Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The City Gates Open

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The City Gates Open

Article excerpt

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Bei Dao. The City Gates Open. Nonfiction. Beijing. SDX Joint Publishing Company. 2010. 197 pages. CNY 35. ISBN 9787108035295

In 1989, the then-forty-year-old poet Bei Dao left Beijing, not to return for a full thirteen years. When he was finally able to come back, he found that his native city had changed completely. "Today's Beijing is the living model of a modern metropolitan city, utterly separated from the memories of my childhood," he said. "I have become a stranger on my own soil." Thereupon, he attempted to "reconstruct a city in words," the result of which is the volume The City Gates Open.

The reconstruction of memory in written language is dangerous. The first risk is the destruction of memory's flexibility. Original memory can easily be grafted or reproduced, and therefore possesses a fantastic range of possibilities. Once cemented in language, however, it is reduced to mere record, and even faces the awkward possibility of being questioned. Yet we humans persist in doing so, because memory is the only road back to the past, the only way to answer the question "Where am I from?" and alleviate some of the anxiety of living.

For any exile, the city of his memory is his only true home. In Bei Dao's Beijing, Desheng Gate (on what is now the Second Ring Road) looked out onto farmer's fields. Crickets chirped in the grass of the cemeteries, boys in military uniforms got into fights outside school gates, and the crowd at the Huguo Temple Cinema walked through Hundred Flowers Alley at closing time. Each night, donkeys were driven through the alleys from the eastern city all the way to the west. This was the city as it pertained to one man's adolescence, all of it that followed the daring, violence, and hunger of a teenager, the explosive development of youth, and the desperate wanderings of an entire generation whose fates were carelessly thrown away.

Yet Bei Dao denies the autobiographical nature of The City Gates Open. The city he has recreated is not Bei Dao's own Beijing, but rather the Beijing of the entire generation that was born at the same time as the People's Republic. The poet is more truthful than the historian; his pen summons back the old sounds, smells, lights, and shadows of the city past. When we push open this city's ancient, half-closed gates, we are faced with single-story houses, crumbling walls, hazy yellow lights, and the fragrance of locust flowers.

Bei Dao's aim in writing The City Gates Open is not to extol the beauty of old Beijing, but is instead concerned with "discovered happiness and pain." He works the spade of memory "toward the dark, unfathomable past and the unreachable future; toward the vast narrative of an imagined nation and the private narrative of the details of everyday life." For the reader, such an excavation is inevitably beneficial, yet for the author it is doubtlessly "too heavy, and too complicated." For this reason, Bei Dao admits that a number of passages in the work "need to overcome psychological obstacles," and that others are written "in the manner of a confession."

The Beijing presented in The City Gates Open is a retrospective by a public intellectual, and understandably bears traces of the author's active discernment. This causes a significant amount of text filled with the energy of childhood to fall suddenly through the cracks of history. The poet cannot express freely and the reader cannot saunter; instead, both must concentrate and sink deliberately into the text. …

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