艾未未 + 艾青 : Ai Weiwei + Ai Qing: “Without movement there is no Life…We should use our energy to the fullest.”

ZP_Ai Weiwei_Grapes_2010

The retrospective exhibition Ai Weiwei: According to What? opens today at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada. Ai Weiwei (born 1957) is China’s most famous – or infamous – depending on your weltanschauung – contemporary artist. Currently without a passport and not permitted to leave China, Ai Weiwei has, with a team of energetic workers, fashioned bold sculptures from humble stools, bicycles, firewood, compacted tea leaves – even rusty lengths of rebar.

“Straight” consists of several thousand sections of rebar salvaged – then straightened out – from 2008 earthquake rubble of collapsed buildings that killed 5000 schoolchildren – a horrific event – combined with shoddy “tofu” architecture – that Chinese authorities tried to downplay but which Ai Weiwei sought to memorialize. David Jager, in the August 15th issue of Toronto’s NOW magazine, writes: “Every element of the sculpture, from process to material to final form [ an undulating moraine with a rift through it ] expresses Ai’s deep desire to reshape a hopelessly corrupt and tangled situation. Knowing that the bodies of the earthquake victims were once trapped within the sculptural material makes as visceral an impact as seeing a pile of shoes from Auschwitz. This is what art is supposed to do.”

Whether he is letting drop and smash a Han dynasty urn, or starring, with shaved head and red rosebud lips, in the “music video” Dumbass – about his 2011 jail experience – Ai Weiwei provokes us and respects our intelligence.


Ai Qing (pen name of Jiang Haicheng, 1910-1996) was Ai Weiwei’s father, and a notable poet of the Mao Zedong era in China. In his early 20s Ai Qing was imprisoned for two years for opposing the Kuomintang;   in 1957 he was sent to a hard-labour camp for criticizing his government in print;  he spent the next twenty-plus years emptying latrines and so forth as part of his “mental correction” for Wrong Thought under Mao.  We feature here a selection of Ai Qing’s poems…

.     .     .



A wall is like a knife

It slices a city in half

One half is on the east

The other half is on the west


How tall is this wall?

How thick is it?

How long is it?

Even if it were taller, thicker and longer

It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long

As China’s Great Wall

It is only a vestige of history

A nation’s wound

Nobody likes this wall


Three metres tall is nothing

Fifty centimetres thick is nothing

Forty-five kilometres long is nothing

Even a thousand times taller

Even a thousand times thicker

Even a thousand times longer

How could it block out

The clouds, wind, rain, and sunshine of the heavens?


And how could it block out

The currents of water and air?


And how could it block out

A billion people

Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?

Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?

Whose wishes are more infinite than time?




Wall_part 1_Ai QingWall_part 2_Ai Qing

.     .     .



One tree, another tree,

Each standing alone and erect.

The wind and air

Tell their distance apart.


But beneath the cover of earth

Their roots reach out

And at depths that cannot be seen

The roots of the trees intertwine.




Trees_Ai Qing

.     .     .

“Fish Fossil”


With such agility in your movements,

Such buoyancy in your strength,

You leapt in the foam

And swam in the sea.


Unfortunately, a volcano’s eruption

Or perhaps an earthquake

Cost you your freedom

And buried you in the silt.


After millions of years

Members of a geological team

Found you in a layer of rock

And you still look alive.


But you are now silent,

Without even a sigh.

Your scales and fins are whole

But you cannot move.


So absolutely motionless,

You have no reaction to the world.

You cannot see the water or the sky,

You cannot hear the sound of the waves.


Gazing at this fossil,

Even a fool can learn a lot:

Without movement

There is no life.


To live is to struggle

And advance in the struggle;

Even if death is not at our doorstep,

We should use our energy to the fullest.


Fish Fossil_part 1_Ai QingFish Fossil_part 2_Ai Qing

.     .     .



Dream’s friend

Illusion’s sister


Originally your shadow

Yet always in front of you


As formless as light

As restless as wind


Between you and her

She keeps her distance always


Like flying birds outside the window

Like floating clouds in the sky


Like butterflies by the river

She is sly and lovely


When you rise, she flies away

You ignore her, and she nudges you


She is always with you

To your dying breath.

.     .     .

ZP_Ai Qing_Hope_part 1ZP_Ai Qing_Hope_part 2

Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn

“Coal’s Reply”


Where do you live?


