Does previously unknown poet Yu Xiuhua really deserve her reputation as “China’s Emily Dickinson,” or have her gender, her cerebral palsy and even her rural home caused the literary world to get carried away with her achievements?
For 38 years, Yu Xiuhua lived in relative obscurity in rural Hubei Province. Suddenly, on January 16, 2015, she found herself an overnight sensation when her poems, and her life story, began to light up the user feeds of countless subscribers to WeChat, an online messaging service, along with other Chinese social media accounts and forums.
On January 17, reporters from all over the country descended on Yu’s home in Hengdian Village, Shibeicun Town. Her telephone rang constantly, and she was bombarded with interview requests and contract offers from publishers. Almost instantaneously, this previously unknown woman had become one of China’s most well-known living poets and an Internet celebrity.
Debate over Yu’s status came hot on the heels of fame. While favorable criticism was heaped on her work by an ever-increasing readership, some critics questioned her works’ objective artistic quality and attributed the bulk of Yu’s sudden success, variously, to her gender, her rural situation and her cerebral palsy, with some hinting that perhaps curiosity and sympathy, rather than literary appreciation, were fueling this overnight craze.
Surrounded by reporters, Yu Xiuhua seemed inclined to agree with the skeptics. Appearing calm and restrained, she told NewsChina that she felt it was “abnormal that the world suddenly gives so much attention to poetry.”
“It’s no good,” she continued. “I just hope people are moved by my poems,” Yu said.
Many reports erroneously stated that Yu suffers from “brain paralysis.” She has, in fact, lived with cerebral palsy all her life, telling reporters she has always had difficulty with movement and speech, particularly during childhood, when her father had to carry her to school, where she walked with the aid of a stick. Writing was another challenge, and the physical pressure ultimately led to Yu dropping out of high school. “There was no possibility I could ever get into college,” she said.
Yu has lived in the quiet village of Hengdian since birth, along with her parents, extended family, a pet dog and her beloved rabbits. In interviews, Yu demonstrates an easy manner and a warm sense of humor, teasing a NewsChina reporter, who arrived at her door almost as soon as the interview was confirmed, by asking: “Did you come by rocket?” She also complained that the rowdy press pack had literally frightened her caged rabbits to death.
After quitting school, Yu’s family arranged a traditional marriage for her. Although the couple had a son, who is now in college, their marriage didn’t go well. Yu’s husband spends most of the year away from home in the city, where he works as a laborer. When he did make it home, the couple would fight, especially after Yu’s husband had been drinking. “He never really got into my life. I don’t tell him anything and he doesn’t care about me,” Yu said. “You can ask him yourself.”
In her village, “the poet,” as Yu is known locally, seemed to have few friends. “She’s a little introverted. Some find her difficult, with a different way of thinking,” Yu’s aunt Zhou Jinxiang told NewsChina. “Maybe poets have their own mind.”
“I don’t think I have a ‘different mind,’” Yu Xiuhua said in response to her aunt’s remark. “But it’s OK if people think that. I don’t expect to mingle with the lives of others. It’s not necessary.”
However, Yu is intensely aware of how her disability has affected her life. As a child, she was often mocked by other children for her way of walking and speaking. “Of course it hurt,” she said. “But children are forgetful and we would still play together afterward.” As an adult, she stayed at home most of the time, helping her family by doing light housework. In China’s impoverished and utilitarian rural society, Yu’s disability made her feel “useless,” she toldNewsChina, and made it extremely difficult for her to make a living without help.
Understandably, loneliness, mental and physical pain and romantic longing are all recurrent themes in Yu’s poetry. Even after finding fame, she said her biggest dream is to leave her village, “find a job” and “walk the earth” for a while. She even dodges the title of “poet.”
“As a woman, a rural peasant and a poet, being a woman is my essential identity. The other two [designations] don’t really matter,” she said. “Being a woman is my entry to poetry, but doesn’t make me a poet.”
The Internet allowed Yu to discover the outside world, particularly when some friends helped her open an account with instant messenging service QQ in 2008. Friends she met online became her earliest readers, and suggested she begin posting in online poetry forums. At the same time, Yu was also getting published in a local daily newspaper and even in publications printed in other provinces.
