An Evening with the Poet Bei Dao, Set for Nov. 8

A leading figure in China’s pro-democracy movement, the poet Bei Dao will pay a special visit to Claremont McKenna College on Thursday, Nov. 8 as part of Voices of China, a series of events organized by The Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies.

Along with a reading of his poetry at the Athenaeum, an event open to the public, Bei Dao will spend the following day on campus with students, discussing his work, experience, and the human rights situation in China. The Athenaeum dinner with Bei Dao is restricted to the CMC community, but the lecture portion of the program, beginning at 6:45 p.m., is free and open to the public, with seating on a first-come basis.

It was Bei Dao’s prominence during the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests that vaulted him to international attention, although he had long been a part of the country’s underground political movement.

What Bei Dao and other participants in the Gould Center series illustrate is the stark contrast between the experiences of artists in the East and West.

“Bei and the other participants have a life-and-death sense of what goes into the decision to be an artist,” explains Gould Center Director Robert Faggen, the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature. “They teach us how art can be a saving grace in a society under the crushing weight of a totalitarian regime. The compression, movement, and introspective voyage of his poetry transcends mere political circumstance,” Faggen added.

Born in Beijing, Bei, now 58, has undergone many transformations from young enthusiastic supporter of Mao Zedong and Red Guard member to poet (“Bei Dao” is a pseudonym for the poet’s real name, Zhao Zhenkai), activist literary editor and, finally, political exile.

He has told interviewers that his enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution subsided as its limitations became obvious. He also has recounted his early life and participation in Mao’s cause as a Red Guard member, searching houses and confiscating banned items. He emerged as one of the Misty Poets, a group that inspired and gave hope to organizers of pro-democracy movements in the country. To reach the masses, he and the poet Mang Ke founded the magazine Jintian (“Today”) which published in the late 1970s.

During the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Bei’s now famous poem, Huida (“An Answer”), became an anthem for the student protesters. In a society in which every citizen is expected to believe what the government tells them, the poem staked out a defiant position, declaring:

I’ll tell you, world,

I do not believe!

If a thousand challengers already lie under your feet,

Count me number one thousand and one.

I do not believe that the sky is blue;

I do not believe in the echoes of thunder;

I do not believe that dreams are false;

I do not believe that death brings no recompense.

Written 13 years earlier, the poem expressed Bei’s reaction to another Tiananmen Square demonstration this one following the death on April 5, 1976 of Zhou Enlai, whom many saw as giving moderation to Mao’s aggressive social policies. Police cleared the square of protesters, among them Bei Dao.

Bei is a radical chronicler of his country’s political turmoil, resulting in the charged, plaintive poetry of volumes including The August Sleepwalker (1986), Old Snow (1991) and Forms of Distance (1994). The political dimension of his career, however, has sometimes threatened to overshadow his achievements as a stylist writing a highly condensed poetry full of enigmatic images (an obscurity for which he and the other Misty poets received their title) and signs:

After braving the music of the air raid alarm

I hang my shadow on the hat-stand

take off the dog’s eyes

(which I use for escape)

remove my false teeth (these final words)

and close my astute and experienced pocket watch

(that garrisoned heart) …

Bei is also highly regarded as an essayist, capturing the struggle waged by dissident artists to preserve a vision of reality free of the warping influences of the government. In an essay, for instance, printed as the foreword to the recent anthology, Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts (Columbia University Press/Weatherhead Books on Asia), Bei recalls Mao’s 1958 campaign against a surge in the population of sparrows in Beijing. Students were ordered to stay home, bang on pots, and stand on their balconies to keep the sparrows from landing. More than 400,000 sparrows died, he wrote, resulting in a plague of insects that set off a famine that “caused more than 20 million people to die of starvation.”

The turning point in Bei’s public and private life occurred with his banishment from China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. While Bei attended a literary conference in Berlin, government tanks crushed the young rebellion and the Chinese government banned his return. (Three other Misty poets along with Bei were also exiled or forbidden from returning.) Since then, he has lived in various places around the world, including England, Germany, Holland, France and the U.S.

Though displacement from his homeland is a source of pain for him, Bei has shown that it is not always a disadvantage. In his recent collection of essays, Midnight’s Gate, Bei describes how his travels have anointed him as a member of an international community of artists with broad concerns. He’s by turns humorous“In my wandering overseas, alcohol has been my most loyal companion”and lyrical about the places he has seen, whether New York City, Paris or Prague, where, he writes, the young girls possess an “earthy beauty often extinguished by modernization.”

Nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, Bei is the recipient of many awards, including the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, and he was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Bei has taught at several American schools, including the University of Notre Dame, Beloit College, and the University of Alabama. His work has been translated into 25 languages, including five poetry volumes in English.

“This will be a special experience for our students,” Faggen says. “Bei has a subtle, wry sense of humor. He’s certainly one of the writers I most wanted for our series because of what his career teaches us all about the dissident experience.”

In spring 2008, the Voices from China series will continue, featuring more dissident artistsincluding Kang Zhengguo (Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China) and Er Tai Gao (Beauty, The Symbol of Freedom). In 2009, Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian will also participate.

In the spring, the Gould Center, in collaboration with other institutes, also will present a symposium on China and Human Rights that will include Harvard historian Roderick MacFarquhar, a leading expert on post-Mao China.