Midnight's Gate


Twenty essays about Bei Dao's life in exile since Tiananmen Square.

The twenty essays of Midnight's Gate form a travelogue of a poet who has lived in some seven countries since his exile form China in 1989. The work carries us from Palestine to Sacramento. At one point we are led into a basement in Paris for a production of Gorky's Lower Depths, the next moment we are in the mountains of China where Bei Dao worked for eleven years as a concrete mixer and ironworker. The ...

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Twenty essays about Bei Dao's life in exile since Tiananmen Square.

The twenty essays of Midnight's Gate form a travelogue of a poet who has lived in some seven countries since his exile form China in 1989. The work carries us from Palestine to Sacramento. At one point we are led into a basement in Paris for a production of Gorky's Lower Depths, the next moment we are in the mountains of China where Bei Dao worked for eleven years as a concrete mixer and ironworker. The subjective experience deepens and multiplies in these essays, filled with the stories of ordinary Chinese immigrants, as well as those of literary, artistic, and political figures. And it all coheres with a poet's observations, meditations, and memories.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The writings in this volume by the internationally known Chinese dissident poet are called "essays," but read more like amalgamations after the fact of diary entries sorted by subject. They cover his many travels, from his native China-where he toiled as a concrete worker and iron mixer-to the California home he later inhabited and far-flung poetry conferences he has attended over the years. The pieces seem like the haphazardly arranged memories of a rootless man. And while most seem to have sprung somewhere in the distant past from a consideration of people who have crossed paths with the author over the course of his career, the book's title is taken from the most anomalous piece, which passionately discusses a trip he took as a member of a delegation of the International Parliament of Writers to visit an embattled Palestinian writer and his land. Chinese prose is very different in tenor and organizing principles than English, and translations can end up rather flat, so it's hard to say whether the weaknesses of this volume stem from the original composition or its translation. While it's occasionally insightful and contains a moment or two of sly wit, the prose remains strangely affectless and so completely unaffecting. (May 27) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fresh, inventive passages from an expatriate Chinese poet's peripatetic wanderings. They began in 1987, and Bei Dao has been on the move ever since. He travels with ease through the restless Chinese cultural circles that have sprung up abroad, but he also moves with an unusual comfort through New York, Paris and Prague. And he carries in his pocket something that serves him well: humor. In New York City, he observes that few New Yorkers are religious. "This has something to do with the elevators . . . ascending into the sky and then plunging down through the earth, it is almost impossible to have any sense of the mysteries of heaven or the underworld." Like many an exile, he is alert and observant, aware of a Parisian night as cool as water, or the sound of a weed growing from a medieval Czech town wall, rustling in the wind. (He hears Kafka's bones clacking in the same wind.) His eye may pause on something political. Ramallah's bustling poverty reminds him of towns in China and South Africa; traveling companion Breyten Breytenbach finds Israeli officials there even more efficient in imposing "the greatest difficulty on . . . people's lives" than the enforcers of apartheid were in his native South Africa. Even when Bei Dao is making one of his more eccentric observations ("Y sneezed twice in my face. He was exhausted from photographing purses"), he never exudes whimsy. His prose is quick on its feet but has a very specific gravity, aware as it is of life's precariousness. Certainly part of the great pleasure of reading Bei Dao comes from his ability to shift smoothly between the historic and the mundane, from Tiananmen Square to mixing concrete in China's Hebei Province (he settles wordsinto a sentence with the surety he might use to press a brick onto a wall), from a Weather Underground bomb leveling a Greenwich Village townhouse to his daughter asking him to wait on the sidewalk while she tries on some new clothes. Bei Dao is alive in exile, not in mourning because of it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811215848
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 5/1/2005
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Midnight's Gate

By Bei Dao

A New Directions Book

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Fryslie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8112-1584-9

Chapter One



I moved to New York Because of a conflagration. Of course, conflagration is merely a figurative way of referring to a certain extraordinary state of affairs, which in my case was a revolution. On my second day in New York, I woke up at four in the morning. Looking out my nineteenth-floor window, New York seemed to be on fire, its skyscrapers all in flames, thousands upon thousands of glass shards glinting bloody red, black birds wheeling into the sky-a truly apocalyptic scene. As it turned out, my alarm clock was still running on California time; day was just breaking in New York.

