Discover a new translation of the correspondence of author Wang Xiaobo by XINNING SHAO.
For a long time, my most conspicuous quirk was to watch people sleep: a stranger next to me nodding away on a train, a security guard on night shift, hand-on-chin, giving in to exhaustion, a friend snoring on a sofa amidst booming party music. They curl up and soften, like a wild cat that has finally decided to surrender her taut posture, her dignified stride. In their sleep, people exhibit a physical sense of trust. They are rendered somehow secure in their vulnerability.
I used to believe Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997) was an author who would never sleep (or, at least, would never let people watch him sleep), until I read the letters he wrote to his wife, Li Yinhe. Wang was born into a family of logicians. Two months before Wang’s birth, his father Wang Fangming, a renowned professor of logic, was identified as a dissident and persecuted. His mother named the newborn Xiaobo — “small wave” — hoping the family could ride the political turmoil just like that. But the New China’s societal frenzy carried Wang further along the unruly waters. After spending twelve years in a rural village in Yunnan as an “educated youth,” Wang came back utterly disillusioned with the sheer chaos produced by human irrationality. Partially due to this experience, Wang writes extensively about the absurdity plaguing the Chinese 1970s. He portrays real irrationality with feigned irrationality, his critical attitude masked by his apparent light-hearted humor and play on logic. Within Wang’s effortless irony, his eyes are wide open, taking in everything, silently judging.
In Wang’s correspondence with his wife Li Yinhe, however, his gaze softens. To Li, Wang is just “like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes: he shouts when he needs to.” Li was one of the few who appreciated Wang’s work before his sudden death and subsequent rise to posthumous literary fame. She was also the only one that saw, comforted, and brought out the child in Wang. Their first private meeting — which didn’t qualify as a “date” in the China of the seventies — was proposed by Wang around the pretense of returning to Li a Russian novel he’d borrowed from her (he lost it on the way to see her). Halfway through their chat about life and literature, Wang suddenly blurted out: “Do you have a boyfriend?” A little startled, Li said no. Wang then asked, rather innocently: “What about me? ” We don’t know how Li responded on the spot, but apparently, she thought it was an interesting idea. After four years of dating, the couple got married in 1980, the same year Wang made his lukewarmly received literary debut with Earth Forever. In 1984, Wang followed Li to the University of Pittsburgh: Li pursued a sociology PhD, while Wang studied Comparative Literature. They spent four years in the United States, traveling across the country before returning to China in 1988, both to teach at Peking University. In October 1996, Li Yinhe traveled to the University of Cambridge as a visiting scholar, and their brief embrace at the airport was the couple’s last meeting. Wang died of a heart attack in April the next year, alone in the couple’s apartment.
The collection of letters I’m translating was compiled by Li after Wang’s death. It dates from 1977 to 1980, the years when Wang was pursuing Li. In these letters, readers see Wang both as a learned liberal humanist and a young man passionately—sometimes almost childishly—in love. It is the natural synergy between Wang’s various identities that render his writing here particularly mesmerizing: we witness a thoughtfulness conveyed through forthright innocence. There’s a spontaneous, jazzy rhythm in his letters to Li. His tone is never formal, but an artistic sensibility is maintained throughout. Most strikingly, we catch a glimpse of Wang’s literary posture with his guard down, his piercing ironies retracted. From forceful social commentaries, Wang’s pen drifts to a more restful place. He speaks without defense, even though these letters are simultaneously personal and political — poignantly political, because they are meant to be personal. It is in Wang’s expressions of love that he manifests a fundamental, life-giving conviction in individual freedom, an adamant renunciation of top-down narratives. He is not in the posture of an armed-to-the-teeth warrior, but an unguarded lover, a literal humanist.
The one thing above all that I wish to convey in my translation is the grounded elegance in Wang’s expression of vulnerability. To this end, I tried to preserve Wang’s colloquial expressions and his whimsical turns of phrases by bringing readers closer to the author, rather than “foreignizing” Wang’s tone. That is, I sought to convey the lovely combination of playfulness, sincerity, and intelligence of Wang’s correspondence. However, I have kept the Chinese geographical and historical references as intact as possible to keep the couple rooted in the time and space that shaped their relationship. I hope these letters will appeal to readers’ intellects as well as to their emotions, to make them both think and feel about a topic as mundane and profound as love — how it thrives in time, how it resists time.Please don’t hesitate to contact me at email@example.com if you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions about my translation. I would love to hear from you, and I don’t mean this as a mere formality. In fact, you will be doing me a great favor in letting me know the unique ways you’ve engaged with my translation. Until then — thank you, and happy reading.
