Home > Conversations > Reclaiming the Word: A Conversation with Bei Dao
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Eva LundsagerFirst Attempt (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Reclaiming the Word: A Conversation with Bei Dao

Bei Dao is the pen name of China’s foremost dissident poet, Zhao Zhenkai. Reading about his work, it is hard not to conjure up an almost mythic image of the man. 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. It is said that literally millions of readers in his homeland know his poem “The Answer” by heart. Had you stopped any of the young students who massed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, struggling to bring democratic reforms to their nation, they could have recited it for you as easily as any member of the Woodstock generation could muster the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Bei Dao currently lives in exile in Denmark, but the Chinese government refuses to allow his wife and young daughter to join him. The tacit choice he was given: come home and be silenced or live apart from everyone and everything you love. The precepts of conscience are not without their price—this is only one of the axioms that have become part of the poet’s education in the politics of twentieth-century literature.

I spent several afternoons talking with Bei Dao when he visited Boston to take part in Oxfam 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 the poet had some command of English, Iona served as translator for our talks. A tall man, slender and fine-featured, Bei Dao greeted me with the gentlest of handshakes. Rather than the impassioned firebrand I had expected, I found a quiet spirit, extremely shy and intensely private.

I began by asking the poet about the significance of his pen name, which in Chinese means “North Island.” It seemed a simple enough starting point. If, when the question was translated, the poet winced, I was not yet focused enough to detect it. “The name itself was accidental, with no great significance to it, except that it was chosen twelve years ago with the first publication of the ‘unofficial’ literary magazine called Jintian (Today),” which he edited with his poet-friend Mang Ke. In a society where all information was tightly controlled by government agencies, these underground publications provided a new kind of public forum for the Chinese people. Handwritten or typed, they were mimeographed and distributed by hand on the streets of Peking or pasted as broadsides on what would soon come to be known as “Democracy Wall.” “Because we knew there was some danger involved with this publication, we wanted to avoid any attention from the authorities, and in order to do this we chose pen names for each other. And so Mang Ke chose my pen name, Bei Dao, and I don’t know what was the inspiration for the choice. But there is perhaps a more symbolic level to the name, because in 1976, when I first began translating poetry, I brought out two books of translations of the Northern European poets. And, in fact, since I’ve been in exile beginning in 1989, I’ve lived in Northern Europe. There is a sort of traditional belief in China that one’s name and one’s fate are linked together.”

Born a mere two months before the formal 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. So with our education—at school and at home—it was taken for granted we lived in the best of all possible societies. No doubts about Communism, the Party, or the system itself.” Indeed, Bei Dao was born into a prosperous, well-educated family; he attended the same secondary school as many of China’s political elite and seemed destined to attain the comfortable life the Party accorded to its loyal professionals. “The greatest turning point for me came during the Cultural Revolution when I was sixteen, 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. In a sense we were at 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 to everything I had experienced before.

“So from the late sixties until the eighties, this was a period in which 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 one premise of my question, denying that he is a “leader” of any movement. When he and Mang Ke began their poetry journal, they were careful to make it a purely literary forum. “It contained no political statements whatsoever. Naturally I met people from other magazines who were much more political. But if I saw myself as a leader at all, it was as an artistic one. The problem for China in the last half century has been what exactly politics means.

“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 very happy to feel that I belong to the Democracy Movement as a ‘leader.’ But I see myself, first and foremost, as a creative artist, as a poet.”

He was taking great pains to make this distinction clear to me, studying my face as I listened to Iona’s translation. “What I really feel is that I’m in the middle of a conflict between art and politics, between art and power. And the result of this conflict has enormous political implications. As a writer and a poet, I am part of a search to find a new language of expression [within the Chinese]. Naturally the State feels this search as a positive threat to their powers.”
Was this just a problem of semantics, modesty, or something deeper? After all, a poem like “Résumé” 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. . .

