Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer Bei Dao


IN HIS OWN WORDS (Interviews with Bei Dao)

(Compiled by Adán Griego, co-editor of the Presidential Lectures Web Site)

Excerpted from:
Gleichmann, Gabi. "An Interview With Bei Dao." Modern Chinese Literature. Vol. 9, 1996. Pp 387-393.

G: Is poetry a way of understanding the world, understanding reality? Is that what poetry means to you?

B: I see a connection between poetry and rebellion. Rebellion is a major theme of my generation. But I believe rebellion begins at the personal level, for instance, my rebellion against my father. Poetry is a form of rebellion against the decades of chaos in China


G: Who are some of the poets who have influenced your poetry?

B: I still remember how, on first reading the Chinese translation of Garcia Lorca in the 1970s, I was struck by his unique imagery and impeccable music. Poets of my generation (who were still underground at the time) tried to imitate him but eventually we gave up when we realized he was inimitable. There were of course other poets in the ‘Generation of 1927,’ such as Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre and Antonio Machado. They form what I call ‘the golden chain of Spanish poetry.’ At the beginning of this golden chain, we should add the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. Though he did not belong to the ‘Generation of 1927,’ in spirit they were closely related. We feel the power of mystery in his Trilce, which, published in the same year as T.S.Elliot’s The Waste Land, has long been considered a classic of modernist poetry.

This links of the golden chain in German poetry seem to me far less close than those I have found in Spanish poetry. There seems to be no ‘blood relation’ between my favorite German-speaking poets: Georg Trakl, Maria Rilke, and Paul Celan. Trakl and Rilke belong to the same generation, but the extremism of Trakl and the generous receptivity of Rilke create a sharp contrast…. Russian poetry, especially Romantic poetry of the 19th century, has always had a special significance for Chinese poets. Due to strict control over a long period of time, however, we were unable to read any modernist Russian poetry until the 1980s. Boris Pasternk, Osip Mandestam, and Gennandi Ajgi (Pasternak’s student) form a golden chain of pain and misery in Russian poetry.

In order to make a living, I started doing translations in the mid 1980s. My reading of modern Swedish poetry revealed to me the golden chain in Swedish Poetry: Gunnar Ekelof, Eric Lindergren, and Tomas Transtromer.


Of all the poets I mentioned earlier, I like Celan best because I think there is a deep affinity between him and myself in the way he combines the sense of pain with language experiments. He transforms his experience in the concentration camps into a language of pain. That is very similar to what I am trying to do. Many poets separate their experience from the language they use in poetry, but in the case of Celan there is a fusion, a convergence of experience and experimental language.


G: Let’s change the topic. Exile gives you freedom, I am not romanticizing exile. As a child I experienced exile when I left Hungary and moved to Sweden. I think exile gives you freedom but solitude is the price you pay….

B: Though some writers would not admit it, I think there is a positive side to exile…. If exile is an endless journey, then it’s a journey through emptiness. It gives you new understanding abut emptiness.


G: ..exile has done something to your work…

B: …I thing exile has given me many opportunities to face the heart of darkness, which every human being must face. … This path leading to the heart of darkness, some people may refuse to take it, some may give up half-way through. It has given me the courage to go on.

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