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Tracing Trauma in Chinese Contemporary Poetry:

Xi Chuans* Childhood Revisited

Robert Tsaturyan
Department of Chinese Contemporary Literature, Renmin University of China, China
E-mail address: rtsaturyan@ruc.edu.cn

Key Words: Xi Chuan, Cultural trauma, History, Memory, Chinese contemporary poetry.

The Echoes of History

Poetry is the witness of our human catastrophes, it has always been. While consciousness is
represented in language - in the form of a novel, short story, essay, memoir, etc., poetry, on the
other hand, is written with numbed consciousness, or in other words, is written with the help of
the unconscious. Thus it has the freedom and power to uncover history, without being conscious
about it. But then a question arises. Who or what is the poet in relation to history? Is the poet
necessarily a witness and his/her poetry a testimony? In his famous essay, "What Is an Author?"
Michel Foucault writes, "A private letter may well have a signer-it does not have an author; a
contract may well have a guarantor - it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a
wall probably has an editor - but not an author. The author function is, therefore, characteristic of
the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society."1 A
question follows this statement. Does a poem has an author? Or more precisely, does a poem that
is in some sense a product of a historical turmoil, has an author? Or to what degree is the poet's
self-acceptance important in relation to the collective memory? Chinese Contemporary poetry,
which I roughly define in this essay as the poetry written since 1976 onward, is a special case. Its
special circumstance is not only due to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution but also the postCultural Revolution reality. A poet living and writing in a post-traumatic society, where memory
1 Foucault, Michel, What Is an Author?, Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, (New
York: The New Press) p.214.

is being erased at every step, poetry becomes silent resistance. As Paul Connerton puts it,
"Traumatised silences are painful and profound because a crucial feature of traumatic experience
is the element of delay.2 But this is not the resistance of a poet vs an empire, as in Osip
Mandelstam's case. But poetry here becomes a tool for remembrance, it is the memory itself, an
unerasable one. In this kind of extreme situations, poetry becomes more powerful than any other
kind of writing because it reflects the after-history or after-event in a way that only a close study
can reveal, while still leaving a large space for debate and puzzle the censors. By realizing this I
will make an attempt in this essay to show that Chinese Contemporary poetry is unable to
eliminate trauma. Indeed, there is mountainous work on the study of trauma already,3 and similar
studies on poetry may seem to have no empirical value. But conversely, the study and analysis of
poetry itself may have empirical value, as long as the researcher discovers a piece of history,
phenomenon or incident that supposedly influenced the poet writing the poem. In the case of
trauma, even more, the task is to excavate the psycho-cultural situation of the time and society
the poet lived. The poeticized history thus becomes the empirical value we are pursuing.
A difficult problem we now face is to trace trauma in poetry where trauma both exists and
doesn't. An even more complex question is to identify the exact traumatic event that is
represented in a certain poem of a certain poet. Without digging up the recent history of China, I
will try to bring several examples of poets and poems where trauma can be traced with the very
first glimpse of an eye. But before that, it is worth mentioning that the trauma I am talking about
is the cultural one. As Jeffrey C. Alexander writes, "Cultural trauma occurs when members of a
collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon
their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in
fundamental and irrevocable way."4 When a single event affects every single person in a country,
both mentally and physically, thus this becomes an archetype of cultural trauma. And what if the
2 Paul Connerton, The Spirit of Mourning: History, Memory and the Body, (New York,
Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.72.
3 Smelser, Neil J., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity: Psychological Trauma and
Cultural Trauma, (Berkley: University of California Press), p. 31.
4 Alexander, Jeffrey C., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity: Toward a Theory of
Cultural Trauma, (Berkley: Univerisity of California Press), p. 1.

event lasts years and even a decade? What if one's childhood is a traumatic event itself, or at
least coincided with the event happening at the country he/she grew up?

