The internationally-acclaimed Chinese poet Bei Dao, (the nom de plume of the exiled Zhao Zhenkai), an exile in the West since 1989, following the events of Tiananmen Square, is now widely acknowledged to be China’s most iconic and pre-eminent contemporary poet.
He has lived (and continues to live) an extraordinary life (presently in Hong Kong, where, since August 2007, he has resided with his family, holding the esteemed position of Professor of Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.)
Once a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, he became disillusioned and was subsequently sent away from his native Beijing for re-education as a construction worker.
In the ’70’s and “80’s, he was a leading member of the loosely associated avant-garde gathering, the “Misty School“ of poets, (so named for the somewhat abstract language and obscure meaning in their poems). A cultural dissident, he joined with other underground poets attempting to create an alternative literature that challenged the received orthodoxies of Maoist China. In 1978 he famously co-founded the influential underground literary magazine Jintian (Today), which lasted a remarkable two years before it was summarily closed down (banned from publication) by the Chinese authorities. (As editor-in-chief, Bei Dao, with a group of Chinese writers, in 1990 in Oslo, revived the magazine and it has continued to be published abroad ever since)
During the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Bei Dao was in Berlin as a writer in residence and was not allowed to return to China. He was permanently exiled for his perceived influence on the protests that led up to uprising (often-cited, his powerful poem,“The Answer”). In 2001, he was briefly allowed to return to visit his gravely ill father, but it was not until 2006 that the ban on him was rescinded and he was officially permitted (should he wish to) to return.
For seventeen years, he lived in several European countries and in the United States. In America, he taught at the University of California at Davis, the University of Alabama, the University of Notre Dame, and at Beloit College in Wisconsin.
He became, of necessity, something of a world traveler. Exile was de facto his condition and so, of course, it resonates in his poetry.
Here he is in 2011 in New York reading at the 92nd Street Y
The following year, 2012, tragically, he suffered a stroke and for four years had severe difficulties forming sentences. During this time he was forced to explore other artistic medium – photography (inspired by Allen),
– and painting – tho’ he found he had trouble tracing steady lines, and so developed a kind of pointillist style using thousands dots of ink on paper, creating haunting calligraphic landscapes – like this one:
He recovered from his stroke and continues of course to write and continues to speak out
– and continues to give readings/presentations. Here he is in 2017, again in New York, at Columbia University, in conversation with his translator, Eliot Weinberger, on the occasion of his recently-published memoir City Gate, Open Up.
“The growth of civil society is a basic foundation that is necessary before democracy can come about. And the process of democratization itself is like that of the poetry revolution -it’s silent, it’s slow. But it will come.”
And Bei Dao and Allen? – Bei Dao addresses the relationship, poignantly and sweetly, in another book of memoirs, Blue House (published by the Massachusetts-based Zephyr Press). More from that in the days to come.