Elephants & Anacondas

The trope of the split personality has featured in essays and reflections by Chinese writers and thinkers for over a century. In a famous ‘confession’ 懺悔錄, the journalist Huang Yuanyong (黃遠庸, 1885-1915), who for a time supported the despised government of Yuan Shikai, said that he felt as though his soul 魂 was dead while his body 形 lived on. The great essayist Zhou Zuoren 周作人, brother of Lu Xun 魯迅, declared ‘two demons 兩個鬼 live within me… . One is a gentleman, the other a hooligan 流氓… .’ Even Mao Zedong admitted that his conflicted animus was part tiger 虎氣 part monkey 猴氣.

***

In 1980, a nationwide debate was sparked by the publication of a letter signed ‘Pan Xiao’ 潘曉 in the popular magazine China Youth. Although it was later revealed that, along with heavy editorial intervention, it was the work of two writers, Pan Wei 禕 and Huang Xiaoju 黃菊. The letter was simply titled: ‘Why is Life’s Path Increasingly Narrow’ 人生的路呵,怎么越走越窄 and its appearance led to six months of national soul searching as China Youth received tens of thousands of letters. For, although generation gaps had been a feature of Chinese life and intellectual debate from the late-Qing era (and never more stark than first in the May Fourth period, 1917-1927, or the early Cultural Revolution, 1964-1967), the Pan Xiao letter gave voice to an identity crisis among China’s young during an era of ideological and social tumult following the collapse of canonical Maoism. The letter read, in part:

I turned twenty-three this year. You could say that my life has only just begun, and yet all of life’s mysteries and attractions don’t appeal to me anymore. It seems like I’ve already reached the end. When I look back upon the path I’ve already taken, the road changes from red-violet into grey, from hope to disappointment. It is a path of despair. It is a river flowing from a source of selflessness and purity into a self-centered end… .

Some people say that time is pushing forward, but I don’t feel a part of it. Some people say that life has meaning, but I don’t know where it is. I see few options for myself. I am so very tired. [For more, see here]

Ten years later, in 1991, not long after the Beijing Massacre and on the eve of China’s next wave of radical economic reform and mass commodification, a similar debate unfolded around two quotations related to the meaning of life (known in Chinese as: 焦裕祿與三毛兩句名言你作何選擇). One was about Jiao Yulu 焦裕祿, the model Party secretary who died in selfless service (and who is focussed on obsessively by Xi Jinping and his propagandists):

In his heart he had a place for all the People, but no room for himself. 他心中裝著全體人民,唯獨沒有他自己。

And the other from the Taiwan writer and singer San Mao 三毛:

If you give everything to others, you will discover you’ve spent your life abusing one person: yourself. 假如把一切都獻給了別人,那麼你在一生中就虐待了一個生靈——那就是你自己。

Most correspondents approved of San Mao, while many also paid lip-service to Jiao Yulu. Over a quarter of a century later, the authoritarian party state continues to promote Party values of service, collectivity and sacrifice that are to a great extent completely at odds with actual, lived ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. In so doing, the authorities deepen the social schizophrenia of post-1976 life, entrenching ever further the mendacity that lies at the heart of party-state rule. Under the harsh policing regime of the Xi Jinping era, ‘the Pan Xiao paradox’ in new ways confounds even some of the country’s most perceptive and adaptable critics, one of whom is Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠.

***

The following essay is a meditation, a confession of sorts, by a leading essayist and biblio-entrepreneur. Zhiyuan has been a friend for many years. It is ten years since he published Trading on Heritage 一切都是可以交换的, an essay which appeared in translation in China Heritage Quarterly, the precursor to China Heritage, in 2009.

‘The Python and the Elephant’ 巨蟒与大象 was published on 12 January 2016 under somewhat prolix title ‘When Totalitarianism Transforms from being a Python Curled Overhead to an Elephant that Leaves One Numb’ 當極權從盤旋頭頂的巨蟒,變成令人麻木的大象 (there are also earlier, shorter ‘iterations’ of this material). Zhiyuan uses the original, shorter title for the present text.