—from The August Sleepwalker

If this was not the voice of rebellion, then what was it? His anthem-like poem “The Answer” was written shortly after the first Tiananmen student protest in 1976 (dubbed the “April Fifth Movement” because it took place during the days preceding Qingming, China’s traditional time of mourning), which also met with a violent response from the police and military. It begins:

Debasement is the password of the base,
Nobility the epitaph of the noble.
See how the gilded sky is covered
With the drifting twisted shadows of the dead.

By the third stanza, the poem nearly explodes with the spirit of defiance:

Let me tell you, world,
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.
I don’t believe the sky is blue;
I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes;
I don’t believe that dreams are false;
I don’t believe that death has no revenge.

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 turned to the philosopher Wittgenstein for his response.

“If you look at his later writings where he discusses the influence of the ‘daily language,’ 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 gives me a very complex mixture of feelings. On 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 feel 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.

“I have to react strongly when people try to say I am ‘the voice of the people.’ In China, the expression ‘the people’ has very special connotations, and I do not feel I ‘represent’ in any way ‘the people’ or ‘the masses.’ It is a very dangerous word because when anything is done in China, it is always being carried out on behalf of ‘the people.’ And who are ‘the people’?”

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.

“A few years ago I read at a poetry festival at Rotterdam. When I was interviewed, things went very well. But three years later, I read there again. And the reporters asked me the exact same questions again—about ‘The Answer’ and the meaning of my name and so on. I became fed up and began to resent the interviews. It’s a problem I’ve encountered quite often in the West and I think it’s connected with what you said earlier about the ‘commercialized image.’ You’re slotted into an ‘image,’ 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.

“It’s like with computers: you get entered as a certain data, and every time this data is called up, you get called up with it. You become this one spot of data in the cultural memory bank, and it’s the only use, the only function you have. And this is very much connected with the idea of commercialized images, of mass culture, and it’s created an enormously negative reaction within me.”

By this point, I could see how I had already fallen into the same trap, carried the same sort of preconceptions to this conversation. I folded my sheets of prepared questions, slipped them back into my notebook, and tried to listen harder to the unfolding strains of the conversation.

The irony in the poet’s complaint, 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 adept at cultivating and 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 and in our work, that we become a parody of what were once our selves.

“I feel, as do many exiled writers, that we are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, 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.”

I tried to steer toward some of the fundamental experiences all writers encounter so that, poet to poet, we might find some common ground from which to examine the conditions of an artist in exile. I told him that, certainly, my first experience and first responsibility in writing a poem is to my private self and the integrity of the language of the imagination. But as the process continues and a poem is being considered for possible publication, there is an increasing awareness of “audience”—of the outside eyes you hope such a piece will speak to. Surely he did not wish to create his poetry with no audience whatsoever?

“Of course, I don’t differ from you in first writing for myself and then for readers. But your definition of ‘readers’ is probably very different from mine. When I first started writing twenty years ago, it was not possible to think of ‘the general public.’ When I thought of ‘an audience,’ it was really a small circle of friends. Because it was a time of great repression, it was dangerous to have one’s poems go too far afield.” I got the impression that had the Chinese government not interceded, Bei Dao might have remained content within these narrow borders. “When I write poetry now, I still think in terms of that small circle. But of course now the reaction, the reflection that returns to me, is quite different. It’s much broader. Before I left my country in 1989, I could count on a larger audience within China itself. But since then, this has been cut off completely. My works are forbidden in China. So now I have to think more in terms of overseas readers, and this, of course, has created a major change for me.

“When you write poetry in China, you work within the context of a national entity with a very well-defined cultural background. Leaving that behind, joining an international context, the language changes and [the experience] muddies the whole concept of national backgrounds and cultural boundaries. And I see this not only for myself but as a phenomenon that has happened to many writers and artists in the twentieth century.”

Indeed, with the proliferation of technological advances, the global communication of ideas is virtually instantaneous, and mass media has accelerated its drive to flood the international community with all manner of imagery and information. But the writer removed from his own culture, even from his own mother tongue, becomes a curious specimen: he is both extremely sensitive to the generation of new iconography and susceptible to the cross-pollination of what were once distinct cultural forms.

