Where Brightness Ends

Bei Dao’s nostalgia for a pre-liberalisation Beijing

Daily life in the hutongs, or alleys, of 1980s Beijing was destroyed when many of the hutongs were bulldozed to make way for a glittering transformation of the city over the last three decades. VCG / GETTY IMAGES
Daily life in the hutongs, or alleys, of 1980s Beijing was destroyed when many of the hutongs were bulldozed to make way for a glittering transformation of the city over the last three decades. VCG / GETTY IMAGES
01 June, 2017

ON 28 MAY 1989, Lijia Zhang, a twenty-something factory worker, addressed a political rally in the Chinese city of Nanjing. This was unusual for her. A high-school dropout, Lijia had up until then been largely apolitical. But the pro-democracy student demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—going five weeks strong, and days away from massacre—had captured the public imagination. Like many workers, she had followed the events on the radio for weeks. Learning of a nearby demonstration that day, she impulsively decided to attend.

At the rally, Lijia somehow found herself on the podium. Speaking without preparation, through tears, she began modestly enough, expressing solidarity with the students at Tiananmen. The crowd egged her on. Emboldened, she went on to denounce the People’s Republic of China as a “dictatorship,” and even led a chant for democracy. She then ended with these lines by the poet Bei Dao:

Let me tell you, world


If a thousand challenges lie at your feet,

Count me as number one thousand and one.

The event, recounted in Lijia’s charming memoir Socialism is Great!, is emblematic of the intense and unlikely coming together of poetry and politics during the era of reforms that followed Mao’s death in 1976. It is made unlikelier still by the sort of poet Bei Dao is.

Born in 1949, Bei Dao, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkhai, grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Beijing, and studied at an elite boarding school. In 1967, a year into Mao’s Cultural Revolution, he, like millions of other urban youth, was sent to the countryside, where he worked at construction sites and smithies for the next 11 years. By day he mixed cement and cast iron; in the evenings he read and wrote.

Returning to Beijing after Mao’s death, Bei Dao fell in with a group of young poets who were writing highly subjective, often surreal, verse in a conscious rejection of state-approved folkloric and socialist-realist conventions. Published under his editorship in the samizdat magazine Jintian, the new poetry became a counterculture sensation. Poets such as Gu Cheng, Duo Duo and Mang Ke read at packed stadiums; their work was widely quoted on anti-government posters that appeared during the 1978 “Democracy Wall Movement,” a precursor to the 1989 demonstrations. Bei Dao’s “I—do—not—believe!” line was posted on many walls at the time.

The authorities were frightened; they denounced Jintian as “menglong,” meaning “misty” or “obscure.” That rather unthreatening term of censure is revealing. Unlike, say, the dissident poet and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, the Misty Poets did not compose overtly political verse. Bei Dao himself wrote image-driven lyric poems that were often oblique, even cryptic. This was precisely what attracted young people to them. Bei Dao’s complex lines, with their silences and torsions, seemed to chart the complexities of their own suppressed internality. “I write poems of life,” he declared in ‘An End or a Beginning,’: “This universal longing/ Has now become the whole cost of being a man.”

The avant-garde aspect of his project is worth stressing. It reminds us that poetry is only useful, even politically useful, when it tills the open soil of language. Here it does not so much oppose received culture—one radio station can drown out a generation of engagé poets—as entirely transform the cultural imagination: transform not only its notions of war and freedom, but also of love and memory, time and space. Wuer Kaixi, a Uighur student leader active at Tiananmen, has credited Bei Dao with enlightening, “tens, if not hundreds of millions of Chinese with his poems ... With his words Bei Dao truly showed us that concepts like integrity, honesty, courage and, most of all, the longing for freedom are so beautiful and worth living for.”

On 4 June 1989, Chinese troops opened fire on Wuer and his nonviolent comrades at Tiananmen Square. Bei Dao was giving readings in Europe at the time. Becoming an exile overnight, he was not allowed back into China for nearly 13 years. This displacement is the subject he has charted in six volumes of highly burnished verse—one recalls his description of a “match polished into light”—produced from various temporary residences across the world. For a long time, he travelled without a passport. During the first seven years of his exile, his wife and daughter were not allowed to leave China.

