SKIP TO MAIN CONTENT

Introducing Zheng Chaolin

by Tom Gann, josie sparrow / August 25, 2020

Image via the Chinese Marxist Library

Bad New Times | Books  }
Tom and josie consider the relationship between Zheng Chaolin’s life, his politics, and his poetry. 6059 words / 24 min read

We are very grateful to Verso for allowing us to publish these two poems by “the father of Chinese Trotskyism” Zheng Chaolin (1901-98).1 Born to a declining landlord family in Fujian, Zheng Chaolin may hold the record for being the longest serving political prisoner in history, spending 34 years – one more than Blanqui - in jail both under the Guomindang (GMD) and the CCP. Growing up in Fujian, Zheng was almost entirely cut off from anything like a national culture, in his memoirs An Oppositionist for Life, he recounts how no newspapers from Beijing or Shanghai were available, and those from Fuzhou, the provincial capital were limited and days late. As he recounts, Zheng encountered the May 4th anti-imperialist cultural movement only through an “old gentlemen” sighing about Beijing students “beating people, burning houses and boycotting lectures”, with no sense of the content behind this.2 Having graduated from middle school, Zheng recounts how “I became unaccountably depressed. I wanted to quit the narrow cage of Zhangping, even of Fujian.” With his father unable to support Zheng moving to Beijing to study, the opportunity presented itself in 1919 to go to France on a work-study programme, controlled in Fujian by the anarchist warlord Chen Jiongming, intended through training in radical and scientific thinking and proletarian experience to create a revolutionary political yeast for China – this yeast included not only Zheng but also Deng Xiaoping (Zhou Enlai also travelled to France and knew Zheng, but he went as a journalist, not on a work-study programme).

Zheng describes in Oppositionist for Life, how it was the journey to France that “sealed my fate. I experienced my personal May 4th aboard that packet steamer.”3 On the boat Zheng had his first extended contact with students from the rest of China from whom he learnt a great deal from simply listening, he also encountered a range of magazines and newspapers, reading Chen Duxiu, some of whose poetry is also collected in Poets of the Chinese Revolution, leader of the May 4th movement, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and later moral and intellectual leader of Chinese Trotskyism, for the first time, although at this point, Zheng “loudly cursed” Chen for his critique of Confucius.4

Several months later, however, Zheng had reversed his view of Chen’s critique of Confucius, he had come to “complete acceptance of his views.”5 Soon after, having entered into factory work, and “descend[ing] from ‘the petty bourgeoisie’ into ‘the proletariat’…I stopped thinking like a democrat and started thinking like a socialist, and I even started acting as a socialist.”6 The speed of this assimilation of socialist perspectives, informed Zheng’s thought on the revolutionary process more generally, and seems to have been a crucial basis for his rejection of Enlightenment and Stalinist stageist conceptions:

is a long period of capitalist democracy necessary to get from Chinese society with its ‘feudal remnants’ to socialism? This is still a controversial question. As for me, I personally got from feudal ideology to socialist ideology without a ‘long and stable’ intervening stage of bourgeois ideology. The same is true of the collective awakening of Chinese consciousness – at least its main current in the May Fourth era. Like me it skipped the ‘long and stable’ period of bourgeois democratic ideology.7

Zheng’s experiences in France, moreover, led him to reject the stageist model which presumed the need for a Chinese adaptation to a teleogy defined by the European experience:

in China new thought was in its heyday. Students everywhere were challenging established authority and their unions were even taking on the day to day administration of the schools…Li Shizeng’s people had settled on France as the future model of China’s development. But what about the France we saw around us? Solemly pacing Catholic priests…the students viewed the principal and the housemaster as mice view cats; they had not the slightest notion of how the run a movement, and never talked about resistance, revolution, socialism, atheism, anarchism…Could it be that France had not yet had its May Fourth?8

Nevertheless, Zheng was the first Chinese student to make contact with French socialists. In 1922 Zheng was involved in setting up a Communist youth organisation in France along with Zhou Enlai.

