on City Gate, Open Up, a memoir by Bei Dao, tr. by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions)

Zhao Zhenkai was 17 years old when Mao’s Cultural Revolution occurred in 1966. At his high school, he was among those who forced his teachers to wear incriminating placards around their necks, and who ridiculed, kicked and punched them through a gauntlet in the schoolyard. He had become one of the Red Guards. In the Beijing compound where his family lived, he led a group of kids to disgrace a resident who was reputed to have supported the Kuomintang several years previously; Zhenkai’s hand shook as he took hair clippers to the pleading man’s head.

BeiDaoBW2.jpgHe was born in 1949 to a family in China’s favored class, attended the best schools, and lived in a new, multi-storey residence. His father was a lifelong functionary. But in 1969, both father and son were ordered to work in the countryside. Zhao Zhenkai reported to a construction site 300 kilometers south of Beijing; he would labor at such locations for the next 11 years. In the early 70’s he wrote his first poems. This ex-Red Guard who had once ransacked libraries was now secretly reading their banished titles. So were his friends, one of whom gave him a new name: Bei Dao, meaning “North Island,” an image from one of his poems. The naming was an act of necessity, not whimsy. The construction worker-poets, returning to Beijing once every two weeks for a respite, would meet at Bei Dao’s apartment, listen to a 78-RPM of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, and hatch plans for publishing their work.

The aridity and harshness of Mao’s China tint Bei Dao’s memoir, City Gate, Open Up, and his emergence as a poet finds its source. But this narrative comprises neither a running critique of Maoism nor an explicit record of a poet’s development. It is a book of still-fresh particulars, childhood talismans, compact episodes, sketches of family and acquaintances, pleasures and sadnesses told by the same little boy who hated mathematics and believed all exams “were one of the most sinister plots of mankind to make children prematurely experience the bitterness of life.”

BeiDaoCover.jpegBei Dao’s Polish near-contemporary, Adam Zagajewski, writes bitterly in Slight Exaggeration that “Communism perfectly understood only one thing, how to stifle human multiplicity.” But Bei Dao’s manner seems to say I have always simply been myself. The political has less weight than the personal. The disruptive element in his poetry, so feared by Beijing’s current dynasts, is the personal tone, the affection for the human situation. City Gate, Open Up allows him to speak somewhat more expansively about his Beijing, but as in his poetry, he can make restraint sound like an outburst. This memoir is exquisitely taut.

Although the book is filled with stories, it begins with three chapters based on sensations – “Light and Shadow,” “Smells” and “Sounds.” The narrative moves freely between different periods in his early life, filling in the family, personal, and cultural background as he proceeds. His terseness and immediacy come by way of long determination; he spent ten years shaping and revising.

BeiDaoBW.jpgThe memoir revives memories of a Beijing that has disappeared with startling speed over the past 25 years. He recalls xiaorenshu (“little picture books”) shops which “weren’t big, their primary customers children, their function somewhat analogous to the internet cafes of today. Upon entering the shop in Huguosi Street, your eyes brimmed over with the serialized covers hanging from the walls, glittering like jade pendants and carnelian gems, your heart fluttering with ardor … The transaction took place over the counter: borrow any title for two fen a day plus deposit; read it in the shop for one fen, no deposit required.”

He describes the hutong lanes – the labyrinth of alleys that formed the inner residential areas: “The maze carved out of hutong lanes, puddles of water after a rain, in early summer, the fragrance of pagoda tree flowers and the crepuscular streetlamps, for a bot growing up in Sanbuloa, these things filled me with longing. Compared to the rigid structure of the multi-storey complex, out there the wild freedom of the masses lived on.” His micro-tales of youthful play among the parks and shops reveal a childhood very much like any other, no matter the political turbulence. Even The Great Famine during his early teenage years "awakened by growing body during a time of desperation and fear ... Father would occasionally buy a pestilent chicken at a discount; back home he'd quickly hone his knife."

The core of City Gate, Open Up swirls around the people who influenced Bei Dao – close childhood friends, uncles and aunts, teachers who encouraged his creativity, odd characters in the neighborhood. There is a moving story about an aunt who, having worked for Mao’s wife, perhaps knew too much and had been eliminated. The sufferings of people, even within the context of Chinese upheavals, come across as universal. It was from ordinary but deeply registered interactions with schoolmates (and not from the savagery of politicians) that he discovered "at a certain age, man becomes more cunning and begins to use his intellect more adeptly which, coupled with his will in place of his fists, forms the fountainhead of power and authority for grownup society."

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in September, 1989, Bei Dao was attending a literary conference in Berlin. A few months earlier, he had helped to draft an open letter of protest to Deng Xiaoping which was signed by 33 prominent artists and activists, demanding the release of political prisoners. His poetry had already been criticized by officials for its “decadence.” As a result, Bei Dao was prohibited from returning to Beijing. But in 2001, as his father, Zhou Jinian, lay dying with renal cancer, Bei Dao was allowed to return briefly, an experience that sparked the inscribing of these childhood and adolescent memories.

BeiDaoCOLOR.jpgBei Dao’s father was deputy secretary of propaganda for the Chinese Association for Promoting Democracy for some years starting in the mid-1950’s. He reported to the prolific and widely known writer Bing Xin (1900-99). There was some antagonism between Zhou Jinian and Bing Xin; she paid scant attention to his reports and he suspected her thoughts were corrupt. One day in the early 70’s, Bei Dao with poems in hand boldly knocked on Bing Xin’s door at her residence. “A small, slight grandmotherly figure opened the door and asked who I was,” he writes. “I said I was Zhou Jinian’s son, and that I had come to ask her advice about something.” The spry Bing Xin embraced the young poet and spoke candidly with him. They wrote poems to each other. Meanwhile, the father and son had an uneasy, often contentious relationship filled in with silences. “Perhaps poetry and youthfulness allowed her to be completely unguarded with me,” he writes. “Perhaps this, too, along with my father’s antagonizing role, let me draw her into a widening vortex so many years after her encounter with my father. From link to interrelated link, who can clearly discern the world’s karmic chain?” In 1989, Bing Xin signed Bei Dao’s open letter of protest.

In 1949 when Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China, Bei Dao lay in his crib about a thousand yards away from the Chairman’s rostrum in Tiananmen Square. The exiled poet’s fate has been intertwined with China’s ever since, as he has noted himself. On the other hand, City Gate, Open Up proves the staying power of the individual – and how memory’s authority can effectively challenge the historical forces that would erase it.

[Published April 25, 2017. 299 pages, $17.95 paperback]


The teacher faded long ago
yet the fragments of her diary
act as a go-between
following the corridors of continual evolution
the whole team chases the rabbit
who will skin it?

the back door leads to summer
the eraser can never erase
the dotted lines turning into sunlight
the rabbit’s soul flies low
looking for its next incarnation

this is a story, many years ago
someone’s ears pricked up

stole a glimpse of the sky
and we the wolves suckling on a red lamp
have already grown up

[translated by Eliot Weinberger & Iona Man-Cheong]

Re Bei Dao

He is much respected here in some parts, but it seems largely unknown to the youngsters - what else is new?

Sensitive insight into a contradiction. Can mere memory be the first direction of poetry?

Does a reader imperil him/herself to ask what happened to the young Red Guard - and expect an answer?

Restricted access to the power corridors of Beijing - who cares?

The incarnations of power.

The incarnations of the poet. A trembling hand while he made a grown man plead for his life.

The right side is easy to choose. Harder to stay there.