From the Founding of Today to Today: A Reminiscence

by Bei Dao

Winter, 1978. A snowfall covered Beijing. In the eastern suburbs, a little hamlet of only a few families in size looked across a dirty rivulet toward the embassy district of the capital. Not quite an agricultural village, but not part of the city, either, it was a sort of blind spot in the stifling control system. One of the huts in the village had its windows covered with ragged cloths. Under a dim lamp, seven youngsters were bustling around a rickety mimeograph machine. I was one of them. After three days and three nights, we came out with "Today," the first unofficial literary publication to appear in China since the Communist Party took power in 1949. We bicycled to a restaurant in the city and raised cups in a silent toast.

The next day I went with two friends to paste our harvest up on walls in the city. We changed the numbers on our bicycle license plates in an effort to mislead the police. On December 23, 1978, Today could be read outside several government offices and publishing houses, on university campuses, and in Tiananmen Square. We wanted to know how people would react to our works, so we went back later to mix in with the crowds who huddled around them. The poems, in particular, were of a kind that no one had seen in public for thirty years. The response was stronger than we had imagined.

The original impetus for Today came in the late 1960s. That was when Mao Zedong, during his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, sought to quell rebellion in the cities by sending high school students to the countryside for "re-education by the poor and middle peasants." His results, though, were quite the opposite of what he intended. To young Red Guards, the fall from the heights of society to its depths was a jolt; they were, moreover, severely disillusioned to find a huge disparity between rosy Maoist language about "people's communes" and the harsh realities of village life. They turned to books in search of truth, and to writing as a means to express their perplexity. Each winter, during the agricultural off season, some of them returned to Beijing, where they exchanged books and writings, and formed informal groups.

I can still remember how excited I was, at age 20, to read the poems of Shi Zhi (literally, "Forefinger"). He started writing in 1967, and must count as the founder of the New Poetry movement that unfolded over the next 30 years. His poems were the first to break with the political didacticism with which we had all grown up, and first, as well, to express the bewilderment of the Red Guard generation. His fresh images and lilting cadences had an intoxicating effect on young people, who spread his poems widely in hand-copied form. Many years later when I met Forefinger again, he had gone insane. He passed his days shuttling between home and the hospital.

I took up writing poetry after reading Forefinger's. I was a construction worker at the time, assigned to an electric generating plant about 200 miles outside Beijing. It was an isolated environment, and I needed some form of release for the malaise I 2 felt inside. At the time, probably because of the influence of Mao Zedong as a poet, there was a fad for writing poems in the ancient styles that Mao favored. Nearly everybody, it seemed, could recite a few Mao poems. I, too, wrote a few ancient-style poems, but soon found that their formal requirements made it hard to express anything more complex than nostalgia or the parting of friends.

I knew that writing was a forbidden game, which could even cost one's life. But prohibition only sweetened the appeal. At the construction site I lived in a dormitory with a few dozen others. In the middle of the night, surrounded by a medley of snores, I would read and write under a table lamp that I had fashioned from a straw hat. Later the Propaganda Team at the construction site drafted me to work on a photography exhibit, and a darkroom built to my specifications became my cherished hide-out. Heavy window shades blocked off the outside world; I finally had my own study. In just a few months I could finish a short novel in addition to many poems.

My friend Zhao Yifan, a collector of underground literary works, was arrested. The police confiscated every scrap of his papers they could find, including my poems and novel. I was ordered back to my original work site for supervised labor. I began to say good-bye to friends, to entrust them with my letters and manuscripts, and to prepare myself for prison whenever the moment might arrive. In the middle of the night the sound of trucks rolling past would startle me awake and leave me unable to re-enter sleep. The wait was long and difficult, but in the end the feared event never arrived. Only much later did I learn what had happened: the police could not make head or tail of my poems. They consulted experts from the Literature Research Institute, who also were baffled. Finally the experts came out with a ruling: the poems had been had been plagiarized from the West. This judgment saved me. Those were also the days of the banned book. Books were seldom seen in public places. We used to sneak into closed libraries to steal books; or sift through second-hand stores in search of them; or borrow them from other people who were rummaging just as we were. The term pao shu "running [around for] books" entered our vocabulary: to find a good book you had to run everywhere, had to be patient and persistent, had to negotiate, to promise, to reciprocate.