A Poet Writing Trauma

Xi Chuan was born in 1963, only three years before the start of the Cultural Revolution. In
other words, Xi Chuans childhood coincided with the Cultural Revolution. Neil J. Smelser
quotes Freud, noting that the traumas of childhood are all the more momentous because they
occur in times of incomplete development and are for that reason liable to have traumatic
effects. (Freud, 1963, 361) 5 For this reason, Xi Chuan is different from the underground writers
who wrote poetry even during the Cultural Revolution. (Bei Dao, Duo Duo, etc.) In the case of
Bei Dao for example, it can be argued that the traumatic experience of the Cultural Revolution is
less severe since his struggle was not with his childhood memories, but with having a free voice
as a young poet during the turmoil.
I rarely write about my childhood, Five times about childhood is about The Cultural
Revolution as well. Generally, when authors write about the Cultural Revolution, the writing
tends to become a persecution history of intellectuals and veteran cadres", says Xi Chuan, "
Until now, my writing hasn't solved, on a large scale, the question of the Cultural Revolution, I
may do it in the future, but at present, I write about the more distant history."6
A case study - a close analysis of Xi Chuans one single poem called Written at Thirty*,
written on the 24th of June, 1993, on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival - will indicate that, for
Xi Chuan, writing childhood means writing trauma, writing trauma means a step towards solving
it. A man of thirty naturally divides his life into three decades, the act of recalling then occurs;
my first, second and third decades. To come up with terms with his traumatised childhood Xi
5 Smelser, Neil J., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity: Psychological Trauma and
Cultural Trauma, (Berkley: University of California Press), p. ???
6 Chuan Xi, My poetry becomes more and more blunt, (China Reading Weekly, N.
11, December 2013). 2013 12
11 11 Retrieved from http://epaper.gmw.cn/zhdsb/html/201312/11/nw.D110000zhdsb_20131211_1-11.htm

Chuan creates his own monument, a memorial conveying the idea of remembering while
In the opening lines he writes:

in my first decade

the moon revealed its silent craters

while under that moon, in the town I lived in

a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street

my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
careless I met with a white rooster's kiss
and a girl pulled down her pants in front of

Who is the addressee here? We can argue that it is the poet himself - his other self talking to
him from the distance separated by years. Thus we need to find the poems energy instead of
the poets energy; what is chilling about the opening lines is the contradiction between the
moon revealing its silent craters and the reality under it. Two opposing realities where there is a
sharp contradiction between what is dreamed (promised) and what really happens. A child may
take any promise for granted, but a child never misses any detail that contradicts the reality. By
being skeptical on the identity of the addressee, there is a need also to doubt the nature of the
individuals in the poem. Does Xi Chuan has or had a limping uncle? This is the least important
question in the poem, as it may as well denote the collective uncle, the collective spirit of elderly
men shouting and swearing and exorcising; an act of defiance in helpless situations. The
connotations behind the rooster's kiss and the girl's accidental seductive act (or not at all) are
more ambiguous as they follow each other. A careless encounter with someone's kiss and or with
the following event of a girl pulling down her pants may all go along perfectly well with our
nature, but since the speaker is in his first decade, then all these experiences are supposedly his
first ones. Any kind of first time experience can have shocking or traumatic effect if occurred too
early, at an age when the person experiencing it has no idea and never thought that something
like that could exist. That's the reality the speaker grew up in, not fully prepared, not fully

comprehended, not fully expected but experienced. A silent suffering which does not even have
the privilege to be claimed, because the receiver is not aware of the trauma experiencing. That is
just the world there is, and seems a second one doesn't exist. You may feel horror is the most
natural thing when everyone else around you is experiencing it. This may not reduce the amount
of trauma, but it may numb your consciousness. Though it will always escort as a memory,
which can only be expressed with ambiguous words, just as the event itself. By misreading at
first sight in a non-ambiguous way, I attempt to give the poem a unique poetic quality by being a
traumatized reader, in case the poet is not. So there may be innumerous divergences among
critics on these questions, first of all, because Xi Chuan is an elusive poet, and the simpler his
language is the more elusive he becomes. One of the most vivid symptoms of a psychological
trauma is that it makes the victim un-understandable and strange, from this point of view, every
poet is traumatised. Therefore we need to link the poet to history, if on an empirical basis, where
possible, we want to find the origin of his/her trauma.
Lets look at the second part of the first decade:

