Gregor Benton has been a prolific writer and translator of Chinese texts from the Communist movement. He translated the deeply moving memoirs by the widow of Chinese dissident Hu Feng 胡风 into English a couple of years ago (https://www.versobooks.com/books/1154-f) making one of the most important and human testimonies of life inside one of Mao’s prisons available to a wider audience.
`Poets of the Chinese Revolution’ (Verso, London, 2019 – https://www.versobooks.com/books/2930-poets-of-the-chinese-revolution) is ostensibly about four key figures in the politics and literary life of Chinese in the 20th century. They were starkly different figures. Chen Duxiu was famously one of the key people who introduced Marxism to China, but then gravitated to Trotsky, founded his own splinter party in the late 1920s, then then was slung in jail by the Nationalists from 1937. He died in 1942. Mao Zedong needs no exposition. The 22 of the poems published during his life are in this volume. Some others have appeared since. Chen Yi was a close comrade of his, serving as a beleaguered foreign minister during the Cultural Revolution when he suffered travails woefully common at the time. But the real hero of this book, and the figure to whom half of it is devoted, is Zheng Chaolin ( 郑超麟).
Zheng is hardly a well known figure, even in China. Born in 1901, he was, as Benton states in his introduction to his poems, `a dramatic embodiment of the century’s main passions and vicissitudes in China’ who spent most of his adult life `either fomenting revolution or in jail.’ (39). Soon after the revolution he had contributed to bringing about, Zheng’s Trotskyist commitments meant he was flung into jail in the early 1950s, and didn’t properly emerge till over two decades later once Mao was dead.
Zheng is an attractive figure because, of all those in this book, both in the original Chinese and the English translations, he has something approaching a personal voice. Mao’s poetry might just as well have been written by a committee – in fact, with the help of Hu Qiaomu and Chen Boda some his works pretty much were produced that way. Some people like what he wrote – but it is hard to believe that anyone would read this stuff now were it not to have been associated with the author it is. Epic, almost superhuman, full of Mao’s antagonistic views towards nature (which figure simply a stage for human heroic deeds), it’s heady, and unsettling, work. Chen Yi seems to be too keen on professing his political loyalties, and Chen Duxiu comes across as the creature of a sound Qing imperial education, stuck in the idiom of that era however modernist his politics.
But Zheng is a writer of a different order, using many different styles, and remarkably instilling his work with much of his personal experience. The most moving of his works for me refer to the brief life, and tragic early death, of his only son at the age of seven in the War. There are also lamenting references to his wife, Liu Jingzhen, who was to survive his release from prison finally in 1979 by only a matter of months. A number of the poems were produced during his long incarceration, and refer to finding crumbs of comfort in amongst the daily soul-destroying grind of life then. In the era of the great famines in the early 1960s he was to console himself with the thought that at least he had food of a sort in prison. The free were left to die; millions did.
Zheng was obviously a very special, uncompromising soul. He survived to 1998, writing almost to the end. Mao and his acolytes may have dominated in life – but in his book, rightly, Zheng takes centre stage. As he wrote in `My Career’:
`Now is the thirtieth year of the second half of my career –
I think back sadly on missed chances.
Half the time was wasted
and the prisons kept on changing –
Cao River prison was the worst of all.
Flames of war raged everywhere, but life went on.
In the tenth year, I returned to my old haunts,
shocked to see the mansions flattered.
No more snarling jailers,
broken bricks on every side. ‘