In this essay, Xu describes his own dilemma, a split personality wending a way through the regime of increased ideological vigilance and party-state censorship under Xi Jinping and his deadening apparat. Zhiyuan acknowledges that the system also worked under the previous regimes of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (1989-2012), but writers like him could negotiate a viable relationship with the state’s soft cultural authoritarian. After all, it was an era during which ‘line ball’ 擦邊兒球 gambits of cultural transgression that had evolved from the late 1970s were refined over time to become a high art. For many writers self-censorship allowed for quite lot of self as they skilfully skirted the censors. Today, however, the suffocating embrace of ‘the anaconda’ (an image taken from the scholar Perry Link) has become all but intolerable.

***

There is honesty and self-justification in Xu’s plea for understanding. For a reader who has followed the ebbs and flows of China’s ‘opening up’ since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, it is a grim reminder of the profound cost of one-party rule over the majority of one of humanity’s great civilisations: a corruption of the spirit, a stunted critical environment, a curtailed life of the mind (and the heart) as well as an unavoidable reality with global ramifications, that is, under Communist Party paternalism China’s is a society that, even with all of its hard-won Wealth, Power and Afflatus, is one that is simply not allowed to mature. Similar points were made by such critics in the 1980s as Liu Xiaobo, and of course this kind of stagnation is familiar to students of the Soviet experience or Eastern European intellectual history. In recent years, Ai Weiwei has been making this case with his art, in his essays and through his online outbursts.

The confessional essay by Xu Zhiyuan that follows adds to the bibliography of Chinese protest and accommodation. It is a companion piece to Less Velvet, More Prison, also published by China Heritage. ‘The Anaconda and the Elephant’ was translated by Callum Smith, the designer of the China Heritage sites.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
28 June 2017


The Anaconda and the Elephant
巨蟒與大象

Xu Zhiyuan
許知遠

Translated by Callum Smith
高林譯

‘So, do you plan to write two different versions, or just the one?’, Miklós Haraszti asked. We were sitting in a noisy restaurant in the centre of Vienna shrouded in cigarette smoke. The obsession with personal health hadn’t made it there yet; people were talking loudly, drinking and smoking as the spirit moved them. A copy of Haraszti’s classic, The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, lay on the table between us. It’s a modest volume, a mere 163 pages including the preface and an author’s profile. The dust jacket had long since disappeared, revealing a red cloth hard-cover embossed with a gilded imprint of the author’s signature — a flourish hinting that the author had been a poet.
「那麼,你是寫兩個版本,還是只寫一個?」米克洛斯·哈拉茲蒂(Miklos Haraszti)問道。我們坐在維也納市中心的一家鬧哄哄、煙霧騰騰的餐廳裏。虛偽的健康崇拜還沒蔓延至此,很多人興致勃勃地談天、喝酒、大口抽菸。餐桌中間擺着《天鵝絨監獄》(The Velvet Prison),哈拉茲蒂的一本舊作。一本薄薄的書,算上前言與作者簡介,也只有163頁。原書的封皮已經丟失,只剩下是紅色絨布面硬殼,上面印有燙金的作者簽名,潦草、有力,似乎表明作者曾是個不羈的詩人。

‘Sightseeing Highlights of Vienna: Café Central’. This cafe cum-salon was once a centre of the city’s intellectual and cultural life.

The Velvet Prison is about the relationship between state censorship and artists and intellectuals. When Haraszti wrote it in the late 1970s [it was circulated as a samizdat in the early 1980s], a kind of Hungarian Model was on the rise. In the mid-1960s, the Hungarian Communist government had introduced a market economy and gradually relaxed its social controls; in the process it came to a tacit understanding with the average citizenry: I’ll improve your material life, if you give up your challenges to us. The fundamental Communist system hadn’t changed, but compared to other, more unwavering Eastern European countries (including Poland, Czechoslovakia, not to mention Romania), Hungary was paradise, wealthier and more liberal. Some dubbed it ‘Goulash Communism’.
這本書有關審查制度與藝術家與知識分子的關係。在米克洛斯寫下這些文字的1970年代末,某種匈牙利模式正大獲全勝。匈牙利政府在1960年代中引入了市場經濟,並放鬆了社會管制,它和普通人達成了這樣一種默契——我給你更好的物質生活,你放棄對政權的挑戰。共產主義的體制並未改變,但比起仍舊嚴酷的其他東歐國家(比如波蘭、捷克、更不用說羅馬尼亞),匈牙利像是個天堂,它更富有、也更自由,人們說它是「牛肉湯共產主義」。

