What is a lost city? The vanished metropolises of myth and history are one sort: Atlantis plunged into the sea, Troy razed, ghost towns littered across the American West. But cities can be susceptible to another kind of loss too. “I lost two cities, lovely ones,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in “One Art.” It’s partly in this way that the eminent Chinese poet Bei Dao speaks of losing Beijing, his native city. Exiled since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Bei Dao was briefly allowed to return to Beijing in 2001 to see his dying father. He was stunned by what he found. “Beijing had completely changed: everything was difficult to recognize, nothing familiar. I was a foreigner in my own hometown,” he writes in his newly published memoir, City Gate, Open Up (translated by Jeffrey Yang). This sense of loss gave him a mission: “I would use the written word to rebuild another city, rebuild my Beijing; I would use my Beijing to refute the Beijing of today.” Bei Dao set out to discover whether it is possible to recapture a lost city.
As a poet and a scholar of Chinese history, I’m struck by how neatly Bei Dao’s early life maps onto the history of the People’s Republic of China. He was born Zhao Zhenkai (Bei Dao is his pen name) a few months before Mao Zedong established the “New China” on October 1, 1949. His parents attended cadre school, and his childhood in Beijing was dominated by the political campaigns and social upheaval of the Mao era. He was a boy during the Great Leap Forward, the utopian campaign to boost production and create self-sufficient local communities, and he describes the “festival” atmosphere, complete with drums and gongs, that reigned at the beginning of this period. The campaign failed disastrously, exacerbating a massive famine and leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people—ravenous, bitter years that Bei Dao recounts in aching detail, from “the smell of rotting yams” to his malnourished hallucinations of “grotesquely shaped trees, brilliant flowers about to drop petals, smoke suspended in midair, water flowing backward.…”
When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, China became the dominion of the Red Guards, public denunciations, and violent struggle sessions, a reign of terror fueled by Mao’s personality cult. It was, Bei Dao writes, a time of “bloody tragedy” and “utter abjection.” A student filled with revolutionary fervor, he swore an oath with his friends: “Carry the revolution to the end.” Around this time, his father fell from a ladder and broke his wrist; Bei Dao brought a healing gift to the hospital, a small bust of Mao that he placed beside the sickbed.
Bei Dao lost faith in the revolution, however, and wrote poetry with a circle of friends during the 1970s.