It makes sense that one of China’s great poets of dissent and perennial Nobel contender would be as as old as the People’s Republic (PRC). Zhao Zhenkai was born to a Beijing couple a mere two months before Mao Zedong stood within Tiananmen Square to declare the victorious establishment of the PRC. Poet and party came of age side by side: as an adolescent Zhao starved during the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t stop him from joining Chairman Mao’s paramilitary boy scouts, the Red Guard. When dissent began molding his zealotry, Zhao was sent away from Beijing for “reeducation” and instead learned the art of verse and subversion. Zhao returned to Beijing wielding a pen under a newly adopted nom de plume.
As Bei Dao (北岛 “Northern Island”), Zhao co-founded Jintian (今天 “Today”), a poetry journal that, during its two-year run, ushered in a generation of subversive poets who outwitted the PRC’s censorship on artistry with opaque-seeming or “misty” verse. Though the government brought a halt to its activity, this Misty generation would count among China’s most vocal proponents of the Chinese democracy movement. During the protests of Tiananmen Square in 1989, lines from Bei Dao’s poem “Huida” (回答 “The Answer”) were flyered and shouted out. For this insolence among others, the poet who was in Berlin during the protests, would be forbidden to return to his native city for over a decade.
Such is the kind of life primed for memoir, which is what Bei Dao seemingly struck out to write after being allowed to return to Beijing to visit his ailing father in 2001. He had been shocked by the city that greeted him, a city once so hard up for illumination that it fostered a generation defined by short-sightedness, a city that now resembled from his plane window, a “glittering soccer stadium.” As Bei Dao writes in the prefatory to City Gate, Open Up: “Nothing could have prepared me—it was unthinkable—Beijing had completely changed: everything was difficult to recognize, nothing familiar. I was a foreigner in my own hometown.”
First published in China in 2010, City Gate, Open Up is an attempt by Bei Dao to “rebuild” the Beijing of his youth, memories he tones in deep sepia. Stylized after Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer’s Memories, Look at Me, a miniature collection of themed vignettes from the the Swedish poet’s boyhood, Bei Dao cobbles together a similar pastiche of reminiscences, anecdotes, and rendezvous encapsulating his adolescence. Aside from a few remarks on the present and hints of his more activist and writerly past, it’s the countenances of Zhao Zhenkai that he chooses to bring into focus, early images prompted by sensations (light, hunger, sonority) or activities (recreation, pet keeping, school) and many other catalysts that rise up out the ether.
City Gate, Open Up conjures a Beijing in a way any child would recall the home of their youth: by the few locations and people to which they had access. For Zhao, Beijing is a large tenement complex dyslexically named Three Never Hutong Alley and the cluster of schools within walking distance from it. Its citizens are family, friends, neighbors, and various students and faculty. Of the many portraits Zhao paints, it is the one of his father, Zhao Ji Nian, that’s most detailed. A holdout of the Beijing bourgeoisies, Zhao builds a profile of his dad that can be both charming and painful at the same time, noting his tastes for popular literature, the latest gadgetry, and “a romantic temperament, a sharp contrast to the ominous age taking shape around us.”
As Zhao is woefully hungry throughout most of the book, food plays a character’s role. In one moving passage, Zhao’s father gives him “a single mao coin plus a couple of almost-expired ration coupons,” for him to treat himself to a bowl of wonton soup. When Zhao finally has the bowl in front of him, he chooses to savor moment over broth: “My stomach rumbled with hunger, and yet I didn’t immediately pick up my chopsticks.” As if taking a snapshot, he allows himself to take in the scenery—a cauldron of soup being drummed on by the sous chef, and the shop’s “suspended lightbulb [glowing] a faint yellow as a few moths fluttered to and fro.”
For Zhao, that four-year period between the Great Leap Forward (which ends in ‘62), and the Cultural Revolution (which begins in ‘66), is the eye of a large storm—it also perfectly matches Zhao’s teenage years when puberty kicks in and school becomes the center of one’s world. Once a boy of “mediocre grades,” and attention deficiencies, Zhao is accepted into Beijing’s elite Middle School No. 4, along with his close friend Cao Yifan. A pretty cool coincidence for the two boys, were it not for the storm clouds of revolution gathering.
City Gate, Open Up’s narrative hopscotches between different periods of time, until it is made to fall in line (mostly) when Zhao heads off to middle school and the gravity of the Cultural Revolution yanks him out of the last vestiges of youthful innocence. Yanks because things get dark remarkably quick: teachers are mocked and beaten in public; students rebel against each other; there are beatings, dismissals, arrests, and deaths—both by execution and suicide.
Zhao is not immune to being caught up in these occurrences, sometimes with alarming satisfaction. “I imagined them in the fire,” he writes of collecting all of his father’s forbidden books for mandatory burning, “while saddened, I unexpectedly felt a thread of delight.” Later he holds a fellow student hostage, keeping him locked in a basement for two days before releasing him: “Many years later I happened to read Golding’s Lord of the Flies,” he recalls, “his bold vision, alas, had been a bold reality for us.”
Little is said of what really turned Zhao away from this madness and guided him toward becoming the poet he is now. Instead it is these early years of the Cultural Revolution that are his main focus. This may come as a disappointment for anyone looking to read the memoir of Bei Dao and the Misty generation. There may be several reasons for this, most apparent would be censorship, whether state-enforced or self-induced, that would allow Zhao to write a memoir without fearing it would result in a second banishment. Nor is Bei Dao the only thing missing from this work. Because footnotes are scarce, several points of reference, obvious perhaps to people much more versed in China’s history, leave more general readers in the weeds.
Still, the hand of a powerful poet is at work, and while Zhao and his translator Jeffrey Yang keep much of the life of Bei Dao well, misty, the lyricism of Zhao’s prose and the crystalline glint of his imagery approaches the ekphrastic. He nimbly pivots from metaphoric language, equating moods and praise to dragon veins and painted tigers, to lashing claws out with raw emotion. While this sets it up to being a remarkable work, City Gate, Open Up falls short of dazzling, but like a granule of diamond found in a mine, it’s a jeweled piece of the much bigger ore yet to be uncovered.
CITY GATE, OPEN UP
by Bei Dao
translated by Jeffrey Yang
New Directions | 276 pp. | $17.95