Bei Dao and his Audiences

by Haun Saussy


The concept of "totalitarianism" and its intellectual concomitant, "brainwashing," have undergone a well-deserved cutting down to size in the last few years. 1 It is probably impossible to achieve a totally controlled society; "totalitarianism" served both its proponents and its antagonists as an enabling myth. Nonetheless, there are some pretty oppressive societies out there. I invite you to look back to mainland Chinese publications from the latter half of the 1970s for a sense of the monotony and fear that can be instilled in a population through such measures as mass campaigns of denunciation, the reduction of acceptable stage performances to a handful of Model Revolutionary Operas, and the patterning of permitted speech to variations on a few dozen quotations from the Little Red Book of the ever-correct, ever-glorious leader.

On April 5, 1976, an unforeseen event took place. Thousands of people converged on Tiananmen Square to mourn the death a few months before of Zhou Enlai, the one Politburo member who, it was thought, had tried to moderate Mao’s policies of instant collectivization and class war. Police chased the mourners off the square and punished them with surprising brutality. Zhao Zhenkai, whom we know as Bei Dao, was working as an electrician outside of the capital at the time, and this incident spurred him to write the poem which, for better or worse, is his most frequently reprinted work in the Chinese-speaking world, "Huida" ("The Answer" or "An Answer").

By 1978, however, a feeling of interregnum was in the air. Almost immediately after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, his designated successor, Hua Guofeng, arrested Mao’s widow and some of her close associates. This small group, labeled the "Gang of Four," would carry the blame for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Over the next two years, in keeping with the back-and-forth of internal party conflicts, the official press successively condemned Mao’s policies, rehabilitated people who had been sent to labor camps for "rightist deviation" and "revisionism," and encouraged people to voice their discontents by putting up wall posters in public places. One such public place, a brick wall near the Xidan bus stop in downtown Beijing, became known as "Democracy Wall," and people gathered to copy into notebooks or read into tape recorders the amazingly blunt criticisms posted there. With very little outside stimulus, it seemed that China was about to enter an age of unprecedented political change.

One manifestation of the 1978 period of uncertainty was Wei Jingsheng’s essay "Democracy, the Fifth Modernization." Another was a small magazine of poetry and fiction, printed in blurry characters on rough brownish paper, bilingually entitled Jintian / Today. Inevitably, the most adventurous call thus far to refashion Chinese society "with no gods or emperors" and the first independent literary magazine shared some intellectual bearings.2 They were products of the same loosening of central control. Wei Jingsheng’s group and the circle around Today shared at least one prominent member as well—the poet Mang Ke.

That first number of Today contained several pieces by our guest, using various pseudonyms—a time-honored tactic of the editors of small magazines. "Huida," "The Answer," appeared under the signature "Bei Dao," which unlike the other bylines in the magazine was hand-written next to the poem’s title. I have often wondered what that hand-written byline meant. Was the poem originally intended to appear anonymously? Dated "April, 1976"—a clear reminder of the first Tiananmen protests and their suppression—it opens rather gnomically with these lines:

Debasement is the passport of the base,

Nobility is the epitaph of the noble.

Look at the gold-plated sky

Filled with the drifting rippled reflections of the dead.

The Ice Age is over,

Why then are there ice peaks everywhere?

The Cape of Good Horn has already been discovered,

Why then do a thousand sails compete on a Dead Sea?3

The speaker’s sense of standing at a critical point in history is obvious. The opening lines have the deceptive appearance of a dirge or epitaph, but quickly veer to marking the poem’s present, the age after the Ice Age. Claiming the purpose of transmitting "condemned voices" "before the trial occurs," the poem’s speaker announces:

I’ll tell you, world,

I do not believe!

If a thousand challengers already lie under your feet,

Count me number one thousand and one.

I do not believe that the sky is blue;

I do not believe in the echoes of thunder;

I do not believe that dreams are false;

I do not believe that death brings no recompense.

The new departure and the sparkling Dipper

Are patching together a sky with nothing to hide.

It is a five thousand years’ pictogram,

It is the gaze in the eyes of people yet to come.

It is hard to over-estimate the meaning of these lines in the China of 1978. The speaker’s refusal to "believe" takes on cosmological dimensions, as even the sky stands revealed as an artificial, "gold-plated," ultimate limit. Now it may seem that this is a lot to claim for one person’s decision about what to stop believing in; isn’t there something immodest and exaggerated about all this?4 The poem made a much less histrionic impression on the readers of its own time and place. Bei Dao’s poem suggests a social order in which people can decline to believe that the sky is blue, or that dreams are false, and that won’t be the end of the world. But being a good citizen in modern China requires one to believe, actively, in a number of things, and to demonstrate belief by participating in rituals such as the study session, the "expression of attitudes," the public condemnation and the self-criticism.