Artists and intellectuals also occupied a new kind of space, albeit one that was inherently dangerous. Artists relinquished their independence and not only did they reached a compromise with the system but over time it evolved into co-dependence. Over time, with the bars of the prison cell sheathed in velvet people forgot they were still in a prison.
藝術家與知識分子也獲得了某種新的空間,但是一種新的危險也隨之到來。藝術家們主動放棄了自己的獨立性,他們和現有政治權力不僅達成妥協,甚至變成了相互依賴。監獄的冰冷欄杆被套上了天鵝絨,人們忘記了它仍是監獄。

[Although introduced to the book years earlier,] I’d happened on a copy of The Velvet Prison at a small library in Cambridge. Initially, I found the style difficult, lapidary; it was a work comprised almost entirely of declarative statements, no questions, just resolute and decisive judgements. Apart from one mention of John Milton the author doesn’t quote anyone else; it’s as though the book exists in a vacuum. Yet it is had a particular force; reading it I felt as though a veil had been torn aside, like accumulated filth had been scoured by a potent disinfectant. The author illuminates chaotic reality with unflinching certainty. For a Chinese reader, however, he’s not describing the Hungary of three decades ago; it is as though he is describing things right now.
我在劍橋的一間小圖書館意外的發現了它。最初,我很不適應它的風格,通篇是陳述句,沒有疑問,到處是斬釘截鐵的判斷。它也很少引用,除去提到了一次約翰·彌爾頓,似乎再沒有引用過任何人的話,似乎它是從真空中跳出的。但它散發着一股奇特的魅力,似乎面紗被有力的撕開,污濁遭遇了強力去污劑,在不容置疑的口氣的幫助下,混沌重又變得明澈。它似乎不是為了30年前的匈牙利,也是為此刻的中國而寫。

Rebellion is Passé, Long Live the Censor

It was the winter of 2009, and China was revelling in her new international brand. Owing to the success of the Beijing Summer Olympics the previous year, and given the fact that the United States and Europe were embroiled in a financial crisis, it seemed as though Beijing had successfully developed a ‘China Model’, one that married political repression to economic growth. No more was the Chinese Communist Party to be seen as a moribund remnant of the twentieth century, rather it was a revitalised historical force. But Beijing wasn’t satisfied with mere material strength or military might; it also yearned to have cultural influence. The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony — an extravaganza that involved many of the country’s most famous directors and artists — was symbolic of this effort.
這是2009年冬天,中國正沉浸於它的嶄新形象。因為一年前的大獲成功的北京奧運會,因為美國與歐洲正陷入的金融危機,北京似乎真的創造了一種「中國模式」——能將政治高壓與經濟增長結合在一起,中國共產黨不再是一個不合時宜、行將滅亡的20世紀恐龍,反而是歷史的新動力。同時,北京也不滿足於它僅僅的物質與軍事力量,它也在尋求文化影響力。北京奧運會的開幕式,正象徵了這種努力,華人世界最著名的導演、藝術家都為此效力。

I recognise my own world in Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison: a place where artists and intellectuals crowded under the banner of nationalism and were rewarded with official approbation, popular acclaim and material benefits. The traditional system of censorship was withering away; seldom did we now witness direct confrontation between the state and its artists and intellectuals. Rebellion was passé: with a nod and a wink everyone knows what can be exhibited and published.
在《天鵝絨監獄》中,我辨認出那麼多此刻中國社會的景象:藝術家們、知識分子集結在國家主義的旗幟下,獲取社會認同與現實利益。傳統的審查制度消失了,很少再看到藝術家與知識分子直面抗爭,他們知道什麼樣的作品可以展覽和發表,主動放棄了反叛的嘗試。

