Jailed activist Liu Xiaobo was a participant of the 1989 pro-democracy movement
Every year, Liu writes an elegy for the martyrs of the Tiananmen Square massacre
"June Fourth in My Body" was dedicated to the year 2009, the same year Liu was given an 11-year sentence
Friend and fellow activist Teng Biao recites an extract from the moving poem
A needle is inside the body of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, traveling along his veins and poking at his organs.
This piercing imagery is used by the pro-democracy activist in his poem “June Fourth in My Body” dedicated to the year 2009 – the same year he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion of state power.
Prior to his arrest, Liu would write a poem every year around June 4 to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing and those who lost their lives.
“He is really forcing himself to look at this in order that other people don’t forget, because it has been such a publicly erased moment in history in China,” says fellow poet Jeffrey Yang, who is based in the U.S.
Liu was a fervent participant of the 1989 pro-democracy movement. He occupied Tiananmen Square, led hunger strikes, drafted public opinion polls and lobbied foreigners to donate toward the movement.
On June 4, 1989, tanks entered the streets around Tiananmen Square and opened fire on demonstrators. Liu escaped relatively unscathed.
Two days after the crackdown, Liu was arrested and imprisoned for nearly 20 months. This was the first of many prison sentences that Liu would serve for speaking out against the Chinese leadership.
Liu is currently serving his sentence and could not be reached. It is unclear whether he is able to continue his annual tradition of composing a poem to remember those who died on June 4, 1989.
However, his works between 1990 and 2009 have been compiled into the anthology “June Fourth Elegies,” published in 2012.
Yang translated the collection into English. “June Fourth in My Body” is the last entry in the collection and it particularly stands out for Yang.
“The very last poem in the collection is just heart breaking,” he says.
The poem likens the tragic crackdown to a rusting but still piercing needle that has been left inside the activist’s body.
“June 4 was a life-changing and defining date for Liu. Besides, he has been struggling with feelings of guilt as a survivor of the incident,” says Teng Biao, founder of the rights group China Against Death Penalty.
Ending one-party rule
Teng, a well-known human rights lawyer, advised Liu in the drafting of Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto that called for an end to one-party rule.
The document ultimately led to Liu’s 2008 arrest and eventual sentencing in December 2009. In 2010, Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the June 4 massacre, we asked Teng to recite the first three stanzas of the moving poem in a recording (see above), and Yang to recite his English version.
Translator Yang adds that: “The collection is an annual return to the same event, over and over again. Sometimes he’s in prison, sometimes he’s at a bar, at other times he’s at home, but the one thing that is striking is that as the years pass, the emotional content is still very much alive through his work.”