Glossary Home Movements

Misty Poets

The Misty Poets, or Ménglóng Shi Rén, is a group of Chinese poets who were working in the 20th century. Their work was created against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution during which traditional themes of art were sidelined and artists were prosecuted. 

The Misty Poets take their name from a description of the poetry, suggesting it is hazy, obscure, and hard to understand. But, writers who were part of the movement or who have studied the works created in China during this time define it as having elements of subjective and objective realism

Misty Poets

Misty Poets Definition

The Misty Poets composed compelling and moving verses during the Cultural Revolution in China. Their work sought to assert their independence (of body and mind) from the constrictions of Mao’s China.

The movement was centered around the Chinese magazine, Jintian, which was published for two years between 1978 and 1980 before it was banned. The magazine inspired writers who sought to step outside the government’s demand that all art meet certain cultural requirements. 

Art During the Cultural Revolution

During the Cultural Revolution, many artists were assigned to manual labor or were forced to paint or write what the government wanted them to—generally, people and scenes that glorified the Cultural Revolution.

Mao Zedong declared that all art should conform to his and the broader government’s idea of what was suitable for their people. It should encourage the public to stand behind the Cultural Revolution. There was no purpose, he decreed, in making subjective art. The idea of art for art’s sake, or the principles of aestheticism, had no place in China. 

Important Misty Poets 

Below are a few of the most important writers who are considered part of the Misty Poets movement: 

  • Bei Dao
  • Duo Duo 
  • Bei Ling 
  • Fei Ye 
  • Gu Cheng 
  • Ha Jin 
  • Mang Ke 
  • Xi Chuan 
  • Yang Lian 

Examples of Misty Poetry 

Island (#2) by Yang Lian

Yang Lian’s ‘Island (#2)’ is one of the poet’s best-known works among American readers. The lines included below were translated from the original Chinese by Arthur Size. ‘Island’ is one of five poems included in a series. It was originally written in tercets, something that Size sought to preserve in his translation. Readers should note the poet’s use of blank spaces, such as between “You’re right” and “in life” in the first line. These create silences that are important to one’s understanding of the piece. Here are the first lines of the poem: 

You’re right    in life’s chamber music   

either listen with total attention    or else switch off   

Water    one drop can perfectly lock up these shores  

Yang Lian is one of the many Chinese poets who was backlisted during the Cultural Revolution. He was also among those sent to the countryside in order to undergo a “re-education process” through hard labor. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1977, he returned to Beijing.

Black Map by Bei Dao 

Bei Dao, or Zhao Zhenkai, is an important member of the Misty Poet movement. He is also considered to be one of the most important contemporary writers in China today. His work appeared in Jintian, a Chinese journal that was banned in 1980 after only two years. Here are a few lines from his ‘Black Map,’ as translated by Eliot Weinberger: 

in the end, cold crows piece together

the night: a black map

I’ve come home—the way back

longer than the wrong road

long as a life

A Generation by Gu Cheng 

‘A Generation,’ or “一代人” is Gu Cheng’s best-known piece. It is only two lines long and is often considered representative of the thought processes of young Chinese writers during the Cultural Revolution. The lines, as translated by Juan Yuchi, read: 

The darkest night gave me dark-colored eyes

Yet with them I’m seeking light


What are the characteristics of the Misty Poets?

These poems highlight individual experience, the search for meaning, life struggles, and more in China during the Cultural Revolution. They sought to move away from objective realism and toward subjective realism, according to Gu Cheng, one of the most influential writers of the movement. 

What is the misty poetry movement?

The Misty Poets movement describes a group of Chinese writers working during the Cultural Revolution. These writers crafted poetry that went against that which the government decreed was acceptable. Their work explored subjective realism and spoke about life from individual perspectives

Why are the Misty poets called the Misty poets?

The movement takes its name from a description of the haziness, obscurity, and complexity of some of the poetic works. Some use the term derogatorily to suggest that the poems lack true substance, but today, the work of the Misty Poets is generally celebrated as some of the most important in modern Chinese history.

Related Literary Terms

  • Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
  • Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
  • Dark Romanticism: a subgenre of the important literary movementRomanticism. It includes works of a more grotesque nature. 
  • Dirty Realism: a literary movement of the 20th century in North America. The movement’s authors use concise language and clear descriptions of the darkest parts of reality.
  • Futurism:  an avant-garde movement that originated in Italy in the 20th century. It was part of the broader Futurist art movement.
  • Genre:  a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Fugitives: a movement comprised of a group of poets and scholars from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-1920s. 

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