The material one reads in youth can be decisive in the rest of life. At first we read omnivorously, hungry for any scrap we could find. But later we grew picky. We set our hearts on the "yellow- covered books." These were a set of about 100 volumes of literature from the modern West and from the "thaw" period in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They were meant for the eyes of high officials only, and thus had very small print runs and tight restrictions on circulation. Still, in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, they leaked down to the general populace. Among the informal literary groups in Beijing, they became the objects of serious treasure hunts. Whenever a group managed to lay its hands on one of these books--sometimes for a negotiated period of only a few days--the group members would draw up a tight schedule for sharing the book around the clock. Reading time was more precious than food or sleep. My friends and I used to take pills that we knew would make us ill so that we could get sick-leave--that is, reading time--from work.

For underground writers, the yellow-covered books not only opened new vistas for spiritual refuge but exemplified a literary style that was radically different from the official socialist realism. It was called, at the time, the "translation style." Certain Chinese writers, including the best poets of the latter 1940s--Mu Dan, Yuan Kejia, Chen Jingrong, Zheng Min, and others later known as the "Nine Leaves Group"--after 1949 had given up trying to write creatively under the new political guidelines and had turned instead to work on the translation and research of foreign literature. The "translation style" of Chinese that they created became, for my generation, a vehicle for expressing creative impulses and seeking new linguistic horizons.

In the autumn of 1978 a power struggle at the top of the Communist Party led to a temporary relaxation of controls on cultural expression. Underground writing in journals like Today could appear in the open, where, together with unofficial artwork and photography, it posed a major new challenge to official discourse. Today published mostly poetry, introducing the work of Mang Ke, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, Shu Ting, Yan Li, Yang Lian, Jiang He, and other important poets. Our printing equipment was primitive and our "editorial office" little more than a hand-labor workshop. But quite a few young people pitched in. In two years we produced nine magazine issues and four books.

We also organized some literary events. Regular monthly sessions to discuss our recent work attracted a large number of university students. In the spring of 1979, and once again in the fall, we sponsored outdoor poetry readings in Beijing's Yuyuantan Park. Chen Kaige, who later directed well-known films such as "Yellow Earth" and "Farewell, My Concubine," at that time was still a student at the Beijing Film Academy. He did some of our readings for us. The police supervised closely, perhaps puzzled that nearly a thousand people could listen so intently to our obscure poetic lines.

The Communist Party's brief flirtation with democracy passed quickly, however. Deng Xiaoping soon ordered the arrest of Wei Jingsheng and other democracy activists. When Today was forced to close in December, 1980, the authorities expected me to write a "self-criticism" about my involvement with the disgraced journal. I had just returned from my honeymoon in Qingdao (Shandong Province), and decided not to do the self-criticism. I was suspended from my job "for reflection." One evening, as I was returning home, a friend darted from behind a tree to tell me he had a reliable report that my name was on an arrest list. Should I flee? My wife and I talked deep into the night, and finally decided to stay put but watch closely. Before long the political winds shifted again, and once again I felt I was a lucky survivor.

Today was closed down, but many of its poems began to appear in the official literary magazines under the general name of "misty poetry" (menglong shi). A nationwide controversy about misty poetry raged for many years. Official critics denounced it as if it were a pestilence or wild beast, but their fulminations served only to deepen reader interest. Young readers who had felt stifled by official language found in it new air to breathe. There was a spell during which virtually everybody on college campuses was writing poetry, joining poetry clubs, or putting out poetry collections. This lasted through much of the 1980s, until the society-wide rage for commercialism again pushed poetry to the margins. Eventually Today itself became a kind of cloud that hung over a new generation of poets. "The third generation," as they have been called, differ from the Today poets because they have grown up after the Cultural Revolution and have enjoyed good educations. To some extent they have been able to lay down the burdens of history, to look more directly at present realities, and to write, as it were, in minor as well as major chords. Important poets in this group include Bai Hua, Zhang Zao, Xi Chuan, Ouyang Jianghe, Song Lin, Zhai Yongming, Han Dong, and Zhang Zhen. Many are from Sichuan. Many, too, have become my friends. We have found that what we share in poetry well exceeds our differences.

In 1990, a year after the guns sounded in Tiananmen Square, a group of Chinese writers met in Oslo, Norway and decided to revive "Today." Publication resumed and has continued until now. The twenty-year history of Today--from its birth, to its death, to its re-birth--can be viewed as a metaphor for the vitality of all of China's contemporary poetry, whose genies will not go back into bottles.

January 1998

Translated by Perry Link

(c) Bei Dao Used with permission


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