Yu Xiuhua is a poet with cerebral palsy who became massively popular when one of poems went viral. Thereafter, everything changed for her. Her poetry was published, her book signings drew crowds and her income increased dramatically. But not all that happened to Yu was joyful and positive. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died, and Yu divorced her husband. Her laughter, anger, sorrow and happiness were captured in the moving documentary Still Tomorrow by filmmaker Fan Jian, which tells her remarkable story as a female poet from rural China. Fan worked as a documentary filmmaker for CCTV before launching his own independent work. In 2016, Fan’s documentary won a special award for the long film division at the Amsterdam International Film Festival (IDFA). Accepting the award, he said, “The film, in a powerful and poetic way, explores the complexity of human experiences. The powerful story of the protagonist compliments the intimate and deep meaning of the film, capturing a film about poetry is not easy, but this extraordinary woman has achieved this without making it seem clichéd.”
In the film, Fan Jian recorded the emotions felt by the poet Yu Xiuhua, whose achievements in poetry seemingly contrast deeply with her image as a peasant woman with a disability, but, at the same time, this image is no doubt part of her poetry.
I AM A SLUT BUT SO WHAT
At the end of 2014, Yu Xiuhua wrote the poem, “I Would Travel Through Half of China to Sleep With You,” which became an instant success. After her fame, she made the bold decision to divorce her husband Yin Shiping, whom she had been married to for 20 years. People on the outside wrote to her, “She can write poetry, but she forgets her own family name and disowns her husband.” They also mocked and judged her harshly, writing her, “Now I am famous. Now I have money. I don’t need my husband anymore.”
Yu was afraid how these perceptions would affect her son’s life, and if he would ever be able to marry due to her bad reputation. She sought advice from Fan Jian who told her his sister’s story: she, too, wanted a divorce but was afraid of the negative impact it would have on her children, so she hurt herself. She was entangled in a messy divorce for years. He told Yu there is no need to sacrifice your desired life for others. After that,”She very easily moved onto the next stage of her divorce,” explained the filmmaker.
Fan said that her financial situation before wasn’t good, but now she is fully financially independent, and she was able to leave the small closed-off village of Hubei and take a look at the broader world which touched her, and also helped her to quickly progress through the divorce.
In late autumn 2015, Yu formally filed for divorce at the civil affairs bureau. The day before they were to sign the papers and legally divorce, Yu informed Fan of this big step. The next day she rushed straight back to her home in Hubei to inform the filmmaker that she was now officially divorced. The documentary depicts the scene after the divorce, when her husband tells her, “Come, you can lean on me. I’ll help you.” With her husband holding her hands, the couple walked down a muddy path together near the fields. As she did so, she felt a warmth rise within her.
Yu said she was forced to marry at 19, and that the marriage had been arranged by her mother Zhou Jinxing. It was her mother who “called the shots” and made the decisions. She chose Yin Shiping to be her son-in-law. Her mother told her, “You have a disability and cannot fend for yourself, so you must find someone to marry in order to live a safe and stable life. Then there will at least be someone who can take care of you later in life.” Her mother’s idea was widespread and common, as most parents living in rural areas thought the same.
Her husband worked year round, travelling to various cities to find jobs, and only during the busy harvest season would he return to help out. When he was not home, life was peaceful, but when he returned friction ensued. With Fan’s camera lens pointed at them and recording their every move, their quarrels intensified, even when not fighting or simply eating dinner, the two shared few words. She wrote, “He looked at me sitting in front of the computer writing poetry, and I was not pleasing to his eyes, yet I think he is not pleasing to my eyes. Two floating clouds did not blend, how lively and green grass can be, how it can also wilt and dry out.” These words came to Yu while sitting near a pond trying to clear her mind after her parents initially refused her request to divorce her husband.
Later on, Yu’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, so Yu accompanied her during her stays in the hospital, in addition to helping and waiting on her mother while at home. This was a period in which she wrote a few poems. Although her mother set her up in an unhappy marriage, the bond between mother and daughter could not be broken. In a poem to her mother, she wrote, “You can’t be smarter than me, don’t be bigger than me, I have never cried in front of you.”
After the divorce, her ex-husband, Yin Shiping, was given all the earnings from the royalties of Yu’s book; in return, she was given the freedom to pursue the life she desired. Love was a topic Yu did not shy away from, and stats show that from her poetry collection released in 2014 and 2015, the word love appeared more than 140 times.
