In “City Gate, Open Up”, seminal poet Bei Dao memorializes a long-lost capital

Construction worker, underground publisher, and acclaimed poet, Zhao Zhenkai (赵振开) was born, in his own words, in 1949, “as Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tian’anmen Square…in [a] cradle no more than a thousand yards away.”

In the 1970s, he would accrue near-celebrity status for his pseudonymous poetry, which was wild and defiant—and unlike anything in circulation at the time. His fame brought enemies, however, and attacks by official censors. Zhao’s pen name, Bei Dao (北岛, “Northern Island”), reflected such conflicted feelings: love for his northern home, as well as desire to be free of others’ impositions.

In his youth, Bei Dao lived through political campaigns, a mass famine, and the Cultural Revolution. Although a principal figure in the “Cultural Fever” which gripped the country in the 1980s, Bei Dao left China along with many other intellectuals at the end of that decade. City Gate, Open Up offers a record of this earlier time and his return, 13 years later, to a city resurgent and remade—“a foreigner in my own hometown.”

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Matt Turner is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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