BEI DAO, PEN NAME OF ZHAO ZHENKAI (1949— )
BEI DAO, PEN NAME OF ZHAO ZHENKAI (1949— ). Poet and essayist. Bei Dao is the most notable representative of the Misty poets associated with the underground journal Jintian (Today), which Bei Dao cofounded in 1978 with fellow poet Mang Ke. Jintian published works written by budding young poets who challenged the ideologically driven socialist realist tradition that had dominated Chinese literature since the 1950s. A Misty poem ordinarily contains oblique imagery and cryptic syntax. In their experiment with new techniques, the young poets opted for elusiveness and ambiguity of meaning, intentionally scrambling the relationship between the signifier and the signified to foreground the poetic language. In so doing, they hoped to cleanse the Chinese language that had been saturated with politics and communist ideology. In their effort to to remove the dogmatic, cliché-ridden expressions, they strove to replace the public, official language with a highly individualized one. Jintian nurtured a whole generation of poets, such as Yang Lian, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, and Shu Ting, and helped establish Bei Dao’s position as the leader of post-Mao poetry. Bei Dao was a favorite among college students, and one of his poems, “Huida” (Answer), a rebellious rejection of blind loyalty, became a battle cry for the prodemocracy movement in 1989. The activities of Bei Dao and the other Misty poets came to a halt in the aftermath of the crackdown on the Tian’anmen protests. Jintian was banned due to accusations of having instigated the protests, and its leading voices were silenced. Bei Dao, who was attending a conference in Berlin at the time, was forbidden to return to China. Jintian was resurrected in Stockholm in 1990 as a forum for expatriate Chinese writers. During his time abroad, Bei Dao has lectured at a number of universities in the West and his poems have been translated into several languages.
Bei Dao’s poetry has gone through several phases, from defiant political outcry to personal ruminations about passion, love, and friendship, to the mourning of the bleak interior world, to ironic examinations of the human condition. The core of his poetry, however, has remained the same: to explore the intricate web of language and the nature of the self in relation to the emotional wounds inflicted by history and society. Unlike his hermetic poetry, Bei Dao’s essays are easily accessible. In them, he offers his thoughts on a variety of topics, such as the stresses of exile, reminiscences about his friends, and recollections of his life in China. Bei Dao’s poems and essays written since his exile have earned even more critical acclaim. For his uncompromised stance in defense of freedom of expression and his literary achievement, Bei Dao was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters as an honorary member. He has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.