- Distances of Poetry:An Introduction to Bei Dao
"A poet," writes Bei Dao, "must establish his world through his poems—a sincere and unique world, a world of justice and humanity."1 But what is a world? Though this is a philosophical question, it is posed by Bei Dao with an intrinsically poetic rationality and recalls what has been a recurrent theme in both ancient and modern Chinese poetry: that "to create worlds" is a basic requirement of poetic subjectivity.2 A "world" for Bei Dao is a category internal to poetry, elaborated at a distance from philosophy. "Justice and humanity" are similarly construed and, far from designating the substance of "man," they are rather stakes for poetry to delineate with an independent mode of thinking.
The world of Bei Dao is populated by various figures, among them a "Northern island": Bei means "north" and Dao, "island." This pseudonym was invented by the poet Mang Ke, Bei Dao's friend and cofounder with [End Page 91] him in 1978 of Jintian (Today), the independent review that opened a new space of intellectual possibility for poetry and literature in China.3 The pseudonym identified the main quality that makes Bei Dao an emblematic figure in contemporary Chinese poetry: a subjective persistence in conditions of the greatest isolation and desertification, even at the risk of becoming a submerged island. The following lines from "Boat Ticket," one of Bei Dao's early poems, sketch a sort of self-portrait:
the island that rises from the ebbing tide solitary as the heart lacks the soft shadow of bushes and chimney smoke4
Contemporary Poetic Configuration
Bei Dao displays a persistent insularity and a quiet stubbornness, qualities that are shared by various other personalities that comprise what can be called a contemporary Chinese poetic configuration. The establishment of Jintian was the foundational event of this configuration, as it made available to readers a vast underground poetry that had had, until then, no outlet in the established publishing apparatus.5 At the time of its founding, young poets faced not only an iniquitous lack of freedom in publishing, but also an intellectual crisis concerning issues of Chinese cultural consistency. Despite the vigilance of the repressive apparatus, these poets displayed a rare capacity for self-organization and public intervention, supported by a remarkable level of literary scholarship that was, in most cases, acquired through nonacademic curricula. Jintian exposed a major discontinuity in the realm of artistic and poetic thinking by revealing a subjective capacity at the edge of a void or, more precisely, the courage to approach this void as the opening of new possibilities for thought.
In the late seventies, the question of "thinking" in the Chinese mother tongue was overwhelmed by the chasm opened by the Cultural Revolution. In that chasm, the group of Jintian poets exposed the saturation of an entire network of cultural conditions for thinking in poetry and the arts, whereas in the artistic and literary discourses grounded in "revolutionary culture" [End Page 92] those young poets could see only anemic simulacra of thought, refractory to any artistic invention.
Although it persisted in official discourse after the seventies, the framework of a didactic vision of arts that was typical of socialism had collapsed, inexorably discredited by the effects of the Cultural Revolution. This vision had been meant to raise mass aesthetic consciousness and social morality, but in fact it shaped consensual opinions about state policies. This cultural condition for the arts having been exhausted, the first issue at stake in the late seventies was the urgent need for an independent intellectual space for poetry: a space to be invented in conditions of greatest indigence for cultural references, established models, and general theories.6
In the last two decades, the problem of such an independent space for poetry has undergone various refinements and nonlinear reshapings. Current periodizations of the contemporary Chinese poetic scene—those separating menglong and post-menglong—make sense only as processes of invention and reinvention of that intellectual space and not as cultural labels of alternative poetic sects in reciprocal competition.7 In the words of Mo Mo, a poet of the so-called post-menglong generation...