Thursday, January 1, 2009

Today!: China's Premiere Underground Magazine Turns 30

(image from

The January 2009 issue of Hong Kong's Mingpao Monthly published an article titled "For Today's Yesterday and Tomorrow" by poet Liao Weitang. It reports on the celebration activities for the 30th anniversary of Today magazine in Hong Kong during December 11-13. The celebration was initiated by Bei Dao (北岛), and many Chinese poets participated, including my old friends Zhai Yongming (翟永明), Ouyang Jianghe (欧阳江河), Meng Lang (孟浪), and a new friend Xi Chuan (西川, whom I met in Beijing in summer 2007).

American readers probably know nothing about Today, the once extremely influential "underground" literary magazine in China. Nobel nominee Bei Dao was one of the founding editors of the magazine, and his poetry first became known to us through Today. When I was a university student in China, in the early 1980s Bei Dao's sorrowful lines such as "Privilege is the passport of the privileged / low is the epitaph of the lowly" were recited on every campus I visited. Whoever got hold an issue of the mimeographed Today magazine, it was quickly grabbed by another student. The magazine passed from hand to hand until it literally melted to pieces. Oh, what an unforgettable time it was! I can't think of it without being sentimental. We gathered in undersized dormitory rooms in this and that university, in small groups, arguing about China's future and read aloud poems from Today. As the first batch of students admitted to universities after the Cultural Revolution (the so called "year 77," though our first class began in spring 1978), we felt responsible for changing China. Each issue of Today induced more passion in us, even after the magazine was banned (around the time the "Democracy Wall" in Beijing was demolished in late 1980, I think).

I know of no other literary magazines, official or otherwise, that had the influence on young people Today did in the early 1980s. (Around that time there were many others, underground magazines thrived like bamboo shoots after a spring rain.) Later Today resumed its publication overseas, however it has lost its clout. On the other hand, it is the only unofficial magazine from the post-CR time that still exists today.

Bei Dao says in commemorating Today magazine's 30th anniversary that (in translation):

I want to emphasize that, a nation needs a spiritual sky, especially at a time of materialism. Without imagination and passion, no matter how wealthy a nation is, it is still poor; no matter how powerful a nation is, it is still weak. In this sense, Today returns to its starting point: it revolts not only against autocracy, but also against abuse of language, mediocrity in aesthetics, and wretchedness in life.

Sadly, the impact of poetry seems to be getting weaker and weaker as society grows its material wealth. Perhaps poetry's revitalization requires mankind's purposeful effort to restrain both material wealth and the development of luxury technologies.


wuming said...


I was also in that misnamed (entering) class of 77. Though unlike you I really didn't have an ear or patience for poetry. I did read poems from Today, but mainly for the coolness of political subversion.

I think this is another reason that poetry lost its appeal. As it happened in many former or present communist countries, it was a voice of dissension. At this age, political dissension is definitely not cool even in a communist country like China. I am curious what the literary scene in North Korea is like now.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Yeah, I was thinking about that as well - poetry seems most powerful when it is married to a time of political upheaval. Not sure what to make of that.

Glad to know you were also a member of "class 77"! This explains why we often have resonance. Which school were you in? I was in Chongqing University studying mechanical engineering.

wuming said...

I went to Wuhan University and studied mathematics. It was probably the most exciting time of my life since the possibilities seemed limitless then. I remember going home at vacation time to my high school classmates in Beijing, brimming with new ideas and experiences each time ...

I am pretty sure that you have considered the following puzzle. Many of us Chinese ex-pats had a negative view of CCP that reached its crescendo in 1989. But by mid to late 90s, a significant number of us had an about face on the matter. What had happened? There are obvious factors: the post 1989 (more precisely post 92) policy changes by CCP that resulted in the economic take-off of China, we grew older and hence less radical, our dissolution with aspects of Western society, ... but I cannot easily explain such dramatic change in such pervasive fashion. Any insight?

Magnus said...

interesting post. Yes, as an American I haven't heard of JINTIAN... but could you put those people's names in Chinese characters as well? That would make it easier to do further searches on their names and actual poetry.

You wrote: "Perhaps poetry's revitalization requires mankind's purposeful effort to restrain both material wealth and the development of luxury technologies."
Ok. so give me your computer and your house. What would you consider "luxury technologies???"

Xujun Eberlein said...

Magnus, I consider things like ipods and big screen TVs luxury technologies. Mankind does not need those things to thrive (this is not to say I don't enjoy them). BTW, if you follow the links in the post you will see some of the poets names in Chinese.

Wuming, you ask a great question. I have been thinking about that very question for quite a while now. It might take a long post to address it, but I will write that post in the near future. In short, I think several factors are at play, but one thing I want to say upfront is that I don't believe in a radical revolution any more, because it does more damage than good. Gradual changes will be much more beneficial to Chinese people. This simple conclusion may have taken our life-time of experiences to reach, and is obviously not accepted by young radicals.

wuming said...

Once again I am in complete agreement about revolution. It is almost always too high a price to pay. Destructions of lives are very tragic, but the destruction of the society can kill more people in body and spirit for a long time. It took China at least 30 years and tens of millions of lives to get over the effects of the communist revolution, to me no lofty ideological aims can justify that.

Talking about ideology, I think that is the second demon. Fanatic ideology functions exactly like fanatic religion, it twist people away from their basic nature and humanity, into the foot-soldiers of revolutions. China has prospered in the last 30 years because it turned against ideology of all stripes and focused on the practical issues of its citizens'livelihoods.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog, you know how it is, a link to a link to yet another link.

I've only had time to read a few posts but I wanted to say it's been a very good read so far! Well-written and thought-provoking with a clear understanding of both China and the West. That, provides this laowai teacher/journalist in Guangxi, some valuable insight.

It's been said before, "The times, they are a changin'". That is always the case, then (in 77-78), as now.

Xujun Eberlein said...

EG, glad to get to know about you and your blog. I will link to your blog soon.

Magnus, I've added Chinese names in the post per your request.

Wuming, I'd love to hear more about your thoughts and experiences. You can email me at