Bei Dao is an iconic poet in his native China—so iconic that the Chinese government exiled him for 18 years and still bars him from making public appearances when he goes back. His reaction has been to keep writing poetry that glorifies individual feelings and senses—poetry that has made him a frequent Nobel Prize nominee. City Gate, Open Up, his ethereal memoir about growing up in Mao-era Beijing, is very much a paean to the human senses and his own youthful resilience in a world gone mad.
The boy, born in Beijing in 1949 just a few months before Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People's Republic of China, was named Zhao Zhenkai. When Zhao grew up and became a poet he adopted several pen names to evade the authorities, and Bei Dao (“Northern Island”) was the one that stuck.
He was the leading figure in a movement known as the “Misty Poets,” a pejorative description the Chinese government gave them on the grounds that their work was obscure and hazy. Actually, the “Misties” were striving for realism as seen subjectively, through the poet’s eyes—which in itself was a radical statement at a time when the revolution was supposed to embody collectivist realism.
Their poetry was also a personalized response to the leaps of logic and acts of terror that were part of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and at least in Bei Dao’s case, his own role. Bei Dao’s most famous poem in the Chinese-speaking world, “The Answer," is a tribute to the first Tiananmen Square protests, in April 1976. It begins with the lines:
Debasement is the password of the base,
Nobility the epitaph of the noble.
Members of the 1989 pro-democracy movement chanted those words when they, too, took to Tiananmen Square. Bei Dao wasn’t there—he was living in Berlin as a writer-in-residence at the time—but, because of his strong influence on the movement and because he had instigated and signed an open letter to the government demanding the release of political prisoners, the authorities charged him with inciting the demonstrations and barred him from returning.
Between 1989 and 2006 he lived in Europe, the US and Hong Kong, but he was allowed to visit China in 2001 because his father was ill and dying. The return to a Beijing that was developed beyond recognition was what inspired him to write this memoir.
It was painful to go back, not least because Beijing, now lit up “like a huge, glittering soccer stadium” had changed into a city he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t go home again; developers had razed his whole hutong, a traditional alley of homes clustered around a courtyard.
In the moody first chapter, titled “Light and Shadow,” Bei Dao presents a meditation on darkness, partly a metaphor for history, partly just the way things were. “When I was child, nights in Beijing were dark, pitch-dark,” he writes. Bicyclists would dangle paper lanterns on their handlebars at night, and for children, darkness was a setting for hide-and-seek.
Then, as he does frequently throughout the book, he goes for the jugular of Communist orthodoxy. Darkness is for telling ghost stories, but in a country that didn’t believe in God, ghosts were old superstitious heresy. So, Chairman Mao made appeals to tell stories about why no one should be afraid of ghosts, which presented a troubling complication: “to not fear ghosts first requires that one accept the existence of ghosts.”
In other chapters, memories of smells, sounds, toys and games, furniture, and even raising rabbits become Bei Dao’s madeleines for poetic, non-linear sketches, full of mournful wit and tart ambiguities. Readers in search of a full story, or readers who are less familiar with China’s grand sequestered experiment in Marxist dogma, might find the ambiguities gaping. Bei Dao will sketch a scene and leave it incomplete. And then what happened?
The way to appreciate his remembrances is to surrender to the atmosphere, the bittersweet collage depicting Beijing when it was a murky, dusty, clanging place where a government edict could change lives overnight. Much of the imagery will be strange and exotic even to the younger generation in China. And yet in those days of dim, bare lightbulbs, an inquisitive young boy adapted. Times weren’t always good but Bei Dao recalls how he captured pleasure, hooking and devouring a three-inch fish during the time of famine, swimming with his friends in a pool that was “salvos of boisterous clamor followed by a head-on olfactory attack of urine, bleach and Lysol...”
What happened between Bei Dao’s reflections is a matter of history. And though as a child he understood that his life wound around Party dictums, he was destined to find character-shaping moments in his disappointments. One of these moments occurred when the future poet, then in middle school, found a dead cockroach in his vegetable steamed bun from the cafeteria and decided to stage a rebellion.
He led a troupe of classmates to the cafeteria manager’s office, then had a brush with authoritarian truth-twisting: “How can you even prove it was really a cockroach and not a dried shrimp?” the manager countered. For young Zhao, the threat of expulsion and the desertion of his comrades in the encounter were enough to halt his fervor. “I realized there was no arguing with authoritarian power—a cockroach is but a dried shrimp. I also realized that to truly rebel, your heart must be strong enough to bear any consequences whatsoever.”
The most pivotal chapters, however, are the ones in which Bei Dao conjures up memories of his aborted secondary school career at Beijing Middle No. 4—still the city’s top public high school and the alma mater of many party functionaries and their children—and then, in the final and most emotionally wrenching chapter: his sometimes contentious relationship with his father.
What happened, as Bei Dao relates, is that he worked hard to get into Beijing No. 4, only to find himself fraught with anxiety from the first day. His talent for language wasn’t appreciated at this mostly math-competitive of schools. He recalls his discomfort around the children of high ranking officials and a sense that something was being covered up “like an infectious disease in an incubation period.”
And there were, right before his eyes, the paradoxes of revolutionary China, where being of the proletariat could get you into a Party leadership position—in short, being a worker made you aristocracy. Bei Dao writes lyrically, even in translation of “a kind of inner schism, a schism that wasn’t so obvious at first...but the Cultural Revolution pushed it to the fore, transforming it into a vast chasm.”
The Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, when he was 17. One day the school authorities announced that all classes were dismissed. Bei Dao was facing final exams in math, physics, and chemistry—and his immediate reaction was to cheer. It “seemed like a carnival” he writes. But he thought soon enough that he was headed into a “summer of bloody rains and foul winds.”
He writes about the fervor that seized all of the student. He and a group of younger children imprisoned a neighbor in a basement. A woman hanged herself after enduring endless beatings and insults. Bei Dao’s own family went in separate directions on their own assignments to learn from the peasants and the workers. The most disappointing chapter, to my mind, is the one that about Bei Dao’s s travels across China during that time; he recalls riding trains rather than discovering painful truths, as if he’s allowed himself to drop a poetic mist over the darkest memories of all. He has related in interviews that he became one of Mao’s Red Guards, working in construction for 11 years and learning first-hand what the Party propaganda wasn’t telling him. The experiences drove him to writing, however; he became one of a number of young dissidents who began to write at a time when reading and writing were suspect pursuits.
The young avant-garde met, as so many young subversives must, in secret. Bei Dao recalls his father shutting the door in their faces in his final chapter, which is titled “Father.” We know, going in, that this chapter is not going to have a happy ending, though the painful family memories are their most vivid in this chapter
Bei Dao spoke about the book at Columbia University in September, and he said his complicated back-and-forth with his father had parallels to his whole relationship with Chinese society. Earlier in the evening, he’d read from “Light and Shadow” in Mandarin and had dozens of Chinese audience members laughing out loud in recognition. This revered poet’s memory seems to contain an infinite stockpile of humor and melancholy, often woven together.
I asked him if it’s possible that each sentiment enhances the other. He said it wasn’t joyful to reminisce. But, he added, there’s a similar Chinese character within the words for humor and melancholy.
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