Wen Yiduo’s Stagnant Water and Other Poems, translated by Robert Dorsett, grew out of a project we were involved with five years ago, when Robert translated part of a memoir by the Chinese artist Gao Ertai, In Search of My Homeland (HarperCollins, 2009), an account of Gao’s three years in a labor camp on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in China’s far west in the early 1960s. Gao’s offence was to have written an essay titled “On Beauty,” in which he criticized socialist realism in art. Chairman Mao was not amused.
Wen Yiduo, by contrast, was a favorite of Mao. Writing in the early 20th Century, following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, a time of particular artistic and political ferment, Wen was one of the first poets in China to write his poems in the vernacular, rather than in a highly stylized and inaccessible academic diction. Mao considered him “revolutionary.” Thus the Nationalists were not amused, and in 1946, Nationalist assassins murdered him.
As different politically as Wen and Gao may have appeared to be, they were both artists who stood for the same ideals of freedom of thought and expression—kindred spirits, and an inspiration to us all.