'Why the fuck couldn't you get some anger management counselling or something?'
Why Gu Cheng, why? I know that you had a sense of humour: I remember the funny cartoons you drew for me, when I came to visit you in the shack where you lived. I remember you smiling. Why did you do this?
Why Gu Cheng, why? Was it poverty? Why did you allow yourself to sit around all day, dazzled by images, while the cupboards were bare? Why did you force your wife to live like that? Why would you never even learn English?
Why, Gu Cheng, why? Was it the year you had just spent on a felowship in Berlin, that cold, gloomy city, that city of genocide, so far from the sun of Waiheke?
Why, Gu Chenge, why? Was it the pain of exile, being forced from your native land?
Why, Gu Cheng, why? Was it your childhood, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, your family's exile deep in the bleakest part of the country, far from the city and from books?
Mike Johnson was not the only one to be fascinated and horrified by Gu Cheng's implosion. Eliot Weinberger's article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books reflects the continued widespread interest in 'the most radical poet in all of China's 2500 years of written poetry'. Weinberger reviews Gu Cheng's life and work, and the treatment it has received in the years since his death. Weinberger's memory of a meeting with Gu Cheng makes for uncomfortable reading:
Gu Cheng, Xie Ye and I went to a restaurant in Chinatown. As we sat down, my first question, predictably, was about his hat. He told me that he always wore it so that none of his thoughts would escape his head. Xie Ye said that he also slept in it, in order not to lose his dreams.
Gu Cheng picked up the menu and chose a dish. Xie Ye was amazed. He had never before ordered anything in a restaurant, preferring to eat whatever he was served. She then put a tape recorder on the table. She told me that everything Gu Cheng said should be preserved.
We talked for hours, but I understood little of it. Every topic immediately led to a disquisition on cosmic forces: the Cultural Revolution was like the chaos before creation in Chinese mythology, before things separated into yin and yang, and Tiananmen Square represented their continuing imbalance; Mao Zedong, in a way I couldn’t follow, was somehow the embodiment of wubuwei, Taoist non-non-action. Xie Ye gazed at him adoringly the whole time, and both of them radiated an innocent sweetness. I felt I was in the presence of one of those crazy mountain sages of Chinese tradition.
Somewhere in the evening, Gu Cheng left for the bathroom, and as soon as he was out of sight, Xie Ye turned to me smiling and said: ‘I hope he dies.’ She explained that, in New Zealand, he had forced her to give their son to a Maori couple to raise, as he demanded her undivided attention and wanted to be the only male in the house. ‘I can’t get my baby back unless he is dead,’ she said. I had met them for the first time just a few hours before.
For me, the most fascinating part of Weinberger's article is its discussion of the revolutionary poetics Gu Chenge developed, under immense personal and political pressure, in the 1980s. After being associated in the 70s with the so-called 'misty' group of poets, who became notorious for rejecting the dreary myth-making of 'socialist' realism in favour of quiet, introspective poems, Gu Cheng 'had a revelation' in 1985:
Before, he had ‘tried to be a human being’, but now he realised that the world was an illusion, and he learned to leave his self behind and inhabit a shadow existence. Before, he had written ‘mainly lyrical poetry’. Now he ‘discovered a strange and unique phenomenon: that words themselves acted like drops of liquid mercury splashing about, moving in any direction’. He called one of his long sequences ‘Liquid Mercury’. ‘Any word may be as beautiful as water so long as it is free of restraints,’ he wrote...
It is extraordinary that Gu Cheng, largely ignorant of Western Modernism – the few poets he knew and admired in translation were Lorca, Tagore, Elytis and Paz – independently recreated much of the Western literary history of the 20th century. From the Imagism and Symbolism of the early lyrics, he moved on to Dadaism or one of the Futurisms. (Two earlier translators, Sean Golden and Chu Chiyu, said they were continually reminded of Gertrude Stein, whom Gu Cheng had never read.) He ultimately landed in a completely idiosyncratic corner of Surrealism.
It is a tragedy that Mike Johnson was one of only a very few New Zealand writers who had the opportunity to befriend and support Gu Cheng. The best we can do now is read the man's work.