I live in ten thousand years of steep mountain

I live in ten thousand years of crag-rock


And your age?


My age is greater than the mountain’s

Greater than the crag-rock’s


How long have you been silenced?

Since the dinosaurs governed the earth

Since the earth felt its first tremor


Have you perished in this deep rancour and bitterness?


Death? No, no, I’m still alive

Please, give me a light, give me a light.




Coal's Reply_Ai Qing

.     .    .

Translations from the Chinese:  Chen Eoyang, Peng Wenlan, and Marilyn Chin

.     .     .     .     .

Bai Juyi’s “The Old Charcoal-Seller”

The Old Charcoal Seller

The Old Charcoal-Seller by Bai Juyi

The Old Charcoal-Seller by Bai Juyi

Bái Jūyì (772-846)

Mài Tàn Wēng

(Kǔ gōngshì yě.)


Mài tàn wēng,

Fá xīn shāo tàn nánshān zhōng,

Mǎn miàn chén huī yān huǒ sè,

Liǎng bìn cāngcāng shí zhǐ hēi.

Mài tàn dé qián hé suǒ yíng?

Shēn shàng yīshang kǒu zhōng shí.

Kělián shēn shàng yī zhèng dān,

Xīn yōu tàn jiàn yuàn tiān hán.

Yèlái chéng wài yì chí xuě,

Xiǎo jià tàn chē niǎn bīng zhé.

Niú kùn rén jī rì yǐ gāo,

Shì nán mén wài ní zhōng xiē.

Piānpiān liǎng jì lái shì shuí?

Huǎng yī shǐzhě bái shān ér.

Shǒu bǎ wénshū kǒu chēng chì,

Huí chē chì niú qiān xiàng běi.

Yì chē tàn, qiān yú jīn,

Gōngshǐ qū jiāng xī bù dé.

Bàn pǐ hóng shā yí zhàng níng,

Jì xiàng niú tóu chōng tàn zhí.


.     .     .

This poem appears here in Hanzi (Chinese logograms or characters) and then in Pinyin (Chinese characters in Latin script).  Following, “The Old Charcoal-Seller” as translated by Burton Watson in his Po Chu-I Selected Poems (Columbia University Press).  Watson is a scholar, just as is Frederick Turner (see Turner’s translation in the “Snow” post above), yet Watson’s translation of Bai Juyi’s evocative poem is markedly different…

.     .     .


Bai Juyi (772-846)

“The Old Charcoal-Seller”

(Lamenting Hardships Caused by the Palace Purchasing Procedure)


Old Charcoal-Seller,

cutting wood, making charcoal in the southern hills,

face soot-coloured, covered with dust and grime,

sidelocks grizzled, all ten fingers black,

peddling charcoal to get money – and what does it go for?

Clothes for the body, food for the mouth.

But – pitiful! – his body clad in one thin robe,

he worries how much his coal will bring, praying for cold weather.

Last night snow outside the city heaped up a foot deep;

at dawn he sets off in his cart, wheels crunching over frozen ruts.

Ox exhausted, driver hungry, sun already high,

they rest in the mud by the market’s south gate.

And who are these two horsemen arrogantly galloping by?

Yellow-robed palace attendant with his white-shirted lackey.

Hand waving a document, mouth barking out an order,

he turns the cart around, shouts at the ox, heads off north.

One whole load of charcoal, a thousand “catties”* and more,

but when palace attendants whisk it away, what good are regrets?

Half a roll of cheap red silk, a swatch of damask tied to the ox’s horn

– this their “full payment” for the charcoal!



* “catties” – 1 cattie equals about 500 grams

.     .     .     .     .

The New Year…and Crows!

Two poems by Yan Jun (born 1973)

January 2


I thought I wanted to say something

I looked at the snow   then went back to the desk


Or perhaps I counted money    or perhaps I did laundry

Crows flew in the suburbs     flew by the front door


I waited quietly

like a hotpot in winter


There won’t be any more discounted plane tickets

I waited to sacrifice myself    and then it was the new year




January 13


The new year’s bus

shines in the sunlight   the dust shines too


the crows have no eyes

iron’s leaves    the hearts inside of stones


last year   the year before   pale blue shoulders

slide toward the next wave





© Yan Jun

Translations: © 2010, 2011,

Ao Wang  and  Eleanor Goodman

Special Thanks to PIW




Editor’s note:

Yan Jun’s “new year” in these two poems

appears to be of the Western – not the

Lunar/Chinese – Calendar.  But we have

posted them this Chinese New Year’s Day

(January 23rd) so as to contrast them

with Mao Zedong’s poem “New Year’s Day”.