I ran into a suicide's shade on the stairs

and was instructed: do not be scared

my father lifted me over his head

hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to

the commune
I entered an immaculate school and
studied revolution

At this point, we have to ask ourselves the old question, "What is literature"? As there is a
danger to misread this poem and underrate its literary value at the expense of representing it in
the context of a historical event. While realizing this I also realize that at present this is the only
empirical method to demystify poetry at this specific society, where memory and trauma are
being alienated every day, as if they exist in a kind of non-existent way, while poetry gives us the
possibility to almost touch it physically. Though a literary work, poetry especially, does not have
the function and responsibility to reflect the social reality or historical facts, it has though a
possibility to maintain all those details under its emotive words and their forms. Out of many

answers, Terry Eagleton provides us one on the above-mentioned question, "Norms and
deviations shift around from one social or historical context to another that poetry depends on
where you happen to be standing at the time.7 Not in the remote past people living during the
Cultural Revolution were going through a so-called suicidal event, which would certainly be
incomprehensible for children in a frightening way, but since they didn't have a right to be
frightened, it thus became part of a normal' life. A suicide here may as well point out the
spiritual / mental sacrifice people were forced to do. A way of personalizing social and collective
trauma we have the image of the father in the poem, an evidence of the pains intimacy, in other
words, it includes all and every one. Entering an immaculate school and studying
revolution read on the historical context seems too easy to unread; in order to avoid
simplification we would rather read it not as an ironical tool but an utterance of hope, by
contrasting (or just putting side by side) cleanness and revolution, two concepts eternally
contradicting but also complementing each other. It is important to pay attention to the time and
spirit of the history, in parallel with the critic's time of writing.
Lets look at the poems second part that is the second decade, which embodies the whole
experience of physical and psychological development: puberty.
The first part of the second decade reads:

together we scorned difficulty, together fell in love


violence and moonlight

a tiger appeared at my door

I smelled the scent of flesh

I bunny-hopped to a stranger's doorway

and saw a man and woman preparing their festive

in my second decade


with working crickets of all countries I grew up

While talking about the translating process of "Written at Thirty" Lucas Klein explains that the
line in the original which reads: ", he has translated as: with
7 Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing,
1996), p.5.

working crickets of all countries I grew up in order to, in a sense appeal The Communist
Manifesto 8The translator has done a perfect job here in showing, half sarcastically half not, how
and in what circumstances the speaker of the poem grew up. It will certainly be too nave to
think that the speaker grew up in a world where all the workers enjoyed the just and real fruits of
their work. But for a teenager in his second decade, that was probably a dream so real and so
unaccomplished. The pitch of this poem is certainly not a high-sounding one, the reader even has
a feeling of reading a diary of a melancholic, if we make an essayization* attempt for a moment.
The poem is evidently not shouting, but at the same time it has an inner-shouting energy, a kind
of power that similar to the free mind of a prisoner, expressions like all countries ,
violence and moonlight , a tiger , the scent of flesh
- they all transcend the routine of a normal life in a country where everyone is busy with its
own business. One can feel that the social structure is upside down here, where violence and
moonlight stand next to each other like an oxymoron at its initial place. But despite the upsidedownness of the social structure, people still live and fall in love, prepare for festivals and
probably sing songs around tables full of wine. The childhood of the speaker, in other words, is
not nonexistent but is a mixture of reality and illusion, hope and disappointment. The pace of the
first and second decades, and of the whole poem is slow, which creates, in combination with the
texture, a picture of history walking towards the present day, lethargic yet active, dreamlike yet
Look at the second part of the second decade:

I stole, and others stole too

I set fire to sparrows, and others did too

such is life, but I had an outstanding gift

for painting ideals of mountain landscapes

without too many sins requiring forgiveness

some doors shut, some doors were yet to open

In an article published by The New York Times on October 3, 2016, Tibetan poet Tsering
Woeser tells the story of a monk who she had interviewed before, the former monk turned into a
8 Klein Lucas, Lucas Klein on Xi Chuan and translating Written at Thirty, (Poetry
Society of America), Retrieved from:

Red Guard and who had smashed Buddhist stupas and burned scriptures during the Cultural
Revolution.9 This is a psychological phenomenon, following the masses in critical situations and
becoming the member of the crowd; for which reason one needs to act in accordance with the
crowd to be accepted as part of. This is a how big riots are originated, very often the
dissatisfaction of a small group eventually becomes the core of a mass protest or even a
revolution. Why would a monk act in accordance with Mao Zedongs The Four Olds? This
kind of deindividuation may happen to any conscious person found itself in the middle of a
historical turmoil. But Xi Chuan meticulously identifies here that in spite of following the crowd,
he had an outstanding gift. This is a process of de-deindividuation. The act of the monk is not a
sin in its purest sense, and he, together with other deindividuals doesnt ask for forgiveness. We
learn that the man volunteered later to be a janitor at the Jokhtag Temple and worked there for 17
years.10 Xi Chuan concludes his second decade with a beautifully hopeful line some doors
shut, some doors were yet to open. This could
perfectly be the closing line of the second stanza, but it is the opening line of the third one, which
represents a new hope for the future.
Thirty years of life eventually terminate in the poems last part:

how can you doubt both yourself and the world at once?

