Lonely Island in the People’s Republic: Bei Dao
Bei Dao means “Northern Island,” and is the pen name of Chinese poet Zhao Zhenkai. Bei Dao would be an admirable poet in any time and place, but he was born in 1949 and in China, and the reality of the Revolution became the inescapable backdrop of his work and his life.
A stint in the Red Guard as a young man turned him off Chinese-style communism, but ignoring politics was never an option. He was “re-educated” as a construction worker, and formed a group of dissident poets called the Misty Poets, who published a poetry journal for a decade, until it was banned. The journal’s very existence was a defiant statement, and the Misty Poets themselves were devoted to political activity.
For all that, much of Bei Dao’s poetry is indirect, surreal and enigmatic. He’ll talk off to one side of his topic then off to the other, sometimes cryptic, but still powerful in his own way. The poem I’ve copied below is one of his more direct ones, and one of the most obviously political. It was written about the 1976 Tiananmen Square protests, and became a rallying cry for the protesters who took Tiananmen in 1989.
During the time of the latter protest, Bei Dao himself was at a poetry conference in Germany. Afterwards he was not allowed to return to China, although the Chinese government wouldn’t allow his wife and daughter to join him for six years. Since then he’s moved around and taught in many places in the west. Currently he lives and teaches in Hong Kong. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize, and it’s probably only a matter of time before he wins it.
Fortunately for us, Bei Dao’s work translates well into English. It is both delightful and challenging to read.
This is Bei Dao’s most famous poem, translated by Bonnie McDougall:
Jintian (The Answer)
Debasement is the password of the base,
Nobility the epitaph of the noble.
See how the gilded sky is covered
With the drifting twisted shadows of the dead.
The Ice Age is over now.
Why is there ice everywhere?
The Cape of Good Hope has been discovered.
Why do a thousand sails contest the Dead Sea?
I came into this world
Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow.
To proclaim before the judgement
The voice that has been judged:
Let me tell you, world.
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.
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.
If the sea is destined to breach the dikes
Let all the brackish water pour into my heart;
If the land is destined no rise
Let humanity choose a peak for existence again.
A new conjunction and glimmering stars
Adorn the unobstructed sky now;
They are the pictographs from five thousand years.
They are the watchful eyes of future generations.
My following poem:
My Own Peasant
Here is the hard part about freedom:
The necessity of looking at the sky–
No boundaries, no excuses
To frame the hungry blue of infinity.
Why do we settle for being pets of the petty,
How find meaning with the mean?
What sort of bread and circus shall we choose this time
To place like a pane of glass before our possibility?
Freedom is the broken dirt of a tiny vegetable patch.
Freedom is a bicycle riding in traffic.
Freedom is running like a child in the park.
Freedom is this poem.
I was born in a lucky house
Across at least one world from Tiananmen Square.
Here the worst politicians aren’t much worse than stupid,
And the fattest of people live off the fattest of lands.
Yet I don’t believe your free offer is free;
I don’t believe women are happier married;
I don’t believe in free rides;
I don’t believe television is a window to the world.
When I look down from the height of civilization,
I see an ocean of humanity crashing in waves over our frontier;
When I look up I see the strong shoulders and legs of Orion,
Knife drawn, daring the Earth to turn and her people to live.