The Poet

Interview by Robert O'Malley

(Meng Lang lived in Boston and worked at the Chinese Culture Institute.)

My parents were really opposed to my going into literature, especially my father. My class advisor in high school was also against it. Even though he taught Chinese, he had suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution and was against my choosing literature as a career. But I was 16 and buckled under the pressure.

In October '78 I joined the college for mechanics in Shanghai. For four years I studied optical instrumentation, though I spent most of my free time in the library reading up on literature, philosophy and history. I feel that those four years in college really formed the way I write and were important for my growth as a poet. At the time Chinese society was just beginning to open up. New ideas were arriving from the West. I spent a lot of time reading up on Western literature in magazines and books.

It was also the time when the Democracy Wall movement was going on in China. I was very interested in this movement and often went to People's Square in the middle of Shanghai to read the posters expounding on democracy. My ideas at the time inclined toward democracy - I was sympathetic to democracy. But in 1980, the authorities suppressed all those democracy movements and all the political magazines that came out in '78 and '79 were banned. Any unauthorized publication at the time became a very dangerous activity. There was a policy handed down from the central government banning all unauthorized organizations and publications.

Between 78 and 80 when I really started writing seriously, I mostly wrote modern poetry in Chinese, although sometimes I still wrote old-style classical Chinese poems. Although my writing at the time was still influenced by traditional Chinese literature I also was very influenced by French literature and American literature starting from the latter half of the 1800s. Free-verse writing in modern Chinese - in colloquial Chinese - really only started after 1919, so at the time it was only 60 or 70 years old; it was really a young medium. So I tried to learn how to use this very young medium to express ideas and explore different ways of styling the poems.

At the time, I and two friends from high school published a magazine called MN, which is an acronym for the two syllables in the word "modern." I thought at the time that Chinese society was in such huge transition and that we were the generation to bury certain things. The question was mainly literary and aesthetic because I thought the old ideas of aesthetics were going to be buried. But in a way it was also political.

The magazine came out in the spring of '81, and the print run was only 60. The magazine was distributed to college friends devoted to literary matters. In the next three or four years we published six or seven issues of this magazine. Through the publication and exchange of these magazines, I got to know a lot of leading figures in the underground literary movement in Shanghai and beyond. In the mid '80s we formed two literary groups in Shanghai. One was called Seaside, and the other was called Everyday. These culture groups were all formed spontaneously by young intellectuals and college students. We had art exhibits, literary salons and poetry readings.

At the time, people were also publishing underground poetry in other Chinese cities. By exchanging our publications we gradually formed this network. Through the 1980s this network of underground publishers and writers of poetry almost formed a kind of unofficial secret society. The aesthetic ideas we had were on the edge of Chinese society because they were so avant-garde. They could not be accepted by the mainstream. The ideas we had challenged both the political reality of the time and popular tastes.

It was really quite interesting, because we didn't necessarily know each other personally. If someone in the circle wanted to go somewhere and I had a friend there, I would introduce him to the other person by writing a note. Then he would be warmly welcomed by that friend. The same thing would also happen to me if I wanted to go to another city.

A common feeling among the poets was a total antipathy toward oppression and control over thoughts and literature. Although everyone had his own political views, I don't think we actually got involved in political activities as such. Through the medium of the arts we were trying to express ourselves, trying to express our individuality. Because we formed our own organization and had our own publications it made the authorities very nervous. From the very start they tried to stop what we were doing because it was a challenge to the political reality.

In 1990 we had a meeting of all the poets in China and we joked about it. We said if alternative parties were allowed in China we could form a poet's party; we would be one of the most mature, most well-organized organizations, though I have to stress that poets are also very individualistic.

At the time of the Tiananmen protest, I was working as an editor and reporter for Shenzhen University's Editing and Reporting Center. Shenzhen is just across the border from Hong Kong. I was reporting on the movement but also actively participating in it by advising the students. After the movement was over I was questioned a few times by the Shenzhen Police. Some poets were more active in the 1989 events. A few poets in Szechwan Province wrote poetry and made videos of the movement. In 1990, they were arrested and sentenced for their activity. I think more than 90 percent of the modern poets in China at the time were on the side of the students; they were fighting for democracy. Chinese society makes it very difficult for anyone to express his feelings, his thoughts, his views freely. Because of this I think most of them just kept quiet.

In Shanghai we were under the surveillance of a special branch of the police for political activities. In April '92 I was secretly detained by the political security branch of the Shanghai Police along with another prominent figure in Shanghai poetry circles. We were detained in a hospital within a police compound. I was totally isolated and didn't know that my friend was also there. I was in a hospital room with three beds. I slept in the middle bed and two policemen specially trained in boxing slept in the beds to my left and right. Shifts would change three times a day but two people were always there. For the entire period I was detained, I didn't go out at all and didn't see sunshine. During the day, the political police would come and interrogate me. They wanted to know about a publication called Modern Chinese Poetry, which was organized by me and others in 1990.

