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The city of Toronto is currently hosting a major series of exhibitions and symposium on Chinese contemporary art. Please visit this web site for more info: www.jiangnan.com


Modern Chinese poetry, which is written in vernacular Chinese rather than classical Chinese, became a literary genre only after the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Almost 80 years later, this genre has now matured in the sense that it has an agreed form of free form, and rules of no rules. Just like contemporary poetry in all societies, modern Chinese poetry is only appreciated by a handful of genuine literature aficionados. Yet, despite of the limited audience, there is never a shortage of poets on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

In fact, poets in mainland China, just as avant-garde artists there, often pose political problems for the authorities. The free spirit and iconoclastic vision that one finds in the works of a true poet inevitably clash with the intolerant and dogmatic control of the Chinese Communists. Some poets' works were banned, their movement closely watched. For example, in October 1990, poets from Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou traveled to Mt. Huang (in Anhui province) for an independent literary journey. Even though there was nothing political about this gathering, the authorities still kept an eye on it, and termed it "the Mt. Huang Incident." (The source of this information is a Chinese literary journal published in Cambridge, MA., called Qingxiang [Tendency]. At the back of every issue, "Tendency" includes a list of underground literary journals in China, as well as a chronology of recent happenings in the artistic world there - both of which are not to be found elsewhere. The magazine is supposedly a quarterly; however, due to the shortage of funding, it now has a very precarious existence. The editor is Bei Ling.)

After June 4th, 1989, some of the top poets went into exile in Western countries. The most famous of them all is Bei Dao (literally, "northern island"), whose real name is ZHAO Zhenkai. In 1994, Bei Dao tried to return to Beijing to visit his family, but was held in detention at the Beijing airport. For hours the authorities questioned him about the associations between his literary magazine "Today" and the overseas branch of the democratic movement. Afterwards, he was deported back to the U.S., where he currently resides. Bei Dao never got a chance to see his family, who were all waiting for him at the airport.

Bei Dao has been considered a hopeful for the Nobel literary award nominee - the only Chinese writer who has acquired such worldwide attention at this point. For the poet, however, this attention has been a burden. Every year when the time comes for the announcement of the Nobel literary award, Bei Dao stops answering the phone in order to maintain some peace and quiet.

A fine poet he definitely is, but Bei Dao is not necessarily the greatest of contemporary Chinese writers. As a matter of fact, not a single Chinese writer can claim this status. The fact that Bei Dao is the only one under the spotlight is really a result of the West's general disinterest in the Chinese literary world. Many good writers on both sides of the Strait have been ignored.

Nevertheless, Bei Dao's poetry is definitely worth reading. His concerns are grand - fatherland, civilization, history , and the alienation from all these are the constant subjects of his poetic imagination. His controlled emotion is expressed through sentences that are simple syntactically, but extraordinarily imaginative in terms of diction. The exact meanings of his poems are difficult to pinpoint, and yet, it is the overall beauty of the allusions that touches the heart. As the poet himself would recommend, try not to read Bei Dao's poems as those written by a dissident or the greatest poet from China, but just by a poet, an artist of language.

Works by Bei Dao translated into English:

The August Sleepwalker. Trans. by Bonnie S. McDougall. New York: New Directions, 1991.

Old Snow: Poems. Trans. by Bonnie S. McDougall and Chen Maiping. New York: New Directions, 1991.

Forms of Distance. Trans. by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 1994.


Looking for translated works by Chinese writers in U.S. bookstores can be very confusing. To show respect for their Chinese origins, publishers usually keep the names of these writers in their Chinese format - family name first and given name last. However, bookstores always file these books by the latter part of the authors' names. So the famous writer of the 1930s, LU Xun, is never under "L" but "X" instead. The contemporary writer MO Yan, who wrote the "Red Sorghum," is found under "Y", not "M", as it should be. Therefore, try look for Bei Dao either under "B" or "D".

Will Chinese writers ever be filed correctly by their surnames? It is possible. Just think of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and Sun Tzu: their works are all filed under Lao, Chuang and Sun, and not grouped together under "Tzu" (which is a respectful title similar to "the Great"). If they were all filed under "Tzu", what a great Tzu family it must have been to have produced all these brilliant thinkers!

On the other hand, at some Tower Records stores in Asia, the artists are alphabetically arranged by first name. For example, John Coltrane is found back to back with Johnny Hartman. We wonder which system makes more sense?