There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
— from T.S. Eliot,
‘The Love Song of
J. Alfred Prufrock’
The title of the following essay by Xu Zhangrun, formerly a professor of law at Tsinghua University whose ongoing persecution has featured in China Heritage since 2018 (for details, see The Xu Zhangrun Archive) is taken from a well-known ci-lyric poem dating from the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE). Inscribed on a wall in Guabeipu, Caizhou (in the north of modern-day Hubei province) by an anonymous author, the verse — 浣溪沙·瓜陂鋪題壁 — describes the agonies of separation. The forlorn writer ends the poem with the words:
This night so lustrous, yet
my soul is torn asunder
Below, we offer a number of translations of the line ‘一番風月更銷魂’; all are an approximation, none can do the original justice.
The quotations from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot that bracket this chapter of Viral Alarm: China Heritage Annual 2020 have been added by the translator, as have the lines from W.H. Auden, immediately below.
The following account should be read in conjunction with an earlier essay titled ‘Cyclopes on My Doorstep’ (China Heritage, 22 December 2020).
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
31 December 2020
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
— from W. H. Auden
‘September 1, 1939’
The Abrasion of My Soul
More Agonising Yet,
This Beguiling Night
translated by Geremie R. Barmé
As I’d run out supplies I decided to take myself into the city to stock up. By the time I’d finished shopping I was absolutely famished. I’d just passed by a familiar Japanese restaurant and, despite a certain reluctance, the pangs of hunger got the better of me and I decided to drop in.
The rustic wooden vestibule opened onto an elegant courtyard swathed in the shadow cast by a bamboo grove. A flagstone path running under the covered walkway along the side of the Japanese-style courtyard was punctuated by the large windows of the dining area. They were framed by delicately woven screen blinds through which you could make out the glistening white table cloths. Lamps on the tables lit up the faces of diners who were eating and drinking merrily, their animated expressions hinting at boisterous conversation; glowing faces were testament to the sumptuous atmosphere of the place. It was interesting to observe some of the diners listening intently as their fellows launched into enthusiastic disquisitions. From my vantage point at one remove from the action, I could only marvel at how very much at peace they all seemed to be, hearts brimming with confidence, spirits soaring carefree.
The convivial atmosphere reminded me of the various occasions on which I had been a guest at this restaurant. It’s quite a pricey place so, more often than not, I was there at the invitation of some wealthy business person anxious to host a clutch of lowly educators. For our part, we were only too willing to indulge their generosity. The word ‘entrepreneur’ is generally taken to refer to people who have set up and run serious business enterprises. In reality, however, it’s a capacious term that covers multitudes; it also denotes far less salubrious characters among whose ranks you may well find real estate developers, stock market speculators, as well as grifters involved in online business ventures. Invariably, it also includes people who navigate a course through the nebulous world of ‘import-export’. Moreover, the term ‘entrepreneur’ may also denote business-savvy government bureaucrats along with investors in hi-tech industries.
The encounters with entrepreneurs with which I’d previously been involved came about because our hosts had a penchant for scholarship and they enjoyed learned debates fueled by liberal quantities of alcohol. They were well-travelled internationally and could generally boast impressive academic qualifications. And so we would gather, faces becoming flushed with alcohol and spirits buoyed by waves of boisterous banter. These events would invariably reach an apogee with us all sharing a boozy mood of bonhomie.
I remember the last time I was here only too well: friends travelled from afar to celebrate my release from custody [in mid July 2020, after having been detained by the police on charges of ‘soliciting prostitutes’. See: ‘Xu Zhangrun & China’s Former People’]. They wanted to ‘wash away the dust’ for me [at the end of what had been a short yet harrowing ‘journey’] at a restaurant of my choosing. Naturally I offered my humble protests, dutifully playing my part by declining this unwarrented kindness. True to custom, they choose the venue.
After that memorable occasion the summer months gave way to a sombre autumn during which new storm clouds gathered. Before you knew it, a pendulous winter moon was shining down on our denuded landscape. Living now a solitary existence in a far-flung suburb [in the west of greater Beijing, after having been ejected from the accommodation at Tsinghua University that followed on from an abrupt dismissal by the university during that July detention], with my remaining friends now as few as the scattered stars at dusk, the last thing I imagined was that I’d ended up at this establishment again during a rare sally into the city.
