Li Ao 李敖, a famously controversial writer and media personality based in Taiwan, died on 18 March this year. For many former admirers Li’s end really came in 2004. His passing gives us pause to consider the plangent fate of this ‘madman’.
The following essay and translation were first published by China Channel, Los Angeles Review of Books on 30 March 2018. I would like to thank the editors of China Channel for their support, their editorial suggestions and for permission to reprint this material. Minor emendations have been made to that earlier version of the text.
I think Xiaobo would appreciate the fact that ‘A Madman’s End’ is appearing in China Heritage on April Fool’s Day.
— The Editor, China Heritage
1 April 2018
It is impossible to describe the exhilaration I felt reading Li Ao’s A Monologue on Tradition 獨白下的傳統 when it first appeared in 1979. At the time, I was working for The Seventies Monthly 七十年代月刊, a prominent Chinese-language magazine edited by the noted Hong Kong journalist Lee Yee 李怡. After years studying in late-Maoist China where I had been immersed in the works of the Great Helmsman #1 and reams of stilted Party prose, the initial shock of Hong Kong’s cultural and linguistic richness was immense. The British Crown Colony was the entrepôt of the Chinese multiverse, one where traditions from before 1949 and the world of that ‘Other China’ Taiwan were freely accessible; they jostled with an atavistic form of capitalism as well as with a flourishing publishing industry under a colonial rule that was ever mindful of the cloaked realm of the People’s Republic of China.
And then there was Li Ao 李敖: his prose, and his ideas, were liberating, scintillating and, after my time on the Mainland, bracingly scandalous. I was soon surreptitiously ferrying copies of A Monologue on Tradition — a collection of essays on history and the Chinese national character — to friends in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Around that time I launched my own writing career as a Chinese essayist (one which lasted from the late 1970s until the early 1990s); Li Ao 李敖, among others writers, was both a challenge and an inspiration.
Li was notorious and he had been dubbed the ‘madman’ 狂人 of Taiwan letters. It was a reputation cemented by one of his most oft-quoted statements:
In the last fifty years, and for the last five hundred,
The three greatest writers of vernacular Chinese prose are: Li Ao, Li Ao and Li Ao.
Even the people who disparage me for being boastful
Kowtow to my ancestral tablet in their hearts.
Another example of Li Ao’s style can be found in the introduction to A Monologue on Tradition:
Chinese intellectuals lack a very important quality: independence … the result being that there is no difference between A and B, or C and D. They say the same things, write the same bullshit, and lick the same asses. A, B, C, and D might look a little different, but they’re united in their lack of character and originality…
The tradition is unforgiving when it comes to nonconformity. In other respects Chinese society may be completely inefficient, but when it comes to dealing with the true talents and people of conscience who won’t conform, China is number one; it has a real genius for banning and killing. Individualists share a congenital disinclination to longevity. Most of them die young, and if they’re lucky to live they still find it hard to escape calamity.
It is an insight into Chinese culture made all the more poignant by the fact that Li Ao, who lived to the ripe old age of eighty three, became a caricature of himself, while one of his most pointed critics — the outspoken dissident Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 — whose views on Li Ao feature below, passed away last year at the relatively young age of sixty two.
A famous student of the leading May Fourth-era writer and academic titan Hu Shi 胡適, Li Ao soon achieved notoriety on Taiwan, where he had moved with his family in 1949 (he was born in Harbin in 1935). During the era of Martial Law imposed by the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek, Li was a garrulous advocate for the freedom of expression, democracy and wholesale Westernization. Although in the United States the Republic of China was lauded as ‘Free China’, its government was quick to punish dissent. Li Ao’s work was frequently banned and he was arrested in the early 1970s for political agitation. Sentenced to ten years jail he was released after only five due to an amnesty announced following Chiang Kai-shek death in 1975.
Free once more this irrepressible ‘madman’ generated a stream of new works, some of which were collected in A Monologue on Tradition (later he churned out a book every few months; his collected works run to forty volumes). I later translated material from it for New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Voices of Conscience (New York: Times Books, 1992, from which the translations in this essay are taken), edited with Linda Jaivin in the wake of the events of Fourth June 1989.
