[FEATURE] “Wuhan Punk” by Alistair Noon

“Wuhan Punk” was first published in Issue 2 (February 2008) of the Hong Kong-based Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

Wuhan Punk

contrib_alistairnoonby Alistair Noon


Ko-Jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
His lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.

If Li Bai (701-762 C.E) was now standing at the spot which inspired the poem above, he would be seeing a great deal more than “the long Kiang” stretching away. To his left would be the newest version of the Yellow Crane Tower (or “Ko-kaku-ro”), destroyed and rebuilt again and again over the course of two millennia. Its current status is that of a “scenic spot”, Chinglish for officially developed and sanctioned tourist attraction, replete with ample retail opportunities. And it would be not the smoke-flowers “blurred over the river”, but quite possibly the entire central business district of Wuhan, a city with a population of seven million. On the opposite bank the mist might reveal the thicket of office blocks, the tallest of which, Jiali Plaza is, at least for now, the city’s real leitmotif. And it would not be a lone sail blotting the horizon, but major river shipping, passing through on its way from Shanghai to Chongqing. A few hundred kilometres upstream is the Three Gorges Dam project, now well and truly underway: buildings blasted, population relocated, the water rising, the gorges shrinking.

The poem’s translation is Ezra Pound’s, and has annoyed generations of sinologists for its Sex Pistols-like rejection of semantic fidelity in favour of energy pure. Through Ernest Fenellosa’s notes, derived themselves from Japanese scholarship, Pound ascribed the poem to “Rihaku”, a Japanese hearing of the name of the poet transliterated into English until recently as Li Po. With the ascendancy in the Sinophone world of the Latin-based pinyin system, introduced by the Chinese communists in 1958 to improve literacy, a poet named Li Bai has begun to appear in Anglo-Saxon discourse. “Kiang” is an older transliteration of jiang, or “river”, Changjiang or “Long River” being the most common Chinese name for the Yangtze. “Ko-kaku-ro” is a Japanese reading of characters which contemporary speakers of Mandarin Chinese would read as huang (yellow) he (crane) lou (tower), notwithstanding tones.

Wuhan’s name has escaped this mess of transliterations. Wuhan is Wuhan is Wuhan, an amalgam of three large districts: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. Like George Orwell’s “Minpeace”, or Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Massolit”, both satirizing another regime’s penchant for syllabic neologisms, the city’s name makes no bones about its artificiality. Wuchang is “the prosperous field”; Hankou (Manhattan to Wuchang’s Brooklyn), the mouth of the Han river, a tributary of the Yangtze; Hanyang, the sunny side of the Han river. “Wuhan” has varying connotations. For inhabitants of the province Hubei, it’s the nearest big city, desirable place of residence, and source of higher education:  the city is host to – among many other schools and colleges – the Wuhan High Voltage Research Institute, the Wuhan University of River Transportation, and the Air Force Radar Institute. For non-Wuhanese Chinese, it’s one of the country’s largest cities, an important transportation hub, and the setting of the 1911 Wuhan Uprising that augured the end of the final imperial dynasty. For Western residents of Beijing and Shanghai, it’s a provincial hole and a byword for exactly where you don’t want to obtain employment. For the majority of Westerners with no connection to China, it’s a name no more familiar than those of hundreds of thousands of Chinese villages. And for connoisseurs of the international punk scene, it’s a centre of Chinese punk and hardcore, second only to Beijing. Shitdog, Die Happy, Cake of Life and Four Hundred Blows are or were – line-ups in these bands changing as fast as the Wuhan skyline – all based here. The rise of an urban middle class in China has brought with it, if on a small scale, a concomitant disaffected youth with enough money to buy Gibson copies and Zildjian cymbals.