Then that night, it was New York's moon that startled me. Wedged between two tall buildings, the moon was enormous and bright, but no matter how I gazed at it, something didn't look quite right. If you ask a child from New York to draw the moon, most of their creations would not be round, but staggered and misshapen, clipped by glass and concrete.

In 1626, a Dutch superintendent purchased Manhattan-this thirty-mile long, two and a half-mile wide island of stone-from the Indians with trinkets worth about twenty-four dollars. In the nineteenth century, due to the widespread use of reinforced concrete, people madly spread upward into the sky, until one day NewYorkers discovered that they were nesting like birds in a concrete Forest.

New Yorkers are unable to imagine the horizon, a concept that from birth has no relevance to them. If in California my thinking was horizontal, here it certainly became vertical. When the elevator brought me from the ground to the nineteenth floor, my thoughts followed the inertia of upward motion, continuing to rise into the blue of the sky. In proportion to its population, few New Yorkers are religious. After some consideration, I have come to the conclusion that this has something to do with the elevators. When you spend the entire day ascending into the sky and then plunging down through the earth, it is almost impossible to have any sense of the mysteries of heaven or the underworld. In one sense, the elevator has become the primum mobile of New Yorkers' thinking. If the electricity should go out, they would be trapped somewhere in the middle, and might certainly go mad.

On my second day in New York, I wandered the streets, taking note of all the people. In addition to the vertical orientation of their thinking are certain linear qualities. For example, they are never vague when making appointments: 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue, or between Wall Street and Broadway. Later I began to understand that they are all just pieces on a chessboard. Their paths are mostly fixed, and the hands that pluck them up and move them are money, fate, and linear logic. But this doesn't mean that New Yorkers are only capable of shuttling back and forth in straight lines: opposed to the geography and plan of-the streets are the labyrinths of their hearts and winding coils of their guts. It is the twists and turns of power and the curves of the stock market that creates these convolutions in the souls of New Yorkers.


The first time I visited New York was in the summer of 1988. I flew in from London. Compared to the moribund British Empire, this place had a kind of heedless power. In Beijing, people call this sort of reckless and impulsive atmosphere lengtou qing (literally "crude green"). When I first got off the plane, my cousin's boyfriend took us for a drive. We looked back at the buildings of Manhattan from across the East River. It was twilight, and the lights were all ablaze. On the second day, I rode the subway into the city, and nearly passed out from the stench of urine before I was finally able, ashen and shaken, to crawl back out to the surface. When I looked up, the filthy skyscrapers pressed down on me so hard that I had to gasp for breath. Fortunately, they block the sun on the most sweltering of days.

We went to the East Village to look for W. Years earlier, when my first collection of poems was printed on a mimeograph machine, W had drawn the cover art. I had met my ex-wife, Shao Fei, through him. W first came to the U.S. in the '80s and had been living illegally in New York for seven or eight years. People have different reactions to living illegally. Some people live as if they're walking on thin ice, while others take to it like a fish to water. New York remakes people like no other place. This man who was a good student-a sophomore in film school, majoring in animation-had completely transformed himself. His eyes were gloomy, his face fatter, and his ears bigger. Dressed in shorts, he was now full of New York slang. As he walked down the street all sorts of people walked over to greet him, their faces full of respect. At that time, the East Village was a land of the homeless, drunks, drug dealers, and those suffering from AIDS. He would always grunt a response, but would not say much, just pat them on the shoulder, or stroke their bald heads, and miraculously, their enraged, crazy spirits would calm instantly.

He told us that in two day's time, this brotherhood of the poor and suffering was going to hold a demonstration in Washington Square to protest the city government's decision to chase out the homeless, and that the police would certainly squash it. Because of this, he had spent a considerable sum on a repeating flash for his camera. When the mounted police charged into the ranks of the demonstrators, at the moment the police raised their nightsticks, he snapped photos. They were published in local papers. TV news crews also reported from the scene of the demonstration. As an eyewitness, he related the details of the police violence. Even though shots of his face were blocked out for the broadcast, it still made him sweat because he was an illegal immigrant, if the police ever found out they would certainly retaliate.

I asked him how he made a living, and he said he painted people's portraits on the street. He then got out his painting tools, hailed a taxi, and dragged us to a prosperous section of West Fourth Street, where a number of other Chinese painters were already trying to drum up business. Unfortunately, luck was not with him that evening as he waited two hours with no one even inquiring about prices. When someone suggested he go to Atlantic City for a little gambling, he immediately closed up shop and sailed off.

