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 The 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 葉匡政 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 on 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

Further Reading:

We Are The Wooden People


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 The Wooden People’. 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 the 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


We are the 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 … …


We are the 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


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


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 … …


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 … …


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


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


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.


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

Related Essays by Lee Yee: