Yu Xiuhua (born 1976) is one of China’s leading and most widely read poets today. She has been described as ‘China’s Emily Dickinson’, though Yu herself is less than enthusiastic about the label.
Born and raised in a rural village in Hubei Province, Yu dropped out of high school a year before graduation. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she wrote her first poem, entitled 'Imprint' (印痕).
In 2014 Yu became an overnight Internet sensation after one of her poems, ‘Crossing Over Half of China to Sleep with You,’ (穿过大半个中国去睡你) went viral. Her Weibo followers surged from 200 to several thousand in the space of a few hours. The opening lines of the poem read:
Actually, sex is almost the same whether on top or at the bottom
It’s just the force of collision between two bodies
the blooming of a flower propelled by this force
the fictitious spring created by this flower
which we mistake as life restarting.
Yu’s work deals with a wide range of topics, from the passing of time and village life, to desire, death, and truth. Her poems have been described as “sensual, rebellious, at once lyrical and dark.” Speaking on her candid treatment of issues relating to sex and love, Yu has said: “Some say my poems are sultry […] And so what if I am a slut?”
Yu’s meteoric rise to prominence has been widely reported in both Chinese and international media. However, her identity as a woman with cerebral palsy from rural China often dominates how her story is told. She has been described in Chinese state media as a “brain-paralyzed peasant poet” who “suffers” and “battles” with her disability.
Often critical of how she and her work are written about, Yu has repeatedly rejected being read through the lens of her disability, her rural upbringing, and/or her divorce: “I just want to write poems, my poems. These poems are not written by Yu Xinhua the cerebral palsy sufferer or Yu Xiuhua the farmer. They are by me.” Elsewhere, while acknowledging the important role that labels can play, she has argued, “my disability really has nothing to do with my poetry.” On her blog, she has written “my identities should follow this order: first a woman then a farmer, and last, a poet. But if you can forget all of these identities when you read my poems, you will surely have my respect and gratitude.”
In 2015 Yu’s debut book, an anthology of her poems entitled ‘The Moonlight Rests on my Left Hand’ (月光落在左手上),” was published by Guangxi Normal University Press. The book sold over 15,000 copies on the first day and has since become the best-selling poetry anthology in China in the past two decades. 2015 was also the year that Yu was awarded the annual Poetry Prize in China.
In 2016, director Fan Jian made 'Still Tomorrow' or ‘The Staggering, Shaky World’ (摇摇晃晃的人间), as it is directly translated from Chinese. The film chronicles Yu’s journey from a farmer from a rural village to a public figure in the national media. The documentary has received a number of awards, most notably the Special Jury Award for Feature-Length Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). (Read more and watch the trailer here).
Since her rise to fame, Yu has been appointed deputy chairwoman of the Federation of Literary and Art Circles in Zhongxiang city. She has also performed poetry readings at the prestigious Renmin University of China, and has also discussed her work at Stanford University, California, USA. Yu has been interviewed multiple times by People’s Daily, CCTV and other national news outlets.
In February 2018, Yu’s work was once again in the spotlight after a national debate raged over the role of poetry and the responsibly of poets. Yu’s work was criticised by leading male poets for being ‘female-centric’ and for failing to write about the nation and ‘mankind’. In response to claims that her work fails to reflect on the “miseries of rural life”, as one of Chinas most influential poets Shi Zhi claimed, Yu has said: “My fault lies in being on the bottom rung of society and yet still insisting on holding my head up high."
Séagh Kehoe is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. They tweet @seaghkehoe and blog at www.seaghkehoe.com. Image credit: Poetry International.