But the real punks in the city are the taxi drivers auditioning as stunt-men, with unwilling extras in the back. Oncoming traffic is no obstacle to attempts to beat the car in front. And if there is a rule against overtaking on the inside, then Wuhan Punk spits on it. Lanes here are as flexible as the ideal working arrangement in the 21st century. Bus drivers are professors of breakneck public transport; four-wheel drives stall in the middle of the traffic; a silver minibus skews to a stop across two lanes. A red Alfa Romeo, built under licence, shears into a column of cyclists who halt momentarily, then swerve around it. Cars and buses cut off down bike lanes; cyclists take diagonal trajectories across four-lane highways. No one gives a chun. Brakes and bumps. Trucks negotiate alleys, threatening to crush plywood crates of oranges. Chunky scooters arc along pavements. Taxis hoot their way like wedding processions down alleys, tooting pedestrians and cyclists out of their path. Pedestrians jaywalk the great boulevards, along which there also exists a kind of linguistic punkishness, a post-colonial semantic decentralism: signs atop tower blocks read WUHAN SWAB SCENE, EAGER TANGENCY and DEPURATE WUHAN BEAUTIFY HOMESTEAD.

Also unmissable from the spot where Li Bai bid farewell to Meng Haoran (“Ko-Jin”) is the Number One Bridge across the Yangtze. Like its more famous counterpart 700 kilometres downstream at Nanjing, this bridge was built according to Soviet blueprints but completed by the Chinese alone when Khrushchev withdrew all Soviet advisors in 1958. From the point, marked by pillboxes, that the bridge actually crosses the water, and you really sense the space beneath you, to the point of reaching the other side, the taxi metre clocks up a good kilometre. The Yangtze Patrol sailed up here for the best part of a century, beginning with the looming-into-view of the USS Saginaw in 1861. Just over a hundred years later, in 1966, a 73 year-old Mao would take a media-savvy swim here as a symbolic kick-off to, or perhaps appropriation of the Cultural Revolution. It is not reported whether he was accompanied by any of the Yangtze dolphins which still swam in the river at the time. Near-blind sonar-guided bats of the water, they are now as good as extinct. Their habitat has been destroyed by the exponents of development: water pollution, the lowering of river levels by the Three Gorges Dam, and acoustic pollution from shipping. Nicknamed the goddess of the Yangtze, the species plays something of the role in the country’s continuing Economic Revolution that the smashed statues of Buddha and Confucius played in the Cultural Revolution. This time round though, the sacrifice is not deliberate but incidental, the welfare of these animals simply not on the agenda.

Ferries criss-cross the muddy, sluggish waters. Lining the banks are the flood defences, concrete piles sloping into the water. Crammed along both sides of the river are the new entertainment districts with their neon signs, cruising taxis, and bar staff paid the equivalent of 50 US cents an hour. There is no punk here, but karaoke, disco and the central institution of Chinese culture: the restaurant.

On the far side, as we look away with Li Bai, amongst the high-rises of that central business district are the last few remaining tenements from the Colonial period that the USS Saginaw helped to establish and maintain (in cooperation with the Brits, then as now reliable allies, who put down riots here in the 1920s). As in Shanghai and other, mainly coastal Chinese cities, part of Wuhan was a foreign concession, an expanded and involuntarily granted trade mission backed-up militarily, in which the foreign denizens enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Despite the bombing of the city by a later wave of colonizers, the invading Japanese forces in the 1930s, the grand imperial banks, shipping agencies and insurance offices that the Western colonialists had local labourers build for them are intact. The teak wood and Jugendstil lamps remain, and the buildings still function as offices. Binding architectural to political hegemony, they eschew any kowtow to local traditions and would not look out of place in London, Paris, Berlin or Moscow. The red-brick tenements on the other hand – three floors high, and with grimy windows, odd bits of ornamental plaster, and balconies lunging out at awkward angles – are doomed to the wrecking crane, or to use a slogan from 1970s London, NO FUTURE.


The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is yellow crane tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The river is clear in Hanyang by the trees,
And fragrant grass grows thick on parrot isle.
In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies,
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.

