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A Smile of Recognition, A Look of Disdain, Sharing a Uyghur Frame

The Legacy of Ai Qing’s Xinjiang Poetics

Sometimes the mountains faded into the whiteness of the clouds and it was difficult to distinguish what was snow and what was clouds. Yet some days there were no clouds and the mountains seem to float in the air. This caused me to have a good and proper smile. –Ai Qing, The Poetic Life, 2007, 67 (Looking south from Shihezi to the Heavenly Mountains)

1. Like the rest of contemporary China, Xinjiang is going through a rapid economic transformation. By simultaneously depoliticizing the economic and encouraging a new ethic of entrepreneurialism, new forms of governance and subsidized development in Xinjiang are drawing waves of rural Han migrant workers from other parts of China. In general terms, these new arrivals are faced with the same uncomfortable environment and ethnic difference that confronted Ai Qing, China’s preeminent revolutionary poet and father of rabble-rouser Ai Weiwei, when he arrived in the late 1950s. In fact, throughout China’s history new migrants to Northwest China have been forced to resolve whether Xinjiang can be transformed into a home, in Heidegger’s phenomenological terms – a place of being, or if it will remain a location of social exile – an oblivion of being, far from their ancestral villages in Eastern China.

Ai was an old man, 68, when he was rehabilitation by the Party in Beijing in 1978. After more than twenty years of reeducation through toilet-cleaning in a military-agriculture forced-labor camp in the steppes of Northern Xinjiang, Ai told Geremie Barmé that he was a “fossil-poet” (Barmé 1999: xi). Riffing on his recently published poem “Living Fossils” (Huó Huàshí), Ai compared his existence to that of a leaping fish frozen in a sudden catastrophe in a pre-historical strata of the earth. Discovered in the durative present the fossilized fish seems as vital as the day it had been subsumed (Barmé 2011).

“But you are silent, breathless,/… Faced with this fossil/ any fool can see:/ We cannot live unless we can move./ To live is to struggle, /to advance/ We must expend our all/ Before the advance of death” (in Barmé 2011).

2. The sentiment behind this poem recalls the smothering effect of exile on Ai Qing life. He went to Xinjiang in 1959 at the height of his powers and emerged from the wilderness in 1978 an ancient poet. Ai wrote surprisingly little about his time in Xinjiang. Only an introduction to a book of photography called The Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) deals with his time there directly. Describing the mountains as an elegiac landscape, Ai focuses the reader’s attention on the colors and sounds of the forests, the danger inherent in converting wildness into land which sustains life, the deaths that are buried next to escarpments on winding roads. He speaks with great fondness for the shrouded mystery of the mountains and the warmth of the people that lived there. Reading through the sparseness of the prose, one senses a great mind which sweeps in all the details around him. (Excerpts from the four page essay followed by the Chinese are appended below)

The essay turns on decisive moments in the summer of 1968 when the cultural struggle intensified and Ai was dragged out across the desert to a labor camp far from the mountains. As his son puts it, his writing materials were taken away from him, he was made to scrub communal toilets, and the Ai family was forced to live in an earthen pit covered with brush and mud (2011:53). It was during moments of living in this atmosphere of intense alienation that Ai looked across the desert to the mountains floating in the distance and still found a way to smile. As he put it: “no matter where I was, if it was a sunny day I always look to the South for the trace of the mountains against the horizon” (Ai Qing 2007: 67). Ai Qing’s legacy has left little impression in Xinjiang. The only public marker that remains is a small shrine in the Shihezi, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (Xīnjiāng shēngchǎn jiànshè bīngtuán) Museum.

Tybetanka Oser, prof. Ilham Tohti, Ujgur i Ai Weiwei, Han; Pekin, 19 maja 2013.

The Dream Team: Ilham Tohti, Uyghur; Tybetanka Oser, Tibetan; Ai Weiwei, Han. Beijing May 19, 2013.

