Poetry International Poetry International

Mo Mo

Mo Mo

Mo Mo

(China, 1964)
Mo Mo 默默 (pen name for Zhu Weiguo) is a founding member of the poetry school Sa Jiao 撒娇派. “Sa Jiao” means behaving like a spoiled child or a man moaning like a woman; Mo Mo says it means “gentle resistance”. A whimper, not a bang. The poet co-founded many independent poetry journals in Shanghai including Sa Jiao (1985) and made Sa Jiao known nationwide by organizing a series of events and by being jailed in 1986 for his long poem “Growing up in China”.

A legendary figure but hardly known outside China, he became wealthy by investing in real estate in the early 1990s, but gave up his business to return to writing in the new century. Now he runs a hotel-like residence in Shanghai to host wandering poets who travel to Shanghai and he has named the place “Academy of Sa Jiao Poetry.” He also manages a motel of 18 rooms in the Shangri-la plateau, Yunnan, in southwest China, a free paradise for poets who can endure the altitude and temperature. 
Born in Shanghai in 1964, Mo Mo started writing poetry and novels in 1979. To get a sense of what he was writing in his early years and what was censored at that time, here are a few lines from his epic poem “Growing up in China”:

We are the illegitimate children of sun and communism.
Shouldering the heavy sun, we wander around in the wilderness
where red sorghums wave and roll. We are tired.
Dear fatherland, we are tired.

Such poems riff on the the common identification in propaganda poems, songs and imagery of Mao Zedong with the sun that rises in the east and illuminates the world, as in “The East is Red”, a propaganda song from the 1940s that was part of the effort to create a cult of personality around Mao. (“The east is red, the sun is rising./From China comes Mao Zedong./He strives for the people's happiness,/Hurrah, he is the people's great savior!”) “The East is Red” became China’s unofficial national anthem, which students were forced to recite each morning, and was adapted into a propaganda movie and a play during the Cultural Revolution.

To get a sense of Mo Mo’s later writings, we are presenting a few poems here in English translation. In such poems, he fits into the Chinese literary tradition of the holy fool who is actually the hero in disguise, taking on a comic appearance or putting on holy robes to dodge the murderous winds of the political moment, like the drunken monk Lu Da, from the classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh, or the 2nd century CE Daoist wild man Ruan Ji.

Like these nonconformist rebels, Mo Mo seeks ways of creating gentle resistance in his work. But he doesn’t take on the robes of the monk to do so. He wears the cloak of rhetoric and wit, through quick shifts in oratory, sudden juxtapositions, surprising plot twists, and a use of wild and wacky parables to satirize contemporary power politics and the degraded world of consumerism.

This is to say that he is a funny poet, even a hilarious one, but he is not an unserious poet. He is deadly serious about our seriously deadly world of autocrats and atom bombs. Of course, even when his poems present himself as sitting Zen and seeking peace, the whole world mocks him – he is more fool than holy man in his own work. But in a way this is an expression of both his high hilarity and grace, and of the humility that allows him to present poetry and the spirit as no answer to the larger geopolitical problems that haunt the planet. No one is safe from the splashed acid of his biting wit, not even the poet himself. Wear your oven mitts when picking up his poems. They are dangerous as they are funny, and they hurt.
© Tony Barnstone and Ming Di
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère