A Newer Realm of Poetry – Ai Quing

This is a column by Vinita Agrawal.

Ai Qing (1910—1996), originally named Jiang Haicheng, belonged to Jinhua County, Zhejiang Province of China. He was the son of well to do land owner. He spent his first five years living with his nursemaid, a poor peasant woman, on whom he later wrote a poem that went on to become his most famous piece. In 1928, he was enrolled in the state-run West Lake Art School.

A year later, he went to study in Paris. In 1932, he returned to China, and joined China’s Federation of the Leftwing Fine Artists. In the summer of the same year, he was arrested by the nationalist government of China for opposing the Kuomintang. When he was freed three years later, he shifted to the Yan’an province in 1941. In 1957 he was sent to a hard-labour camp for criticizing his government in print where he was made to empty latrines for the next twenty years or so as part of his “mental correction” for Wrong Thought under Mao. It was also in the same year that a son was born to Ai. He was christened as Ai Weiwei and later came to be known, arguably, as the most famous contemporary artist of China.

Later in his poem titled “Fish Fossils”, Ai wrote:

“Gazing at this fossil,

Even a fool can learn a lot:

Without movement

There is no life.

To live is to struggle

And advance in the struggle;

Even if death is not at our doorstep,

We should use our energy to the fullest.”


During his years in Yan’an, Ai worked as the editor-in-chief of The Poetic Journal. After 1949, he was deputy editor-in-chief of People’s Literature, vice chairman of Chinese Writers’ Association, vice president of the Center of Chinese Writingand a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. His major works include Da Yanhe, Towards the Sun, Torch, He Died in the Second Try, North, The Notice of Dawn, On the Sea Cape, The Song of Return, and Selected Poems of Ai Qing (collections of poems). He was also the author the monographs On Poetics and Essays on New Art and Literature. His poems have been translated into dozens of foreign languages.

An advocate of free expression and the role of the writer as social critic, Ai Qing used simple language and a free style in creating his socially oriented poems.

Ai harbored a distinct affection for the afflicted, the poor, the weak, and the voiceless. Ai’s “Water Birds” powerfully describes the unexpected injury of one bird by a hunter while the other bird flees in fright, leaving the injured bird struggling on its own to gain a hiding place waiting for its mate to return.

At the moment

Amidst crevices of stones

With its own beak

The bird caressed its wound,

And in its sorrowful moaning of solitude Expecting the return of its soul mate.

Ai’s works were inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Many lines in his poetry show a definite disregard for the classical style of the Chinese verses of those times and reveal prose characteristics commonly seen in Whitman’s poems. Like Whitman, Eugene Eoyang observed, Ai Qing was able to find the meaningful in the commonplace.

According to Li Yeguang, Whitman’s Chinese biographer, Whitman’s style was noticeable in many of Ai’s poems, including his most famous piece, “Dayanhe, My Nanny,” and other well-known poems such as “Snow Falls on the Land of China,” “The Bugler,” “Lamenting for Paris,” “Times,” and “The Prairie Fire.”

In the Chinese historical and literary context, “new” poets started to write “new” poetry in the mid-1910s, especially after 1919 when the new culture movement culminated in the movement that prepared China for a series of revolutions in politics, literature, culture, and social life. Ai Qing was the most representative and typical of twentieth-century Chinese new poetry known as xinshi in Chinese, not only for the content he wrote but also for his distinct creative style. In his preface to An Appreciative Companion to Ai Quing’s Famous Poems, editor Niu Han says that Ai’s poetic practice allowed Chinese new poetry to achieve unprecedented development.

Ai died in a hospital on the 5th of May 1986.

Here are two poems by Ai Qing:


A wall is like a knife

It slices a city in half

One half is on the east

The other half is on the west


How tall is this wall?

How thick is it?

How long is it?

Even if it were taller, thicker and longer

It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long

As China’s Great Wall

It is only a vestige of history

A nation’s wound

Nobody likes this wall


Three metres tall is nothing

Fifty centimetres thick is nothing

Forty-five kilometres long is nothing

Even a thousand times taller

Even a thousand times thicker

Even a thousand times longer

How could it block out

The clouds, wind, rain, and sunshine of the heavens?


And how could it block out

The currents of water and air?


And how could it block out

A billion people

Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?

Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?

Whose wishes are more infinite than time?


Da Yanhe — “My Wet Nurse” – written in 1933, Ai’s landmark poem that taught him to love his land the way the peasant folk of his country did. This passion was so intense that it led him to the Maoist revolutionary cause.

Da Yanhe, is my wet nurse.

Her name is the name of her village where she was born,

She is a childbride,

Da Yanhe, is my wet nurse.

I am a landlord’s son;

I am also Da Yanhe’s son

Who has brought me up by breastfeeding me.

