“Remembering Them As We Are Borne By the River of Time” for all the Victims of 5.12 Sichuan Earthquake

Today is the fourth anniversay of the May 12 Earthquake that took away thousands of lives in Sichuan China. Below is a repost from China Blues about an editorial in Sounthern Metropolis Daily on May 12, 2011.

David Bandurski of the China Media Project has translated the lead editorial in the May 12 edition of Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper. He called the editorial “a bold but indirect call on all Chinese to remember those who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.” The editorial has been removed from the paper’s website, and David says that it’s likely that the editorial upset the censors with its oblique nod to activists such as Tan Zuoren (谭作人) and Ai Weiwei (艾未未), who independently investigated the collapse of doufu school buildings in the quake.

Remembering Them As We Are Borne By the River of Time

Today is the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, and you readers are certainly aware of our grief and its causes. That earthquake laid waste to mountains and rivers. It resulted in the loss of some 80,000 lives. So the tapestry of our grief stretches on to the present day. Our grief is for those brethren who are lost and will never return. And May has become, therefore, a month of sorrow. We feel sorrow too because we found ourselves so powerless as they were snatched from us. Again, another year of sacrifices and offerings [to the dead]. Time passes like a river unyielding, and there are so many questions we must face. Who were they? What happened to them? Where are they? What actions do they demand of us?

A few burning joss sticks, and the scent of the smoke curls upwards, rising into the void. They are not cold numbers. They existed, buoyant with life, with real names. They walked into the ruins with the entirety of their lives. They lived happily on this earth for seven years, or for longer or shorter periods of time. They were parents, they were children, they were sisters, they were brothers. They were people of yellow skin. They were residents or passing travelers in these homes. They stalked these mountains and rivers, watching the clouds rise and fall. They all had human emotions. They are human beings you have met or not seen, spirits abiding across the expanse of earth.

Life happens by chance, but death comes of necessity. Three years ago today, at this same time, afternoon, dusk and night fell like stands of rotten trees, choking the river of time [NOTE: This means people were dying steadily after the 3pm quake]. Red the blood, grey the dust, white the vertigo, black the raiments of death. They fell in a current of color, like the standing grain of misfortune cut down by the sharpest of scythes. They lost everything. Their old age, or middle age, youth or childhood, all were ended too early and too quickly. They became a jumble of fragments. As though by a sharp edge, their families were cloven, tears left in the wake. They said farewell to their hometowns.

They came from four directions, and departed in eight directions. We feel regret mingled with self-reproach. They should have had better deaths, with calm and unhurried remembrances, tears permitted to fly like the rain. In such haste, such haste, they departed forever from villages and cities left in sick-heartedness. Now, across mountain slopes where new green rises over the stones, they remain in the schools, on the roads, underground, in the nameless places. They are together with each other, the way wheat grows together. In the summer, in the midst of their final twilight, they went to a place we cannot see. They are the only anguish and the only comfort left to the survivors [NOTE: comfort by virtue of their continued presence in spirit].

In our hearts, we lowered our flags to half-mast for them. On the day of mourning we called them home and wished them peace. We gathered together all the human evidence of them we could. We read their names together [NOTE: This seems to be a reference to Ai Weiwei’s piece “Missing,” in which volunteers read the names of students who died in the Sichuan earthquake]. We promised that we would bear them constantly in mind, never forgetting, over and over again. We did so much, and yet we did too little. Those of you who were lost and did not return, where are you? Can the light we kindle shine across your path? We cannot do more. We can but present steel zodiacs, and offer up porcelain sunflower seeds [NOTE: This is a presumable reference to Ai Weiwei’s exhibit at the Tate Modern, which incorporates sunflowers seeds and the Chinese zodiac heads now on display at London’s Somerset House], symbolic memorials to your lives once so tangible. What else would you wish us to do? [NOTE: Many would read the above passage as a reference to the collapse of school buildings and the work done by Ai Weiwei (艾未未), Tan Zuoren (谭作人) and others to remember the children who died in the quake and understand the underlying causes.]

We know these deaths have already happened, but to forget is to heartlessly hope they endure a second death. If we do not cherish their memory, oblivion [or forgetting] will only grow in strength. The sacrifices of this day are done to spurn forgetting, to avoid losing them all over again. Our future memorials are proof again and again before them: we will never be far from you, we will always be together, even though we meet with death and fear. This is a promise that we must bear firmly in mind. People are eternal, and they are always with us. As citizens of conscience, this is our duty to these [destroyed] villages and cities.

Rising from dust and to dust returning, there is one responsibility we cannot forsake. This is to commemorate them. It is about the schools commemorating their students, about the hills commemorating the farmers, about clay sculptures [commemorating] the witnesses [NOTE: This is a reference, apparently, to a set of sculptures erected at Buwa Village in Weizhou, the seat of Wenchuan County at the epicenter], about families commemorating those who were lost, about fresh flowers commemorating the graves, about life commemorating life. We will never forget. We will ever gaze off to the distance in their direction. They are a part of our lives. We do not live for ourselves alone. The river of time brings us together here, so let us reunite, just as though we never suffered this loss.

Let our amusements cease, and today at that time, let us be borne by the river of time, putting ourselves in their place and searching for understanding, feeling their presence and their requests, being conscious of our exchanges and our promises. Since they departed, no night has permitted us peaceful rest. But these three years, we have remembered and been watchful of our principles. May is a time of sorrow, and a time of clarity. Our attitude towards them is a measure of our distance from the rest of humanity. In bearing our wishes to the spirits, we bless and protect them, just as they watch over us. We offer our prayers to the land on the other side. May you partake of this sacrifice.

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