Alphabets Upside-down: the voice of Bei Dao

Blue House
translated from the Chinese by Ted Huters and Feng-ying Ming
Zephyr ($13.95)

At the Sky's Edge, Poems 1991-1996
translated from the Chinese by David Hinton and Yanbing Chen
New Directions ($15.95)

translated from the Chinese by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong
New Directions ($13.95)

by Lucas Klein

One has to be patient with Bei Dao's poetry. Most of us know of Chinese poetry only indirectly, from Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Ezra Pound, and others who have attempted to glean from the ancient world something holy or stable in the chaos of today. Bei Dao's China, however, is 1200 years removed from the ethos these American poets have plumbed; thus his poetry should no more resemble that of the Tang Dynasty masters than John Ashbery's should resemble Beowulf. Bei Dao's lines are also not what anyone only familiar with contemporary American poetry would expect to hear: Bei Dao is one of the creators of a new tradition in Chinese poetry, making him seem all the more innovative when placed alongside poets in this language. While some of his lines could be lifted from Paul Celan or César Vallejo, we have here what we want, if not expect, from a translated author of great magnitude: something very foreign. Indeed, Bei Dao's poetry employs a totally different approach to language itself, rendering his work all the more individual. While many readers will find themselves sliding across his poetry, when his poetry catches them its hold is strong.

Bei Dao achieved a name (literally as well as figuratively: Bei Dao, which means North Island, is the author's pen-name) in the '70s, when the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution was turning into a very differently shaped chaos of post-Mao thaw. In 1979 he and a few other poets, notably Mang Ke, founded the first unofficial literary journal to appear in the People's Republic of China, Jintian (Today, shut down by the Chinese government but reborn in the diaspora in 1990, now available at Before long Bei Dao was at the center of a movement, the menglong or Misty Poets, along with friends and fellow Cultural Revolution fallout writers Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, Shu Ting, and Yang Lian.

His fame—or notoriety—began with Jintian's publication of his poem "The Answer," which belts out an apostate's denial of faith:

Let me tell you, world,
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.

I don't believe the sky is blue;
I don't believe in thunder's echoes;
I don't believe that dreams are false;
I don't believe that death has no revenge.

(from The August Sleepwalker, 1988, trans. Bonnie McDougall)

The poem startled Chinese readers, turning Bei Dao into both a popular celebrity and public enemy. In his translator's note to Unlock, Eliot Weinberger refers to "The Answer" as the Chinese Democracy movement's "Blowin' in the Wind": a jaded, disenfranchised "Blowin' in the Wind," with all of Dylan's gravitas coupled with the cynicism of John Lennon singing "I don't believe in Beatles." The poem was shouted at Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, and the poet has not been back to China since.

If "The Answer" was Bei Dao's "Blowin' in the Wind," then the poems in At the Sky's Edge (a re-release of his two '90s books, Forms of Distance and Landscape Over Zero) and Unlock (2000) show Bei Dao at the equivalent of his Blood on the Tracks stage. It is in these volumes that the poet's voice becomes the most internal, the most tightly-woven, and the most Delphic. Part one of At the Sky's Edge, the poems from Forms of Distance, shows the recent exile at his bleakest, as with this stanza from "Midnight Singer":

a song
is the death of a singer
his death-night
pressed into black records
singing over and over and over

The hermetic voice nonetheless emits an unambiguous darkness: for Bei Dao both politically and theoretically, each act of creation turns into an endlessly repeated death, and he cannot help but mourn.

The mixture of obliqueness with emotional accessibility comes from Bei Dao's desire to invent, metaphorically, a new language. In this respect his closest poetic affinities are with Paul Celan; just as Celan worked to break down and resurrect German to cleanse it from the enormity of the holocaust, so has Bei Dao worked to tear Chinese away from Maoist associations and conformist dogma. Indeed, this leads him to perform sometimes stunning poetic gymnastics, moving from classical Chinese sentence patterns to slang to official speech in a single gesture, all the while keeping an eye on a modern Chinese reader's likely associations in an attempt to stretch them. Bei Dao seems to describe his own process at times, for example in "As Far as I Know":

setting out from the accident
I barely reached another country
turning alphabets upside down
to fill every meal with meaning

Even Bei Dao's personal ars poetica fills itself with a metaphor that remains as individual to each of its readers as it is to its author. Speaking to the moments of confusion and crisis in each of us, Bei Dao's lines turn inward, looking back at the accidents he knows we all have faced.