Li’s coruscating prose read like the next stage in the evolution of the polemical style of the May Fourth Era (1917-1927) yet, despite the gradual cultural opening of the Mainland during the 1980s, it was not until 1989 that Monologue was finally published in Beijing. Years earlier, in 1986, I had met an upcoming literary critic by the name of Liu Xiaobo, he too was known for his ‘madness’ 狂 or ‘craziness’ 癲狂: it’s a term with various, often positive, connotations in the Chinese tradition, and one used by the early twentieth-century writer Lu Xun in the title of his most famous work, ‘A Madman’s Diary’ 狂人日記. Liu’s rambunctious public manner and vitriolic style of writing reminded me of Li Ao and we often discussed the famously prickly Taiwanese contrarian (later, our mutual friend Jin Zhong 金鐘, editor of the Hong Kong journal Open Magazine 開放雜誌, declared that Xiaobo was ‘the Li Ao of the Mainland’). As things unfolded, however, it turned out that in the end neither of these ‘madmen’ had a nice word to say about the other. From 2004, when Li Ao made a debut in the Communist Party controlled media, Liu Xiaobo, by then one of China’s most famous dissidents, was unstinting in his contempt. Li repaid the compliment by reportedly deriding Liu as a ‘dummy’ 笨蛋 who ‘doesn’t even qualify to criticise the Communist Party’ 連登台罵共產黨的資格都沒有!
In the absence of Liu Xiaobo at the time of Li Ao’s death, others stepped into the breach. Writing in his regular online newspaper column Lee Yee, the journalist mentioned above and who remains a clarion voice in Hong Kong, quoted unofficial Mainland opinion:
‘Over ten billion people have time-travelled back to the Ming dynasty [with the virtual enthronement of Xi Jinping as China’s absolute ruler] without a peep [of protest], but just look at the emotional outpourings following the demise of this Literary Lout. It reflects the true state of affairs among China’s thinking people.’ 「十多億人被穿越到明朝卻沒有任何聲音，一個流氓文人去世卻大段大段感喟，實在是自以為讀書人的群體的寫照。」
Following Li Ao’s death many comments posted on the Mainland Internet refer to him as an ‘Old Lout’. I think it’s inappropriate. Now, I’m not expressing any particular respect for the dead Li Ao, but people are complex. As Confucius said, ‘A gentleman does not approve of a person because he expresses a certain opinion, nor does he reject an opinion because it is expressed by a certain person.’ A writer’s oeuvre should be treated like ‘public property’; it shouldn’t be negated holos-bolus just because the person who authored it happens to be odious. 李敖去世，大陸網頁許多評論都以「老流氓」稱之。這不是恰當的評價。並非基於「死者為大」的觀念，而是因為人的一生是複雜的。孔子說，「君子不以人舉言，不以人廢言」。因此作家的著作應該視為「公共財」，不可因其人品而斷然否定。
But some Mainland Netizens conclude that: ‘The problem with Li Ao was that he lived too long. The first half of his life is justly celebrated because he was jailed for opposing Nationalist Party totalitarianism [in Taiwan], but in his later years he betrayed himself when he acted like a Pied Piper for totalitarianism [on the Mainland].’ Others say: ‘On Taiwan he was [like the principled writer] Lu Xun, but on the Mainland he was [like the fawning Mao-era literary lackey] Guo Moruo 郭沫若’; and, ‘Li Ao was vilified in direct proportion to the level of acceptance he enjoyed by the Chinese party-state.’ 大陸網民指他「最大的問題是活得太長了，前半生因反抗國民黨極權繫獄英名流傳，後半生又為某極權充當吹鼓手而晚節不保」；「在台灣是魯迅，在大陸是郭沫若」；「李敖晚年獲得的詛咒與他被大陸主流意識形態所容納的程度成正比。」
— 李怡, 世道人生: 鐵達尼及其他
As Simon Leys noted of Guo Moruo 郭沫若, who was eighty-four — one year older than Li Ao — when he died in 1978: ‘The methodical use of kowtowing is incontestably a recipe for longevity’; and thereby, Guo had acquired ‘a flexibility in his leaping about, a chilling agility in his pirouetting that the most flexible music hall contortionists would have envied him.’
The sobering truth of the matter is that, for all of his early brilliance, Li Ao was a writer-intellectual for whom China was in itself a core faith, a religion. When Taiwan matured into a modern democracy his was but one voice in the everyday din of freedom. His chagrin was palpable. Wealth and power — the century-old dream of national renewal — were in their turn seductive; the China Dream conspired to stifle Li Ao’s voice of conscience. For many illiberal intellectuals he became a reassuring paragon of complicity.