Da Yanhe raises her family by raising me,

And I have been raised by drinking your milk,

Da Yanhe, my wet nurse.

Da Yanhe, the snow today reminds me of you:

Your grass-covered grave covered with snow,

Your withered tile-plant on the eaves of your closed house,

Your plot of land of ten square chi mortgaged,

Your stone bench grown with moss before your house,

Da Yanhe, the snow I see today reminds me of you.

You embraced me in your arms and stroked me with your large hands;

After you had the burning faggots ready,

After you cleaned the soot on your apron,

After you tasted whether the rice was well cooked,

After you placed the dark sauce-bowl on the dark table,

After you mended your sons’ clothes torn by thorns on the mountains,

After you wrapped your youngest son’s hand wounded by a faggot-knife,

After you nipped the lice one by one on your husband’s and sons’ clothes,

After you picked up the first egg today,

You embraced me in your arms and stroked me with your large hands.

I am a landlord’s son,

After I had sulked all milk of you Da Yanhe,

I was taken back to my own home by my parents.

Alas! Da Yanhe, why did you weep?

I was now a new member of my own parents’ family!

I felt the lacquered and cared furniture,

I felt the golden patterns of the bed of my parents,

I gazed at the board inscribed with Tianlunxule which I did not understand on the eaves,

I felt the silk and pearly buttons of the new clothes I began to wear,

I watched my strange sister in the arms of my mother,

I sat on the lacquered bench equipped with a bowl of cinder,

I ate the rice rolled for three times,

But, I felt so strange and upset! Because I

I was now a new member of my own parents’ family.

To make a living, Da Yanhe

Started laboring with her arms that used to embrace me

After she had used up her breast-milk;

With a smile, she washed our clothes,

With a smile, she went to the nearby pool with a basket of vegetables,

With a smile, she minced the ice-covered radish,

With a smile, she drew out the wheat dregs for pig food with her hands,

With a smile, she fanned the fire in the stove on which pork was stewed,

With a smile, she took the winnowing fan to the threshing ground

To insolate those beans and wheat,

To make a living, Da Yanhe

Started laboring with her arms that used to embrace me

After she had used up her breast-milk.

Da Yanhe, deeply loved this son she breastfed;

On festivals, for him, she busied herself cutting the sugared rice-lump,

For him to stealthily visit her home near the village,

For him to call her “ma” at her side,

Da Yanhe put up the portrait of Guan Yunchang painted in fabulous color

On the wall of her kitchen,

Da Yanhe would praise this son she breastfed to her neighborhood;

Da Yanhe had a dream which couldn’t be told to others:

In her dream, she enjoyed the wedding wine of her breastfed son,

Sitting in the hall brilliant with red lanterns,

She was dearly called “Ma” by her beautiful new daughter-in-law,


Da Yanhe, deeply loved this son she breastfed!

Da Yanhe died before she woke up from her dream.

When she died, her breastfed son was not by her side,

When she died, her husband who beat and criticized her also shed tears for her,

Her own five sons, each in tears,

When she died, she gently called her breastfed son’s name,

Da Yanhe, has died,

When she died, her breastfed son was not by her side.

Da Yanhe, gone in tears!

With the insult of human life for some forty years,

With numerous sufferings of being a slave,

With a coffin bought with four yuan and some bunches of rice stalks,

With some square feet of burial place,

With a handful of money-ashes,

Da Yanhe, she was gone in tears.

And this is what Da Yanhe did not know:

Her drunken husband had died,

Her first son became a bandit,

Her second died in the smoke of gun-fire,

And her third, fourth and fifth sons

Living in the scolding of their masters or landlords.

And I, I am writing a curse for this unjust world.

When I return to my homeland after long drift,

In the waist of the mountain and in the field,

We feel closer than six or seven years ago when we brothers meet!

This, this is for you, Da Yanhe in slumber

You do not know this!

Da Yanhe, your breastfed son in prison today,

Is writing a psalm for you,

For your soul underground,

For your outstretched hands that embraced me,

For your lips that kissed me,

For your dark and mild face,

For your breasts that raised me,

For your sons, my brothers,

For all wet nurses like Da Yanhe and their sons

On this vast land,

For Da Yanhe who loved me as she loved her own sons.

Da Yanhe,

I am your son

Brought up by sulking your breast-milk,

I respect you

And love you!

vinitaagrawalprofilephotoAuthor of three books of poetry, Vinita is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence her poems have appeared in Asiancha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review and over a 100 other national and international journals. She was awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest thrice. Her poems have found a place in significant national anthologies like Suvarnarekha and Dance with the Peacocks in several international anthologies compiled in Australia and Israel. She was co-judge for the Asian Cha Poetry Contest, 2015. 

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