Bei Dao’s Beijing

The eminent Chinese poet on exile and his native city.
Black and white image of Bei Dao.

What is a lost city? The vanished metropolises of myth and history are one sort: Atlantis plunged into the sea, Troy razed, ghost towns littered across the American West. But cities can be susceptible to another kind of loss too. “I lost two cities, lovely ones,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in “One Art.” It’s partly in this way that the eminent Chinese poet Bei Dao speaks of losing Beijing, his native city. Exiled since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Bei Dao was briefly allowed to return to Beijing in 2001 to see his dying father. He was stunned by what he found. “Beijing had completely changed: everything was difficult to recognize, nothing familiar. I was a foreigner in my own hometown,” he writes in his newly published memoir, City Gate, Open Up (translated by Jeffrey Yang). This sense of loss gave him a mission: “I would use the written word to rebuild another city, rebuild my Beijing; I would use my Beijing to refute the Beijing of today.” Bei Dao set out to discover whether it is possible to recapture a lost city.

As a poet and a scholar of Chinese history, I’m struck by how neatly Bei Dao’s early life maps onto the history of the People’s Republic of China. He was born Zhao Zhenkai (Bei Dao is his pen name) a few months before Mao Zedong established the “New China” on October 1, 1949. His parents attended cadre school, and his childhood in Beijing was dominated by the political campaigns and social upheaval of the Mao era. He was a boy during the Great Leap Forward, the utopian campaign to boost production and create self-sufficient local communities, and he describes the “festival” atmosphere, complete with drums and gongs, that reigned at the beginning of this period. The campaign failed disastrously, exacerbating a massive famine and leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people—ravenous, bitter years that Bei Dao recounts in aching detail, from “the smell of rotting yams” to his malnourished hallucinations of “grotesquely shaped trees, brilliant flowers about to drop petals, smoke suspended in midair, water flowing backward.…”

When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, China became the dominion of the Red Guards, public denunciations, and violent struggle sessions, a reign of terror fueled by Mao’s personality cult. It was, Bei Dao writes, a time of “bloody tragedy” and “utter abjection.” A student filled with revolutionary fervor, he swore an oath with his friends: “Carry the revolution to the end.” Around this time, his father fell from a ladder and broke his wrist; Bei Dao brought a healing gift to the hospital, a small bust of Mao that he placed beside the sickbed.

Bei Dao lost faith in the revolution, however, and wrote poetry with a circle of friends during the 1970s. As translations of world literature became newly available, he read widely, and he rose to prominence after Mao’s death in 1976. He and his confreres developed a new literary style, subverting the norms of both classical and revolutionary Chinese poetry by writing free verse lines that melded oblique, daring images with a dreamlike, even oracular voice, as in “Hello, Baihua Mountain” (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall):

It was a wind within a wind, drawing
A restless response from the land,
I whispered, and the snowflake
Drifted from my hand down the abyss.

In 1978, China embarked on a new era of “reform and opening,” and Bei Dao and several friends founded the samizdat magazine Today (Jintian) while also publishing their own poems in official periodicals. Yet his poems drew criticism from the Chinese authorities, who found their language obscure and even threatening. “Our poetry was written in what amounted to a new language, which differed greatly from the official language,” Bei Dao said in a 1994 interview with the University of Michigan’s Journal of the International Institute. This style was derisively called “misty poetry” (menglong shi), a name that regrettably stuck both in China and around the world; as the poet Michael Palmer puts it, this term is inapt because it “inevitably suggests a stale, neo-romantic impressionism” instead of the “radical and responsive subjectivity” that Bei Dao’s poems pursue.


Bei Dao, wearing his father's sheepskin coat, 1970. Courtesy of New Directions.


Yet Bei Dao is best known as a poet of political consequence, if not always quite a political poet, because of the role his “new language” played in awakening the consciousness of participants in the Beijing Spring of 1989. His poems were read and recited by the protesters at Tiananmen Square, and one, “Declaration,” even appeared on students’ banners there. Perhaps his most famous poem, “The Answer,” announces boldly:

Let me tell you, world.
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.

Declaration” (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall), is a related poem, and in it he expands on the individual’s challenge to authority and adopts a vatic tone:

I will not kneel on the ground
Allowing the executioners to look tall
The better to obstruct the wind of freedom

From star-like bullet holes shall flow
A blood-red dawn

Bei Dao was visiting West Berlin in June 1989 when the Chinese leadership authorized the violent termination of the student movement in Tiananmen Square, “a night of even greater loss, of the people wholly lost,” as he writes in his memoir. His poetry was seen by the world—and he was subsequently prevented from returning to mainland China, even to reunite with his family in Beijing, “a long, unforeseen parting.” He was 39 years old, at the height of his fame. In his poem “June” (translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong), he writes, “Wind at the ear says June / June a blacklist I slipped / in time.”

