Bei Dao Photo: IC
Forty years after Bei Dao wrote the epochal poem The Answer, Chinese people still remember the famous line of this Nobel Prize candidate: "Debasement is the password of the base, and nobility the epitaph of the noble."
The leading figure of contemporary Chinese poetry, Zhao Zhenkai, better known by his pen name Bei Dao, was honored by the guests present at a poetry festival for his creation of the misty poem, one of the most important genres in the Chinese poetic history.
Held on the Gulangyu Island in Xiamen, East China's Fujian Province, the four-day festival invited more than 100 poets including domestic luminaries such as Bei, Shu Ting and Zheng Chouyu, as well as overseas poets from India, South Korea, Armenia and Canada, to celebrate the poetry feast.
Wearing a white suit and standing at a prominent spot, the 67-year-old Bei read his lines at the closing ceremony on October 24 for the first time in front of the public since his homecoming, except for some small-scale personal gatherings.
Having lived overseas for 20 years, Bei moved to Hong Kong in 2007, working as Chair Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Qilu Xing, literally meaning walking in the wrong way, was composed in 2009 in what was his first shot at long poems, before which he only created short poems. However, the writing process was interrupted by a stroke after he finished the 500th line and it remains an unfinished business.
After learning that this was the first time for Bei to step on Gulangyu Island, the hostess Chen Xiaonan asked him about Shu after the recital.
Also a representative of Misty Poets, Shu has long been living on the Gulangyu Island and also showed up at the poetry festival.
As Shu's hometown and also the birthplace of her most influential work, the island was chosen as the venue to hold the poetry festival.
The island also shares the reputation of "island of piano," "village of music," and "garden over the sea" for its rich cultural heritage that combines Eastern and Western culture.
"Forty years ago, I first corresponded with Shu to talk about her most important work To the Oak. Forty years passed and we didn't have a chance to see each other, but now we have the chance here," Bei replied.
On December 23 in 1978, poetry magazine Today was established in Beijing. Poets include Shu, Cai Qijiao, Mangke and Bei wrote a lot of poems that had a huge impact. Their compositions overshadowed the official language which was then popular among revolutionary poets.
During that time, there was a fashion for literary youth to write poems under the influence of that wave.
Fracture and heritage
On the last day of the festival, Bei attended a forum discussing the fracture and heritage of poetry. After the 45-minute activity, the venue turned into an autograph event where fans of Bei with piles of his books asked for his signature.
"Ancient Chinese poetry has a history of more than 3,000 years and contemporary poetry 100 years. Wars, disasters and starvation have hindered its development, but vitality of poetry will never end," Bei said in his speech at the forum.
Although Bei's poetic lines once influenced a whole generation, most of his works in recent years have focused on prose instead of poems, which is out of economic reasons explained by him at a reader's event on October 25.
"In 1980s and 1990s, only limited channels could publish well-chosen pieces and the appreciation level of readers was also high. As for now, we have so many platforms that anyone could publish poems, and readership is diverse, so our poetry cannot be compared with them (Bei Dao's generation)," a young female poetry lover told the Beijing Youth Daily at the forum.
Talking about the connection of contemporary poems and the public, Bei admitted that new online platforms such as Wechat public accounts do have some effect on poetry boom and seem to shorten the distance between poetry and the public.
"But poetry is the core of elite culture which cannot be fully popularized by mass culture. It is like a trickle of water underground, which cannot make the dry land wet," Bei told the Beijing Youth Daily.
For the 4-day festival, the guest list included not only poets, but also some well-known independent musicians such as Jiang Shan and Zhou Yunpeng. With Bob Dylan winning the latest Nobel Prize for his poetic lyrics, there is a new enthusiasm among the musicians.
Talking about the reason why China doesn't have a leading poet or song in the current period, Zhou doesn't think it's a big deal, since "a good period should not be led by any one person or any one thing. Only herd need to be led."
"At present, the relationship between poetry and the public is complicated. People don't care about big events in poetic circle, and neither do the poets care about hot social issues," Zhou said.
"Poetry and the public have been separated at present."
Translation of Bei Dao's poems online
"Debasement is the password of the base
Nobility the epitaph of the noble"
"Each and every moment's a shortcut
I follow it through the meaning of the East
returning home, closing death's door"
"To be lost is a kind of leaving
and poetry rectifying life
rectifies poetry's echo"
"Wolves of music weave their way at a run
hawthorns wheeze with clandestine laughter"
"Beneath a tree grown from the pit I once spit out
I've hung nets to
trap birds, and waited how many years"