In 1923, along with a number of comrades, Zheng went to study in Moscow, the split between Stalin and Trotsky was already registering among students, including among the body of Chinese students. Zheng’s “most abiding memory” of Moscow was its intellectual uselessness:

what theoretical research did we do? We did none. Most of the time was given over to ‘individual criticism’. The criticism was never about specific issues but abstract psychological attitudes: you’re too individualistic, you’re too arrogant, you’re too petty bourgeois, you have anarchist tendencies, and so on. The ones who were criticised would think up similar criticisms to hurl back against their critics. The result was that everyone would end up blushing and seeds of hatred were sown in people’s hearts.9

The other striking feature of Zheng’s recollections of Moscow is the fate of the group who travelled with him, and from this the clear bravery of anyone who chose to be a Chinese Communist militant, “we were to live to life of revolutionaries. Ahead lay struggle, insurrection, revolution, jail, bloodshed, sacrifice”. Of his group of twelve, seven were definitely dead by 1928, six executed and one dead of Cholera on the Northern Expedition, three Zheng knew nothing of in 1945 though two definitely survived the 1924-31 revolutionary period, only one had abandoned revolutionary struggle, and the remaining militant, Zheng himself, was to become one of history’s longest serving political prisoners.10

Of his group of twelve, 7 were dead by 1928, 3 Zheng knew nothing of, only 1 had abandoned revolutionary struggle, & Zheng himself was to become one of history’s longest serving political prisoners.

In 1924, with the revolution building, Zheng returned to China, where he worked editing and writing for party journals. Particularly in Shanghai, where Zheng was working, China felt “on the brink of a revolution”, particularly given how “a new force was emerging that China had never before known: a modern proletariat…even more important, China already had a proletarian political party. The Chinese Communist Party.”11 It is perhaps worth noting here how China’s uneven and barely, if at all, combined, development produced a motley economic structure: on the one hand clearly enclaves, notably Shanghai and Guangzhou incorporated into global capitalism, and structured to a significant extent by class struggle of a militant and largely binary sort, on the other, the overdetermined contradictions of the rest of China. Whilst urban contradictions shaped Chinese Trotskyism and gave it considerable political potential, in the long run the failed attempt to generalise them were to wreck it – alongside the practical problems of an exclusively urban and under militarised form of politics under conditions of essentially colonial repression (including in the urban centres).

However, the Comintern line, imposed on the CCP, and “imposed” feels like the correct interpretation, even if explicit dissent was rare early on, was for the CCP to ally with the GMD. As Zheng argues, this alliance, with Communists in a subordinate role to bring about the “national revolution”, or for China to go through a “bourgeois-democratic revolution” as a stage that would eventually make Communism possible, represented a significant regression from the original position of the CCP:

at the time of its founding the CCP naturally took as its banner proletarian-socialist revolution…Had anyone said at that time that China first needed to go through a bourgeois-democratic revolution before carrying out proletarian-socialist revolution, so the Guomindang should be revived and the Communists should join that ‘revolutionary organisation’ and lead it, they would have been laughed at.12

Here, of course, Zheng’s position mirrors his own experience and interpretation of it, as to his own ability to rapidly assimilate socialist culture and values without the intervening stage and also includes a related judgement as to the instability and relative insignificance of bourgeois-democratic culture along Western, particularly French, lines in China. It also relates to his important insight that the emerging Chinese bourgeosie were structurally incapable of producing a stable ideology because of the lateness of Chinese capitalism and its subordination within an imperialist system – with the result of an effort to “seek the help of feudal notions.” As Zheng notes, the question here is precisely not of “feudal vestiges” but of the result of the blockage on a form of bourgeois modernisation.13

The stageist/subordinate position of the CCP was not, however, a purely or even predominantly theoretical error, it was rooted, as Zheng points out in the interests of the Soviet Union and particularly Stalinism in the Soviet Union, “Russian diplomatic interests required a government in China like Kemal’s in Turkey, so Russian diplomats needed the Comintern and its Chinese section to do its utmost to make this come about.”14 This shift in line and strategy, unsurprisingly boosted the GMD and dampened down labour agitation and demoralised the labour movement.

