An Interview with Visting Artist Bei Dao: Poet in exile
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La Piana: How did you decide to use the pseudonym/pen name Bei Dao?
Bei Dao: The name was actually given to me with the help of friends. When we were publishing our unofficial magazine, Today, we wanted to avoid being harassed by the police so we were trying to think of names that we could use. It was done very casually, we were riding along on bikes talking about publishing the journal and my friend gave me the name. I'm not even sure myself why my friend came up with the name. I'm asked about this a lot and I feel I have to come up with something. ``Bei Dao'' means ``North Island,'' but the choice of this was really very arbitrary.
La Piana: Why do you continue to use the name even now?
Bei Dao: The whole name thing actually becomes quite complicated. I was publishing poems in official journals under the name Bei Dao, but in the 80s as the political atmosphere became more uncertain, it was better to publish under a variety of names. I usually use the name Bei Dao for my poetry, but I have also published fiction and other things under different names.
La Piana: When did the authorities find out that Bei Dao was you?
Bei Dao: It wasn't hard for them. They found out very early. Bei Dao became the most well-known name for me because of certain criticism of my work. Bei Dao was the name under which my work was criticized. So I became more well-known under Bei Dao than under the other names.
La Piana: Why do you think that during the period of 1980-89 the authorities allowed your poetry and that of your fellow poets to be published? Do you think that they didn't see the poetry as a threat? Or that they tolerated it in spite of its being seen as a threat?
Bei Dao: It's actually quite complicated. There were a lot of changes in the political situation. Toward the end of the 70s there was a kind of opening, a new kind of liberation of ideas. Things were more open for a while. There were a lot of periodicals looking for new things to publish and since the inspection was not as tight at that time, poets and writers were able to get their things out in official periodicals. At this time the authorities and official critics were beginning to attack my poetry, saying it was obscure. But in some ways it was already too late. The poetry had already become quite well-known. It was not something the authorities could really control.
La Piana: Was it almost better, for the official cultural authorities, I mean, to publish this work in official journals, because that would be a way to control response to it?
Bei Dao: Well, there was a whole range of different kinds of publications, ranging from totally official to totally illegal, with many in between. It was actually quite confusing, the control. Some publications were more official than others. It was not always so black and white. There was a big campaign in 1983-84, the ``Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign.'' During that time poets were not allowed to publish.
La Piana: Did it open up again after 1984? Until 1989?
Bei Dao: There was just a lot of pulling back and forth. In 1987 there was another campaign against liberalization and so on.
La Piana: Can you talk a little bit about your education, your youth?
Bei Dao: In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, I was in high school. I was 17 years old. My formal education ended then. I was very happy about it at first, because I didn't like school. I was attending the best school in Beijing because of my family background, but I still didn't like it. I didn't enjoy the atmosphere of school and I was always trying to get away. I didn't feel that I was good at math and sciences, and the atmosphere of school was too controlling. So I was happy when the Cultural Revolution came along and I didn't have to go to school. After the Cultural Revolution was over and schools opened again, it was possible to take the entrance exam for them, but I chose not to.
La Piana: What did you do when the Cultural Revolution broke out?
Bei Dao: Like a lot of the students at that time I became a Red Guard. I took part in all kinds of factional struggles which were going on. In 1969 I was sent down to the countryside to work and I became a construction worker. From 1969 to 1980, for eleven years, I worked as a construction worker, 300 kilometers south of Beijing.
La Piana: I have read about the Red Guards' activity of going into the houses of those who had formerly had high positions and looking for literature. Were you involved in that as well?
Bei Dao: Now you're going to find out all the bad things that I did! Not only did I go into houses to look for things, I also organized the stealing of books from the libraries, because the libraries were all closed at that time. At that time, in the beginning, we were looking for things that had to do with war and with revolution.
La Piana: You were looking for books that would help you to become a better revolutionary?
Bei Dao: Yes, but also works of history, philosophy, and political science that dealt with revolution. The big change in my political views came in 1969 when I was sent into the countryside. It was a big fall. The Red Guards had been on top of everything and in 1969 they went to the bottom. I discovered the poverty and backward conditions of the countryside, and how different it was from the propaganda we had been given about it. That was a major change. That's when I lost my enthusiasm for the revolution. That was also when I began to study, to read and to write.
