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Bei Dao (1949- ) - pseudonym of Zhao Zhengkai


Chinese poet, who became in the 1970s the poetic voice of his generation. Bei Dao's education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He was a political activist but later lost his enthusiasm, and started to write as an alternative to his early actions. His central themes are the pressures of a conformist society, disillusionment, and sense of rootlessness.

After braving the music of the air raid alarm
I hang my shadow on the hat-stand
take off the dog's eyes
(which I use for escape)
remove my false teeth (these final words)
and close my astute and experienced pocket watch
(that garrisoned heart)

The hours fall in the water one after the other
in my dreams like depth bombs
they explode
(in 'Coming Home at Night' in Old Snow, 1991)

Zhao Zhenkai (Bei Dao) was born in Beijing. His father was a professional administrator and his mother a doctor. As a child Bei Dao received good education at the Fourth Middle School. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Cultural Revolution, which interrupted his formal education. He was briefly a Red Guard and "reeducated" in the country. From 1969 to 1980 he was a construction worker. In the early 1970s Bei Dao started to write under several pseudonyms poems which probed the boundaries of the official literature of his time. Literally Bei Dao means North Island – the name was given to him by friends because he is from the north and something of a loner.

In 1976 Bei Dao's poetry gained recognition especially among the Democracy Movement. His most famous poem, "Huida," declared that "I don't believe the sky is blue." Bei Dao expressed a growing desire for freedom and disappointment of unfilled expectations. He cofounded with Mang Ke an unofficial literary magazine Jintian (Today), which gathered around it other young poets and dissidents. It was published between 1978 and 1980. At this time Bei Dao's work made a clear break from the official, orthodox expression. Hostile critics considered it nihilistic. Bei Dao used elusive imagery and linguistic ambiguity - "Life. The sun rises too," he wrote giving the officials much trouble to conclude, is he criticizing Mao Zedong (often referred as "the red sun in our hearts") or not. He also attempted to resolve the problem of the gulf between spoken and written Chinese in experimental poems. The "misty school of poetry" was attacked in the press, when its representatives arose from the underground, and in 1980 the magazine was banned. Their mentality was strange to their critics, but at the bottom it was a question, was the Chinese reality behind words "obscure" or their writings.

Bei Dao gained first international acclaim with the poem 'Answer,' which was published in the official poetry journal Shi Kan (Poetry Monthly) in 1980. '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's tone was defiant and especially the last lines from 'Notes on the City of the Sun,' have been often quoted as representing the disillusionment of his generation.

At the emperor's tomb
a rusting musket sprouts a fresh green twig
to make a crutch for some crippled veteran.
Wrought on an old bronze shield, she leans
in a dusty corner of he museum.
A net.
(in 'Notes in the City of the Sun')

In the early 1980s Bei Dao worked at the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. He was the key target in the government's Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, but in 1983 he managed to meet secretly the American poet Allen Ginsberg, who had came to China as part of a group of American authors. Bei Dao soo realized that Ginsberg did not know much about contemporary Chinese poetry. He was mostly interested in Bei Dao's dissident status and recommended that he should translate Gregory Corso's (1930-2001) poems into Chinese. Later they met several times, among others in South Korea, where Ginsberg upset high officials with his questions about Korea's human rights. "At the banquet, the highest of officials and lowliest of interns pushed their way into photos with him. Allen always dragged me along, despite my protests. I had never seen him as angry as when one of the officials, seeing that I was sharing in Allen's limelight, showed me out of the way. Allen stomped his feet and exploded. "You son of a bitch! Don't you fucking know he's a friend of mine – a Chinese poet!?" (in Blue House, 2000)

In 1983 Bei Dao's poems were published in the East Asia Papers series of the Cornell University East Asia Program and in Renditions 19/20 in Hong Kong by The Chinese University Press. Poems also appeared in the Bulletin of Concerned Asinan Scholars (1984) and in Contemporary Chinese Literature, edited by Michael Duke (1985).

The dream world have an important place in Bei Dao's poetry. Rarely expressing nostalgia for the days gone by, he made an exception in his poem 'The Old Temple'; the temple is run down, cobwebs cover everything, the dragons and strange birds are gone, but Bei Dao suggests: "yet perhaps / with a glance from the living / the tortoise might come back to life in the earth."

When the political situation changed in the mid-1980s, Bei Dao started to travel in Europe and in the Unites States, often with his wife, the painter Shao Fei, and their daughter, Tiantian. Although political control of the public debate showed some signs of relaxation, his poetry turned more pessimistic, culminating in the nightmarish "Bai ri meng" (1986). Bei Dao shi xuan (1986, The August Sleepwalker), a collection of poems written between 1970 and 1986, was received with enthusiam, but the work was soon banned by the authorities. After a year in England, followed by a tour in the United States, Bei Dao returned to China in the late 1988. "I watch the process of apples spoiling," he said.