Li Bai’s poem was neither the first nor the last to be written about the Yellow Crane Tower. The most famous was penned by another Tang Dynasty poet, Cui Hao (704-754 C.E.). The first line alludes to one of the legends about the tower’s origins. Long ago, a group of farmers, both young and old, were sitting on Snake Hill, relaxing and chatting. They saw an old man with grey hair and a long beard slowly flying down to the top of the hill on a yellow crane. One of the farmboys approached him, and asked the old man who he was and where he had come from. “My name is Wang Zi’an, and I come from over there”, he said, gesturing up to the blue sky. Then he remounted the yellow crane, which then carried him away into the clouds. One of the older farmers said: “There are white cranes and brown cranes and red-crowned cranes in the human world. But this yellow crane must be a fairy crane”. And another farmer said: “We should commemorate the strange sight that we have seen”. And thus a tower was built on the hill.

Another, more commercially minded legend relates how a young man named Xin owned a wine shop in Wuchang. One day, a Taoist monk, in gratitude for free wine, drew a magic yellow crane on the wall of the wine shop. The magic crane would dance whenever it heard clapping. Thousands of people from all around came to see it, and the wine shop was never empty. Ten years later the Taoist monk returned, playing a flute. He climbed onto the back of the yellow crane and the two flew away. In memory of the yellow crane the Xin family built the tower.


Wide, wide flow the nine streams through the land,
Dark, dark threads the line from south to north.
Blurred in the thick haze of the misty rain
Tortoise and Snake hold the great river locked.

The yellow crane is gone, who knows whither?
Only this tower remains a haunt for visitors.
I pledge my wine to the surging torrent,
The tide of my heart swells with the waves.

Two hills face each other at opposite ends of the Number One Bridge: Snake Hill, topped by the Yellow Crane Tower; and Tortoise Hill, onto which a TV relay tower – once Asia’s tallest structure – has been stuck like a chopstick into a bowl of rice. Travelling eastwards through the prosperous fields of Wuchang, you follow one of the wide, wide boulevards with their six lanes of hooting traffic, past the tower blocks garnished with hoardings that urge the masses on to eager tangency and the homestead’s beautification, past further hills and two of the handful of temples to have survived both Cultural and Economic Revolutions, until you reach the East Lake. More or less on the city’s outskirts (which are continuing to ripple out), the Donghu is a shallow, static, enclosed expanse of water, a yin to the Yangtze’s “surging torrent”. Along the lake’s western banks, hawkers retail dried fish and hammocks. In uniforms recalling the era of imperial banks, restaurant doormen sortie out onto the road to flag down passing cars, cajoling drivers and passengers to dine at the lakeside eating establishments, which are rumoured to double as brothels. A causeway leads to where, still within the city limits, farmers keep pigs. The city’s rich kids whizz along here in their black Audis to reach the eastern banks of the lake, where there is some respite from the bustle of the six-lane highways. The haze on the far side is one augur of the periodic headaches that inhabitants of the city are likely to suffer from. Although water quality is unreliable, swimming is more of a pleasure here than in the Long River.

Mao was a big swimmer. He probably trained for that Yangtze swim in the swimming pool of his Wuhan residence, which he would refer to as the “Home of the White Clouds and Yellow Cranes”. Another poet to let his imagination be tickled by the myths of origin surrounding the tower, Mao hatched his Yellow Crane poem in 1927. The main building itself, set by the bank of the East Lake, is a grey, low, 1960s functionalist structure. In some ways, however, it’s reminiscent of Buckingham Palace: centre of a walled, gated settlement, with spacious park grounds for walks with visiting statesmen, in the middle of frenetic urban action. The swimming pool might not be Olympic length, but it’s certainly bigger than your average middle-class pool in the suburbs of, say, Sydney or Melbourne. As well as doing some serious swimming, Mao holed up here for the period immediately preceding the Cultural Revolution; some suggest, to plan it.

