Zhao Zhenkai was born on August 2, 1949 in Beijing. His pseudonym Bei Dao literally means “North Island,” and was suggested by a friend as a reference to the poet’s provenance from Northern China as well as his typical solitude.
Dao was one of the foremost poets of the Misty School, and his early poems were a source of inspiration during the April Fifth Democracy Movement of 1976, a peaceful demonstration in Tiananmen Square. He has been in exile from his native China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
In his foreword to At the Sky’s Edge, Michael Palmer writes: “Anointed as an icon on the Democracy Wall and as the voice of a generation by the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and thereby also fated to exile, Bei Dao has followed a path of resistance that abjures overt political rhetoric while simultaneously keeping faith with his passionate belief in social reform and freedom of the creative imagination.”
His awards and honors include the Aragana Poetry Prize from the International Festival of Poetry in Casablanca, Morocco, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a candidate several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was elected an honorary member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. At the request of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he traveled to Palestine as part of a delegation for the International Parliament of Writers.
Bei Dao was a Stanford Presidential lecturer and has taught at the University of California at Davis, the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and Beloit College in Wisconsin. In 2006, Bei Dao was allowed to move back to China.
the ancients play chess in the starry sky
the endgame flickers
a bird locked in a clock
jumps out to tell the time
the sun climbs over the wall like an old man
and goes through the market
throwing mirror light on
a rusted copper plate
gods drink water from earthen jars
a bow asks a string for directions
a boy sets out to inherit the ocean
from the edge of the sky
seeds sown along the high noon
death blossoms outside my window
resisting, the tree takes on a hurricane’s
violent original shape