A particularly obscure poem, Landscape Over Zero's "Realm," in which

people chase dogs into history
then excavate
and make them gatekeepers
an old couple turns and hurries away
looking back with a savage gaze

seems to turn on the Communist categorization of capitalists and Nationalists (against whom the Chinese Communists fought a civil war, ending in 1949 when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan) as "dogs." And now these figures, whether Sun Yat-sen or capitalists themselves, are being exalted, causing confusion amongst the older generation, who cannot reconcile themselves to either the past or the present.

The poem, of course, can bloom into an array of differing explanations. Buffeted from dogs to the aged, Bei Dao leads us through a maze with a specific Chinese meaning as well as an open-ended sense relying on the reader's own recollections. While literal-minded readers may grow frustrated with the sealant Bei Dao seems to apply to all his poetry, others will find that understanding is less important, ultimately, than allowing oneself to be touched by the sense—the internal logic and emotion—of the poem.

Other poems in the volume are less drastic in their message of personal despair or historical confusion, delivering a mood as precise—and yet subjective—as any an Imagist might have written, tinged with Bei Dao's own approximation of Surrealism. "Afternoon Notes," for example:

huge breasts on a waitress
strawberry ice cream

an umbrella looks after me politely
sunlight looks after a water-bug

drunkards blow on empty wine bottles
my cigarette and I get dreamy

a siren tightens the horizon
hemming in my time

in the courtyard of a dry water-tap's roar
effortless autumn's risen selflessly

In poems such as this, Bei Dao's invention of language connects itself, outside of politics, beyond Celan to other innovators of language in the 20th century: Pound, Williams, Apollinaire, or Chinese writers of 1919's May Fourth movement Hu Shi or Lu Xun.

The truth of the matter is that for all of Bei Dao's political attention, his literary voice is decidedly apolitical—and yet by concentrating on language above all he initiates a direct relationship with the political regime. The phenomenon of language being steered by politics was alluded to in 1946 by George Orwell, who said, "I should expect to find. . . that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship."

The deterioration of language indeed infected the Chinese when confronted with Mao's elimination of individuality or Deng Xiaoping's mandate to get rich at the expense of nearly all cultural activity. By the time Bei Dao and the Misty poets emerged with their quiet, dark, individual poetry, they were part of a new kind of cultural revolution. These poems' desire to reclaim language is, in fact, no less revolutionary for having no particular agenda.

At times Bei Dao seems aware of this historical paradox, as in Unlock's "Crying":

history has no verbs
verbs are those
trying to push life ahead
shadows push them ahead
toward even darker

Or, somewhat less obliquely, in a poem whose title could stand in for nearly all of Bei Dao's lyrics, "Montage":

gods crane their heads out the window
alone I infiltrate history
infiltrate the crowd
standing around watching a show

Politics are only the elevator music of contemporary Chinese literature, or so novelist Zhang Jie, whose story "Love Must Not Be Forgotten" was at the crest of a wave of late-'70s fiction spurning social realism, has explained. Fading in and out in significance, the politics are always present but never, ultimately, the most important aspect of the work. With Bei Dao the same credo applies. His evolution from Red Guard to political dissident to exile can never leave his poetry innocent of politics, but his voice will always be much more concerned with language as a meaningful entity, with the permanence of literature from start to finish. As he says in "Time and the Road," from Unlock:

set up another stanza like
a dreamless drawer pulled open
all its cracks filled
with lovemaking breath

traffic light marks
the fork of time and the road
this metaphor like a vat of dye
soaks through our clothes
sound of the beginning
color of the end

Bei Dao's essays, compiled in Blue House, also keep the politics at low volume. Certainly the political context—they were translated from the Taiwanese publication, as his post-1986 writing is still deemed unprintable—is important to a full understanding of these pieces, which never fail an opportunity to touch on the stresses of exile. But the force of these essays is their uncovering of details of personality, of recollections from China, of daily interactions, or of pieces of American life most Chinese don't know and to which Americans have long been accustomed. And the whole spectrum of Bei Dao's essays is portrayed in simple, fine language, as open and accessible as his poetry is hermetic; for this reason Blue House may be the perfect place to start in introducing oneself to Bei Dao's Ïuvre.