La Piana: How did you keep your engagement in literature alive during those years of being a construction worker?
Bei Dao: We organized a group of friends and met every two weeks on our day off. We got together for reading, studying and writing. We would exchange our writings among ourselves. This was very important to me. One of the great motives for this secret writing was the tremendous pressure we were all experiencing, both political pressure and societal pressure. We were feeling very depressed. It all had to be done in secret.
La Piana: What kinds of things were you reading at that time? Classical Chinese poetry? Western literature?
Bei Dao: It was very mixed. It was so hard to get books that we would read anything we could get our hands on. This included classical Chinese poetry but also Western works, modern works, Romantic works. Works in translation. We had very little training in foreign languages. Russian was the language we were required to learn in school, but we mostly read in translation. We had some translations of Western literature which were only to be circulated among upper-level cadres in the party.
La Piana: How did you find those?
Bei Dao: They were found by people who had gone into houses to search for things. All these books had been banned, so not only the writing but also the reading had to be done in secret. The only things we were allowed to read were books on Marxism and Mao's thoughts.
La Piana: How could you be sure that none of your friends in the group wouldn't go to the authorities?
Bei Dao: Everybody became quite good at sizing people up. We developed something like a special sense of smell. You could sense whom you could trust and whom you could not. I just got a call yesterday from someone I hadn't seen in over ten years who also worked for a construction company. When we met we found we shared many of the same ideas about the government. After just one conversation we became very close, very good friends. This is a typical example of how that trust was almost instantaneous.
La Piana: In this group that was formed, were members ever persecuted? Or were you successful in maintaining secrecy?
Bei Dao: There were some people who were picked up by the police. The police had been paying attention to us anyway. Some were arrested, some were interrogated and harassed. There were other circles, too, of course.
La Piana: Do you have any sense of why the Democracy Wall Movement in 1978 occurred when it did?
Bei Dao: Mao was dead then, and there was a struggle for political power. Deng Xiao Ping was trying to use the Democracy Wall movement to consolidate his power. It enabled him to say: ``Here are the voices of the people, and they are on my side.'' And so Deng encouraged the Democracy Wall movement for a while, but once he came into power he stopped the movement.
La Piana: So he felt that there were so many people whose views were reflected in the Democracy Wall movement that it was worth his while, politically, to support them?
Bei Dao: It was a situation in which both groups were using each other. Deng Xiao Ping was using public opinion to support his struggle against the established authority, and the people who were doing the movement were using his support to expand the movement and to get the message out. But later on, as Deng Xiao Ping saw that there was so much happening that it was getting to be dangerous, he suppressed the movement. He was trying to get at Mao's successor, so he used the people's discontent and criticism of Mao's policies to get into power himself. However, Deng Xiao Ping did believe in opening up society and in giving people the freedom to express themselves, but within limits.
La Piana: Your magazine was founded at the time of the Democracy Wall movement, in 1978. How did that come about?
Bei Dao: The Democracy Wall movement started with people writing out their grievances, writing out what they had had to suffer during the Cultural Revolution. People came into the capital to express their dissatisfaction with the Cultural Revolution. But gradually more and more forms of expression developed, other things appeared, and our literary magazine Jintian (Today) was the second magazine to appear on the wall in Beijing. The period of preparation for the magazine had been going on for a long time. When we were meeting as a group of friends and writers, we had often talked about publishing an unofficial magazine at some point. So it was something we had discussed for many years. When the opportunity arose, we were ready. The whole process of printing it had to be in secret as well, and when we first put it up on the wall in Beijing we were quite concerned as well. We also changed the license plates on our bicycles so it would be difficult to identify them with us. We had sixty pages the first issue—it took up a lot of space on the wall. But we also went around to different parts of Beijing and pasted it on the walls of various cultural organizations—publishing houses, universities and literature institutes.
La Piana: Did you have to go around at night pasting up the magazine?
