The poems on this page were written in English by a young Chinese poet and scholar, Xuefei Jin, whose pen name is Ha Jin. He was born in Liaoling province of Manchuria in 1956, entered the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at fourteen, served somewhat more than five years as a soldier (his father was at the time a soldier) and then three years as a telegraphist for the Harbin Railroad Company. In 1978 he entered Heilongjiang University and is continuing his studies at present at Brandeis. The poems he has written since he began his studies in America deal mainly with the experience of persons in China during the Cultural Revolution–“experience,” as he writes, “not strictly personal, although in most cases . . . stimulated by memory of hard facts which cannot be worn away by time.”
In Ha Jin’s poems we overhear the people of China–one at a time–speak to one another in the infinite particularity of his concern or her concern and in the deep solitude of a vast nation–the People’s Republic–which constitutes a fate no one can understand or change. Nonetheless, as Ha Jin says, they are “not merely victims of history. They are also the makers of history. Without them the history of contemporary China would remain a blank page.” We hear in these poems the living and the dead–vulnerable, passionate, rational, unforgiving, heartbroken, relentless, gay–speaking of the interests which constitute their humanity in an uncanny language in which English is carried up into a region of pure human authenticity–the language of no nation but the nation of the person who speaks willingly or unwillingly the truth. In the introduction to his manuscript, from which these poems are drawn, Ha Jin remarks: “If not every one of these people, who were never perfect, is worthy of our love, at least their fate deserves our attention and our memory. They should talk and be talked about.”
An Older Scholar’s Advice
After you get your master’s degree
you will have to work hard for some years
to be promoted to a lectureship. Then you can relax.
Don’t think that if you go on working in that way
you can get your professorship. First,
you must have enough teaching experience.
In my school, only after having taught for 24 years
will you be qualified for consideration
as an associate professor. Second,
you must publish enough papers.
it is not hard to write them but it is not easy
to publish them. In fact, you can publish anything
if you have connections. My colleagues told me that
publication is also an important field of study.
Well, if you "study" it thoroughly
you may be able to get your papers out,
but you will have to pay a lot for it.
For me the most practical thing to do now
is not to worry about my professorship.
So many lecturers are not qualified for it
until they are qualified for retirement
or for death. I just ignore it for the time being.
In the morning I practice Tai Chi.
In the evening I watch TV and go to bed early.
I have quit smoking but drink two cups of wine
every day. Wine can warm your blood.
Don’t indulge yourself in sex.
It will weaken your young kidneys.
As long as you are in good health,
as long as you live longer than others,
eventually you will get your professorship.
You can wait for that.
The Dead Soldier’s Talk
In September 1969, in a shipwreck accident on the Tuman River, a young Chinese soldier was drowned saving a plaster statue of Chairman Mao. He was awarded Merit Citation 2, and was buried at a mountain foot in Hunchun County, Jilin.
I’m tired of lying here.
The mountain and the river are not bad.
Sometimes a bear, a boar, or a deer
comes to this place
as if we were a group of outcast comrades.
I feel lonely and I miss home.
It is very cold when winter comes.
I saw you coming just now
like a little cloud wandering over grassland.
I knew it must have been you,
for no other had come for six years.
Why have you brought me wine and meat
and paper-money again?
I have told you year after year
that I am not superstitious.
Have you the red treasure book with you?
I have forgotten some quotations.
You know I don’t have a good memory.
Again, you left it home.
How about the statue I saved?
Is it still in the museum?
Is our Great Leader in good health?
I wish He live ten thousand years!
Last week I dreamed of our mother
showing my medal to a visitor.
She was still proud of her son
and kept her head up
while going to the fields.
She looked older than last year
and her grey hair troubled my eyes.
I did not see our little sister.
She must be a big girl now.
Has she got a boy friend?
Why are you crying?
Say something to me.
So you think I can’t hear you?
In the early years
you came and stood before my tomb
swearing to follow me as a model.
In recent years
you poured tears every time.
Damn you, why don’t you open your mouth?
Something must have happened.
What? Why don’t you tell me!
This poem originally appeared in The Paris Review, #101, Winter 1986.
When we quarreled last time
you promised to give me a special haircut.
Yesterday you fulfilled your word
by shaving my head bald.
You could not straighten your body
and laughed until tears came to your eyes.
How proud you were
while telling your friends
about the masterwork at home!
Our daughter laughed too.
for her daddy’s head was shining like a bulb.
In fact, I also laughed at myself,
for when I lost my first love
I shaved my head the same way.
In our town everybody sighed and shook his head
seeing me walking in the streets
without my dark curly hair
except the girl I loved
who laughed and loved my haircut.
A Hero’s Mother Blames Her Daughter
Every time you come home you make me angry.
You accuse me of being vain, and loving
the name of the Hero’s Mother. Today
I don’t want to quarrel with you.
I just want to speak up so that
you may understand I’m not such a bad woman.
After your elder brother died in the fight
with the Russians on Zhenbao Island,
I did send your younger brother to the army
and let him fight the enemy like his brother.
It was not because I lost my senses
and wanted to enhance my honor as the Hero’s Mother.
Is there any mother who would choose to
sacrifice her own son for such fame?
Listen! The country was in danger at that time
and your younger brother was already a big man.
With or without the example of your elder brother
he should go to the army. It is men’s duty
to defend the country. I was not wrong in this.
After your younger brother got killed in an accident
while digging a tunnel with his comrades,
I sent you to the army. I tell you I was not
a heartless mother. You’re a part of my flesh too;
besides, you were the only child I could keep.
Let Heaven witness, I did not mean to send you
to fight like a man, although I did say:
“Let her take over the gun left by her brothers.”
This time I knew you would not get killed
because they would try every way to protect you.
But if I did not send you to the army,
how could you leave our poor remote village?
how could you become a doctor as you are now?
how could you marry a good handsome man?
how could you live in Beijing with your son
going to the best primary school?
I didn’t hesitate when I sent your younger brother away.
But in your case it took me many days to decide.
One night I made up my mind and prayed
to your dead father and your elder brother:
“This is Rongrong’s only chance.
I must not let her miss it.
Whatever happens to me I can endure.
Please protect her on her way.”
Now your horns are strong and you turn around
to gore your mother. If I did anything wrong,
I did it for you. You are the person who benefits.
What did I get from it? Two martyr cards?
Do you think I can live on them?
Do you think I enjoy looking at them!
Anybody may have the right to blame me
except you. You don’t have the right to do it!
A Sacred Mango
We gathered in front of our City Hall
exploding firecrackers and beating drums and gongs.
Thousands of people came over
to receive a gift for our city from Chairman Mao.
It was a golden mango carried by a big truck
accompanied by three other trucks,
all of which were planted with colorful flags
and loaded with golden chrysanthemums.
The mango was exhibited in the center of a hall.
We lined up to look at it
and to show our gratitude and respect.
But that night
some curious child tasted the fruit
and was not caught.
Our mayor was frightened and outraged,
“Damn it, if I knew which son of a rabbit bit the mango
I would turn his whole family
But what could we do?
We substituted a wooden mango for a real one.