During 1924 the alliance and the marginalisation of socialist perspectives also limited theoretical and political education work – a tendency in part reversed by the impact of Zheng’s 1925 translation of Bukharin’s ABC of Communism, work he undertook as the ebbing of the revolution gave him the time to do so and the Party print shop capacity as fewer leaflets were required. Zheng’s translation was the second best selling book in Shanghai, and crucially its influence spread out to towns and villiages. As Zheng recounts,

Few people have noticed the significance of the abc in the revolution of 1925 to 1927 – namely, that it was the only book that told people what communism really was about. The awakening masses of the towns and villages had a great thirst for knowledge. They wanted to know where the revolution was taking them, but they could find no satisfactory answer in Guomindang propaganda, even when compiled by Communists…these publications simply said that ‘We are going to overthrow imperialism, we are going to overthrow the warlords’. Was that all the Communists were after? Was that what the word ‘communism’ meant? When the ABC was finally published, people at long last discovered that the Communist Party was out to abolish the system of private property, that it wanted ‘communal ownership’, and that the revolution was the necessary product of objective developments, that it was inevitable. Thereafter, workers and peasants plunged into the daily struggle, which was against only the imperialists and the warlords, with this final goal in mind. Later, the Hunan peasants went even further than the party leaders in promoting land revolution, and at the 7 August Conference and thereafter, the Party took its ‘semi-Trotskyist’ leap. These developments, too, were not unconnected with the appearance in Chinese of the ABC, which sowed seeds of revolution across the whole of China.15

On April 12th, the GMD turned on their erstwhile Communist allies in Shanghai (with British and French support), Guangzhou and Changsa, killing at the very least 3,000 and quite possibly more than 10,000. This led to a short-lived split in the GMD, with the CCP maintaining an alliance with the GMD “left” in Wuhan. In May the Wuhan GMD attacked Communists and peasants. Soon after the “left” of the GMD disintegrated, with the GMD right under Chiang Kai-Shek significantly strengthened by the support of the Chinese bourgeoisie and foreign capital following the massacre. It is possible that in the year following April 1927, up to 300,000 were killed in the GMD’s anti-communist extermination campaign.

The defeat in 1927, vindicated the left critique of stageism and the national revolution line. It also boosted Trotsky’s reputation within Chinese Communism given his critique of the submission of Communists to the GMD.

Trotsky later claimed to have been advocating this position as early as 1923, Benton argues “documents in the Soviet and Comintern archives suggest that the earliest indisputable challenge by Trotsky (and Zinoviev) to the official line was probably on 1 April 1926.”16 Trotsky’s crucial and serious analysis is in “Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution”, April 1927. The vindication of the left critique and of Trotsky’s line as well as the decisive role he gives to peasant struggles formed the major basis for the semi-Trotskyists leap of August 1927. It is worth noting at this point Stalin’s own suspcions that Mao was a Trotskyist.17

Indeed, much of the Western historiography of Maoism, trapped in a political formalism on the one hand (Stalinism is personality cults, parades, the “cult of personality”, purges, abrupt switches of political direction, Maoism included these therefore Maoism is a variety of Stalinism) and a Eurocentrism, which centres the switches in Comintern positions in the 1930s and the held to be “sensible” if belated adoption of the popular front strategy then, not the disaster of the experience of class collaborationism and alliance in China in the 1920s, misses the extent of Mao’s own break with Stalinism and, indeed, the increasing independence of the CCP in the 1930s.18 Much more than anything formalist, the CCP line remained decisively different from the Comintern from the inception of the “semi-Trotskyist line” in the rejection of the linked stageism and alliance with the bourgeoisie. This is also necessary for understanding of the Sino-Soviet split, where the Maoist line was to reject “peaceful coexistence” as something like stageism and alliance on the global level. One can, of course, bend the stick too far, Mao did have Zheng and other Chinese Trotskyists imprisoned for decades, of course.

