Zang Kejia, poet of rural hardship

Zang Kejia 1905-2004

Zang Kejia, the modern poet who died in Beijing on Thursday aged 99, was known for his deep empathy with the suffering of peasants.

A native of Shandong province, Zang grew up in a village where his family was a small landlord. Influenced by the vernacular literature of the May Fourth Movement, he began writing poems in high school.

His first collection, Branding, published in 1933, established his position in modern Chinese literature. He did cultural propaganda work during the anti-Japanese war and continued writing about the suffering of peasants in the countryside overrun by warlords, the Japanese army and nationalist government.

In the years after 1949, Zang sang odes to the new republic and edited Mao Zedong's poems. When the Cultural Revolution came, he was sent to reclaim swampy land, where he planted rice, built huts and got in touch again with the rural life. The experience, seen with horror by many intellectuals, inspired Zang into a second flowering of his literary career.

'I was like a fish in the water,' he said later.

Zang firmly believed that writing poetry was an historical mission. The inward-looking poems of the younger generation repelled him. A cultural icon of an earlier era, he had little influence on contemporary literature.

One of the most quoted lines is from his tribute to literary giant Lu Xun: 'Alive, he is already dead/Dead he is still alive.'