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Chinese dissent finds outlet in student poetry

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An ode to a youth lost to coronavirus restrictions; an elegy for a whistleblower doctor; an indictment of society for the plight of a trafficked woman – these are just some of the themes of poems written by Chinese university students that have been deemed too subversive for public consumption.

A student poetry contest in China has become an unexpected outlet for public frustration over the social issues that have rocked the country in recent months.

Poems submitted to the International Chinese Short Poetry Competition for College Students, held for the fifth year by Shanghai Jiaotong University, explore topics such as the harsh lockdown measures imposed across the country, gender, environmental issues, poverty, freedom of expression and war in Ukraine.

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Over the past week, the more socially conscious entries — a small minority of the mostly apolitical offerings — have captured the attention of netizens. At a time when the space for debate in China has shrunk as authorities step up efforts to limit criticism of government policies, student writers have been hailed for their boldness.

“It is indeed surprising,” said Chris Song, an assistant professor specializing in English and Chinese translation at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “I am surprised that they came out in such a tense environment where many poems depicting the dark sides of society, or challenging the general ideology of the authorities, were censored.”

A poem titled “Her Teeth” refers to a mother of eight who was found chained to an outdoor shed in Xuzhou, rural Jiangsu province, in a case that has sparked a rare wave of public outrage and activism online. The poet writes that the women’s teeth, which are said to have disappeared, are “the most fragile in the world”, but they “remain on the iron chain/bite the heart of this nation”.

Another, titled “Unnecessary Leave from School,” received more than 1.6 million views on the Weibo microblog even as versions of it were deleted from the platform. In the poem, the author, a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, questions lockdown measures limiting students to their dorms except for “necessary” activities such as “internships…or IELTS preparation course, the English proficiency test. .

“How about bringing home a bag of chestnuts/ Being showered by falling leaves/ Falling asleep in a school shuttle for two hours to hold your partner’s hand? the author wrote. “The pandemic has turned everything into a necessity. … Alas, the human world is full of useless things.

A poem titled “A Record of History” opens with the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was punished for trying to alert others to the dangers of coronavirus. His death has become a rallying point for free speech and transparency. The poem goes on to describe the death of a nurse, likely a reference to a Shanghai nurse who died of an asthma attack after her hospital refused to treat her due to lockdown measures.

The poems, posted amid a coronavirus outbreak, have struck a chord with residents stuck at home under strict lockdown measures in more than 30 provinces and regions across the country. Under confusing and often conflicting covid controls, many residents found themselves without sufficient food or unable to seek medical help.

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“That nerdy old uncle was sobbing as he read those poems. The children are too good. No puns, no abbreviations, no fear,” wrote a person with more than 1.7 million followers on the platform, who posts under the pen name Zhuang Wuxie.

“In recent years we have said and heard this term ‘unnecessary’ too often,” wrote one fan, referring to official instructions not to travel or leave home unnecessarily. “We never thought about how we miss more than just a spring.”

The student verses are an example of dissent that has become increasingly visible as public patience with the government’s strict zero-covid policy wanes. Netizens on Friday overtook official efforts to censor a six-minute video titled “Voices of April” that featured audio recordings of Shanghai residents begging for food or help for sick relatives.

Shanghai police last week shut down 30 online groups and investigated or punished more than 20 people for spreading “covid-related rumours”. Photos posted online showed an LED sign in Beijing warning residents not to ‘express opinions online’ about the government’s covid policy.

By Friday, Jiaotong University had taken down the poems and disabled comments for most users. The university said the competition is in the next stage of judging, with winners to be announced in June. Earlier in the week, “Her Teeth”, “Unnecessary Leave from School” and “History of Record” appeared to have been censored on Weibo. Netizens posted screenshots of the censored poems, including photos of their handwritten versions.

In comments under the original post from Jiaotong University, netizens asked why some of the poems disappeared. “Thank you all for your support and attention,” the university wrote in a message Thursday. “Poetry soothes people’s hearts and gives them peace. We believe that in the company of poetry, we will all go further.

Other poems exploring sensitive themes seemed to have escaped censorship. An entry titled “Buried with the Dead” explored the exploitation of women to produce children – another reference to the case of Xuzhou’s mother as well as broader government efforts to promote having more children. children. The poem “Linguists” describes a world of doublespeak where residents’ vocabularies are limited and when they speak it is as if they are fish “blowing bubbles” in silence. A poem entitled “kyiv” seems to speak from the perspective of Ukrainians and criticizes the spectators of the war.

As subversive as the poems sound, the idea of ​​confronting the government was probably far from the minds of the writers, Song says. A student writer whose poems had been shortlisted spoke to the Washington Post, then backed out after speaking to other members of his poetry club, concerned about appearing in foreign media. The author of the poem “Unnecessary Leave from School” also declined to be interviewed.

“They found in poetry a powerful channel of emotional outlet in very difficult days,” Song said.

The most fragile in the world

Can’t chew the misery she didn’t deserve

For the chewing gum to shoot ’em all up

Biting the heart of this nation

The chess pieces are placed, cold

Dusk light rises to the door

In the distance some revel in an ancient ritual

In peals of laughter, a bomb explodes

Shrapnel through my lover’s skull.

Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report. Poems translated by Chris Song.