The Chinese Poetry of Bei Dao, 1978-2000:
Resistance and Exile

By Dian Li

Reviewed by Paul Manfredi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (November 2009)

Dian Li. The Chinese Poetry of Bei Dao: Resistance and Exile, 1978-2000. Albany, NY:  Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. pp. 180. ISBN: 0-7734-5875-1.

Dian Li. The Chinese Poetry of Bei Dao: Resistance and Exile, 1978-2000. Albany, NY:
Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. pp. 180. ISBN: 0-7734-5875-1.

For those involved in modern Chinese poetry in the English-speaking world, both as authors and as readers, Dian Li’s new book on Bei Dao is something of an event. Indeed, the willingness to devote an entire monograph to a single author–that is to say the kind of in-depth treatment simply not possible in more thematically or formally oriented studies–is a positive development in Cultural Studies more generally. This is not to suggest that such a work is unprecedented, even in the more narrow sphere of modern Chinese poetry studies–Maghiel van Crevel’s Language Shattered (1996), Gregory Lee’s Dai Wangshu: The Life and Poetry of a Chinese Modernist (1989), Lloyd Haft’s Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983), and Dominic Cheng’s Feng Chih (1979), all demonstrate that single author studies can be major contributions to the field. But as this list of books and their dates of publication show, such studies are few and far between and their numbers are in decline. In this sense, Dian Li’s work marks an important development or, more accurately, a notable return.

In many respects, Li’s study of Bei Dao should also be considered an improvement on previous approaches to discussing single poets from modern or contemporary China. The most obvious improvement, or at least qualitative advance in terms of the academic conversation about this poetry, is that Li’s writing posits a new horizon of expectation, so to speak, anticipating in his audience a higher level of understanding of modern Chinese poetry than was often the case with earlier studies. This book shows us that writing about modern Chinese poetry no longer needs to begin at the very beginning, with a rundown of what is meant by “modern” in the Chinese context from Hu Shi on. Moreover, terms relevant to the contemporary field, such as “Misty Poetry,” no longer need to be glossed, this despite the fact that “misty” is neither a terribly good translation for the Chinese word menglong, nor an accurate description of what the poetry is. Li nonetheless uses “Misty Poetry” as a now conventionalized term, which is to say a term that has more or less beaten out competitors in the game of literary/cultural nomenclature. The point of this observation is less the correctness of “Misty Poetry” as a gloss for menglong shi than the fact that it no longer much matters how one puts it in English, as Li’s readership can now be expected to know what the term refers to.

Less positive departures from earlier works on modern Chinese poets, though, are also in evidence–for instance, the relative absence of the type of biographical material Gregory Lee provides in his study of Dai Wangshu. This is not to say that writing about Bei Dao’s life experiences and writing about Dai Wangshu’s is the same order of business. In fact, addressing Bei Dao’s biography, as Dian Li does to some degree in the “Epilogue,” is a complicated matter, a fact clearly in evidence in the following sentence:

The phantom threat posed by Bei Dao’s marginal political activities–past and at the present–may be no more than an excuse to persecute Bei Dao as the face of a poetry that the government never liked and still has trouble tolerating even though it knows very well that any harm it inflicts on Bei Dao the person only enhances the poetry that he represents. (128)

When Dian Li does address Bei Dao in these terms, the important connection between Bei Dao the poet and Bei Dao the political figure is very judiciously handled. Given this, Li’s book would have benefited from a more extended analysis in this regard, even if the summary judgment is that Bei Dao’s poetry should indeed occupy a space remote from political ramifications.

Also largely absent in Li’s study is the use of theoretical language–despite Malmquist’s observation in the preface about the book’s “sharp tools of modern and post-modern literary criticism.” In lieu of theory, Dian Li charts his own course, providing close readings for a large number of poems, and addressing certain themes at some length and from different perspectives. One of these themes is the issue of the opacity of Bei Dao’s poetry. This discussion is natural and necessary to an analysis of Bei Dao’s poetry, but is somewhat lacking in context. To begin with, the concern about readability is very old in China. Although his poetry has been interpreted in biographical (and, more recently, in nationalist terms), Qu Yuan was an esoteric writer whose language is dense, difficult, and complex. In contrast to that charitable treatment of Quan Yu, Li He, whose language is notoriously difficult, suffered his own exile on the periphery of the literary canon (e.g., his poetry is not included in the 300 Tang Poems). Although Dian Li does in several places introduce discussion of the Chinese literary heritage, a more thorough documentation of classical Chinese precedents would have helped readers better situate Bei Dao within Chinese literary history, thereby reminding us that the readability of poetry and its social implications is a very old subject in the Chinese context.