Love of a Poet
I didn’t realize until we parted ways that the whole process of loving you was completed in parting. That is, every time you walk away, the impression you leave on me makes my addled brain conjure up all the ways I might call out to you for the rest of time. For example, this time I keep thinking: Ah, Love, love. Please don’t blame me for this peculiar thought: Love, that is you.
When you’re not here, I see before me an ocean fogged over with gloom. I know you are on one of those islands out there, so I shout: “Ah, Love! Love!” And almost hear you respond: “Love.”
In the past, knights had to shout their war cries before entering combat. Knight of Sorrowful Countenance that I am,[i] how can I not have a war cry? So, with a silly air, I shout: “Ah, love, love.” Do you like people with a silly air? I’d like you to love me and like me.
Did you know? There was a road that knew me in the countryside. Once upon a time, clouds were as white as bulging fists in the deep azure sky, then down that road came an innocent, clumsy kid. He looked just like the photo I gave you. Then came a teenager, dark and thin. Then came a guy, tall and skinny and ugly, fatally slack in disposition, extraordinarily fond of fantasy. Then, after a few decades, he would never walk that road again. Did you like his story?
The following letters were written when Li was attending a meeting in southern China. Li was an editor at GuangMing newspaper, and Wang, a worker at a street factory in Xi Cheng district, Beijing.
Li Yinhe, Helloooo! Since you left, I’ve been rather gloomy, like Don Quixote longing for Dulcinea del Toboso every day. God forbid, I’m not making fun of you, and I’m definitely not comparing you to Dulcinea. I’m just saying I’m like that lovesick Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. Do you remember how Cervantes described our old man going through those trials and tribulations in the black mountains? That’s how ridiculous I am right now.
I’ve developed a new habit: every few days I need to tell you something that I wouldn’t say to anyone else. Of course, there’s more that I don’t tell you, but as long as I bring those thoughts to you, I’m satisfied when I leave, and they don’t bother me anymore. It’s weird, right? I torture others when I vent my odd ideas, but I torture myself when I don’t.
I think I should march on now. Someday I will try creating something beautiful. I will try every path until you come and say — “Forget it, Mr Wang. You can’t.” I feel hopeful, though, because I’ve gotten to know you — I really need to make some progress.
I’ve realized that I’d been a bit of a loser. Your dad wasn’t wrong at all. But I’m not anymore. I’ve got a conscience now. My conscience is you. Seriously.
I’ll remember what you said. I promise I’ll show you my true self one day. Why not now? Ah, the future me is going to be better. I’m already sure about that. Please forgive this bit of young man’s vanity, but don’t make me tell you my flaws. I’ll try to get rid of them on my own. I’m going to start improving myself. For you, I want to be the perfect man.
I’m afraid the weather in Hangzhou now isn’t very pleasant. I wish you a happy day in “paradise.”[ii] Please excuse my handwriting — which is as good as it gets.
Li Yinhe, helloooo! I concocted a “poem” today. For you. It’s not exactly presentable as a gift — I’m starting to feel very self-conscious now.
Today I feel especially dreary
I think about you
When darkness dawns
Walking with you on bright stars
When light falls onto the leaves
Walking on dancing light-shadows
When words linger on my lips
When I’m with you：
My comrade in arms
I think of you
When I step over all the drift
and declare war on the eternal
You are the flag of my army
When I was with you, I might have come across as pretty standoffish. I have a sort of split personality. I might be aloof and flippant, but only on the outside. It’s rather embarrassing to admit this. As to what’s on the inside? Naivety and goofiness. Aha, I realize that you never showed me your poems, either. You might have a split personality too, who knows? A fantastic conversation in Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion gets to the crux of the matter:
HIGGINS Doolittle, either you’re an honest man or a rogue.
DOOLITTLE A little of both, Henry, like the rest of us: a little of both.
Of course you are none of either. I admit that I’m a little of both: remove the “rogue” part and I become a moderately kind “honest man”; remove the “honest man” part and I become a cynical rogue who hurts people with words. To you, I’ll be an honest man. Hope you have a good day.
How Lonely is a Solitary Soul
I received your letter.
I think I get you now. You have a soul that’s whole, a bright, inspiring model. Beside it, mine seems a little dingy.
Let me answer your question. You already know my love for you is a little selfish. Really, who could have such a jewel and not want to hold on to it forever? I’m no different. I know very well how amazing your love is (and how hard it is to find such a thing!). How could I bear to let you go?