“This phenomenon is, on the one hand, a restriction, a limitation. On the other hand, it is a way up, a new growth. The development of modern literature in China has always been this conflict between East and West. But in the past, it’s been the case that either people overemphasize Western influences or they overemphasize the traditional. Now it’s more the case that there is room to mix the cultures. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of ‘international culture.’ Even to define Chinese culture is a very complex question because you can talk about popular culture, mass culture, the culture of the Court, the culture of the Chinese minorities. There is no purity of cultures there. So what I prefer to look at is the idea that there is a further mixing of cultures which I see as a very interesting occurrence—one of the most interesting cultural phenomena of our century.

“If you look at a writer like Paul Celan, for example: he was Jewish, born in Romania, wrote in German, and was later imprisoned in German concentration camps. After his release, he went to live in Paris. It’s very difficult to say what sort of ‘cultural background’ he came from. I myself feel that this group of people now, this exiled literature, has its own mixtures of culture, and is making itself increasingly evident.”

True, this is spring.
Pounding hearts disturb the clouds in water.
Spring has no nationality.
Clouds are citizens of the world

Become friends again with mankind,
My song.

                                                                —from True

I recounted to Bei Dao the story of the great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was living in exile at that time in a rural area of Vermont. When he was first banished from the Soviet Union, Harvard University invited him to deliver the commencement address at that year’s graduation ceremony. Because I so admired his work, I snuck into the courtyard to hear his speech. The writer sat stony-faced through the long litany of million-dollar donations from the alumni and then, when it was his turn to speak, launched into a harangue about how spoiled we’ve become in the West. To his mind, we’ve been made so complacent by the wealth of our society that we’ve forgotten the real value of the freedoms we enjoy and the responsibilities they demand of each of us. Depending on which section you were seated in—among the silver-haired alumni in the front rows or the recent undergraduates toward the rear—the remarks were greeted with expressions ranging from outrage to wild applause. Bei Dao seemed to be pleased by the irony of the situation.

“When I first went to Europe in 1985, my friends warned me: ‘You be very careful! Don’t let this American culture take you over.’ But in fact I discovered that it’s very difficult to define American culture. That it isn’t just the commercialized images, but it exists on more levels, a very complex phenomena. You give the example of Solzhenitsyn: he lives in the U.S., and the majority of his readership is in the U.S. and the West—and look at how he was able to speak out—so what does that say about American culture?”

The poet’s cautionary message 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 distance / 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 it contains some of the same sting as Solzhenitsyn’s rebuke.

“It is a universal predicament. Initially when I wrote this poem, I had the Chinese audience in mind, because all throughout history, the Chinese willy-nilly end up supporting the dictatorship. But it is just as applicable to the West: you become accomplices to the commercialization of your culture. In China, though, many people complain about the dictatorship and the government repression. But on differing levels, everyone also cooperates [with the repression] because it is part of your everyday culture—and this is something one can’t ignore.

“And in the West, particularly in America, every creative artist and every intellectual is also responsible for the creation of this commercial culture—because they themselves participate in it. It does not occur accidentally. . . . I think it is the responsibility of every person to, first of all, acknowledge that this contradiction exists in life, that we are all a part of this contradiction and it cannot be avoided. And it is the responsibility of each individual to struggle against this the best way he can.”

I wondered whether this wasn’t, in the end, poetry’s deep-rooted power: to stand as a language separate from that of the political slogan and the television commercial, to underscore the vitality of free thought by refusing to be used by either “hunter or hunted.” In Bei Dao’s conception, the poet’s voice must attempt to remain like a still-point amid the tidal forces of politics and history, reflecting the individual’s perspective. Perhaps the most radical act one can perform—in China or the West—is to think one’s own thoughts, to stand apart from the crowd.

