[editor’s note. Starting to write as the Cultural Revolution was taking shape, Shi Zhi (born in 1949) appears today as an early forerunner to the changes in Chinese poetry that began to emerge during that time of repression & that have now come to represent the Chinese present. His life has been marked by periods of suppression & by recurrent & ongoing confinements for mental illness, but he is now widely recognized as a major influence on better-known groups such as the Misty Poets of the 1970s & 1980s, with whom he was later associated. Winter Sun, a selection of his poems translated into English by Jonathan Stalling, appeared this year as the first title in the Chinese Literature Today book series from the
Beneath layers of indifferent ice, a fish flows with the current
Its bitter sighs cannot be heard
Since it cannot find any warm sunlight
Why would it greet and send off the glorious day?
If there are no waves in realityWhy does it bathe in the blood of struggle?
If its future is distant beyond measure
How can it take refuge in hope?
Fish can only find spiritual solaceIn sweet memory
Let its bittersweet tears
Again hold up the pale stories of the past
It is not the time for chasing blooms in spring windsOr resting peacefully beneath the summer sun
Nor is it the time for feeling the chill of early spring winds
Or seeing the rippling green water of midsummer
But it's when nature is covered in white bandagesAnd the bleeding wounds have just healed
There are no more withered leaves lingering on the ground
Or cold rain endlessly falling from the sky
How fiercely it leaps from the waterTo not lose the freedom of breath
How wildly it strikes back
To not lose what advantages it still may possess
Though every leap ends in failureEvery jump falls short
Yet the steely fish still has the nerve
To hold back for the final push
At last finding a patch of thin iceYes, it bends back like a bow and springs
With head down and tail extended, it soars into the air
So nimble, so strong
Faint sunlight ripples through the waterGently stroking its bleeding fins
My child, I'm afraid this may be our last encounter
Until we meet next spring
Facing the sun, it joyously jumps againAble to breathe above the water now and then
Its wisps of crimson blood disperse into the stream
Waving like red flags upon the battlefield
Suddenly, with a spasm of sharp pain,It sinks unconscious into the depths
Oh my fish, you are still young
How can this be your end?!
Stop sinking, stop sinkingMy heart babbles in its hushed voice
Finally snapping awake
Desperate, it flashes toward the sunlight
When it emerges from the water againIt has given its all
Cold lips opening and closing without a sound
From the undulating water rises a noble voice
"Never fear the callous wind and snowNever surrender to the bitter winter's breath"
Voice fading, it plunges back into the water
Without looking back, it swims onward
Beneath layers of indifferent ice, a fish slides with the currentIts suffering moans cannot be heard
Since it cannot find any warm sunlight
Why should it meet and send off the glorious day?
IICutting a hole in the ice beneath the cover of night
A fisherman quickly sets his nets
Provisions of food and tobacco stacked on the shore
Enveloped in clouds, he waits for the blue-gray dawn
Why do the suspended stars glitter like translucent tears?Can there be true friendship in the dark?
Why has the fish not yet discovered
That the fingers of dawn have already plucked the cold, rattling stars?
A brilliant ray of sunlight flashesAnd the fish can barely open its eyes
It thaws dreams frozen in the ice
And gently wakes the fish from its deep sleep
"Oh my child, do you still remember me?Can you call out my name?
Are you still searching for the destiny I have written for you?
Are you still searching for freedom and the light?"
Hearing the sun's questionsThe fish opens its baffled eyes
It attempts to shake its numb tail
A pair of fins gently patting its breast
"Sunshine of freedom, please tell me the truthIs this the spring of hope?
Is there inedible bait lying off the shore?
Are there any traces of returning geese in the sky?"
Silence, silence, awful silenceIt can't create even the faintest echo
The fish's heart quivers in a jolt
It hears branches screaming in pain
Vigilance urges the fish directly forwardInfatuated with the sun's glow
It wants to cast the sun's radiance down across
The vague road of its future . . .
Only when all hope is lostDoes the fish see the ferocious nets closing in
"Where is spring?" tears pooling in its eyes
Again it begins its journey beneath the ice
Like the fisherman chewing foodThe sun tears his insatiable nets
In the rising cloud of his tobacco
The fisherman dreams of a bountiful harvest
IIISo long desired, spring's revival finally arrives
The sun's long, sharp blade reveals its power
And callously severs the icebound river
As sheets of struggling ice crash together
Beneath layers of ice, a python has slept the year throughBarely emerging, it swiftly withdraws to the river bottom
The frogs, wearing the banners of battlefield singers,
Are frightened and scurry in all directions to hide
My fish, my fishWhere are you, where have you gone?
Have you yearned for winter, and if you did die
Your body should float up to the surface!
It's true, the fish did dieIts dull eyes are as pale as the moon
Just now, its gills moved so faintly
Only to retreat like quiet waves
It was still so young, so headstrongBecause it so fervently sought the sun and its freedom
It leapt from the water without fear of the consequences
Only to fall upon the ice, which will melt in time
As death arrived, the fish struggled upon the iceThe sun quickly hid its light behind the clouds
Unwilling to watch her child
Such a young fish to share this fate
But the fish was ready to give his life
Please pull out your sharp sword
Let me dissolve together with the ice
It's true, the fish really did dieIts dull eyes are as pale as the indifferent moon
Just now, its gills moved so faintly
Falling back like quiet waves
One newborn leaf after anotherFalls without wind, scattering through the air
With a faint tear-like rain
To cover the dead fish in silence
Is it a heap of sharp white bonesOr a rich storehouse of spirit?
My soul, its green tomb,
Will it provoke deep, wandering thoughts?
When the ice has dissolvedAnd the river relaxes its waves
Frogs leap from the grass
Pythons swim out from the algae
After a full meal, the pythons listen quietlyTo the frogs' elegiac songs
And weep piteous tears
When the frogs sing of the fish's death
Translation from Chinese by Jonathan Stalling
Excerpted from Winter Sun: Poems by Shi Zhi (
, 2012) with permission from the Chinese
Literature Today Book Series. University of Oklahoma
Translator’s note: The “Fish Trilogy” (1967-1968) represents one of Shi Zhi’s most well-known early poems. Composed when the poet was 19 at the start of the cultural revolution, the poem uses allegorical language to comment on the complex relationship between the red guard generation and Chairman Mao at the start of the rustication/re-education period. Note also the delicate notes of lyric expressive subjectivity which had, until Shi Zhi (penname of Guo Lusheng), been deemed rightist-bourgeois and thus had become taboo, making “Fish Trilogy” even with its conservative folk idiom, an underground poem springing from a complex subjective poetics which paved the way for the “Misty Poets” over a decade later.
[Also see Chinese Literature Today #2 at http://www.ou.edu/clt/2011-w-s-issue.html]