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In November 2004, a friend asked Pittsburgh dentist Owen Cantor, “Do you want to see a poet read a house?” He had no idea it would change his life. “There on the Northside, a Chinese poet had painted his poetry on the outside of a house,” said Cantor. “He was reading it so dramatically, it was operatic. I don’t understand Chinese, but I comprehended every word.” The event was sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P), a non-profit organization that provides refuge for writers who are being persecuted abroad. The poet was Huang Xiang, then 62, who had spent more than a decade in prison for painting his political poetry on a wall in Beijing. Often compared to Walt Whitman, Huang became a resident of COA/P in 2004, where he received free housing, a two-year stipend and plenty of freedom to be himself.



At the performance, Huang’s wife, writer Zhang Ling, helped interpret as Huang read the white calligraphy he’d painted against the dark clapboards of the urban row house. Huang often shouted and gesticulated grandly, his long hair flying, as onlookers huddled in the chilly alley of Sampsonia Way. VIEW VIDEO OF HUANG XIANG’S HOUSE PERFORMANCE

Afterwards, COA/P director Henry Reese asked for volunteers who could provide free health care for the Huang and his wife. Cantor immediately stepped forward. “There wasn’t any question,” said Cantor, who had been a Pittsburgh dentist for more than 30 years. “I wanted to be a part it. I want City of Asylum VIEW OWEN CANTOR ON WHY HE VOLUNTEERED to thrive.” The writing on the wall Soon after the reading, Reese asked if Cantor would treat Huang for his severe dental problems. “In fact, as soon as he got off the plane in the United States, Huang had said, ‘I need a dentist,’” said Reese. At first, Cantor assumed that he would be doing routine check-ups and cleaning. But one appointment with Huang and he knew that he was being asked for much more. During his years of imprisonment, Huang’s torturers had knocked out his teeth with a rifle butt. “He later told me that his interrogators were very crafty,” said Cantor. “By knocking his teeth out, he would be reminded of what they did to him every time VIEW HUANG XIANG TALK ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE he looked in the mirror.” The dentist threw himself into the difficult treatment, consulting with his staff and other area dentists, including Rebecca Pounds and Peter Masterson. It would eventually cost him tens of thousands of dollars. “The only thing that made me think twice about doing the work was the technical difficulty of the job,” said Cantor. “It wasn’t a natural mutilation that comes from drinking too much Mountain Dew or not flossing. It was like building the Golden Gate Bridge in someone’s jaw. I had to invent a new template.” More than that, he wanted the poet to be able to effectively perform his work. “He’s an oral poet,” said Cantor, thinking of the moment he first saw Huang perform the reading of his house. “I wanted him to be able to speak clearly again.” VIEW OWEN CANTOR TALK ABOUT FIGHTING OPRESSION WITH DENTISTRY



Cantor appreciates the power of art. A classical musician, Cantor played the French horn through dental school and still teaches adult education music classes at Carnegie Mellon. In 1981, he founded a classical music Summerfest that he produced and presented for 14 years. He continues to be a generous supporter of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It’s an artist’s sensibility that Cantor brings to dentistry, taking pride in seeing his dental work in the smiles of his clients. It was all the more special as he realized how much trust that Huang had put into a complete stranger. “I had to remember that Huang was not used to the most routine dental care,” said Cantor. “Even the most minor, non-threatening pieces of equipment seemed like instruments of torture to him. He was still in post-traumatic shock.” The language of peace Unable to communicate with his patient, Cantor relied on the very thing that had brought them together in the first place—their common humanity. “He had touched me deeply when I heard him perform, despite the fact that I didn’t know what he was saying,” said Cantor. “I decided that he would do the same with me. He’d understand my good intentions from the way I used my body language and emotions.” As Cantor began treating his patient, Huang was recording his experience in his diary. He wrote on December 8, 2004, as first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: To see a dentist is far from easy. After checking my mouth, Dr. Owen asked his assistant to take pictures. I couldn’t recognize the tools he was using, but I was told to stick my head in a piece of special equipment, with something moving around my mouth taking photographs. For me, it was like acting, as if my head were part of the metal instrument. The round thing moved through an entire circle in my mouth, making me worry that it might take off my head! Fortunately, it stopped when it reached almost to my ears. Without clicking a button or making a flash, a picture was taken of half of my head. I was astonished when Dr. Owen showed me the negative. A skeleton! The human head is as ugly as that? Disgusting! Until Huang’s journal entries were published, Cantor had no idea how difficult it had been for the Chinese dissident to trust his American benefactor. AUGUST 2009




