Reluctant hero

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2005, 12:00am

BEI DAO LOOKS nothing like Bei Dao - at least not like the image of the rebellious poet in the minds of many of his readers. His neatly trimmed hair, tidy suit and gold-rimmed glasses make him look more a tame scholar than the leader of the most important poetry revolution in contemporary China.

Tall and slim, the 55-year-old looks too weak to have pushed through the crowds to post his underground literary publication on a public wall in Beijing during the post-Cultural Revolution democracy wall movement. It's hard to imagine that his soft voice is the same one that, 27 years ago, cried out, 'Let me tell you, world/ I - do - not - believe!' in Answer, his signature poem. After demonstrating students recited Answer at Tiananmen Square in 1989, western critics referred to it as the Chinese equivalent of Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind.

Sitting on a panel with novelists Gish Jen and Shan Sa at New York's International Literature Festival, Bei Dao appears quiet and even a little shy. He listens to his talkative co-panellists with eyes half closed, apparently in deep thought. He speaks briefly only when he's asked and seems to blush afterwards.

But then he reads his work. The voice turns resonant and passionate, and his body becomes animated as he reads from Untitled: 'The scout in the black uniform gets up/ takes hold of the world and microfilms it into a scream.'

Days later, Bei Dao is quiet once more. 'Literature is my sole dream,' he says. 'I was just involved in some political events because of the special situation in China. The whole thing is an unconscious process. It's more like history chose me than I made my own choice.'

More than 30 years ago, a young red-guard turned construction worker named Zhao Zhenkai started to deal with the pain of a broken Maoist dream and his lust for freedom through poetry. He struck a chord with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young Chinese who, tired of propaganda slogans, were looking for ways to express their feelings.

Zhao was a sensation almost from the moment he published his poems under the pseudonym Bei Dao in Jintian (Today), an underground literary journal founded by him and friends in 1978. His expression of individual feelings without using dry ideological language immediately stimulated a fad for poetry among college students. Jintian was shut down by the government two years later, but Bei Dao became a role model for young people. Although they were denounced by orthodox critics, Bei Dao and a group of poets writing in the same style (known as the 'misty school') established a new era in Chinese literature.

'In the late 70s and early 80s, it seemed every college student in China wrote poems, and poets were treated as today's pop stars,' Bei Dao says. 'That was because, after long being suppressed by official discourse, people were hungry for fresh and lively language. That was an abnormal situation. Writing poems is actually the loneliest profession in the world. It's a process of looking for spiritual traces of human beings in endless darkness. So, a poet's life is always miserable.'

This angst is partly a product of his life in exile since the Tiananmen crackdown. Although not involved in the demonstration - he was on a fellowship in Germany on June 4, 1989 - Bei Dao initiated a petition for the release of political prisoners, including dissident Wei Jingsheng. The central government regarded it as fuel for the political turmoil that followed. Bei Dao chose not to return home. 'In the past 16 years, my life has never been stable,' he says. 'I'm longing for stability now.'

Bei Dao lived in six European countries between 1989 and 1995, before settling in the US. During that period, his then wife, painter Shao Fei, and their daughter, Tiantian, were prevented from leaving China. His attempt to visit them ended in detention at Beijing airport followed by deportation.

Facing language barriers, cultural confusion and loneliness abroad, Bei Dao numbed himself with alcohol. The weather in northern Europe was always bad, he says. The temperatures chilled him and it got dark early, echoing his own situation. 'That was the toughest time in my life,' he says amid the salubrious surroundings of the W Hotel lobby in midtown Manhattan. 'Sometimes the night was too long and I couldn't bear it without alcohol.'

After settling in the US, Bei Dao gave up drinking and his family was finally allowed to join him. But Shao Fei divorced him and Tiantian went back to Beijing to attend high school. (She now attends university in the US.) Bei Dao continued moving around, shuffling between US colleges for short-term teaching positions to make a living. 'Exile is suffering,' he says. 'But on the other hand, I'm glad I have it. It's like I've experienced in my life what normally may take three lifetimes to experience.'

From 1997 to 2000, Bei Dao had no teaching positions. He accepted an invitation from the Voice of America, a US government-sponsored radio station, to write about his experience for a programme called Writer's Notes. His focus shifted from poetry to essays. 'You cannot make a living on poems, even in the US,' says the Nobel Prize-nominated poet.

The essays are partly collected in his new book, Midnight's Gate (New Directions), which takes readers along the path of his exile and introduces them to people he met along the way. Friendships helped him to cope with the bitterness, he says. The people described in the essays include well-known writers and intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, who died in December, and Poul Borum, a Danish poet who died in 1996, as well as Chinese immigrants, legal and illegal, struggling to fit into a different culture.

Unlike his poems, which are full of oblique images, the essays in Midnight's Gate are written in straightforward language, as if an old friend you hadn't seen for a long time was telling you about his experiences. Although the bitterness and awkwardness of his exile and the nostalgia for his home town of Beijing is clear, the writer's tone is mostly relaxed and tolerant. He writes: 'In my experience, being a poet requires some form of suffering, based either on your fate or heart, and without a trace of either, it's difficult to write.'

Not that Bei Dao has lost any of his bite. The rebellious spirit is now turned on US culture. 'America has many problems,' he says of the country he calls his second home. 'The most dangerous one is the isolation of the American mentality. People here thought they were the centre of the world. They don't have curiosity about the world. In some sense, this is a result of brainwashing. People are brainwashed by the media and education. But they don't realise it. This could be the beginning of the decline of an empire.'

He also dislikes being described as a dissident poet. 'I'm a dissident and a poet, but I'm not a dissident poet,' he says. 'But western media symbolise me by mixing the two together. I think this is a leftover symptom from the cold war.' He declines most interview requests because, he says, journalists 'are only interested in politics and know nothing about literature'.

Bei Dao's independent views distance him from many exiled Chinese, whose activities are often funded by right-leaning groups in the US and Europe. Jintian, which he revived in 1990 to provide an outlet for Chinese writers, struggles for funding, surviving on donations from his artist friends. 'I'm useless to [the right-leaning groups],' he says. 'A real dissident should keep alert to any power structure.'

The journal, banned on the mainland, has a small number of subscribers among overseas-Chinese and circulates among writers in China secretly. But to Bei Dao, it's important to maintain a pure home for Chinese literature. 'It doesn't matter how large the circulation is. Jintian's mission is to maintain the seeds for tomorrow's famine.' Bei Dao says Chinese language and literature are being contaminated by both the old ideology and the flood of commercialism in China.

'Look at the internet - the insulting and attacking language people use in expressing their opinions. It's no different from the language system in the Cultural Revolution. Same as dissidents. Too many times you see dissidents and the government share the same language. China's future isn't tied to the transfer of political power - because it would only be a vicious circle if the dissidents get power. The most critical thing is to find a new way to think and a new language system to break out of the imprisonment of ideology.'

Bei Dao is negotiating a permanent professorship at a US university, but says he dreams of teaching in China. 'I'd love to contribute to the process with the knowledge and experience I gained here. But, of course, it doesn't depend on me.'

He returned to the mainland for his father's funeral in 2002, and has been permitted to make short visits since, but he's prohibited from talking to mainland media. Asked what he sees for himself in the future, Bei Dao replies quietly.

'I have no plan,' he says. 'Many things have been arranged by destiny. Maybe my plan is to prepare for any change with an unchanging routine - living, writing, keeping dignity as a human being.'