October 8, 2015, will mark five years that Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Chinese writer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, has been under extralegal house arrest in her Beijing apartment. It was on this date in 2010 that Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland announced from Oslo that her husband was to receive the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and nonviolent struggle for human rights in China.” Within hours, police descended on her apartment complex, cut her phone lines, and barred friends and family from entry.

In this rare video, shot in December 2013 after friends ripped past the guards to her apartment, Liu Xia is seen reading two of her own poems in her apartment. Liu casually sits at her desk just outside the soft glow of a reading lamp, smoking a cigarette and reading from her notebook. After she finishes reading the second poem, “Drinking,” she gives a hasty thumbs up to the unidentified camera operator heard whistling in approval.

On December 1, 2015, PEN will host a reading of Liu Xia’s poems from a new translation of her poetry, Empty Chairs—forthcoming on November 3 from Graywolf Press—at Book Court in New York City. Stay tuned for details to come.

Liu Xiaobo is a poet, literary critic, writer, and political activist who, since 1989, has led calls for a truly broad-based, sustainable democratic movement in China. On December 8, 2008, Liu Xiaobo was arrested on the eve of the launch of Charter 08, a manifesto he had drafted that was signed by thousands of Chinese citizens across all walks of life. More than a year later, he was brought to trial and sentenced to 11 years in prison “for allegedly inciting subversion of state power” via seven sentences contained in his essays and Charter 08. Liu Xiaobo, a founder and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8, 2010. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under extralegal house arrest since that day.

Full translations of the poems were provided by ICPC. 


Is it a tree?
It’s me, alone.
Is it a winter tree?
It’s always like this, all year round.
Where are the leaves?
The leaves are beyond.
Why draw a tree?
I like how it stands.
Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand.
Is there anyone with you?
There are birds.
I don’t see any.
Listen to the sound of fluttering wings.
Wouldn’t it be nice to draw birds on the tree?
I’m too old to see, blind.
Perhaps you don’t know how to draw a bird at all?
You’re right. I don’t know how.
You’re an old stubborn tree.
I am.

(Translated from Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern)



Before going to drink with my old brother
I will unplug my telephone

Coming back drunk before
Always, always
I could not help phoning a friend
The period when I could not talk has been too long
After drinking I might look ugly
And sound piercing
The voices from another side of the phone were
Sometimes warm
Or sometimes strange and distanced

After waking up
I could realize
Nobody would like
To listen to the nonsense from a drunk
During such a night after drinking
I would love Raymond Carver
Two drunks
Write poems face to face
Without talking
There would be no shame
Nor embarrassment

I will always, always remind myself
Before being drunk
Unplug the telephone

(Translated from Chinese by Yu Zhang)