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Opinion | CHINA

Look Homeward, Poet

June 30, 2002|BEI LING | Bei Ling is a poet and editor of the literary journal Tendency.

BOSTON — For years now, I have begun each return trip to my homeland at the Luohu customs stop on the border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. This year, on the hot, muggy evening of June 6, I made that trip again, walking out of Hong Kong toward the "new" Chinese city of Shenzhen over a crude, sturdy bridge about 100 meters long.

It can seem as if Hong Kong is being slowly, gently assimilated by its huge neighbor, as if Hong Kong has already fully returned to China. Mandarin-speaking visitors from the mainland fill the streets now. Mandarin instructors are in heavy demand among Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong businessmen wishing to learn the state-endorsed dialect. A department store is named Sanlitun, after a small corner of Beijing that attracts foreign visitors; a restaurant, Dongfang Hong, is named after a well-known mainland patriotic song once sung to welcome Mao Tse-tung.

Yet this huge city full of the vestiges of colonialism still has hold of the most precious legacies bequeathed by British rule: freedom of speech, media and publishing, and a highly efficient, largely democratic legal system. On the bridge, I was acutely aware of these legacies.

But I wanted to go home, to cross the border peacefully like everyone else. I wanted to walk the busy streets of China and see China's people again. A friend would pick me up and take me to Shenzhen University, where I once taught--now more than 13 years ago. I would walk those familiar streets, buy books, then head to Material Life, a book bar, to spend the evening immersed in the wisdom and wit of Shenzhen's poets and writers.

I first left China in the late 1980s to attend a Beijing-New York sister city exhibition. A few months later, while I was still in the United States, the student movement that culminated in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, began. Students' calls for democratic change ended in bloodshed on the streets of Beijing. Because I was one of 10 signatories to a letter sent to the Chinese government in support of the students, I lost my teaching position at Shenzhen University. I could not return to live in my homeland.

During visits to China in subsequent years, I was followed and harassed. In 1997, I was taken into custody for 36 hours to prevent my attending an event commemorating Tiananmen Square. In August 2000, things grew worse. That summer I was arrested and ultimately exiled.

My decision to try to visit China this summer was risky. As soon as I reached the other end of the Luohu Bridge and saw the sign welcoming me (or at least some travelers) to mainland China, my heart tightened. It was on a similarly hot summer evening 21 months earlier that I was forced into a car in Beijing and whisked away by four gruff undercover policemen. They didn't even give me the chance to take a breath or grab a toothbrush. Instead they took me to prison, where I sat for 14 days.

I was accused of "illegal publishing," a crime for which I could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison. It's true that my literary journal Tendency had been printed in China that summer. For years, I had published it in the United States, although it is written in Chinese and most of its readers are from China. For financial reasons and to test rumors that China was loosening a bit I decided to have an issue printed in Beijing. But I quickly learned there was still no freedom to publish in China.

I was one of 20 arrestees--including accused rapists, murderers and thieves--who lived in a space of 400 to 500 square feet. We ate and slept within inches of a single, shared toilet. Prison gang members randomly doled out physical punishment to the weaker prisoners. The water was always cold; we lived on cabbage and steamed bread.

After 15 days, with the help of supporters and writers, including Susan Sontag and the U.S. Congress, I was freed, expelled from China and put on a plane bound for the U.S.

It was perhaps foolish to return this year--particularly under the circumstances. In Hong Kong days earlier, I had read a poem commemorating the victims of Tiananmen Square at a gathering attended by 45,000 people. The poem and my picture appeared in the next day's newspaper.

But the longing for home is never easily cured. I wanted to talk about literature in Chinese over a pot of tea or a glass of beer. I wanted to ride a bicycle through crowded alleyways and look up every so often at the blue sky of Beijing. I wanted to spend hours browsing Chinese bookstores, to be surrounded by Chinese books. I wanted to hear the sounds of home.

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