Writing in free verse, Bei Dao is best known for intensely compressed images and cryptic style. It leaves the reader to supply the nuances in the empty spaces between the lines. His search for a new poetry has drawn on classical Chinese poetic grammar, modernist poetry, and influences from Western literature. Mirrors, the sky, different seasons and clocks appear often in the imagery - the sky could be 'doomsday-purple,' 'scoop-shaped,' 'absolute,' or a vast 'five-year-old sky.' The poet's efforts 'to pass through the mirror / have not succeeded,' 'we are born from the mirror,' and 'the window makes a frame for the sky.'

The novella Bodong (Waves) made Bei Dao one of the prominent figures in Chinese modernist fiction. The stories in the book about the "lost generation" of the Cultural Revolution are seemingly disjointed. Bei Dao uses multiple narrators and interior monologue, breaking away from the traditional ways of expression. "As long as one's thought are spoken and written down, they'll form another life, they won't perish with the flesh," thinks Wang Qi in 'In the Ruins.' Waves was followed by shorter prose pieces dealing with contemporay subjects, such as the gulf between the official truth and reality.

"Not gods but the children
amid the clashing of helmets
say their prayers
mothers breed light
darkness breeds mothers
the stone rolls, the clock runs backwards
the eclipse of the sun has already take place"

(in 'Requiem,' written for the victims of June Fourth)

In 1989 Bei Dao signed a letter with 33 intellectuals to the NPC and the Central Committee, which led to a petition campaign that called for the release of political prisoners, among them the democratic activist Wei Jingsheng. When the demonstration in Tiananmen Square was suppressed in the massacre of June 4, Bei Dao was in Berlin. Some of his poems were circulated by students during the democracy movement in 1989, and he was accused of helping to incite the events in the Square. On the banners had been his lines from the 1970s: "I will not kneel on the ground, / Allowing the executioners to look tall, / The better to obstruct the wind of freedom".

Bei Dao decided to stay in exile. Also his friends Duo Duo, Yang Lian, and Gu Cheng chose exile - Gu Cheng's wife was killed and he committed suicide. With former contributors he reestablished Jintian, one of the forums for Chinese writers abroad. All the poems in the bilingual collection Old Snow, published in 1991 by New Directions Books, were written post-Tiananmen Square, traumatic watershed in Bei Dao's life.

After teaching in Sweden, where his acquaintances included the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, Bei Dao moved to Denmark and Germany, and eventually settled in the U.S., becoming a resident at the University of Michigan. He has said: "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." A collection of Bei Dao's short stories, 13, rue du bonheur (1999), was translated into French by Chantal Chen-Andro.

For further reading: The Chinese Poetry of Bei Dao, 1978-2000: Resistance And Exile by Dian Li (2006); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1., ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century by B.S. McDougall and K. Louie (1997); 'Inledning' by Göran Malmqvist, in Landskap över nollpunkten (1997); World Authors 1985-90, ed. by Vineta Colby (1995); Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Modern Chinese Poetry by M. Yeh (1991); Literary Exile in the 20th Century, ed. M. Tucker (1991); Contemporary Chinese Literature, ed. H. Martin (1986) -  Suomeksi Bei Daon runoja on julkaistu mm. Pertti Seppälän kääntämänä teoksessa Maailman runosydän (1998), toim. Hannu Tarmio ja Janne Tarmio.


  • Taiyang cheng zhaji, 1978
  • Huida, 1979
  • Notes from the City of the Sun, 1983 (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall)
  • Bodong, 1985 - Waves: Stories (translated by Susette Ternent Cooke, 1990)
  • Gui lai di mo sheng ren, 1986
  • Bei Dao shi xuan, 1986 - The August Sleepwalker (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall, rev, ed. 1990)
  • translator: Bei-ou Xiandai shi xuan, 1987 (contemporary Scandinavian poetry)
  • Bei Dao shi ji, 1988
  • Old Snow, 1991 (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Chen Maiping)
  • Forms of Distance, 1994 (translated by David Hinton)
  • Lan fang zi, 1998 - Blue House (translated by Ted Huters, Fengying Ming, 2000
  • Unlock: Poems, 2000 (translated by  Eliot Weinberger, Iona Man-Cheong )
  • At the Sky's Edge: Poems 1991-1996, 2001 (bilingual edition of Forms of Distance; Landscape Over Zero, translated by David Hinton)
  • Wu ye zhi men, 2002 - Midnight's Gate: Essays (edited by  Christopher Mattison, translated by Matthew Fryslie, 2005)
  • Qi shi nian dai, 2008 (editor)  
  • Chuan yue chou hen de hei an, 2005
  • The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems, 2010 (bilingual, edited by  Eliot Weinberger)
  • Cheng men kai, 2010
  • Guo dong, 2011
  • Gu lao de di yi, 2012

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