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A poet in exile

November 19, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

This is a past article from November 19, 1999, which appears at this web site for the first time on November 19, 2016.

''I am a country mouse,'' says Bei Dao, sitting in the living room of his home in suburban Davis. ''I used to be a city mouse, but no more.''

Born in Beijing in 1949, Bei Dao is considered one of the most gifted and controversial writers to emerge from the upheavals of modern China, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, which forced young intellectuals to work as farmers, laborers or in construction. He and his friends could work as poets and artists and criticize the government only during brief periods of government relaxation. Today he lives quietly in exile.

''I left China in April of 1989 before Tiananmen Square,'' he said. In June of that year, an unknown number of student protesters were massacred by the government when they took part in a pro-democracy demonstration at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It wasn't a safe time or place for a political activist like Bei Dao who represents human dignity and personal and intellectual freedom.

In 1978 he and two friends founded Today (Jintian), the first unofficial literary journal since 1949, which became a prominent forum for ''Misty Poets,'' a group derided by the Communist literary establishment for their use of obscure language and departure from social realism.

''Before the three of us published Today,'' Bei Dao said, ''we named each other to avoid censorship. I was called Bei Dao, which means 'north island,' and refers to a silent island in a noisy ocean. It's a very good name for me, I think.''

The journal was banned in 1980, then reappeared in 1990. It is still being published in China and is a forum for Bei Dao's new poetry.

Since leaving China, Bei Dao has become a citizen of the world, teaching and lecturing at universities in a number of European countries and across the United States. He seems to be happy living in Davis.

''Davis is very quiet, very safe,'' he said. ''It's a good place for my daughter, Tiantian.'' Tiantian, 14, attends Emerson Junior High.

He came to Davis in 1995 and taught Chinese language and literature at UC Davis for two years while he was struggling to read, write and speak English fluently. Now he describes himself as a freelance writer who lectures widely and writes poetry in his upstairs bedroom.

Two years ago, poet Jonathan Daunt of Davis found himself in the unusual position of teaching basic English composition to Bei Dao in a class at Woodland Community College.

''He was an excellent student who really wanted to improve his writing,'' Daunt recalled. But there was one problem.

''He was always traveling around the world to attend literature conferences and give readings,'' Daunt said. ''He never did finish the class.''

Since then, Daunt and Bei Dao have gotten to know each other. They belong to an informal poetry group that meets in Davis.

''He is a humble man who doesn't talk about his own achievements,'' Daunt said. ''But we in the group figured out that he was a rare person, even though he reads and writes his poetry in Chinese. After he finishes reading a poem to us in Chinese, he asks someone to read the poem in English, which he has been trying to translate himself.

''His poetry is not like anything we'd ever seen before. It's more oblique, not as direct as in the Western tradition. It is surprising and refreshing.''

Daunt said Bei Dao's poems are usually rather short, running 10 to 20 lines, and can undergo as many shifts in meaning as there are lines.

''You're never sure what will happen next,'' he said. ''The subject matter may be political or may involve personal introspection.''

One of the subjects that Bei Dao thinks about is home and the whole concept of a lost homeland.

He likes this Erich Auerbach quote: ''The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is a foreign country is perfect.''

''In 1994 I got back my Chinese passport,'' Bei Dao said. ''That same year I got my green card, so I thought it would be a good time to try to return to China.''

The attempted visit at Thanksgiving five years ago was a disaster. Bei Dao never got beyond the Beijing Airport. The police didn't like the fact that he is a board member of a group called Human Rights in China.

''The police held me for 12 hours and questioned me for six,'' he said. ''They treated me like a criminal and I lost my temper and argued with them. They asked me about the role of a Human Rights in China board member. Then I refused to say anything.''

Bei Dao figures the Chinese police had three choices: They could have put him in jail. They could put him back on a plane. Or they could have let him in and placed him under 24-hour surveillance. The government chose option two, and Bei Dao flew back to the United States.

''I would have liked to have visited friends and relatives,'' he said. Fortunately, his aged parents are able to visit him in the United States. They have visited him five times since 1989 and their visits can last for up to six months.

China has changed so much in the past decade that Bei Dao isn't sure what role he would play if he were to return.

''If you've been outside your own country for a long time it's hard to know what it's like,'' he said. ''I've lost the sense of what's happening in China. I don't know what the limitations are anymore.'' He keeps in contact with friends and colleagues by phone and e-mail but that isn't enough.

''The dark part of exile is losing the right to speak for your own country. I know very little about China now,'' he said. ''But I'm not very optimistic about the future. There are so many problems including pollution, over-population and education. It would be hard for a democratic government to solve these problems.''

He says people in China are still reading his poetry because it is distributed free through the Today editorial office. His recent poems haven't been censored, perhaps because they are classified as harmless literature or perhaps because they are obscure and the police don't understand his meanings. Many books that would have been censored in the old days pass into China uncensored today, he says.

His most famous short story, ''13 Happiness Street,'' is a bitterly sardonic look at Chinese society, which he wrote when he was 31.

''I don't know if it's read in China today,'' he said. ''My golden period was 1985-87. In those two years I published four books in China. After 1989 my books were banned by the authorities. But recently some of my poems and articles have appeared in mainstream magazines in China. My friends have been successful in placing them.''

The new year looks promising for Bei Dao. He will be spending much time in Paris as a board member of the International Parliament of Writers and he has been asked to teach at Beloit College in Wisconsin for a semester. He records pieces for ''Voice of America'' radio on American writers like Gary Snyder and the late Allen Ginsberg, which are broadcast in China. New Directions Publishing of New York has issued four collections of his poetry in English (''The August Sleepwalker,'' ''Old Snow,'' ''Forms of Distance'' and ''Landscape Over Zero'') and a book of short stories, ''Waves'' (which includes ''13 Happiness Street.'')

A new book of poetry, ''Unlock,'' will be out next fall (2000).

''When I was young I wrote poetry in the classical way,'' he said. ''But now I write in free verse, without restrictions. I continue to write and I'm confident in it, but it takes a long time. It's like climbing a mountain and being halfway to the top. As you age, you are more careful. This year, I tried to slow down my writing because there is so much garbage being done.''

He knows that he will go back to China someday. But that day won't necessarily be a joyful one.

''Time has passed, friends have changed. I won't recognize my hometown. It will be very sad,'' he said.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at ensherwin@gmail.com

For More Information, Visit These Links:

  • Bei Dao Page at Wikipedia
  • Bei Dao Page at the Poetry Foundation

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