One of the more creative and moving responses to the Olympics in China this year is a poem relay, initiated by writers and members of International PEN. The poem June, was written by Shi Tao, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for sending to pro democracy websites a government directive for Chinese media to downplay the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

You may recall in 2004 Shi Tao was identified when Yahoo! turned over his email account to the authorities. Charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities,” Shi Tao now faces the next decade in prison. His poem June is his memorial of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

By Shi Tao
My whole life
Will never get past “June”
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in romance’s pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead.

(translated by Chip Rolley)

International PEN through its 145 centers around the world is circulating the poem as a parallel to the Olympic Torch relay. Over 110 PEN centers are participating by translating the poem into at least 90 (and counting) languages, and then sharing the written and oral versions in their countries and on the internet. By the end of the journey the poem is likely to be translated into as many as 100 languages, languages large and small–multiple Chinese dialects, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Basque, Galician, Portuguese, German, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Bosnian, Serbian, Slovene, Croatian, Macedonian, Romanian, Hungarian, Finnish, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Russian, Chechen, Hindi, Pashto, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Greek, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese, Malay, Haitian, Somali, Afar, Swahili, Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Krio, Wolof, Poular, Lusoga, Lingala, Chichewa. Tagalog, Cree, Nahuatl, Tsotsil, Mayan, Bikol, etc. etc.

To read and to hear the poem in all the various languages, you can visit the Pen Poem Relay where a map will show the journey and an arrow will allow you to click on the translation, or click one of the PEN centers to read and listen.

The poem relay began in Athens March 30 and started its journey through Europe and the Middle East then to North America and Latin America. On May 2 the poem arrives in Hong Kong, and in June to Tibet, where it will be translated into Tibetan and the proposed Uyghur PEN Center will translate into Uyghur. Finally August 6-8 the poem will arrive in Beijing where it will be read in Mandarin.

There are 39 writers silenced in prison in China. Here is the voice of one of them carried around the globe by fellow writers. For more information on all of the Chinese writers in prison and campaigns on their behalf, you can visit International PEN’s China Campaign and the We Are Ready for Free Expression Campaign.

To honor the international spirit of the Olympics, the dedication of individuals performing at their highest levels, and the aspiration towards a world where freedom of expression includes both body and mind, this poem is being carried one writer, one reader, one click of the computer at a time around the globe. Its journey is on behalf of all the Chinese writers currently in prison with the hope that they will someday have the same freedom. This particular torch burns digitally, kept alive in the thoughts and languages of a world community.


  1. Anika on April 22, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Joanne – thanks for sharing this fantastic initiative by International PEN… what a poem.

  2. Mitsuko Bottalico on July 23, 2010 at 11:49 am

    This website just keeps getting more impressive all the time. You should absolutely be happy.

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