Also crucial to our understanding of Zheng’s poetry is, in the revolutionary period, and particularly in 1927 his sensitivity to the question of the ebb and flow of the revolutionary tide, and unlike various complacent optimists, his willingness to acknowledge defeat, Zheng describes an incident, at once comic and indicative of serious limits, including, again, around the dampening of theoretical work,

Our thinking was in such a shambles that even I, the editor of the party journal, was unclear about what to write. I wrote an article for the inaugural issue of Bolshevik roughly titled ‘What Should We Do Now the National Revolution Has Been Defeated?’ The article’s contents are clearly stated in the title. I argued that, since the Revolution had already been defeated, we would have to start again from scratch. After the article had appeared, a circular arrived from the Central Committee that seemed to say that the Revolution had not been defeated, that on the contrary, it had advanced to a new stage, and that we were now even closer to victory. I waited for a letter from the Central Committee or some other comrade opposing my article, but none came. The issue was never broached, and no one even drew attention to the fact that there was a contradiction between an article in the party journal and a circular of the Central Committee. Everyone was so caught up in the organisational struggle that they slighted thought and theory, so no one even noticed the contradiction!19

Despite the “semi-Trotksyist turn” of 1927, the influence of Comintern at least against official Trotskyists (or perhaps because, who needs genuine Trotskyists after assimilating what is useful in Trotskyism?) quickly became re-established and in 1929 Zheng and other Trotskyists were expelled from the Party. Trotskyism, however, emerged as a serious and increasingly cohered tendency, and Zheng was one of the leaders of the Chinese Left Opposition and central to the formation of the Chinese Trotskyist Opposition in 1931. Benton argues at this point the prospects for Chinese Trotskyism, “freshly united under the party’s founding father [Chen Duxiu] and [with] an explanation for the defeats” were relatively bright.20 However, their lack of resources coupled with their entirely urban basis making them extremely vulnerable to arrest proved catastrophic, soon after the founding congress Zheng was imprisioned (for the first time), having been arrested with the aid of British police. In prison Zheng was able to undertake translation work, alongside various other intellectuals who he taught German and French and helped with their translations. Zheng’s speed at translation meant he earnt a good amount of money, which as Lou Shiyi recounts, Zheng with the help of his heroic wife Liu Jingzhen used to support prisoners “whose distress was greater and who received no assistance from outside. He did this regardless of their political views, and did not even know some of the people he helped.”21

The imprisonment of the Chinese Trotskyists cut them off from influence, with the CCP by 1937 when Zheng and other Trotskyists were released able to develop a strategy for the war. 1938 saw an anti-Trotskyist campaign under Wang Ming, whose main target was Mao and the rest of the non-Trotskyist left in the CCP rather than the already marginalised and defeated Trotskyists. The defeat of this campaign, essentially secured the independence of the CCP. Zheng attempted to initiate political activity during the war without success, though in this period and “under conditions of extreme difficulty”, he translated Trotsky’s _History of the Russian Revolution.22

Whilst given the weakness of Chinese Trotskyism, the question is in many ways academic, they got 1949 profoundly wrong, centring of urban insurrection and the proletariat, in some ways regressing from their and Trotsky’s affording of a decisive role to the peasantry, albeit one viewed strictly through a reductive version of direct class struggle, over Mao’s “encircling the cities from the countryside.” Perhaps in this sense, the model of permanent revolution did remain essentially an acceleration of a still essentially Eurocentric pattern (one rooted in the social basis of Chinese Trotskyism in the cities and industrial sectors that were incorporated into global capitalism), perhaps here, for all the ironies, of Zheng’s poem, we can find a distinction between the permanent revolution and the revolution without breaks or interruptions. The position of Chuang( on the contradictions feels correct and illuminating:

The Party’s new populism developed out of the social contradictions produced over the preceding decades by the uneven subsumption of the rural sphere within global capitalism. These conditions helped to create two contradictory political tendencies: a politics of class struggle, which responded to increased rural inequality and the gentry’s tightening control over rural surplus and markets, and a politics of national unity, which faced foreign invasion, imperialism, and subservience to foreign powers. While there were many moments of sharp class antagonism that played out during the revolution, the politics of national unity dominated in the revolutionary and much of the post-revolutionary periods. In this sense, the conditions of CCP politics mirrored that of the GMD, with its focus on national unity, although the CCP was better able to bridge the contradiction between these two politics with the concept of “the people.” A focus on national unity was incomplete and one sided. “The people,” by contrast, was defined neither solely by national citizenship nor by one’s class. Instead, one’s subjective stance towards the revolution placed one within or outside of “the people.