Moreover, as luck would have it, I then spotted a few friends with whom I’d often eaten here in the past. They were enjoying a meal at a table by one of those elegantly screened windows. No doubt about it, it was them: three professors from the nearby university, a couple of business people, as well as a middle-aged woman who somehow also seemed familiar. I stood transfixed, gawking at them through the window. Lost in momentary reverie, I lingered a few seconds too long. It’s just that I wasn’t mentally prepared to encounter people from my former life here like this. We hadn’t been in contact for some time, so seeing them now made me fell as though I’d stumbled into a lost world, the disjointed familiarity of which left me stunned. They all appeared to be the same, unchanged, then again, I don’t think I’m any different either — granted, if there’s been some transformation, I not conscious of it.
My hesitation gave them more than enough time to catch sight of me. A collective stunned silence was quickly followed by a burst of surprised delight. One of their number made to come out to greet me and I advanced into the dining room with a big smile on my face. We stood there, his warm handshake accompanied by much affectionate backslapping. He expressed concern for my well being and impressed upon me the need for me to take care of myself. Good health is paramount. He also enjoined me to ‘wait it out until the dawn’ 坐待天明 [see ‘Abiding Until Daybreak’]. — It was an expression taken from the title of an old essay that I had also used for the name of one of my books. We often used this exhortation — ‘wait it out until the dawn’ — as kind of benediction when we parted company following a hearty bout of eating and drinking.
You don’t have to worry about me, I insisted. — The rhythms of my daily life continue uninterrupted; I spend my time reading and writing, and I will endure. I told him that I take in the roseate dawn just as I delight in the returning birds as evening falls. If I have any complaint it is merely that a bad leg requires I use a walking stick to get around. But, then, change and impermanence are the stuff of life.
My tergiversation was followed by yet another hug after which he offered that the overall situation was indeed dire and that everyone is similarly crestfallen. Today, he told me, he had gathered together a few outstanding academics for a chat in the hope that he might glean from them some insights into where things might be headed.
‘But,’ he hastened to add, ‘I mustn’t keep you. Best if I bid you, dear Professor Xu, a fond farewell’.
And, with that, he was gone.
I, too, set off, retracing my steps along the covered walkway, passing through that tasteful courtyard I exited via the restaurant’s rustic entryway only to find myself confronting once more the frenetic street life outside — the unavoidable assault of humanity. As we chatted I’d completely forgotten how hungry I was and when I suddenly heard my stomach rumbling outside the restaurant, I realised that it was well past lunchtime. There was another restaurant nearby that advertised itself as serving a melange of Sichuan-Shandong-Hunan cuisines. In reality it served up pretty average and generic fare, but it was reasonably priced.
Back in the day, this too had been a favourite haunt for my crowd, and we’d take turns hosting meals there. Gathered regularly to natter our heads off, we would tirelessly discuss everything under the sun in the naïve belief that our accumulated learning actually amounted to something. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’d had there, though I knew it was a lot.
Yet again, I hesitated as I approached the place; maybe I should just wait until I got home? But then, since I was already here, why not just grab a bowl of noodles? Still mulling over my options I realised that, without being aware, I’d already committed myself to the place. It made me think of that famous line: ‘While the court of the Song dynasty dithered over defensive strategy, the enemy had long since launched its invasion’. — Easier indeed to take on an enemy up in the hills than to deal with the stealthy thief lurking in one’s own heart.
By an extraordinary coincidence, I encountered yet another clutch of acquaintances upon entering the restaurant. It was a group of professors and editors who were in the midst of saying their goodbyes after enjoying lunch together. There was a collective drawing in of breath as soon as they caught sight of me, followed by an outburst of delight as they crowded round. They vied to shake my hands and there was also much back slapping. It was a raucous encounter, everyone talking all at once and laughing merrily. Daresay, their ebullience was amplified by the alcohol they’d obviously enjoyed with their meal and the humour flowed freely.
The female editors among their number were generally unabashedly demonstrative; in the past they’d give me a hug whenever we met. Today, however, although the reception was warm enough, they were more reserved; affection mixed with concern as they squeezed my hand.
It turned out that they’d just published a number of law-related books. They assured me that the new work constituted a ‘significant contribution’ to legal thought, or some such. I didn’t bother noting any of the titles, though I do recall they all contained the term ‘big data’. They had also just launched a new journal and, despite the snarl of traffic on the highways and byways of the Imperial Capital, they had loaded up their car so they could share the publication with this host of professors. In all fairness, editors are always anxious about delivering newly published work to authors as soon as possible. And, in response, authors and professors alike reciprocate by putting on a spread, booze included. It’s always a happy affair. And thus it was that by chance I had come upon a scene of untrammeled harmony: rounds of toasts and pleasurable exchanges culminating in a thoroughly satisfying event enjoyed by guests and hosts alike.
