Exile and Wandering


Midnight's Gate (Essays)
, Bei Dao (trans. Matthew Fryslie)
(255pp, 10.95, Anvil Press)



'Daylight doesn't understand the darkness of night.'

This, quoted by Bei Dao in relation to the way Americans (or any Westerners, for that matter) can never understand what kind of a place China is, is also a suitable phrase to apply to what is my, and probably most of our, almost complete inability to even begin to understand what it is to be a writer in exile - exile from country, city, home, wife and family and friends. I thought the phrase was probably an old Chinese idiom. I checked with one of my Chinese friends; it turns out to be the title of a popular song.

Bei Dao - the pseudonym of Chinese poet Zhao Zhen Kai - was exiled from China after the pro-democracy protests of 1989. At the time, he was out of the country attending a conference in Berlin. Having long been associated with counter-revolutionary factions, he couldn't go home; his exile continued until 2006. During those years, he lived in a variety of places around the world, including Copenhagen, New York, Paris and Prague.

This book of essays comes from that period of wandering. The essays are diary-like, for the most part. Their concern, if there can be said to be one main theme running throughout, is with displacement, coping, and the place of culture and poetry in a world that somehow contrives to value and to disregard both at the same time. But having said that, I think I'd also have to say that these concerns rather drift through the text than push themselves to the foreground.

It's a rather disconcerting read, in some ways. Whether or not this is a result of the translation it's impossible to say, but the tone throughout is somewhat flat, which often lends a curious air of disengagement to what's being told. While this makes for an easy read it is, like I said, also disconcerting. I kept wanting it to be more vivid than it is.

Several of the essays tell about Chinese emigrants, some of whom are also in exile. One thing I didn't like about the book was the way in which all of these people are referred to by initials, rather than names. If it's precautionary, it seems an unnecessary precaution. But never mind. The character sketches are interesting enough, but they become more interesting when Bei Dao is drawn into making larger observations, observations prompted by the individual concerned but that cast light on his own thinking. When talking about 'Boss L', for example, he tells how

     Any Chinese person passing through Paris, as long as they
     had the slightest bit of culture around the edges, could look
     forward to being waited on by him at least once; it was like
     he was waiting on Chinese culture itself. How could he have
     known that for most writers and artists, their work has nothing
     to do with culture, but is merely a way to put food on the table.

This may sound disingenuous, but it's a side of Bei Dao I rather like. While the overall tone of the prose is disengaged and rather flat, one senses that he keeps things a little at a distance as a matter of course. His name, after all, means 'North Island', and was given to him because of his love of solitude, and throughout these writings there is a sense of solitude even when he's surrounded by lots of people. Often it's a solitude created by a language barrier, but one senses too that it's a solitude created by an idea of the poet and of poetry that is misunderstood. Poets who are held to be spokespersons of their generation, or to be speaking for their political comrades, are perhaps not expected to say things like

     On the one hand poetry is useless. It can't change the world
     materially. On the other hand it is a basic part of human
     existence. It came into the world when humans did. It's what
     makes human beings human.

The central essay here concerns Bei Dao's visit to Palestine in 2002 as part of the International Parliament of Writers delegation. It's central not just because its title is also the book's title; it's central because here are a bunch of writers, some in exile, some not, who are visiting writers (one in particular, Mahmoud Darwish) who cannot get out of their homeland. The resonances are obvious, I guess.

It's not all quite so serious. I was naturally drawn to the section entitled 'Drinking Stories'.

     Ancient civilizations have been divided into two broad classes:
     the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Chinese culture originally
     could have been placed in the category of civilization named
     after the god of wines. The Xia and the Shang were drunken
     dynasties - 'pools of wine and forests of meat.' The rulers drank
     and the common people drank, many drinking themselves to
     death. They say that because lamp oil was expensive at that
     time, most places were unlit at night, so what else was there to
     do but drink? Later, these dynasties inevitably fell to a more
     sober dynasty, the Zhou. The Duke of Zhou advocated 'creating
     rituals and establishing music.' Once they abandoned wine, the
     cultural genes of the Chinese people changed accordingly.

     I can't hold much liquor, but I'm an avid drinker nonetheless...

But it's all serious enough.

     In my wanderings, alcohol has been my most loyal companion.
     It consoles and makes promises, it tells you that there are no
     difficulties that cannot be overcome, it never betrays you,
     and at worst it gives you a headache for a few days - just as
     a joke.

One thing Bei Dao doesn't do a lot of in these essays is hark back much to his own experiences of China. It's as if China, its distance and its sadness, is a given. Allusions are made in brief to others' individual experiences in the home country, but by and large China is in these essays because its recent history informs the writer's life as much as being Chinese informs his way of thinking. As he says on the final page of the final essay, after 1950 'the stories of all Chinese people are similar - a collective story, the story of a generation.' This is a gentle book; the cruelties and the despair that frame it are alluded to but kept pretty much at arm's length. And perhaps that's its underlying strength. That, and a sense of calm dignity in the face of adversity. That's very
Chinese.


            Martin Stannard, 2008