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.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1980, I was struck by how most blacks lived in the large Victorian houses that the city was so famous for. I also soon discovered that in the Bay Area, from as far away as Vallejo, to Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, there were large communities of blacks living in nice, large single family homes.
“You can thank Harry Bridges for that.” one of my colleagues at my department at UC Berkeley informed me. He also said dryly that those blacks’, “days were numbered because most of those houses were now owned by elderly black women. The gays and the Chinese are going to get them soon.”
I knew little about Harry Bridges at that time. I knew that he was the leading labor leader on the West Coast, and he ran the longshoreman union. But that was about it. But there was a hell of a lot I didn’t know, and this book provided me with a hallowing tale that was well worth knowing about: the 20-year crusade to deport Harry Bridges. But what made so many in the United States so fearful of Bridges?
Harry Bridges was born in Melbourne, Australia, on July 28,1901. He arrived in the United States as a teenage sailor in 1920. By the tumultuous 30s, he was working in San Francisco as a longshoreman. He was also knee deep in union politics and soon became an outspoken, daring and popular labor leader, organizing longshoremen on the entire west coast. Afrasiabi points out that, “Bridges tolerated no racial discrimination in the union,” something few labor leaders did in the 30s.
All of this soon put a huge bullseye on Bridges’ back. Writes Afrasiabi, “at the same time, various quarters had started to take note of Bridges and his perceived agitation. Government agents working for the National Rifle Association had sent messages to Washington, D.C., warning that Bridges was communistic in nature and would lead to communist control of the waterfront.”
Other union leaders, jealous of his growing power and influence among the working class; and ship owners, who did not want to pay the living wages that Bridges demanded, and could no longer just move their ships to another port on the west coast because of Bridges’ organizing longshoremen from Washington state to California-- joined in on the attacks.
Notes Afrasiabi, “These communiques to the halls of power—all revolving around fears of communism on the waterfront, and specifically about Bridges as an alleged centerpiece of the communist movement—started as a slow trickle in 1933, but events were about to turn into a raging river.”
By the mid-30s an “Axis” of private organizations and government agencies, mainly The American Legion, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were determined to prove that Harry Bridges was indeed a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and should be sent back to Australia.
The government and his other distractors had a powerful weapon to use against Bridges, who always maintained that he was not a member of the Communist Party, because “under American immigration law of the time, if a non-citizen was affiliated with an organization that advocated the overthrow of the government, then he could be deported. The Communist Party was one of the primary organizations that triggered governmental deportation actions. Thus, if Bridges could be proven a member of the party, then he could be deported and his radical voice for labor permanently silenced,” writes Afrasiabi.
The bulk of Burning Bridges deals with the many trails, hearings and even a short stay in jail for Bridges. But despite the machinations of his opponents—and it was a series of hair raising events, of lies so unbelievable, that trial after trial, for 20 years, starting in 1934 and ending, finally in 1955—each verdict of guilty was overturned. They could never pin the charge on Harry Bridges that he was a member of the Communist Party, and he was never deported.
In the end, this was great news for the men he championed, who endured the backbreaking work of loading and unloading shipping from around the world. They did finally become well compensated for their work, including the work of black Americans. And, it wasn’t the ship owners or political witch-hunts that spelled the end for these men, but in 1962, the Port of Oakland began to admit container ships, and the need for thousands of men with strong backs was soon all over.
This was why my colleague at my Department at UC Berkeley said dryly that those blacks, still living large in great houses, “days were numbered.”
The Sympathizer has won almost every prestigious award conferred on a book published in the United States—The Pulitzer Prize, The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and so on.
I can see why. Viet Thanh Nguyen a tour de force of a writer. His work bristles with intelligence and compassion and bites of satire. He plunges into his story:
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as much. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides….
“But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.
“The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as it the way of wars.”
The April of which he writes is April, 1975, and the war is the Viet Nam War, and the activity on the 30th of that month is, after seven years of fruitless, bloody conflict that took the lives of many, the Viet Cong army at last smashed through the gates of the American Embassy in Saigon and from its balcony waved Viet Cong flags in victory, while all American personnel and many Viet Nam sympathizers fled by whatever means they could—by airplane, helicopter, and boat—i.e., the Fall of Saigon.
Our Viet Nam narrator, referred to only as “the Captain,” has been an Aide de Camp to a South Viet Nam General and his family, and so flees with them, boarding one of the last planes out of the country. First, they go to Guam and then onto the United States, where they settle in Los Angeles. Much of the book describes their life there in the aftermath of the war:
“Our society had been a kleptocracy of the highest order, the government doing its best to steal from the Americans, the average man doing his best to steal from the government, the worst of us doing our best to steal from each other…. Now, despite my sense of fellow feeling for my exiled countrymen, I could not also help but feel that our country [Viet Nam] was being born again, the accretions of foreign corruption cleansed by revolutionary flames. Instead of tax refunds, the revolution would redistribute ill-gotten wealth, following the philosophy of more to the poor. What the poor did with their socialist succor was up to them. As for me, I used my capitalist refund to buy enough booze to keep Bon and me uneasily steeped in amnesia until the next week….”
