From the Preface of The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems by Bei Dao
“I was born in 1949 in Beijing. As Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, I was lying in my cradle no more than a thousand yards away. My fate seems to have been intertwined with that of China ever since. I received a privileged, but brief, education. I was a student at the best high school in Beijing, until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. All the schools were closed, and three years later I was assigned to work in the state-run construction industry. I worked as a concrete mixer for five years, and then another six years as a blacksmith. This experience of hard labor, living at the bottom of society, eventually helped me a great deal. It broadened my understanding of life in a way that was tangible and material, something that books could hardly be capable of achieving.
It was under those harsh circumstances of life that I began my creative writing. I finished the first draft of a novella, Waves, in a darkroom, while supposedly developing photos for a propaganda exhibition about the construction site. That was one of the grimmest periods of contemporary China, when reading and writing were forbidden games. But underground creative writing was breaking through the frozen shell of the earth.
On December 2, 1978, I, together with some friends, launched the first non-official literary journal in China since 1949, Today. The “misty” or “obscure” poetry – a pejorative term applied by the authorities – that appeared in Today was able to challenge the dominance of the official social discourse by opening new space, new possibilities for the Chinese language. Inevitably, the journal was banned after two years of its existence, but it began a new phase in the history of Chinese literature.
Berlin in 1989 marked the beginning of my life in exile. For the next four years, I lived in six countries in Europe. Today was revived in 1990, and has continued to be published abroad ever since. It remains the only Chinese avant-garde literary journal whose existence transcends geographic boundaries. As its chief editor, I have been engaged, alongside writers within China, in a long-term literary resistance – not only to the hegemony of the official discourse, but also to the degree of commercialization throughout the world. A once-mimeographed journal floating across the oceans has managed to survive in environments where other languages are spoken.
In truth, I am not quite confident about my writing when I look back. It reminds me of those days of blacksmithing, when I was frustrated by the iron works I had made. I realize that a poet and a blacksmith are much alike: both of them chase after a perfect dream that is unrealizable. I once, in an early poem, wrote the lines: “freedom is nothing but the distance/ between the hunter and the hunted.” It is the predicament, as well, of writing poetry. In this sense, you are both hunter and hunted, but poetry is the distance like freedom.”