More problematic with regard to the discussion of Bei Dao’s impenetrability is the way Li skips over the modern era. For while premodern literary antecedents like Li He, Li Shangyin, and Qu Yuan are important markers in establishing the parameters of acceptable metaphorical language, the modern era, from the early twentieth century on, repeatedly redefines those parameters. An important part of this redefinition in the modern era stems from the fact that modern poetry is, in Dian Li’s own words, “in large measure born of translation practice.” This is not only true of Bei Dao’s work, but also of all the work in the mode “new poetry” (xinshi) since the early twentieth century. Hu Shi’s “unbound bound feet,” for instance, are disfigured as much by their adoption of non-Chinese language literary forms as they are by the continuing influence of the Chinese poetic tradition. How much more the poetry of Li Jinfa, for instance, a poet whose small body of work is often criticized in terms quite similar to those used by detractors of Bei Dao’s poetry. By exploring, even briefly, the significance of translation in the works of Bei Dao’s modern (particularly modernist) predecessors, Li could have more fully contextualized Bei Dao’s poetic challenge to the Chinese language.

The absence of twentieth-century precedents aside, Li’s focus on translation as “a powerful medium of legitimization” (101) is on the mark. After reviewing Meir Sternberg’s schematization of three types of translation, which aim at various degrees of accommodation between source and target language, Li ventures into Bei Dao’s rewriting of some traditional Chinese idioms. This example of Bei Dao’s use of language, where the poet takes firmly established semantic connections such as can be found in Chinese idioms and inverts them, or causes them to unravel in various ways, well elucidates his style more broadly, a style invested in pushing language beyond its limits. Bei Dao’s true difficulty, in other words, lies in the sheer content of information packed into his poems, whether it be in references to fixed expressions, allusions to other texts, or appropriations of other literatures.

What Dian Li’s discussion of difficulty and translation makes clear is the degree to which a critique of Bei Dao’s inscrutability (and “over-reliance” on translated/translatable expression) misses the point. There may be, as Li argues, points in Bei Dao’s poems that travel easily from Chinese to other languages, but there are just as many occasions when the cost, either in what is lost or what is perforce added, is notable. In other words, the instances of untranslatables, a feature we would expect from classical poetry or even other modern writing considered closer to a linguistic “Chineseness,” are in fact often in evidence in the case of Bei Dao’s poetry. To translate, then, is in some sense to lose something essential to the poetry itself. Regardless, Li’s description of the translation of contemporary Chinese poetry is compelling, and he wisely acknowledges the transformative role of the translation process itself. The goal, as Li describes it, is for the critic to offer “critical scrutiny” to ensure that the course of translating Bei Dao and other contemporary poets remains charted somewhere between the poles of “pure difference [and] unmediated similarity” (112). Moreover, because Bei Dao’s project is a kind of rewriting of Chinese literary expression itself, the constant argument over what Bei Dao means, and concomitant explication du texte that such discussion entails, might actually lead to the rewritings to which Bei Dao aspires.

The picture of Bei Dao that arises from Dian Li’s work is of a serious poet who has been misread in a variety of ways, largely due to the critical imposition of extraneous issues–e.g., the feasibility of “world poetry”–that are largely off mark with respect to Bei Dao’s intentions as an artist. Li could have taken his book in these directions to, say, present a larger argument for a new way of reading contemporary Chinese poetry, an aesthetic form that occupies an important space in global discourse and that does need not to be justified on comparative terms. For in the context of China’s rise to power, poetry presents a compelling counterpoint to dominant narratives of China’s development and (post)-modernization–e.g., the shift towards market economics, cutting-edge green technology, etc. That is to say, despite its marginal status in Chinese culture (and Western sinology), the poetry of Bei Dao and many other Chinese poets comprises a substantial archive of alternative and often discordant voices midst the almost daily chorus of celebration–or notoriety–of China in the global media. Dian Li could have explored these questions and more, but he chooses not to. Instead, he opts to focus deeply on Bei Dao’s poetry, providing explication uncomplicated by wider themes, implications, or applications of the poet’s work. As such, it is yet a highly successful and welcome work.

Paul Manfredi
Pacific Lutheran University