Divided into four sections, the book opens with a handful of pieces about some of Bei Dao's most prominent friends in the world of international literature—Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Eliot Weinberger, Clayton and Caryl Eshelman, Jonathan Spence, Tomas Transtšmer, and Octavio Paz among them. The section almost reads like a literary gossip column of the day, but it also captures these figures in precise poses indicative of their personalities: Ginsberg as an immense ego of a madman, a warm and sadly moving figure; Snyder as outwardly peaceful as a monk, but with a troubled soul unable to find rest; Weinberger as the Don Quixote of cynicism; Paz as a giant, an "aged lion raising up his head." It also demonstrates each of these figures as some kind of exile: Ginsberg as an exile from his own past; Snyder as an exile from his home civilization and culture; Eshleman as an exile from moderation; Yale Professor Jonathan Spence as an exile—amazingly—from history; Swedish poet Transtšmer, after a stroke, as an exile from his own body.

Trumping metaphoric exile with the exile of reality, Bei Dao's essays then move to China, or more aptly, to Chinese memories revisiting the author in the present. Most readers of literature in the English-speaking world today know of James Joyce's "silence, exile, cunning"; Bei Dao's exile is not voluntary, however, which makes Joyce's trifecta seem quaint. Yet the voice of Blue House is neither overbearing nor self-righteous; Bei Dao wants to go back home, and these essays are semi-fulfillments of his dream. He talks of his friends and heroes from time past with a longing fit for ancient Chinese poetry, but in an even, sometimes stoic tone: "In recalling things past one should never romanticize youth. In those years every one of us was like a lone and angry wolf: suffering, ignorant, selfish and always ready for a fight." And yet when this youth is geographically and sentimentally inextricable from a homeland closed to him for over a decade, we know at what price these words come. "For a Chinese in the West," he writes in the essay "Daughter," "the worst thing is loneliness; a deep sense of isolation. Americans understand this from the time they are born, but we Chinese must learn it. And it is a lesson that cannot be taught; everyone must experience it for themselves."

If the loneliness of a Chinese in the West cannot be taught, at least it can be hinted at, as Bei Dao outlines each of the 15 times he moved between 1989 and 1995 in the essay "Moving." Seemingly the only companion he maintains out of all his contacts and acquaintances in these years of packing and unpacking is a woman he lost contact with years ago, the by-now mythical Maria of Leiden. Perhaps this can reveal the impulse behind the book's title: the "Blue House" is Tomas Tranströt;mer's house in Sweden, but for all its comfort, warmth, and happiness, it can never become home.

And yet, nearly all of these essays end in a final image of transcendent peace. From "God's Chinese Son": "The taxi turned a corner and split off from the moon. The woman put down her camera and began to whistle." Or from "Gao Ertai, Witness": "I watched them, walking hand in hand through the moonless woods, toward the dawn." Or the last words of the book, closing the essay "Reciting": "Sometimes I grow weary when facing an audience. How did our predecessors recite poetry? Raising a cup to the wind, writing verse linked with others, presenting one's sharp feelings on the departure of a friend, birth and death without end."

Chinese is famously difficult to translate into English, with the two languages sharing barely a single cognate. In Blue House, Feng-ying Ming and Ted Huters render Bei Dao's Chinese into a very readable English, gracefully excising extraneous information in tune with the new readership. But if Chinese is famously difficult, then translation of Chinese poetry is all the more of a challenge.

A translation is almost always destined to induce complaints, and with the translations printed with the Chinese poems en face, anyone who can read both languages is bound to come up with a list of mistranslations or infidelities. Even those who understand the benefits of deviating from the so-called literal can become curmudgeons while their fingers move from left page to right, spewing "that doesn't mean that!"