When Miklós Haraszti asked if I was going to ‘write two versions’, I knew I’d been caught out. Over the past ten years, I have consciously policed myself. Nearly everything I’ve written has been allowed to appear in the People’s Republic; I know just what strategies I need to employ so I can get away with saying the almost unsayable. Even when criticising the regime, I know just where the line is, or at least I think I do. There are obvious things: best avoid naming names; don’t be too specific in your critiques; and, when you make sweeping statements about the regime, the government, society and suchlike, be sure never to mention Tibet, Xinjiang or June Fourth.
但當米克洛斯直接詢問我「是否寫作兩個版本」時,我正處出於一個微妙的轉折時刻。在此之前十年,我是個自覺的自我審查者。我寫下的所有東西,幾乎都得以發表。即使經常表現出的批評尖鋭,都含有某種特定技巧。在批評政權時,我知道分寸在哪裏,或者自認為知道。最好不要直接提到領導人的名字,不對他們做出具體、細微的批評,作為批評的對象,使用執政黨、政府、社會這些整體而模糊的詞彙,不要涉及西藏、新疆、六四的問題。

A self-censoring reflex is not just about the terror generated by political power, it is equally rooted in the temptations of new social realities. China is not merely an autocracy, it is also a booming economy with an ever-expanding urban population. There’s no dearth of pressing, non-political issues worth writing about. And, of course, there’s the ever-present anxiety that you could end up becoming a dissident. The genuine dissidents I know are fixated by the forbidden zones; they ignore all other major social issues. In effect, they impose another, insidious form of self-censorship on themselves.
自我審查的習慣不僅來自於政治權力帶來的恐懼,也源於一種新的社會現實的誘惑。中國不僅是一個政治專制的國家,也是個經濟繁榮、市民空間不斷拓展的國家,你有很多非政治化的事物可以探討。當然還有對於成為一個異議者(dissident)的憂慮,我認識的一些異議者似乎僅僅着迷於對這些政治禁區的探索,除此外他們什麼也看不到、什麼也不想談論,他們似乎變成了另一種自我審查者。

But, then there are glaring examples of increased political intolerance. As early as the summer of 2009, a widely respected rights lawyer — a friend of mine — was incarcerated for helping social activists. This man was no criminal; he was mild and his behaviour was constructive. His crime for assisting education equality activists was to dare advocate in support the growth of a healthy civil society. When a trusted friend is arrested, you can’t avoid taking a stance. I started writing regularly for magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I soon discovered the delight of being able to discuss political issues directly and frankly, and the need to protest the arrest of an innocent friend in public.
但也是在2009年夏天,我的一位朋友,一位廣受尊敬的維權律師入獄。不管是性格還是行為方式,他都温和、充滿建設性。他幫助那些上訪的訪民、遭受教育不公的家長,倡導一個健康的公民社會的成長。他的被捕表明政治權力越來越難以容忍不同的聲音。你信賴的朋友被捕時,你不能再回避自己的道德立場。與此同時,我開始固定給香港與台灣的雜誌撰寫文章,發現可以直接了當的談論政治問題,是多麼的愉快。能在公共平台上抗議自己朋友的無辜被捕,是多麼的必要。

I became aware of my previous self-deceit, of having wasted time and energy honing an ambiguous writing style, part and parcel of my self-censorship. Up until then, I’d imagined I was wrestling with an anaconda. I’d tried grabbing it by the throat and pushing it away. Instead, I found myself entangled in its coils. I’d now woken with a start.
我意識到自己的一貫自我欺騙,浪費了很多時間與精力,在那些因自我審查帶來的模糊的表達上。夢中,我與一條蟒蛇搏鬥。我試圖抓住它的咽喉,推開它,卻被緊緊纏住,然後驚醒。

Encountering Miklós Haraszti in Vienna ushered in a relatively freewheeling period in my writing career, one that was in stark contrast to my previous a-political writing. I started publishing many things critical of Beijing authoritarianism. It was something of a late blossoming for me, something akin to a middle-aged adolescent rebellion against my past obedience and meekness. Needless to say, my new work could only appear in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
自從與米克洛斯在維也納見面以來,我開始了一個相對自由寫作時期。幾乎是對之前「去政治化」的逆反,我寫作了大量的政治評論文章,批評北京的極權統治。這也像是一次遲來的青春期,似乎是對昔日的過分温馴、膽怯的報復。自然,這些作品只能在香港與台灣出版。

