In “A Poet Who Survived Mao,” Wenguang Huang reviews City Gate, Open Up 城门开, the new memoir by Bei Dao 北岛, for the Wall Street Journal. Huang writes:
In 18 essays, crafted with poetic precision and enriched by Jeffrey Yang’s assiduous translation, Bei Dao depicts a cast of memorable characters with humor and insight: a tenacious family nanny always on the lookout for revolutionary opportunities; a talented schoolmate who sneaked across the border to Burma to join guerrilla forces; and the author’s father, a former government propaganda official and a moody authoritarian at home. Bei Dao devotes a long chapter to the universal theme of a troubled father-son relationship.
“City Gate, Open Up” made me want to retrieve my old college journal filled with the poet’s quotable stanzas. When I called my family back in China, however, I found out that it had been tossed out long ago. “There’s no room for old stuff,” a family member said indifferently. That now seems to be the national slogan. It only makes Bei Dao’s book more poignant.
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At 3% P. T. Smith reviews For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 and translated by Wenguang Huang. Smith doesn’t know family names from given names in Chinese, but that doesn’t keep him from writing a compelling review. Here’s a passage that focuses on the poetry:
The poem that lands [Liao Yiwu] in jail (“The Massacre,” published at the end of the book in an English translation by one of Yiwu’s most driven counterrevolutionary friends, Michael Day), comes as the memoir itself does: not from political or cultural goals, but from a consistent attempt to recognize humanity in both compassion and cruelty. He is unflinching in showing that compassion and cruelty are a package deal of being human. Before his arrest, he portrays himself as a selfish, distant husband, capable of violence against his wife and others. In prison, at times he plays himself the monkish hero, at other times a brute, other times simply casually mean; guards can be kind and reasonable, they also torture prisoners for fun; prisoners protect, care for, and even love each other, they also humiliate, beat, and rape each other (of all the seemingly never-ending stomach-churning difficult passages to read, the “menu” of torture and humiliation options that inmates serve each other is one of the most difficult, emphasized by its bare-bones telling). Early on, Yiwu tells us that he “never intended to be a hero, but in a country where insanity ruled, I had to take a stand. ‘Massacre’ was my art and my art was my protest.” Notably, this, one of his strongest statements on the poem, comes after showing not the insanity of those in power, but the cruelty and insanity the average, “brave and fearless” small-town Chinese are capable of.
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