Now he has penned a prose memoir: City Gate, Open Up. An impressionistic account of his childhood and youth in Beijing, the book is unlike any he has previously written. In fact, it seems entirely opposed to his sensibility. Though attuned to the pain and disorientation of exile, Bei Dao has always been a forward-looking, even grimly utopian poet. This is perhaps because he lacks a paradise to draw upon: he came of age during the Cultural Revolution, and then witnessed two fledgling democracy movements collapse.

So, why does he now want to return to that painful time? His newfound nostalgia says much about contemporary China, particularly the wholesale erasure that is underway there.

In the last three decades, China has been the site of a great—perhaps the great—economic transformation. Along with spawning megacities, Deng Xiaoping’s free-market reforms enforced, with great insistence, consumerist lifestyles on a collectivist society. It was as if the entire experiment of Chinese socialism was bracketed away; its attendant forms of feeling, desiring and relating to community deemed obsolete overnight.

Against the state-sanctioned amnesia, Bei Dao sets out to recreate the pre-reforms Beijing of the 1950s and 1960s. Thrillingly, he evokes that time as he knew it: through sights and smells, impressions, and emotions, flickers of thought. We might imagine City Gate as a memory palace or history of consciousness. His private life is exquisitely rendered. But the external world eventually interrupts Bei Dao’s account.

TIME PERIODS CLASH in City Gate’s opening scene. It is late 2001, and, in a rare humane gesture, the Chinese state has allowed Bei Dao to briefly visit his seriously ill father in Beijing. Landing in a city “cut off from me for nearly thirteen years,” he looks out his window to find it resembling “a glittering soccer stadium.” He lands; apparatchiks greet him. They then drive him away with “the lights rushing by outside like a tide.”

These brief impressions, comprising a paragraph, are all we see of contemporary Beijing. Abruptly, the narrative moves backwards five decades as Bei Dao remembers how:

When I was a child, nights in Beijing were dark, pitch-dark, a darkness a hundredfold darker than today ... Un- cle Zheng Fanglong lived next door to my family in a two-room residence with only three fluorescent lights: eight watts in the sitting room, three watts in the bedroom, and a shared three-watt bulb that hung from a small window between the kitchen and bathroom.

Literature is a form of freedom. And here Bei Dao is rejecting Beijing’s intense urban transformation. Lacking Marcel’s madeleine, he forces the Proustian recollection. Imagination itself will bring back the past.

That temporal U-turn nicely represents City Gate’s general project. Overwhelmed by a “completely changed” Beijing to which he returned, Bei Dao was inspired to write his memoir. “I would use the written word to rebuild another city, to rebuild my Beijing, I would use my Beijing to refute the Beijing of today,” he declares in City Gate’s foreword.

What exactly happened in the 1990s that so dismayed him? It is difficult, from a distance, to answer that question. China, it is often said, is a shining example of capitalism’s inevitability and glory. Its government introduced market reforms, did away with socialism, and look what happened—the greatest economic boom since Europe’s reconstruction after the Second World War. From a narrowly wonkish perspective, this is true enough. But the social consequences of China’s explosive transformation have been far more complex.

Filling the power vacuum created by Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping—himself a victim of the Cultural Revolution—pushed reforms to heal a country hurting from two decades of shameful mismanagement. Deng first addressed the countryside, introducing land redistribution and structural reforms that, to his immense credit, worked. Success here was crucial since farmers had been the major victims of the Great Famine, a man-made disaster that killed millions of people, between 1958 and 1962. Forced to do things such as using dog-meat broth for irrigation, they had starved to death simply so that the Mao cult could roll on.

In 1985, Deng turned to urban areas, converting state-owned enterprises into small businesses by revoking or revising central production dictates. He simultaneously allowed entrepreneurs to enter the industrial sector. Combined, these changes transformed the country’s socio-economic landscape, introducing, for the first time, a profit-making bourgeoisie.

It was also a profound assault on the Communist state’s metaphysical tenets. From a country organised around collectivist ideals, Maoism and the glories of the proletarian revolution, China became a cutthroat marketplace posting double-digit growth rates. Relying on cold numbers, the Chinese state framed liberalisation as a triumph. (Their “Chinese Miracle” is our “India Shining.”) But this is only half the story. Along with alleviating poverty, Deng’s urban reforms also created lurid levels of inequality. “Let some people get rich!” he famously announced. What about the others?