“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. But you have to understand that the social background in China is so very different. In a country like mine which has suffered for such a long time under government repression —where, in order to maintain its power, it feels it must control not only politics but also all art and literature—there is a great imperative for a Chinese writer to escape from this sort of control. And the danger in being a so-called ‘representative’ is something that strikes at the very root of creativity itself. The struggle among artists and writers in China has been to separate writing and creative impulses from politics. So the debate in the past few years has centered around how to create a pure literature, something like what you’ve called art for art’s sake.”

Bei Dao was born in Peking, but his family roots are in Shanghai and the area where the Yangtze River pours into the East China Sea—a place combining the influences of traditional culture and international trade. His early experiments with poetry and fiction show a willingness to draw from both ancient Chinese literature and modern voices from the West. He helped pioneer a new style of verse called, by its critics, “a poetry of shadows” because it intentionally employed dark and dreamlike imagery, a retreat from traditional forms, and broken syntax or sudden leaps of reference. It was Bei Dao’s way of fulfilling two contradictory needs: to comment on the totalitarian abuses that plagued his society, yet to do so in a manner that was somewhat shielded by the obscurity of his symbolism; and to explore a personal dreamscape where feeling and imagination could be given free reign. Even in exile, his work maintains a certain distance from his readers: it presents a door that requires a bit of imaginative effort to open and even then only permits entrance one person at a time.

“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 in their work. But if you look at their language, if you look at the style in which they write, it is the same used by the government. So they are still restricted in that very narrow area. 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 don’t want you to mistake my meaning: I think that the modern language in China is a very beautiful thing. But in the forty-odd years since the establishment of the People’s Republic, language has very gradually been taken over completely by officials and the government. It is very frightening. People have no means of free expression.”

I couldn’t help think of the many “official” languages we confront every day in America: the vocabulary of pop culture and advertising, of diplomacy and the political campaign, the “military-speak” so prominent during the Iraqi war coverage. A catch phrase like “Just do it!” can as easily be interpreted as: “Don’t be afraid—risk your dreams!” or “Damn the costs—buy this product and have what you want.” It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination 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. But in Bei Dao’s experience, the massive machinery of government was the sole arbiter of message and meaning.

“This phenomena really took off in the late stages of the Cultural Revolution when all our word-groups became fixed by the Party—and this was seen in newspapers, broadcasts, and in the language people used to speak with each other. As a simple example, take the word ‘sun’ or the word ‘red.’ ‘Sun’ really means ‘the leader,’ and ‘red’ means ‘the Party.’ I had a friend from middle school who was asked, ‘What color do you like?’ His response was, ‘I like blue.’ And this boy was censured for having the wrong political attitude, for being politically incorrect. In this way, the language has become so fixed and so controlled, there are no outside means of expression.”

And I began to appreciate in a new way why this Chinese poet fought so faithfully over the territory of words. The poems in The August Sleepwalker are arranged chronologically, and you can witness the poet’s focus becoming more personal and inward, his style increasingly opaque and surreal with time. It’s as if he were pulling the poems further and further away from easy interpretation, struggling to keep them far from anything that could be taken as mere cant or co-opted as a slogan.

And just where does this leave a poet like Bei Dao, living far from his homeland, watching it struggle for the character of its future life? Did his position mean the artist may abdicate his or her responsibility to play a role in revitalizing a culture, in supporting the well-being of the community at large? If anything, this conversation was underscoring the contradictory impulses every thinking person—of the West or East—must eventually confront: what good is a free individual if he has no sense of his place in the human community? Yet what good is the social order if it must eradicate the individuality of its members in order to survive?

“There is a Western outlook toward China that ought to be corrected. The West tends to see China in oversimplified terms, especially when it comes to looking at the June 4th incident in 1989. The West looks at the overall mass movement as a sign of change. But when you look at poetry, it’s a very delicate, minute thread that underlines everything that goes on. In a way, you can see poetry as a sort of silent revolution in China. But it is there in the consciousness of many different types of people. It does have a function to play but it is never broadcast in broad terms.”