Chinese Trotskyism had been able to articulate, and, even in the effects of Zheng’s Bukharin translation, articulate to parts of the peasantry, the politics of class struggle, but it could never articulate this with the anti-imperialist struggle (and this was reflected in the practical circumstances that saw it destroyed).

Despite appeals from old comrades to join the new government, Zheng remained outside and in December 1952 was arrested along with a thousand other Trotskyists and their families. He would spend the next 27 years in prison.

In prison, as well as the poems, including “A Revolution without breaks or interruptions” which have been preserved due to Zheng’s prodigious memory – and to some extent the help offered by “strict rhyme schemes and regular metres of classical Chinese poetry”, particularly the Ci, “written in strict, pre-defined rhythmic and tonal patterns with a set number of lines that vary in length, each comprising a set number of characters”,23, Zheng wrote theoretical works on cadreism, on Mao’s thought and on Stalin’s account of Leninism, all of which were destroyed.24 Zheng’s serenity was often remarked upon, and Benton mentions a photograph of Zheng and Liu, taken just before their release – Liu had voluntarily shared the last seven years of his detention (and Liu herself had been imprisoned from 1952-7) in a reform through labour glass works – in which they are both “smiling serenely and beatifically.”25 Liu died four months after their release – Lou Shiyi remarks “seemingly having completed her appointed task”26 though, to say the least, this seems to rather diminish and important and brave figure in her own right. Zheng continued writing poetry outside prison, as well as writing down his prison poems, including “The Waking of the Insects” and the final poem collected in Poets of the Chinese Revolution, “A Reply to Comrade Xie Shan”, in which in unlike many other Trotskyists, Zheng is cautious and sceptical about the possible outcomes of the upheavals on 1989, in contrast to Xie Shan’s “tides ebb and flow at the appointed hour” – “My thoughts turn this way and that, good news is hard to count on.”27

A question readers may pose is why did Zheng (along with Mao himself, Chen Duxiu, Chen Yi, the Southern guerilla commander, and another example of French work-study revolutionary yeast, whose poems are also collected in Poets of the Chinese Revolution and others) choose classical forms for revolutionary poetry? Why not innovate the form too? Zheng explains:

For prose the literary form of May Fourth worked. Today no one writes in classical Chinese anymore. But for poetry it failed. The first generation of literary reformers like Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun all wrote poetry in the old style. Poetry needs rules and forms. This is true of poetry (excluding free verse) in all the Western languages. I know of no new style poetry in Chinese that is broadly read, like Lu Xun’s old-style poems. So I take a very serious attitude to old-style poetry and would never stoop to writing doggerel.28

It would also not be a huge stretch to note Zheng’s rejection of the set of stageist arguments that presumed the potential stability and endurance of a bourgeois-national-democratic ideology, culture and politics in China, whilst the literary forms of this culture had some dynamism in Western Europe, the same conclusion may not have applied to China.

Here, to some extent we rejoin the European aesthetic debates over realism, whether in the Stalinist or, superior, Lukácsian form (it is perhaps telling that one of the central writers in Lukács’s defence of realism in Romain Rolland, who Zheng read and disliked for his desire to transcend class struggle in France.29 Lukács’s defence of a bourgeois-democratic form, is, as he explicitly argues, also a defence of the Popular Front30 – as if April 12th 1927 had never happened (and did it really happen for Europeans, despite the role of France and Britain and its importance in shifting significant parts of global capital in China towards the GMD right?)

