formulation of course is also true, but his original Chinese puts it more forcefully: "after '57 one could not not tell lies."  Lying, that is, became a necessary way of life.  So, with all respect to Professor Link, I have retranslated his comment to bring out the full flavour of the original Chinese.

 * "How long is life . . . " (Liu) 人生几何?你的冤枉打已经挨得够多了,还想挨一顿? 写、写、写、写东西吧!别的不要管! SCYY 12.

* "to learn their folly . . . " 读圣贤书所学何事呢?我看,从书里面学聪明机变是非常不重要的,重要的是学他们的傻——追求真理的傻!殉道者的傻!SCYY 12.

* "How long is life . . . " (Shi) 人生几何?写写东西固然重要,但我怀疑那样下去,是 不是会变成写作匠。人生的意义,我时常在探索,一直到现在,我常常苦于自己的盲昧,但有一点,是我从经验中感觉到的,那就是:和真理一同受难,那样的人生 是有意义的。 SCYY 12.

* "Liu Shahe Surrenders . . . " 《流沙河交出黑信  石天河变天阴谋败露》  SCYY 12.