Only six months ago the most prominent academic among the group had been a colleague of mine at Tsinghua University. Now, of course, he made the obligatory point of declaring that he missed me and that I was often in his thoughts. The others chimed in, expressing similar sentiments. They were all earnest and solicitous to a fault. The ladies among them also made a show of concern. The most prominent female editor — the one who used to greet me with a warm embrace — protested that, originally, she wanted to send me the new books and journal, but simply didn’t know how to get in touch. It goes without saying that numerous inquiries had been made, or so she now assured me, but no one had a clue as to my whereabouts. How distressing then that here I was and she simply didn’t have any extra copies of the publications, otherwise she most surely would have happily presented me with the volumes for my ‘perusal and critique’. Etcetera etcetera. Then, without missing a beat, she added that she was now on a mission to deliver copies of the new works to the relevant academics in the law school and philosophy department of the nearby university. She impressed upon me the fact that this ‘really is an urgent matter and a solemn responsibility’.
Of course, I got the message: here I was, an unemployed nobody who, having come in to town to buy groceries, had happened to encounter a gathering of ‘somebodies’ celebrating their latest academic achievements. To a person, they were burdened by busy schedules. So who was I to delay them? Having taken up an unconscionable amount of their time already, I offered my apologies and bid them all adieu. Since they were, after all, old friends, they protested that they respected my trifling needs. So, in turn, they bade me farewell and wished me all good speed in bringing my shopping expedition to a successful conclusion. Heaven forbid that I delay myself on their account! Having thus exchanged fulsome goodbyes we went our separate ways.
I live in a small gated community that is over thirty kilometers from where I now found myself [in the university and hi-tech Haidian District, northwest Beijing]. For the most part, I do my grocery shopping at the local farmer’s market though, when the need arises, I go to the supermarket in the local county township where they stock cooking necessities and sundry odds and ends, as well as such things as toothpaste, soap and the like.
The night before I’d made my foray I’d dreamed that I was in a cafe-bar in some bustling part of the city. Music wafted languorously through the dimly lit venue; the atmosphere was beguiling, the company enchanting. My sleeping self was entranced, careening around as if I was inebriated. When I woke, the lingering pull of the dream fired a longing in me — me, contemptible and shameless, a devotee of all that is decadent — for the lost pleasures of my comfortable past. More to the point, I really had run out of food; there wasn’t even a sweet potato in the pantry. That’s how I’d decided to drive into the city. Apart from picking up some bare essentials, I had also indulged myself by buying some Western-style cakes. Back home, where I spent my time in the most unremarkable way under the most unremarkable sun, I planned to nibble on this confectionary while sipping coffee as I read by my window. Perhaps I might even fool myself into believing that all of my newfound leisure really afforded me the smug pleasures of an urban petit bourgeois?
The only people in our extended Xu family with a sweet tooth are me and my late father. We’d happily devour cakes and sweets without a thought for the dreaded ‘Three Highs’ [elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and hyperlipaemia]. My father lived to be eighty; I [now fifty eight years old] have no clue what remains of my allotted span. Human endeavour can achieve just so much, ultimately everything is in the hands of a heavenly fate. Why get unduly caught up contemplating the weal and woe of worldly affairs? Anyway, [as an old poem — 黎廷瑞,《大江東去·題項羽廟》— about the collapse of the Qin dynasty and the fate of those like Xian Yu who would succeed it says, in the end, all that remains may be likened to]
‘The crumbling walls of a desolate temple; while
Shafts of sunlight struggle through ancient trees
And the regrets of the world echo in the cawing of crows.’
Even so, I count myself fortunate indeed for, in such a short space of time, I had only this afternoon bumped into two groups of friends from my former life. Sure, I didn’t get to eat anything, and I really was starving by the end of it all but, still, we all got to have a chat and share a moment of high excitement. But the exertion, exacerbated by my chronic low blood sugar, meant I was left feeling faint with hunger. So, when I got back into my car, surrounded by the urban bustle, I demolished all the cakes I had bought to enjoy at leisure.
In Heaven’s Will there is perhaps a sense of decency. Humankind, too, may boast some saving grace. Regardless, the tortuous beauty of this moonlit night leaves me feeling as though my soul has been rent asunder.
Sixth Day of the
Eleventh Month of the Gengzi Year
20 December 2020 of the Gregorian calendar, under a waxing moon
Having rewarded myself with a few drinks,
I tapped out this account, nodding off to a drunken wind
At my home By the Old River
And I have known the eyes already, known them all —
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
— from T.S. Eliot
‘The Love Song of
J. Alfred Prufrock’