Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 3, June-August, 1997
The group responsible for inciting this spirit of rebellion founded and contributed to the Today magazine during its short period of publication from 1978 to 1980. Three of the most famous writers of that period were Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, and Shu Ting, best known for their so-called "misty" poetry. In the broad sense of the word, it means "vague," "indirect," and "elusive." Despite the diverse stylistic approaches, three common themes recur--individualism and self expression, human relationship with the natural worlds, and the struggle against oppression.
In the late 1970s, Zhao Zhenkai (Bei Dao), then an aspiring poet, got together frequently with friends and colleagues and talked about starting a literary magazine that would give voice to the emerging authors. The future of China's cultural tradition would rest in their hands. At that time, the Cultural Revolution was just ending and the situation was volatile, with various politicians hoping to be Mao Tsetung's successor. Deng Xiaoping was poised to receive this honor, and in order to gain the support of the people, Deng fully endorsed the Democracy Wall Movement in 1978. This movement allowed the people to express their grievances with the government and their discontent with the outcome of the Cultural Revolution.
Under such circumstances, Zhao Zhenkai's plan for a literary journal flourished. The pages of the first issue of Today (Jiantian) were among the initial writings on the Wall, and from 1978 to 1980, the magazine continued publishing, giving new talents a voice to be heard. Publishing under the pseudonym Bei Dao, Zhao Zhenkai's literary career took off.
In 1980 Deng Xiaoping came into power, and he put a stop to the "spiritual pollution" caused by this magazine. The writers then had to take their work underground. In an interview with Siobhan La Pianan (1994, online), Bei Dao noted that there were periods during the next eight or nine years when his poetry was published in official journals as a source for discussion and debate but the attitude of the government towards his work was so unpredictable that it was hard to know how it would be taken. Finally, in 1989 the magazine resumed publication, this time out of Stockholm. Bei Dao and Gu Cheng were banished from China, giving them the unfortunate position of being writers in exile. Shu Ting still lives incognito in southern China. (See "Writers-in-exile after Tiananmen," Road to East Asia.)
All these poets have a strong sense of self and repeatedly focus on this aspect in their work. It transmits spontaneously personal feelings and a desire for free expressions as an individual rather than as a group or a nation. In this way, their work appears to be far less politically motivated since they do not focus on class struggle or class character.
The desire for self-expression is obvious in Shu Ting's poem "Gifts," anthologized in Trees on the Mountain:
As for Bei Dao, he shouts out his personal vow in "the Answer," also anthologized in Trees on the Mountains:
Compared with Bei Dao, Gu Cheng expresses himself in a more subdued way, using nature to demonstrate the need for a separation of the individual from tradition. In his poem "Smoking," (in UNDERSKY UNDERGROUND, trans. by Gregory B. Lee, 1992), Gu Cheng writes:
Gu Cheng writes about nature and celebrates its beauty. Shu Ting does the same in "Gifts," in which she dreams of herself as a nurturing pond to be sucked "dry" by the willows and ferns. The poem ends with "All that I feel/ Is the gift of the earth." An appreciation for nature's gifts is common among the three poets as there is a certain fascination with all aspects of creation, be it by the hand of God or by the hand of man. Gu Cheng has captured this theme well in his poem "For My Revered Master Hans Andersen" (Trees on the Mountain, 211), in which story telling is compared to the craftsmanship of a carpenter. It involves a gentle hand, one that can work with the wood, not against its grain, to create an art piece:
A glimmer of hope remains amid all the carnage and bloodshed in a poem by Shu Ting (Trees on the Mountain, 63), which delivers a positive message laced with melancholy. She writes: "Not all souls/ can be trampled underfoot/ to rot in the mud." Although hope is a heavy load to bear, the poet chooses to cherish it. These conflicting emotions are evident in Bei Dao's work as well. He mixes hope with cynicism in "All," which asks the reader to re-evaluate our perception of hope and happiness: "All hope carries annotations/ all faith carries groans" (Trees on the Mountain, 62).
References to freedom and the need to expose dishonesty and cruelty are important elements in the works of the trio. Although the three poets share similar preoccupations with the human condition, their poems express personal feelings rather than ideas on political issues. A spiritual journey, a look into the soul, and reflections on a single thought are recurring themes, which at times are inseparable from freedom of expression, the bond between humanity and nature, and the determined spirit to combat oppression.
La Piana, Siobahn. "Visiting Artist Bei Dao: Poet in Exile." An interview published online by International Institute, 1994.
Lee, Gregory B. trans. Undersky Underground. London: Wellsweep Press, 1992.
Soong, Stephen C. and John Minford, ed. Trees on the Mountain: an Anthology of New Chinese Writing. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1986.
Tong, Shen and Marianne Yen. Almost a Revolution. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
Wai, Isabella. "Writers-in exile after Tiananmen: An Interview with Oliver Kramer." Road to East Asia (June- August, 1996). Online.
Illustration by Julie Shim