In 1965, Li Ao wrote ‘The Art of Survival, a User’s Guide’ 避禍學大綱. A satire about political repression and intellectual life in Taiwan, he said it summed up ‘the art of living in the chaotic world while keeping yourself in one piece’. In it he offered readers fifteen ways ‘to keep your head, stay out of jail, and remain free from the watchful eyes of the authorities’. The last strategy was to ‘be like a flea’. Over half a century later, Li Ao’s advice reads like a comment on his relationship with Liu Xiaobo:
The thing about fleas is that when they bite you it itches but it never really hurts, and they jump away immediately after biting, so the person can never be bothered to catch them. The majority of writers today are like this; they squash a few fleas and they think they’re heroes.
The following essay by Liu Xiaobo was written in 2004. It is one of a number of critiques that he published about a man who was once widely admired by free thinkers in the People’s Republic. For a time in the 1980s these two extraordinary contrarians basked in the same limelight, but in the end one — Li Ao — only truly achieved the stature of a flea, while the other — Liu Xiaobo — matured into a hero of conscience. Here Liu catches the performing flea in the act.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
23 March 2018
— I have something to say about Li Ao
Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Li Ao is Taiwan’s master of self-promotion. In the 1980s, he enjoyed a period of fame on the Mainland when he was celebrated for his undeniable talent and his unsparing style, as much as for his unbridled literary wildness and vulgarity. Above all, he was appreciated on the Mainland for his unfettered panache, something that was underpinned by his experience as a prisoner of conscience. Since Taiwan evolved into a democracy a man who could enjoyed all the largesse allowed by the freedom of expression revealed that he was a spent force. Recently, he has been beguiled by a belief that Greater China Nationalism is more important than Liberalism. His opposition to Taiwan independence is wrong-headed, he spews oleaginous obfuscations, and he plays up his origins as a Mainlander as he expresses his contempt for local Taiwanese. In particular, since the election of 2000 he has heaped praise on [the Communist Party strategy for controlling Hong Kong and absorbing Taiwan known as] ‘One Country Two Systems’. He’s degenerated, and the higher he hoists the banner of Patriotism, his fall appears all the more precipitous.
Like attracts like just as tribes are divided by kind. Phoenix Television is generally called the ‘Hong Kong channel of Chinese Central TV in Beijing’. Of course it is smitten with Li Ao and his support for ‘One Country, Two Systems’. They’ve given him a show all of his own called ‘Li Ao Has Something to Say’. Watching his fawning performance, you realize that in-house intelligentsia of the Chinese Communists now has some serious competition.
Li Ao plays up the unfettered craziness of his reputation having declared that he’s the greatest writer China has produced in 5000 years, but he’s not so crazy as to negate everything. He has the finely honed skills of a politician and he trims his sails to the wind; he has a Fingerspitzengefühl for knowing just what to say when and how to say it with ultimate finesse. Faced with the powers-that-be on Taiwan — whether it be during the rule of the Chiang Family, or under the presidency of Lee Teng-hui [from 1988 to 2000] or Ch’en Shui-pien [from 2000 to 2008], he mercilessly trashes all politicians and celebrities, without exception and without compunction, what’s more he does it with unbridled glee, dumping shitloads of foulness on them. But when faced with the power-holders on the Mainland and high-level cadres, he’s a study in moderation and sincerity; he oozes flattery. When he does venture some criticism it is carefully honed to avoid giving offense; he’s a model of good manners and measured behavior.
Li Ao has repeatedly denounced the White Terror of the Chiang era; he has decried Lee Teng-hui as a traitor, a cheat and a man who sells out his family. As for Ch’en Shui-pien [president on Taiwan at the time of writing]: he’s nothing but a ‘slave in the service of the slaves of slaves’, a ‘tooth-pick-hawking Hitler’. Although, regard to this last remark he’s quick to add: ‘Here I must apologise to Hitler since at least he was capable; after all, he nearly conquered the whole world, but here on Taiwan Ch’en Shui-pien is nothing more than a useless tramp.’ He decries Taiwan’s phony democracy: Ch’en Shui-pien got into power not by inheriting a throne or as a result of military valor; he doesn’t serve the people nor was he democratically elected; he’s nothing but a swindler: ‘All the leaders of Taiwan rely on one thing and one thing only: deception… . From Ch’en Shui-pian down, they’ve got into power through trickery.’ (from Episode 1, 8 March 2004.) What he fails to explain is just how someone like him, Li Ao, can get away with saying the most outrageous garbage without having to worry about the consequences? How come he could mount a presidential challenge in the year 2000? Nor can he explain how it is that internationally the majority of democratic nations acknowledge that Taiwan is indeed a democracy? The truth of the matter is that he calls Taiwan a ‘sham democracy’, a ‘scam’ because people didn’t vote for him and elected someone he despises instead.
