Relaxing in the kitchen of his small apartment, Fei Ye recalled the screams of fellow Chinese prisoners.
“We all saw and heard the torture,” said Fei, 28, a writer and translator of Russian poetry who was active in the Democracy Movement in China.
Fei was arrested in 1983 for printing a banned literary journal called Lone Army. A Communist Party loyalist had spotted him editing the journal in a classroom in Harbin, a city in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province.
Fei’s jailers freed him two weeks later when he signed a confession damning his actions and praising party ideology.
Shortly thereafter, Fei met and married a Chinese-American who taught English in Beijing. When Fei applied for a passport to leave China, the police threatened to jail him again.
With the help of the American Embassy, Fei and his wife, Dorlie Fong, left the country in 1986. Today Fei lives in Berkeley, hoping his public speeches and poetry will bring attention to his cause.
Fei is among 100 or so exiled poets, fiction writers, journalists and critics who have fled China in recent years because of political persecution.
Nearly all left their families behind. Many live in anonymity, refusing to use their real names for fear the Chinese government will harass their loved ones.
Many of the writers left their homeland after the Tian An Men Square killings, seeking political asylum in the United States, Hong Kong, West Germany, France, Sweden, Australia and other friendly countries.
Many are members of Chinese Writers in Exile, a new group started by Fei that hopes to support writers in China who are jailed or face persecution.
“We are like the statues of horses buried in a tomb for 1,000 years,” said author Kong Jie Sheng, referring to the famed burial grounds in Shaanxi province where the first Chinese emperor was memorialized. “We want to speak out, to write, but we have been oppressed for so long.”
The tall, bespectacled Kong is a four-time winner of China’s National Award for his short stories and novels. He left Beijing for Hong Kong last July with the help of pro-democracy allies and then came to the United States.
Friends helped him settle in San Francisco’s Richmond District, a foggy, middle-class suburb known as New Chinatown.
“Since I went into exile,” Kong said through a translator, “I’ve lost my family, my friends, my beloved books, my culture. But I have found there are so many other Chinese writers overseas, just like me. We are determined to continue writing.”
With Tian An Men Square still vivid in the minds of Americans, literary interest in the exiled authors is soaring.
“Everyone is bending over backward to publish these writers,” said poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “The suffering and tragedy is there. The blood is real.”
Ferlinghetti plans to run several of Fei’s poems in the fall issue of City Lights Review. And Fei recently signed a contract with William Morrow & Co. to publish an anthology of Chinese dissidents’ writings.
In addition, two books of poems and short stories by Bei Dao, regarded as one of China’s best modern poets, were published this summer by New Directions Books. And fiction by Ai Bei will be released this fall by Gibbs Smith, a Salt Lake City publisher.
In mid-June, eight Chinese writers spoke in San Francisco at a literary conference sponsored by publishers Ann Getty and George Weidenfeld and their Wheatland Foundation. The splashy event, held at the ornate War Memorial building, drew 80 writers, representing every continent.
During the panel for Chinese authors, heads nodded in agreement when Ai declared, “We want to write for the world.”
Ai, 31, a former writer for the Chinese army, was touring America as a part of a U.S. Information Agency exchange program when the tanks at Tian An Men Square started rolling. After Ai angrily condemned her government’s action on Voice of America, her superiors cut her wages and ordered her to return to China. She refused, deciding to stay in the United States and write.
Ai’s new book, “Red Ivy, Green Earth Mother,” is praised by American writers Amy Tan and Orville Schell as the raw, uncensored, realistic fiction of a modern Chinese woman. In the forward, Tan likens Ai’s writing to that of Allen Ginsberg.
Despite her new-found freedom of speech, Ai is careful not to further anger the Chinese government during an interview in San Francisco. She may fly back to China on a visit. “My situation is very special,” she said, slowly choosing each word, each sentence. “I cannot talk about my family at all.”
American authors are rallying behind the Chinese exiles. In the Bay Area, Amy Tan, Angela Davis, Maxine Hong Kingston and Czeslaw Milosz have read at benefits for the writers’ group. Heavyweight advisers to the dissident writers include Kingston and two Nobel Prize recipients, Milosz and Joseph Brodsky.
Milosz, who lives in Berkeley, and Brodsky, now a New Yorker, endured persecution as young writers in their native Poland and Soviet Union, respectively.
“I am certainly sympathetic to the Chinese, having lived here as an exile for 30 years,” said Milosz, a professor of Slavic languages at UC Berkeley who fought communism in Warsaw after World War II.
Last month, Milosz returned to Poland for a lecture tour. He was inspired, he said, by a new movement to publish the works of dissident writers in Eastern Europe. “Writers in exile are being vindicated,” he said.
The Chinese, regrettably, are not as lucky, he said. To his Asian compatriots, Milosz lent a word of advice: “Patience.”