Such a perspective is in marked contrast to the two-minute dramas we watched unfolding on the evening news. Bei Dao was pointing to the levels of complexity in all areas of his nation’s daily life where incremental steps forward will go unnoticed.

“Generally speaking, I think democracy is inevitable in China. It’s just a question of time. But during this time, there are huge problems that China faces that could damage the outcome of democracy. These problems are very basic: for example, population, food resources, energy, and education. These are challenges that will have a major impact on what kind of democracy one sees in China in the future and will determine how quickly it arrives.”

I couldn’t help wondering how the prospect of this slow evolution felt for a young man living several thousand miles from the home he wishes to enter, from the faces he would give almost anything to touch again. Did he think he would see this new China in his lifetime?

“The process of bringing about democracy is not like a revolution. It’s not like democracy is going to appear all of a sudden one day. It’s a long, slow process. And within that development, one of the most important things to bear in mind is that the Democracy Movement in China is not at an end, because already there is a phenomena growing called ‘civil society,’ so that the Government itself is able to control less and less of society. It’s not able to reach down quite as far as it used to. The growth of civil society is a basic foundation that is necessary before democracy can come about. And the process of democratization itself is like that of the poetry revolution: it’s silent, it’s slow. But it will come.”

The Art of Poetry

in the great house to which I belong
only a table remains, surrounded
by boundless marshland
the moon shines on me from different corners
the skeleton’s fragile dream still stands
in the distance, like an undismantled scaffold
and there are muddy footprints on the blank paper
the fox which has been fed for many years
with a flick of his fiery brush flatters and wounds me

and there is you, of course, sitting facing me
the fair-weather lightning which gleams in your palm
turns into firewood turns into ash

I had a last question for the poet. When James Joyce lived in self-imposed 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, I told him, that he has been deprived of most of the essential elements needed to continue his work: family, fellow writers, the language, and the landscape. As a poet, how is he able to persist? As my words were translated, a shadow of sorts swept across his expression.

“That is a very interesting question,” he responded slowly. “The relationship between a poet and his homeland is very complex—at times, very close, at times in conflict. I think we Chinese have a very special relationship with our land. It’s difficult to leave that behind. 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. Sometimes my dream-place is so real . . .” After a pause, he added, “If the conditions in the real China eventually change, it might still be hard for me to return.”

By this time I could see that Iona was somewhat exhausted; in this linguistic tennis game, her role was to play both sides of the net, leaping rapidly from one language, one mind-set to the other. I clicked off the tape recorder, and our host graciously retreated to make us some tea. Now Bei Dao and I conversed with our own limited resources, hand and facial gestures counting for as much as the broken phrases. We exchanged poems, and Bei Dao gave me copies of the selection he would read the following evening at the Oxfam celebration. Two of the newer pieces caught my attention immediately. Considering all that was said, “Requiem” was a surprisingly straightforward elegy, subtitled “for the victims of June Fourth.” He spoke of the sadness he felt to hear the news of the massacre in Tiananmen while living so far from the event. Each of the three stanzas began with the word “Not…” and, in its negation, seemed to attempt to erase a portion of grief and remake the memory of the tragedy that occurred. Still, he was careful to make the distinction that “[o]ne may be giving voice to feelings other people hold—but that means the poem represents feelings, but is not a representative of how people feel.” Yet he also offered that “a poet does have the responsibility to be the memory of his people, to remind them of past events—and this is especially true in China, where there is a State policy of national amnesia. The government would like the people to forget that Tiananmen ever occurred.”


Not the living but the dead
under the doomsday-purple sky
go in groups
suffering leads into suffering
at the end of hatred is hatred
the spring has run dry, the conflagration
stretches unbroken
the road back is even further away

Not god but the children
amid the clashing of helmets
say their prayers
mothers breed light
darkness breeds mothers
the stone rolls, the clock runs backwards
the eclipse of the sun had already appeared

Not your bodies but your souls
shall share a common birthday every year
you are all the same age
love has founded for the dead
an ever-lasting alliance
you embrace each other closely
in the massive register of deaths

The second was a brief poem entitled “A Picture—for Tiantian’s fifth birthday.” The voice in this had little of the elusiveness, the abstract imagery, that created a safe distance between poet and reader. This was as intimate as a love note and, Bei Dao explained, was written for his daughter; Tiantian, her nickname, is written in Chinese with two characters which look like a pair of windows and also forms part of the character for the word “picture.”