3. Yet the legacy of his life lives on in his son Ai Weiwei. Tomorrow, July 9, marks the four year anniversary of the terminal censorship of Weiwei’s famous blog. On that day he wrote a stinging critique of the government’s handling of the July 2009 riots in Urumqi:

“I lived in Xinjiang for sixteen years and never had the opportunity to come in contact with Uyghurs, so I don’t really understand them. This should be enough to illustrate the problem. I’ve had limitless contact with the Han, and I know how shameless and capable of disappointing some of them can be…. Freedom is limited by the freedom your prisoners enjoy, without freedom for others; you will never have a day of peace” (Ai 2011: 235).

In what follows he outlined how recent policy in Xinjiang reflects a governance structure that favors those who stand to benefit from existing power relations from Beichuan to Urumqi. This rebuke turned out to be the last post he was permitted to write on his blog.

As I have written elsewhere, in the summer of 2011 Ai Weiwei was released from prison after three months of hooded confinement in what he stated was as close to spiritual death as is physically possible. I can imagine that he must have thought about what it felt like for his father, a maroon in a Chinese desert, cleaning toilets, digging out a home for free thought with his bare fingers. Yet what distinguishes Ai Weiwei from his father is the way he has been able to surround himself with a friends who support and amplify his work. Unlike the oblivion experienced by his father, Ai Weiwei has built himself a self-enclosed retreat in Beijing and in recent times has begun cultivating a friendship with one of the most courageous Uyghurs living in China today: the social commentator Ilham Tohtihttp://abcn.ws/10EdliQ ). While his father was banished for his loyalty to his friends — namely the great socialist feminist fiction writer Ding Ling, Ai Weiwei has found in solidarity a prophylactic.  By converting the givenness of existence into life made meaningful by friendship, laughter, and affection Ai Weiwei is subverting the despair of alienation. He, and host of other minor actors in the great Chinese drama, remind us that those who both mindfully and mindlessly dominate the culturally different are not the only players in the art of life in Chinese Central Asia. A politics of recognition; an ethics of sharing pain, is also possible.

Further Reading:

Ai Qing艾青. Selected Poems of  Ai Qing (Eugene Chen Eoyang trans.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press  1988

— Shiyi Shenghou 诗意生活 (The Poetic Life).,  Beijing Shi : Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe 中国青年出版社, 2007.

Ai Weiwei. 艾未未Ai Weiwei: New York 1983-1993, “Interviews,” (Trans. Stephanie H. Tung with Alison Klayman) Beijing: Chambers Fine Art, 2010.

— Ai Weiwei’s Blog. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

Barmé, Geremie. “A View on Ai Weiwei’s Exit.” April 27, 2011. The China Beat. (Retrieved on May 24 2012 from http://www.thechinabeat.org/?p=3371)

—  (1999). In the red: On contemporary Chinese culture. Columbia University Press.

Exerpts from: “Remembering the Heavenly Mountains”

There are many famous mountains and great rivers under heaven, (but) I have  the most intimate relationship with the Tian Shan. Recently on a trip back from Europe, after we had flown over Central Asia, I asked the flight attendant ” When will we be over Xinjiang?” The purpose of my question was that of seeing the Tian Shan from a high altitude.  As we approached the border,  from 5000 meters I saw ten thousand mountains spread out below me, it was early in the morning, the snow covered peaks of the Tian Shan shown in the  morning light, as though in the middle of a great sea ten thousand waves rolled and broke to the horizon…. The Tian Shan! The Magnificent Tian Shan! The Vast Tian Shan!

I have already lived at the foot of this mountain range for 16 years, (they) account for a quarter of the time of my life, today I saw is, how can I not be excited? I came to Xinjiang in the winter of 1959. Since then I’v passed through the Jade Gate on numerous occasions. From Xingxing Gorge, Hami on the Turpan road I saw the Flaming Mountains (Huoyan Shan). In the far distance they seemed to been burning for a thousand years in an unextinguished flame,  no wonder they caused ancient poets to produce mythologies ….

