“Mao Zedong is one of the greatest shayars,” says Zhang Shixuan, waving his hands excitedly. It’s a curious encounter. Discussing Urdu poetry with a Chinese journalist, dressed in waistcoat and tie, at a mushaira organised by the Jashn-e-Bahar trust in Delhi.
Shaiyari. China. Mao. It’s all too fascinating. A crowd of reporters surround him. A barrage of cameras is trained on his every movement. Quite the performer, Zhang obliges: Tut jaata hai kalam/Harf magar rehta hai/Paav chalte hain/Magar naksh thahar jaata hai. (The pen may break, but the word stays on/ You walk on, but your footprints stay.)
“I studied Urdu in university,” he elaborates. He speaks slowly, like a teacher explaining a sum for the fourth time to an inattentive child. The son of peasants, he studied Urdu on the instruction of the Party.
The Party? “Yes, yes, it was after 1949 when the People’s Republic was proclaimed,” he says, impatiently. “The Americans branded us an evil Communist country. We had to fight back, make friends with the Third World countries. So they started Hindi and Urdu departments in universities in Beijing in the 1950s. Later, they asked me to work for the Urdu edition of the paper China Pictorial in Beijing. I ran it till 1999, when they decided to shut it down.”
They said, they instructed, they decided. There’s no ‘I’ in his sentences. Didn’t he resent all this Party interference? Zhang is indignant. “What do you mean? We were fighting for a great society. You won’t understand.”
Poetry too, it would seem, happened on instruction. “Four of us were asked to translate Mao’s works to Urdu. He inspired me. The poetry was always there. Mao unchained it,” he says.
His eyes are shining. “I write about everything. The state of the country, the society, everything is inspiration.” But isn’t shaiyari a form of love poetry, odes to the beloved? “I write odes to the Republic,” he shoots back irritably.
The Pakistan Academy of Letters published a book of Zhang’s poetry in 1998. He takes out the book and begins to read a poem, a nazm, as he puts it. But he abandons it midway. “You can’t appreciate the nuances,” he says.
Ah well. But you don’t argue with him. On a balmy evening to celebrate Urdu poetry, this crusty old Chinese man is the undisputed star.