Your Face My Flag

by Julian Gewirtz

reviewed by Kevin Gallagher

Julian Gewirtz knows better than most that the key to success in China is to “cross the river by touching each stone.” Unusual for a poet, Gewirtz is a diplomat and historian who has published two important books on China’s post-Mao reform period: Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, about the democratization of ideas around Chinese economic reform, and Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, which focuses on political reforms during the same period. Reformers of the time were said to be “crossing the river by touching each stone.” In a huge country like China, that isn’t easy—one can’t flick a switch from one form of political economy to another. Gewirtz’s scholarly research has shown how China conducted a careful investigation of what the West had to offer and how the Chinese grafted on their own characteristics to put together a series of reforms unique in the history of development.

In Your Face My Flag, Gewirtz is part freed and part estranged in China. For someone who read his nonfiction books first, this volume is a fascinating companion that shows the passionate, meditative, and conflicted side of a leading scholar and policymaker in the middle of one of the most important dynamics of our century. The collection shows that Gewirtz, who works in the Biden Administration, knows China far beyond archives and history books. He lived and loved there.

I am writing this review in Beijing in 2024. Very few Americans remain in or come to China. There were 15,000 students here in 2010 and less than 300 now, and US companies are reversing course at just as fast a rate. COVID-19 lockdowns, an economic slowdown, and a retreat from reform have cast a shadow on China’s cultural life in recent years. Nevertheless, Gewirtz dives right in to this state of affairs for his first collection. Your Face My Flag contains the meditations of a dynamic global citizen living in the right place at the wrong time.

Gewirtz’s book starts with a subject that has remained forbidden in China, long after the passage of other reforms—homosexuality. The speaker meets a man at Destination, a popular LGBT+ club still thriving in Beijing today. Until the next morning, he sees his lover everywhere: “in a bowl of half-eaten peaches, a cut sleeve.” But as he watches his lover go from his window, he notices the man turn around to wave goodbye—twice—before disappearing behind the metal gate. The gesture is suspicious. Is his love betrayed? Possibly, but Gewirtz continues to push the possibilities of the contemporary in a lyric depiction of Cupid:

When he comes,
I almost do not

notice his light
arrival, low

the feathered hair
suspending him
above me—

It’s a surprise, an eighteenth-century version of Cupid infused with the sensibility of Song Chinese poet Li Ch’Ing Chao. Just as Gewirtz reminds us in his scholarly work of a mutually beneficial series of economic and political engagements between the US and China, so too in his poetry he shows his deep knowledge of the possibilities of constructive engagement.

In “To X,” Gewirtz projects his empathy in another direction. This poem is an imaginative observation of work at Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer quartered in mainland China. The result is a kind of collage: Conversation. Meditation. Excerpts from company rule books, both written and unwritten. Government visits and constant surveillance. At one point in the poem, a young boy jumps from the window of his company dormitory.

                                                                    I want
to touch the sky / feel that blueness so light
but I can’t do
any of this / so I’m
leaving this
world / I was fine
when I came /  and fine when I

What Marx called “the reserve army” of Chinese workers, who can step right in without a loss in firm-level productivity, is there at the ready if anything is broken—including the body of an employee. Gewirtz can hardly “breathe in it’s your air,” showing his alienation from the events he describes, a disconnect expressed by the book’s title. (Elsewhere in Your Face My Flag, Gewirtz trawls other archives to paste together A Short History of the West, which makes an appearance throughout the book.)

By the time one gets to “A Being within an Envelope,” it is no longer clear who is controlling the universe, whether state, corporation, or nature:

The stars come out tonight
or is it the satellites.
Comets streak through
this dark like spit.

The lines call to mind the voice of George Staunton, who in the late 1790s began writing and translating Chinese while in China for the British East India Company. Gewirtz continues:

and in a room
just like this one
someone is teaching
someone to do it
as if pursed
lips could make
the strange new language


State surveillance, and the machinery of surveillance, are major themes of Your Face My Flag. In one of the collection’s closing poems, Gewirtz discovers two boys loving but being very careful “not to speak over the sound of the river / over the slow wind in hot trees.”

You don’t need to read Chinese history books to enjoy this collection. Gewirtz is the rare American, a truly international poet who has immersed himself in a new land. He has learned the language, learned the history, and lived there. These poems embody a new sensibility in American poetry for the twenty-first century. Whereas the expats of the past rushed to Paris, Prague, or Buenos Aires with their parents’ money or a credit card to play bohemian and write, Gewirtz is that genuine global American who writes of the new (and real) world he lives in.

Published on March 21, 2024