Huang wrote:

I was thinking, what is the relationship between Dr. Owen and me? Why did he do so much for me? I benefited from the check-up; he did not. He had to spend time and energy and even lost money to do it. It is hard for a Chinese to understand this, let alone do it. We often want everybody to know that we did something for others…it is anything but pure kindness that drives us to do something for others. One dentist takes on a repressive regime Why did Cantor devote himself to the reconstruction of Huang’s jaw and mouth? “On a soul level, we are brothers,” said Cantor, who still stays in touch with Huang even after the poet moved to New York City. But the explanation runs deeper. “With Huang, I saw the sense of cynical impunity that torturers have,” said Cantor, who also has been treating subsequent City of Asylum writers from El Salvador and Burma. “Torturers may not kill the person, but they kill parts of the person forever. I was able to reverse the effects of torture,” said Cantor, who smiles when he remembers how Huang jumped with joy as he beheld his restored smile in the mirror. “I’m some guy in Pittsburgh who was able to chip away at the Communist regime.” VIEW OWEN CANTOR TALK ABOUT HUANG XIANG’S REACTION

Not only did Cantor feel that he had done his part to fight oppression, he had also helped liberate an important, global, literary voice. “I respect Huang as a writer,” Cantor said. “I would have paid them for the chance to do this work. It’s an honor to get a human being like that up and running again.”






In mid-April 1989, thousands of Chinese citizens poured into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, mourning the death of prodemocracy leader Hu Yaobang. Over the next seven weeks, the peaceful, student-led demonstration swelled to more than 100,000 people—one of the biggest confrontations to the Chinese Communist regime since 1949. Late on June 4, the army entered the capital fortified with tanks and fired upon the unarmed protestors. No one knows how many unarmed protestors were killed and wounded. For many Westerners, the sight of a single man facing a row of army tanks is a lasting memory of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. But how do those Chinese who supported the pro-democracy movement twenty years ago feel about the legacy of Tiananmen Square? In the United States, there are three programs that provide refuge for persecuted writers abroad: City of Asylum Las Vegas, Ithaca City of Asylum and City of Asylum/ Pittsburgh. All three have given sanctuary to writers from China who were in the country during the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Sampsonia Way invited the writers to reflect upon China then and now.

ER TAI GAO | When Er Tai Gao published his 1957 article, “On Beauty,� he found himself railing against the Communist position on aesthetics and objectivity. The article landed the 32-year-old in a camp in the Gobi desert, where he served hard labor for three years. Even during the rise of the Cultural Revolution, he remained committed to his humanist views. He was fired from his position at Lanzhou University and forbidden to write or publish. The Communist regime imprisoned him twice more between 1966 and 1989. Prison, however, did not quench the creative spirit of the painter, art critic and writer. Following the Tiananmen Square protests, Er Tai Gao was again imprisoned for almost a year. In 1992, he and his wife, painter Maya Gao, escaped to Hong Kong. In 2003, he became the first writer in exile at the first United States City of Refuge at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is currently a fellow at the International Institute of Modern Letters at the University of Nevada. His memoir, In Search of My Homeland, is forthcoming from HarperCollins. When asked to provide Sampsonia Way with a reflection about China twenty years after Tiananmen Square, he offered the following reflection.




