continued from “The Misty Poets: an introduction“
Like many China-watchers, I cannot tell you when the better part of my day became dedicated to blog-reading. Background to my everyday routine is the murmur of botched lawsuits, human rights violations, incompetent local governments, nationalist rhetoric, internet memes, and ridiculous acts of indulgence committed by 富二代 (fu’erdai – second-generation rich). Sometime in the past year I’ve started to slouch a little, as if the weight of China’s unpublished atrocities is resting on me, the reader and the blogger.
Somewhere in the malaise I found Bei Dao. The article – whichever one it was – had said that he was exiled after his poem “Proclamation” appeared on banners at Tiananmen. As an impulsive gesture of technological footnoting, I opened another tab and Google’d the poem. It read:
Perhaps the final hour has come
I leave behind no testament
Only a pen, to give to my mother.
In a time without heroes,
I only want to be an individual.
The horizon of peace
Separates the order of the living and dead.
I can only choose the heavens
And I will not kneel on the ground
Allowing the executioner to look tall
The better to obscure the wind of freedom.
From the bullet holes of the stars
There will seep forth a blood-red dawn.
It is easy to see how the poem could inspire thousands of post-communist era youth. “Perhaps the final hour has come.” This single statement sets the tone remarkably well. Here is an unnamed individual whose world has come to an end, and he meets it with unbreakable calm. “In a time without heroes, I only want to be an individual.” Bei Dao hits chords of both generational abandonment and individualism – a single note that rings vibrato with the generation who missed out on an education in order to labor in the countryside. This was Bei Dao’s generation, ten years senior to the Tiananmen kids, but of similar mindset. It’s as if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were to despair over the fate of the dumb, driven cattle!
And yet, there is something to die for: the act of dying for something. To die with principle – to become a martyr – implies that there is something greater than the mundane, something confirmed only through self-sacrifice. “I will not kneel on the ground, Allowing the executioner to look tall, The better to obscure the wind of freedom.” The poem ends with imagery of a red dawn seeping through bullet holes. Bei Dao is known for the last two lines of his poems being the most compelling, and here he prophesies the violence of self-sacrifice with spooky accuracy.
Had you told me after reading this poem for the first time that I would be spending my next Chinese New Year with his family in Hong Kong, I would have been very angry. Sometimes fate works out so perfectly that there is no way to understand it. I would have been furious if someone had broken my own fate with such surreal news.
At the time (last summer), Bei Dao’s poetry stewed in my mind as it took on a role of supporting actor in the background play of my everyday routine. I taped “Proclamation” to the shelf above my desk, and it noiselessly proclaimed over my head as I continued research on urban development for my Master’s thesis. The project was then progressing at a slow but metered pace. I had no intention of changing direction. In truth, it was turning out to be a case of 当局者迷，旁观者清(those in the game are lost, but spectators see it clearly).
“What do you really like to study?” my history professor asked. He makes a profession out of studying that through which he lived in Nanjing. He teaches one of the most renowned classes at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Chinese history since 1949. His research on Nanjing University during the Cultural Revolution has been acclaimed abroad, and he can still bring class to a stand-still by saying, “As I remember it…”
Somehow I felt unqualified to even answer that question. “Modern China….and Chinese literature, I guess.” Chinese societal issues, the passion of the 1980s youth generation, democracy, the modern hero–the martyr! A good story about a poet-in-exile.
“What authors in particular?”
I thought of the poem above my desk. A lustful impulse seized me, as if seeing an exit to a mediocre relationship to be with a much more attractive partner. My professor didn’t even ask to be my advisor – like an eager bridesmaid, he insisted on being the Maid of Honor.
Opportunity unfolded like a yellow brick road before me. A former college professor put me in touch with Bei Dao’s friend and translator, Lucas Klein. I was invited to Hong Kong for Bei Dao’s International Poetry Nights conference the next week. I read books, I translated poems, I struggled to find information. I met poets and critics and translators. I met Bei Dao.
I am nowhere near being an expert on the Misty Poets (yet), and still I see a window of opportunity through which I can do some public service on their behalf. Although their presence in China was short-lived, the Misty poets nevertheless deserve their proper place in China’s literary and historical narrative. The greatest danger of being a martyr is that your sacrifice will not be remembered — or worse, misunderstood.
It was to this end that Bei Dao gifted me a stack of first-hand materials after our New Year’s dinner. He explained what needed to be discussed about the Misty Poets; what the other researches had overlooked or misconstrued; what hadn’t been done before.
Am I up for the job? You bet.
This friend is a master’s student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and is currently writing her thesis on China’s Misty poets. Previously, she graduated from Middlebury College with a joint degree in Chinese Language and Literature and Religious Studies. She also blogs at http://www.chinab.org.