An Interview with Bei Dao

By Dan Featherston


Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter 24.2, Spring 1999.

Chinese poet Bei Dao is the author of six books published in Chinese. Among his works in English translation are Forms of Distance (1994) and Landscape Over Zero (1996), as well as a collection of short stories, Waves (1990), all from New Directions. His work has been translated into 25 languages. Since 1969, he has lived in exile, traveling in both Europe and the US. The following interview took place on March 3, 1999, at the Poetry Center Guest House in Tucson, Arizona, during Bei Dao's visit.

Dan Featherston: How did you choose the pen name Bei Dao?

Bei Dao: Actually, this name was given by a friend, the poet Mang Ke. Twenty years ago we founded the literary magazine Today (Jintian). We gave pen names to each other to avoid punishment by the government. I picked the pen name Mang Ke for him because his nickname was "Monkey." I asked him just last December, when we celebrated our twentieth anniversary of Today in Tokyo, about the meaning of Bei Dao. He said it means ''Northern Island." He explained that an island is a kind of silence in the noisy ocean. This image comes from my early work, "The Island" (from The August Sleepwalker).

Dan: You were educated at one of the top secondary schools in China, but this was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. After the Cultural Revolution, what sort of literature was available to you?

Bei: My education was terminated by the Cultural Revolution when I was seventeen. First, we were involved in the Cultural Revolution as the Red Guard. But in 1969, most of my classmates were sent to the remote countryside during the "settling down in the countryside movement." I was sent to a construction site. Suddenly we fell from the heights of society to the depths. We experienced a crisis of belief. After we lost political faith, we became interested in current Western philosophy and literature. After the agricultural off-season, many students who were sent to the countryside returned to Beijing and formed cultural salons. At that time, books were banned by the authorities and there was strict ideological control. We would sneak into closed libraries to steal books and exchanged books with other people—what we call pao shu, which means "running around for books." You had to go to these salons to find good books and negotiate for reading time. If one salon got a good book, they had to set a schedule for each person around the clock. For example, maybe I can read a book from tonight at  8 o'clock until tomorrow at 8 o'clock, so I have only twelve hours to finish the book and take notes, and time is very precious.

Dan: Were these banned books primarily Western philosophy and literature?

Bei: After the Cultural Revolution, there were what was called yellow-covered books because the covers were yellow. These yellow-covered books—about one hundred volumes of modern Western literature and literature from the "thaw'' period in the Soviet Union—were published before the Cultural Revolution. There was a restriction on circulation, a very limited printing of these books, so nobody could read them except high officials. But during the Cultural Revolution, when the high officials were overthrown, these books leaked down to the people. These books had great significance because it was the first time that modern literature was systematically introduced to China: Kafka’s novels, Sartre’s Nausea, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

Dan: Western readers often detect a kind of surrealism in your work, and I guess Lorca would be an example of that influence. Do you feel surrealism's sense of the self and the imagination present in your work?

Bei: Yes, after the Cultural Revolution we tried to do something totally different, something that would set us apart from socialist realism. Another phenomenon is the underground literature. After the communist takeover of China, many very good writers and poets gave up writing and became professors, translators, and researchers of foreign literature, since some of them had a very good education and studied in foreign countries. They created a certain style—“translation form"—which was quite different from the official discourse. This translation form became mature just before the Cultural Revolution and formed a basis for the underground literature.

Dan: So it was their translations, not their own writings, that were influential?

Bei: Yes, their translation style became a marginal form totally different from the official language. The official language is a very dumb and wooden language. So when we started reading these translations, we used this kind of style as a basis of our language and our writing. Of course, twenty years later we would change this again because there was too much influence from Western literature, and we wanted to purify Chinese and say goodbye to this sort of translation style.

Dan: In experimental American poetry of the past few generations, subversion of the self has been thought of as a means of liberation, whereas in your work it is the self that is subversive a means for liberation. In your poetry, the self seems to be important as a political instrument. Do you see these two perspectives as fundamentally opposite? How do you account for these contrasting perspectives on the role of the self in modern poetry?

