In Their Own Words

In remembrance of June 4, 1989, and the events of Tiananmen Square, poems by Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xia (b. 1961) is a Chinese poet and artist, born and raised in Beijing. She worked as an editor and then a civil servant for the Beijing tax bureau until she quit the job in 1992. Liu Xia started writing poetry in 1982 and has continued to this day.

As wife of the imprisoned Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (b. 1955), some of Liu Xia's work needs to be read from the context of the political situation in China and her personal experiences. She met Liu Xiaobo in the 1980s at a literary gathering and married him when he was imprisoned in 1996 (so that she could visit him in prison legally as she explained). Liu Xiaobo was first put in jail from June 1989 to January 1991 due to his involvement with the June 4th student movement. He was detained without trial from May 1995 to February 1996, then sentenced to three-year imprisonment from October 1996 to October 1999, and finally given an eleven-year term in December 2008. Liu Xia herself has been under house arrest since 2010.

The poem "Awakened," dated April 1997, is about her isolation while Liu Xiaobo was far away in a labor camp in Northeast China, and the "bird" refers to the one in her early poem "One Bird and Another" as published by Words Without Borders.

"I Sit Here" was written in June 1995 when Liu Xiaobo was detained outside Beijing. What's notable is the "rain" in the last stanza which responds to the first poem Liu Xiaobo wrote for her in 1991 about himself being in the rain.

Of the handful poets in China who read the poetry of this couple, most regard Liu Xia's work more mature in terms of controlling emotion and use of imagery while Liu Xiaobo is more passionate and outspoken about his feelings toward "Little Xia" in the many love poems he has written for her over the years. Liu Xia writes with understatement of her hardship yet in reading her poetry one feels her extreme loneliness as well as the optimism despite the oppression from the government.

—Ming Di

Liu Xia's poems were translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern and are from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, forthcoming from Graywolf Press, 2015.


When I woke up,
I was surrounded by darkness.
The bird in my palm screamed again.
then came the sounds of foot steps on the stairs.
The building was about to fall down.

I sat alone in bed,
hands gripped into fists
on my cold knees.
Screams gasped
between my fingers.

I had come to that moment in a dream
where a crisis is closing in.
Within the screaming, I could hear
the bird's breath.

But you were on the opposite side
of time, standing in the sunlight
watching a feather drift down
in the wind.


I Sit Here

I sit here
watching the sky go
from light to dark,
listening to the last of the sun
groan, waiting for the first drop to
knock on the open window.

One word waiting for another—
they will never meet
although a drop of rain
makes the sky and earth one piece.
In stilled time,
the spirit of rain
quietly comes down.

6 /1995

* * *


These two poems Liu Xiaobo wrote to his wife Liu Xia while he was serving a three-year prison sentence at the manual labor re-education camp in Dalian, in the north of China. They were included in his first collection of poems, The Selected Poems of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, published in Hong Kong in 2000.

—Jeffrey Yang

Liu Xiaobo's poems were translated by Jeffrey Yang and appear in June Fourth Elegies (Graywolf Press, 2012).

A Small Rat in Prision

A small rat passes through the iron bars
paces back and forth on the window ledge
the peeling walls are watching him
the blood-filled mosquitoes are watching him
he even draws the moon from the sky, silver
shadow casts down
a rare beauty, as if in flight

A very gentryman the mouse tonight
doesn't eat nor drink nor grind his teeth
as he states with his sly bright eyes
strolling in the moonlight


Longing to Escape

Abandoning the imagined martyrdom
I long to lie at your feet, besides
being tied to death this is
my one duty
when the heart's mirror-
clear, an enduring happiness

Your toes will not break
a cat closes in behind
you, I want to shoo him away
as he turns his head, extends
a sharp claw toward me
Deep within his blue eyes
there seems to be a prison
if I blindly step out
of with even the slightest step
I'd turn into a fish


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