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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 105-113
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The Legend of Chinese Poet Guo Lusheng
Fifty men in pajamas crowd the common room of a mental institution in Beijing. Some sit shoulder to shoulder on the concrete floor with their backs against the wall. Others watch television or wander about, talking to themselves, lost in worlds of their own. One patient stands apart, smoking and staring through the barred windows to the garden below. Hair cropped short, dressed in regulation pajamas, he looks like every other inmate; but this man's inner world may be more extraordinary than that of all the rest. He has been called China's Dante.
Respected then reviled by the Red Guards in the 1960s, later praised as the forerunner of the underground literature movement, criticized by the authorities, and recently back in favor enough to be published and to receive literary awards, fifty-two-year-old Guo Lusheng has been scarred by his journey through Maoist hell and by the mental breakdown caused in part by political persecution. But this poet is also a survivor and takes a calm view of the ups and downs in his life and the transient nature of fame. Tall and well built, he chain-smokes as we sit together at one of the greasy dining tables in Beijing's Social Welfare House No. 3. His face is expressive as he tells me about his life.
Guo Lusheng was born on a roadside in Shandong Province, southeast of Beijing, on a bitter winter's day in 1948. Civil war was raging across China. His father was in Mao's army, and his mother, like the wives of other soldiers, was traveling with the troops. The name they gave their infant, Lusheng, means "born on the road." Perhaps they felt that this inauspicious beginning meant that their son had a bumpy journey ahead of him.
Guo Yunxuan recalls that his son loved to read from the time he was little, and at three could already recite many classical poems, taught to him by his mother. "And he was stubborn," his father adds, "always had his own views on things."
An independent mind and love of books are admired in democratic cultures, but in the intensely politicized society of Mao's China, these qualities [End Page 105] got Guo into trouble as soon as he was old enough to attend school."When the Cultural Revolution came, I was very excited at first," Guo says as he recalls his youthful enthusiasm for revolutionary politics. His early poems were popular with his schoolmates. Ironically, they might have been too well known: Guo's undoing was brought about by an admiring teacher who wrote a mandatory "self-criticism" in which he admitted that he loved Guo's writing because it displayed "bourgeois" taste. After that, Guo and his poetry were spurned by the zealous Red Guard factions. When the Cultural Revolution intensified, all schools and universities were shut down. Forced to stay home, Guo began to meet other writers. Among these new friends were writers whose work was also criticized by the Red Guards and who were part of an underground literary salon called Sun Fleet.
"They were mostly children of the social elite," Guo remembers. "They had access to classic foreign books and even Beatles albums, which were unobtainable for ordinary people." Guo's friends opened his eyes to experiences that ranged from drinking and partying to earnest but secret discussions about literature and the future of China. Nonetheless, he was lucky not to have been admitted into formal membership of Sun Fleet. In 1966, the group was labeled a "counterrevolutionary" organization and its leader, Zhang Langlang, received a death sentence that was later suspended. Red Guards attacked several of Guo's friends, driving some to commit suicide. Even the son of China's poet laureate, the communist official Guo Moruo, was targeted because he led an underground literary group; captured, he was tied to a chair and thrown from a building to his death.
Though Guo escaped being labeled a counterrevolutionary, his...