BORN: 1949, Beijing, China

NATIONALITY: Chinese

GENRE: Poetry, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Waves (1985)

The August Sleepwalker (1990)

Old Snow (1991)

Forms of Distance (1994)

Landscape over Zero (1996)

Overview

Bei Dao is a Chinese poet whose groundbreaking Works critiqued the Chinese Cultural Revolution and influenced the development of the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

The Cultural Revolution Bei Dao was born as Zhao Zhenkai on August 2, 1949, in Beijing, China. It was the same year that the Chinese Communists came to power. During his teen years, Bei Dao belonged to the Red Guards, a group that supported the Communist leader Mao Zedong. During this period, China underwent what Mao called a ”cultural revolution,” the purpose of which was to erase, often through violent means, all traces of European influence and all traces of upperclass, middle-class, and intellectual Chinese culture of a traditional nature, unless it was deemed by the authorities to serve the new Communist state in a practical and unmistakable way. Bei Dao developed misgivings about the Cultural Revolution and was ”reeducated” as a construction worker. He later founded and edited the underground literary magazine Jintian (Today).

Life after Mao

When the Cultural Revolution came to an end with the death of Mao in 1976, China began to rebuild its culture and educational system. Bei Dao wrote the first and most celebrated novella to appear after Mao’s death, Waves. The stories in the book deal with the years of social and political strife caused by the Cultural Revolution. Waves was published briefly after Mao’s death, and the government permitted such unauthorized publications to be distributed. When some of Bei Dao’s work was circulated during the prodemocracy student movement that erupted in the 1989 demonstration at Tiananmen Square, the government banned the novella, accusing Bei Dao of inciting the demonstration.

Bei Dao was at a writer’s conference in Berlin during the Tiananmen massacre and was not allowed to return to China. He remained in exile and took teaching positions in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the United States. Currently, he lives in California and continues to write poetry, though his work is not available in China.

The Impact of Waves

Much of Bei’s impact came from the circulation of his revelatory novella, Waves. Waves was a sensation in a China that had been required to revere and obey Mao Zedong for the previous thirty years. The novel was the first work of literature that had been allowed to appear since Mao assumed control of China that openly criticized Maoist socialist principles. Thus, it was the only such work that the vast majority of Chinese readers had ever seen. Its readers saw for the first time a fierce condemnation of a Cultural Revolution whose effects had set the Chinese people adrift in a sea without faith or tradition.

The effect of Waves was to open up to its readers worlds with which they had no experience. Unfortunately, its effect was too great, and when Deng Xiaoping came to power, the book, which had been under continual attack by old party-liners, was suppressed. It is widely acknowledged, both inside and outside of China, that Waves paved the way for the student movement that erupted in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

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