The Misty Poets Project

Bei Dao’s “Proclamation”

        A Rallying Cry for Tian’anmen

Like many China-watchers, I cannot tell you when the better part of my day became dedicated to blog-reading. Background to my everyday routine is the murmur of botched lawsuits, human rights violations, incompetent local governments, nationalist rhetoric, internet memes, and ridiculous acts of indulgence committed by 富二代 (fu’erdai – second-generation rich). Sometime in the past year I’ve started to slouch a little, as if the weight of China’s unpublished atrocities is resting on me, the reader and the blogger.

Somewhere in the malaise I found Bei Dao. The article – whichever one it was – had said that he was exiled after his poem “Proclamation” appeared on banners at Tiananmen. As an impulsive gesture of technological footnoting, I opened another tab and Google’d the poem. It read,















Perhaps the final hour has come

I leave behind no testament

Only a pen, to give to my mother.

In a time without heroes,

I only want to be an individual.

The horizon of peace

Separates the order of the living and dead.

I can only choose the heavens

And I will not kneel on the ground

Allowing the executioner to look tall

The better to obscure the wind of freedom.

From the bullet holes of the stars

There will seep forth a blood-red dawn.

It is easy to see how the poem could inspire thousands of post-communist era youth. “Perhaps the final hour has come.” This single statement sets the tone remarkably well. Here is an unnamed individual whose world has come to an end, and he meets it with unbreakable calm. “In a time without heroes, I only want to be an individual.” Bei Dao hits chords of both generational abandonment and individualism – a single note that rings vibrato with the generation who missed out on an education in order to labor in the countryside. This was Bei Dao’s generation, ten years senior to the Tiananmen kids, but of similar mindset. It’s as if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were to despair over the fate of the dumb, driven cattle!

And yet, there is something to die for: the act of dying for something. To die with principle – to become a martyr – implies that there is something greater than the mundane, something confirmed only through self-sacrifice. “I will not kneel on the ground, Allowing the executioner to look tall, The better to obscure the wind of freedom.” The poem ends with imagery of a red dawn seeping through bullet holes. Bei Dao is known for the last two lines of his poems being the most compelling, and here he prophesies the violence of self-sacrifice with spooky accuracy.

Had you told me after reading this poem for the first time that I would be spending my next Chinese New Year with his family in Hong Kong, I would have been very angry. Sometimes fate works out so perfectly that there is no way to understand it. I would have been furious if someone had broken my own fate with such surreal news.

At the time (last summer), Bei Dao’s poetry stewed in my mind as it took on a role of supporting actor in the background play of my everyday routine. I taped “Proclamation” to the shelf above my desk, and it noiselessly proclaimed over my head as I continued research on urban development for my Master’s thesis. The project was then progressing at a slow but metered pace. I had no intention of changing direction. In truth, it was turning out to be a case of 当局者迷,旁观者清(those in the game are lost, but spectators see it clearly).

“What do you really like to study?” my history professor asked. He makes a profession out of studying that through which he lived in Nanjing. He teaches one of the most renowned classes at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Chinese history since 1949. His research on Nanjing University during the Cultural Revolution has been acclaimed abroad, and he can still bring class to a stand-still by saying, “As I remember it…”

Somehow I felt unqualified to even answer that question. “Modern China….and Chinese literature, I guess.” Chinese societal issues, the passion of the 1980s youth generation, democracy, the modern hero–the martyr! A good story about a poet-in-exile.

“What authors in particular?”

I thought of the poem above my desk. A lustful impulse seized me, as if seeing an exit to a mediocre relationship to be with a much more attractive partner. My professor didn’t even ask to be my advisor – like an eager bridesmaid, he insisted on being the Maid of Honor.

Opportunity unfolded like a yellow brick road before me. A former college professor put me in touch with Bei Dao’s friend and translatorLucas Klein. I was invited to Hong Kong for Bei Dao’s International Poetry Nights conference the next week. I read books, I translated poems, I struggled to find information. I met poets and critics and translators. I met Bei Dao.

I am nowhere near being an expert on the Misty Poets (yet), and still I see a window of opportunity through which I can do some public service on their behalf. Although their presence in China was short-lived, the Misty poets nevertheless deserve their proper place in China’s literary and historical narrative. The greatest danger of being a martyr is that your sacrifice will not be remembered — or worse, misunderstood.

It was to this end that Bei Dao gifted me a stack of first-hand materials after our New Year’s dinner. He explained what needed to be discussed about the Misty Poets; what the other researches had overlooked or misconstrued; what hadn’t been done before.

