The Misty Poets: An introduction

This great guest post comes from a friend. Over the next few days she’ll be introducing her research on the Misty Poets. If you are a grad student working on a China related topic please contact Tom about the possibility of introducing here.

“Misty”is the title conferred upon a group of poets known during the Democracy Movement (1976-1980)for their unique style. Some, such as Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei’s father, called their work “obscure” (古怪), even poisonous.[1] At the very least, it was certainly daring.

So daring, in fact, that three of the leading Misty poets were exiled for inspiring the Tiananmen youth. Misty poet Bei Dao was not even in China when the demonstrations occurred, but he was nonetheless not allowed back for twenty years, since his poems appeared on banners at Tiananmen Square. Other well-known poets include Gu Cheng, Mang Ke, Shu Ting, and Duo Duo, all of whom were self-educated during the Cultural Revolution and thus considered themselves members of the Lost Generation. They became well-known amongst educated reading circles in 1978 through the publication Today《今天》.

Today published nine issues and four books before Deng tightened the reins on freedom of speech and publication. The first issue appeared on the Democracy Wall, a stone wall at Xidan in Beijing where discussions on reform were posted. Today in particular embodied the realization of new aesthetic principles – nothing new to Western or Taiwanese audiences, but unprecedented in Mainland Chinese literary history.

The thrust of Today was an apolitical expression of soul-searching. One of the most quoted Misty poems is by Gu Cheng, called “A Generation” (“一代人”):

The black night has given me black eyes
And I use them to find the light.

Scholars commonly agree that this poem is a reference to the Cultural Revolution. How could Today therefore claim to be apolitical? In reality, it couldn’t. Even apolitical sentiment is a political statement in itself. Given the politically charged climate of China at that time, let alone in Beijing, one would be hard-pressed to find any intellectually active person without a political bent.[2]

It was therefore only suitable that the writers who inspired the Tiananmen Square Generation be punished with exile.

Gu Cheng, the writer of “A Generation,” was among the Misty Poets exiled after ’89. The authorities, however, could not have arranged his perverted demise any better than how it unfolded naturally.

As a child, Gu Cheng’s family suffered exile in the countryside for having been of the intellectual class. His playwright father raised pigs, and Gu Cheng cultivated a lifelong love for nature. This passion for wildlife led him to spend his exile on a secluded New Zealand island. It was there that he indulged in his sexual fantasies by establishing his personal “woman kingdom” (“女儿国”) with his wife and girlfriend. He refused to learn English, lest it cloud his Chinese abilities, and thus relied on his English-speaking wife for everything – even purchasing condoms for him and his girlfriend. He was eventually driven crazy(er) after his girlfriend ran away, and he began to suspect that his wife was cheating on him. He axed her to death and then hanged himself in the back yard – but not before telling his sister, their next-door neighbor, what he was about to do. She did nothing to stop him.[3]

Gu Cheng is relatively well-known in China thanks to the Hong Kong film made in 1994 after his suicide, A Poet (《顾城别恋》). As for the movie, the acting was decent enough and the cast of characters dreadfully attractive, but everything about its production was obviously contrived to expose his manic perversion, from the alluring gazes of every young female character to the equally unimaginative script. The only character with depth was the wife, who thankfully dropped the sweet girl-next-door persona after the “early” scenes and adeptly evolved into a troubled but tolerant spouse – the sort of character who makes you wonder if the actress had to go on Prozac following the movie’s release. Everyone else was a caricature, comprising a sensationalist story that could only be made into an equally sensationalist movie.[4] The production fits in snugly with the CCP’s ideal projection of a Democracy Movement advocate’s inevitable demise – and this was made in Hong Kong even before it was returned to China. You can watch the whole thing, pornographic scenes and all (despite China’s ban on such materials), on any major Chinese video site.

The Misty poets themselves are a diverse group of personalities, in my opinion. I have had the honor of meeting one of them already, and continue to research their lives and works for my Master’s thesis. Gu Cheng undoubtedly has the most tabloid-friendly story of those mentioned, but he is by no means the only one of interest.

It was with sadly accurate prophecy that historian Jeffrey Kinkley proclaimed that the works of the Misty Poets, while wonderfully innovative, were bound to remain in an ivory tower lest China’s entire education level be raised.[5] I recently asked a Chinese classmate – a graduate student – to take a look at my thesis, and he professed embarrassment to having never heard of the Misty Poets. He had, however, heard of a pro-democracy poet-in-exile who became an ax-murderer in 外国 (waiguo, a non-Chinese country).

This friend is a master’s student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and is currently writing her thesis on China’s Misty poets. She also blogs at

[1] In the Poison Weeds campaign of 1983 (毒草运动), non-conformist writers were criticized and jailed for writing outside the ideological framework. Ai Qing thus may have been criticizing out of necessity, as it was expected of his generation of previously persecuted intellectuals to criticize the new poets, lest they also face a second round of persecution.
[2] I use the word “active” a little liberally here; what I mean is someone beyond your average Joe who chugs along the viaduct of protective ideology. See the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless.”
[3] For a personal testimony on the events, see: Anne-Marie Brady, “Dead in Exile: Life and Death of Gu Cheng and Xie Ye.” Spring 2007.
[4] Yes, filmmakers out there, that is a challenge.
[5] Jeff Kinkley. After Mao: Chinese Literature and Society (1978-1981). 216.

6 responses to “The Misty Poets: An introduction”

  1. This is very interesting. Can you give us links to more of the Misty Poet’s works online (in the original Chinese or in English translation)?

  2. David Wolf says:

    Reblogged this on The Peking Review and commented:
    Read this superb introduction to one of the first literary movements to emerge in China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

  3. […] continued from “The Misty Poets: an introduction“ […]

  4. […] The Misty Poets: An introduction ( […]

  5. […] About Misty Poets — Learn about the group of poets who rose to popularity during the Democracy Movement (1976-1980) in China. […]

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