Poems have careers of their own. When thousands of people memorize and repeat a poem, that indicates, not simply that it was a good poem to begin with, but that it serves them as a means of grasping experience. And some poems are handles for grasping a number of experiences: that depends partly on the poem, partly on the experiences. The confrontation between protesters and police in 1976 was not, as you know, a one-time affair. Interestingly, the published discussions of the poem within China insist, with the usual combination of overwrought phraseology and deadening repetition, that "The Answer" is about the corrupt society created by the Gang of Four—that is its sole and exclusive subject.5 Readers, however, refuse to let that one occasion exhaust its significance. Repression is an ongoing thing; the poem updates itself periodically, like a floating marker on the surface of events.

Today’s editorial committee stated, in their first number, that "history has finally given us the chance to release the songs buried in our hearts for the past ten years, without ever again incurring fearsome punishment for doing so. … Our generation will have to establish the meaning of each individual’s life and deepen people’s understanding of the meaning of freedom. The renewal of our country’s age-old culture must re-establish the position of the Chinese nation among the nations of the world. Our art must reflect these profoundly inscribed characteristics."6 These remarks suggest that a definitive corner had been turned in 1978, that the departure of the Gang of Four had brought the end of cultural dictatorship and would permit a rethinking of everything since the founding of the People’s Republic. Events would quickly prove them wrong: the ideological vacillation at the top was resolved when Deng Xiaoping took control of the party apparatus the following year. Deng had used popular unrest to dislodge his opponents, but had no intention of letting it go on once he was in the commanding role. Democracy Wall was painted over and not allowed to resume; those who had advocated dismantling the one-party system, like Wei Jingsheng, were arrested as traitors in foreign employ and put through broadly publicized show trials; Today magazine was closed down and its back stocks confiscated. What doomed Today was surely not so much the poetry, fiction and criticism it published as the public interest it had awakened, and the fact that both it and its public could act in such visible independence from the official literary world.

After the closing of Today, the Today poets began publishing in established journals, which only spread the Today style. From a manifesto by one of the poets in the movement came a label: the new poetry was henceforth discussed and debated as menglong shi, "misty" or "obscure" poetry. The early 1980s saw a controversy about the new poetry, which frustrated readers’ expectations that poetry should be memorable, easy to understand, and regular in form.7 The public discussions of Misty Poetry coincided with, and were among the occasions for, the 1983-84 official campaign to stamp out "spiritual pollution" in the form of imported ideas. With its obvious debts to foreign writers such as Lorca, Aleixandre, Mandelstam, Whitman, Eliot, and so on, not to mention its tacit departures from a didactic, top-down cultural style, Misty Poetry was a designated target.8 But the campaigns faded away inconclusively, leaving new poetry more prominent than before.

As Ouyang Jianghe observes in her introduction to the Taiwan edition of Landscape Over Zero, American readers have a bad habit of seeing politics everywhere in Bei Dao’s work, of reading it exclusively as a cleverly coded statement about opposition and reform in China. It is a way of reading that comforts our ignorance. The poetry stands only to gain from being freed from that obsession. Certainly, politics is everywhere in China, like the air, but a closer look at Bei Dao’s work shows how unlikely he is to qualify as a full-time "political poet." Today sought, not to abolish official culture, but to carve out a habitat where alternatives to it might develop. The politicization of Misty Poetry, to the degree that that occurred, was the doing of the officious bureaucrats who created the "spiritual pollution" campaign. In the later 1980s, Bei Dao sympathized with and participated in various groups attempting to reframe the discourse about civil rights—circulating petitions in favor of freeing Wei Jingsheng, for example, in a prelude to the mass demonstrations of April and June 1989. His actual work on behalf of these groups, though meritorious, was doubtless unnecessary to secure him a place on the list of suspicious characters, since another poem from his earlier period had already escaped from its cage in a book and become public property through endless citation. "I’m no hero," says the speaker of this poem, "Xuan gao" or "Proclamation"; "In a time without heroes / I just wanted to be a human being. /…/ I will not kneel on the ground / Allowing the executioners to look tall / The better to obscure the wind of freedom."9 These lines appeared on banners carried by student groups into Tiananmen Square during the popular movement of April and June, 1989; they were even recited, somewhat inappropriately if you ask me, by the student leader Chai Ling on her successful escape from China.

Bei Dao spent the spring and summer of 1989 in Europe and there had the news of the bloody repression of the student movement. Knowing that if he did return home he would almost surely face imprisonment, he chose to stay abroad. Attempting to return to visit his family in 1994, he was detained at the airport, questioned for hours about his links to Today and overseas democratic movements, and finally sent back to the United States. It is an odd kind of compliment, to be told that you are incompatible with the safety and stability of 1.4 billion people, and all because of some marks you’ve made on paper.

1See for example Andrew G. Walder, Communist Neo-Traditionalism: Work and Authority in Chinese Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 1-27.

