Bei Dao - World Literature

World Literature

Bei Dao


BORN: 1949, Beijing, China


GENRE: Poetry, fiction


Waves (1985)

The August Sleepwalker (1990)

Old Snow (1991)

Forms of Distance (1994)

Landscape over Zero (1996)



Bei Dao. © Rossano B. Maniscalchi / Alinari / The Image Works



Bei Dao is a Chinese poet whose groundbreaking works critiqued the Chinese Cultural Revolution and influenced the development of the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 1980s.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

The Cultural Revolution. Bei Dao was born as Zhao Zhenkai on August 2, 1949, in Beijing, China. It was the same year that the Chinese Communists came to power. During his teen years, Bei Dao belonged to the Red Guards, a group that supported the Communist leader Mao Zedong. During this period, China underwent what Mao called a ‘‘cultural revolution,’’ the purpose of which was to erase, often through violent means, all traces of European influence and all traces of upper-class, middle-class, and intellectual Chinese culture of a traditional nature, unless it was deemed by the authorities to serve the new Communist state in a practical and unmistakable way. Bei Dao developed misgivings about the Cultural Revolution and was ‘‘reeducated’’ as a construction worker. He later founded and edited the underground literary magazine Jintian (Today).

Life after Mao. When the Cultural Revolution came to an end with the death of Mao in 1976, China began to rebuild its culture and educational system. Bei Dao wrote the first and most celebrated novella to appear after Mao’s death, Waves. The stories in the book deal with the years of social and political strife caused by the Cultural Revolution. Waves was published briefly after Mao’s death, and the government permitted such unauthorized publications to be distributed. When some of Bei Dao’s work was circulated during the prodemocracy student movement that erupted in the 1989 demonstration at Tiananmen Square, the government banned the novella, accusing Bei Dao of inciting the demonstration.

Bei Dao was at a writer’s conference in Berlin during the Tiananmen massacre and was not allowed to return to China. He remained in exile and took teaching positions in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the United States. Currently, he lives in California and continues to write poetry, though his work is not available in China.



Bei's famous contemporaries include:

Andrzej Sapkowski (1948—): Polish fantasy writer best known for The Witcher saga.

William Gibson (1948—): American Canadian writer who pioneered cyberpunk science fiction.

Haruki Murakami (1949—): Japanese writer whose novels are both humorous and surreal.

Martin Amis (1949—): English author who caricatures the absurdity of the postmodern condition.

John Sayles (1950—): American director and screenwriter whose independent films are noted for their reality and social commentary.



Bei's most influential work revealed the ruthlessness of Communist dictatorship. Here are some other works of fiction that make similar revelations:

Animal Farm (1945), a novella by George Orwell. This novella is an allegory that satirizes Soviet totalitarianism.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This novel, set in a Soviet labor camp during the 1950s, demonstrates the brutality of Stalinist repression.

Wild Swans (1991), a novel by Jung Chang. This novel tells the story of three generations of Chinese women who survive the political turmoil of twentieth-century China.


Works in Literary Context

Bei Dao is the most prominent member of the Misty Poets, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution and inspired prodemocracy movements, particularly among students, during the 1970s and 1980s. Bei Dao was described in the New York Times Book Review as ‘‘the guiding voice for young Chinese’’ during China’s Democracy Movement.

The Impact of Waves. Much of Bei’s impact came from the circulation of his revelatory novella, Waves. Waves was a sensation in a China that had been required to revere and obey Mao Zedong for the previous thirty years. The novel was the first work of literature that had been allowed to appear since Mao assumed control of China that openly criticized Maoist socialist principles. Thus, it was the only such work that the vast majority of Chinese readers had ever seen. Its readers saw for the first time a fierce condemnation of a Cultural Revolution whose effects had set the Chinese people adrift in a sea without faith or tradition.

The effect of Waves was to open up to its readers worlds with which they had no experience. Unfortunately, its effect was too great, and when Deng Xiaoping came to power, the book, which had been under continual attack by old party-liners, was suppressed. It is widely acknowledged, both inside and outside of China, that Waves paved the way for the student movement that erupted in Tiananmen Square in 1989.


Works in Critical Context

Bei Dao first came to prominence in China with his novella Waves. One critic praised Waves by commenting that ‘‘at their best, [Dao’s] stories are almost unbearably poignant.... [He] has found a way to speak to all of us.’’ Bei Dao’s poetry collections Old Snow and The August Sleepwalker have also met with critical praise. Carol Muske acknowledged the author’s ‘‘ability to personify and objectify simultaneously the images of historical terror.’’ She has also described Bei Dao’s verse as ‘‘mysterious poetry, abstract yet hauntingly personal.’’ New Republic contributor Stephen Owen wrote, ‘‘When Bei Dao’s poetry succeeds—and sometimes it succeeds wonderfully—it does so not by words, which are always trapped within the nationality of language and its borders, but by the envisagements of images possible only with words.’’

Bei Dao has won numerous literary awards and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times.


Responses to Literature

1. Bei Dao’s most influential work, Waves, was at first allowed in China and then banned. Do you think that the impact of this work would have been greater or less had it never been banned? Explain your response in a short essay.

2. What kinds of images does Bei Dao use to evoke terror? Do these images adequately capture the experiences he is trying to convey? Discuss how poetry can effectively transmit a message to its readers.

3. Choose a major event in history and write a poem or short story that focuses on one person’s experience of this event.

4. As a teen, Bei Dao first supported and then opposed Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Based on research about the Cultural Revolution, write an essay explaining why Bei Dao probably had this change of heart.




Chan, Anita. Children of Mao. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.

Chong, Key Ray. Americans and Chinese Reform and Revolution, 1898-1922. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984.

Gunn, Edward. Rewriting Chinese: Style and Innovation in Twentieth-Century Chinese Prose. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Johnson, Claudia Durst, and Vernon Johnson. The Social Impact of the Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2002.