writers' protest

As he turns 69, Chinese poet Bei Dao remains the tranquil bard of protest, even in exile

Not allowed to live in his own country, the poet has continued to be optimistic about the future even as he became a torchbearer of revolt.

An infinite aura of mysticism surrounds the poet ­­Bei Dao, who turns sixty-nine on August 2, 2018. His image of humanity is mythical, utopian, and optimistic to such an extent that at times it is hard to conceive. While some are unaware of the name of this American writer of Chinese origin, anyone in China from the “Tiananmen generation” will recite his poems as though singing a folk song.

Dao’s words of offered indomitable optimism to the Chinese people when they most needed it. In western literary circles, Dao – whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai – is considered a reserved, yet charismatic poet who has imposed a certain nostalgia upon himself and his works. His poetry is impressionistic, sometimes obscure, and reassuring at other times. Poet and historian Julian B Gerwitz wrote that Bei Dao is “best known as a poet of political consequence and not a political poet”. What he failed to recognise was that as a former citizen of China, he has remained a victim of that political consequence.

In the preface to The Rose of Time, Dao writes: “‘Freedom is a form of a distance/ between the hunter and the hunted.’ It is the same with poetry. You start by hunting the poem, but in the process you become the hunted. And poetry is the distance”. For him, distance had always been a special metaphor. Nostalgia was important for Agha Shahid Ali and Czeslaw Milosz. Mahmoud Darwish, on the other hand, was more direct with his approach when he asked, “What will I do without exile, and a long night that stares at the water?” The distance metamorphoses into memory, and subsequently into words – it is the same with any poet who has lived in exile.

“The Answer”

The nom de plume Bei Dao translates to “Northern Island”, and first appeared with his poem “The Answer”. He was born in Beijing in 1949, the same year that the People’s Republic of China was formally founded. In a preface to this poetry, Dao wrote, “[M]y fate seems to have been intertwined with that of China ever since.” He received a privileged education in Beijing till the age of seventeen. After the Cultural Revolution of 1966, his school was shut down, and Dao was assigned to work at a state-run construction industry.

He lived in a dim, murky room close to the construction site, almost a thousand miles away from the capital. There he wrote his first novella, Waves. It was one of the darkest periods in China’s history, when writing and reading were all but forbidden. It might have been personal and inconsequential, but this was Bei Dao’s first protest, which would led to a sequence that redefined his entire life.

“Debasement is the passport of the base/ Nobility is the epitaph of the noble.” he wrote in the poem, “The Answer”, one of the most frequently reprinted works in Chinese. Though attuned to the pain and anguish of exile, he was always an optimistic poet with the idea of a perfect world in his mind. The poem reflects the political angst of the people living under the Communist government and the repression faced by people in the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1976, but is also marked beautifully by an affirmation of hope. He wrote:

“Look at the gold-plated sky
Filled with the drifting rippled reflections of the dead.
The Ice Age is over,
Why then are there ice peaks everywhere?
The Cape of Good Horn has already been discovered,
Why then do a thousand sails compete on a Dead Sea?

Let me tell you, world,
I do not believe!
If a thousand challengers already lie under your feet,
Count me number one thousand and one.
I do not believe that the sky is blue;
I do not believe in the echoes of thunder;
I do not believe that dreams are false;
I do not believe that death brings no recompense.”

— Translated by Eliot Wineberger

The Misty Poets

Dao does not incarcerate himself within the political, and leaves space for others to enter. What he proclaims can be felt beyond class, geography, and even time. “The Answer”, because of its simplicity and rawness, became an anthem for the masses. Two years after the demonstrations, a feeling of interregnum was in the air. That was when, along with Mang Ke, he founded the magazine Jintian (Today). It published poems by various poets who later came to be known as the “Misty Poets” because of the obscurity and haziness of their language. Along with Bei Dao, the five major misty poets were Gu Cheng, Shu Ting, He Dong and Yang Lian.

