The Poets

August 02, 2015

La Piana & Bei Dao

La Piana: In 1989 you were exiled from China and you have been barred from returning since then. How has the experience of exile changed your relation to China and to the Chinese language?

Bei Dao: At first I thought I was being exiled only for a short time. But it got longer and longer. As a writer, the most important thing for me is to continue to write, no matter where I am. The last five years have in some sense been the most difficult of my life, although materially I am okay. But the sense of solitude is very difficult, so I feel that I have to continue to write. Writing is the thing that sustains me and keeps me going. It is a form of self-preservation for me. People have asked about my being cut off from the Chinese language. But writing is always a challenge anyway, whether you are writing in China or outside. The question is how are you going to respond to that challenge.

Of the Misty Poets: Bei Dao

From roughly 1979 to 1989, a group of poets called the Misty Poets (Ménglóng Shi Rén) arose in post-Maoist China.

Disillusioned by the Maoist regime, it's propaganda, and it's political subjugation of both art and ideology, many Chinese poets and writers gathered secretly together to read literature that was condemned by the government, to write and exchange their works, and to promote ideas of freedom and individual expression- for which many were arrested and sentenced to long durations in prison. Others didn't fare so well.

Zhao Zhengkai- better known by his nom de plume, Bei Dao- was one such poet.

It was in 1969, after having served as a member of the paramilitary RedGuard during the Cultural Revolution, that Bei Dao's political views radically changed as he was sent to do labor work in the squalid, impoverished countryside of his homeland. The conditions were so deplorable that he lost all enthusiasm for the revolution. This is when he began, in secret, to study and read and write poetry.

Over a period of time many small underground groups that shared Bei Dao's sentiments, and his artistic means of expressing those sentiments, began to form. By 1978 Bei Dao- along with fellow poet and friend, Mang Ke- founded an underground literary journal called Jintian (Today). After two years of intense surveillance, harassment, and arrests, the Chinese government had the underground journal shut down.

Over the years Bei Dao traveled abroad and connected with literary groups in several countries. He happened to be in Germany when the massacre of Tiananmen Square occurred in 1989. Thought to have had a hand in those protests, or to have influenced them somehow, the Chinese government forced exile on our poet by denying his reentry into the country. Bei Dao, along with several other Misty Poets, have not been allowed back since. 



I first learned about these poets in 2010 and immediately fell in love with the works of Bei Dao, Shu Ting, and Gu Cheng. It was on this particular day in 1949 that Bei Dao was born, and so I thought I'd take it upon myself to honor our poet by posting on him briefly. That said, I'd like to share a poem written by him, called The Boundary.

The Boundary

I want to go to the other bank

The river water alters the sky's colour
and alters me
I am in the current
my shadow stands by the river bank
like a tree struck by lightning

I want to go to the other bank

In the trees on the other bank
a solitary startled wood pigeon
flies towards me

Beautiful, right? The poem was published in Bei Dao's TheAugust Sleepwalker (1990), and translated by Bonnie S. McDougall. The poems in that collection are said to be “all of the poems Bei Dao published between 1970 and 1986”, works that were therefore prior to his being exiled. Strangely, though, when I first read the poem the imagery therein lead me to believe that the poem was, in fact, about exile. Allow me to explain, and please let me know what you think.

The 'boundary' is obviously the river water that's dividing two river banks. The poet desires to be on the other river bank, but his desires are painfully thwarted by the river and its current- the river water (or boundary) representing his exile; the other bank the poet's homeland, China.

That the river water alters the colour of the sky, which in turn alters our poet, signifies that this exile is an imposition on our poet's freedom (represented by the sky), and that this imposition deeply pains (or alters) our poet, as we'll soon see.

The narrator desperately desires to reach the other bank, so much so that he stands there at the river's edge and sees his shadow 'like a tree struck by lightning', indicating the poet's depth of pain. He again, and almost mournfully, reiterates his desire: I want to go to the other bank … but the river and its current (his exile) prevents him.

Finally, in the last stanza, the poet sees the trees on the other river bank. Just as the tree struck by lightning (line 6) represented the poet and his depth of pain, so too the trees on the other bank represent people- and because the other bank represents China, the trees represent his countrymen from whom he's exiled.

But what of the wood pigeon? Note that it's startled, indicating a state of trepidation, and that it's in the trees (plural). I take this to indicate a general trepidation that still persists in the heart of his countrymen, just as it did in Tiananmen Square in 1989. That the wood pigeon flies toward our beloved poet can only indicate for me a sympathetic reaching out of his countrymen.

And there you have it, my interpretation of Bei Dao's poem,
The Boundary. That this is what the poet intend I am highly doubtful- as I mentioned, the poem is said to have been written between 1970 and 1986, prior to him being exiled in '89. Nevertheless, this was the first impression I derived from it, and so I remain faithful to it. I would so love to know your interpretation of it.

Thank you for stopping by. And Bei Dao, happy birthday, my friend ...

As of April 9th, 2010