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Stanford Report, December 1, 1999

Chinese poet reads, reflects on life in exile


As he read with quiet intensity about moonlight, accomplices, landscapes, the night sky and leaving home, Chinese poet Bei Dao captivated listeners in a darkened Kresge Auditorium.

"I've been told that American audiences like personal stories," he said at the start of his reading Monday evening, as the final speaker in the autumn quarter of the Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts. "So I will tell you that I wrote 'A Bouquet' in 1973, the first time I fell in love."

As the Chinese text of each of 22 poems was projected onto a large screen, Bei Dao supplied a brief introduction. He then read each work in Chinese from a lectern at stage right, and was followed by colleague Eliot Weinberger, who read an English translation.

Before the poetry reading Monday night, Bei Dao spoke with Ping Chou, a graduate student in the Asian Languages Department. Bei Dao said he had "very complex feelings" about the use of his poetry by Tiananmen Square protesters.

Photo by L.A. Cicero

"I chose some of the poems, like the first love poem, for young people," Bei Dao said in an interview earlier that day. The remainder, he added, constituted a retrospective of his work, in vaguely chronological order.

In his introduction, Haun Saussy, associate professor of Asian languages, argued that Bei Dao "is simultaneously the best-known living Chinese poet and an exile from his home country."

Noting that "a closer look at Bei Dao's work shows how unlikely he is to qualify as a full-time 'political poet,'" Saussy suggested that during the past 10 years Bei Dao "has been exploring what it means to be a Chinese poet estranged from his natural readership."

In April and June of 1989 the following lines from one of Bei Dao's poems, "Proclamation," appeared on banners that were carried by student groups into Tiananmen Square:

In a time without heroes

I just wanted to be a human being

. . . I will not kneel on the ground

Allowing the executioners to look tall

The better to obscure the wind of freedom.

Bei Dao was traveling in Europe at the time, and he has not been allowed to return to China since then.

"I had very complex feelings," he said in the interview, about learning that his poems had been such an integral part of the Tiananmen uprising. "Because I wasn't there, I felt kind of guilty. But I was proud of myself, too, because my poems could influence people like that."

Bei Dao had been a senior in high school when Mao Tse-tung launched the Cultural Revolution, and he spent 11 years working as a blacksmith and building electric generating plants and bridges. It was there, in the remote countryside, that he began to write poetry.

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"I worked at night, while my colleagues slept," he said. "We all stayed in the same dormitory room -- about 100 workers -- but I made a lamp that had a straw hat for a shade and the light was very concentrated, so I did not disturb other people."

When they finally returned to Beijing, Bei Dao and various friends formed what he called "cultural salons."

"It had been a hard time in many ways, but on the other side, it was very exciting," he recalls. "It was the first time to discover another world in thinking and reading, and we all exchanged books and writing."

In 1978 Bei Dao and fellow poet Mang Ke founded Jintian/Today!, a bilingual "small magazine of poetry and fiction, printed in blurry characters on rough brownish paper," as Saussy described it.

Today! was China's first independent literary magazine, and Bei Dao published in the first volume a poem about the 1976 Tiananmen protests that mourned the death of Politburo member Zhou Enlai. "The Answer," Saussy suggested, indicated the poet's "sense of standing at a critical point in history":

I'll tell you, world,

I do not believe!

If a thousand challengers already lie under your feet,

Count me as 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.


The new departure and the sparkling Dipper

Are patching together a sky with nothing to hide.

It is a five thousand years' pictogram,

It is the gaze in the eyes of people yet to come.

"It is hard to overestimate the meaning of these lines in the China of 1978," Saussy told the audience in Kresge. "Bei Dao's poem suggests a social order in which people can decline to believe that the sky is blue, or that dreams are false, and that won't be the end of the world."

Many of the new works that were published in Today! came to be known as "misty" or "obscure poetry," so called for its elusive subjects and grammatical constructions. Although the journal was shut down by the Chinese government in 1980, Bei Dao and other exiled writers met in Oslo in the spring of 1990 to revive the publication. He now serves as its chief editor from his home base in Davis, Calif.

"I don't have a motherland now," he says of the past 10 years of exile. "Someone recently said to me that I am like a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country, and I like that.

"Poets are inspired by many different ideas, feelings and experiences when they write. And I draw on my memories, too." SR