Obituary: Ai Qing

Lee Ruru
Sunday 19 May 1996 23:02 BST

Ai Qing was a renowned poet who made a significant contribution to the new literary genre of "modern poetry" in China. This style, which was greatly influenced by Western literature, did not emerge until the second decade of the century.

In a career that spanned over 60 years, Ai Qing wrote prolifically, producing over 20 lyrical and narrative poems as well as 1,000 short poems and nearly 200 essays touching upon a broad range of topics from naturalist description to political activism, from empathy with China's poor and their harsh existence to celebration of the Communist cause. He was himself always a radical activist and later an ardent Communist.

Opinions about his poetry vary widely: seemingly welcomed by the masses, he was also severely criticised by the establishment and exiled for 20 years as a rightist. Some of China's young poets accused him of being a political puppet and blocking the way for other styles of poetry and younger poets. But he was held in great respect; as one factory worker once wrote to him: "I don't read much. But I like your poems. I understand what you say in them. I am always moved by your works."

Born Jiang Haicheng in 1910 into a landowning family in Zhejiang province, it was said of Ai Qing that he would be the bearer of misfortune because his mother had undergone a painfully long labour. He was sent away to be nursed, and brought up by a peasant woman so poor she had had to drown her own infant girl in the toilet in order to bring up a rich person's son.

The five years Ai Qing stayed with her had a great impact on his poetry, not only because his first widely acclaimed poem, "Da Yan He" ("My Nurse"), written in 1933, was about her, but also because he inherited from her the passion of a poor peasant for the land. This passion was so intense that it led him to the Maoist revolutionary cause.

Ai Qing had been studying fine art in Paris when the Japanese invasion of north-eastern China caused him to return home. But almost immediately after arriving back in Shanghai he was arrested by police in the French concession for involvement in the activities of the League of Left-wing Artists.

His three years in jail became another important turning-point in his career: he started to write poetry because he was unable to paint in prison. Nonetheless his knowledge of colour and light as well as his ability to catch images contributed tremendously to his writing.

Lines like the following from "Snow Falls on the Land": "The Wind / Like a grief- stricken old woman / Closely following behind / Stretching out her ice claws / Tugs at the travellers' clothes"; or from "Dawn Puts on her White Gown": "The green meadow / The green meadow / floating on it / the smoke as fresh as milk . . ." are typical of his genius for portraying nature and humanity, and contrast markedly with his more political works such as: "All policies must be carried out, / All unjust cases must be righted / Even those who are dead / Must be rehabilitated." (from "On Top of the Wave").

During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing eventually travelled to Yan'an, the capital of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin.

He visited many countries as an official delegate until 1958 when he was publicly denounced as a rightist; an article in Literature and Arts, an official literary journal, said of his writing: ". . . The more peculiar thing about these articles is that they are all counter-revolutionary, but were produced by writers who seemed to adopt a revolutionary attitude."

He was subsequently exiled first in the North-east of China, and then in the North-west. The reasons for his victimisation remain unclear however, as he was always a sincere Maoist. The depth of his suffering can be felt clearly in his poem "Fish Fossil", written upon his return to Beijing: "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 . . ."

Regardless of how one views Ai Qing's political stance and the political aspects of his later writing, his powers of description, depth of feeling and artistic passion mark him out as a poet of considerable presence. His works were indeliblymarked by the period of turmoil in which he lived, worked, loved, hated and survived, and as such are powerful expressions of the human spirit and hold a special place in modern Chinese poetry.

Jiang Haicheng (Ai Qing), poet: born Zhejiang province 27 March 1910; married (five sons, three daughters); died Beijing 5 May 1996.

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