Am I up for the job? You bet.


An Introduction to the Misty Poets

                         with special attention to poet Gu Cheng

First posted on Jan 27, 2012, at Seeing Red in China.

“Misty” (朦胧) is the title conferred upon a group of poets known during the Democracy Movement (1976-1980)for their unique style. Some, such as Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei’s father, called their work “obscure” (古怪), even poisonous.[1] At the very least, it was certainly daring.

So daring, in fact, that three of the leading Misty poets were exiled for inspiring the Tiananmen youth. Misty poet Bei Dao was not even in China when the demonstrations occurred, but he was nonetheless not allowed back for twenty years, since his poems appeared on banners at Tiananmen Square. Other well-known poets include Gu Cheng, Mang Ke, Shu Ting, and Duo Duo, all of whom were self-educated during the Cultural Revolution and thus considered themselves members of the Lost Generation. They became well-known amongst educated reading circles in 1978 through the publication Today 《今天》.

Today published nine issues and four books before Deng tightened the reins on freedom of speech and publication. The first issue appeared on the Democracy Wall, a stone wall at Xidan in Beijing where discussions on reform were posted. Today in particular embodied the realization of new aesthetic principles – nothing new to Western or Taiwanese audiences, but unprecedented in Mainland Chinese literary history.

The thrust of Today was an apolitical expression of soul-searching. One of the most quoted Misty poems is by Gu Cheng, called “A Generation” (“一代人”):

The black night has given me black eyes
And I use them to find the light.

Scholars commonly agree that this poem is a reference to the Cultural Revolution. How could Today therefore claim to be apolitical? In reality, it couldn’t. Even apolitical sentiment is a political statement in itself. Given the politically charged climate of China at that time, let alone in Beijing, one would be hard-pressed to find any intellectually active person without a political bent.[2]

It was therefore only suitable that the writers who inspired the Tiananmen Square Generation be punished with exile.

Gu Cheng, the writer of “A Generation,” was among the Misty Poets exiled after ’89. The authorities, however, could not have arranged his perverted demise any better than how it unfolded naturally.

As a child, Gu Cheng’s family suffered exile in the countryside for having been of the intellectual class. His playwright father raised pigs, and Gu Cheng cultivated a lifelong love for nature. This passion for wildlife led him to spend his exile on a secluded New Zealand island. It was there that he indulged in his sexual fantasies by establishing his personal “woman kingdom” (“女儿国”) with his wife and girlfriend. He refused to learn English, lest it cloud his Chinese abilities, and thus relied on his English-speaking wife for everything – even purchasing condoms for him and his girlfriend. He was eventually driven crazy(er) after his girlfriend ran away, and he began to suspect that his wife was cheating on him. He axed her to death and then hanged himself in the back yard – but not before telling his sister, their next-door neighbor, what he was about to do. She did nothing to stop him.[3]

Gu Cheng is relatively well-known in China thanks to the Hong Kong film made in 1994 after his suicide, A Poet (《顾城别恋》). As for the movie, the acting was decent enough and the cast of characters dreadfully attractive, but everything about its production was obviously contrived to expose his manic perversion, from the alluring gazes of every young female character to the equally unimaginative script. The only character with depth was the wife, who thankfully dropped the sweet girl-next-door persona after the “early” scenes and adeptly evolved into a troubled but tolerant spouse – the sort of character who makes you wonder if the actress had to go on Prozac following the movie’s release. Everyone else was a caricature, comprising a sensationalist story that could only be made into an equally sensationalist movie.[4] The production fits in snugly with the CCP’s ideal projection of a Democracy Movement advocate’s inevitable demise – and this was made in Hong Kong even before it was returned to China. You can watch the whole thing, pornographic scenes and all (despite China’s ban on such materials), on any major Chinese video site.

The Misty poets themselves are a diverse group of personalities, in my opinion. I have had the honor of meeting one of them already, and continue to research their lives and works for my Master’s thesis. Gu Cheng undoubtedly has the most tabloid-friendly story of those mentioned, but he is by no means the only one of interest.

It was with sadly accurate prophecy that historian Jeffrey Kinkley proclaimed that the works of the Misty Poets, while wonderfully innovative, were bound to remain in an ivory tower lest China’s entire education level be raised.[5] I recently asked a Chinese classmate – a graduate student – to take a look at my thesis, and he professed embarrassment to having never heard of the Misty Poets. He had, however, heard of a pro-democracy poet-in-exile who became an ax-murderer in 外国 (waiguo, a non-Chinese country).