Also thanks to the Internet, Yu was discovered by her first talent scout, Liu Nian, an editor with Beijing-based poetry journal Shikan, who stumbled across Yu’s blog by chance. In September 2014, Shikan published a selection of Yu’s poems along with an article about her writing and her life. In December, Liu Nian even invited Yu to the capital to give a reading. That trip effectively launched Yu as a celebrity.
“Fiercely emotional, gorgeously written…direct, different but beautiful,” were comments made about Yu’s works by Shen Rui, a Chinese-born, US-based Chinese writer and academic. It was through Shikan’s coverage that Shen Rui first came across Yu’s writing.
“I felt like I was walking into glowing autumn woods,” Shen wrote. “Each leaf is a piece of beautiful poetry carrying the strength and weight of life. In turn, they turned into marvelous language that dazzled me,” Shen was the first to dub Yu Xiuhua “China’s Emily Dickinson,” and Shen’s comparatively large online fan base propelled Yu to stardom via WeChat, where thousands of users began re-tweeting extracts of Yu’s poetry and Shen’s review.
Soon, the critics were weighing in. “Yu’s poems are powerful, solid and keen, with great literary flair,” commented Zhang Qinghua, a literary critic and vice dean of School of Chinese Language and Literature of Beijing Normal University. “Yu’s poems do not utilize the abstract or pose as profound. They come straight from the heart,” said Chen Xinwen, vice president of the Hunan Province Literature and Art Publishing House.
Media reports on Yu Xiuhua were propagated online and in traditional media. A search for ‘Yu Xiuhua’ on Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, returned 115,000 results only a couple of days after the frenzy began. China Central Television (CCTV), China’s biggest official TV broadcaster, ran an interview with Yu.
Along with extravagant praise came criticism. Zang Di, a poet and professor at Peking University, compared Yu favorably to 1970s and 80s-era “Misty Poet” Bei Dao, before adding that “there are 300 other Chinese poets whose works are better than Yu’s.”
Poet Shen Haobo became one of the fiercest critics of those praising Yu’s talent. Rising to fame in the late 1990s, Shen is known for his experimental poetry featuring plain language and explicit sexual content. On his Weibo microblog, Shen Haobo commented that Yu’s poetry has only attained a “mediocre artistic level” but that “her language can easily capture the masses.” In reference to Yu’s celebrity, Shen stated that “although it’s not a bad thing, it could rather bring down the artistic quality of poetry,” adding that he felt that Yu had “turned her misery into chicken soup” and therefore, was “not a good poet.”
Such cutting comments provoked intense debate about both the relative merits of Yu’s work and, by extension, modern Chinese poetry itself. Shen Rui fought back, calling Shen Haobo “the epitome of the misogynistic Chinese intellectual.” Liao Weitang, a Hong Kong-based writer and poet, supported Shen Rui on his microblog, arguing that “the knife of the pen kills,” adding that Shen Haobo should “be discreet when judging others who have less discursive power.”
Despite his long-established fame in China’s poetry scene, Shen Haobo has found himself the subject of a backlash against his perceived prejudice against Yu Xiuhua. Thousands of comments supporting Yu Xiuhua flooded Shen’s microblog, forcing him to write a 3,000-character response giving the reasons behind his criticism. While Shen insisted that the “more populist the language and emotions [expressed] in a poem, the cheaper and less poetic it becomes,” his response acknowledged that “Yu’s poems have reached the level of professional writing…and Yu has gained the ability to produce good poetry.”
In a follow-up interview with Jingbao, a Shenzhen-based daily newspaper, Shen Haobo, although remaining critical of Shen Rui’s feminist stand against him, admitted that his “chicken soup” remarks about Yu Xiuhua’s poetry were “too casual, and inaccurate.”
Yu Xiuhua herself is trying to remain aloof from the fray. For her, poetry is what matters. “I can accept favorable or unfavorable criticism of my poems. But don’t say things like ‘she’s good – for someone with cerebral palsy.’ That’s just wrong,” she said. “I just hope people care about my poems, rather than about me.”
Yu is convinced that soon the hubbub will have died down, and “ordinary life will continue.” Yet life is definitely changing. Only two weeks after her works exploded into the public sphere, Guangxi Normal University Publishing House, one of China’s most influential publishers, produced Yu’s first printed anthology of some 100 selected works.
“Only when I write am I intact, peaceful and joyful,” Yu Xiuhua told NewsChina. “The ultimate goal of a poet is to write good poetry. The rest isn’t important.”