His Beijing “slipped / in time” too. Some of his poems lushly recollect that city, “smells making you remember again / like a horse-cart passing through the flea market” (“Smells,” translated by Weinberger and Man-Cheong). Yet, as he discovered upon visiting in 2001, rapid modernization has transformed the city into a smoggy, ever-expanding sprawl—a far cry from the “large village” that he grew up in, as he recalls in City Gate, Open Up, where “early in the morning, one could even hear a rooster crow.” These rapid shifts engendered a range of highly conflicted attitudes toward the city among China’s many independent-minded writers. For members of Bei Dao’s generation, nostalgia for the Beijing of their youth is simultaneously rendered less palatable by the memories of scarring experiences such as the Cultural Revolution and less immediate by the recent sweeping transformation of the city.

For Bei Dao, living in exile, this ambivalence is particularly acute. As he writes in his memoir, one day he searched Beijing on Google Earth, “and like an eagle spiral[ed] down, following Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, Shichahai Lakes, Denei Street,” eventually locating his family’s former home—beside which now stands “an ugly new building.” The poet’s nostalgia, mediated by a 21st-century technology that allows him to explore at “street level” the city from which he is exiled, is rudely interrupted by an “ugly new” manifestation of the city’s modernization. He remains estranged from an irrevocably changed Beijing—from, as he writes in “Untitled” (translated by Weinberger and Man-Cheong), a “landscape crossed out with a pen.”

The title of the memoir, City Gate, Open UpChengmen kai in the Chinese original—comes from a nursery rhyme that is the book’s epigraph (“City gate, city gate will you open up or not?”) and plays on multiple associations in the context of Chinese history. The aforementioned era that began in 1978 is known as the period of “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang), and the imperative to “open up” (kai) was frequently uttered by Deng Xiaoping, the man who ruled China at the time of the Tiananmen crackdown. Bei Dao transforms this word into a directive for his country at a different historical moment. It becomes a command for today’s China to “open up,” when the choice between opening and closing to new ideas from within China and around the world is a battleground in political and intellectual life. And the same closed mindset that bans Bei Dao is also the mindset that seeks to close China off from what the regime calls “hostile foreign forces” and “Western infiltration.” Yet the call to “open up” is also personal. “Writing awakens the process of remembering,” Bei Dao observes in his memoir. “Within memory’s labyrinth, one passage leads into another passage, one gate opens up to face another gate.” “Open up” is the poet’s command to his own memory, which has curled partly into closure thanks to the pain of exile.

I was also struck by the decision to use in his title this anachronistic image of a “city gate,” a portal in the imperial walls of the city. Those old walls were long since overrun as the city expanded, and the sections of the walls that remain are now mainly functionless historical artifacts. They recall Beijing’s centuries of repeated transformations, while also symbolically evoking the long history of China’s “closedness,” both perceived and real, and its tortured efforts to open up. Because Bei Dao has had to live outside mainland China for so long and because he has been heartily embraced by the international literary community, there seems to be a plaintive, almost counterfactual dimension to this juxtaposition of “city gate” and “open up.” It is as if, instead of his stated desire to “refute” today’s China, he wonders yearningly whether there could ever be a place for him in a new Beijing where the old city gates are only official tourist sites—even if it were open to him.

Faced with the weight of history and the force of politics, Bei Dao’s struggle to “refute the Beijing of today” and “rebuild” his Beijing ultimately—perhaps inevitably—proves unattainable in either poetry or prose. He writes in his memoir, “This long-consuming task of rebuilding and reconstruction—I feel it’s almost impossible to achieve.” Yet this does not undermine the value of the attempt. In the 1994 interview, he elaborated on this point: “On the one hand poetry is useless. It can’t change the world materially. On the other hand it is a basic part of human existence… [and] what makes human beings human.” His yearning for a lost Beijing might fit the same rubric: a desire at once “useless,” “impossible,” and intensely human. “Writing is a renaming of the world,” he has said, and his memoir, like his poetry, is fundamentally an act of “renaming.” In a recent poem, “Black Map” (translated by Weinberger), Bei Dao imagines a final salute to his lost city:

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
Originally Published: May 23rd, 2017

Julian Gewirtz is a poet and historian. His poems have appeared in AGNIBoston ReviewThe Nation, the New RepublicPloughshares, the Yale Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of a history of China's economic reinvention, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2017). His reviews and essays have appeared...