Yu Xiuhua never imagined her passion for poetry would take her from the quiet wheat fields of her hometown and thrust her onto the world stage. A female farmer born with cerebral palsy who received little formal education, Yu has become a regular at book signings and poetry seminars, and has appeared on national television, in the lecture hall of Stanford University and in an award-winning documentary. It is a far cry from her rural beginnings in central China’s Hubei province.
In early 2015, Yu became an overnight internet sensation as her eye-catchingly titled poem, “Cross Half of China to Sleep with You,” was reposted over a million times on various social networking platforms. She has become one of China’s greatest literary phenomena since Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature five years ago.
The veteran director Fan Jian spent two years documenting the fundamental changes that the 41-year-old poet has experienced since becoming famous. He captures the vicissitudes of her transformation: becoming an economically independent, best-selling poet; experiencing the death of her mother; and winning a 20-year battle to get divorced.
The film, Still Tomorrow, won the Special Jury Award for Feature-Length Documentary at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s largest festival for the genre last year, and was released in China on June 18 at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
“I never thought of using poetry as a weapon to change my fate. If it has that power, I won’t use that, because I love it too much to take advantage of it,” Yu wrote on her blog. But her bestselling poetry has indeed brought huge changes to her life. After nearly 40 years of living as a victim of her disability, trapped in the confines of her village and in a loveless marriage, it is poetry that helped her find freedom and gain control over her fate.
Despite her book signings and speaking tours of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York as well as her popularity among the urban literati, Yu Xiuhua has insisted on continuing to live in her home with her father.
Hengdian is a small, quiet village of around 1,000 residents surrounded by unspoiled, idyllic countryside, although its peaceful atmosphere is now threatened by swarms of tourists, reporters and publishers beating a path to the remote door of the famous poet.
Inside her bedroom, books by renowned authors Wang Xiaobo, Lei Pingyang, Haruki Murakami and Milan Kundera are scattered on her desk. Two issues of the People’s Daily lay on the ground. “Those were sent by others,” she says of the newspaper, “I haven’t read them yet. But I think perhaps it’s time to get closer to our Party.” Yu says this with her signature loud laugh, a laugh she often uses in front of the media, making it difficult to tell if she is being disingenuous.
Recently, she has been taking an interest in the I Ching (or Book of Changes) a classic Chinese text on divination. She has jotted down notes on the eight trigrams, the divinatory symbols for “changing transitional status” and the core concepts of the I Ching, telling our reporter that she is attempting to inject old wisdom into her new poems.
As an introvert, she seldom talks with neighbors and prefers not to leave her village. She has been elected as the vice-president of the Zhongxiang Writers’ Association, in Hubei Province, and so occasionally travels to Zhongxiang city for meetings.
“It’s just a civil organization. No wage. Writers come to the meeting, flatter each other a bit and go home. That’s all,” Yu jokes.
Yu has had cerebral palsy since birth, and the condition for a long time barred the doors of possibility in her life: education, love, having control over her own marriage or career. She never completed formal education, and says she has never experienced true love. Even after marrying a migrant worker, she remained in her parents’ home for almost 20 years. She could not join her husband in the city, as there were no employment opportunities for a disabled rural woman with little education.
So she taught herself. She used a computer at home to manage her own learning and since 2009 has written poems on her blog. In early 2015, the poetry magazine Shikan tweeted one of her poems entitled: “Cross Half of China to Sleep with You,” on Chinese social media. Reposted over a million times, the poem soon made her a household name around the country.
In a culture where the majority of people are not accustomed to talking about sex in private, let alone in public, people are shocked by Yu’s fearless candor in expressing her acute desire, and yearning for love, in poetry.
The word “love” appears more than 140 times in Yu’s published poems. “Love is so distant from me. I can’t resign myself to such a loveless life, so I struggled time after time; I always fail. Physical love or spiritual love, I don’t have either,” Yu told a Hong Kong television program. “Some people even say that my poetry is ‘slutty’. If I am a slut, so what?”
Critics attribute the popularity of her poetry in part to its portrayal of country life and landscapes, which feed urban people’s nostalgia of an idyllic, pre-industrial, fast-disappearing rural China. The poet, however, says that such sentiment is nothing but an empty and vain illusion, something through which urbanites attempt to seek spiritual solace.
She told our reporter that the village she lives in is no different from the city: “They are both jungle worlds.”
Over the past two decades, what tortured Yu the most was her arranged marriage to Yin Shiping, her ex-husband.
She was married off to Yin by her parents at the age of 19, a migrant worker more than 10 years her senior. Her parents regarded the marriage as a “fortune that should be cherished,” for them it was not easy to find a son-in-law for their disabled daughter.
For many years, Yu lived with her parents, because her husband, a construction worker, spent most of his time working in big cities, returning home each year for only a few days. But these short reunions brought no happiness, just endless quarrels and fights.
Fan Jian’s documentary Still Tomorrow records the feud she had with her husband. “My husband finds my writing poems annoying and I find it annoying when I see him sitting there doing nothing. Both of us begrudge each other’s existence,” Yu said in the film.