In the winter of 2013, I published a book in Taiwan about political protesters on the Mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau — from Taipei’s Shih Ming-te 施明德 to Hong Kong’s Kwok Hung Leung 梁國雄 and Beijing’s Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 — each of them rebelled against the system in which they lived. In my book I tried to find some ‘Chinese commonality’ in their stance. Inspired by Albert Camus’ The Rebel it was more about literature than politics. In fact, I’m not all that interested in political resistance as such or in its practical outcomes; rather, what fascinates me are the life choices people make when facing momentous challenges, and why, despite their solitary stance, they manage to stay true to their beliefs. The book couldn’t be published on the Mainland.
這是2013年冬天的台北。我剛剛出版了一本有關兩岸三地抗爭者的書,從台北的施明德到香港的梁國雄再到北京的劉曉波,他們都是各自政治制度的反叛者,在其中,我試圖尋找華人社會的抗爭精神的普遍性。這本書的興趣與其說是政治的,不如說是文學的,它多少受到加繆的《反抗者》一書的啟發。我對於政治抗爭的結果沒太多興趣,讓我着迷的是那些個人在面對巨大困境時的選擇,他們緣何能在一個如此孤立的情況下,仍堅持自己的信念。這本書不能在中國大陸出版。

A Question of Balance

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a kind of balance between censorship and self-expression. In the global Chinese world, I write freely and publish politically sensitive work, while in Mainland China I produce non-political prose. For a time I thought I could straddle these two worlds, to be the kind of author Miklós Haraszti described as ‘writing two different versions’.
幾年來,我在審查制度與個人興趣間達成了某種新平衡。我在海外中文世界自由的寫作、出版可能有政治敏感性的作品,在中國國內出版非政治性的作品。至少有一度,我以為可以穿梭於這兩個世界間。我變成了米克洛斯·哈拉茲蒂所說的「寫兩個版本」的作家。

Yet, I soon found myself experiencing a different kind of anxiety. Following on from what is euphemistically called the ‘transfer of power’ in Beijing from late 2012 [when Xi Jinping became party-state leader], the intellectual shackles had been brought out once more. The phoney freedom enjoyed by the Chinese for nigh on two decades gradually faded. Previously, so long as you didn’t challenge the regime directly, there was at least the possibility of measured public discussion. Now, you either pledged unequivocal loyalty to the authorities, or you shut up. All kinds of issues, from constitutional rule, to civil society and the environment crisis, were no-go zones.
但一種隱隱的焦慮開始襲來。自從2012年末北京的權力交接以來,一股越來越嚴厲的思想管制已經開始。之前20年,中國民間的半自由狀態開始逐漸消失。在往日,只要你不直接挑戰政權,仍可以有某種公共討論,但如今,你要麼主動效忠當局,要麼閉嘴。所有的問題,從憲政體制、公民社會到環境危機,都一個個被貼上了「禁區」的牌子。

My Taiwan publishers organised several symposia. The participants included prominent Taiwanese democracy advocates, men and women often labelled ‘Taiwan independence activists’ on the Mainland. Both the publication of my book and participation in those gatherings increased my anxiety; I wasn’t sure whether I would suffer ‘unintended consequences’: I might be given a warning by the authorities, or be blacklisted. That would mean I would no longer be able to publish on the Mainland. I’d never been entirely certain just where the line was, but I did feel I was inching closer to it.
台灣出版社照例安排了幾場座談,其中幾位參加者不僅是台灣民主的重要參與人,也常被認定是「台獨」分子。這本書與這些座談都讓我陷入了焦慮,我不清楚這是否會給我帶來「某種結果」——我會被安全機關警告,或是進入被審查的黑名單,從此失去再大陸出版的機會。這界限在哪裏,我從來不清楚,只是感覺到,我離這界限更近了。