THE TIANANMEN MASSACRE By Er Tai Gao, Translated by Michelle Yeh

On April 25, 2009, I received a phone call from Sampsonia Way asking me to comment on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre (or “June Fourth” to the Chinese). First of all, let me say that massacres are not rare in China. The 1989 incident shocked the world because it unfolded center-stage in the spotlight of international media. In the dark corners far from the stage, massacres had never stopped, unknown to the outside world. For instance, even after the Cultural Revolution (19661976), the crackdown in 1983 killed more than 300,000, most of whom were young. My estimate is that over the course of four decades (1949-1989), the number of “unnatural” deaths approximates 80 million. When we contextualize the 1989 Tiananmen massacre this way, it doesn’t appear as unique. Democracy movements in China are not unique, either. The democracy movement that ended with the massacre on June 4, 1989, is part of a century-long grass-roots movement in China. This year marks not only the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre but also the ninetieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement was characterized by the 1919 student demonstrations supporting the ideals of democracy, science and cultural enlightenment. The official government version of the May Fourth Movement is a narrowly defined “patriotism,” which serves the government’s need to cover up the deepening conflict between those in power and the people, between the ruler and the ruled.






The fact is that there is continuity between the 1919 student calls for cultural reform and the 1989 student calls for thought liberation. Whether it is the “Gongche Petition to the Emperor” in the late Qing Dynasty or the so-called “Little Hungary” incidents of 1957, the April Fifth protest of 1976 or the Democracy Wall and underground journals of 1978, they all belong to the same historical trend. Therefore, on this sad day, what I think about is not only 1989 but the tragic heroism of all democracy movements in modern Chinese history: from Qiu Jin, Tan Sitong, and Li Dazhao, to Lin Zhao, Zhang Zhixin, Yu Luoke, and numerous nameless martyrs of thwarted aspirations; from such pioneers as Liang Qichao, Cai Yuanpei, Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, and Hu Shi, to the clarion—soon silenced—of the Democracy Wall and underground journals of 1978. Let’s not get hung up on the philosophical differences among the pioneers, the flaws of individual thinkers, or the wrong turns that Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu took in their groundbreaking careers. As vanguards in search of light in the dark, their independent thinking and fearless resistance have planted enduring seeds of fire. As we memorialize the Tiananmen Massacre we must never forget them. Next, I must say that slogans like “reverse the verdict,” “apologize,” “let the truth be known,” “make amends” are moderate and reasonable, but in essence they legitimize the totalitarian regime. As a strategy, these requests might be acceptable if they would lead to gradual democratization. But, the information that we are receiving on this is that the government has increased its military police patrols and enhanced the use of the “messenger system.” (Consider this analogue: the Dalai Lama has given up the demand of Tibetan independence, but he continues to be labeled by the Chinese government as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”) There is nothing wrong in being moderate and reasonable, but it is a mistake to ignore the nature of this regime. Since 1949, victims of persecution number tens of millions. Who has ever received recompense from the government? In the past, we heard the excuse from the government that it had no money. Now, China is rolling in dough. The Olympics in 2008 and the space launches have impressed the entire world. But recompense is denied not just to the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. In the past two decades, China, like the rest of the world, has experienced massive changes in lifestyle, the environment, earth, and outer space. But some things never change. Fundamentalism is a living dinosaur equipped with modern technology. Chinese totalitarianism today is no different from the time of Chairman Mao.