Bei Dao: No, in fact we thought it would be more dangerous at night, because at night one could simply ``disappear.'' We had to prepare ourselves for the possibility that something would happen, so three people from the group, I and two others, volunteered to put up the pages, knowing that they were taking great risks in doing this. But the thing that was even more anxiety-inducing was that we didn't know what kind of reception the writing might get! It was something new and we didn't know if people would like it. Nothing like it had appeared for decades. So we left a blank space after each piece of writing pasted on the wall for people to write their comments.
La Piana: Is it correct that during the two years of its existence, from 1978-80, the journal reached a circulation of almost 1000?
Bei Dao: Yes, it is. It was mostly through mail order. University students from around China would come to Beijing, get a copy of the magazine and take it home with them. Then they would send in requests for more. In a very short time the magazine was sent to every province in China except Tibet. But they also continued to put them up on the wall and they would sell them in the street. People would line up to buy copies.
La Piana: By that time the authorities must have known who you were!
Bei Dao: Yes, they did, and I understand that there is a very thick file on me from the early 70s on!
La Piana: So you realized that for a while you were safe being open about publishing the magazine?
Bei Dao: Well, it was banned after two years. But during those two years it was always dangerous. We used different addresses for people to send their requests for the magazine. There were people who were arrested in the group and so it was never safe. After that two-year period, we were notified by the police and told we had to stop publishing. For three months after that we published it only for a very small, inner group. But the police gave us a second warning and we really had to stop.
La Piana: And how did it happen that after this period your work began to be published in the official press?
Bei Dao: This was a transitional period. Even as we were publishing Jintian illegally, some of our work was already appearing in other, more official periodicals. And when the debates and arguments concerning our poetry began, they were carried out in the official journals.
La Piana: Why do you think that your poetry was seen as threatening to the authorities? Was it because of its message, or its form, or simply because it originated in a magazine that was unofficial?
Bei Dao: The greatest danger was a matter of language. Our poetry was written in what amounted to a new language, which differed greatly from the official language to which people were accustomed. That was what got people excited. Universities all over began to get more involved in poetry, organizing poetry clubs and such, simply because they were excited about using a new language. It was a challenge which subverted the official language which had been the dominant form in poetry and everything else for many years. The reason why so many young people were imitating our language was that it gave them a way to express themselves which was new to them because it did not resemble official discourse. It was unusual to have so many people writing poetry.
La Piana: Your poetry has been described as subjective, expressing the intimate thoughts and impressions of the individual. And its subjective quality has also been seen to be assertive of the rights of the individual to his/her own private experience of the world. Do you think that's an accurate assessment? Was that something that was politically subversive?
Bei Dao: That's what the official line was. Under the circumstances of the time, that was what the authorities attacked. We were criticized for being subjective, but in fact it's the most natural thing for poetry to be an expression of the individual self. And that attack in the official journals actually caused our group to be better known. Everybody paid more attention to us because we were being criticized! Most of the argument and debate around the poetry was purely political. It was not on the level of the poetry itself. The critics were not really discussing the poetry but rather attacking it for political reasons. One common criticism was that it was influenced by the West and expressed petty-bourgeois ideas.
La Piana: How did it come about that you were in Berlin at the time of the events in Tiananmen Square?
Bei Dao: It just happened that I was away from China in 1989. I had been invited to Berlin and was supposed to be there for just four months, as a visiting writer.
La Piana: Why did the authorities link your work to the democracy movement?
Bei Dao: It's hard to know what's in their minds. But part of it is probably that the authorities saw a continuity between the 1978 Democracy Wall Movement, when Jintian was launched, and the events of 1989. Some of my poems were circulated by students during the democracy movement in 1989, and this might have also played a part. Also, a few months earlier I had signed an open letter asking for the release of political prisoners in China. There were thirty-three signees, but I was one of the people who started the letter project. Many of the people who signed this letter had prominent positions in China. They included some very well-known intellectuals and some people in official circles in the government. So this letter really shook things up.
La Piana: One of the accounts states that a student participant in the 1989 democracy movement identified your work as a factor in his decision to engage in revolutionary activities. How do you respond to this?
