Bei Dao began writing poetry in the early 1970s. He is seen as the figurehead of the first generation of poets in the People’s Republic of China to free themselves from the orthodoxy of state-controlled literature. In 1989, Bei Dao was accused of helping to incite the student revolt in Tiananmen Square, and forced into exile.
He now lives in the United States. In 1994, when he tried to revisit Beijing, he was refused access to his native country and language.
Since then he has continued to write his slender, self-assured poems, about love and death, of course, and the characteristic, enigmatic scenes he encounters – but also about exile, a theme that seamlessly links up with his earlier work. Even though Bei Dao does not adhere to strict metre, rhyme patterns or tonal contrasts, his recent work is at times classical Chinese in style: lapidary, with direct juxtaposition of images and very little noise in between. This minimalism in form corresponds to a minimalism in content. The poems are strongly associative – owing, in considerable measure, to the flexibility of Chinese grammar, which offers ample scope for ambiguity – and sometimes succeed in staying afloat as wholes made up of more or less separate components, without settling. The question of qhether this condition is a reflection of the poet's life need not obscure our literary experience of the work.
The Australian Sinologist Simon Patton, echoing the words of other reviewers of hermetic poetry, has said about Bei Dao's work: "The text compels attention, while it defies understanding." It is an essential feature of Bei Dao's poetic art, which has by now won worldwide recognition. His work has been widely translated; collections translated into English include At the Sky's Edge: Poems 1991–1996 (2001) and Midnight's Gate (2005).
[Bei Dao took part in the Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam in 2001 and again in 2009. This text was written for these occasions.]
Bei Dao reading
Bei Dao on Lyrikline
The Rose of Time: New & Selected Poems by Bei Dao reviewed on the New York Times blog