“City Gate, Open Up” by Bei Dao

Bei Dao Bei Dao

Born and raised in Beijing, Bei Dao spent decades in exile in Europe because of his alleged involvement in the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. City Gate, Open Up is his eloquent, moving memoir in which the foremost Chinese poet rebuilds Beijing, his fond hometown and lifelong anchor, through poignant memories and portraits, rendering the generations who have lived through such surreal, turbulent times.

For Bei Dao, the capital that he left as a young man is anchored in the family, the people and the friendships that have made him who he is. The past lies in the unforgettable smells of winter cabbage, coal and dust; the hawking shouts and ice skating scenes in Houhai; and the made-up games among his friends in alleyways in and around Sanbulao hutong. As his social awareness grows, he begins to realize the existence of a certain “power system”’ even in his primary school, where violence and power struggles lurk, and for his own survival, he comes to seek out a protector in Li Xiyu, a physically strong boy feared by the others. School becomes a space where he and his contemporaries busy themselves writing “big character posters”, finding their own way through a labyrinth of propaganda.

Bei Dao’s formative years are also filled with ineradicable memories of hunger:


Hunger gradually devoured our lives. Dropsy became commonplace. Everyone’s usual greeting to each other changed from “Have you eaten yet” to “Have you gotten dropsy yet,” then the pant legs were pulled up and each used their fingers to test the other’s degree of illness.


He remembers with great pain how he, as a young boy, witnesses the sad fate of his pet rabbits at a time when his family would do anything to stave off hunger. In parallel, one can catch a glimpse of their generation’s hunger of another kind, their desperate need to experience the world outside their immediate hardships, from the way he and his friends listened to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien so often that


the needle soon needed to pass through the noisy static zone of the dust-filled world before it could enter the splendor of the theme.


Perhaps prompted by a poetic consciousness of “less is more” and a pragmatic need to do so, Bei Dao adopts a consistent, deliberate tone of restraint, leaving things unsaid for the reader’s own interpretation. His writing is marked by poignant silences of feelings, allegiances, and the pursuit of truth, when history is “ten thousand things return to silence.” In the days of the Four Cleanups Movement, for example, he and his peers question the appropriate way to greet the well-off peasants, and end up adhering to the rule “better not greet anyone” to protect themselves from blame. Once his father finds out about what Bei Dao dares to articulate in his poetry, he becomes highly agitated, ordering his son to destroy what he has written, fearing the punishments that might fall on him and the entire family.


City Gate, Open Up, Bei Dao, Jeffrey Yang (trans) (New Directions, April 2017)
City Gate, Open Up, Bei Dao, Jeffrey Yang (trans) (New Directions, April 2017)

Other than its engagement with personal and social history, City Gate, Open Up is Bei Dao’s candid reflection on his own identity and development as a writer. He recounts the first poem he wrote in his fourth grade, “using an assortment of weighty-sounding phrases”, conscious of the influence of Gao Shiqi, a popular science writer at that time. For years, he’d look to the revolutionary fiction in his father’s bookshelf for sexually explicit reading. Growing up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he has lived through the days when books were sold as wastepaper, when he and his friends would visit the recycling stations to “sift for old books”. He cannot forget the irrevocable impact censorship has on the entire generation:


… my family lived a cultural double life: the public bookshelf, out in the open for everyone to see, embodied the status quo and mainstream culture; the attic stacks, hidden and sealed off, embodied the illicit and taboo. From that day on, after discovering the secret in the attic, I, too, was thrown into a double life.


Bei Dao’s autobiographical account also reveals the lives of Chinese women in those revolutionary years, with social status and mobility in society even more confined than their male counterparts. For example, as Bei Dao’s nanny (baomu), the illiterate Qian Anyi with unbound feet, was forced to give up her job during the Cultural Revolution because even a nanny is seen as a dangerous sign of bourgeois life and capitalism. She tried to make a living with a few unsuccessful jobs, and eventually withered into solitude and old age.

Written with honesty, conscience and courage, this is a powerful account that merges personal memories with the collective history in the making of modern China, and inspires the reader to consider the many important social and political concerns in Chinese society that still remain today.

Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her books include Goldfish (Chameleon Press), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry) and 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press).