W was a buddy of Allen Ginsberg's. Allen would announce his name with great exaggeration. When I first came to New York, Allen invited us to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, and W went along to translate. He ridiculed Allen in Chinese. Allen stared at him and smiled wickedly, seeming to understand everything. He told Allen about the police suppression of the demonstration, and Allen immediately made a public statement. In New York, one can find almost every type of underground society; and the fact that W was happy to enter the ranks of those on the margins of society and fight for justice shows that he was born to rebel. This must be the main reason that, many years ago, he joined the Xingxing Painters' Club.

Later, I heard W had returned to China where he made a fortune as a major antiques dealer in Beijing. It wasn't that surprising as commercialism digests everything in the end. Besides, the antiques business is an underground society; the courage and insight he had won from his struggles in New York proved enough.


Michael is a New Yorker, but now lives in Prague. Two days ago he came to New York on business. After graduating with a degree in history from Columbia-treading in the footsteps of Pound and Eliot-he moved to London where he married and had children, and was trapped for more than twenty years. A few years ago, released from his familial responsibilities, he moved to Prague to work for The Prague International Writers' Festival. The festival wanted to invite Arthur Miller to serve as its chairman, and Michael needed to attend to the matter in person. So with financial assistance from The Guardian, the Prague city government, DHL, a cell phone provided by GlobalOne, and a plane ticket donated by Swissair, the ex-New Yorker was packed up and sent back to his old hometown.

Michael asked me to reserve a hotel room for him. I looked everywhere, but he was on a limited budget, so all I could come up with was a B&B in Greenwich Village.

After I moved to New York, Michael once told me over the phone, "The place you are living in is just two or three blocks from the place I was born. You should go and take a look." The doorbell rang, and Michael walked in wearing his trademark smile. He had brought six small wineglasses of pink crystal for me, as well as the brochure for the year's writers' festival. On the cover was a semiabstract oil painting by a Czech artist, composed of circles of varying sizes. All of them were graves. Michael sighed and then pointed to a little circle in the back row and said, "That one's mine."

A few days later, I emerged from the subway station in the afternoon as we had arranged to meet up to talk before visiting another friend together. Michael appeared in the drizzle, wearing a black woolen coat, his thinning hair uncombed. "Look! This is my New York," he said, both arms outstretched. But the truth was that this had not been his New York for a long time. He was being sentimental, feeling nostalgic about everything that had passed away. But real New Yorkers eschew such warm feelings; they are daily witnesses to life's cruelties. He said that the B&B wasn't bad, and the owner was quite friendly. The only drawback was that his room had no windows. I imagined him sitting alone, facing the wall in the darkness, while beyond it New York exploded in lights.

We sat in a coffee shop. The place was decorated in a reserved antique elegance that was painstaking without being obsessive. Most of the customers seemed to be locals. A college student was doing her homework at a side table. "New York has changed. New Yorkers never used to talk about money," Michael said, sipping a cup of strong coffee with his eyes closed. "Now everything is so blatant." He told me that he had no family left in New York, and that he no longer even spoke to his stepfather in Miami. After his mother's death, he wrote to his stepfather simply to ask for a clock that his mother had liked, as a memento. But instead, his stepfather sold the clock and sent Michael some money to buy a new clock.

I bought one of the coffee shop's T-shirts for his girlfriend, and wrote a few words to her on a Marilyn Monroe postcard. Heading out the door, I couldn't repress a shiver. A New Yorker who relieves his homesickness with tears, drifting from one place to another without even a souvenir to represent his past, and then, returning home at last, ends up staying in a windowless room.


New York taxis seem to be reserved for our brothers from poor and war-torn places, and many of them drive as though they are still fighting battles in their minds. One day, during the war in Kosovo, my taxi driver was a Serb who had just come from the front lines. Without warning, he arched his back and turned the steering wheel at top speed, weaving and dodging, clearly still trying to avoid gunfire. His eyes were locked straight ahead, his expression both anxious and exultant. Perhaps it was the feeling of going deep behind enemy lines-plunging right into the heart of American imperialism.

