A Culture Amiss
Words are the voice of the heart - Confucius
Bei Dao (北島) is a modern Chinese poet who made an impact on international poetry as we know it today. His poems have strong political aspects to them that defy the Communist Chinese government he is much opposed to. Yet without knowing the history of China and what its government entails, one would not understand the deeper meaning to Bei Dao’s poetry. Though his work is easily translated, renderings often lose the cultural defiances that are clear to the Chinese culture, but not necessarily lucid to other cultures. One would have to research the history of Communism in China in order to adequately experience Bei Dao’s most famous poem, “The Answer.”
Born Zhao Zhenkai (趙振開), Bei Dao was born on August 2, 1949 in Peking, also known as Beijing. Bei Dao is a surname that translates to “north island.” This indicates he is an isolated individual, that lives in northern China. Still alive today, Bei Dao’s work has been translated into over 25 different languages.
In the 1960’s, a teenage Bei Dao was a member of the Chinese Red Guard. This was an enthusiastic group of young people who beat, bullied, and arrested those who were not sufficiently enthusiastic about the communist society (“Dao Bei”). This cruelty moved Bei Dao to realize that this cultural revolution could only lead to more tyranny. From this experience, Bei Dao began creating poetry. In 1976, Bei Dao took part in the Tiananmen Incident: a threat to the Cultural Revolution. Triggered by the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, this event took place on the traditional day of mourning for China. Public displays of mourning had been forbidden which resulted in an outcry from the public. Chinese leaders saw this as a threat to the Cultural Revolution and proceeded to take action with the militia, using violence to drive protesters away (McDougall 2). “A literary echo of the democracy movement, there were arguments about it’s nature and desirability” (3). From this experience, Bei Dao wrote his most famous poem “The Answer” (回答, spoken Huida). This poem was also the official debut of shadows poetry, a form of poetry Bei Dao and fellow poets constructed.
Shadows poetry was created to evade the harsh censorship of the Chinese government. There is a deliberate obscurity in the phrasing of the poems (“Dao Bei”). It concentrates on shadowy images such as twilight and darkness, night and mist. Connections between images and ideas are often not stated, but are implied. These poems often rely heavily on imagery that is largely private, such as the shattering events of the Cultural Revolution (McDougall 8). This was the first major political activity these young writers experienced. The revolution also played a part in driving these writers away from political sloganeering to intimate developments of dreams and hopes. Shadows poetry is also known for its bizarre imagery and structure. Shadow poems are printed without punctuation therefore making it unapparent where sentences end and where the subject changes. Unlike traditional Chinese poetry, these poems do not have a set number of characters and the syntax is frequently unclear.
Bei Dao’s poetry consists of various aspects that make him an international wonder. He writes mostly in free verse, allowing his images to control the course of the poem. Being a city dweller, Bei Dao uses the city as a backdrop to most of his poems in regard to imagery (McDougall 12). Street lights, railings, traffic controls, and neon lights are amongst the images one can find within his poetry. Bei Dao also applies the natural world to his poems. McDougall states that “it offers a sense of tranquility, refuge, and repose to his poetry” (12). Yet, there is little that is specifically Chinese about the imagery in Bei Dao’s poetry. The city and nature both belong to the universal world. Though to Bei Dao, the city and nature are...
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