他反覆抨擊蔣家政權的恐怖統治，他罵李登輝是叛徒、騙子、認賊作父，罵陳水扁是「給奴才做奴才的奴才」，把陳水扁貶為「賣牙簽的希特勒」，甚至說「我講到這裡先向希特勒抱歉。因為希特勒他是能幹的人，幾乎統治了這個世界，可是這個陳水扁在台灣像個癟三一樣，甚麼都不能做。」 他大罵台灣是假民主，說陳水扁上台，靠的不是皇權時代的繼承、不是戰功、不是為民服務、也不是民主選舉，而是靠騙：「整個台灣的領導人……他們就靠了一個字就是騙。……從陳水扁以下這批人，他們得到政權是靠一個騙字。」（第一集《我終於有一個機會在這裡拋頭露面》 3月8日）但他卻不解釋為甚麼在假民主的台灣，他李敖可以胡說八道而無後顧之憂？還可以在2000年作為總統候選人參選？也不解釋為甚麼絕大多數民主國家都承認台灣已經是民主社會？難道只因李敖選不上或他討厭的人當選，就是假民主，就是「騙」！
However, when Li Ao turns his gaze to the Chinese Communists and their privileged elite he rejects Taiwan democracy in favor of Mainland autocracy. He plays the apologist for the follies of the Mao era and extols Mao as an example of a true political leader. He even excuses the Butchers of the Fourth of June  and expresses his admiration for Deng Xiaoping, a politician who weathered three falls from power and three political rehabilitations. When he speaks of the US President Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping meeting [in 1979], he calls Carter a hypocrite for saying that China doesn’t allow the freedom of movement and is lacking both in democracy and freedom; but he has nothing but praise for Deng Xiaoping’s raffish response: ‘Democracy and freedom, then. How many people do you want us to send over to you? One or two million, or I can give you 10 to 20 million: will you take them?’
It was obvious that Jimmy Carter was talking about freedom of movement within China, and not immigration to the USA. Deng knew that full well, but he had no good response yet he needed to save face and that’s why he muddied the waters in that way. Li Ao’s interpretation is even more shameless: ‘Fuck it: you don’t even want one, you say what you will and expect us to suck it up, and how are we supposed to cope?’ (Episode 14)
Li Ao also talks about the freedom of expression. Here he is particularly enamored by his own heroic struggles for free speech in Taiwan. However, as soon as the focus turns to the Mainland he becomes quite the sophist. He never mentions the Mainland censorship system or the frequency with which books are banned or anything about the persecution of writers. He’s positively tolerant when considering the lack of freedom of expression on the Mainland. Even when Phoenix TV censors him Li Ao’s response is one of sympathy. The contrast between this and his cutting outrage in denouncing censorship during the era of Martial Law on Taiwan couldn’t be greater.
Someone asks him: If you had stayed on the Mainland and lived during the Cultural Revolution would you dare say things like this? Why do you only attack Taiwan don’t dare cuss the Mainland? His reply is cunning, suddenly he’s no longer the self-proclaimed hero and openly admits his craven attitude:
There’s times when you’re just going to be a wimp. … When I recall how I dealt with my incarceration I know I’d treat everything like it was a joke, I’d transcend the moment, I’d be sly and deceptive, and I’d use trickery to avoid being caught up in the disaster. You don’t need to speculate about what I, Li Ao, would have done if I’d stayed on the Mainland: I might have done some underhanded things, or I might have done a few little surprising things. Who’s to say? You can never respond to a counter factual scenario.’ (Episode 31, 19 April 2004)
In reality, Li Ao’s provided an answer in ‘Li Ao Has Something to Say’ for Phoenix Television, carefully crafted and underhand, it’s called tailoring your speech to suit your audience. That’s also the normal state of affairs for patriots on the Mainland today.
23 April 2004, Beijing
- Geremie R. Barmé and Liu Xiaobo, A Madman’s End, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, 30 March 2018
- 劉曉波, 話說李敖——精明的驕狂, 2004年4月23日
- 劉曉波, 狂妄成精的李敖, 2005年9月20日
- 劉曉波, 李敖不過是統戰玩具, 2005年9月29日
- 李敖廈大演講 批魯迅、劉曉波, 2011年4月3日
- Geremie R. Barmé, Mourning, China Heritage, 30 July 2017
- 曹長青, 李敖是邪門之典型, 後半生只做對一件事: 死了!, 2018年3月18日