A Picture

                                          for Tiantian’s fifth birthday

Morning arrives in a sleeveless dress
apples tumble all over the earth
my daughter is drawing a picture
how vast is a five-year-old sky
your name has two windows

one opens towards a sun with no clock-hands
the other opens towards your father
who has become a hedgehog in exile
taking with him a few unintelligible characters
and a bright red apple
he has left your painting
how vast is a five-year-old sky

                                                              —from Old Snow

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 by these simple words.

But we walked and chatted, he straining to summon his words of English, I struggling to simplify mine. It was a warm spring afternoon, and the forsythia were already blooming. We found a spot for him to stand, and I searched in my case for the lens I wanted.

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, fourteen, very big!” I added, gesturing with my hands

Bei Dao smiled. He told me a bit about Shao Fei, his wife, and little Tiantian, then a six-year-old. “I speak to them on telephone, but not often. Dangerous,” he explained in a quiet voice. 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.


When I first met with Bei Dao, he had been in exile from his homeland for only two years and was still trying to come to terms with his new life in the West. Throughout the 1990s, he would wander between European and Scandinavian cities, eventually settling in the United States. He survived by taking temporary teaching positions, searching for, if not home, at least refuge, a place and a community where he might gain some measure of peace. It was through the generosity of friends and strangers—the network of Chinese expatriates and the loose-knit brotherhood of poets—that he began to remake his life, a process he has beautifully detailed in his recent collection of prose pieces, Blue House (Zephyr Press).

All the while he continued to write and publish his poetry—Unlock (New Directions) appearing in 2000—creating over time that “new language” he had spoken of when we’d first talked. Less overtly political or even personal, the new poems are filled with luminous images and unexpected associations, creating a dreamlike intensity. Still, all it takes sometimes is a word, a turn of phrase, to suddenly anchor the poem in the lived world or hint at the burden of memory never far from his attention.

Preparing this collection of interviews for publication, I met with Bei Dao in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought him a copy of the expanded conversation. After reading it, he shook his head mournfully; speaking now without the aid of an interpreter, he struggled to express his reaction and could only come up with the single word: “Naïve.” Was he embarrassed by the certitude of his younger self—or by the grand terms in which I had outlined the importance of his work? Had a decade’s education in the realpolitik of the literary establishment (not to mention the machinations of national governments) chastened his outlook? Or was he just feeling the wear and tear that the long journey had exacted upon his life?

He made several attempts to find words for his feelings, but, in the end, felt he had simply “spoken too much.”

Still, I explained to him the interview was an important record of this transition in his life, and, with characteristic generosity, he gave me his blessings for the project.

Over coffee, we chatted about the changes in our personal lives. I found out that after great effort to preserve their relationship, his marriage to Shao Fei had sadly ended. But, paradoxically, divorce from the poet finally allowed his wife and daughter to obtain travel documents and to visit him in the U.S. A teenager now, Tiantian may even be able to attend high school in America and be reunited with her father. I watched as these words animated Bei Dao’s normally placid face and reminded myself of how I must always intuit the inner spirit of this poet and not merely rely on outward signs. It is the very same method, I realized, required by the landscape of his poems, which, suddenly, seemed not so very foreign at all.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Steven Ratiner is a poet, educator, and freelance writer. His collection of interviews, Giving Their Word: Conversations With Contemporary Poets, will by published by the University of Massachusetts Press in fall 2002. He also has two new chapbooks of his own poems forthcoming: a retrospective collection in Pudding House Press’s Greatest Hits series, and Button, Button, an artist’s book in collaboration with Marty Cain. (2001)

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