Not far from Mao’s residence, on one of the hills overlooking the East Lake, are the leafy grounds of Wuhan University. Among the Nationalist-era buildings that combine traditional upturned eaves with no-frills modernism, there are numerous cherry trees, planted in the 1930s by the Japanese occupying forces. A pleasantly shady area for walks, or for conducting interfactional fighting during the Cultural Revolution. In part as a result of censorship and political taboos, there is as much agreement about the basic facts of that upheaval – when it began and ended, and who started it – as there is to the origin of the Yellow Crane Tower. Was it a Machiavellian plot on Mao’s part to regain the influence he had lost to his critics during the 1960s, following the equally controversial Great Leap Forward? Or a spontaneous uprising by the country’s youth, rebelling against an entrenched party bureaucracy? From beneath another pagoda on a hill, at Yan’an in northern China, the Communist guerrillas had forayed out from their loess caves in the 1930s and 40s to fight the Nationalists and the Japanese. This period became a staple of post-revolutionary cinema. Fed on these images, and yet excluded from power structures, did 1960s Chinese youth engage in a teenage rebellion? Was this Chinese Flower Power? If so, many would see those flowers as fleurs du mal: humiliated, beaten teachers; musicians burying their ancient instruments; petty conflicts played out under the pretext of revolution. Chinese Punk? Anarchy, of the worst kind, in the People’s Republic.

Through the centre of the campus, a wooded hill elongates over a couple of kilometres. The ridge path rises and falls, occasionally passing what were once dugouts: the remains of the 1967 Wuhan Incident. This is where rival factions of Cultural Revolutionaries fought each other with live ammunition. In the 20th century, Wuhan’s tradition of insurgency began with the 1911 uprising, which kicked off in the officers’ training school in Wuchang, near the Yangtze and under the shadow of the Yellow Crane Tower. This was the bugle call for the revolution that ended the 400-year old Qing Dynasty and two thousand years of (somewhat intermittent) imperial hegemony. Anti-authoritarianism continued with the mass protests, or “disturbances” as they are described in foreign accounts, around the foreign concessions in the 1920s; these were quelled by the British, but led eventually to the winding up of the concessions in 1929. Like many other areas of the country, Wuhan is currently in the grip of an economic upsurge and rising living standards, whose corollaries are appalling standards of industrial safety, and unresolved labour disputes frequently centring around the non-payment of wages. The holding of large-scale police and military exercises in the city in early 2004 might be seen as an attempt to forestall, or at least prepare for, a continuation of this tradition of discontent.

Further on along the great boulevard leading out of the city, having passed the huge gated compounds of the University of River Transportation, the High Voltage Research Institute and the Air Force Radar Institute, and more hills in which tunnels and bunkers were constructed in the 1960s to repel potential US bombing strikes by aerial Saginaws, on the far side of the East Lake, is the University of Geosciences. By day, the key optical feature of its entrance is the Fossil Forest, an array of preserved trees from the northern province of Liaoning; their approximate age is 270 million years. By night, you are welcomed into the campus by flashing strip-light installations resembling metallic, alien palm trees, with blue, red and green lines of light moving outwards along spoke-like branches to give the effect of fireworks. A colourful, watery lightshow illuminates the fountains. Around the campus fly some very un-crane-like birds, with black and grey bodies the size of a rook, and with long blue tails. The most prestigious subjects studied here are management and computing, the subjects of choice in the Economic Revolution – as at Wuhan University, quite possibly at the Air Force Radar Institute, and at most Chinese universities, whatever their ostensible specialization. Nevertheless, graduates from here still go out to explore and shape the country, conducting surveys for potentially oil-bearing strata, and planning where to place concrete piles to prevent rampant (and lethal) soil erosion. In the forecourt stands a statue of a lone geologist from the 1950s, clutching a hammer, symbol of the revolutionary generation who set out to make the first geological maps of China. Ko-Jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro.

(Also published in ecopoetics, 06/07.)

Editors’ note: A review of Alistair Noon’s At the Emptying of Dustbins is available in issue 8 (August 2009) of Cha

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