The goals of some taxi drivers are very concrete. On one ride, my driver was a middle-aged peasant from the ravines of Turkey. I could see his melancholy eyes in the rear-view mirror. His greatest wish was to make enough money to buy a good car and go back home in style. He asked me in detail about the features and prices of each make of car, unable to have the best yet unwilling to settle for less, talking to me as if I managed a car lot. Fortunately, I love cars myself and took the opportunity to show off my little knowledge in this area. He covertly fingered a small abacus and reached the conclusion that he could go home the following year. He hated New York. Through clenched teeth, he said it was hell.

I have an American friend who is an old New York hand. Once, while taking a taxi to JFK, he casually asked the driver where he was from. The driver immediately took offense and said, in a very thick foreign accent, "Where are you from where are you from, everybody always asks, but then when I tell them my country, nobody knows it." My friend asked if he could try. The driver agreed and said that he would name the country and if my friend could name the capital the ride was free, otherwise he'd double the fare. My friend agreed. The driver said Albania. My friend not only knew Tirana, but he also mentioned the name of a famous Albanian tenor, which pleased the driver to no end, and when he got out of the cab, the driver refused to take any money.

Two days ago on my way to the dress rehearsal of a small theatrical troupe near Washington Square, I hailed a cab. The driver was very distinguished in his appearance, like a Hamlet who was just about to leave the political stage. His name was Louis, he was a dramatic actor, and he had been part of the backbone of the street theater that thrived in New York in the sixties and seventies. He had always had a strong fondness for China. His father had been second in command of a unit in the American "Flying Tigers" during the war against Japan, but he did not allow him to travel in China. When we talked about the presidential election, he said that Bush was a moron and represented the interests of American arms dealers. On the subject of rent in New York, he called the mayor the boss of a crime syndicate composed of three types of people: lawyers, bankers, and developers. We exchanged phone numbers. As I was getting out of the car, he told me that when the tide of revolution ebbed, and he discovered that there was no place for him in society, driving a taxi and playing the occasional bit part was the only thing he could do. He said, "You haven't woken up, man. The world has fucking changed."


My daughter, Tiantian, doesn't like New York. Not long ago she came here to visit me for a couple weeks. For a child who has grown up in Beijing, then lived for five years in a small town in rural California-from fifth grade through middle school-and then returned to Beijing last summer for high school, one can imagine that this is a confusing experience. Living in California, she missed Beijing, but then she was disappointed after she moved back to Beijing. She is not one to forget her friends. She misses her California classmates, but she doesn't like the United States, and in the future, she wants to move to a new country she knows nothing about. Sixteen is a depressing age, and what with migrating from country to country, cultural shifts, domestic turmoil, and the restlessness of youth added in, one must be careful of everything.

Tiantian slept on the sofa in the living room. Maybe because of jet lag or her rejection of New York, she refused to wake up in the morning: and she would have absolutely no energy until late in the evening when she would bounce all over the room, making me dizzy. On top of a cabinet in the living room was an old clock that quit working many years ago, its parts rusted together. Tiantian never wore a watch, but in an attempt to create some reference between New York and Beijing time, when she had nothing else to do, she would pound on the rusted clock, move the hands, and swing the pendulum. It never worked for very long.

When you visit New York, you have to go someplace high up. I offered to take Tiantian to the Empire State Building. "Why the Empire State Building?" she asked. "It's tall." "Taller than a mountain?" This stopped me in my tracks. "All right, then. Let's go to Central Park." "Why Central Park?" "It's big." "How big?" I wasted some time trying to show her with gestures, and finally dug out a map of New York. "That speck?" she spat out disdainfully, "Forget it." In the end, we took a walk through SoHo. As soon as we stepped into a clothing store for young people, I became an embarrassment to her. She quickly told me where and when to meet her later, dismissing me with a few words.


Excerpted from Midnight's Gate by Bei Dao Copyright © 2005 by Matthew Fryslie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

New York variations 3
Lunch 44
Paris stories 51
Kafka's Prague 76
Midnight's gate 91
Empty mountain 119
Poul Borum 130
Breyten Breytenbach 136
The master of Ithaca 150
King Martin 159
Backyard 173
Country mouse 180
Drinking stories 189
Durham 199
Baseball game 208
Death Valley 212
Shifu 219
Mustard 225
The eccentric Jiakai 236
Uncle Liu 241
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