During that particular trip, I met Perry Link. He is one of the most admirable Sinologists of the past three decades. His Evening Chats in Beijing is one of the best accounts of intellectuals in the 1980s. In 1989 [following the Beijing Massacre], he helped the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi 方勵之 secure political asylum in the US embassy in Beijing, and he was one of the founders of the Princeton China Initiative, which provided refuge to some of the intellectuals forced into exile after 4 June. He was also one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers, a controversial book widely regarded as important primary source material for understanding 1989.
在那次行程,我還拜訪了正在台灣訪學的林培瑞(Perry Link)。他是過去30年最令人欽佩的漢學家之一。他的那本《北京夜話》是了解1980年代的中國知識分子的最佳讀物之一。他協助了方勵之在美國使館的避難,還是普林斯頓中國學社的創建人之一,這個學社旋是1989年流亡中國知識分子的主要收容站,他還是日後引起轟動的《天安門文件》的編輯者之一,這份文件普遍被視作理解天安門事件的主要文獻。

One rarely encounters foreigners with such a passion for China. He speaks Chinese with a Beijing accent, knows Hou Baolin 侯寶林 crosstalk, is enamoured with Cui Jian’s 崔健 rock music, and declares that his best years were spent in 1980s’ China. Perry was blacklisted by the authorities in 1996 and he hasn’t been able to visit the People’s Republic ever since.
我很少見過比他更熱愛中國的外國人,他一口京腔,會說侯寶林式相聲,迷戀崔健的音樂,認定人生最好的時光是在中國的80年代度過的。自從1996年起,他再也無法進入中國,他上了中國政府的「黑名單」,他的言行讓他成為不受北京歡迎的人。

Despite being deprived of direct contact with the Mainland, his acute observations still garner admiration. I recall in particular an article of his from 2002 titled ‘China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier’. In it he says:
儘管無法接觸到欠缺了活生生的中國經驗,他的敏鋭觀察仍令人讚歎。我很記得他在2002年寫作的文章《吊燈上的巨蟒》。

…[T]he Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite ‘naturally.’ [11 April 2002, The New York Review of Books; reprinted by ChinaFile, online here.]

「近年來的中國政府的審查機構不象是吃人的老虎或噴火的巨龍,而更象是盤踞在屋內吊燈上的巨蟒」,他這樣寫道,「一般情況下,這條巨蟒靜止不動。它不必動。它覺得沒有必要去明確它的禁條。它默默的傳遞的意思是,』你自己決定吧』。在這種情況下,每個生活在巨蟒陰影下都多多少少的、相當自覺的對自己的行為作出挑戰。」

The image of the anaconda stayed with me. Today, the anaconda is more active; you can see its flicking tongue. In Taipei, the creature haunted my dreams. Later, in Hong Kong, it appeared again; one night when I was staying at Robert Black College at Hong Kong University I was even startled out of my sleep. The anaconda was slithering through the corridors.
自從讀到這篇文章,這「吊燈上的巨蟒」的比喻就印在我的頭腦裏。比起林培瑞寫作這篇文章的2002年,此刻的巨蟒明顯更活躍起來,你甚至感覺到它吐出了紅信子。在台北,它終於遊進了我的夢中。在接下來的香港之行裏,類似的夢也發生了,我在港大的柏立基學院的床上猛然驚醒,感覺巨蟒剛剛從房間裏遊走。

My nightmare can be interpreted in a number of ways. The anaconda might be symbolic of the censorship system, the coils of which I’m scared with entangle me. But perhaps it also represents political authority. China’s dominating rulers have traditionally derived their mandate to govern from the notion that they are ‘descendants of the dragon’. Their dragon is merely a distorted representation of the anaconda that they really are. Having been independent of China during the second half of the twentieth century, Taiwan and Hong Kong enjoyed freedom and independence; it was a transient experience. In its ceaseless efforts to enforce compliance, the anaconda evinces no interest in their sense of estrangement.
這夢有多重的解釋。這巨蟒可能是審查制度,我擔心它會纏繞我。也可能代中國的政治權力本身,在漫長的時間裏,中國的統治者以龍自居——它不過是巨蟒的另一種變形。台灣與香港,它們在20世紀分離出中國,獲得了短暫的自由與獨立之感,如今要不可阻擋的回到它原有的軌跡,巨蟒不會放任它們的疏離態度。

