The Waking of the Insects

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Zheng Chaolin's poem of 1984, taken from the Verso collection 'Poets of the Chinese Revolution', with notes by Gregor Benton.

This poem is rich in political imagery and implications – the revolutionary tide at ebb (after 1927), unrealised hopes, doctrinal consolation and the hint of a new spring.

Rhyming a Poem with Comrade Xie Shan

Hurtling nonstop to my demise, remembering my spring –
what point is there in digging up the buried texts?
‘Ox-Demon’s writings mourned Li He,
a shovel borne upon a deer-drawn cart interred Liu Ling.’

Woken insects ride the wind,
can truth be grasped from what our fathers preach?
The ebbtide etched deep marks while dropping down the beach –
as fishes stranded in a drying rut spout damping jets,
still we discuss the sacred texts.

11 October 1984


Title: Xie Shan, who appeared earlier in this section, was a Chinese Trotskyist jailed in 1952.

Line 4: Cao Xueqin (1715–1763), author of the classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber and of these two lines, admired Li He. Cao avoided a ‘living death’ – turning into a ‘walking corpse’, a careerist without conscience or integrity – by becoming a devil in the eyes of officialdom, spurning rank and fame. Like the dissipated and eccentric poet Liu Ling, he disdained etiquette and drank heavily. Liu Ling practised nudity and was followed around by a servant carrying a bottle of wine for him to drink and a shovel with which to bury him when he fell dead.

Line 5: The Waking of the Insects (jingzhe) by the sound of thunder marks the third of the twenty-four solar terms (6–10 March). The implication is that the weather is getting warmer and spring is about to start.

Line 6: A reference to Kong Li, Confucius’s only son, to whom he passed down instructions.

Line 8: A classical idiom that describes stranded fishes moistening each other with water jets.

Poets of the Chinese Revolution is published by Verso Books. Many thanks to Verso for allowing us to publish these extracts.


Zheng Chaolin