Bei Dao: I don't know this student, but I think he said this because under the high pressure situation in China, poetry became a personal outlet for many young people, so it's understandable that they would see my poetry as an alternative. But I don't like my poetry to be seen that way, as a collective voice.
La Piana: In 1989 you were exiled from China and you have been barred from returning since then. How has the experience of exile changed your relation to China and to the Chinese language?
Bei Dao: At first I thought I was being exiled only for a short time. But it got longer and longer. As a writer, the most important thing for me is to continue to write, no matter where I am. The last five years have in some sense been the most difficult of my life, although materially I am okay. But the sense of solitude is very difficult, so I feel that I have to continue to write. Writing is the thing that sustains me and keeps me going. It is a form of self-preservation for me. People have asked about my being cut off from the Chinese language. But writing is always a challenge anyway, whether you are writing in China or outside. The question is how are you going to respond to that challenge.
La Piana: Do you have the sense that you are writing your poems for China or for the Chinese, like a letter back to them?
Bei Dao: I don't think of writing my poems for China or for the world. I mainly think of a small audience of friends and people I know. I am writing for that small group. They are not necessarily going to be able to read it, but that's what I have in mind when I write. It's not a specific group, I am not thinking of particular people, but of potential readers, the readers I imagine. Now I feel like I've gone back to the way I began, when I was writing for a very small group of friends in Beijing. At that time it was clearer who the readers were, of course.
La Piana: Jintian, the magazine you edited with your friends from 1978-80 in China, was revived in 1990. Can you talk a bit about this new Jintian ?
Bei Dao: At first when it was revived it was a reaction to the events at Tiananmen Square. We published the work of Chinese writers who had been exiled or who were unable to publish in China. This gave them an outlet so that they could continue to write and publish. But the revived Jintian has been around for four years now and there have been some changes. Now we see ourselves as occupying a very particular place. We are a kind of intermediate territory between China and the outside. There is a dialogue, an interaction with Western culture. Also, we are not Hong Kong, not Taiwan, not the mainland. We transcend all these boundaries. We are also trying to be free of the forces of ideology, which dominated China for so long, and of commercialism, which dominates it now. We have a special place. Also, our journal is cross-cultural. This is a change from Chinese literary journals in the past. The editors are all over the world—in London, Paris, Germany, Hong Kong, the U.S.. Everything is sent to New York where the final editing is done and then it's published in Hong Kong.
La Piana: I wanted to ask about a prose text of yours from ``About poetry.'' Can you comment on these lines:
``Poets must not exaggerate their own function, but even less should they underrate themselves.''
Bei Dao: On the one hand poetry is useless. It can't change the world materially. On the other hand it is a basic part of human existence. It came into the world when humans did. It's what makes human beings human.
La Piana: When I read those lines from ``About poetry'' they stayed with me because I thought they would be helpful for American poets to read, since it is so difficult to live as a poet here.
Bei Dao: Yes, but being a poet in the States is quite different from being one in China, because here poetry depends on the universities for its support. They finance the poets and help them get published. That isn't so in China. But overall it is the same. You can't change society with poetry.
Considered by many to be China's foremost contemporary poet, and identified as a potential nominee for a Nobel Prize in literature, Bei Dao is currently Visiting Artist/Writer at the International Institute , and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Chinese Studies . In addition, beginning in September, 1993, he held the McAndless Chair in the Humanities at Eastern Michigan University . In 1989, Bei Dao was accused of helping to incite the events in Tiananmen Square, and was forced into exile from China. Since then, he has lived in seven countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France and the U.S. He has published a number of volumes of poetry and short stories. Five of his works have been translated into English, including Notes from the City of the Sun (1983), The August Sleepwalker (1988), Waves: Stories (1990), Old Snow (1991), and his most recent, Forms of Distance, which has just been published by New Directions Press. He has given poetry readings at the Center for Chinese Studies, the Institute for the Humanities, the Shaman Drum bookstore, and the Michigan Chinese Society of Liberal Arts, Science and Technology; in addition, in the winter of 1994, he offered a minicourse on "Chinese Poetry and Underground Literature in the Past Twenty-five Years" in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. The following interview was conducted in August, 1994, with the help of University of Michigan Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures, Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker.