Reclaiming the Poetic Word
A CONVERSATION WITH BEI DAO
BEI DAO is the pen name of China's foremost dissident poet. He is hailed internationally, in both literary journals and the popular press, as one of China's most extraordinary young talents and as a driving force behind the 1976-79 democracy movement. His poem "The Answer" is said to have been known by heart by the masses of young students who carried the struggle for democracy into Tiananmen Square in 1989. He currently lives in exile in Denmark, but the Chinese government refuses to allow his wife and
young daughter to join him. He is clearly a man who, at great personal cost, has chosen to live according to the precepts of conscience.
I spent several afternoons talking with Bei Dao when he visited Boston to take part in America's annual "Voices of Dignity" poetry benefit. We met at the home of Iona Man-Cheong, a visiting China scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although Bei Dao had some command of English, Iona served as translator for our talk. A tall man, slender and fine-featured, Bei Dao greeted me with the gentlest of handshakes. Rather than the impassioned firebrand I had come expecting, I found a quiet spirit, e x
tremely shy and intensely private.
Born almost exactly at the creation of the People's Republic, it is perhaps too easy a metaphor to compare the drastic changes both man and nation have gone through. But I asked him to talk about the huge shift in vision that changed him from a young member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution into a leader in the democracy movement that is attempting to wholly remake Chinese society.
"To repeat a Chinese slogan," he began, One was born under the Red Flag and grew up under the Red Flag.' From my childhood onward, right up to the Cultural Revolution, there were never any doubts in my mind because we grew up under the Communist system ... it was just taken for granted [as] the best of all possible societies. The greatest turning point for me came during the Cultural Revolution ... with the call for youth to go down to the countryside and participate in production. Up until that point, I
had received the best possible education ... the top of society. All of a sudden, we saw the bottom of society, the reality of most people's lives, and it was a complete contradiction with everything I had experienced before.
"So from the late '60s until the '80s, this was a period I examined communism and had enormous doubt. It was also the time I began writing poetry."
But Bei Dao was quick to take issue with my question, denying that he is a "leader" of any movement. When he and his poet-friend Mang Ke began China's first underground poetry journal, Today, they were careful to make it a purely literary forum. "On the other hand, it is also true to say that everything that I have done has always been interpreted politically. And this, for me, is an enormous problem to deal with. ... Naturally, for Western readers, they're happy to feel that I belong to the democracy m o
vement as a 'leader. But I see myself, first and foremost, as a creative artist, as a poet. What I really feel is that I'm in the middle of a conflict between art and politics, between art and power."
Was this just a problem of semantics, modesty, or something deeper? After all, a poem like "Resume" begins, "Once I goose stepped across the square/ my head shaved bare/ the better to seek the sun/ but in that season of madness/ seeing the cold-faced goats on the other side/ of the fence I changed direction... ." If this was not the voice of rebellion, then what was it? When a poet's words are capable of moving great masses of people into action, how can it be seen as anything but politics?
Bei Dao responded by quoting Wittgenstein. "The point he makes is that language itself is politics. This is particularly true of China where literature is completely encompassed within the whole framework of politics. The example you gave me of the students using my poem in Tiananmen Square. This gives me a very complex mixture of feelings. On the one hand, of course, I feel incredible pride. But on the other hand, I also feel quite strange because this popularization of poetry on a mass level makes me f
eel doubts as to what this sort of usage means. I think of myself as a nonconformist but not a revolutionary ... it makes me feel that the meaning of my poem may be misunderstood, especially by Western audiences... . I don't see myself as a representative of such-and-such a trend or political opinion. I see myself as an individual who is trying to create a new form of language, a new mode of expression."
By this point, I could see how I had already fallen into the same trap. I set aside my sheets of prepared questions and tried to listen harder to the unfolding strains of the conversation.
Of the many trials he has undergone in the West, this is perhaps the most threatening: the power of what he calls "mass culture," the ubiquitous and unstoppable media-machine that is constantly grinding lives into story lines and human voices into carefully polished sound bites. No matter how attractive one's media image might be, Bei Dao's feeling is that it robs you of your hard-earned humanity.
"You're slotted into an 'image,' " he protested, "into a sort of representative 'story angle,' and you can never leave it. You're stuck there for the rest of your life. And it doesn't matter what you do afterwards, you're always going to be whatever it is they've decided you are."
The irony, of course, is that many Western artists would probably feel nothing but envy for the predicament Bei Dao finds himself in. We've become so much more accomplished at marketing our "images" in order to acquire a larger audience and gain some measure of financial freedom. The danger we face is that we lose track of the genuine in our experience, that we become a parody of what was once ourselves. "I feel, as do many exiled writers, that we are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one h a
nd, we're absolutely against the sort of state control of literature as is seen in China, the dictatorial approach to the arts. On the other hand, we feel just as oppressed by commercialized literature in the West. And in a sense, there's very little difference in the end result of both."
The poet's caution was that the invisible walls we tolerate can box us in as surely as the more concrete ones in China. Though the question was rife with contradiction, I asked Bei Dao what he felt about the freedoms he now experienced in exile. He struggled for a moment to find a response, then quickly flipped through the pages of "The August Sleepwalker," the English translation of his poems. His finger came to rest on the lines from the poem "Accomplices" that said, "freedom is nothing but the distan c
e/ between the hunter and the hunted."
But the poem goes on to say, "we are not guiltless/ long ago we became accomplices/ of the history in the mirror... ." and I wondered whether this wasn't poetry's deep-rooted power: to refuse to participate in that human hunt, on either side of the equation. From Bei Dao's perspective, perhaps the most radical act one can perform - in China or the West - is to think one's own thoughts.
"There is a joke in China about how poets must be worthy of incredible respect, because the government sees them as so important that they even put them in prison. I do understand that in the West, for a poet to have some social consciousness, some social representation is a very important phenomenon. For a country like mine which has suffered for such a long time under government repression. ... there is a great imperative to escape from this sort of control. And the danger in being a so-called 'repre s
entative' is something that strikes at the very root of creativity itself. The struggle in China has been to separate writing and creative impulses away from politics. So the debate in the past few years has centered around how to create a pure literature.
"The most important struggle in China has been who has control over the language. There are writers in China who have criticized the government openly. But if you look at their language, if you look at the style in which they write, it is the same as is used by the government. So they are still restricted... . And for creative writers, the goal has been to create a new language that would put some distance between them as members of the literati and the government in power."
I couldn't help think of the many "official" languages we confront every day in America: of diplomacy, of advertising, the "military-speak" of the Iraqi war coverage. It doesn't take a great deal to realize that one man's "collateral damage" is another man's "slaughter of innocent lives." Through the lens of language, even the reality of our days is altered. And I began to appreciate why this poet fought so determinedly over the territory of words.
I had a last question for the poet. When James Joyce lived in exile from his homeland, he used newspapers, street maps, and photographs to create a Dublin-of-the-mind that his stories could live inside. It would seem Bei Dao has been deprived of most of the essential elements he needs to continue his work: family, fellow writers, the language and the landscape. As a poet, I asked him, how are you able to persist?
A shadow of sorts swept across his face. "I think I've created an inner world, an illusion of China ... very abstract but highly specific. It's a summary of experiences that includes the back streets of Peking, the look of certain places, the sounds of people quarreling on streets or exchanging the time of day... . I still carry my Chinese address book with me because it helps me to recreate situations. Because without concreteness, there can be no illusion, no dream-China."
Toward the end of our visit, Bei Dao and I took a walk outside to shoot the photographs for the interview. The great warmth and openness that animated his face in the midst of our talk vanished before the gray stare of the lens. "It is like a gun," he said, "aiming at me." And, sadly, I understood too well what he meant.
But we walked and chatted, he straining to summon his words of English, I struggling to simplify mine. Finally he asked me, "Are you married?" and I was shocked to realize it was probably the first question in our long conversation that Bei Dao had posed. "Yes," I told him. "And I have a son, 14, very big!" I added, gesturing with my hands. Bei Dao smiled. He told me a bit about Shaofei, his wife, and little Tiantian, his 6-year-old daughter. "I speak to them on telephone but not often. Dangerous," he t o
ld me. We were thinking - each in our own way - of the incredible distances words are able to travel ... sometimes, when they are clear, well-tended, and fitted for the journey.
Due to a production error, an article on Bei Dao that appeared on the Home Forum May 8 did not give the full name of the organization that brought the poet to Boston for a reading. It was Oxfam America.