Bei Dao

Bei Dao, literally “Northern Island”, was born Zhao Zhenkai in Beijing in 1949. He studied Chinese linguistics and literature, and until 1987 he edited various Chinese newspapers and literary journals. During the Beijing Spring (1978-80), he and the poet Mang Ke founded the underground literary magazine “Jintian” (“Today”) which he has been editing from abroad since it was re-founded in 1991. In 1984 the poet joined the Chinese Writers’ Union. Although he was disciplined in 1986 for criticising policies which forced the literary journal “China” to stop its publication, he still received the Chinese National Award for the best volume of poetry in 1988. In February 1989 Bei Dao demanded the release of Wei Jingsheng in an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, which was signed by 40 leading intellectuals, and which triggered a large-scale human rights campaign. Demonstrators chanted his verse at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre (4 June 1989). The poet was staying in Berlin as a guest of the German Academic Exchange Service at that time. He then chose to live in exile as he would have been subject to arrest if he returned to his home country. Bei Dao took on guest professorships in England, Denmark and the United States.

Bei Dao is the most notable representative of the “Misty Poets”, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. Lyrical works constitute the core of his writing which is obviously influenced by modern Western and Chinese writing. He also published short stories and essays, most recently the collection “Midnight’s Gate” (2005) appeared. Bei Dao has dedicated himself to a critical appraisal of post-1949 Chinese history for a long time. He contradicts the myth of progressive development by making escape, imprisonment and isolation his main thematic focus, rather than liberation.

The “originally carefree tone” referred to by his German translator, Wolfgang Kubin, has become “increasingly more complex” over the years. This is due to his use of a refined form of the montage technique, whereby images overlap in such a way that things seem to bear no relationship to one another at all and sometimes represent a real paradox. Bei Dao’s lyrical works are often called hermetic and dark. Defying interpretation, his poems lend themselves to a general assessment of the human condition. The relationship between the world and the self is linguistically illuminated, not only in its political dimensions in quotes such as “In the world I am / Always a stranger / I do not understand its language / It does not understand my silence”.

Among other prizes, Bei Dao has been awarded the “Freedom to Write” Prize of the PEN Center USA West, the Tucholsky Prize from Swedish PEN and the Aragana Poetry Prize from the International Festival of Poetry in Casablanca. He is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Currently Bei Dao resides in Davis, California. His works, which have been translated into 25 different languages, were formerly banned in the People’s Republic of China, although their publication is now accepted. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize many times and is considered one of the most important contemporary Chinese authors. In 2006 he was allowed to live and work in China once more.

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