We could also approach the decision to write “Red poetry in the classical style” through the tremendous resources condensed in the forms of Chinese classicism

We could also approach the decision to write “Red poetry in the classical style” through the tremendous resources condensed in the forms of Chinese classicism that political and aesthetic radicals—most notably Brecht (particularly in “Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching on Lao Tze’s Road into Exile” and Me-Ti Book of Interventions into the Flow of Things) and Ursula K. Le Guin, in her version of the Tao Te Ching—encountered and used.31 Frederic Jameson argues that what Brecht got from Chinese classics was an expansion

into that ultimate frame of the metaphysic or the world-view. It was a wise and subtle strategy: for throughout the modern elsewhere it has been the very notion of a world-view or a metaphysic which is the first casualty of modernity itself. The former then becomes a private obsession or personal hobby… Hermeneutics of belief, hermeneutics of suspicion: the option is suspended when the Tao itself opens up around a secular and cynical Western writer like Brecht, who cannot be assumed to believe in this immemorial ‘world-view’ in that sense, but takes it as what Lacan would have called a ‘tenant-lieu’, a place-keeper for the metaphysics that have become impossible…Thus, not a ‘philosophy’ of Marxism exactly (for such a philosophy would immediately fall back into the category of degraded world-views we have characterized above) but, rather, what such a philosophy might turn out to be in a utopian future.32

The privatisation of metaphysics, is perhaps above all felt with regard to nature, but it is also a fragmentation that moves towards the creation of an “autonomous” art, an art without purpose (even if it is “purposive”), an art in which didacticism is frowned upon – again, Jameson notes the notion that art harbours, “some fundamantal didactic vocation”33 is central to Brecht’s Chinese dimension. It is central to Zheng’s practice too, a further resource condensed in the classical form, and, crucially for a prisoner, a social dimension which persists in the form and the practice emerging out of the form even if others are absent.

And this is certainly some of it – though where for Brecht, this is articulated through an absent metaphysics, a metaphysics to come, for Zheng it is a still-living ontology. Central to this is the non-loss of nature and its non-reification, nature as process, nature as change, and indeed as the guarantee of change. As Brecht’s friend Walter Benjamin put it, “nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away.”34 The poet or the Marxist tactitican is sensitive to these changes, whether in water, or of the seasons – Zheng recounts after his first forty day period in detention, “coming out was like entering a new world…we saw there was no longer any plum blossom on the trees. The grass was high and the air was full of orioles” – or of the revolutionary process – it’s always a process, always in motion.35 The question is a capacity to respond within the flow of things, a capacity that is, at the very least easier, outside of the attempted separation of humanity from nature at the heart of bourgeois ontology and culture. We might add too the aspects of character we find in Zheng, a serenity and ethical steadfastness that does not require the inevitability of the victory of socialism only its possibility, a possibility given by eternal passing away of nature, and, allied to this a modesty, not just a receptiveness to small effects but to becoming those small effects is vital to both Brecht and Le Guin. In Brecht’s version, translated by Kuhn and Constantine,

That gentle water, if in motion
In time can overcome unyielding stone
So might you see, is overthrown.

Or, in Le Guin’s,

nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard, weak overcomes strong.36

A brief note on translation and historical contexts for “The Waking of the Insects / Rhyming a Poem with Comrade Xiè Shān” (some of which are not included, or incomplete, in Benton’s annotations).

The reference in the title to ‘rhyming a poem’ refers to the process of bù yùn: writing a poem using a rhyme scheme borrowed from another poem. Such poems were often sent as correspondence—East Asian culture has a long history of collaborative and epistolary poetry (see Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book for examples). Xiè Shān was imprisoned at the same time as Zheng; it seems that they corresponded, at least some of the time, via poems. As such, this poem is collaborative—and also unfinished, open-ended, available for reworking or revisioning as needed. It is nobody’s possession.