My detention aroused an outcry from international poetry societies, Pen International, and international media. Because of that pressure the police let me go. The excuse they gave for my detention was my receipt of some money from an overseas democracy group. The money was donated to support Liu Xiaobo, Wang Dan, and Zhou Duo, prominent figures in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. This money, which was for them and their families, was given to me because I knew Zhou Duo. I was supposed to give them the money. So the police said this was a political activity to overthrow the government. They gave this as the reason for my arrest, but that was only the excuse. There was another reason. During the interrogation I learned they had detained me because they thought I could tell them something they wanted to know.

While I was detained, I spent 90 percent of my time being interrogated. They asked me about my literary activities. When the police interrogated me, I always told them my views. I would tell them that China should have a multi-party government and that the ban on publications and party formation should be lifted. The police said my thoughts were really problematic. They said, "These thoughts are sick, and that is why we are here interrogating you. Your art is in your politics and your politics is in your art." But these people didn't have any training in aesthetics; they didn't really understand beauty; they didn't even understand my poems. That's why the only thing they could think about was politics.

I was detained in April '92 and released in May '92. Between that time and September '95 - when I came to the States - I was frequently questioned and harassed by the police. I was constantly put under surveillance. So during that period there were two or three months when the police would come to question me twice a week. It really turned my life upside-down. If I wanted to work for a magazine as a journalist they would talk to the magazine, so the magazine wouldn't hire me because I was on a black list. If I wanted to travel outside of Shanghai I also had to report to them. So this really caused me a lot of difficulties. I don't think I had very little personal freedom at the time.

So it was around this time that I received an invitation from Brown University's Freedom to Write Program to become a visiting scholar. When Brown gave me the invitation I applied to go abroad. I was taken by the police to this tourist resort outside of Shanghai. They needed seven policemen and two cars. They talked to me for three nights and two days, trying to figure our why I wanted to go abroad. I guess I was already on their list of troublemakers. So months after that talk, they finally gave me the passport.

My experience in the US has largely been positive. But even though I am here in the US, I still feel I am underground, mainly because I'm studying Chinese literature and Chinese poetry. I also publish a magazine called Tendency Quarterly. Poetry is such a precious thing. It's something that survives despite the pervasiveness of consumerism and capitalism throughout the world. The pursuit of the human spirit and the aesthetic ideal is very precious in this world.

I observe and question and criticize capitalism. My main political views now are based on equality, justice and democracy. I think I have a tendency to be on the left, but I'm not a supporter of communism. Communism is the same as the totalitarian regime which I hate.

Coming to the US has changed me in several ways. I have more freedom and have become more individualistic. Because I am in a new environment, I see many new things. The subject of my thought and poetry has become much broader here. My poetry focuses more on the pursuit of a universal experience for all of humankind rather than on the experience of a specific group. I feel that humankind as a whole has a common destiny, a common fate. So when I write now I want to write for the entire humankind, not just for the people of one country. Humankind is at the gates of the third millennium, but is still experiencing a lot of difficulties. It's a time of crisis. There are problems associated with nuclear weapons, the environment, energy, and over-population.

I think America sets a trend for the hogging of energy and space, but unfortunately everyone is involved in this now. Even China is being swept into this trend. But I feel that humankind shouldn't just pay attention to what we have now. We should also show some responsibility for the environment and for the future. Unfortunately, as a poet, I can only watch this trend sweeping along without being able to do much about it.

My conscience tells me I should focus on these questions in the interest of humankind. So my basic standpoint as a poet is to struggle against the evil in man, which is a manifestation of his endless pursuit - his endless greed. But by saying that I don't want to come across sounding like a guru or a spiritual leader either, because in my writing I view this from the standpoint of aesthetics.

Although my wish is to be able to go back to China tomorrow, my return has as a condition my ability to live a peaceful life there. My ideal life would be to go back to China to write and live a peaceful life, but at this point I can't really predict when that will happen. I am in fact more optimistic than many of my friends, who say I should be prepared to stay here for a long long time. When I came to the US I received political asylum, so I rely on the protection of the United States to live and think and write peacefully. I don't want to go back to a life in which my thoughts and my every movement are under surveillance.

At this point, when I talk about my writing I often have to repeat my life story, the experiences I've just related to you. But I really want people to know me as a poet, to know my thoughts, to know my views on aesthetics and poetry. I think I feel a need to communicate with people about human nature, to communicate through the heart and through poetry. I would like that to be my means of communication.

At the same time, I think it's necessary to politicize my views. In October '97, when Jiang Zemin came to Cambridge, I was in the protesting group; I was one of the dissenting voices. And when Premier Zhu Rongji comes to Boston next week, I will be there again; I do this to express myself. I am not against him personally, but I'm against the system he stands for. To use the words of President Clinton: They were in the wrong of history and I want to be in the right!