Internationally known Chinese poet and calligrapher Huang Xiang will visit the Shaler North Hills Library in April — partially due to an unlikely friendship.
William Rock, a Shaler resident who runs the non-profit Art and Inspiration International, met Xiang through a mutual friend after he came to Pittsburgh in the 2000s. They formed a bond. And although Xiang does not speak English and Rock does not speak Mandarin, the friends “communicate through the language of art,” Rock said.
Since 2006, the duo has collaborated on “The Century Mountain Project,” which combines Rock’s paintings of 110 people who have “stood out like mountains” throughout the last century with Xiang’s poetry and calligraphy. Martin Luther King Jr., Emily Dickinson, Vincent Van Gogh, Anne Frank and William Shakespeare are a few subjects.
“We never really talk about what we’re going to do,” Rock said. “It’s like, I did this — what do you got?”
Xiang was born in 1941. Communists executed his father, a Kuomintang army general, who left behind a “treasure chest” of books from Western writers like George Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln in an attic. The literature informed Xiang of “alternative ideas out in the world — that it wasn’t just the Mao Communist stuff,” Rock said.
Due to his family connections, Xiang was prohibited from attending school at an early age.
In 1978, he posted his poetry near Mao Zedong’s Tiananmen Square tomb. When thousands of people gathered, Xiang recited 600 lines of poetry from memory, which officials considered “heresy,” according to Rock.
“People couldn’t cheer, but they had bells on their bikes and they rode around Tiananmen ringing their bells in support,” Rock said. “That was the beginning of the democracy movement in Communist China, and he was demanding freedom of expression for all with his poetry.”
As punishment, Xiang spent 12 years imprisoned and two years on death row.
“Prisoners would come up to him and say, ‘You know, I’m in for murder and robbery. … What are you in for?’ And he would say, ‘I’m in for being a poet and a dreamer.’”
In 2004, Xiang moved to the City of Asylum residence on Pittsburgh’s North Side, which provides sanctuary to exiled writers. He famously painted his “House Poem” on the home’s siding, according to the organization’s website.
Following the residency, he relocated to New York City with his wife, Zhang Ling.
During Xiang’s library appearance on April 6 he might show “Century Mountain Morph,” a video showcasing “The Century Mountain Project” and some videos highlighting his life, Rock said. Host Alyssa Sineni, Art and Inspiration executive director of programming and community outreach, will facilitate a dialogue between Xiang and the audience and possibly share her own poetry.
“He somehow transcends the language barrier,” Rock said. “Like, people feel an emotional reaction when he performs his poetry. You don’t have to understand Chinese, but we always have an English version read also.”
Art and Inspiration meets at 7 p.m. Thursdays at the library to provide community members with a forum to discuss their creative pursuits and learn from others. Anyone may attend the free meetings, regardless of his or her preferred artistic medium or experience level. Rock hopes guests will “find out what their passion and their interest is and bring it out and let it kind of flower from there.”
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.