Detained for Love, Poetry Gives Her Strength

Dozens of celebrated writers, poets and artists have called for the lifting of all restrictions on Chinese poet and artist Liu Xia, held under illegal house arrest without charge since October 2010. Rita Dove, Paul Auster, JM Coetzee, Khaled Hosseini, Hu Ping and Michael Chabon are among a group of writers who have read excerpts of Liu Xia’s poerty as part of a video campaign advocating for her freedom. 

Their love served as a bright light in an otherwise dark and oppressive situation, and their poetry now serves as a paper trail of the indignities they suffered at the hands of persecutors.

They exchanged marriage vows in a “re-education through labour” camp in Dalian, China, where he was detained, followed by a celebratory lunch. Though it wasn’t a dream wedding by any means, the union of late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia was a lifeline, allowing her the right to visit him while he was detained. She was his connection to the outside world. He wrote: 

Our wedding chamber is a cell
Embraces and kisses
Under the jailers’ gaze
Our love-making has no hiding place

— A Bride Once Again, Liu Xiaobo 1996

It was 1996, and Liu Xiaobo was serving a stint in prison for his human rights work and advocacy for democracy. Every month, his new spouse Liu Xia would make the 1,600km journey to visit him. It was perhaps on one of these journeys that she wrote:

The train to the concentration camp
Sobbing pass and running over my body
Yet I still couldn’t hold your hand
Your image makes the night
ache and spasm

— Charlotte Salomon, Liu Xia 1999

Their love story was one occupied by obstacles, their meetings stretched across drinking tables when they were both free and prison cells, enduring years of isolation and persecution, sustaining themselves with letters, poems and short visits. 

Liu Xiaobo, who died 13 July 2017 after being diagnosed with liver cancer while still detained, was well-known as a literature professor, but even better-known as a gentle warrior for human rights in China, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. He adored his poet wife, whose own life and fate changed when she fell in love with Xiaobo. Liu Xiaobo met Liu Xia for the first time in the 1980s. Six years younger, she was already recognized as a gifted writer. Liu Xia came from a privileged background, being the daughter of a high-ranking banking official. She gave up a stable life in favour of writing.

They met again when Xiaobo was released, after being jailed for his involvement in the June 4 movement in Tiananmen Square. Xia wrote in 1989 about the awe she felt when meeting him again:

I didn’t have a chanceto say a word before you became
a character in the news,
everyone looking up to you
as I was worn down
at the edge of the crowd
just smoking
and watching the sky.
A new myth, maybe, was forming
there, but the sun was so bright
I couldn’t see it.

— June 2nd, 1989, Liu Xia 1989 

They became a couple and despite Xiaobo’s political troubles, Xia’s parents were encouraging of the relationship. Life was not easy, but the couple remained cheerful. 

As a result of his activism, Xiaobo was banned from publishing and fired from his teaching job. Instead he made his living writing for magazines published in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas. He was arrested repeatedly for his political activities, including launching a petition to reassess the June 4 movement. In those periods of absence and isolation, they wrote each other loving letters and poems. Pen and paper were often their only consolation in their times apart, expressing through the written word what they couldn’t say in person.

You are destined in fate to be like the wind
Waving and flying
And playing games in the cloud

I ever imagined to be with you
But what home should there be
To accommodate you
As the walls will make you choke

You can only be a wind, but the wind
Has never told me
When to come and when to go

— Wind, Liu Xia 1992

Xiaobo was released in 1999, three years after their wedding in the labour camp. The couple enjoyed nine years together in freedom—the longest stretch they would ever have— despite being under constant surveillance.

In 2008, Xiaobo was seized and then imprisoned once again in 2009 for his involvement in drafting the Charter 08, a proposal for fundamental legal and political reform in China. Liu Xia was put under house arrest starting in 2010, and denied even the simplest freedom of walking in the park. This time even the advantages previously afforded them, those that kept their connection strong, were taken away: Xiaobo was denied access to pen and paper, and Liu Xia’s house arrest conditions became increasingly restrictive. The isolation was hard for her to bear, and Xia sank into depression. She continued to write and to take photos, but where once she was in dialogue with her husband, now she was met only with silence. Because the isolation was complete and crippling, her health began to suffer. 

