Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Terrifying Sentences

Aaron Belz


March 9, 2012

By Aaron Belz

“It’s a heady thought—if a bit preposterous—that a few lines of verse might undermine a government,” began a New York Times blog post on January 20, 2012. It came as a response to news that Chinese poet Zhu Yufu had been charged for “inciting subversion of state power,” partly, at least, due to his having published a poem called “It’s Time.” Here’s a translation of the poem published in the Washington Post on February 4:

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.

The Square belongs to everyone.

With your own two feet

It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.

A song belongs to everyone.

From your own throat

It’s time to voice the song in your heart.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.

China belongs to everyone.

Of your own will

It’s time to choose what China shall be.

At twelve lines and 76 words, it’s a small specimen of treason, but for the Chinese government officials who reviewed it along with several pro-democracy emails Zhu had sent to his father, it was enough. On February 10 a report came over the AP News Wire that Zhu had been sentenced to seven years in prison. 

It’s a light sentence compared to what the 23-year-old poet Hamza Kashghari might get from the Saudi Arabian Ifta (Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Edicts) for what Arab News reported as “a few tweets that were considered slanderous to Almighty Allah and His Prophet (peace be upon him)”—also on February 10. Tweets, on Twitter, are limited to 140 characters, 20 fewer characters than SMS mobile-to-mobile text messages. Each of Kashghari’s three blasphemous tweets, implicitly addressed to Muhammad, began “On your birthday,” and then expressed ambivalence toward the prophet. Here is the third, as reported that same day by The Daily Beast:

On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

Kashghari, who attempted to flee, was detained by Malaysian authorities and extradited to Saudi Arabia, where one cleric, reported the same Daily Beast article (and many other sources), has called for Kashghari to be tried for apostasy, which is punishable by beheading.

In other news, on April 10 Graywolf Press will release Chinese poet Liu Xiaobo’s June Forth Elegies, a 292-page hardcover volume of poetry inspired by the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests of June 1989. Liu is in the third year of an 11-year sentence for the same offense as Zhu Yufu—“inciting subversion of state power.” The poems in the book, of which I have an uncorrected proof, are scintillating, brazenly challenging the authority of the Chinese government. Here is how the second section of “Standing in the Curse of Time” begins:

Ten years later today’s

well-trained soldiers

a most official most stately posturing

guard that wholly monstrous lie

Red five-starred flag at dawn’s

morning light...

In a later poem Liu writes, “Life’s little comforts have pardoned the crimes / sleepwalking through the decay / the shell of the body turns into air / [...] June Fourth, a tomb / a forget-the-forsaken tomb.” The poems in this book tend to be long, scathing, relentless, full of sensory images that are hard to forget, and superior, literarily, to those of Zhu Yufu. Maybe that’s why Liu got 11 years to Zhu’s seven.

The exciting thing about such terrifying sentences—both the ones written by poets and the ones handed down by their national authorities—is that they’re serving a function literature ought to serve. The New York Times blog that calls such an action/reaction “a heady thought” is, by the way, patently wrong. In our country it has become a rare notion that poetry might change a civilization’s direction, but the authorities in China and Saudi Arabia, though their response horrifies us, are right to assume that every 72-word or 140-character text stands a chance to affect political realities.

“Give me liberty, or give me death,” Patrick Henry spoke to the Virginia Convention in 1775. And now, after much death, we do have liberty.

 —Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”