[1] In the Poison Weeds campaign of 1983 (毒草运动), non-conformist writers were criticized and jailed for writing outside the ideological framework. Ai Qing thus may have been criticizing out of necessity, as it was expected of his generation of previously persecuted intellectuals to criticize the new poets, lest they also face a second round of persecution.
[2] I use the word “active” a little liberally here; what I mean is someone beyond your average Joe who chugs along the viaduct of protective ideology. See the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless.”
[3] For a personal testimony on the events, see: Anne-Marie Brady, “Dead in Exile: Life and Death of Gu Cheng and Xie Ye.” Spring 2007.
[4] Yes, filmmakers out there, that is a challenge.
[5] Jeff Kinkley. After Mao: Chinese Literature and Society (1978-1981). 216.

International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong 2011

First posted December 15, 2011

This news is a bit outdated now, but it has been a crazy month. And it started with a five-day poetry conference in Kowloon.

It was my first time to Hong Kong. The adrenaline rush of being in a new city – Hong Kong of all places – clashed with my swirling ignorance about the place. The trip started (after 8 hours of travel) with me wandering around Chinese University’s campus, following e-mail directions from a stranger who told me that I had been put up in a dorm at Chinese University by a friend of a friend of a friend. I was carrying the weight of an under-thought Master’s thesis to a conference of literary big-shots. Also, it took me an hour to find a drink of water (can I drink from the faucet? Where is the nearest Seven-Eleven? Which subway stop?).

Being in a new city feels like a constant upstream battle. I had not realized how comfortable I had gotten in my Nanjing water well until I got to Shenzhen and had to follow the funny-looking pinyin to guess where the border-check was. Hey, expats thrive on that stuff.

Leo Ou-fan Lee, Tian Yuan, Xi Chuan, Bei Dao, Liang Wendao. What a line-up. Bei Dao, incase you don’t know, is considered by many to be the most accomplished poet of the Democracy Movement (a Misty poet, but I prefer identifying him with the DM, albeit that is also limiting). He was exiled after the Tiananmen Massacre, not because he was a participant (he was actually lecturing in Europe at the time), but because his poems had appeared on banners and in songs. He has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is now a professor of Chinese literature at Chinese University in Hong Kong. He is also the focus of my Master’s thesis.

Bei Dao was a gracious host even to the lowly graduate student of shallow poetry appreciation. I approached him at one poetry reading to schedule a meeting, and he patted the seat next to him. We chatted at unpretentious ease up until Regis Bonvicino (Brazil) got onstage, at which point I actually felt no need to give him space. He radiated kindness. You don’t often hear that about people. China lost a great man when they exiled him for, um, inspiring the youth…with his poetry.


Liang Wendao was of course a celebrity appearance among celebrities, and I made sure to attend his panel, “Chinese Poetry: Negotiating Dilemma.” Most of the speakers resisted taking the bait of bemoaning poetry’s relative unpopularity in China. They instead talked about the relative [in-]significance of online-speak (网络语言 – it only involves a certain demographic; which I think means that it will become a classist dialect of sorts), the anxiety of being a colonial subject (that was actually Vivek Narayanan of India), and poetry being a sort of lifestyle. I wasn’t crazy about Kunming poet Yu Jian’s claim that English does not carry the poetic weight that Chinese characters inherently do, especially given that he does not know English (it just smacked a little too much of Chinese exceptionalism. And I let him know.). Mr. Liang finished his panel with “我们不懂诗的时候,我们【这个时代的人】都怪作者。”(“When we don’t understand poetry nowadays, we blame the writer.”) Speaking of charisma, by the way, Mr. Liang is a bubbling charisma fountain. Afterwards, my bus passed him as he was leaving campus for a smoke (in Hong Kong you can’t smoke on campus!). We made eye contact and both burst out laughing. Pretty cute.

I left the conference with a new poet and friend Xi Chuan (link different than previous one). Like Bei Dao, he is completely comfortable being genuinely kind. His poetry stood out among the recitations, his understated attitude all but testifying to the latent passion of his words. You can read a few of his poems here. I have his friend and translator Lucas Klein to thank for having introduced us, and also for having told me about the conference in the first place.

I finished the weekend writing a thesis prospectus in my Chungking Mansion matchbox. It was so wonderfully reminiscent of Gordon Matthews.

One thought on “The Misty Poets Project

  1. Lauren Gloudeman on said:

    Fascinating- thank you sincerely for sharing!

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