You speak you speak you speak the truth You are talking day and night as long as you are awake
You talk and talk
Your voice breaks free from your confined room and spreads

The wound from twenty years ago still bleedingFresh and red as life
You are fond of many things
but especially of accompanying dead souls
You promise them to seek the truth
On the road
there is no light

— Untitled, Liu Xia 2009

Though Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, both he and Xia were barred from attending the ceremony. In his absence, his lecture “I Have No Enemies”, was presented instead by actor and director Liv Ullmann.

Despite his captivity, those words, what he called his “final statement,” still echo across the world. Even in death, his ideas lived on, though his body was unceremoniously cremated and scattered into the South China Sea, with only government-issued photographs, including Liu Xia grasping his photograph, left as proof of the hasty burial. The act was aimed at drowning out Liu’s ideologies and denying friends and activists a place to gather and remember him. Worried friends and family were unable to contact Liu Xia during this time, able only to see Xia in the few state-issued photos of her, clutching Xiaobo’s photograph, looking completely heartbroken. 

I am a bitter fruitIn darkness
Sleeping in a dreamless page
Of this thick book
Not a permanent companion
On your journey

Remember the sunlightOf that we have been deprived

— Lonely Vigil, Liu Xia 1995 

Since Liu Xiaobo’s death, the government has moved Liu Xia to various locations. A video was released in August, depicting Xia asking for time to grieve, though it is not known if the comments were made voluntarily. To this day, Liu Xia is still not free.

Liu Xiaobo’s last known handwritten note, written just eight days before his death with Liu Xia at his side in the hospital, expressed the yearning and sadness he felt at not being able to be with his wife, or to fulfil her wishes for the two of them to hold a joint exhibition. The note was intended to be Xiaobo’s contribution to Xia’s photography book, tentatively titled How I Accompany Liu Xiaobo

A love as passionate as the blinding whiteness of ice,
a love as far away as deep blackness of the dark.
Perhaps, it is my cheap and vulgar praise which would desecrate this exhibition.
Please forgive me.

“June 2nd, 1989- for Xiaobo” From Empty Chairs © 2015 Liu Xia and translations © Ming Di & Jennifer Stern, published by Graywolf Press and used with permission

“Wind”, “Untitled” and “Lonely Vigil” translated by Yu Zhang and used with permission

Quotes from artists in support of Liu Xia

Paul Auster

Author of The Brooklyn Follies and The New York Trilogy

Liu Xiaobo was one of the most courageous men in the world. He gave his life in the cause of freedom. And now his wife is carrying the torch, and we must support her in every way we can.

Paul Auster

JM Coetzee

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

I hope that our action will contribute to shaming the Chinese authorities into letting Liu Xia go.

JM Coetzee

Rita Dove


Liu Xia’s courage. sacrifice and continued struggle for freedom of movement and expression move me deeply.

Rita Dove

Khaled Hosseini

Author of Kite Runner

I chose to add my name to this campaign because artists who are free to speak must do so on behalf of other artists whose voices are being stifled.

Khaled Hosseini

Ma Jian

Author of Red Dust: A Path through China / Friend of Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo learned a lot from each other and their political ideology and artistic styles became more and more alike. From Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo learned about art and about women – it added a layer of tenderness, kindness and peacefulness to his understanding of our society. They influenced each other, and expressed each other’s thoughts – this is the beauty of their relationship.

Ma Jian

Alec Soth


I live in a time and place which causes me to take freedom of expression for granted. Liu Xia's horrific story wakes me up from my slumber.

Alec Soth

Ayelet Waldman

Author of Love and Treasure

“I’m very proud to participate in this project for the poet Liu Xia.

“The writer Andrew Sean Greer in his recent novel Less, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, writes that a poet is like a canary in the coal mine of political oppression. The forces of oppression of political power always come first for the poets. And thus it is our obligation to rush to our defence whenever we can.

“In order to work hard to achieve a just and equitable society, we must protect those canaries in the coal mine, we must protect the poets first.

Ayelet Waldman