The Burning of Books

Anyone under the Skies who has copies of the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, or the writing of the Hundred Schools of Thought shall hand them out for burning. Anyone who has failed to burn the books after thirty days of this announcement shall be sent to build The Great Wall.

—“The Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin” (213 BC), Records of the Grand Historians

Some said the sky had fallen, the sun
didn’t rise, some said lightning followed
thunder, walls were built without roofs,
and some said nothing at all and nothing
mattered for someone deaf as an adder.

Each day I put the horse before the cart,
walked door to door along the Wei river
where a mile of dust brought a ton of books.

At midday I sat by the banks, had lunch
while the horses munched away in the grass.

I walked and walked till the mud track
deepened ten inches under the wheels.

Then I stopped and piled them up as instructed
into loose towers, letting them breathe
in air, since bamboo burns hot but not for long.

I watched the newly written, more fibrous
ones giggle and pop like fireworks
and the old ones dither into the night

while ember-tinted thoughts whispered
to each other like orphans behind closed doors.

I found my hands fishing in the lukewarm
ashes for odd pieces of charred words,
each starred black like a horse’s eye
till I dropped them into an empty well.

Then I saw heaps of smudged, wounded faces
tongue-tied in that half-lit mouth.

I let them be, sealed the lid, put the cart
before the horse, and walked the mile home.

a photo of Kit Fan

About the Author

Kit Fan was born in Hong Kong and now lives in Britain. His first book of poems, Paper Scissors Stone (Hong Kong UP), won the inaugural International HKU Poetry Prize. His poems have widely appeared in literary magazines in the United Kingdom, including Poetry Review, Poetry London, and Poetry Wales.