Bei Dao’s poetry may not appear subversive, however his writings and his involvement in the publication of a literary journal brought dangerous attention to him during China’s Cultural Revolution. Without conceding to governmental pressure, Bei Dao was exiled in 1989.
Bei Dao, whose pseudonym means “Northern Island”, once wrote: “Poets must not exaggerate their own function, but even less should they underrate themselves.” Similarly, Bei’s resistance did not come inherently from his words, but rather from the fact that he unapologetically created and disseminated them despite the threat of persecution. He came of age during the Cultural Revolution and like nearly all youth at that time joined the Red Guard, Mao’s indoctrinated movement - which was oftentimes violent. In 1969, however, Bei Dao’s mindset changed when he saw the so-called idyllic countryside of contemporary propaganda — which, in reality, he found to be backwards and poverty-stricken. His enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution waned; he instead became interested in reading and writing.
While living as a construction worker, Bei met with friends who exchanged their writings. They founded the journal Jintian and took turns posting it around Beijing in broad daylight; they could not do so at night, as they were likely to “disappear”. Bei recalled, “I and two others volunteered to put up the pages, knowing that we were taking great risks in doing this. But the thing that was even more anxiety-inducing was that we didn't know what kind of reception the writing might get!”
According to Bei, the “Misty Poets”, as he and his friends were called, troubled the government with their writing because of the language it used, “which differed greatly from the official language to which people were accustomed.” In addition, the poetry was attacked as being too subjective and promoting individualism. Bei Dao’s writing became popular, especially among Jintian’s core fans: university students.
Bei’s writing was tacked on to the Democracy Movement, which he once apparently supported in the 1976 protests at Tiananmen Square. Over a decade later when the 1989 events of Tiananmen Square occurred, the government exiled Bei who happened to be at a literary conference in Berlin. Months earlier, Dao began a letter project which included thirty-three other signers, asking for the release of political prisoners in China.
As a poet, Bei Dao’s separation from home—and six years separation from his wife and daughter—would not stop him from writing. In Stockholm, he revived Jiantian in reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square events. The journal’s revival gave a voice to other Chinese writers who had been exiled or were unable to publish their work to a Chinese audience. Bei Dao’s writing, even in translation, is brilliant, widely published, and has been repeatedly nominated for a Nobel Prize. Its existence alone is a symbol of resistance against government censorship.