Patience And Tenacity: Cutting Stone With Water [Featured Poet]

This is a column by Vinita Agrawal.

Liu was born in Changchun, Jilin, in 1955 to an intellectual family. In 1969, during the Down to the Countryside Movement, Liu’s father took him to Horqin Right Front Banner, Inner Mongolia. After he finished middle school in 1974, he was sent to the countryside to work on a farm in Jilin.

In 1977, Liu was admitted to the Department of Chinese Literature at Jilin University, where he created a poetry group known as “The Innocent Hearts” (Chi Zi Xin) with six schoolmates. In 1982, he graduated with BA in literature before being admitted as a research student at the Department of Chinese Literature at Beijing Normal University, where he received an MA in literature in 1984 and started teaching as a lecturer thereafter. That year, he married Tao Li, with whom he had a son named Liu Tao in 1985, Liu served as the President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, from 2003 to 2007. He was also the president of Minzhu Zhongguo (Democratic China) magazine since the mid-1990s. On 8 December 2008, Liu was detained due to his participation with the Charter Manifesto. He was formally arrested on 23 June 2009 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. He was tried on the same charges on 23 December 2009, and sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment and two years’ deprivation of political rights on 25 December 2009.

During his fourth prison term, Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. He is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize while residing in China. Liu is the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, his medal and citation were placed on an empty chair at an awards ceremony in Oslo. Perhaps the most memorable thing of his Nobel lecture, delivered in absentia, was the part when he warned against developing an ‘enemy mentality’ . Hatred, he wrote, can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience.  “I have no enemies and no hatred” , he declared.

If Liu Xiaobo, someone who had endured torture, imprisonment and injustice, could cleanse himself of bitterness, surely that can inspire the rest of us to live our lives free of prejudices.

The works of this dissident writer, who has just been released from jail because he has terminal stage liver cancer, have brought a hard-edged hope to people in China. For Liu, inspiring others is nothing new. As a poet of conscience, his works have refused to forget or soften memories of the Tiananmen Square. Liu’s writings are a lesson in the power of making apparently small choices in the course of one’s life. Liu decided to become an academic- an innocuous choice – but he happened to return to china when the pro democracy movement began. He said “I hope that I’m not the type of person who, standing at the doorway of hell, strikes a heroic pose and then starts frowning with indecision.”

He was arrested in June 1989, the first of four times. He wrote aggressively in prison and his words locked the state into a relationship with its citizens by inspiring petitions, arguments, charters and demands. He used memory as a weapon – against official erasures and made sure to revive forgotten protesters by turning them into heroes. In that sense, his memory became the a vinyl of realism to China ‘s projected history.

Subsequently he wrote a poem every year to mark the Tiananmen Square incident- his verses a powerful reminder of the unstoppable voice of democracy.

In a poem titled ‘Before dawn at home in Beijing, 6/4/2004
Fifteenth anniversary offering for 6/4’, Liu wrote:

15 years ago a massacre took place at daybreak

I died then was reborn

15 years have passed 

daybreak bayonets dyed red 

is still a blade fixed in the eyes 

15 years have passed

I still have nightmares 

of those departed souls

I see them soaked with blood

I write each stroke each line

as an outpouring of the tomb

15 years have passed

within the darkness of vanished freedom

I wait for the hour-hand

to point to pre- dawn’s advent

of the fifteenth anniversary offering. 


Some of his best works are compiled in Selected Poems of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. Xiafei’er International Press, Hong Kong. 2000. ‘Your Lifelong Prisoner’ – Liu Xiaobo’s poem from prison, contained a moving tribute to his wife, the poet Liu Xia

To Xia

My dear,

I’ll never give up the struggle for freedom from the oppressors’

jail, but I’ll be your willing prisoner for life.

I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love

I want to live in your dark insides

surviving on the dregs in your blood

inspired by the flow of your estrogen

I hear your constant heartbeat

drop by drop, like melted snow from a mountain stream

if I were a stubborn, million-year rock

you’d bore right through me

drop by drop

day and night

Inside you

I grope in the dark

and use the wine you’ve drunk

to write poems looking for you

I plead like a deaf man begging for sound

Let the dance of love intoxicate your body

I always feel

your lungs rise and fall when you smoke

in an amazing rhythm

you exhale my toxins

I inhale fresh air to nourish my soul

I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love

like a baby loath to be born

clinging to your warm uterus

you provide all my oxygen

all my serenity

A baby prisoner

in the depths of your being

unafraid of alcohol and nicotine

the poisons of your loneliness

I need your poisons

need them too much

Maybe as your prisoner

I’ll never see the light of day

but I believe

darkness is my destiny

inside you

all is well

The glitter of the outside world

scares me

exhausts me

I focus on

your darkness –

simple and impenetrable


Another memorable poem by him is titled WORDS A CELL CAN’T HOLD was published in The New York Times in a series on “Experiencing Death”

I had imagined being there beneath sunlight

with the procession of martyrs

using just the one thin bone

to uphold a true conviction

And yet, the heavenly void

will not plate the sacrificed in gold

A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses

celebrate in the warm noon air

aflood with joy

Faraway place

I’ve exiled my life to

this place without sun

to flee the era of Christ’s birth

I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross

From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash

I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s

about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road

I’m biking home

I stop at a cigarette stand

A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle

some enormous brutes seize me

I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged

thrown into a prison van heading nowhere

A blink, a trembling instant passes

to a flash of awareness: I’m still alive

On Central Television News

my name’s changed to “arrested black hand”

though those nameless white bones of the dead

still stand in the forgetting

I lift up high up the self-invented lie

tell everyone how I’ve experienced death

so that “black hand” becomes a hero’s medal of honor

Even if I know

death’s a mysterious unknown

being alive, there’s no way to experience death

and once dead

cannot experience death again

yet I’m still

hovering within death

a hovering in drowning

Countless nights behind iron-barred windows

and the graves beneath starlight

have exposed my nightmares

Besides a lie

I own nothing


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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