As Benton notes, the line about the wakening of insects is a reference to the third solar term in the East Asian lunisolar calendar. 惊蛰 —usually translated as ‘the waking of the insects’—comes after 立春 (the beginning of spring) and 雨水 (literally ‘rain water’, usually translated as ‘spring showers’ and intended to mark the shift in precipitation from snow to rain). the term 驚蟄 refers to the thunder that startles hibernating insects awake, and signals that spring is truly on its way. But I think there’s more to the line than Benton’s translation—“woken insects ride the wind”—allows. The term 乘风 (‘ride the wind’) also has connotations of taking advantage of a fair wind, or to take an opportunity. 原是 (and I want to thank Twitter user @ChingisKhagan for helping me translate this term) can be literally translated as “originally is”. We then have 虫, the character for ‘insect’, rendering explicit what is only suggested in 惊蛰. Taken together, there’s a sense that the awakening of these insects—these lowly and long-buried things—have some sort of causal relation to the winds of opportunity: perhaps the activity of many wings beating, collectively and cumulatively, causes a wind to arise? I would translate that line, perhaps, as something closer to “the winds of change are stirred by the wakening of insects”.

We might note, too, that Zheng wrote this poem not in spring, but in autumn. It isn’t clear whether the dates underneath the poems correspond to the Gregorian or Lunar calendar, but nevertheless, a short while after he wrote it, the solar term 霜降—frost descends—began. Frost is associated with solemnity, the hardening-up of things—and the poem’s tone is, more broadly, one of autumnal melancholy. The final pentad (solar terms are subdivided into microseasons of roughly five days) in 霜降 is 蟄蟲咸俯—‘hibernating insects settle down’. I think it’s important to read the poem with this understanding: there’s the hope of spring, yes, but there’s also the sense that this may not be fulfilled for a while—that the situation is colder and harder. That perhaps any wakening might have to be slowly encouraged and patiently awaited.

This sense of wakening is an echo of something that occurs in the second line, 简册沉埋未宜醒, translated by Benton as “what point is there in digging up the buried texts?” Zheng himself does not phrase this line as a question—it ends in a full stop, whereas the second stanza’s question uses a question mark. There’s also, as I’ve signalled, this sense of wakening and deep hibernation, which Benton seems to miss, in the character 醒 (to wake up), as well as 沉埋 (buried deeply). There is also, crucially, 未, which can be read as ‘not yet’. I would translate this line as “the old books are buried deeply; they cannot yet be woken”. It seems clear to me that the old books and the dormant insects of winter (who often burrow underground to sleep through the cold) are connected—they will re-awaken, but not now, not yet.

Elsewhere, the references to Lǐ Hè, Liú Líng, Cáo Xuěqín, and the Ox-Demon call, I think, for slightly more clarification than is offered. Though Benton’s annotations offer decent historical context for Cáo Xuěqín, it’s my understanding that the quoted lines about the Ox-Demon, Lǐ Hè, and Liú Líng were not authored by Cáo himself, but by his friend Dūn Chéng, about Cáo. In so doing, he was placing Cáo in a lineage of excluded and self-excluding dissidents: Lǐ Hè, the Tang poet, was barred from taking the Imperial examinations (which would have led to a career as a scholar-bureaucrat) because of a naming taboo, and so chose instead to wander as a poet. His choice of subjects were ghosts, monsters, and the supernatural—including the legendary Ox-Demon. Analysis of Cáo Xuěqín’s life and work is its own scholarly field (known in English as ‘Redology’), and I’m by no means expert enough to pass authoritative comment, but as far as I can tell, there seems to be some consensus that the Ox-Demon in Dūn Chéng’s poem refers to Cáo, whose decision to cease participating in the Imperial bureaucracy pushed him to the margins of society, a state of abjection.

Liú Líng, who lived during the time of the Jin Dynasty, actively rejected the careerist path—in part because it would have severely restricted both his ability to write what he wanted, and his ability to live how he wanted. He became an almost Diogenes-like figure; it’s claimed he would walk around nude “because the earth is my house and my home is my clothes”, and demand of his houseguests, “Sir, what are you doing in my pants?” He ended his days wandering, it’s said, followed by a servant in a deer-drawn cart, who carried the essentials: a bottle of wine, and a shovel to bury Liú, when the time came, wherever he might fall.

