In City Gate, Open Up, sem­i­nal poet Bei Dao memo­ri­al­izes a lon­glost cap­i­tal

The World of Chinese - - BOOKMARK - BY MATT TURNER


Con­struc­tion worker, un­der­ground pub­lisher, and ac­claimed poet, Zhao Zhenkai (赵振开) was born, in his own words, in 1949, “as Chair­man Mao de­clared the birth of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China from the ros­trum in Tian’an­men Square…in [a] cra­dle no more than a thou­sand yards away.”

In the 1970s, he would ac­crue near-celebrity sta­tus for his pseudony­mous po­etry, which was wild and de­fi­ant—and un­like any­thing in cir­cu­la­tion at the time. His fame brought en­e­mies, how­ever, and at­tacks by of­fi­cial censors. Zhao’s pen name, Bei Dao (北岛, “North­ern Is­land”), re­flected such con­flicted feel­ings: love for his north­ern home, as well as de­sire to be free of oth­ers’ im­po­si­tions.

In his youth, Bei Dao lived through po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, a mass famine, and the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. Although a prin­ci­pal fig­ure in the “Cul­tural Fever” which gripped the coun­try in the 1980s, Bei Dao left China along with many other in­tel­lec­tu­als at the end of that decade. City Gate, Open Up of­fers a record of this ear­lier time and his re­turn, 13 years later, to a city resur­gent and re­made—“a for­eigner in my own home­town.”

Much of City Gate’s 18 es­says, trans­lated with lit­tle po­etic li­cense by Jef­frey Yang, are writ­ten in dream­like vi­gnettes: How his par­ents met, his school­ing and home life, and his tran­si­tion to adult­hood. Along with the im­age of his ail­ing fa­ther, a re­cur­ring im­age is Bei­jing.

Walk­ing through its hu­tong—the mostly de­mol­ished nar­row brick-and-stone al­ley­ways that stood for cen­turies— the es­says of­fer a vi­sion of street life both from a child’s un­prej­u­diced view and an adult eye:

High of­fi­cials, in fact, pre­ferred a life of seclu­sion… the ten­ants around our grand court­yard were mostly lower-level cadres, and yet the big shots of the demo­cratic par­ties im­i­tated the rul­ing party by stealth­ily wan­der­ing the hu­tongs, shar­ing wa­ter through parched times, so that even if one were a sacked of­fi­cial, one could eat and drink as well as be­fore, just like a last so-called aris­to­crat.

Bei Dao uses the lan­guage of po­lit­i­cal slo­ga­neer­ing (“shar­ing wa­ter through parched times”) to de­scribe the com­plex mo­ti­va­tions of oth­ers; For his own, he em­ploys the city as a sym­bol:

From the abyss of the hu­tong al­leys look­ing back to­ward our big build­ing, I ac­tu­ally felt a vague hos­til­ity. This must have been re­lated to a re­bel­lious phase of ado­les­cence: the mul­ti­story com­plex stood for the au­thor­ity and or­der of my fa­ther.

Although those hu­tong are where ev­ery­one meets— ven­dors, passersby, and politi­cos—their build­ings and spa­ces, as sites of so­cial change, sym­bol­ize un­pre­dictabil­ity as well as la­tent hos­til­i­ties and fears, which come to the sur­face in pass­ing ref­er­ences to the ex­tremely vi­o­lent Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion.

Bei Dao went to the pres­ti­gious Bei­jing No. 4 School— China’s top sec­ondary school then, as now—but ed­u­ca­tion was in a state of vir­tual shut­down be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal up­heaval. Re­call­ing how Red Guards roamed the grounds and fought, per­se­cut­ing fac­ulty mem­bers per­ceived as counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary, the book shakes off its dream­like pace and takes on a hard-nosed nar­ra­tive style, as Bei Dao harshly ob­serves oth­ers’ “ut­ter lack of self-re­flec­tion, never paus­ing to ex­am­ine their own con­science.”

Bei Dao’s prin­ci­pal was de­nounced and strug­gled against; ex­ams were abol­ished, and par­ents sent to be “re-ed­u­cated.” The poet him­self spent the 70s be­ing re-ed­u­cated on a build­ing site, where he played tru­ant and wrote on the side, emerg­ing at the end of that decade as pub­lisher of an un­der­ground lit­er­ary mag­a­zine To­day, and founder of the Men­g­long po­etry (朦胧诗, “misty po­etry”) move­ment, char­ac­ter­ized by its ab­stract, “un-chi­nese” con­tent and ob­scure from, like mon­tage.

The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion era defini­tively ended with the ar­rest of the Gang of Four in 1976. On hear­ing the news, his fa­ther only looks at him. This kind of silent com­mu­ni­ca­tion un­der­girds much of the book, such as one of the few pas­sages where Bei Dao com­ments upon his po­etry:

Spring Fes­ti­val 1972, our whole fam­ily re­united in Bei­jing. I gave a draft of my poem “Hello, One Hun­dred Flowers Moun­tain” to my fa­ther to read. I didn’t fore­see that he’d or­der me to burn it im­me­di­ately, the line “Green sun­beams scat­ter and flee through the seams” re­ally ter­ri­fy­ing him. I could see the fear in his eyes, and with no other re­course, I obeyed his com­mand. I de­cided right then to never show him an­other poem of mine again.

The same res­ig­na­tion returns when, long af­ter re­lo­cat­ing to the US, Bei Dao returns to visit his ill fa­ther. He writes about this pe­riod of hos­pi­tal vis­i­ta­tion as be­fore: with pas­sion­ate de­tach­ment. Although the trips awaken painful old feel­ings, serv­ing as a spur to re­claim his lost city through this mem­oir, a resid­ual im­po­tence speaks to a more univer­sal Chi­nese ex­pe­ri­ence. In ei­ther case, there is lit­tle he can do but be there and ob­serve—and write.

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