Shi Zhi: 'Fish Trilogy,' the poet as forerunner

[EDITOR’S NOTE. Starting to write as the Cultural Revolution was taking shape, Shi Zhi (born in 1949) appears today as an early forerunner to the changes in Chinese poetry that began to emerge during that time of repression and that have now come to represent the Chinese present. His life has been marked by periods of suppression and by recurrent and ongoing confinements for mental illness, but he is now widely recognized as a major influence on better-known groups such as the Misty Poets of the 1970s and 1980s, with whom he was later associated. Winter Sun, a selection of his poems translated into English by Jonathan Stalling, appeared this year as the first title in the Chinese Literature Today book series from the University of Oklahoma Press. (J.R.)]

Beneath layers of indifferent ice, a fish flows with the current
Its bitter sighs cannot be heard
Since it cannot find any warm sunlight
Why would it greet and send off the glorious day?

If there are no waves in reality
Why does it bathe in the blood of struggle?
If its future is distant beyond measure
How can it take refuge in hope?

Fish can only find spiritual solace
In sweet memory
Let its bittersweet tears
Again hold up the pale stories of the past

It is not the time for chasing blooms in spring winds
Or resting peacefully beneath the summer sun
Nor is it the time for feeling the chill of early spring winds
Or seeing the rippling green water of midsummer

But it's when nature is covered in white bandages
And the bleeding wounds have just healed
There are no more withered leaves lingering on the ground
Or cold rain endlessly falling from the sky

How fiercely it leaps from the water
To not lose the freedom of breath
How wildly it strikes back
To not lose what advantages it still may possess

Though every leap ends in failure
Every jump falls short
Yet the steely fish still has the nerve
To hold back for the final push

At last finding a patch of thin ice
Yes, it bends back like a bow and springs
With head down and tail extended, it soars into the air
So nimble, so strong

Faint sunlight ripples through the water
Gently stroking its bleeding fins
My child, I'm afraid this may be our last encounter
Until we meet next spring

Facing the sun, it joyously jumps again
Able to breathe above the water now and then
Its wisps of crimson blood disperse into the stream
Waving like red flags upon the battlefield

Suddenly, with a spasm of sharp pain,
It sinks unconscious into the depths
Oh my fish, you are still young
How can this be your end?!

Stop sinking, stop sinking
My heart babbles in its hushed voice
Finally snapping awake
Desperate, it flashes toward the sunlight

When it emerges from the water again
It has given its all
Cold lips opening and closing without a sound
From the undulating water rises a noble voice

“Never fear the callous wind and snow
Never surrender to the bitter winter's breath”
Voice fading, it plunges back into the water
Without looking back, it swims onward

Beneath layers of indifferent ice, a fish slides with the current
Its suffering moans cannot be heard
Since it cannot find any warm sunlight
Why should it meet and send off the glorious day?


Cutting a hole in the ice beneath the cover of night
A fisherman quickly sets his nets
Provisions of food and tobacco stacked on the shore
Enveloped in clouds, he waits for the blue-gray dawn

Why do the suspended stars glitter like translucent tears?
Can there be true friendship in the dark?
Why has the fish not yet discovered
That the fingers of dawn have already plucked the cold, rattling stars?

A brilliant ray of sunlight flashes
And the fish can barely open its eyes
It thaws dreams frozen in the ice
And gently wakes the fish from its deep sleep

“Oh my child, do you still remember me?
Can you call out my name?
Are you still searching for the destiny I have written for you?
Are you still searching for freedom and the light?”

Hearing the sun’s questions
The fish opens its baffled eyes
It attempts to shake its numb tail
A pair of fins gently patting its breast

“Sunshine of freedom, please tell me the truth
Is this the spring of hope?
Is there inedible bait lying off the shore?
Are there any traces of returning geese in the sky?”

Silence, silence, awful silence
It can't create even the faintest echo
The fish’s heart quivers in a jolt
It hears branches screaming in pain

Vigilance urges the fish directly forward
Infatuated with the sun’s glow
It wants to cast the sun’s radiance down across
The vague road of its future . . .

Only when all hope is lost
Does the fish see the ferocious nets closing in
“Where is spring?” tears pooling in its eyes
Again it begins its journey beneath the ice

Like the fisherman chewing food
The sun tears his insatiable nets
In the rising cloud of his tobacco
The fisherman dreams of a bountiful harvest


So long desired, spring’s revival finally arrives
The sun’s long, sharp blade reveals its power
And callously severs the icebound river
As sheets of struggling ice crash together

Beneath layers of ice, a python has slept the year through
Barely emerging, it swiftly withdraws to the river bottom
The frogs, wearing the banners of battlefield singers,
Are frightened and scurry in all directions to hide

My fish, my fish
Where are you, where have you gone?
Have you yearned for winter, and if you did die
Your body should float up to the surface!

It’s true, the fish did die
Its dull eyes are as pale as the moon
Just now, its gills moved so faintly
Only to retreat like quiet waves

It was still so young, so headstrong
Because it so fervently sought the sun and its freedom
It leapt from the water without fear of the consequences
Only to fall upon the ice, which will melt in time

As death arrived, the fish struggled upon the ice
The sun quickly hid its light behind the clouds
Unwilling to watch her child
Such a young fish to share this fate

But the fish was ready to give his life
“Sun, I am your child
Please pull out your sharp sword
Let me dissolve together with the ice

It’s true, the fish really did die
Its dull eyes are as pale as the indifferent moon
Just now, its gills moved so faintly
Falling back like quiet waves

One newborn leaf after another
Falls without wind, scattering through the air
With a faint tear-like rain
To cover the dead fish in silence

Is it a heap of sharp white bones
Or a rich storehouse of spirit?
My soul, its green tomb,
Will it provoke deep, wandering thoughts?

When the ice has dissolved
And the river relaxes its waves
Frogs leap from the grass
Pythons swim out from the algae

After a full meal, the pythons listen quietly
To the frogs’ elegiac songs
And weep piteous tears
When the frogs sing of the fish’s death

Translation from Chinese by Jonathan Stalling

Excerpted from Winter Sun: Poems by Shi Zhi (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012) with permission from the Chinese Literature Today Book Series.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The “Fish Trilogy” (1967-1968) represents one of Shi Zhi’s most well-known early poems. Composed when the poet was nineteen at the start of the cultural revolution, the poem uses allegorical language to not only comment on the complex relationship between the red guard generation and Chairman Mao at the start of the rustication/reeducation period. Note also the delicate notes of lyric expressive subjectivity which had, until Shi Zhi (penname of Guo Lusheng), been deemed rightist-bourgeois and thus had become taboo, making “Fish Trilogy,” even with its conservative folk idiom, an underground poem springing from a complex subjective poetics which paved the way for the “Misty Poets” over a decade later.