In Fan’s documentary of her life, Yu didn’t attempt to conceal her appreciation of males nor did she attempt to cover up her big smile and laughter. She admitted that she has loved a few, but all ended painfully. During the filming, Yu fell in love with a man much younger than herself and confessed her love, but was rejected. “She cried all night, then had a stomach ache and vomited blood.” The shooting stopped and Fan stayed with her throughout the night.
In her poem, “I Love You,” she writes, “If I send you a book, I will not send you my poetry, I will give you a book about plants which will tell you the difference between wheat and tares, telling you the hope for spring with a beating, worried heart.” She compares herself to wheat, describing herself as the tare: “I am not good enough for others’ wheat.” She cannot compare herself to others for she believes she is unworthy and not as good.
“Others in the world of poetry will scold her because she writes sultry and provocative poetry,” Fan says, adding, “These people make her out to be nothing and worthless. One example is her poem called “I Would Travel Through Half of China to Sleep with You,” in which she says the title was merely a joke, for the poem’s deeper meaning was about expressing her emotions and desires.”
Yu is straightforward about her experiences: “I have not properly experienced physical body love and to love one’s soul. I am regretful I have not experienced this kind of love. Some say my poems are sultry.” She adds with a smile: “And so what if I am a slut?”
IN ANY CASE, I WON’T KNEEL DOWN
For years, Fan wanted to make a documentary about a non-professional poet. “He or she can be a farmer or a factory worker—in work that has nothing to do with poetry,” he said. But he emphasizes the person must have a passion for poetry. In 2014, poems about workers were very popular, but that wasn’t what he was looking for. He thinks those poems describe groups of people but not individuals. In January 2015 people from YouKu contacted him and told him about Yu Xiuhua and asked whether he wanted to make a documentary based on her story.
So Fan began to research online and read some of her poems. “Yes, I read a few and was quite surprised because she lives in the rural countryside and has a disability, and yet she is able to write such poetry.”
After Yu’s poems became popular, her small village home in Hubei Hengdian became a popular place to visit. There were constant crowds and reporters visiting everyday. She had fans, lovers and even people wanting to make her story into a movie. She was told that she could be the film’s main creator, but they would also begin searching for female stars to play the lead role. Yu was ecstatic about this opportunity; however, Fan told her that with a budget of only 3 million yuan ($435,000) they couldn’t afford even one female actor. So the feature film never happened.
Fan recounts: “When I first started talking to her she thought I was just another reporter, she did not refuse me and said if I wanted to come over and film then just do it.” The filmmaker wanted to shoot a documentary, not simply a few hours or even days of just interviews, so in an effort to stand out from the rest of the media and let Yu understand he was not the same as the others, he prepared beforehand. “So I started doing a lot of homework. I researched her poetry and read it over and over again.” Yu admired the poems of Lei Pingyang, so Fan also carefully read his poems. Yu agreed to some of his interviews, and Fan kept on reading her poetry over and over again. He knew that Yu liked the book, Miserable World, so Fan gifted her with a hardcover copy. Yu recognized Fan’s genuine side saying, “You have come prepared.”
All of the reporters took the same picture with the poet in a snowy background, yet Fan’s team took the task much more seriously. His photographer lay on the cold ground to take the shot. Yu took this to heart and slowly began taking the initiative to open up towards him about her life.
Fan talked with Yu’s mother and learned that the poet used to beg on the streets. Local people call this “begging for grains.” When Yu was in Beijing to receive a literary award, Fan noticed she was in a good mood and asked her about the matter. Yu laughed and said she did beg but never kneeled on the ground for her pride wouldn’t let her. “The few years before fame were very lonely, along with not having a good relationship with my husband, and it being impossible to rely on my son. My parents were sick, and I did not have skills beyond the ability to do simple farm work. So I turned to poetry to learn it as a skill. I wanted to learn a skill to survive.”
This was the first time she had admitted this to anyone. She began opening her heart to Fan, and they would chat when shooting ended and sometimes over a homemade drink or when doing farm work together. The film shoot took longer than a year. The filmmaker travelled from all over the country to Hubei six times, and during this period he and Yu became friends, since there was basically nothing the two of them couldn’t talk about. Yu’s trust in Fan can be felt from the small details seen in the film. Fan said he and Yu are often shown flirting in the film. The small amount of flirting back and forth between them was his intention to show the trust between the two of them.
The first time the filmmaker went to Yu’s home he said, “There was a big crowd wanting to take her to Beijing for an exclusive interview with her, including even CCTV, yet Yu took the step of telling us that she would go with us. We told her that we didn’t have a car and would have to take the train, so we asked if she was still willing to follow me. She said, “Go!” Yu did not hesitate to get on the train to Beijing with him.
