Hai Zi – Cult Figure of Modern Chinese Poetry
The idealistic and timeless world of this modern poet lives on posthumously. Hai Zi has become a cult figure of modern Chinese poetry, his grave a destination for pilgrimages and his poems a source of endless academic research.
gbtimes interviewed Finnish translator, sinologist and author Pertti Seppälä, who has translated Hai Zi’s poems from Chinese into Finnish and read his poems for almost 20 years.
Precocious but undiscovered talent
Hai Zi was born as Zha Haisheng in 1964, into a peasant family in a small rural village of the Anhui province. He was a precocious child, and by the age of 15 entered the Peking University to study law, being one of the youngest ever admitted to study in the university.
“In university Hai Zi started to write poems. He wrote most of his works within six years. He committed suicide in March 1989, so his extensive production came about very quickly. About 200 of his short poems remain and they make up the most prominent part of his poetry,” says Pertti Seppälä.
Hai Zi wasn’t appreciated during his lifetime, although great fame came after his death. None of his poetry collections were published while he was still alive, except for some poems in a few academic or literary journals. He mainly settled for handing out his poems in leaflets to his friends.
After graduating from university, he worked as a teacher in the Changping suburb of Beijing, where he taught philosophy, aesthetics and cybernetics. Despite his studies, he never worked as a lawyer.
The poet of death and loneliness
Hai Zi committed suicide on his 25th birthday by laying down on a railroad track. His tragic and short life was full of loneliness, isolation and a feverish devotion to writing poetry.
“After 1989, his popularity has gradually grown, and one could say that he is the most well-known poet in China at the moment. So far they have sold about 300,000 selections of his poems, which is even on the Chinese scale a huge amount; you can call him a true best-selling author.”
Seppälä says that even though Hai Zi used surrealism and fantasy in his poetry, it still is thoroughly modern. However, some Chinese literary scholars see his poems as a continuation of classical poetry. “The basic nature of his poetry is that he doesn't cover city life or modern China in his poems almost at all. There aren’t direct references to politics, but instead to the countryside and nature. His main themes also include loneliness, death and love. All of these are the themes of classical poetry.”
Hai Zi was well-read, and had familiarized himself with Western and Indian poetry. One can’t directly draw a conclusion from his poems that he is Chinese, says Seppälä, who feels that this is what makes Hai Zi’s poetry classic.
“Many of the poems don’t have any link to modern China, its politics or the one-party system, but he writes as if from the perspective of timelessness. He seeks freedom in his poems. This is one of the reasons he is so popular in China,” explains Seppälä.
The poetry of Hai Zi can be also described as balladic, because it portrays the lives of people, along with sorrow, loneliness and death. He deals with eternal themes that touch everyone’s lives. “In China there is a strict political system and lots of big, hectic and polluted cities. His poetry is out of this world, if not exactly a spiritual refuge but a parallel reality and a different perspective on everyday life.”
Idealist ahead of his time
It might be that this young poet was way ahead of his time and that this was why fame only caught up with him posthumously. During his lifetime he was criticized for writing about the countryside, and above all for his tendency to mythologize nature, which was something that his contemporaries did not understand. His poems were no use for the government as a tool of propaganda.
Seppälä says that Hai Zi led a very humble life and didn’t appreciate consumerism. He looked up to the ideal of a nature-centered world, free of pollution and the destructive effects of modernization.
“China has changed tremendously within the 20 years after his death, and environmental issues have become a great concern. […] At that time it was all new. Later on, many imitators of Hai Zi emerged. Many poets wrote about their home and the countryside. Through his poems he opened up a whole new way of looking at China”.
People are still interested in Hai Zi, and more academic research has been done on him than on any of his contemporaries. Seppälä can point out a few reasons for this: Hai Zi’s poetry is very similar to classical literature, and moreover was a very indirect way of criticizing the circumstances in China.
Through his poems he opened up a whole new way of looking at China.
- Pertti Seppälä
“A cult [following] and some cult activities have been built up around Hai Zi. In other words his suicide has created a halo around him. Hai Zi admired those who committed suicide, not only Chinese but also Western.”
On the date of his death many commemorative events are organized in universities around China, where people have a chance to remember him and read out his poems.
Hai Zi is buried in the Anhui province, on a little hill outside his home village as he wished to be buried. His grave has become a pilgrimage destination where lots of people gather. In addition, even a little museum has been built near his home.
“There isn’t anyone else in China around whom this kind of almost religious cult has been built up.”
Simplistic but frank poetic expression
Pertti Seppälä has been reading Hai Zi’s poetry for almost 20 years and is very familiar with his poetic language. He describes it as simplistic and original.
Seppälä is fascinated by the poems because he feels that Hai Zi as a person was genuine, open and vulnerable, and had the courage to deal with his themes very bluntly. According to Seppälä, Hai Zi didn’t use irony, which is typical as a way of creating distance in Western poetry. Instead, he wrote about touching themes very honestly.
“Hai Zi also has a very peculiar sense of humor. He is not serious but he takes things seriously.”
Hai Zi's Poems: