A Chinese Poet’s Unusual Path From Isolated Farm Life to Celebrity

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“I think Yu Xiuhua is China’s Emily Dickinson: extraordinary imagination and a striking power with language,” Shen Rui, a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta specializing in Chinese literature and feminism, wrote in the preface to “Moonlight Drops on My Left Hand.”

For the record, Ms. Yu says she dislikes being compared with Dickinson, whom she has never read. In fact, her grounding in world literature is somewhat lacking, she said on a recent afternoon at her home in Hengdian.

Before she began writing poetry in her late 20s, she said, “I rarely read literature. I only started to read more famous works on my mobile phone after 2006. But I knew how to write before I read.”

“I like writing poems, because they’re simple and don’t have many words,” she said, speaking haltingly as her mouth twitched. “This suits me because I’m lazy.”

She now lives with her father in a newly built two-story house, a short walk from their old farmhouse. A recent village renovation razed most of the old buildings and moved residents into new housing, but her family home has been preserved as a tribute to a local celebrity.

She shrugs off the fame and the labels usually applied to her as a writer: female, peasant, disabled. She claims to be indifferent to readers’ reactions.

“Writing poems means facing myself, first and foremost, not facing others,” she said. “It’s to express myself. It’s other people’s business whether they respond to my poems. It has nothing to do with me.”

Photo

Ms. Yu said of life after her divorce: “This is my best time. I feel great.” She is still scathingly self-critical, though. “I’m really ugly,” she said, “so I can’t find a boyfriend.”

Credit
Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

And they have responded. In her “Crossing More Than Half of China to Sleep With You,” she goes on to say:

“There is little difference between me sleeping with you, and you sleeping with me.

It’s no more than a collision of two bodies, composing a force under which the flowers blossom.”

The poem was widely discussed online, with some condemning it as lewd, while others praised it for channeling the feminist voice of a woman taking the initiative to “sleep with” others.

“Her poems, among contemporary Chinese poems, are like putting a murderer among a group of respectable ladies,” wrote Mr. Liu, the Poetry editor. “Everybody else wears fancy clothes, puts on makeup and perfume and readers can’t see a single bead of sweat. But hers are full of smoke and fire — and mud and landslides. Her words are stained with blood.”

Born in 1976 in Hengdian, Ms. Yu never finished high school. At 19 she married a construction worker 12 years older, in a wedding arranged by her parents, who were concerned that she would never be able to care for herself. At 27, she began writing poetry.

“I needed to do something to keep my spirit up,” she said. “Each day, I wrote one or two poems, and I felt I had accomplished something.”

Many of her writings centered on life in her village. In a poem about the wheat her father grew, she wrote: “Your happiness is the brown wheat hull, your pain the white wheat core.”

And often she writes about love and its turmoils. From her poem “I Am Not Alone”:

“I believe what he has with others is love. It’s only with me that it’s not.”

Mr. Fan, the filmmaker, said: “You can read in her poems that she has to suppress her desires. She longs for it, but she’s afraid. She’s never really experienced true love.”

Ms. Yu concedes her marriage was not successful. “I was too young and didn’t understand it,” she said. “I didn’t love him. He didn’t love me. Our characters weren’t at all compatible.”

For years, she wanted a divorce, but her husband refused. One factor, she said, was that her husband, who often lived far from home as a migrant worker, had nowhere else to return to.

Last year, after Ms. Yu received about $90,000 in royalties from her books, she bought a house for him, and the two divorced. Their son attends a university in Wuhan, Hebei’s capital.

“My mother wasn’t happy at first, but she was all right later, because she saw I was really happy,” Ms. Yu said. Not long afterward, her mother died of cancer.

Ms. Yu said of life after her divorce: “This is my best time. I feel great.” She is still scathingly self-critical, though.

“I’m really ugly,” she said, “so I can’t find a boyfriend.”

For the moment, she has her poems.

“What is poetry?” she wrote in an epilogue to “Moonlight.” “I don’t know and can’t tell. It’s when my heart roars, it emerges like a newborn. It’s like a crutch when one walks unsteadily in this unsteady world. Only when I write poetry do I feel complete, at peace and content.”

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