The General and his wife, a lady who in Viet Nam hadn’t lifted a finger to do any actual work, now ran a Viet Nam restaurant in Chinatown. The sad irony is that he periodically donned his uniform with all its medals and conducted war maneuvers in the desert east of Los Angeles, still believing one day he will be able to return and oust the Communists.
Sad to say, our narrator becomes complicit in two murders, both members of their own organization who were suspected of some vague kind of disloyalty, and he is haunted by their ghosts. After he seduces the General’s daughter, he is disowned by the General and his wife and sent back to Viet Nam by way of Cambodia. When he and his friend Bon reenter Viet Nam, they are captured and imprisoned by the Communist government; they are subjected to “reeducation” and tortured.
Our Captain is reduced to a state of catatonia; he has lost so much weight he is but a shadow of his former self. One of the methods used to extract the right confession from him has been to deprive him of sleep, so when it finally ceases, for a while all he wants to do is sleep. Fearing responsibility for what he’s done, his torturer releases Bon and him, and they are shipped out of the country.
My reading of The Sympathizer coincided with the airing of 10-part series on the Viet Nam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak on PBS television. The last segment, the tenth, describes the Fall of Saigon. The Americans had not kept their promise and left thousands of Viet Nam sympathizers to fend for themselves, to face the Viet Cong without military assistance from the United States. I held my breath. Would this result in yet another bloodbath in a war that had seen the deaths of so many, both soldiers and civilians?
Maybe by then everyone had seen enough blood shed, as the Viet Cong were lenient, as these things go, preferring to send capitalist sympathizers to camps to be reeducated, and slowly the country began to heal.
Our narrator underwent hours and hours of reeducation yet maintained his intellectual independence. He was of two minds about life in Viet Nam and the United States.
“My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret of all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which pour through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred and nihilism scrawled there by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”
̶̶ Jane M McCabe is an associate editor of The Neworld Review.
Our very own Neworld reviewer, M.J. Moore, has produced a heartfelt paean to the Greatest Generation, their service and sacrifices in the world wars, their heyday in the 30’s and 40’s, dancing to the beat of Tommy Dorsey and the other big band jazz and swing musicians. He even provides his own suggested soundtrack! He’s focused on recreating the era honestly, telling it “the way it really happened.”
Into the mix he stirs his love for Paris and his fascination with one particular Staff Sergeant and literary icon, J.D. Salinger, a/k/a “Jerry.” In one memorable scene taking place on August 28, 1944, he evokes a party celebrating the liberation of Paris attended by Salinger, Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, Picasso and his fictional protagonist of course.
Evidently a historian, musicologist, gifted researcher, and very gifted writer, Moore has chosen to recreate the era as seen through the eyes of an unnamed heroine, a former World War II WAC and retired college professor who, at 92, lies in hospice, dictating her memoirs into a cassette player.
He has given her one terrific voice—funny, charming, neither lesbian nor slut, contrary to the accepted view of WACS in those days—and the story flows effortlessly between her modern-day existence, befriending her nurses and interesting them in their country’s history and her accounts of the clearly remembered past.
He does a superb job of channeling the thoughts and emotions of this liberated-before-her-time woman—she was so real I couldn’t help but wonder if she was modelled on his mother or another beloved female relative. I am fairly certain that Moore himself did not live through this era, making this feat all the more remarkable. The female impersonation is of course not always one hundred percent successful; I myself did not feel totally convinced by the sex scenes. It was hard to ignore the suspicion that what I was reading was filtered through a male mind. But that’s a minor quibble in an excellent book.
Here’s an example of the main character’s distinctive voice:
Once, when I tried to tell my story to a fellow who was about my age (just a few years older, actually), he more or less accused me of “talking through the wine” and you can safely assume that I swiftly off-loaded that knucklehead. It was for the best. By that time, I was well into my fifties, and except for the oddly wonderful interlude with Sheridan O’Neill, later, when I was sixty, I’d written off men for the duration. Anyway, the plain truth is that for the rest of my life—and believe you me, it has been a long, long time—all I needed as a yardstick by which to measure anything wonderful or potentially wonderful was one single word: “Paris.” It’s my code word.
There is no doubt in my mind that this work represents a very personal project. Moore has skillfully relied on information gleaned about J.D. Salinger—his romancing of young girls, his many romantic liaisons, his mercurial and eccentric nature, and, bien entendu, his insistence on seclusion. He supports the thesis that Salinger’s fierce dislike of the publishing industry and determination to have none of the perquisites associated with the careers of famous authors reveal an inner struggle. Some scholars have speculated that Salinger came back from the war with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder and Moore works that possibility into his story.
All the characters are memorably drawn: the narrator’s non-stereotyped, enlightened parents, Pop, with his own case of depression after the war, Mom, who taught the narrator how to survive the small-mindedness of her religious school teachers, even the nurses and aides at the hospice. The narrator herself is the most memorable: a brainy, book-loving, unconventional free thinker, enamored of all the things our author finds most endearing about this period in American history. Moore does an exceptional job with recreating the language as it was spoken in that era and the preoccupations and concerns of the people living then.
Moore’s work has appeared in The Paris Review-Daily, the International New York Times, Literary Hub, and, the Neworld Review.
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