It takes courage to be a poet during China's decades of tumult

''I work according to my conscience,'' said the poet Ai Qing. ''I say what I mean.'' If anyone deserves to be called China's poet laureate, it would be this bear-like man in cotton shoes and rumpled Mao suit, lounging on the sofa in his house on Bountiful Harvest Lane, not far from the observatory built by the Jesuits for the Manchu emperors.

Ai Qing (the name is a pseudonym adopted while he was in prison in the early 1930s) talks in short, simple sentences, almost exactly like his poetry.

''I write as I think,'' he said, answering a visitor's question as to whether the simplicity of his poetic language was reached with great effort. ''I seldom correct or revise.''

And again, ''A poet must speak the truth. I will never listen to what someone else may dictate. I may make mistakes. When I do, I admit them. But looking back over the past 50 years, I think my mistakes have been few.''

Sitting in Ai Qing's simple living room and listening to him recollect the high points and low points of his long career, one had some sense of the courage it took - and still takes - to be a poet amid the tumultuous decades of China's recent history.

Ai Qing began writing poetry in a Kuomintang prison in 1932 - ''because there was nothing else for me to do.'' He had just returned from three years as an art student in Paris and had joined a league of leftist artists in Shanghai.

He was 22 years old and shared the enthusiasms and anguishes of his generation - hope for a democratically reborn China; anger over continued warlord rule, the corruption of the Kuomintang, the lordly behavior of Westerners, the aggression committed by Japanese militarists. Snow falls on China's land; Cold blockades China . . .

He wrote the above in a celebrated poem after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. (The Japanese had already occupied Manchuria in 1931 .) I have lost the most precious days Of my youth In roaming and in prisons My life Like yours Is haggard.

''A poet can write about himself,'' he said, recalling this poem. ''But if he stops there, he is being self-indulgent. In some way, what he writes must relate to society.''

In this sense, Ai Qing is a committed poet, a Communist revolutionary. Released from prison in 1935, he roamed China after the Japanese invasion, winding up in the wartime capital of Chungking. From here, on Chou En-lai's invitation, he slipped into Yenan in the spring of 1941, passing through no less than 47 Kuomintang checkpoints.

Life in Yenan was hard, but morale was high. The Japanese had bombed whatever structures the town originally had, and everyone including Mao Tse-tung was living in caves dug into the loess hills.

Once, Ai Qing recalled, Mao Tse-tung invited him over to his cave for a talk. The table was rickety, and Ai Qing was just about to go outside to look for a tile or a stone to steady it when Mao beat him to it.

That was the period in which the party had begun a rectification campaign. Mao told him that among the many writers who had come to Yenan, some wrote works ''that could have been published by the Kuomintang. What should we do?''

''Speak up,'' Ai Qing said he told Mao.

''Will anyone listen to me if I do?'' asked Mao.

''At least I will listen to you,'' Ai Qing replied.

Mao took Ai Qing's advice, with a vengeance. In May 1942, Mao delivered a series of talks on art and literature which have since become the party's Bible in this field. The Chairman called for heroic, optimistic literature that served the Communist cause.

Along with Ding Ling and several other prominent writers, Ai Qing became one of the targets of the rectification campaign, although he insists his relations with Mao remained good. He blamed Kang Sheng, chief of the party's security apparatus, for the leftist excesses of this campaign. Eventually Ai Qing asked to be sent to the front and Mao allowed him to go, though telling him to take care and not to go ''too far away.''

Ai Qing entered Peking early in 1949 with Communist troops occupying the city and became a prominent member of the Communist literary establishment. But in 1957 he came under far more serious attack than during the Yenan days. He was labeled a ''rightist,'' stripped of his Communist Party membership, and exiled first to remote Heilongjiang Province and then to Xinjiang Province.

What was his crime? During the brief ''hundred flowers'' period that preceded the anti-rightist campaign, he had written four fables pleading, as he had during the Yenan days, for the party to show more understanding and respect for writers.

In one, called ''The Gardener's Dream,'' he wrote of a gardener who cultivated only roses. One night he dreamed that a multitude of other flowers pleaded to be let into his garden. When he awoke the gardener thought to himself , ''Because I have shown favoritism to one type of flower only, I have caused discontent among all the other types of flowers. I am becoming more and more convinced that my world is too narrow.''

Ai Qing's punishment was drastic. His exile lasted for 20 long years, during which ''nobody would publish my poetry.'' His treatment worsened during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). For several years he had to carry heavy loads and clean 15 toilets a day.

Only after the fall of the ''gang of four,'' headed by Mao's widow Jiang Qing , was Ai Qing rehabilitated, along with thousands of other intellectuals.

''I received so many letters from readers when my first poem after my rehabilitation was published in 1978,'' he recalled. ''Many people said they thought I had died.''

Today Ai Qing is once again honored as China's senior poet and vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers Association. He has revisited Europe and toured the United States as well. After seeing the Berlin Wall in 1979, he wrote: What if it's three metres high Fifty centimetres thick And forty-five kilometres long? It cannot blot out the clouds in the sky The wind, the rain and the sunshine Nor can it stop The thoughts of millions Freer than the wind!

''Political democracy is the crux,'' Ai Qing said at a poetry forum the same year. ''Without it you cannot begin to talk of artistic democracy. A poet needs to be able to work freely and as he sees fit.

Does he still hold to these opinions, especially about democracy?

''Certainly,'' he replied.

Well then, in present-day Chinese society, who should be the judge whether a poem is worthy of criticism or of praise?

''First of all,'' he replied, ''it is the individual poet himself. The poet must write what he sees and thinks.

''Then the party reads what the poet has written and passes judgment. Sometimes the party makes mistakes - for instance, during the rule of Lin Biao (Mao's designated heir during the first part of the Cultural Revolution) and 'gang of four.' When that happens, the poet suffers'' - as Ai Qing himself suffered.

''A poet often sees into the future, but he must not forget that when he is doing so he is standing in the present. Nobody can be born on a plane and live his whole life in the air. A poet must sum up his experience from life.

''You have to live life in order to be able to write about it. Otherwise what you write will be utopian, without foundation. My writings have been reaffirmed because what I wrote has been proven true to life.''

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