Today is the birthday of Chinese poet Bei Dao born Zhao Zhenkai in Beijing in 1949. Bei Dao’s family was traditional and middle class, his father a professional administrator and his mother a doctor. And when Mao’s Cultural Revolution came in 1966, Bei Dao was initially an enthusiastic supporter and joined the Red Guard movement. But the boy soon become disillusioned, certain that the Mao revolution would only end in new forms of tyranny, and so was sent to the countryside for “re-education” through labor, the standard punishment for counter-revolutionaries, and lived a relatively isolated life that only added to his melancholy.
Bei Dao longed for new ways to express himself, some artistic manner that was unrestricted by the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, and he began experimenting with lyrical writing, free verse, oblique images and cryptic phrases — an extreme break from officially sanctioned literature. It was then, in the early 1970s, that he took the pseudonym by which he is known — Bei Dao, or “north island” — to express both his northern birth and solitary nature.
Bei Dao and a group of other writers following this new lyric style became known as the “Misty School,” writing the “poetry of shadows,” and taking up the voice of all who shared in their spiritual exile. His work began to earn recognition with pro-democracy protesters, and he took part in the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations, during which his poem “The Answer” became something of an anthem for the dissidents, who chanted its lines as they marched:
I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.
Bei Dao wrote his first novella, Waves, and then in 1978 helped found China’s first unofficial literary magazine, Jintian, and managed to keep it running for two years before the government shut it down. He continued to write poetry that expressed the intimacies of love and friendship in a society where trusting another could be a matter of life or death, and won the Chinese National Award for poetry despite official disapproval of his progressive actions.
In 1988, Bei Dao wrote a petition and collected signatures, calling for the release of Chinese political prisoners and drawing the wrath of the authorities. The petition became the prelude to a large-scale human rights campaign that would come to a head in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June of 1989. Although he was abroad during the demonstrations, protesters chanted Bei Dao’s poetry while congregating in the square, and he was forced to remain abroad, knowing he’d be arrested if he returned.
Now an exile, Bei Dao taught throughout Europe and the United States, relaunched the magazine Jinchian in Stockholm in 1990, was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has been on the shortlist of candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature numerous times in recent years. Finally, in 2006, Bei Dao was allowed to return to China where he currently lives and teaches.
- Chinese Protests Do Not Reflect Arrival of Political Liberty in China (socyberty.com)
- Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (Viewed as Single Page) (ilookchina.net)
- Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Withstood Surrounded by Problems (socyberty.com)
- Why China’s Burning Mad (time.com)