That said, there’s an overarching belief of mine, it’s my secret, I’ve never told anyone about it: namely, one can’t know oneself easily, because our senses are all turned outward, in a way that lets us see others but not ourselves. We can have the most sensitive perceptions of others, but only fuzzy ones of ourselves. One can control one’s thoughts, but as for the sources of those thoughts — who can control them? Someone might be able to write fantastic novels or music, but not be able to tell you the reason why he can write them. No matter how great or humble a man is, when it comes to his deepest, most intricate “self” — he remains oblivious. This “self” stays silent in most people, and so do they themselves. They repeat the same lives on and on, living today just like the day before. In other people, though, the “self” foams and seethes, bringing ceaseless suffering to its owner. What would you say drove the blind Milton to labor on and on at his poetry? Nothing other than the “self.” You see, many people have made promises about it. Undershaft says he’d sworn, when he was still hungry, that nothing could stop him except a bullet. But what happened after he became a rich guy? His heart went quiet, and he stopped caring.[iv]
As for me, I hope my “self” will never be silent, whatever suffering it brings me. We’re all alive right now, but soon, when we look back, our “self” will only once have been living. I would rather keep it foaming and seething until my very last second. I would never wish for my heart to grow quiet, never to stop caring. I know — life and death; these are supposed to be each person’s own business. No one can save another’s soul, and in fact how fantastic it would be if everyone had a ceaseless soul! I really wish my soul could be, as you said, a source, an inexorable one (of course that’s impossible). I wish for my “self” to sizzle forever, to toss and turn, like a drop of maltose on charcoal.
I hope there will never be a day when I feel I have had enough wisdom to get by, enough to tell right from wrong.
You already know I hope everyone has their own wisdom; you also know I believe people can only save themselves. That’s why I never want to seize souls that don’t belong to me. I only hope that our souls can interflow, like a shared body doubled in size. Do you know how lonely a solitary soul is, how much weakness humans carry (weakness that makes us weep) — and how much strength, how much warmth a soul like yours can impart? Open the gate to your soul, and let me in!
Based on such beliefs, I want absolute freedom for you. I want your soul to soar. Of course, if you were to fall in love with someone else someday, wouldn’t that darken my soul further? Aside from being jealous, wouldn’t it also declare that I’m doomed? If that day ever came, how could you still ask me to be in high spirits? No one would sing “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”[v] after realizing he’s doomed, so, I mean, your request is kind of too much. Nonetheless, from my currently rational point of view, you’d better leave me alone when that day comes. If I change my mind then, that would just be me being bad. Just walk away — don’t give it another thought.
I ask for only one thing: if that day does come and I’m still who I am today, don’t turn your back on me, stay friends with me, and be tender with me. Try not to hurt me.
I don’t like being quiet and just “living a life”. Neither do I like being shameless and clinging on to other people. As for marriage and that sort of thing, I don’t even think about it. I need nothing deemed necessary by worldly standards. To “love” or be “indebted” or whatever, that all seems pretty trivial. I only want you to be with me. I only hope for us to be together, without suspicion, without having to worship each other: we’ll live, just that. You’ll talk to me as if you were talking to yourself. I’ll talk to you as if I were talking to myself. Talk — talk to me, will you?
And yes, about joining the Party, I’m afraid that I won’t. If I want to join, I’ll have to do some … stuff. Well, anyway, in our factory,[vi] Party members are either fifty-ish old women with unbound feet, or little girls who like to make a fuss over everything. Neither category will be easy for me to fit into, especially because, I’m afraid, it’s fundamentally impossible to change genders. Talking this way sounds frivolous, but what I’m saying is completely true. I’ll stop talking because if not I’ll want to tell you something else — so, until next time.
I’ve been busy dealing with my midterm exams and waiting for you to return. How have you been? I saw you in my dreams a few times.
Beijing is getting really cold. It must be warmer down there in the south, right? Sometimes I wish we were migratory birds, so I could fly south with you when winter comes, or to a tiny island in the Southern Pacific.
If I were a composer, I could write a funeral march with overflowing inspiration right now. I’m miserable all day every day.
If you come back though, I’ll be happy right away. I’ll light a firecracker that rocks all of Beijing.
I heard from our teacher in class today that Wuxi is the highest-income rural town in China. Hmph, you guys are in a good place indeed. I bet you must have seen a lot of quaint little houses and fancy, wood-carved beds by now. Something much less pleasing awaits you when you go to Henan later.
Sooner or later China will drown in its sea of a rural population. I know some young people nowadays want changes, but they’re being, in my opinion, a little reckless, like rats in a sinking ship. They want revolutions to save themselves and everyone else. But the captains want everyone to stay on that sinking ship like loyal sailors. Alas, loyalty can’t save you from drowning. People say that China’s ecosystem has all been disrupted. Eventually the day will come when there’s no fish in the pond, no firewood in the stove, and all the soil will be salinized, and all Chinese people will have to pile up on top of each other.  There must be a change indeed.