Fan accompanied Yu on her trip to Beijing, which was her second visit to Beijing. The first time she was 10 years old and went in the hopes of finding a cure for her illness. This time, however, they took the train and transferred at Wuhan, and then took a plane for the last leg of the journey. Although this was Yu’s first time on a plane, she felt both nervous and excited. On this visit, she also experienced the lights of the city. Sitting in a car, her eyes never left the windows and never stopped staring at the tall high rises.
When meeting with her fans, Yu answered questions and spoke with humor, giving natural flowing answers. It showed a different side to her image as a peasant woman. Fan also accompanied her to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. At Shenzhen’s seaside, he describes Yu like a young child stepping into the water and playing freely. He said she likes lively places, such as the big city, but the village environment provides a peaceful space for her to write her poetry.
The wind gently brushing the golden wheat, the agricultural roadside, and the lively green ponds—these images not only represent Yu’s environment, but are also the background of her creativity. Wheat, trees, springtime—all these subjects and themes appear often in her poetry. Her environment offers her the simplest and purest inspiration.
More recently, new, rural developments with rows of houses began replacing the fields and ponds of Yu’s hometown. Although Yu still had her home, the local government wanted to develop it into a scenic spot, but in Yu’s eyes, her home is no longer the same and says, “I also cannot write that kind of poetry anymore.”
OTHER THAN THE PROTAGONIST BEING UGLY, THE REST IS BEAUTIFUL
An early collection of her poems called Moonlight Falls on the Left Hand includes a poem entitled “Staggering Humans.” The filmmaker says, “I felt it was a pretty suitable title. She faces a very objective world, her physical condition and some of her subjective inner feelings are all staggering, all uncertain, and she is always looking for a balance, but there is no lack of beautiful language.”
Yu’s parents and ex-husband all appear in the film but not her son. Fan said the whole family was resistant to having her son in the film. “Yu’s son is a science and engineering student at a university and only returns home during summer vacation. He has little communication with his parents and shows little interest in his mother’s poetry.” Yu told Fan that her son never invites her to visit school, and he rarely mentions to friends and classmates that she is his mother, and he never reads her poetry. He told Fan, “I am not interested in modern literature.”
After the film was completed, Yu carefully watched the film and said, “Apart from the protagonist being ugly, the rest is beautiful.” The film has been shown abroad, where fans were warm and supportive. “In the pervious two showings, the results were good, and for the second showing, tickets sold out before they were put on sale at the box office.” Fan was more surprised that some people came for his name alone. Because Fan’s former films, Alive and Soil, garnered a large number of fans, they came specifically to watch his new work.
He dreamed of becoming a reporter. Later, he entered the “legal system” show, also known as CCTV’s “Today’s Argument.” In Shandong, Fan filmed the story of someone sentenced to death who had to donate his organs as atonement for his actions. After finishing, he won the province’s documentary film’s first prize.
In the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, he filmed his documentary Alive. The film was about a middle-aged couple, Zhu Junsheng and Ye Hongmei, and told how they lost their only daughter. It showed the pain and suffering they went through to get pregnant again. Since then, Fan’s focus has shifted from social issues to family. Also during this time, Fan Jian met his wife, Zang Ni.
In 2015, Fan wrote on his weibo: “Walking around the district, while thinking about the significance of documentaries. They do not concern the country or large crowds, nor social issues either. But rather they are about people, and the complexity of human nature and our delicate emotions, and how the food and grains we eat form our existence and life.”
Admirers of his work say he’s “Good at showing the feminine side of women,” Which Fan attributes to the influence of his wife Zang Ni, whom he says is better at finding and showing the delicate thoughts that run through a women’s mind, because he is actually more of a logical thinker.
Yu and Fan’s wife became friends and go to Chongqing together. “She has published three books and sold 300,000 copies, but she has also become the Hubei Writers Association contract writer.
“In fact, she is very pitiful.” Fan said, “With her becoming so famous, you’d think her life has changed dramatically, yet the results show that seemingly nothing has changed. She is hopeful and full of expectations for the future.” However, at the end of the film, Yu did not move to the city but returned home to continue doing simple farming—a tragic cycle of fate. One of her poems used at the end of the documentary states, “There is still tomorrow, too bad there’s still tomorrow.” In it, she explains how reality gets in the way of a lot of things and that she still has to think about every upcoming day and cannot always pursue her dreams.
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.