Presidential Lecture Series
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(Compiled by Adán Griego, Co-editor of the Presidential Lectures Web Site)

Old Snow

"Most of the poems in this collection …..combine political directness and passion with dreamy, subjective meditations on individual life, Chinese history and the cruel isolation the poet feels, traveling from country to country (the book is divided into sections, each titled for a city), separated from his wife, the painter Shao Fei, and 5-year-old daughter, who have not been allowed to leave China. The chair draped with an overcoat sits in the east, the sun is its head it opens a cloud and says: here is the end of history the gods have abdicated, the temples are locked you are nothing but a pictograph that’s lost its sound.

This ability to personify and objectify simultaneously the images of historical terror is his signature. In his traveling isolation Bei Dao has discovered the extraordinary effect of the forces of history and history’s cataclysmic events on the life of the individual: "I close the door / inside history it is dark," he says. In the spirit of Tu Fu’s "Moonlit Night"–in which the poet grieves over his separation from his loved ones, imagining his wife standing at the window–Bei Dao imagines his daughter painting him out of her early pictures of the world. (Her nickname, Tiantian, is written in characters that look like two windows.) your name has two windows one opens towards a sun with no clock-hands the other opens towards your father who has become a hedgehog in exile taking with him a few unintelligible characters and a bright red apple he has left your painting how vast is a five-year-old sky."

From Carol Muske. "Passion, Politics and Secret Rituals." New York Times Book Review. April 19, 1992.

Old Snow

"The significance….lies in the author’s status as a spokesperson for all those who share illicit memories which cannot be shared in the legitimate Chinese media. The volume is divided into three sections, coinciding with the European cities where the exiled poet has resided: Berlin, Oslo and Stockholm. Indeed, the title…evokes images of the weight of repression over China, both old and new, by describing remnants of national upheavals in European cities…. The collective memory recalled is not only of an old repression but also of a community that is the location of rebirth of a new public community.

"Still, as Bei Dao’s gaze has gradually become that of the distant, exiled observer, one finds in his poems suggestions that rebirth is imminent. In ‘Requiem’ he honors those who died in Tiananmen Saquare…; there is a community and meaning in their after-death experience. In ‘Prague’ the poet writes, ‘where there are ghosts there is history…..’ As he describes the ghosts in the streets of Prague, we see the ghosts in the streets of Beijing. A memorial is a strong symbol of moral community; sharing and re-sharing an illicit memory creates such a moral community."

From Jane S. Koepp. World Literature Today, v66 (Summer, 1992), p.578

Old Snow

"Readers of Bei Dao’s earlier work The August Sleepwalker have followed his course from early sentimentality, youthful defiance of arbitrary authority, tribute to love and friendship, and a steady deepening pessimism. This collection still locates the author moving back and forth between public acts and private needs, but the reader is no longer offered the consolation of dreams, seclusion or shelter. The composition of the poems is still built around a sequence of powerful images, but the images are now more carefully chosen and thoughtfully structured.

From Bonnie S. Mcdougall’s preface to Old Snow: Poems by Bei Dao, 1991.

August Sleepwalker

"The August Sleepwalker is a complete translation of Bei Dao’s ‘Collected Poems.’ Published in Canton in 1987. The ninety-one poems it contains were written between 1970 and 1986 and were selected and authorized by the poet himself.

Bei Dao’s poetry…cannot be separated from the disillusionment, the alienation and despair, the search for an attempt to reconstruct meaning in a meaningless world that many Chinese have experienced in the last two decades. It is no wonder, then, that his verse touches the reader as gloomy and sad, perhaps more so than any poet of his generation. Whereas in his earlier poetry, written between 1970 and 1978, there are dreams of love, freedom and happiness, such voices disappear almost entirely in his later work, dated 1983-1986, filled as it is with images of blood, barrenness, old age, incongruity and coldness. As such, it is a chilling portent of the situation of a Chinese artist true to his/her artistic conscience under an increasingly repressive government after 4 June 1989."

From Michelle Yeh. World Literature Today, Vol. 64 (Winter, 1990), p.191.


"In Bei Dao’s short stories, collected in ‘Waves,’ the images are often equally powerful, but now the form lets Bei Dao explore his own self and his own society with more leisure.

Bei Dao’s vision is not totally despairing, although he has seen and heard about much that might justify such an attitude. But it is certainly dark, and the flashes of light that cut through the haze of anguished memory seem at times too frail to make up for all the loss. At their best, his stories are almost unbearably poignant. In ‘The Homecoming Stranger,’ a father returns home to his family after 20 years in political labor camps. Almost totally unable to communicate after his years of lonely suffering, at the story’s end the man gives to his daughter the one thing of beauty he has been able to make in hell, a necklace he painstakingly assembled for her over the years, made entirely of the colored, broken handles of discarded toothbrushes.

The 130-page novella ‘Waves,’ which gives the volume its title, is Bei Dao’s most ambitious work; it was initially drafted in 1974, revised in 1976, and again in 1979 for his own journal, Today. Like many of Bei Dao’s stories it is about people who insist on believing in love, even when society and those around them make such belief seem folly. But it also introduces the underside of Chinese society in the 1970’s, the crooks and thugs who manage to add an extra level of despair to those Chinese already harried or driven almost mad by the state. Bei Dao is an imagist, and the varied characters in ‘’Waves’’ circle and swoop around one another in unpredictable rhythms; their lives intersect without premeditation. Stories are pieced together out of fragments; decisions are made, unmade, deferred.

From Jonathan. D. Spence "On the Outs in Beijing." New York Times Book Review (Sun, Aug. 12, 1990), p.6

"Bei Dao and his Audiences." by Haun Saussy


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