Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Jianqing Zheng

Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Jianqing Zheng
Texas Review Press
Paper, 36 pages

By Lisa McMurtray
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

From the 1960s to 1980, Chairman Mao Zedong instituted a nationwide campaign of rustification in which educated Chinese youth, known as zhiqing, were sent to the countryside to be reeducated as farmers, laborers, and citizens of rural China. While this period, which echoed into the 1990s, created what has become known as China’s “lost generation,” it also became an indelible part of the Chinese cultural landscape. It is this time, bittersweet yet replete with images of China’s natural beauty, that provides the foundation for Jianqing Zheng’s second book of poetry, Enforced Rustication in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Like many Chinese youth during the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was sent to the countryside. These poems archive and explore his complex experiences, beginning with his graduation before being rusticated. Posing for a picture wearing a Chairman Mao button, Zheng writes, “When the flashbulb glared, I blinked. / In the resulting picture // only Mao’s eyes were open, not smiling.”

In stark contrast, the next poem contains a sort of agrarian loveliness, “summer stars / jasmines blooming / all at once.” This tension, poised between intellectual, wry observation and the simply joy and beauty of rural life, is at the heart of this collection. Each poem, while beautiful, is also suffused with a longing to return home, to the past, and an uncertainty about one’s place in not only a moment in one’s own life, but in a cultural movement that defined a country.

Like a photo album, these poems locate themselves steadfastly in place, inviting the reader to review with the poet a series of memories lit by the startling scenery of Zheng’s poetry. “I sit by a willow,” Zheng writes in one poem, “light a cigarette. / Smoke curls inside my throat, / rushes out like light blue peonies.” In another, “Cordilleras of clouds rise / and fall in silhouette / like a trail of graves, / a pale moon for a wreath.”

Even in these quiet moments of beauty, there is a constant juxtaposition with what is just out of reach, marking a line between the poet’s new life and his old. In “Before Supper,” Zheng writes, “clouds dissolve their dark gray / to lacquer the sky into a cave. / In the distance, a military march.” Escape is a repeated theme, whether out of the field (“We reap rice fast as we can / to escape sooner / from the burning sun) or through sleep.

Reality soldiers on and is felt bodily: “Hunger grows / chimney to chimney / and drifts like ribbonfish / among reefs of trees.” Throughout the collection, there is a sense of yearning and exhaustion, one colliding into the other until he writes, simply, “I am tired of being tired; / of being told what to do.”

When finally he is allowed to return home, he notes as he prepares to leave, “the room I’ve stayed in for three years / looks bleaker in a flash.” Yet this collection denies that singular bleakness. Instead, Zheng now living in the Mississippi Delta, which shares many similarities with the rural setting of Zheng’s youth, and teaching at Mississippi Valley State, rediscovers what had been dulled by time. “These crops,” Zheng writes, “reimaged the farmland in the central part of China where I was rusticated.” This past is now the landscape of the present, one thrust forward and expertly, lovingly explored through Zheng’s clear, resonant poetic voice.

Born and raised in Jackson, Lisa McMurtray holds an MFA from Florida State University and an MA in English from Mississippi State University. Her poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, West Branch and The Journal.


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