Huang Xiang is considered one of the greatest poets of 20th century China and a master calligrapher and one of the pre-eminent post-cultural revolution poets of China.
Huang Xiang was literally "born in fire" on December 26, 1941 in Guidong County of Hunan Province. A fire spreading through his neighborhood reached the very wall of the family compound the day of his birth in 1941. Newborn Huang Xiang and his mother, still connected by the umbilical cord had to be carried to a nearby temple for safety. At a young age Huang Xiang began to write poetry on topics such as “politics, philosophy, the beauty of the rural provinces, spiritual life, and his beloved literary ancestors.”
Huang Xiang being interviewed in Tarragona, Spain with Century Mountain portrait of Gandhi. June 2010.
There was great turmoil in China during the Cultural Revolution. The revolution was spearheaded by the dictatorial ruler Mao Zedong. Mao was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and was disturbed with the recent trend of capitalism in China. Mao had ruled since 1949, creating unease throughout the country. Huang Xiang's father Huang Xiangming was a General in the KMT (Kuomintang army). His father was executed by the Communists near Manchuria in 1951. The fact that Huang Xiang was the son of a KMT army officer and grandson of landowners constituted a hereditary curse in the eyes of the Communists, a severe taint of a sort that very few such class enemies were able to remove.
In grade school, Huang was denied access to extra-curricular activities and made to clean the toilets, while constantly being reminded, that he, like his father, was bad, an enemy of the people. Although an excellent student in grade school, he was not permitted to matriculate into middle school, due to his class origins. The denial of a public education left Huang Xiang severely hurt, for he strongly desired to continue his schooling. His quandary was soon alleviated when he discovered a concealed attic in his grandparent's home. It contained a treasure trove of college books that his father had put away years earlier. Although only ten, he began reading them with a will. These books included the classic works of Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi, Li Bai and Du Fu. There were also Chinese translations of major western authors, poets and statesman. Written works by Lincoln, George Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and others. Between 1959 and 1995 Huang Xiang was imprisoned six times, spending a total of twelve years in Chinese prisons and labor camps all due to his writing poetry, his advocacy for human rights and his fight for democracy.
The Democracy Wall
On the 24th of November 1978, Huang Xiang and his cohorts posted big character posters of his poems on seventy yards of fence near Mao Zedong's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Huang Xiang then brushed two banners on the spot, one proclaiming "The Cultural Revolution Must Be Reevaluated!" and the other "Mao Zedong Was 30 percent right and 70 percent Wrong!" both absolute heresies even two years after Mao's death. These astonishing statements, in full sight of the usual line of people waiting to enter Mao's mausoleum, created a sensation. Promptly at noon, Huang Xiang announced the foundation of The Enlightenment Society, whose purpose it would be to advocate freedoms enshrined in the country's constitution. Huang's comments including "the death of an emperor is the death of a rat" spread across the city in an instant.
"In 1978, we "set fire" on Wang Fu Jing Avenue in Beijing. This act sparked a movement that became known worldwide as 'The Democracy Wall.' As far as we could see, the whole Wang Fu Jiang Ave. had turned into a sea of heads, traffic had become completely blocked and come to a halt: two public buses caught in the middle of the road looked like two ships stuck in a sea of people, unable to move an inch. It was the first time I had ever encountered such a huge and dense mass of people and my first time to face such an enormous communion of a large aroused crowd: a sense of excitement and thrill which was virtually uncontrollable. Emotion filled my heart and spread throughout my body. Such emotion felt like I was flirting with insanity. 'Please read it aloud!' 'Read the poems out loud!' Somebody shouted in the massive crowd. I read aloud the poems on the spot. Over six hundred lines of poetry, I recited every one of them without a stop and from memory." - Huang Xiang
After pasting up his poems in Tiananmen Square, Huang Xiang and his friends held a short ceremony there to proclaim the founding of The Enlightenment Society, whose aim was nothing less than far-reaching reforms of Chinese society. This was the first non-government and non-party, civil association to be created in China since 1949. They distributed copies of the first edition of the society's equally unofficial magazine, also called Enlightenment, which was devoted to their writing and their ideas on reform. These were further audacious challenges to the regime. The response from the public was electric. In the days that followed, The Democracy movement was born.
Two months later, on January 1, 1979, Huang Xiang displayed on that wall an open letter to the then President of the USA, Jimmy Carter, calling on him to put the issue of human rights in China on the international political agenda, the first time a citizen of the People's republic of China had dared to appeal publicly to a foreign statesman to intervene in its politics.
In March 1979. Deng Xiaoping and his allies, having gained a firm grip on supreme power, cracked down on those who had been leading the demand for Democracy in China. Huang Xiang was arrested and sentenced to a further period of "reform through labor". Later in the year, Huang Xiang was then summoned to Beijing by the Secretary-General of the Communist Party to endorse the policies of Deng Xiaoping in front of the international press corps. Huang Xiang refused to endorse Deng's policies. So, Huang Xiang was returned to prison until the following year, and the Central Committee banned publication of his works.
In 1995 the Writers Publishing House in Beijing signed a contract to publish a series of his works.” Unfortunately, after the scheduled release of this first edition, his writing was still banned in China. The ban continues until this day, 2012. Due to continued persecution, Huang Xiang and his wife, Zhang Ling, were forced to leave China, eventually they were granted asylum in the United States. (Hutton, 2)
Huang Xiang, as to the nature of his character, given his lifelong support for human rights and civil liberties in China and despite his subjection to constant harassment as well as harsh treatment, his several terms in jail and his two stints on death row, it is clear with reason that he can be regarded as a hero. Huang Xiang has suffered greatly and is perhaps lucky to have survived with his life, nevertheless his poetry reflects a hopeful view of China.
In October 2004 Huang Xiang was asked to be a guest writer in Pittsburgh for the North American Network of Cities of Asylum.
City of Asylum
Huang Xiang was the first guest writer during the summer of 2004, at the City of Asylum. This is a program that is located on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The City of Asylum "provides sanctuary to writers exiled under threat of death, imprisonment, or persecution in their native countries." When Xiang became a guest writer for the City of Asylum he was put in a furnished house, given a living stipend, medical coverage, and was given help adjusting to the changes. Shortly after coming to Sampsonia Way, Huang Xiang covered the outside of his house with his calligraphy and poetry. Today it is one of the most visited landmarks in Pittsburgh. After completing his residency with the City of Asylum, Huang Xiang moved to New York City with his wife Zhang Ling. In 2008, he returned to China to visit his friends and family who he had not seen in eleven years.
The Century Mountain Project
Today Huang Xiang's mission is to use his art to build a bridge between East and West and to honor a universal humanity. His artistic collaboration with American artist William Rock is called The Century Mountain Project. The large scale paintings featuring Huang Xiang's calligraphic poetry and William Rock's painted portraits depict great figures of humanity who have stood out like mountains throughout the centuries. As of 2012, over ninety of these portraits featuring subjects such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh, Martin Luther King and Gandhi have been completed. Huang Xiang and William Rock's collaborative art has received international attention. In 2010, the City of Tarragona, Spain held a major exhibition of The Century Mountain paintings at The Antiga Audiencia. The Century Mountain Project "creates a visual dialogue across humanity."
- Honigman, Brian. June 2, 2010. Walk Down Sampsonia Way: House Poem by Huang Xiang. Retrieved September 15, 2011, from http://www.sampsoniaway.org/blog/2010/06/02/walk-down-sampsonia-way-house-poem-by-huang-xiang.