They can be found in the extraordinary films of Jia Zhangke. Jia follows lower middle-class provincials who try, and largely fail, to find a place for themselves in their country’s post-liberalisation economic order. Their desolation is twofold. First, they are appalled by towns and cities where money has subsumed all moral values. Then, as a bitter consolation, they learn that the so-called free market has no place for “backward” people such as them. Caught between epochs, they end their journeys in sprawling shanty towns, cut off from their families, eking out a living on the lowest rungs of the service industry. (The parallels with India are unsettling; if Jia ever came to Bollywood, he would make films about maids, drivers, bar dancers.)

More apocalyptically, the novelist Yu Hua connects the spiritual and economic dimensions of China’s transformation. As he sees it, revolutionary political energies, unleashed by Mao, have now finally been channelled into the marketplace. In his essay collection China in Ten Words, Yu wrote that he wanted to emphasise the “parallel between the sudden appearance of myriad rebel headquarters at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution”—when rival factions of the communist cadre fought over competing interpretations of Mao’s dictates—“and the rapid emergence of the private economy: in the 1980s, Chinese people replaced their passion for revolution with a passion for making money, and all at once there was an abundance of private businesses.” Futuristic cityscapes, five-star hotels: the rest is well known.

For Yu, born in 1960, and Jia, born in 1970, Deng’s reform era was a watershed experience. Their response towards his programme turned from hope, to disappointment, and then to horror, as China’s new economy charged ahead without any real political change. An active participant in Acts 1 and 2, Bei Dao had missed that story’s conclusion. In exile through the 1990s, he finally faced it in 2001, much like a time traveller would.

IN CITY GATE, Beijing does not make Bei Dao. Instead of placing his life story within the context of a city—like, say, Orhan Pamuk does in his memoir Istanbul—he treats the city as an extension of his life. Beijing is what he makes of it—or, rather, what he knows of it: which, for the boy who inhabits the book, is both a lot and not very much.

The line “I—do—not— believe!” from one of Bei Dao’s poems appeared on many posters during the 1978-79 anti-government “Democracy Wall” movement in Beijing and other Chinese cities. AP PHOTO

On the one hand, he knows very little about Beijing’s history, its political or economic situation, his neighbours’ class backgrounds, even his parents’ jobs. In that sense, City Gate is an intensely personal account. On the other hand, the boy has astonishing powers of perception, and takes a loving interest in the sort of day-to-day sensual phenomena that most adults—and most memoirists—entirely miss.

Bei Dao recreates the Beijing of hutongs by recalling telling details of smells, sounds and moments that are ineffably sensual. His memoir is like a catalogue of forgotten pleasures. VCG / GETTY IMAGES

That opening discussion of light bulbs is a case in point. Stunned by the ubiquity of electric lighting, Bei Dao wheels away to a time when Beijing was much darker, calmer. The point is not to criticise the present; Bei Dao is responding to something more ineffably sensual. Electrification has changed the experience of Beijing. Accordingly, he immerses us in a lost experience:

Back then streetlamps in Beijing were scarce; many hutong alleys and lanes didn’t even have a single one, and if there were any, each one would be separated by thirty or fifty meters of darkness and only illuminated the small area immediately below it ... For the night traveler, streetlamps are needed more for steeling nerves than for illumination. The night traveler rides her bicycle, whistles a faint melody, ding-dingrings her bell.

Darkness is an inconspicuously salient aspect of life—the sort of thing you only recognise when it is gone, and perhaps not even then, though its loss changes you. Most non-Westerners of a certain age have walked through streets permanently patterned with darkness. But only a poet could observe this diffuse sensation, retain it within him, and express it precisely decades later. It is the sort of telling detail that saves a memoirist much storytelling and analysis. More importantly, it is a phenomenology of a lost era. You are getting object and subject, world and poet.

