Poem With Hidden Protest Gladdens Chinese Dissidents


The poem that appeared last March in the overseas edition of China’s Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily, was one of the journal’s usual patriotic offerings, which are packed with lofty ideals and sentiment and often written in tribute to the party and the nation.

But for the attentive Chinese reader, there was a secret meaning buried within. By reading a line of characters diagonally through the poem, the poet’s real message appeared: “Li Peng step down, pacify the people’s anger.”

The poet, a Los Angeles graduate student in engineering who wrote under the pen name Zhu Haihong, said his composition was only meant to be a joke to amuse his friends. But his secret call for the resignation of Chinese Premier Li Peng has sparked an uproar in China, as it came just a week before the National People’s Congress and about two months before today’s second anniversary of the Chinese government’s crushing of the student pro-democracy movement at Tian An Men Square.


In China, where the largely foreign-circulated newspaper is hard to find, copies of the poem quickly appeared throughout Beijing, the capital. One Chinese journalist in America was told of a wild scramble to find any available copy of the edition. China’s State Security Ministry began an investigation.

Finally, Li Peng himself responded to the poem at a press conference, calling it “a small matter, not worth considering.”

“We never thought it would actually get printed,” said Zhu, who did not want his real name divulged because of his concern for relatives in China. “It’s just so amazing that the No. 1 paper in the country published it.”

Pro-democracy students are cheering at the stunt, one of the few times since the Tian An Men incident that their voice has been heard inside China--in the party newspaper no less.

“It’s a little difficult to make Americans excited about something like this when every night Johnny Carson makes jokes about Dan Quayle,” said Xie Wen, a 32-year-old graduate student in New York. “But in Chinese society, this is big, really big.”

The author of the poem is a serious, bookish student who seems an unlikely cause of international commotion. His home for the past few years has been a cramped Los Angeles apartment, sparsely decorated with a few posters from China. He was in the United States when the pro-democracy movement burst onto the scene two years ago, but he kept a low profile, participating in few public events.

The idea to compose the qianzi shi, or “inlaid-character poem,” was hatched by Zhu and a small group of Chinese friends several months after the Tian An Men Square incident. They often gathered to discuss the latest events, but after months of rehashing the same issues, they grew depressed.

“We felt we could do nothing. The situation was so severe,” Zhu said. “We could only talk and the people in China had no way of listening.”

He decided on the prank to lift his friends’ spirits. He composed a coded poem--not an easy task. To use Li Peng’s surname, he had to work with a word that is both a name and synonym for plum. And peng is a mythical bird, but in some contexts means, “bright future.”

For his composition, “Lantern Festival,” Zhu chose a complicated seven-character-per-line, eight-line verse form called qilu that dates back to the Tang Dynasty of the years 618-906.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Zhu said. “For me, it’s not easy.”

The poem reads:

The east wind caresses the face and hastens the peaches and plums.

A sparrow hawk spreads its wings, unfolding a bright future.

The moon reflects in the sea, bringing hot tears.

A traveler ascends a tower, remembering his home.

I shall not fail to live up to lifelong aspirations to serve my country.

The people who raised me are more valuable than 10,000 pieces of gold.

We must do all we can to catch up and reinvigorate China.

We wait for spring to spread across this sacred land.

The anti-Li message fit diagonally. Zhu bought a 45-cent stamp and, last spring, mailed the poem to Beijing.

After a year, he forgot about the poem. Then, one night in late March, he got a call from a friend, telling him of rumors of an unusual poem appearing in the People’s Daily overseas edition. Zhu quickly realized the poem was his.

In the United States, messages praising the cunning of the poet began appearing on the computer network used by overseas Chinese students. There were rumors that the author was actually an editor at the People’s Daily. Students argued over whether his pen name meant “the pig is still in power” or “roiling sea of blood.”

Zhu said the name had no special meaning. “I just laughed to myself,” he said.

Looking back on the prank, Zhu said he was happy that for the first time since the quelling of the democracy movement, the voice of dissent was so clearly heard in China. But it also has been a bittersweet affair--one that reminded him of the precariousness of life in his native land.

Several weeks after the poem appeared, the poet heard rumors that an editor and reporter at the People’s Daily were investigated and possibly fired because of the publication of “Lantern Festival.”

“I feel very guilty about that,” Zhu said. “It was just for fun. If someone was put in prison, I really regret doing it.”