Bei Dao

Chinese Poet, Story Writer & Essayist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Bei Dao

“Like reading Chekhov or Turgenev reflected in a porcelain bowl.”-The London Times

“Bei Dao’s writing provides ample evidence of the written word’s potential to effect political change…Few living writers possess a voice as elegant as that heard in Unlock.”-The Philadelphia Inquirer

Born in Beijing in 1949, Bei Dao is one of the most gifted writers in modern China. He became, in the 1970s, the poetic voice of his generation and has gained international acclaim over the last decades for his haunting interior poetic landscapes; his poetry is translated and published in some twenty-five languages around the world. In 1978, he co-founded the first unofficial literary journal since 1949 called Today (Jintian), which became a prominent forum for “Misty Poets,”a group derided by the Communist literary establishment for their “obscure”language and departure from socialist realism. Since 1987, Bei Dao has lived and taught in England, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, and the United States. His work is translated into thirty languages, including six poetry volumes in English: The Rose of Time (2009), Unlock (2000), Landscape Over Zero (1996), Forms of Distance (1994), Old Snow (1992), The August Sleepwalker (1990), the collection of stories Waves (1990), the collections of essays Midnight’s Gate (2005), and Blue House (2000). He won numerous awards, including Jeanette Schocken Literary Prize from Bremerhaven, Germany (2005), International Poetry Argana Award from the House of Poetry in Morocco (2002), Tucholsky Prize from Swedish PEN (1990). He is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Bei Dao is seen as the figurehead of the first generation of poets in the People’s Republic of China to free themselves from the orthodoxy of state-controlled literature. In 1989, he was accused of helping to incite the student revolt in Tienanmen Square. On the banners in the square had been his lines from the 1970s: “I will not kneel on the ground, / Allowing the executioners to look tall, / The better to obstruct the wind of freedom.” Bei Dao was forced into exile. He, along with other exiled writers and artists, has found a voice in a renewed version of Jintian, which was re-launched in Stockholm in 1990 and became one of the influential forums for Chinese writers abroad.

Widely treasured by those who participated in China’s democracy movement, Bei Dao’s poetry is marked by the effort to reveal the nature of the self, to identify both public and private wounds, to trust in instinctive perceptions, and to reach out to other afflicted souls. It depicts the intimacy of passion, love, and friendship in a society where trust can literally be a matter of life and death. The Australian Sinologist Simon Patton, echoing the words of other reviewers of hermetic poetry, said about Bei Dao’s work: “The text compels attention, while it defies understanding.” It is an essential feature of Bei Dao’s poetic art, which has by now won worldwide recognition. Bei Dao lives and teaches in Hong Kong.

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THE ROSE OF TIME (Poetry, 2009)
The Rose of Time: New & Selected Poems presents a glowing selection of poetry by contemporary China’s most celebrated poet, Bei Dao. From his earliest work, Bei Dao developed a wholly original poetic language composed of mysterious and arresting images tuned to a distinctive musical key. This collection spans Bei Dao’s entire writing life, from his first book to appear in English, The August Sleepwalker, published a year after the Tiananmen tragedy, to the increasingly interior and complex poems of Landscape Over Zero and Unlock, to new never-before-published work. This bilingual edition also includes a prefatory note by the poet and a brief afterword by the editor Eliot Weinberger. A must-read book from a seminal poet who has been translated into over thirty languages.

MIDNIGHT’S GATE (Essays, 2005)
In Midnight’s Gate, Bei Dao redefines the essay form with the same elliptical precision of his poetry, but with an openness and humor that complements the complexity of his poems. The twenty essays of Midnight’s Gate form a travelogue of a poet who has lived in some seven countries since his exile from China in 1989. The work carries us from Palestine to Sacramento. At one point we are led into a basement in Paris for a production of Gorky’s Lower Depths; the next moment we are in the mountains of China where Bei Dao worked for eleven years as a concrete mixer and ironworker. The subjective experience deepens and multiplies in these essays, filled with the stories of ordinary Chinese immigrants, as well as those of literary, artistic, and political figures. And it all coheres with a poet’s observations, meditations, and memories.


in the oblivion between the trees
the lyric attacks by dogs
at the end of an endless trip
night turns all the keys of gold
but no door opens for you
a lantern follows
the ancient principles of winter
I walk straight toward you
as you open the fan of history
that’s folded in an isolated song
the evening bell slowly questions you
echoes answer for you twice
dark night sails against the current
tree roots secretly generating electricity
have lit your orchard
I walk straight toward you
at the head of all the foreign roads
when fire tries on the heavy snow
sunset seals the empire
the earth’s book turns the page of this moment


Wind at the ear says June
June a blacklist I slipped
in time

note this way to say goodbye
the sighs within these words

note these annotations:
unending plastic flowers
on the dead left bank
the cement square extending
from writing to

I run from writing
as dawn is hammered out
a flag covers the sea

and loudspeakers loyal to the sea’s
deep bass say June


A school still in session
irritable restless but exercising restraint
I sleep beside it
my breath just reaching the next
lesson in the textbook: how to fly

when the arrogance of strangers
sends down March snow
a tree takes root in the sky
a pen to paper breaks the siege
the river declines the bridge invites

the moon takes the bait
turning the familiar corner
of the stairs, pollen and viruses
damage my lungs damage
an alarm clock

to be let out of school is a revolution
kids jump over the railings of light
and turn to the underground
other parents and I
watch the stars rise

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