City Gate is organised around loci of such sensation, with chapters such as ‘Light and Shadow,’ ‘Smells,’ ‘Sounds,’ ‘Swimming,’ ‘Furniture’ and ‘Raising Rabbits.’ This sort of non-linear structure in a memoir is unfamiliar to Western and Indian readers, but it does have Chinese antecedents. “The most beautiful autobiography in Chinese,” Bei Dao’s sometime translator Eliot Weinberger once wrote, “Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life (1809), is organised by emotion: the delights of travel, the sorrows of misfortune, the pleasures of leisure.”

The form serves Bei Dao well. Instead of parading a familiar sequence of events, City Gate jumps forwards and backwards, from one glittering impression to another. Though somewhat dizzying at first, the associative logic comes to feel more true to memory than a conventional story.

For example, all characters, Bei Dao’s parents included, are introduced in medias res—which makes sense, since parents do not introduce themselves before floating into our reveries. Similarly, almost no social context is provided. In general, City Gate hews very close to the undulations of Bei Dao’s consciousness. In more intense moments, it even casts aside its narrator to fully inhabit the perspective of childhood. The results can be ravishing:

Waking up, ceiling bright with the reflected light of a heavy snowfall. Warm air from the heater stirs the curtains as the window frame blurs with the light pouring in, making it seem as if a train is slowly, ever so gently, moving forward, taking me to a faraway place. I linger in bed until my parents rush me out. ... A heavy snow turns the city into a mirage, as if gazing into one face of a looking glass. In a flash the glass will smash and shatter, mud splashing every- where. ... I burst into the classroom as the school bell rings.... In the gloominess, the teacher’s silhouette turns, chalk dust flies up, the numer- als on the blackboard seem to fade. The teacher raises her pointer at me and shouts, “Hai! Yes, YOU—are you deaf?”

This fantastic passage, a prose poem really, accomplishes pages of narrative work in a few lines. (It also shows how fleet-footed the New Directions translation, by Jeffrey Yang, is.) In the quirks of the boy’s perception, for example, we sense his precocious spiritual longings. Most children dream of escaping into a faraway place. But that strangely compelling image—the room turning into a train compartment—spatialises, and thus temporarily reveals, the continuous journey we are all making towards the beyond. With a light touch, Bei Dao then contrasts his cosmic dreams with rather more everyday habits: sleeping late, playing with snow. That contrast in turn represents how close, and often indistinguishable, the sublime and the silly can be in childhood.

Most importantly, this recollection does not seem willed or constructed. Rather, we have the sense of spontaneously reliving the past. In other words, it is a perfectly Proustian recollection: sensual, immersive, and all the more impressive for not involving a cake.

City Gate is an ocean of such recollections. Not all of them are as sublime. In fact, the book is a riot of sticky, icky, earthy, gooey and often rancid tastes and smells. Consider this description of a government pool: “As we swam, we’d bob up and down in the smells of formalin, bleaching powder, urine, bob up and down between the boisterous din of people, with a moment’s serenity underwater.” Or his claim that “Dust is the commander in chief of all odors, making one’s mouth parched, tongue dry, throat a smoky soreness, mood foul.” Or that the taste of cod liver oil “brought the loneliness of the ocean’s abyss.”

The approach owes to Bei Dao’s knowledge that all sensations, when properly inhabited, yield vital life lessons. His descriptions are also crucial from a historical perspective. On an official level, the Chinese state creates amnesia by rewriting history; on a practical level, it does so by bulldozing neighbourhoods. Monstrous as they are, these practices can be understood. And the performance artist Ai Weiwei can legibly dramatise them by breaking fake Han dynasty vases on video.

In City Gate, Bei Dao makes a subtler, quieter and more artistically effective intervention. It is creative in two senses. First, City Gate speaks the language of private imagination, not public discourse. Where Ai addresses his censors, Bei Dao treats a loss few could articulate—that of sensations. Second, his memoir builds an imaginative city that readers can actually inhabit, much like his early poetry creates concepts worth living for.

