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Translator’s Note: Two Poems by Liu Xia

By Ming Di

Empty Chairs” was written in August 1999 while Liu Xiaobo was serving a three-year imprisonment in a labor camp from October 1996 to October 1999. Liu Xia became used to the isolation and turned to art when describing the absence of her husband. “Empty empty empty / so many empty chairs” in her kitchen, bedroom, and in her parents’ dining room, where she used to go frequently with Liu Xiaobo. But in the poem the empty chairs were from van Gogh’s painting, colorful and charming. She was burning in extreme solitude but gaining a new artistic life.

There are two parameters by which we can read Liu Xia’s poetry. One is through her personal life as the wife of a political activist and later the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The other is to read her work in a larger context of Chinese contemporary poetry, and this is where we see her as an avant-garde poet. Narrative writing with storytelling was popular in the work of many major poets in the nineties, such as Sun Wenbo and Xiao Kaiyu, while the eighties were full of high, lofty lyricism. Yet Liu Xia’s writing in the eighties had a strong feature of what became a trend a decade later in China, i.e., storytelling with a sense of humor. Liu Xia was highly praised, but only by a small number of poets in those days, partly due to her personal decision to withdraw and partly due to the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square, when she stopped publishing her work in official journals as a protest against the government that suppressed the student movement in which Liu Xiaobo was deeply involved.

Her poetry has only appeared in an edition published in Hong Kong in 2000: Selected Poems by Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. We began translating her poems in February 2013 in the hope of bringing her work to a wider readership, even while she continues to live under strict house arrest and her husband remains in prison. In the process of compiling and translating her poetry, old and new, we have been deeply touched by her expressions of extreme loneliness and her longing for a different life.

Originally Published: November 3rd, 2014

Ming Di is a Chinese poet based in the US with six books of poetry in Chinese and four in collaborative translation including River Merchant’s Wife (Marick Press, 2012). She attended Boston College and Boston University and taught Chinese at BU before moving to California. She has translated many poets...

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  1. November 7, 2014

    i was hoping for some comment on the act of tranlating these particular poems. ambiguities ? uncertainties ? departure from the original, to keep the spirit alive ?

    did you find other poems inside, apart from what is published ?

  2. November 23, 2014
     Ming Di

    Thank you for the comments and questions. Notes on the
    translation process will appear in "Empty Chairs: Selected
    Poems by Liu Xia" (forthcoming from Graywolf Press, 2015).
    We felt it was more importaant to place her in the map of
    Chinese poetry first. We promoted her poetry in a special
    edition of "Sheltered Garden: Women Poets" in China with
    12 poems of hers dated from 1983 to 2013 and most readers
    didn't know who she was but were extremely interested in
    her work. Lots of comments from Chinese poets were
    received online from the forum of PoetryEastWest诗东西.