Guo Lusheng and underground poetry during the Cultural Revolution

Society & Culture

Today is the final day of Poetry Month, celebrated every April. We commemorated it with a series of articles about Chinese poetry, both past and present. Our final installment is on the poet Guo Lusheng (pictured above, left and right),  

For many, modern Chinese poetry is defined by the most popular generation of Chinese poets in the past half-century, the Misty Poets (朦胧诗人 ménglóng shīrén) who rose out of the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and leaked into the mainstream. But the counterrevolution had begun decades earlier: A forgotten generation of Chinese poets had laid the groundwork during the social turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s with their underground poetry, risking their lives in their reactionary criticism of Maoist ideologies.

The disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Communist Party’s suppression of art and literature during the Cultural Revolution led to growing resentment among students and intellectuals and a general loss of faith in Mao Zedong’s leadership. In response, these young scholars began a sociopolitical resistance via producing and disseminating illegal poetry.

The surreptitious nature of underground literature (地下文学 dìxià wénxué) obfuscates its exact origin, but Chinese avant-garde poetry can be traced back to early-60s poetry journals and “salons” (沙龙 shālóng), or unofficial literary clubs that existed to circulate foreign and native poetry in secret. Although some of these early poets did not intend to entangle poetry with politics, there is a natural affinity between the two in Chinese culture.

Throughout the history of ancient dynasties, poets have been in close proximity with the seat of power. Many poets served as a link between the ruler and the people via their commentary on society. During the Mao era, this traditional sense of political-poetic writing returned to fashion, as Mao himself was both a statesman and a poet. Poets at the time used literature to commemorate him and the party; those who did not did so at their own peril.

One such poet was Guo Lusheng 郭路生, pen name Shi Zhi 食指 (meaning “index finger”). He was a forerunner of the underground literature movement in the 1960s and hailed as the founder of the New Poetry movement. Now, he resides in a mental institution in his parents’ home in Beijing as a chain-smoking, schizophrenic recluse.

Born in Shandong Province in 1948 during the Chinese Civil War, Guo had a natural proclivity for literature and a stubborn, independent mind, which put him at odds with the Red Guard and limited his career options in mainstream literary circles. He was labeled a “rightist student” for his bourgeois poetry and critical undertones, and blacklisted by the Communist Party.

Guo was initially enthusiastic about the Cultural Revolution for its revolutionary politics, but quickly became disillusioned as the movement cracked down on writers and scholars, academic institutions, literature and art. Around this time, Guo befriended other underground writers who, as children of the social elite, had rare access to foreign books and music, which introduced Guo to Western political and philosophical influences. Tragically, many of his friends, including the famous poets Zhang Langlang 张郎郎 and Guo Morou 郭沫若, were persecuted early on and suffered greatly during this period.

Guo was sent to work in a Shanxi farming village between 1968 and 1970, where he enjoyed a relatively happier time free of political strife and often read poetry to other exiled students. At the age of 23, Guo joined the People’s Liberation Army in hopes of getting his poems published, but became miserable and disconcerted in the oppressive environment, under constant surveillance and threat, and rued the disappearance of his scholarly friends. Though he was lucky to escape execution, his own traumatic experiences during this time led to long-term depression and suicidal tendencies later on in life.

After the Cultural Revolution, Guo wrote under the pseudonym Shi Zhi (index finger) and enjoyed a renewal of his earlier fame. Literary journals such as Today (今天 jīntiān) began to publish him. Some of Guo’s most well-known works during this period include “Beijing 4:08 PM,” “Three Songs on Fish,” and “Believe/Faith in the Future.” His poems were copied by hand and circulated widely among underground readers and writers, inspiring not only the generation of poets during his time but also the Misty Poets of the post-Mao era. Guo won the People’s Literature Prize for Poetry in 2001.

One can find an English translation of “Believe in the Future” (相信未来 xiāngxìn weìlái) here, written in 1968. At once despairing and hopeful, the poem reflects a tormented mind amidst a tumultuous time, grappling with an internal whirlwind of passion, sorrow, confusion, and perseverance.

I point to the waves billowing in the distance
I want to be the sea that holds the sun in its palm
Take hold of the beautiful warm pen of the dawn
And write with a child-like hand: Believe in the Future

Although Guo’s poems are not obscure and experimental in the style later established by the Misty Poets, they nonetheless outline a rebellion that is emotionally intense and timelessly relatable. At his own mental expense, Guo reclaimed the sincerity in traditional Chinese poetry and reminded a new generation of poets the importance of expressing unreserved thoughts and emotions.

We celebrated National Poetry Month by looking at Chinese poetry, past and present. Check out our series here.