you can't stop the rain, can't get a bird to land in your hand

thought's like a knife, a flick of the blade

drenches my spirit in sweat

I drive out thirty contentious philosophers

and say to the shadow who guards me, I'm sorry

salty sweat, salty tears, what else is flesh supposed to taste


night is like a display of identical rooms

I walk through, pacing

back and forth as if it were all one room. Morning to night

my worries for the future prove I'm ill at ease

the earth is in motion but I have yet to sense it

9 Siling, Luo, The Cultural Revolution in Tibet: A Photographic Record, (The New York
Times, Oct. 3, 2016), Retrieved from:
10 Ibid.

Thirty is the age of both confidence and doubt, and he starts the third decade with a question
how can you doubt both yourself and the world at once?' a beautiful line encompassing the
whole power a citizen of China would feel in the 1990s. "History made myself be at loss in the
year 1989", says Xi Chuan, " later, in the mid-1990s, poets became very much marginal. So
you got more freedom but, meanwhile, you were marginal, nobody cared about you"11 This
can be a tragedy for a poet, but tragedies for poets are too common, in many cases a form of life.
The lines following almost show us the dramatic shift, the tension in the society, all in one
person. One can almost sense the whole mood of terror and at the same time yet not extinguished
hope. A period of rapid transformation, while one wonders to the right or wrong direction? I
have yet to sense it says Xi Chuan. Thus I am thirty in China. Is it the end of the repressed
history? Cathy Caruth developing her arguments on the writings of Freud and Derrida,
beautifully notices that traumatic memory totters between remembrance and erasure,
producing a history that is, in its very events, a kind of inscription of the past; but also a history
constituted by the erasure of its traces.12 The poet here, also, trapped in the middle of
remembrance and erasure, with his own shattered words tries to make a memorial, which will
stand for those who want to remember and will comfort those who want to put a flower and
proudly walk away. Even if passionately tried to erase the memory, history forcefully invades.*
Even though Xi Chuan is a so-called "nave witness" of the Cultural Revolution, since being a
child and not having seen much else he could not quite comprehend what was going on, let alone
be conscious of living through a turmoil. His trauma, thus, represented in his poetry, is the
representation of an everyday desire at a night's dream - an unsolved question, a repressed

11 Chuan Xi, Doubting Yourself and the World at Once, (New Delhi: A transcript of Xi
Chuan's talk at the seventh edition of the Almost Island Dialogues, 19-22 December
2013). Retrieved from:
12 Caruth, Cathy, Trauma in Contemporary Literature: Narrative and
Representation, After the End: Psychoanalysis in the ashes of History (New York:
Routledge, 2014) p. 20.

Written at Thirty is Xi Chuans personal museum of the Cultural Revolution, and his
childhood is where the museum is located at.

1. Xi Chuanwas born in Jiangsu province, in 1963.
2. Written at Thirty is translated by Lucas Klein. Retrieved from:

The original poem can be found in: 1985-2012

2013 37
3. For the idea of essayization of poetry I am indebted to Joanna Krenz from Leiden
University and to her unfinished doctoral dissertation.
4. For the idea of Forcefully invading history and many other inspirational discussions
I am indebted to my professor at Renmin University of China, Sun Minle.
Faucault, M. (1987). What is an Author?, Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. New York: The
New Press.
Connerton, P. (2011). The Spirit of Mourning: History, Memory and the Body. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Smelser, N. J. (2004). Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity: Psychological Trauma and
Cultural Trauma. Berkley, University of California Press.
Alexander, J. C. (2004). Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity: Toward a Theory of Cultural
Trauma. Berkley, University of California Press.
Xi, C. (2013). My poetry becomes more and more blunt. China Reading Weekly, N. 11.
2013 12 11 11

Eagleton, T. (1996). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Klein L. Lucas Klein on Xi Chuan and translating Written at Thirty. Poetry Society of
Luo, S. (2016). The Cultural Revolution in Tibet: A Photographic Record. The New York Times.
Xi, C. (2013). Doubting Yourself and the World at Once. New Delhi. Retrieved from:
Caruth, C. (2014). Trauma in Contemporary Literature: Narrative and Representation, After the
End: Psychoanalysis in the ashes of History. New York: Routledge.