After I first arrived in Urumqi, I received an assignment, my writing activity was guided by the Tian Shan. A few times while in and around gorges in the middle of the Tian Shan, I stayed in yurts and houses. At that time there was a Xinjianli steel factory, and I remember quite a few people from that time. I sometimes went up to plateaus above 4000 meters, the area that divided North from South Xinjiang; (up on the plateau) there was a newly opened mountain pass, the wind was very strong, sometimes there were blizzards,while at other times the sun was blazingly hot. In the vicinity of the plateau there was a glacier, a vast plain of silvery white, everyone knew that this glacier was extremely deep.

During that time, we were all working on a new post-Liberation highway. The Tian Shan road was very difficult to build. The road had some stretches that were extremely narrow, and not only narrow, for the most part it was very windy, cars must constantly blow their horns so that oncoming traffic  could wait to pass at relatively wide sections of the road before moving on down the road. On the sides of the road were steep dropoffs, the scrubby trees concealed great abysses; there was the sound of the unceasing tumbling of mountain streams, the sound of moving water haunted the place. I think those that built the roads during that time had a very difficult time. The road passed through a few places where the mountain hung over the path of the road,  You can see some memorials in these places where construction workers were buried.  They allowed us to leave a word or a wild flower in tribute to them. In this stretch of the road you can also saw herdsmen moving from rangeland to rangeland, they just had two camels to carry their yurt and furniture. I also often saw enthusiastic young men who came to build the frontier coming to the Tian Shan. There were cola mines, iron mines, lime kilns, pottery factories, and a lot of residences in the Tian Shan. There were already villages forming.

On the northern slope of the Tian Shan, the vegetation was verdant with spruce and pine. The life force of these forests was especially vigorous because they depended on snowmelt for their water supply, this allowed their seeds to germinate and their roots to hold in the smallest rocky crevice, their trunks were straight and tall, in addition to being thick and dense, they spread for tens of kilometers in the form of an immense forest. I’ve seen immense red rocks down in the coal mines, they seemed like ancient castles, more imposing then any construction you have ever seen. Our painters and architects should get their inspiration from that …. Those who raised sheep were extremely warm-hearted, we ate extremely lush dinners.  The land could produce…everything a person could want.

Chinese Language Text of “Remembering the Heavenly Mountains” 

怀念天山

天下的名山大川很多,唯独天山和我的关系最深。最近我坐飞机从欧洲回来,在飞越中亚细亚之后,我问航空服务员”什么时间到新疆? “我的目的是要从高空看天山。到国境线上,我从一万米的上空看下界的万重山,时间是早晨,天山的雪峰映著初阳,像大海中的万顷搜涛奔腾而过……天山!雄伟的天山!壮阔的天山!我就曾经在这茫茫无边的群山的脚下生活了十六年,占我的生命的四分之一的时间,今天我看到它,怎能不激动呢?我是在一九五九年冬天到新疆。从那之后我曾多次进出玉门。我从星星峡、哈密到吐鲁番的路上看见了火焰山。远远看去,好像在燃烧著千年不灭之火,难怪古代的诗人由它而产生了神话一一孙悟空借了铁扇公主的扇子想扑灭火焰山。

我第一次到乌鲁木齐之后,接受了一个任务,写一个活动在天山一带的出色的驾驶员。我几次到天山里面的一个峡谷一一后峡,从住帐篷到住楼房,那儿有一个新建立的钢铁厂,交识了不少人。我曾几次到一个四千多米高的明槽-一一南北疆分界的地方,那是个新辟开的山口,风很大,有一次还刮著风雪,而山下却是一片骄阳。在明槽附近有一片永不消融的冰大板,很大的银白色的平面,谁也不知道那儿的冰有多厚。那时,我们所走的是一条解放后新开辟的公路。天山的路是难走的。公路有些段落很窄,不仅窄,而且大都是急转弯,汽车必须不断地按喇叭,以便对面来的车找一个比较宽的地方等著,让这辆车过去了再走。