For this reason some translators have opted not to include the original in their publications. Eliot Weinberger, translator of Unlock, stated in his book Outside Stories the dangers of en face translations: "Effects that cannot be reproduced in the corresponding line can usually be picked up elsewhere, and should beÉ Which is why a translation shouldn't be, though it always is, judged on a line-by-line basis." Nevertheless, all of Weinberger's other books of poetry translations—he is most renowned for translating Octavio Paz's poetry and the nonfiction of Jorge Luis Borges—include the English aside the Spanish. Similarly, we have Bei Dao's characters next to the English poems, and this allows us to be picky.

David Hinton, who translated At the Sky's Edge, is an acclaimed translator of a veritable library of classical Chinese literature. He has editions of a half-dozen classical poets, including Li Bai and Du Fu, plus the four great philosophers of ancient China and a recently published Tao Te Ching. Overall his translations are faithful, fluid, lucid, and usually good poetry. His saturation with classical Chinese may lead him to errors in modern, however—the two languages are as different as, say, Latin and Italian—as he has an error on the first page of At the Sky's Edge. In "Year's End" he translates a line as "borrowing the light of the future"; the phrase in question is jie guang, which indeed breaks down literally as borrow or lend light. But in the Beijing dialect, Bei Dao's home tongue, the phrase means simply excuse me or let me pass. The line could also be: "letting the days of afterwards pass by."

Jie guang also snags a poem in Weinberger's translation. More colloquially bent, Weinberger translates a couplet from "Swivel Chair" to read "in regard to enduring freedom / in regard to can I have a light," when "in regard to let me by" might better capture the grandiose/specific relationship of freedom and getting around a person in front of you. In another instance, he mistakes the character ban (the same) for chuan (boat), making "the meteor ship revolves" out of what should be "revolving like a meteor."

I do not cite these examples to quibble. Instead, I wish to suggest exactly how errors can creep into a translation—particularly from Chinese poetry—despite visions and revisions. Moreover, within the context of Bei Dao's renovations of language, I wonder how much these errors actually matter. Surely what is most important is whether these translations read well, whether they inspire in us the feelings that good poetry—and the language of good poetry—will inspire. And they do. Bei Dao's poetry is full of nuance, and the translations convey a similar, if not always exact, sense of manifold meanings. Weinberger is for me the more successful translator; his encyclopedic readings have made him the premier non-academic authority on 20th-century poetry of both Latin and North America, and he seems destined to become an authority on Chinese poetry as well. His sense of language, honed on a lifetime devoted to thinking about poetry, glides forth in the tone and diction of his translations.

Hinton, while also very good, can occasionally read stilted. He has a propensity to mimic the Chinese elision of to be with a contracted is: "now the sea's gone suddenly dry," "death's always on the other side," "who's up over the crack in day," "my shadow's dangerous." Such a move is not always a misstep, nor does Hinton avoid using is or are completely, but in approximating Chinese syntax he has let go of an English poetic phrase that could be smoothed out with a slightly longer—indeed, one syllable longer—line.

The best translation happens when one is not blindly faithful to the original, bending language to its own purposes as Bei Dao bends language towards an interior necessity. Weinberger often swaps two lines in a couplet when the grammar of the Chinese does not fit into English directly, such as "who is the white-haired witness / going upstream?" In the Chinese, the white-haired witness is on the second line, and the going upstream is on the first. When the job requirements necessitate split loyalties to Chinese and English, the subtle alteration detailed herein marks the work of a fine translator who knows how to compromise without needing to sacrifice.

For the sense of Bei Dao's poetry—that sense beholden to its own inner logic, its own hermetic rationale and open-hearted emotion—will ultimately not allow itself to be sacrificed. These are poems haunting and permanent as they come, and only through the exacting art of translators such as Hinton and Weinberger—and those with whom they worked, Yanbing Chen and Iona Man-Cheong respectively—will the English-reading world gain entry into the reconstitution of language and its refusal of sacrifice held within Bei Dao's poems.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003