Hollow Men, Wooden People

The Hollow Men is one of T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems. It reads, in part:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us — if at all — not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Reading ‘We are Wooden People’ 我們都是木頭人, a recent essay by the Hong Kong columnist Lee Yee 李怡 (李秉堯), Eliot’s poem, which was published in 1925, readily comes to mind. In his piece Lee transcribes in full a poem read out at a private function in mid December by He Weifang 賀衛方, a noted professor of law at Peking University (for a video of He reading the poem, see here, and for biographies of He, see here and here). A long-term irritant to the Party and its pet law makers, Professor He — a famously outspoken public intellectual — has been blocked from all forms of social media since May 2017. He uses a poem by Ye Kuangzheng to pierce the silence imposed on him.

From late November, only a month after the Communist Party’s Nineteenth National Congress, this celebrated man of conscience was outraged by the demolition of houses and businesses along with the forced eviction of migrant workers, students and service industry employees in the Chinese capital (see the report He Weifang is Pissed). Orchestrated by Mayor Cai Qi 蔡奇, this purge of the city’s so-called ‘low-end population’ 低端人口 (in other words, ‘low-rent humanity’) was the subject of widespread media comment as well as a number of essays by Lee Yee (see Related Essays below).

Contemplating the latest devastation that has been visited on Beijing, another stanza from Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ also suggests itself:

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

***

Founding editor of The Seventies Monthly 七十年代月刊 (later renamed The Nineties Monthly) Lee Yee has been a prominent commentator on Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan politics, as well as the global scene, for over forty-five years. His political position has evolved from the 1970s when he was a sympathetic interlocutor with the People’s Republic to that of outspoken rebel and man of conscience from the early 1980s. For decades Lee has analysed Hong Kong politics and society with a clarity of vision, and in a clarion voice, rare among the territory’s writers. The essays translated in The Best China are from ‘Ways of the World’ 世道人生, the regular column Lee Yee writes for Apple Daily 蘋果日報.

For more essays by Lee Yee, see The Best China in China Heritage.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Christmas Eve, December 2017


We are Wooden People

我們都是木頭人

Lee Yee 李怡

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

 

History shows that those who express the greatest patriotic zealotry are on the lowest rungs of society, but when the state machinery violently sweeps them away they are silent. [In Beijing from late November] the signs of small shops have been torn down, but there have been no protests. People have been banned from burning coal and forced to convert to gas heating that they cannot afford, and many impoverished households are freezing to death. China is still Silent. 歷來表現最愛國的社會底層人群,遭到國家機器暴力驅趕,上百萬人鴉雀無聲。小商舖被強拆招牌,不見有人抗議。暴力強推煤改氣,許多貧戶冷得半死,仍是一個無聲的中國。

Three days ago, a video appeared on the Internet: it was a recording of Professor He Weifang at a private event declaiming a poem by Ye Kuangzheng [for more on this poet and critic, see here] titled ‘We Are Wooden Men’. Before reading the poem out in full voice, Professor He declares it to be a powerful work, each line of which strikes a chord. I was also moved by it, in no small measure because today people in Hong Kong, myself included, are mostly, and for most of the time, Wooden People. 三天前網上出現一段影片:北大法學教授賀衛方在私人場合,朗誦了詩人葉匡政的詩作《我們都是木頭人》。他稱讚這首詩寫得很有境界,他誦來聲音鏗鏘,每一句都直抵人心。我深受觸動,因為現在的香港人,也大都是木頭人,包括我自己在內,可能有時候也是。

I’m copying out the poem, not because I’m being lazy today, but because the poem speaks for itself. 今天不是偷懶,而是除了抄下全首詩之外,寫不出其他文字。

We are Wooden People/ Forbidden to speak, not allowed to laugh/ Not even permitted to move/ And so our hair turns white/ Our skin darkens, ever more wrinkled./ And so on we go until the end of our days/ The darkness of night ever rising/ And, Friend, Brother/ You become ever more distant/ I’m surrounded by strangers/ Our heads cower, like those of children awaiting punishment/ The blood spattered here/ Spawns more Wooden People

我們都是木頭人/不許講話不許笑/還有一個不許動/就這樣我們頭髮慢慢白了/皮膚變黑了,皺紋越來越多了/就這樣我們走進生命的冬日/天黑得越來越快了/就這樣我的好友,我的兄弟/離得越來越遠了/圍坐身旁的都是陌生人/我們低着頭,像接受懲罰的孩子/血落在這裏/長出來的都是木頭人

