Exiled Poet Dreams of Beijing A Letter from Berlin

September 13, 1992|By IAN JOHNSON

Berlin -- Gu Cheng is dreaming again. This time about hi hometown, Beijing, a city the Chinese poet hasn't seen for five years.

It's not the exile's usual dream of a home made inaccessible by politics or war. Mr. Gu is dreaming of a Beijing that doesn't exist anymore, the Beijing of crowded alleys, broad city walls and powerful gates -- a bright, chaotic city laid out to harmonize with heaven rather than a political party's sterile delusions of grandeur.

"I'm describing this lost city, because when I was young it stopped existing. It was torn down, or most of it was. Now I'm walking through it in dreams and writing it down," the 36-year-old Mr. Gu said.

Mr. Gu's act of remembering and re-creating the old city is part of his effort to preserve a bit of Chinese culture from a brutish 20th century made worse by a thuggish government. He walks through the city and each day writes one poem to the city gates, most of which were destroyed over the past 40 years by a party that equated old with bad.

In other countries, Mr. Gu would be a famous recluse who would publish a widely acclaimed book of poetry every few years. But in the People's Republic of China he is a persecuted writer who during the early 1980s was one of the most criticized persons in China. Although luckier than his leveled hometown, Mr. Gu is wounded, a sensitive man who said that one of the main things he learned when he was young was to fear.

Not surprisingly, he treats his exile as more of an escape, made easier by his conviction that the truly valuable parts of China are easily accessible in his New Zealand home or his apartment in Berlin, where he is a fellow for one year of the German Academic Exchange Service.

"For me the most important part of China is here -- [the novel] 'Dream of the Red Chamber,' Tang [dynasty] poetry. I like nice things, and back there is . . .' Mr. Gu said.

Chinese society and culture used to be so rich, he believes, because of its ties to artists and poets who lived close to nature. Along with private property that made these havens possible, Communist rule destroyed the introspective, private sphere that fostered the country's music, painting, literature and poetry.

"At this point, China's soil became dust. It used to be watered by a river. Then this water, this nature, was no more. The soil just dried up and blew into the sky," Mr. Gu said.

The political implications of his works and criticisms seem foreign to Mr. Gu. A basically apolitical man, more interested in insects and emotions than party ideology or Politburo intrigues, he has been dragged into the fray by a government that rarely allows the pursuit of personal, private interests.

I am hoping

Thinking

But I do not know why

I have not received any crayons

Have not had a colorful moment.

The lines are from his 1980 poem, "I am a Willful Child." He first began publishing in the late 1970s in the Today magazine that became synonymous with the first democracy movement. He and fellow poets, such as Shu Ting and Bei Dao, called their poetry "obscure."

Rather than allow a few poets to write obscure poetry, the government lashed out at this defiance of how it thought poetry should be. By the early 1980s Gu Cheng became a subject of intense debate during the "spiritual pollution campaign" -- one of the witchhunts against dissidents that have punctuated the past 43 years of Communist rule.

Almost absurdly, Mr. Gu's poetry was attacked as "incomprehensible" because it ignored the culture bureaucrats' order that poetry employ a subject-verb construction.

Part of the 1980s criticism, however, must have been motivated by his brutal honesty in describing what he saw. For example, the start of one 1980 poem, "Emotions," is hardly the uplifting stuff of communist propaganda:

The sky is gray

The path is gray

The building is gray

The rain is gray.

The resulting public attacks were devastating for a man who grew up during the purges of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, when he and his father were only able to exchange a few lines of poetry while cleaning out pig sties as forced laborers.

Shell-shocked by the new round of attacks, Mr. Gu retreated to his Beijing apartment in 1984 and gave up publishing his poetry. He lived like a hermit for three years until he succeeded in obtaining an exit visa for a speaking trip to Germany. Since then he hasn't returned to China.

But through the magazine Today and one volume of poetry, he has become a leading poet in post-Maoist China. He is especially popular among a younger generation that identifies with his alienated verses. His works have also been published in several languages, including English.

One of his most famous poems, "One Generation," expresses in two lines growing up in the People's Republic and such little hope as can be mustered despite the past 40 years of famines, gulags and daily degradations:

The dark night has given me dark eyes

But I use them to go seek light.

Ian Johnson is a reporter for The Sun.

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