Chinese Writers in Exile is working with Amnesty International and Asia Watch, the human-rights agencies, and with PEN International, a writers organization, to monitor the arrests of dissident writers.
According to PEN, 77 Chinese writers have been arrested since the slaughter at Tian An Men Square last June. None of PEN’s contacts knows if those writers have been sentenced or executed, said Andrea Gambino, a PEN spokeswoman.
According to Fei’s most recent information from sources in China, in March, security forces jailed 11 writers and poets in Sichuan province and Beijing (these are included in PEN’s figure). So far, one writer--Zhou Lunyou of Chongqing-- has been sentenced to three years in prison, Fei said. Zhou was the editor of Fei Fei, an avant-garde magazine for writers and artists.
“For Americans, freedom of speech is like having a drink-- you are born with it,” Fei said. “For us, it’s the most valuable thing of all. Individualism in China doesn’t exist.”
Like scores of other writers who live in dictatorships, the Chinese have endured their plight for generations.
Mao Tse-tung issued his edicts on art and literature in 1942, and since the Communist victory that established the People’s Republic in 1949, writers have served the party. Literature was a political tool for “engineering the souls” of readers, wrote Perry Link, editor of “Stubborn Weeds: Popular and Controversial Chinese Literature after the Cultural Revolution.”
After Mao’s death and the fall of the “Gang of Four” in the mid-1970s, a new tolerance of the arts was encouraged by Deng Xiaoping and his reformists. Literary journals flourished.
But over the past decade, the party’s view of artistic freedom has swung back and forth, from relative openness to severe oppression.
“Since Tian An Men, we’ve probably seen the most dramatic crackdown on writers,” said Edward Morin, co-editor of “The Red Azalea: Chinese Poetry Since the Cultural Revolution.” “All the writers can do now is pass out leaflets.”
Or, as one poet remarked at the San Francisco conference, writers in England are honored with knighthood after their deaths. In China, he said, writers are honored with pieces of paper calling them “counterrevolutionaries.”
According to Morin, modern Chinese writers deal with themes of alienation, isolation and “a social wasteland” of poverty and government corruption.
Many are former Red Guards who secretly rebelled against party ideology, adopting their own dialectic. Others rejected Chinese politics and literature, turning to experimental writing or Western ideas of art.
A big issue for the exiled writers is the struggle to preserve modern and classical Chinese language, observed Li Tuo, an exiled literary critic who teaches at the University of Chicago’s Center for East Asian Studies.
Li believes the language is threatened by Western culture and what he calls “Maoist language"--an “oppressive” writing philosophy that controls Chinese creativity and thought.
Authors and intellectuals, he said, are trying to overcome those influences in literature, history, political science and sociology. “Writers are in the vanguard of these efforts,” Li said, speaking at the writers’ conference.
Poets Bei Dao and Duo Duo, who both attended the conference, symbolize the literary spirit of the post-Mao era. Ten years ago, their influential underground journal, Jintian (Today), helped launch the “misty” or “obscure” literary movement, a derogatory term coined by conservatives who believed the frank writing in Jintian clouded the party’s political truths. As free writers in the West, Bei told The Times that Chinese writers face a new crisis: the “exile” of their language and aesthetic.
“We must now rely on memory and imagination, on our spiritual links to China,” said Bei, 41. “But if our memory and imagination dry up one day, how do we keep our language alive?”
Bei left China in April, 1989, to attend a San Francisco gathering on Chinese culture at the invitation of U.S. writer Orville Schell. During the Tian An Men massacre, Bei was in Stockholm, where he now lives.
The exiled writers hope their work will transcend nationalistic boundaries. One sign of their faith: They’re reviving Jintian in Europe and beginning a new journal, the Forum, in the United States.
“Like one great river,” Duo said, “Chinese and world literature must flow together.”
While the literary stars in San Francisco enjoyed the spotlight, Fei was making the most of his living conditions in Berkeley.
His cramped apartment resembles the home of a poor graduate student. A foam sofa, soiled rug and makeshift bookcase of boards are all that occupy the living room.
“This apartment building is like a Socialist compound in China,” Fei Ye said, smiling. “It is very cheap--$200 a month.”
Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground” and Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” rested on his bookshelf. On the top shelf sat four faded pamphlets of Fei’s own poetry. Although his work is banned in China, friends pass around hundreds of mimeographed copies.
Poets in China are widely admired. It’s not unusual for their readings to draw 2,000 or 3,000 people to town squares and auditoriums.
Fei believes poetry articulates the desires of the Chinese to be free of political dogma and suffering. If poetry is killed, he said, the spirit of the people will die also.
“It’s a way to show our true feelings and genuine beliefs,” Fei said, leaning forward. “It’s a way to question traditional values and to wake people up. That is the start of a true revolution.”