We are Wooden People/ That is the reality of our inner being/ They do a headcount, to know how many of us there are/ They watch us eating/ They know Wooden People are well-behaved/ That’s really how they think … …

我們都是木頭人/這是我們內在生活的真實形象/他們數數人頭,就知道我們還在/看見我們吃飯/就知道木頭人還乖/他們真是這樣想的……

We are Wooden People/ I am a Wooden Man, my wife a Wooden Woman/ My child will be a Wooden Person, too/ Why keep up this foolish human façade?/ Why work out, do somersaults, stand on your head?/ Why grow at all/ This is the life I know/ And its reward/ We are all Wooden People

我們都是木頭人/我是木頭人,我的妻子是木頭人/我的孩子也會長成木頭人/為何要保留這愚蠢的人形/為何要鍛煉身體,翻跟頭,倒立/為何要發育/這就是我理解的生命,和生命的回報/我們都是木頭人

As we all still live here/ Crawl, beg, rot!/ What use is your delicate, baby-like skin?/ What’s the good of your puckered red lips?/ What use your shiny black hair?/ Your muscular chest, your pert breasts/ What good are they?/ We are all Wooden People/ In your twentieth year you were buried alive, by thirty you were blanched bones/ In your forties all that’s left is a desiccated corpse roaming the world/ Blood-sucking vampire

所以我們今天還生活在這裏/爬吧,乞求吧,發霉吧/你有嬰兒般細嫩的皮膚有何用/你有含苞欲放的紅唇有何用/你有烏溜溜的黑眼睛有何用/你有健壯的胸肌,你有堅挺的雙乳/又有何用/我們都是木頭人/二十歲被埋葬,三十歲已成白骨/四十歲後在世間遊盪的都是乾屍/與吸血鬼

That’s right, you’re still alive; you even dream/ Three more days and you’ll reach your destination/ Your two hands are not yet bound/ You can still betray and lie/ Just look at these monsters/ They reproduce, but what good are they?/ Look at those backs hunched by a life of fear/ See the minds, shrunken by control/ We are all Wooden People, now make your choice … …

是呵,你還活着,你還做夢/你還有三天的路才到達目的地/你的雙手還未被捆綁/你還能背叛與撒謊/看看這些怪物吧/除了繁殖,他們還能做些甚麼/看看恐懼發育成形的脊椎/看看被管制而萎縮的大腦/我們都是木頭人,現在選擇吧……

Go on, choose, all of us Wooden People/ Only death can bring an end/  Crying out for salvation,/ Wooden People dying in poverty/ Collapsing from exhaustion/ Wooden People consumed by greed/ Grief is the only song of the Wooden People … …

選擇吧,我們都是木頭人/死亡才能終止這種存在/大喊救命的木頭人/死於貧困的木頭人/被生活累垮的木頭人/讓貪婪吞噬的木頭人/木頭人能唱的永遠是一支悲哀的歌……

Go on, choose! Wooden People: let the wood burn/ Let this Cabal of Cheats reveal themselves/ Incinerate their dogmas/ Consign the ridiculous news and textbooks to the flames/ Burn all the lies and the lying people/ Look, smoke now rises from us/ It’s a festival for every Wooden Man and Wooden Woman

選擇吧!木頭人,讓木頭燃燒/讓這個騙子集團現出原形/燒毀那些教義/燒毀愚蠢的報紙與教科書/燒毀所有謊話和說謊話的人/瞧,我們自己也冒煙了/這是每一個木頭人的節日

But we must be alert for the end/ We must continue to work, we must … …/ We must solicit everyone’s help/ To allow wood to be but wood and for our humanity to return to us

我必須醒着看到這個結尾/我必須繼續工作,我必須……/我必須贏得所有人的幫助/讓木頭變回木頭,讓人成為人

You don’t believe this is true/ Wooden People, at heart you are good/ But, Wooden People, the disease has spread/ We are all Wooden People/ We are Wooden People/ Forbidden to speak, not allowed to laugh/ Not even permitted to move/ If I am to die, I will die on the path to my Humanity.

你不相信這是真的/木頭人你有好心腸/木頭人你已病入膏肓/我們都是木頭人/不許講話不許笑/還有一個不許動/我就是死也要走在人的大路上」。

Savour every line. If you haven’t been turned into wood yet you will be pained, outraged, woke… …. 細味每一句吧!若你還沒有完全木化,你會心酸,悲憤,蘇醒……。

— 李怡, 我們都是是木頭人, 2017年12月21日
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Related Essays by Lee Yee