- A Commitment to Life: An Interview
Xue Di was born in Beijing in 1957. In 1983, he helped found the Yuan Ming Yuan Poetry Society, an avant-garde poetry group continuing in the tradition of the Today Poetry Society, formed during the 1978 democracy movement. He organized readings at Beijing University and other educational centers and edited an anthology, The Yuan Ming Yuan Poetry Collection. He helped organize and participated in the 1989 demonstration in Tiananmen Square, escaping to the United States soon after the massacre. Since 1990, he has been a fellow in Brown University's Freedom to Write Program. Among his works are three books of poetry in Chinese—Hui Yi (Remembering), Chan Li (Trembling), and Meng Yi (Dream Talk)—and four books in English translation: Heart into Soil, Circumstances, An Ordinary Day, and Another Kind of Tenderness. He has twice received a Hellman/Hammett grant, awarded by Human Rights Watch.
MC When and why did you start writing poetry?
XD When I was a small boy, my parents got divorced. Back then, divorce very rarely happened in mainland China. The government strictly forbade couples to divorce so that it could announce and prove that a socialist society is better than a capitalist one: Chinese people lived better and more harmonious lives than Westerners, and no one disliked each other or divorced. In school, my classmates thought that I was the cause of my parents' divorce; since no one else's parents were divorced, I must therefore be evil. I was beaten up every day after school; I was chased by groups of kids on the streets and forced to fight back to protect myself. In the meantime, both of my parents remarried after their divorce. I was rejected by my new stepmother and stepfather, so I couldn't live with any of them. I had to live in a dormitory building alone, in fear, humiliation, and pain. I was only ten years old.
Then, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution spread throughout mainland China. Intellectuals and even common people were humiliated, tortured, [End Page 155] and killed. People were driven to wild extremes by their belief in communism and turned cunningly and violently against each other. Families fell apart, schools and colleges shut down, books were torn and burned, and tradition and morality were trampled in the mud and murdered. The whole country was mad and lost. That was the time I was supposed to enter college; I was supposed to absorb knowledge and cultivate my understanding and spirit to be a decent human being, to be a meaningful person for myself and for society. I was ten when the Cultural Revolution started. The campaign lasted ten years. Ten years of my youth were rudely crushed and destroyed by society.
That was the path I traveled in my early years. Those years were full of personal misery within my country's loss and madness. I was crazily reading whatever I could put my hands on to read, whatever I was able to grab. Only reading could carry me away from grief and deep unhappiness in my life, and tremendous confusion and anger toward society.
One day, in the hallway of my apartment building, I found a collection of poems written by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The collection had been thrown away. People could be sent to labor camps simply be-cause they owned a collection of poems written by foreigners. I started to read it in the washroom. I had to hide myself from spying neighbors while I was reading foreign literature. For the first time in my life, I heard the birds singing, blue waters circling, people liking each other, and the ocean romantically and beautifully rolling. For the first time, I sensed love; I felt beloved. I felt that I was not lonely anymore; I felt that the mad society and cruel children and adults were far away from my life. I saw myself laughing while I was reading; tears came out, not from being beaten and abused, but from being moved. For the first time, I appreciated my life. I didn't want to end it.