Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer Bei Dao


Paris, 1992
Photo by Zhiping Wang
used with permission.

Bei Dao in Paris Bei Dao (pseudonym of Zhao Zhenkai), one of China’s foremost poets of the "misty school," was born in 1949 in Beijing. Both his father, an administrative cadre, and his mother, a medical doctor, came from traditional, middle-class Shanghai families. During the Cultural Revolution, Bei joined the Red Guard movement, expecting a spirit of cooperation between the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s intellectual elite. Like many other middle-class youth, however, he soon became disillusioned with Chinese society and was later sent to the countryside, where he became a construction worker. Living in total isolation in the mountains outside Beijing increased his youthful melancholy and prompted him and many of his contemporaries to explore a more spiritual approach to life. 1

Searching for a fresh poetics, many of China’s new writers of the Seventies experimented with "free verse" in a hermetic, semi-private language 2 characterized by oblique, oneiric imagery and elliptical syntax. That linguistic style, in which subject, tense, and number are elusive and transitions are unclear 3, came to be called "menglong shi," or "misty poetry."

By 1974, Bei Dao had finished the first draft of his novella Waves and begun a sequence of poems. Those poems were to become a guiding beacon for the youth of the April Fifth Democracy Movement of 1976, in which thousands peacefully demonstrated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Bei Dao’s poetry won instant recognition and a faithful following, especially among young readers.

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 4

In December 1978, Bei Dao and Mang Ke published the first issue of China’s first unofficial literary journal, Jintian [Today], which survived until Beijing officials shut it down in 1980. (The quotation above comes from "Hui Da" [Answers], which first appeared in that number.)

Widely treasured by those who participated in China’s democracy movement, Bei Dao’s poetry is marked by the effort to reveal the nature of the self, to identify both public and private wounds, to trust in instinctive perceptions, and to reach out to other afflicted souls. It depicts the intimacy of passion, love, and friendship in a society where trust can literally be a matter of life and death.

He was forced into exile following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. He, along with other exiled writers and artists, has found a voice in a renewed version of Jintian, which was re-launched in Stockholm in 1990. "Ironically, it is…this…position of an exile that has given Bei Dao new insights… His experience has translated into three volumes of poetry, each of which has earned more critical acclaim than the one before."5

Bei Dao was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters as an "honorary member." And his name is constantly reported by the media as being on the short list of Nobel candidates in the last few years. So much so, that the poet is rumored to not answer the phone when the time comes to announce the Nobel prizes.

1 Gleichman, Gabi. "An Interview with Bei Dao." Modern Chinese Literature 9:2 (Fall 1996), p.388

2 Bei Dao (Pei-Tao). The August Sleepwalker. London: Anvil Press Poetry, p.11.

3 World Authors, 1985-1990. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1995, p.51.

4 Bei Dao, op cit., p.13

5Wai, Isabella. "Bei Dao’s ‘Theme Song’." Explicator, 57:3 (Spring 1999), p.187

By Ramon H. Myers, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Curator of the East Asian Collection

(c)1999, Stanford University

Editor's note: a warm thanks to Mr. Timothy McGuire for assistance in drafting the account about Bei Dao.


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