Liu Xiaobo is a modern Chinese poet currently in jail in his native country because of his involvement in organizations and activities in the pursuit of human rights. The following interpretation takes a close look at his poem “A Small Rat in Prison.” Because much can be lost, sound-wise, in poems through translation, this article will focus on the meanings and themes behind Liu's words, rather than the more technical poetic aspects.
A Small Rat in Prison
for little Xia
A small rat passes through the iron bars
paces back and forth on the window ledge
the peeling walls are watching him
the blood-filled mosquitoes are watching him
he even draws the moon from the sky,
shadow casts down
beauty, as if in flight
a very gentryman the rat tonight
doesn't eat nor drink nor grind his teeth
as he stares with his sly bright eyes,
strolling in the moonlight
Copyright © 2009 by Liu Xiaobo. English translation copyright © 2009 by Jeffery Yang. All rights reserved.
Freedom. What is it? Who has it? How can you retrieve it? These questions have been asked (and sometimes answered) in many poems. In Liu Xiaobo's “A Small Rat in Prison,” we will take a look at three types of freedom: physical, emotional and spiritual.
A man in prison is not free. Not physically, that is. Our knowledge of the poet and his current predicament induces us from the very beginning to consider prison as a frame in regards to the poem. The title enforces this, placing the subject “in prison” before we even read the first line. Next, the “rat” is described as pacing, the very thing a caged animal would do. Thus Liu surrounds his readers, from the start, with the thought, feel and words of someone or something imprisoned.
You can lock up the body, but you can't lock up the mind. Though a prisoner's world is limited, his or her thoughts reach far beyond any physical boundaries. Liu's “rat” begins by pacing, as though trapped, yet several lines later “he even draws the moon from the sky”. No longer constrained by the “iron bars”, the subject has jumped beyond earth to the moon and not only reached it, but pulled it back down with him, almost as though imprisoning it himself. Suddenly the power balance has shifted, and the prisoner become the warden. The moon arouses feelings of beauty in the speaker, and conjures thoughts of flight (which could refer both to the act of flying, and the act of fleeing or escaping). The iron bars are powerless to stop the speaker's imagination, the leaps and flights of his thoughts, the strength of his emotions.
Much as with emotion, one cannot simply lock up another's spirit along with their body. In Liu's poem, the “rat”, though not physically free, has certain emotional freedoms. This allows him possession of his own spiritual freedom, from which he derives strength. Though he begins by pacing by the bars, he escapes in the beauty of the moon. In the final stanza, the “rat” is described as “gentryman”- an essentially civilized and sophisticated being rather than a savage, low-brow criminal. The “rat” rises above the situation, doesn't “grind his teeth” in anger, but stares boldly back at those staring at him. He goes from “pac[ing] back and forth” in the beginning to now “strolling in the moonlight”. He is unconcerned, even casual, and flaunting this to his captors. They may have his body in prison, but his soul is bathed in moonlight.
Why do you suppose Liu chose a rat as the subject of his poem? Because it takes place in a prison, and prisons are well known for their rat populations? Yes, partially. But is he really talking about just a rat? It is possible that the poet, currently a prisoner, sees himself as a sort of rat. Rats are often considered dirty, unwanted creatures, yet so are criminals (or those labeled as such). A rat is small and powerless compared to larger, stronger predators, and ineffective against iron bars or stone walls. These negative connotations assist the bleakness of the beginning of the poem. The rat paces. The peeling walls watch him (are they really walls?). The blood-filled mosquitoes watch him (creatures engorged on the blood of others- could they stand for more than just insects?). But then what happens next? Does he bow down to his rat nature, and become slovenly and low? No. Instead of falling he rises, and is cast in a beautiful silver shadow. In the second stanza he becomes a gentleman with impeccable manners. Now he is looking right back at those peeling walls, those blood-filled mosquitoes, “star[ing] with his sly bright eyes”. Suddenly the rat is beautiful, well-mannered, clever. The feeling of defeat from the beginning shifts to triumph. Not a physical triumph, as he is still within the prison, but an emotional and spiritual one, as he goes “strolling in the moonlight.”