Bei: From the 1949 communist takeover until underground literature appeared, there is a period of about thirty years. The communist party crackdown tried to get rid of all individual voices in literature and for about thirty years there is almost no individual voice in Chinese poetry. So maybe that's why the self is so important for every Chinese writer. You have to be a self, and then you can be a writer. That's probably different from American writers. I think: that's a basic starting point: begin with the self. But I don't think the self is only the self, only about your personal experiences. The self is a part of history. If you're talking about China, this is another problem: you know, there's a philosophical difference. The self is at the core of western religion. Consider the Christians who have confession, where they must face God. But in Chinese philosophy, the self is not that important.

Dan: In the American mainstream there is little sense of poetry as a political instrument. And among experimental poets, there are those who argue that poetry has no political power to change things. How do you feel about the act of writing as a form of political critique? Is writing political poetry different from, say, demonstrations, protests, and that sort of thing?

Bei: Poetry is a totally different way of demonstration. Poetry influences peoples' thoughts and changes their way of speaking and thinking. That's how poetry works. Octavio Paz asks, “Who is the reader?" The number of readers is not important, as long as some thinker, some philosopher or political figure, is influenced by the poetry. Poetry doesn't work directly in political situations. It operates in deeper ways to open up the imagination and change our way of thinking and speaking.

Dan: Which is so much subtler—even invisible—than, say, protesting in the streets. It seems that many people in the US don't see poetry as operating on this level. We see a world of actions dictated by powers that seem to be beyond our control. But it seems to me that experimental poetry can serve as political critique.

Bei: I think that mainstream contemporary American poetry is a sort of narrative poetry without passion, without experimentation. At the same time I enjoy reading marginal poets such as Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Michael Palmer, and Clayton Eshleman.

Dan: Your life has been quite different from the postwar model of the American poet. Being in exile for the past ten years has certainly had an impact on your life and writing. There is obviously a painful dimension to exile, but are there aspects of exile that have had a positive influence on you both as a poet and a human being?

Bei: I think that in the beginning I suffered, departing from my culture. But later I realized I had more choices, more dimensions than before. [Edward] Said has commented that other people have one life, one culture, but those who live in exile have at least two lives, two cultures. I think I learn more from my experiences in exile. I have a  lot of foreign writers as friends. Being in exile gives me distance between myself and my culture, between the present and the past.

Dan: Does this distance allow you to be critical of the cultures you move through?

Bei: Yes, both Chinese culture and Western culture. I don't think I belong to either. It's a kind of freedom, not being obligated to any one culture.

Dan: Some writers talk about language as a kind of symbolic exile. Postmodern writing has made much of the idea of the self as, not only fragmented and pluralistic, but in exile from the world in language. Is this symbolic exile in language something that you can relate to?

Bei: Yes, poetry is a coded language, which is totally different from daily language. In certain ways, poetry is in conflict with daily language. Poetry tries to advance and change the language to purify it in this way. I feel writing is a kind of exile from daily language. Writing is a renaming of the world. To write poetry is to try to open up new horizons and break the circle of existing language.

Exile is a political term. Change purifies language especially in the case of modern Chinese. Modern Chinese, compared to classical Chinese, is very new. It has to mature. You know, there are great possibilities for modern Chinese. Modern English was pretty much mature by the time of Shakespeare, but modern Chinese is still in the process of maturing. Chinese poetry has to deal with these circumstances, which makes it very exciting to be a poet in this period.

Dan: In the English translations of your work, there is a sense of ambiguity in the structure. Normative grammatical cues like periods and commas are either nonexistent or sparingly used, which creates an ambiguity of syntax. For example, discerning whether a noun is the subject or object of a sentence. Is this a reflection of Chinese grammar?

Bei: In the Chinese language, sometimes there is no subject at all. That's the kind of trouble you can find in translation. Most English translations have to define the subject, so in this way you can see that the translation is another poem; it's quite different. At the same time, poetry should be translated, and it doesn't matter if there are differences in the text.