THE TROUBLE IS THAT BEIJING in the 1950s and 1960s was not entirely habitable. Bei Dao makes concessions to this truth every now and then. His technique is to represent historical traumas as brisk synecdoches. The Great Famine, for instance, becomes the lurid drama of his pet rabbits being cooked by his parents (they cannot afford to feed the pet, and can barely afford to feed themselves). The Great Leap Forward becomes “a small blast furnace... built in the vacant area in front of building no. 8.” The Chinese state’s surveillance system is a stash of “illegal” magazines and novels found in his father’s hidden attic library. These episodes are poignant enough since the larger public events did not really affect Bei Dao. But the Cultural Revolution is another story.

Bei Dao was 17 years old when Mao unleashed his chaos. In City Gate, he mentions the exact date. He adds, immediately, that he was “at Beijing High No. 4—in the throes of a math-physics-chemistry crisis, final exams around the corner.” Exams are cancelled; school is closed. And so, “the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution seemed like a carnival.”

Bei Dao spent more than a dozen years in exile as a result of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. When he returned to Beijing in 2001, he could barely recognise his native city. ADRIAN COOK / WRITER PICTURES / AP PHOTO

This is meant as a joke. And it is funny. You cannot be straight-faced about such an event. Unhappily, that deadpan tone more or less persists throughout his account. City Gate follows Bei Dao until he turns 20, when he is sent to the countryside. Those last three years occupy a good part of his memoir, especially its latter half, where proceedings turn more narrative. Yet, he makes no meaningful attempt to analyse the revolution, or even seriously reckon with his own participation in it. In fact, despite a few representative episodes (kidnappings, public shouting matches) one emerges with little sense of what life was like at the time.

The omission is particularly troubling when Bei Dao plays an active role in violence. Early in the revolution, for instance, he convenes a “struggle session” with some friends from his building. They drag an aged neighbour from his house, shave his head and force him to humiliate himself with self-criticisms about his alleged role in the anti-Mao Kuomintang army. Then, they lock him in a basement.

It should be a shameful memory. But Bei Dao’s attitude towards it is understated and pious:

After that, bumping into him on the street was like meeting a ghost; I tried to give him as wide a berth as possible. Many years later I happened to read Golding’s Lord of the Flies: his bold vi- sion, alas, had been a ruthless reality for us.

After that, bumping into him on the street was like meeting a ghost; I tried to give him as wide a berth as possible. Many years later I happened to read Golding’s Lord of the Flies: his bold vision, alas, had been a ruthless reality for us.

The dissonance partly stems from form: since City Gate is non-linear, there is not much room for sustained narrative analysis. But the larger issue is that of intention. Bei Dao’s book is a response to post-reform China’s rapacious development, which filled the cultural and moral vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution. A real reckoning with the present would have to take this continuity into account. Bei Dao knows this. Much of his later poetry gets its energy from the tension between a profound desire to return to the past—which, since he is an exile, equates to a return home—and a bitter wisdom that such a return is impossible, and, in fact, ill-advised. The options are well represented in ‘Going Home,’ from his collection Unlock (2000). Here is Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong’s translation:

Going home, useless hope

takes back its wisp of smoke

my road runs parallel

to the privacy of a mouse

the past makes me anxious

it is a tuning fork of lightning

that hidden instrument

trapping a forgotten hand

yet the pressure of this moment

comes from a deeper blue

turning the corner I examine

heaven’s book and the printing of the sea

I watch myself going home

passing those nighttime toys

where brightness ends

shouting and wine glass coincide

The flame of nostalgia is extinguished before the first line; it has no place in the inner well where poetry, and our true selves, reside. Yet the poet is not dismissive of the past. Though wary of its dangerous illusions (“wisp of smoke”; “hidden instrument”) he also recognises a more fundamental need for human continuity that lies behind them. “The pressure” from the hidden “deeper blue” flame driving this poem, and driving the poet’s feeling, is not nostalgia but the swelling awareness that our present comprises all that came before it. In that sense, the past is not only attractive but unavoidable.

Having negotiated these pitfalls, the poet returns to the place “where brightness ends”—a reference to a darker, remembered Beijing—to see, once again, what happened there. The final line is exquisitely menacing. Is it a party where people are fighting—a dark pun on the Party? Is it that violence and joy are themselves inextricable? There is no final answer. The past in itself is shown not to answer the poet’s deepest questions. He might return there from time to time, as he does brilliantly in City Gate, but salvation, or at least the hope for it, lies in the future tense.