The life and death of Chinese poetry’s mystical martyr

Society & Culture

April is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating with a series of articles that looks at Chinese poetry, both past and present. We began earlier this week with China’s greatest poet, Li Bai. Today, we look at a modern poet, Hai Zi, who produced mystic, unforgettable works in his short life.



On the evening of March 24, 1989, Zha Haisheng 查海生 — a poet and teacher at Beijing’s China University of Political Science and Law — wrote a bizarre note complaining that two of his friends were attacking him by inducing auditory hallucinations in his ears. Zha claimed that the men were trying to turn him schizophrenic, or pushing him to kill himself. Over the next day and a half, Zha wrote other similar notes, saying that the two men should be held accountable if he were to die or commit suicide.

On the 26th, Zha gathered a bag with four books, including the Bible, and laid himself on a railroad near the Shanhaiguan District in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. Before his death, he left behind one final note, titled “My Last Will.” According to a translation in scholar Zhao Lin’s The Poetic Development of the Chinese Poet Haizi (1964-1989), the note read in part that “My suicide has nothing to do with anyone and all my previous notes will be null and void accordingly, except that my manuscripts shall be handled by Yihe Luo from October Magazine.” The young poet was 25 years old, with only bits and pieces of his work having been published.

Completely obscure during his lifetime, Zha has since become one of the most popular and influential poets of contemporary China, remembered by his pen name, Hai Zi 海子. A strong sense of mysticism pervades his work, with references to Christianity, Hinduism, and other religions and myths. He wrote about nature, but also darker themes, such as loneliness and death.

Zha’s tragic life has as much to do with his popularity as his beautiful poetry. He was intelligent and spiritual, very much devoted to his art, but he could also be emotional and naive.

Zha was born sometime in March 1964, to a family in rural Anhui. At the age of five, as the Cultural Revolution was tearing through China, Zha impressed his parents and neighbors by reciting dozens of sayings by Mao Zedong in a recitation contest. Young Zha was a big help on the family farm, and in between his hobbies of reading and fishing, performed well in school. When he was 15, Zha scored phenomenal results on his college entrance exam, and was admitted to the elite Peking University in Beijing.

As a young country boy, the big city must have dazzled Zha’s senses. He had access to plenty of poetry and translated Western books, and made friends with other literary-minded students. Zha studied law, but he also had a passion for writing poetry. Some of his early works during this time were inspired by the Misty Poets, a group of Chinese poets who wrote realistic — but often challenging and hazy — poems in the years after the Cultural Revolution. Even in later years, this group would have a large influence on Zha’s work.

While working as an intern at a court in Shijiazhuang, Zha became disillusioned with law after seeing a man bribe some judges to get a divorce. After graduation, Zha decided to work at the China University of Political Science and Law, where he started a job as an editor on the university’s journal. The job gave Zha downtime to read and write what he wanted, and it earned him enough to send money back to his family in the countryside. It also immersed Zha in a literary environment, where he met other poets and helped organize lectures by such famous Misty Poets as Gu Cheng 顧城. Around 1984, Zha adopted the name Hai Zi, and became a teacher in his school’s philosophy department.

In one of his classes, Hai Zi ended up falling in love with a student who announced to him and the rest of the class that he was her favorite poet. The relationship was brief, and ended in heartbreak for Hai Zi, but it inspired hundreds of poems. During his years as a teacher, Hai Zi took trips to western China, and developed interests in qigong, mysticism, and Tibetan culture. More of his poems began to appear in print, and in 1986, he even won a small literary prize. Unfortunately, Hai Zi also took up heavy drinking and smoking, and his love affairs never lasted long.

Between 1984 and his death, Hai Zi is estimated to have written two million words worth of work, spanning lyrics, epics, and verse dramas. For all his output, however, Hai Zi’s poems attracted little attention from his contemporaries. There is still debate today over his mental state, and why he decided to commit suicide, but one theory might have been his lack of success. Some have pinned his suicide on an idealization of death; others believe, as his final notes indicate, that he suffered from delusions. Another factor might have been a meeting with his former student; Hai Zi was greatly upset when he learned that his old flame was married and planning to move to the United States.

At any rate, in the aftermath of Hai Zi’s suicide, his friends Luo Yihe 骆一禾 and Xi Chuan 西川helped to spread his work. Posthumous publications of Hai Zi’s work in the 1990s earned him a cult following, with some fans considering him a martyr to poetry. Critics embraced him, scholars studied him, and foreigners translated him. In 1990, Xi Chuan prophesied that “the death of Haizi the poet will become one of the myths of our time.” For his young Chinese fans, who still follow in his path and makes pilgrimages to the places connected to him, Hai Zi has become a mystical, legendary figure.

We’re celebrating National Poetry Month by looking at Chinese poetry, past and present. Follow our series here.