March 24, 2010

CHINA: Solitude Standing

BEIJING, China / Global Times / Special Report / March 24, 2010

I wish I could live in foreign countries in the future. I am boundless, without limits.

Yi Lei, Poet

1951 Born in Tianjin

1969 Works in Hebei Province countryside

1971 Works at a munitions factory in Shanxi Province

1982 Works for the Langfang Federation of Literary and Art Circles

1984 Studies at the Lu Xun Literature Institute and Peking University

1987 Publishes A Single Woman's Bedroom on People's Literature. A Single Woman's Bedroom is banned. Publishes poetry collection Fire of Love, Way of Love

1988 Publishes poetry collection A Single Woman's Bedroom

1990 Goes to court to defend her poem from critics Publishes poetry collection Love Poems of Yi Lei, Women's Age, Rebellious Hand

Marries Zhang Shishan

1992 Goes to live in Russia

1994 Divorces Zhang Shishan

1997 Returns to China

2002 Opens the Katyusha Art Museum in Tianjin

2008 Moves to Beijing 798 Art Zone

2009 Publishes comprehensive anthology Selected Poems of Yi Lei

Solitude Standing

By Zhang Lei

Beige beret, white wool shawl and clutching one enormous bunch of pink roses: Yi Lei, 59, stands out on any street.

She is buying flowers for a dinner party at a posh mansion. She chooses 19: the number for everlasting friendship in Chinese culture.

"No matter how rich they are, flowers are always the perfect gift," she says.

Rambling home to inhabit her plush red sofa, surrounded by oil paintings on the apple green wall of her studio in the 798 Art Zone, Yi looks more like a gallery owner than one of the country's most controversial and celebrated poets.

She pours rose tea from a delicate Russian silver teapot. A pile of books containing 300 poems written between 1980 and 2002 sits on the blue tablecloth.

Her publisher wants her to promote her new anthology, but Yi has mixed feelings about dredging up the past.

"There'd be no point doing it if I was expected to avoid talking openly about what really happened," she says hesitantly.

She means talking about the furore surrounding A Single Woman's Bedroom, a poem criticized for being "lascivious and immoral" and banned in January 1987.

The poem was, and remains, a daring exploration about feminine consciousness and inner experience that later established Yi as one of the foremost feminist poets of the 1980s.

People's Literature magazine proudly introduced her poem in an issue embracing diversity and individual expression early in 1987. It seemed to Yi and her supporters like a beautiful dawn of more open, sensuous expression.

Instead, editor-in-chief Liu Xinwu was removed from his post. The magazine was recalled. Yi's poem, together with the preface and a novel by another author, were singled out as examples of "bourgeois liberalization". Yi discovered her use of the word "breast" – among others – had made her a people's enemy.

Worse was to come: In March 1990, a literary paper launched an attack on her "promiscuous and decadent" poetry. Yi's crimes were obvious to the author: Yi had not only mentioned body parts but also suggested a woman had a libido.

Outraged and humiliated, Yi took her critic to a Beijing court. She asked a friend to report the incident in an official newspaper, and soon her lawsuit story caused a minor literary sensation by being republished in other mainland papers.

"People warned me it was a bad time to do it," she says. "I even got followed on the bus.

"But people needed to hear the truth, even though that case was never settled."


The poem shocked him in 1989, Zhang Yiwu admitted. The Peking University literature professor wrote in Poetry Periodical that Yi's searing honesty – and confusion – set her apart.

"It set the world on fire in a time of rigid mindsets," says poet Li Donghai. "The forceful impact, boiling passion, ultimate rebellion and call for humanity distinguished Yi from other feminist poets."

It took 20 years for her to understand Yi, confesses Yan Yingxiu, a critic who at first found the candor disturbing.

"Now I see in her poems the path I've come down and all the time I have been hearing from this voice deep in my heart."

Yan concludes Yi was ahead of her time by feeling unembarrassed about sexual desires and instead regarding them as healthy, natural feelings related to love, sorrow and spirituality.

Nobody bats an eyelid at this sort of stuff today, Yi says.

"But in my day, you could be damned. I had broken a taboo by mentioning women's body parts.

"I had no fear as I thought true and healthy feelings should be respected."

Being banned wasn't all bad of course. Love Poems of Yi Lei, one of her six anthologies, sold 50,000 copies in 1990.

"People thought I was praising love. In fact, I was praising human nature because I never wrote about commitment or eternal love," Yi says. "When you think you're an independent individual, you can freely express any of your true feelings."

Every verse of her 300-line banned poem ends with: "You won't come and live with me."

Cohabitation was considered as bad as adultery, Yi says.

"I was rebelling against the so-called morality by loving a married man."

She waited six years for the divorce and then married writer Zhang Shishan "to please my parents".

Ten years later, Zhang and Yi divorced. She cites her refusal to have a child in her late 30s. Fearing marital problems when they lived apart in two different cities, Yi had even suggested her husband find a casual girlfriend. Zhang didn't agree.

Four years later, he found a younger woman willing to have children and divorced Yi in 1994.


Living together or getting married is all well and good, she says, but there's another alternative: the contract marriage.

The contract marriage was legalized by the French government in 1999, 70 years after philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir themselves sealed such a deal, she says.

"For example, two people can sign a three-year contract but one has to compensate the other if they break the contract. "When the contract expires, they can elect to extend or not extend.

"Futurists say there will be no marriage in the future and babies will be born on an assembly line."

It's a bit like the "walking marriage" of the Mosuo minority group of Yunnan Province where babies are raised by the mother and her family, she says.

Self-portrait by Yi Lei, 2007

Women are physically inferior to men, says the famous feminist.

"Women get pregnant at the end of an affair while the men run off and forget about it."

Women should take up religion, education and art to influence the materialistic society with their feminine and spiritual power, Yi believes.

"Because the whole world is driven by material desire and has gotten completely out of control."

She dismisses the women's rights movement.

"When women ask for equal rights with men, it's like they are already accepting the idea they are inferior," she says.

"I never feel incomplete because I am confident and independent.

Childless Yi harbors no regrets.

"Since childhood, I've always lived my own way,"she says.

She started writing poems at 8 and later went to work in factories. Her first poems were published at that time.

After her divorce, she fled to Russia and found a way of making a living from buying and selling oil paintings by Russian masters.

Ten years ago, she stopped writing poetry.

"I think I'm going to be a painter the rest of my life," she says, sitting in a dim-lit living room with oil paintings on every wall.

"It just didn't seem that big a deal to me, and I don't need to remind people about my work because I never wrote poetry for fame or money in any case."

Self-portraits hang on the crimson walls of her bedroom. Flowers wither in vases yet flourish on canvas.

"I was born old," Yi famously wrote in her poetry collection Women's Age in 1989.

"Women at 25 are considered old, while men at 50 are still in their prime," she says.

It's not fair women get 20 fewer years, she says.

"I have always felt older than my age," she says. "As I get older, people say I look younger." [rc]

Click to read an excerpt from A Single Woman's Bedroom

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