路的旁边,上下都是陡直的崖壁,在灌木丛的掩盖下的深渊,不断地传来山涧的流水声,那正是水搬出没的场所。想当年筑路的人们该多么艰难。公路经过的几个地方,山夹口的平坦的处所,可以看见留著纪念碑,那就是埋下筑路时死了的人的坟墓。让我们过路的人采上一柬野花向他们致敬吧。在这条公路上还可以看见牧民从这个草场搬到另一个草场,他们只要两匹骆驼就把帐篷和家具,全家男女老少都搬走了。他们走山路就像在平地上一样地安详。听说这条公路如今已加宽了。我也常常跟随热心子边疆建设的人们进入天山。天山里面有煤矿、铁矿,有石灰窑、水泥厂、陶姿厂、玻璃厂,有不少的居民点,有的已经形成村镇。在天山的北坡,覆盖著葱郁的云杉、塔松林。这些树种的生命力特别旺盛,它们常常依靠积雪融化的一点水,让种子发芽,把根扎人岩缝,紧紧地攀住岩石,把枝干直直的指向高空生长,既茂密又整齐,蔓延几十公里,形成苍茫的林海。

我曾经到煤矿的路上看见无比巨大的红色的岩层,远远看去像古代的城堡,比什么建筑都更雄伟。我们的画家和建筑师可以从中得到启示。天山里面的著名的紫泥泉种羊场,是培育细毛羊的基地,那儿有百年以上的榆树林构成幽美的风景。树林里有蘑菇。这一地区的土壤肥沃,土豆特别大一一有的一个一公斤多重,吃起来又甜又面。种羊场的主人很热情,我们曾经吃到非常丰美的晚餐。天山里面,在石灰窑不远的地方发现有温泉。军垦农场的一个师政委曾和我谈起,他想在温泉边盖一个疗养院,让军垦战士有休假的地方。但他却在没有实现计划之前已被调到另外的省去工作了。

你要在天山南麓,在孔雀河畔的库尔勒,能吃到世界上最好的梨。它们的个子不大,但水分充足,用不到削皮吃,核特别小,这种梨具有香、甜、脆三种长处。我从乌鲁木齐到奇台,公路沿天山北麓向东伸延,天山像无比长的壁垒横列在南面,雪线是平直的,雪线以上群峰矗立,而五千多米高的博格多峰像银色的古寨在闪光,构成了出于神笔的画卷。天山是新疆中部众河的母亲。从天山群峰化雪的水流经峡谷,或是拦成大大小小的水库,或是砌起长达几百公里的水渠,灌溉农田,构成成百个商品粮的基地,种植棉花和各种经济作物和瓜果,满足人们生活的需要。新疆的哈密瓜自然是闻名中外,其实新疆的西瓜(小籽西瓜)也是最好的品种。

后来的岁月,从一九六八年夏天开始,我是在军垦农场的一个连队里度过的。那个连队离天山很远。但我无论在哪儿,只要是晴天,我都要朝南方寻找它的影子。有时它混在白色的云团里,几乎分辨不出哪是云,哪是它的雪峰。而在万里无云的日子,它就像浮在空气里似的,向我露出和善的微笑。使我感到遗憾的是:东面没有到吐鲁番盆地,那是产无核葡萄和长绒棉的地方;西面我没有到伊犁地区,听说路上可以经过果子沟,是七十华里长的一片野果林。我也没有到过天池。感谢新疆人民出版社的《天山》提供了二百幅彩色摄影,对天山作了比较全面的介绍,热情地歌颂了祖国的大好河山,对有心作西北之游的人们是一个详尽的介绍。希望画家们为如此壮丽的景色多留下些笔墨,以丰富我国艺术的宝库。

As always any suggestions regarding the translation of the text are welcome. 

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: “Older Brother” Abdulla the King of Uyghur Music: His Voice | the art of life in chinese central asia

  2. Pingback: The Legacy of Ai Qing’s Xinjiang Poetics | the art of life in chinese central asia

  3. Gracias por esto, la verdad que es bueno conseguir sitios web como este, ahora mismo iniciaré un trabajo bastante relacionado con este tema.

  4. Pingback: “Older Brother” Abdulla the King of Uyghur Music: His Voice | art of life in chinese central asia

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