Contemporary Chinese poets: 2


Zhang Zao  (1962-2010)


The Chairs Sit out in the Winter . . .


The chairs sit out in the winter, all in all
three of them—coldness being muscle—
spaced out in a line,
terrified of logic. Among angels,
there are not three who could
sit themselves down in them, waiting for
the barber who skates across a river of ice, though
ahead is still a large mirror,
magpies tidying away small coins.

The wind’s weaving loom weaves the surroundings.
The Void is Lord, remote
he stands on the outskirts, exhaling warm air,
features painted heavily, counting the chairs:
without touching it, he could eliminate
that middle position,
if he were to transplant that chair on the left
all the way to the farthest right, forever—

Such an assassin at the heart of
the universe. Suddenly,
in among the three chairs, that unwarranted
fourth chair, the one and only,
also sits out in the winter. Just as it was that winter . . .
. . . I love you.






a letter opens, someone says:
the weather’s turned cold
another letter opens
it’s empty, empty
but heavier than the world
a letter opens
someone says: he sings at the tops of his lungs from the mountain
someone says: no, even if the potato died
the inertia living inside it
would still bring forth tiny hands

another letter opens
you sleep soundly as a tangerine
but someone, after peeling you of your nakedness, says:
he has touched another you
another letter opens
they’re all laughing out loud
everything around them guffaws endlessly
a letter opens
a cloud-natural, river-smooth style on the rampage outdoors
a letter opens
I chew over certain darknesses
another letter opens
a bright moon hung in the sky
after another letter opens, it shouts:
death is real.



© Estate of Zhang Zao

Translations:  © 2003, Simon Patton

Special Thanks to PIW


After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 Chinese poetry began to shift away from

the oratorical and inspirational toward the private – and the obscure.

From Hunan province,  Zhang Zao went in his own direction, mixing

Western and Chinese worldviews, and distributed his poems via photocopies.

He lived abroad for a number of years and taught himself several languages –

something that both widened and strengthened his Chinese-language poetry.

Mao Zedong: a January 9th poem…

Mao Zedong  (Mao Tse-tung)

A poem written January 9th, 1963

Reply to Comrade Guo Moruo

(to the tune of Man Jiang Hong)



On this tiny globe

A few flies dash themselves against the wall,

Humming without cease,

Sometimes shrilling,

Sometimes moaning.

Ants on the locust tree assume a great-nation swagger,

And mayflies lightly plot to topple the giant tree.

The west wind scatters leaves over Chang’an,

And the arrows are flying, twanging.

So many deeds cry out to be done,

And always urgently:

The world rolls on,

Time presses.

Ten thousand years are too long,

Seize the day, seize the hour !

The Four Seas are rising, clouds and waters raging,

The Five Continents are rocking, wind and thunder roaring.

Our force is irresistible,

Away with all the pests !


Mao Zedong: Winter Clouds…& so forth

Winter Clouds

– a lu shi



Winter clouds snow-laden, cotton fluff flying,

None or few the unfallen flowers.

Chill waves sweep through steep skies,

Yet earth’s gentle breath grows warm.

Only heroes can quell tigers and leopards

And wild bears never daunt the brave.

Plum blossoms welcome the whirling snow;

Small wonder flies freeze and perish.

Militia Women – Inscription on a Photograph

– a jue ju



How bright and brave they look,

shouldering five-foot rifles

On the parade ground lit up by

the first gleams of day.

China’s daughters have high-aspiring minds,

They love their battle array,

not silks and satins.

Guo Moruo’s Poem

On Seeing The Monkey Subdue The Demon

– a lu shi


Confounding humans and demons, right and wrong,

The monk was kind to foes and vicious to friends.

Endlessly he intoned “The Incantation of The Golden Hoop”,

And thrice he let the White Bone Demon escape.

The monk deserved to be torn limb from limb;

Plucking a hair means nothing to the wonder-worker.

All praise is due to such timely teaching,

Even the pig grew wiser than the fools.