Between 1984 and his death, Hai Zi is estimated to have written two million words worth of work, spanning lyrics, epics, and verse dramas. For all his output, however, Hai Zi’s poems attracted little attention from his contemporaries. There is still debate today over his mental state, and why he decided to commit suicide, but one theory might have been his lack of success. Some have pinned his suicide on an idealization of death; others believe, as his final notes indicate, that he suffered from delusions. Another factor might have been a meeting with his former student; Hai Zi was greatly upset when he learned that his old flame was married and planning to move to the United States.
At any rate, in the aftermath of Hai Zi’s suicide, his friends Luo Yihe 骆一禾 and Xi Chuan 西川 helped to spread his work. Posthumous publications of Hai Zi’s work in the 1990s earned him a cult following, with some fans considering him a martyr to poetry. Critics embraced him, scholars studied him, and foreigners translated him. In 1990, Xi Chuan prophesied that “the death of Haizi the poet will become one of the myths of our time.” For his young Chinese fans, who still follow in his path and makes pilgrimages to the places connected to him, Hai Zi has become a mystical, legendary figure.
Their rural existence was no idyll, and it ended in tragedy: in 1993 Gu Cheng killed Xie Ye with an axe before hanging himself. By that point Hai Zi and Luo Yihe were also dead: Hai Zi committed suicide in 1989 by throwing himself under a train (leaving his copy of Walden in his bag alongside the tracks); Luo Yihe died from a brain haemorrhage just a few months later, apparently from the strain of his editorial efforts to secure Hai Zi’s poetic legacy. Wei An died from liver cancer in 1999.
Their untimely deaths seem to have sealed these poets behind the curtain of history – but many of their contemporaries are still with us, and still producing poetry that engages with the same themes. Last year Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河) published Phoenix, a 400-line mini-epic in which the spiritual and environmental strains of China’s feverish development are embodied in the vast avian sculpture of artist Xu Bing (徐冰). The polymath writer, artist, editor and filmmaker Ou Ning (欧宁) is perhaps the closest thing contemporary China has to a Thoreau figure, having founded his own rural commune in Bishan, Anhui, as part of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. Xi Chuan (西川) was a classmate of Hai Zi and Luo Yihe, and after the deaths of his friends he switched from lyric poetry to a looser, prose-poem style, in which nature is seldom idealised.
Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human … The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.
— from “Exhor[ta]tions” by Xi Chuan – translated by Lucas Klein
As Jennifer Kronovet observes: “This is not nature poetry and yet it is.”
The new issue of Pathlight is available, featuring translations of poetry by Hai Zi 海子 (translated by Eleanor Goodman), Cai Shiping 蔡世平 (translated by Canaan Morse), and Luo Yihe 骆一禾 (translated by Karmia Olutade), plus an interview with Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 by Shu Jinyu 舒晋瑜 (translated by Eleanor Goodman).
Click the image for the full table of contents and free download link.