Yinhe, I guess all this will only happen after we die. I love you, Yinhe, let’s live a happy life together! Yinhe, come back soon.
You’ll be back on Saturday, right? That is, only two days left. Ah, I’ve been waiting for that day for too long!
Your reply last time was really interesting. You spelled all the English words wrong — “Bye-bye,” “fool,” neither were correct — except “Party”. That’s pretty funny.
I’m drifting further and further away from the Party’s standards, Yinhe. Really, I’ve almost become a rebel. How do I put this? I’m more and more convinced that a mundane life, where everyone plays a role in this entire societal performance, will suck all the energy out of us. Every single thing we do is to fulfill a duty. Our personal values are already written out for us and carved in stone. Isn’t that pathetic — how little fun we can have being a person? No wonder some people would rather be a mad dog.
The most hideous thing of all is that one will then sink into a state of numbness. If everything you do has been done a million times by others, isn’t it nauseating? Let’s say you and I are a twenty-six-year-old man and woman, and by society’s standards, twenty-six-year-old men and women ought to do this and that. And so, we do this and that, leaving no stone unturned. What’s the point of being human then? It’s like licking a plate that a million people have already licked before. Disgusting to even think about.
These days, whenever I pick up my pen I want to write about people in love — arrogantly, self-sufficiently in love. This kind of love is anti-social. George Orwell was right, but his intuition was off. He thought it was just sexual drive. More often than not, “to love” is a basic sort of behavior of our fundamental selves, and we can only see people’s true colors when they love. All the rest they do is hollow, incapable of revealing anything. Perhaps it’s also because I’m too much of an imbecile to see it. Perhaps one day I’ll understand what human beings truly need. That is, what kind of life can we build for ourselves, away from that dusty societal order (the damned repetitions, the boring and pointless disruptions), away from any religious devotion. If a person could reach a state where there aren’t any constraints, no tinge of worry about anyone’s judgment — just look at how wild he could be! My guess is that he would experience a kind of ecstasy, but of course whether they could reach that state is a matter of talent, too. For love, people can do the most beautiful things, a million times better than what could be done by the loveless.
To think that you will be back soon — what wonderful news! I miss you so much it’s killing me now. Now the wait is finally over. I will be with you soon.
I haven’t been writing novels for a while, because of the exams. And I feel it’s pretty dangerous to write novels just now. We should be focusing on the “Dou, Pi, Gai”[vii] and purging remnants of capitalist elements from our society. If I keep writing and somehow else is creating my own thought system, wouldn’t I be imprisoned and shot? And I write poorly. I don’t have the necessary talent — I’ve regressed. Nobody in the entire world thought highly of my novels, except you.
I won’t write you letters anymore. I’ll tell you all about it when you come back.
[i] Wang calls himself “the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance” after Don Quixote on multiple occasions.
[ii] Likely referring to the idiom praising the heavenly beautiful scenery in Hangzhou and Suzhou: “There is Paradise above and Suzhou and Hangzhou below. (上有天堂，下有苏杭)”
[iii] Yinhe (银河) means “galaxy” in Chinese.
[iv] UNDERSHAFT “I was an east ender. I moralized and starved until one day I swore that I would be a fullfed free man at all costs—that nothing should stop me except a bullet.” (Major Barbara)
[v] Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman（大海航行靠舵手）is a Chinese revolutionary song that was commonly sung by the public during the Cultural Revolution in praise of Mao Zedong Thought.
[vi] Wang put “街道厂“ which most likely refers to, according to this article, 二龙路街道工厂（Er Long Street Factory) where Wang worked at during the Cultural Revolution. http://ny.zdline.cn/h5/article/detail.do?artId=37649 the name was omitted here due to a lack of precise record and to not disrupt the reading.
[vii] “斗Dou, 批Pi, 改Gai (To battle, to criticize, to change)” are the three main tasks of the Cultural Revolution proposed by Mao in 1966.
I would like to thank the following persons for their incredible literary sensibility and generosity: Professor Peter Cole, Spencer Lee-Lenfield, Baylina Pu, Elizabeth Raab, Adrienne Zhang, Eunsoo Hyun, Forrest LaPrade, Shi Wen Yeo, Adin Feder, Will Sutherland, Daevan Mangalmurti, Anne Northrup, and Grace Blaxill. Without these brilliant souls, this translation would have been impossible.