In the first issue, the editorial committee stated, “History has finally given us the chance to release the songs buried in our hearts for the past ten years, without ever again incurring fearsome punishment for doing so…Our generation will have to establish the meaning of each individual’s life and deepen people’s understanding of the meaning of freedom. The renewal of our country’s age-old culture must re-establish the position of the Chinese nation among the nations of the world. Our art must reflect these profoundly inscribed characteristics.” The magazine ran for two years until 1980 when it was banned. All five poets were exiled after 1989.

The lines from Dao’s poem “Declaration” became a hymn for the people of China. It was perhaps because of his vision, derived from his intuitive understanding of the future, that he tried to establish a sense of freedom that resonated with the Chinese youth at that time. His acute and sharp sense of the understanding of political words, which even though we read them in translation, is astounding and lies at the core of his poetry. In this poem dedicated to Yu Luoke, who was executed for his book On Family’s Origins, Dao wrote:

“I have left no testament. 
Only a pen, for my mother
I am no hero 
In an age without heroes, 
I just want to be a man.”

— Translated by Eliot Wineberger

Serene in his revolt

These lines appeared on banners carried by student groups in Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. They were even recited by the student leader Chai Ling. Dao was in Europe, and it was there that he came to know about the bloody protests. With the knowledge that he would be imprisoned if he returned to China during those years, he stayed on in Europe. Never truly at home, he taught in England, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Dao attempted to return to China in 1994, but was detained at the airport, questioned for hours about Today, and was finally sent back to the United States. His wife and daughter were not allowed to leave China to join him for another six years. And it wouldn’t be until 2006 that he would be allowed back into his own nation.

There is a tranquillity in the form of protest that Bei Dao had chosen, contrary to the approach of Ai Weiwei, an artist who suffered a similar fate. But even so, Dao’s dormant memories neither disappear, nor lose force. His poetry is poignantly textured, full of the sights, scents, and memories of a Beijing that was no more, the Beijing that he imagined miles away from his homeland.

In 2001, he returned to China briefly to visit his sick father, and observed that the city that he had known before leaving, had vanished. He declared that he felt like a foreigner in his hometown. China had been changing constantly while he was in exile for almost a dozen years. There was economic and social transformation, and Beijing had evolved into a megacity, with industries and “glittering soccer stadiums”. In his eloquent memoir, City Gate, Open up, he wrote that he wanted to “refute the Beijing of today” and “rebuild” it into the one that existed in his memory. His memoir revolves around time and memory, political consciousness, and his dream of a utopian world.

Rebuilding the past

The critic and essayist Water Benjamin had one interpreted Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” to state that “where we perceive a chain of events, he (the angel) sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them,” Just like the angel, Dao stares back at the past through his poetry.

In his memoir, he is unable to move, trapped in a turbulence that he cannot escape, but contemplates fixedly. Time is written through the medium of cultural memory here, but it isn’t a process of actualisation. Dao is aware that this consuming task of rebuilding and reconstruction was almost impossible to achieve. He believes that his poetry is an instrument that awakens the process of remembering, and that “within memory’s labyrinth, one passage leads into another passage, one gate opens up to face another gate.”

His poem Black Map is a testament to the Beijing he had known.

“Beijing, let me  
toast your lamplights
let my white hair lead
the way through the black map
as though a storm were taking you to fly

I wait in line until the small window 
shuts: O the bright moon
I go home – reunions
are one less 
fewer than goodbyes”

In his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk recreates the city in which he had grown up, using Ara Guler’s pictures to evoke a certain kind of the melancholy, or “Huzun”. Similarly, Dao finds solace in the memory of the city he had lived in before he was exiled. His poetry and prose are an instruction to his own memory. They’re drafts that remind him of his city gates, cultural memories of all that was lost, and all that could never be regained but only reimagined.

But even in exile, Dao did not lose his calm. After years of being away from Beijing, he believed that something good would spring up from it. He still questioned authority with serenity, equating his exile to a crusade where someone was needed to be “away from home, suffer a little” so they could gain some understanding of the world and how everything functions. He wrote, “To a certain extent, it’s a historical crusade, but the intention of the crusade is not to conquer the enemy, but for the person to conquer him/herself.” A voice like his is seldom experienced. From the choice of words, to the forms of expression and dissent, Bei Dao will go down in history as an exemplary figure who redefined the poetry of resistance.

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