Why is it that after WWII Germany could repent, apologize, and recompense its victims but Japan could not? The reason is simple: Hitler was dead, but the Japanese emperor system was left intact. The transformations of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe also began with regime change. Gradual reform should not be a one-sided wish. If we cannot practice multi-party democracy and adopt a system of checks and balances, “moderate and reasonable” will only fail repeatedly and even hamper the original intent. Finally, I don’t believe that the hard power of the military and economy can necessarily overcome the soft power of morality. Compared with the past, the Chinese people are much more enlightened. Once they recognize the nature of the regime, they will be open to choices. Instead of fruitless communicating with the government, people should have dialogues among themselves, advance their rights as citizens, promote the “Charter of 2008” (issued by 303 signatories on the sixtieth anniversary of the World Human Rights Day on December 10, 2008), and investigate the number and identities of the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. These efforts are difficult to begin, but they bear great responsibilities, have profound significance and an equally profound historical impact. The influences of many progressive media and outstanding thinkers and groups in the private sector cannot be underestimated. For example, the website New Century News and the Hong Kong-based Open Magazine (Kaifang) have an impact no less than that of any private organization. I am also deeply moved by the unity and persistence of members of Falungong in defending their freedom of religion. I believe all of the above are the best way to memorialize the Tiananmen Massacre. Living alone in a foreign land, I pay the highest respect to the signatories of the “Charter of 2008,” the “Tiananmen Mothers,” the civil rights lawyers, as well as the progressive media, civilian leaders, courageous writers, and members of Falungong. LISTEN TO AN INTERVIEW WITH ER TAI GAO on “One on One,” KNPR, Nevada Public Radio READ AN EXCERPT FROM ER TAI GAO’S FORTHCOMING MEMOIR, In Search of My Homeland, go to Words Without Borders



I must say that slogans like “reverse the verdict,” “apologize,” “let the truth be known,” “make amends” are moderate and reasonable, but in essence they legitimize the totalitarian regime. —ER TAI GAO






YI PING | Born in Beijing in 1952, Yi Ping came of age during the Cultural Revolution. He was part of the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and witnessed the government murder of protestors there. Soon after the 1989 demonstrations, he was relieved of his job at a Beijing university and forbidden to teach or publish. Even his previously published works were banned. About his experience in Tiananmen Square, Yi Ping once wrote in the November 2001 issue of The Bookpress: I came, at that moment, to understand Tiananmen Square as an altar for the Chinese nation, its towering stone monument a link between heaven and earth, between fresh blood and starlight. The murdered are our sacrifice for the future of China. In 1991, Yi Ping and his wife, translator Lin Zhou, escaped to Poland before obtaining asylum from the United States government. A playwright, essayist, novelist and poet, Yi Ping edits the web magazine, Human Rights in China. In 2001, he became the first persecuted writer to be sheltered at the Ithaca City of Asylum. When asked to reflect twenty years after the bloody protests at Tiananmen Square, Yi Ping was moved to poetry:

In Memoriam—On the Twentieth Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre By Yi Ping, Translated by Michelle Yeh

1. So far away only broken pieces of paper flying So close by right underneath the feet It’s always the same moment Ever since that night all has lost its meaning the giant city drifts away like smoke Ever since that moment all have gathered around at a certain place to gaze up at the deceased waiting for them to speak 2. Silence, more silence All words have turned to nil The blood after death has become harder with time The living with their guilt have grown old and feeble no longer can they hope for that day The continuous tracks of power still occupy the wounds They leave the hurt to the mothers letting them cry as they please in the putrid ruins


Photo of Yi Ping: Kenneth Berkowitz



Letter to the City of Asylum/ Pittsburgh By Huang Xiang, Translated by Michelle Yeh

HUANG XIANG | Huang Xiang has been called the Walt Whitman of China. Born in China’s Hunan Province in 1941, he has been writing poems since 1950 and has suffered several imprisonments and torture because of his work. In 1978, Huang Xiang founded an underground writers’ society and a literary magazine both named Enlightenment. He posted the magazine articles calling for human rights and demanding a reevaluation of the Cultural Revolution in Tiananmen Square, an action that would lead to his arrest and sentencing to three years of labor nearly a decade later. Due to near-constant police harassment, Huang Xiang and his wife have lived in exile in the United States since 1997. He was a resident at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh from 2004–2007, and he and his family now live in New York. Here are his reflections upon the massacre at Tiananmen Square:



Before the Tiananmen Massacre took place on June 4, 1989, I had been engaged in literary activities at five universities in Beijing. In 1987, I was charged with “disturbing peace of society” and incarcerated in Wang Wu Labor Camp in Guiyang, Guizhou Province. After the Tiananmen incident, I was placed in solitary confinement and not allowed to receive any visitors. I only learned about the incident when I heard demonstrators shouting outside the barbed-wire prison walls. As a poet and independent thinker, I have insisted on “singing solo” since the 1950s. I have maintained this attitude throughout my life and have never wavered from it. Ever since my youth, I have had nothing but disdain for the “great chorus”—the entire people singing praises of political leaders—nor have I taken part in the “little chorus” of cliques motivated by utilitarianism and self-interest. However, I have never abandoned social conscience or shunned moral responsibilities, whether directly through my action or indirectly through my writing. My spiritual life can be defined as standing alone between Heaven and Earth, in pursuit of a poetic life of authenticity. I have no desire for power; I seek only freedom, and I defend every citizen’s legal rights—including the freedom of expression, in speech and writing, and the freedom to publish. I embrace society and the boundless life of the universe, not to be restricted to any party, organization, or group. I pursue the meaning and value of every individual existence, the true premise of any collective entity. China’s progress and interaction with the world should not depend on political movements that have been repeated in a vicious cycle throughout history. Instead, it should be




based on the humanist spirit to increase communications between the East and the West, transform the national soul, and elevate the national spirit. China needs to complete the social and cultural reform that was spearheaded by the May Fourth Movement in 1919. In 1978-1979, the Democracy Wall nurtured a Democracy Wall culture: re-assessing the leadership of Mao Zedong, rejecting the Cultural Revolution, raising the issue of human rights in a global context, openly founding civilian organizations and journals for the first time in the totalitarian system. All of this had universal relevance and social-cultural significance. Ten years later, socially concerned college students protested against corruption, but the government suppressed them in a bloody crackdown. On the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, society and history are still owed justice. As late as it is, people today are still owed clarity of historical responsibility. We don’t want to be clay oxen mired in the mud of history, but neither can we forget the bloodshed. We must remind ourselves of the lessons of history. What we leave to posterity should be neither fiction passed off as history, nor murkiness of right and wrong, but truth that no history should turn its back on. Compared with the Cultural Revolution period, the Chinese people now enjoy a lot more freedom to express themselves verbally. But there is still control of the freedoms of thought, speech, and publication. Dissent is still not tolerated. This is the general situation. In my personal case, all my writings and art are still banned. For half a century now, none of my works can be published in mainland China. As a Chinese citizen, my work of a lifetime has been rendered invisible. This situation is hardly changing in a society that emphasizes “harmony.�







THE WISP OF LIGHT A new poem in sixteen lines

There is a kind of space that’s a different vastness There is a heavenly body that’s a different great arch Each cell in my body is an unattainable distance The unreachable constellations find shelter in my flesh in my blood Death, not to be denied rises as it slowly falls

Recently, I was interviewed by a Japanese TV station. One question posed by the journalist was sharp, realistic, and truthful. He said, “In 2008, before the Olympics in Beijing, China opened its doors to you. Your physical body was allowed in, but what about your ‘cultural body’? Please give me an honest answer.” I answered flatly: “No.” As a young man, my rage led me to express resistance in both spirit and action. To this day I have not given up the fight for individual freedom and the freedom to write, but my heart is at peace. What I feel is an unbearable sense of shame for a nation and an era. Recently, China launched the “National Plan of Action for Human Rights.” It deserves positive recognition. I hope this is not another case of “talking the talk” without walking the walk” that we have seen in the past. I hope this time unity of words and actions will win the people’s trust and let these universal values become a reality in China. As a poet, my highest ideal is global harmony. So long as the world is filled with bloody struggles motivated by ambitions and desires, it is the poet’s right to face such evils by taking on the moral responsibility of challenging them. Anyone who compromises on principles is a hypocrite.

Life, not to be denied advances as it rushes away from us Under the luminous sky over this world of dust I grow old day after day In the space beyond space alone, I blossom like a child 2002




Profile for Sampsonia Way Magazine

August 09 Tiananmen Square Revisited  

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh celebrating literary free expression and supporting persecuted po...

August 09 Tiananmen Square Revisited  

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh celebrating literary free expression and supporting persecuted po...