It’s claimed Liú Líng would walk around nude “because the earth is my house and my home is my clothes”, and demand of his houseguests, “Sir, what are you doing in my pants?”

It seems to me that, in quoting these lines, Zheng is comparing his own exclusion to those of Cáo, Liú, and Lǐ. The reference to the Ox-Demon has an additional resonance. Mao, himself a huge fan of Lǐ Hè, adopted a line from the poet Dù Mù’s preface to a collection of Lǐ’s work as a means of describing the reactionary elements of Chinese society. The line was 牛鬼蛇神—ox-demons and snake-spirits. This was later repurposed by the Cultural Revolution Group as a propaganda slogan. Zheng’s use of the Ox-Demon image is almost certainly a reference to this—though it’s not certain, to me, whether the demon represents Zheng, Mao, or somebody else entirely.

On a final note—1984, the year in which “The Wakening of the Insects” was written, was the beginning of a new sexagenary cycle, the 60-year spiral-unfolding of the Chinese calendar. This sense of new beginnings balanced with necessary pause may also influence the tone of the poem.


  1. Basic factual details for this introduction are derived from Gregor Benton’s useful introductions to 2019. Poets of the Chinese Revolution, London: Verso and 2017. Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo. Chicago: Haymarket Books, including the various texts by Zheng Chaolin collected in it. 

  2. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 172 

  3. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 176 

  4. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 177 

  5. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 181 

  6. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 188 

  7. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 188 

  8. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 190 

  9. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 312 

  10. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 309 

  11. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 229 

  12. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 230 

  13. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 209 

  14. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 231 

  15. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 255 

  16. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 4 

  17. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 113 

  18. A recent version of this line of argument, which consequently absolutely fails to make sense of the positions of the CCP in the 1920s and 1930s and with it Mao’s rise to prominence can be found in Julia Lovell’s interesting but uneven and profoundly flawed, 2019. Maoism: A Global History London: Penguin Books. 

  19. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 422. 

  20. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 14. 

  21. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 1065. 

  22. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 112. 

  23. Benton. Poets of the Chinese Revolution p. 44, 46. 

  24. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 1113. 

  25. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 1067. 

  26. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 1066. 

  27. Benton. Poets of the Chinese Revolution. p. 197. 

  28. Benton. Poets of the Chinese Revolution. p. 43. 

  29. See, notably, Georg Lukács [1938]. 2006. “Realism in the Balance”. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. pp. 28-59 and Ernst Bloch. [1938]. 2006. “Definining Expressionism”. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. pp. 16-27 and Bertolt Brecht. 2006. “Against Georg Lukács”. In Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso. Translated by Stuart Hood. pp. 68-85. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. p. 208. 

  30. Lukács. “Realism in the Balance”. pp. 56-57. 

  31. Bertolt Brecht. [1938] 2019. Collected Poems. translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. New York: W. W. Norton, 2019. p. 678. Bertolt Brecht, Me-Ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things, translated by Antony Tatlow, (London, Bloomsbury, 2016). Lao Tzu. 1997. Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin. Boulder: Shambala. 

  32. Fredric Jameson. 1998. Brecht and Method. London: Verso. p. 12. 

  33. Jameson. Brecht and Method. p. 3. 

  34. Walter Benjamin, [1920-1/1937-8] “Theologico Political Fragment”. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. In edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Selected Writings: Volume 3: 1935-8 p. 306. 

  35. Benton. Prophets Unarmed. P. 451. 

  36. Brecht. Collected Poems. p. 679. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. p. 98. 


Authors:

Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

Founding editor


josie sparrow (@ofthesparrows)

josie is a writer, an artist, and a philosopher. Her interests coalesce around the intersection of the poetic and the political, with a particular emphasis on process, relationality, socialism, ethics, ecologies, words, and flowers. Her future plans include dismantling capitalism and co-creating a more beautiful world, with and for others. She is General Editor at New Socialist. You can read more of her work at peachtreepeartree.com.