Yu told NewsChina that the most unbearable aspect of her marriage was that she and her husband had two entirely different sets of values. “It’s like we both see the same flower on the ground. I am awed by its beauty but he doesn’t think it beautiful at all. Our values conflict with each other at an essential level. It’s not an easy problem to solve,” Yu said.
She weaves snatches of her suffocating marriage into her poems. In “Marriage,” she records a quarrel: “‘What do you have in this world? You talk unclearly and walk unsteadily, / How dare you, you pathetic, shitty woman, / How dare you to not obey me like a servant.’”
In “My Dog, Little Warlock,” she writes about her husband’s love affairs, “Drunk, he said he had a woman in Beijing / Prettier than me. They dance together after work / He likes dancing women / likes watching them swaying their hips / He said, they will scream in bed, with sweet voices. Unlike me, always silent / And cover my own face with the pillow.” In the same poem, she writes about domestic violence: “When he pulls my hair and knocks my head against the wall, furiously Little Warlock wags his tail.”
As Yu gradually gained economic independence, she started to take strides towards realizing one of her biggest dreams – divorce. But, her fame made this a more embarrassing and difficult process.
In Yu’s village as well as in many parts of rural China, a divorced woman is seen as a source of shame for her family. Yu’s case is even worse than most, because in seeking divorce, she would be seen as an ungrateful and shameless woman who ditched her husband as soon as she found money and fame.
“If she were not famous, [divorce] would be easier. But now she has become famous, she has to put up with it,” Yu’s father told the director of the documentary.
This was a source of many an intense conflict between Yu and her mother, who warned that her divorce would not only blemish her own honor but would also compromise her son’s future marriage prospects.
In spite of tremendous pressure, Yu finally got divorced from her husband in December 2015, after giving him 150,000 yuan (US $22,500) in compensation.
“Every individual is equal. Why should I sacrifice my life for others’ expectations?” Yu said in an interview with Pearl Video. “Fear of people’s cold stares and harsh words is so insignificant when compared with my longing for happiness and how happy I am having ended the marriage.”
“Disability or marriage, in the past, nothing in her life was in her own hands; all was predestined. Divorce was a significant event in her life, and behind it what we see is a woman who wants to get a grip on her own fate,” Fan Jian told Oriental Outlook.
From his perspective, Yu has turned her pain, helplessness, anxiety and longing for love in life into lines of poetry. Having closely observed her life for two years, Fan learned that the biggest desire of the poet is not poetry but love, which she has never experienced in reality.
“That’s why the poster for our film is a nude woman lying in a field. Her body is just there, aging but untouched. That’s the most tragic irony I felt in her,” Fan said.
“Woman,” “person living with cerebral palsy,” “farmer,” three labels Yu Xiuhua has been unable to escape since her poems were first recognized by the public. Yu is often referred to as “a disabled poetess” or “a farmer poetess” by the public and media.
“My identities should follow this order: first a woman, then a farmer, and last, a poet. But if you can forget all of my identities when you read my poems, you will surely have my respect and gratitude,” Yu wrote on her blog.
Popular literary scholar Shen Rui was the first to compare Yu with the great American poet Emily Dickinson. “She is China’s Emily Dickinson. Her poetry is a pure voice of life without artificiality. The splendid meteor of language overwhelms you with awe and the intensity of emotions hits you with pain,” Shen’s extravagant praise was often quoted in the media. “China’s Emily Dickinson” has subsequently become another label tacked onto Yu.
Many critics stress that her poetry should be evaluated independently of her personal story. “It’s true there’s something very genuine in her poetry. But don’t label her as some self-help role model. Keep pity at bay and let her poetry speak for itself,” the poet Li Yiliang commented.
“As a poet, Yu is sharp. But many of her poems are heavily influenced by the stereotyped writing style dominant in poetry magazines. There is no comparison between her and Emily Dickinson,” the poet, novelist and the chief editor of Hunan Literature Yi Qinghua told NewsChina.
“A great number of contemporary Chinese poems, including Yu’s works, cannot go beyond the scope of daily experience, feelings or emotions. It’s not bad. Many poets may have some beautiful poems or lines, but they don’t have a persistent spirit or faith that runs deeply through all their works,” Yi added.
Having established herself as the most popular poet in contemporary China, Yu is bound to cop criticism. She has had three poetry collections published and all have become bestsellers. “A book can be called a bestseller once it has sold 10,000 copies. My three books have sold more than 300,000 copies. I’m pleased,” she told NewsChina.
Yu sees poetry as “a walking stick” to support her “when faltering in the reeling world.” “Only when I write do I feel intact, peaceful and happy,” she wrote in the foreword of her poetry collection The Moonlight Rests on My Left Hand. “No matter how much I have been tarnished by society, when I come back to poetry, I am clean again. It is poetry that cleanses and comforts my soul.”
Poster of Still Tomorrow’s cinematic release