2Wei Jingsheng, "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy" (December 5, 1978), in The Courage to Stand Alone, translated by Kristina M. Torgeson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998), pp. 208-209.

3Bei Dao, "Huida," Jintian 1 (December 1978), pp. 35-36. My translation. I find the standard version by Bonnie MacDougall (Bei Dao, The August Sleepwalker [London: Anvil Press, 1988], p. 33) imprecise on some small points.

4See for example Zhang Xudong: "As the menglong poets evolved at the end of the Cultural Revolution to demand a poetic revolution, they sought what can be termed a political breathing space as well as a social self-assertion handled aesthetically╔ Now╔ it is easier to confront this ideological valorization and aesthetic investment╔ Under the specific social, political, and intellectual circumstances during the early 1980s, the ideology of the poetic language was to be conceived and received as ideal in both political and aesthetic terms╔ Whereas in previous stages of Chinese modernism [Western high modernism] stood by as a useful but alien system╔ in the case of Misty poetry it is the symbolic space in which a collective selfhood is to be constituted in linguistic terms╔ With secularization gaining ground on all fronts [by the middle 1980s], the self-definition of the menglong movement was completed not so much by the poetic working out of its experience in the immediate social sphere, but rather by aesthetic transcendence of it through the construction of 'inner life' as a self-serving institution╔. [N]ow surviving as an endangered species outside China, thanks to the 'academic' interest of Western universities and foundations [,] it has been eradicated and alienated, by its rigid environment as well as by its own fantasy, from its own social origins, from the realm of possibilities for any meaningful social, political praxis." Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 127-136. Zhang's snubbing of the menglong movement as "aestheticized political dissidence" (134) assumes that it could somehow move directly into "meaningful social, political praxis" (to be defined) without constructing the appropriate institutions, among which new models of selfhood, of memory and of art might well be counted. It relies rather heavily on the assumption that aesthetic activism is necessarily merely aesthetic, and thus a reflective and asocial preoccupation. And the allusion to exile poets kept alive by Western foundations, with the scare quotes around "academic," amounts to little more than a personal jab at the the few examples of the type and an insinuation about the motives of their advocates.

5See Zhu Xianshu, "Yige teshu de wenxue xianxiang: tan bufen qingnian shiren de chuangzuo" (An unusual literary phenomenon: on the creations of certain young poets, Baihua zhou, 1983, number 6, pp. 243-251), pp. 36-37. A 1988 anthology of contemporary verse, packaged with interpretative commentaries, processed the poems into the themes and language one might find in an editorial for the People's Daily. The commentator assigned to explicate "An Answer" could do no better than this:

This poem is a challenge issued to a corrupt society. The ten years of disorder [the standard characterization of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976] saw people and devils exchanging places, the base exploiting to the full their base tricks, official corruption and abuse of power. 'Look at the gold-plated sky / Filled with the drifting rippled reflections of the dead': these surrealistic lines depict the bloody landscape of the fascist dictatorship of the Gang of Four╔. 'Icy peaks' symbolically indicates the feudal fascist dictatorship of the Gang of Four and their cold cruelty╔. 'A new departure' and the Dipper tell us that the dark night is past, a new day is dawning! 'A five thousand years' pictogram' suggests that the Chinese nation with its five thousand years of history and tradition has a stubborn power of rebirth, and no difficulties can ever bring it low! ╔ The conclusion demonstrates the poet's firm confidence in our nation.
(Zhang Yexi and Geng Jianhua, Zhongguo xiandai menglong shi shangxi [Modern and Misty poetry of China, explicated; Guangzhou: Huacheng chubanshe, 1988], pp. 161-63.) Blaming everything that has gone wrong in China on the Gang of Four and cheerleading for the immortal Chinese nation just happen to be two of the devices used by the official media since 1980 to silence criticism of present policies and intimidate anyone who dares to think of a different social order.

6'Jintian' Editorial Board, "Zhi duzhe" (To the reader), Jintian 1 (December 1978), pp. 1-2.

7For a fairly typical discussion see Zhu Xianshu, "Yige teshu de wenxue xianxiang."

8On Bei Dao's early reading of translated literature, see his "From The Founding of Today to Today: A Reminiscence," translated by Perry Link, at http://prelectur/lecturers/dao/index.html. For a number of years, too, Bei Dao had a paying job as editor of an Esperanto-language journal. For an account of the "Misty Poetry debates," see Jiang Zhenchang, "Zhongguo dalu de menglong shi" (Mainland Chinese Misty Poetry," Dangqian dalu wenxue (Taipei: Wenxun chubanshe, 1988), pp. 81-83.

9"Xuan gao," Bei Dao shixuan (Guangzhou: Xin shiji chubanse, 1988), p. 73; English translation (with some changes) as cited in Bonnie McDougall, "Problems and Possibilities in Translating Contemporary Chinese Literature," The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 25 (1991), 37-67, p. 49.

By Haun Saussy

(c)1999, Stanford University


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