A Cloak of Invisibility

I remember the day well. It was the first Saturday of November 2014. I was feeling gloomy and depressed, sitting in a café recovering from a hangover. Outside it was a drab Beijing day, though you couldn’t tell was a sandstorm or just smog pollution.
記憶裏那天陰沉壓抑,我正坐在北京一家咖啡館裏,等待從昨夜的宿醉中醒來。搞不清窗外的暗淡天氣,是緣自風沙還是濃重的霧霾。這是2014年11月的一個星期六。

On a clear day you can see forever. A view south over the Palace Museum from Prospect Hill.

That’s when I got the call: it was a friend; he told me my name was on a list of banned writers. Suddenly, I was trending on Chinese social media along with the historian Yu Ying-shih 余英時, the economist Mao Yushi 茅于軾, the essayist Zheng Shiping 鄭世平 (better known by his nom de plume Ye Fu 野夫), the Hong Kong television presenter Leung Man-tao 梁文道 and the Taiwanese director Giddens Ko 九把刀. According to a Weibo posting by someone au fait with the inside news from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (they’d taken part in the Administration’s latest meeting), our books would either be banned from sale, or unpublishable.
電話響起,我的朋友說,你上了被查禁作家的名單。在中國的社交媒體上,我的名字與歷史學家余英時、經濟學家茅于軾、散文作家野夫、香港電視主持人梁文道,還有一位台灣青春片導演九把刀並列在一起。根據一位參與了廣電總局最近一次會議的參加者在微博上披露說,我們的書籍要麼不再允許售賣、要麼被不再被允許出版。

Many people got in touch over the following days, both friends and the media. They were anxious to find out if knew why I had been banned; whether I had been notified; and how I felt about it. Since I only learned about it via social media I was, like them, at a loss. There was no official notification, let alone a phone call or a formal document announcing my censure. All I knew was it wasn’t just a rumour.
接下的幾天,我收到了各式的電話、郵件,它們有的來自朋友,有的來是記者,他們問我被禁的原因是什麼,是否得到了相關的通知,我對此又有何感受?這些詢問讓我哭笑不得,與他們一樣,我也是從社交媒體上得知這一消息的。從沒有官方的版本確認或是否認這一消息,更沒有審查部門的某個具體文件、個人或是電話來通知我。但你又知道這消息不會是空穴來風。

One version of the story claimed that this latest list of outlaws consisted primarily of liberal intellectuals, as well as critics of the Beijing authorities (although this made the inclusion of Giddens Ko problematic). Another version of the story held that we were all tainted for having got involved in the recent ‘Occupy Central’ movement in Hong Kong. (‘Occupy Central’ was the first political crisis in the territory since its return to China in 1997, and it signified the bankruptcy of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model.) In the eyes of Beijing, Hong Kong was now to be listed along with Tibet and Xinjiang as being subject to ‘separatist’ tendencies.
一種說法是,這名單上的主要人都是自由派的知識分子,是北京政權的批評者(但九把刀為何在其列,又令人費解)。另一個說法是,我們都對於剛剛結束了香港的「佔領中環」行動有關,都作出了至少是道義與語言上的支持。「佔領中環」的抗議是香港迴歸17年以來最嚴重的一次政治危機,也是 「一國兩制」的破產。在北京眼中,香港正在進入新疆、西藏的行列,是令人不安的分裂因素。

But this was all just speculation. Censorship in China is like a black box, no one really knows how it works. At the same time, it’s remarkable how preposterous and pitiless it is. Unlike the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the past, and even 1980s China, being banned in China today makes you feel neither anger nor despair as such. Rather you feel like you’re in a farce. Being banned makes you fodder for the entertainment industry — although after the allotted fifteen minutes, you’re no longer newsworthy. When absurdity is so commonplace, and ceaseless, nobody cares about a few writers. Some people might even suspect that it’s all part of the marketing strategy of a clever publisher.
但這一切都是猜測,審查機器就像是一個黑箱,誰也搞不清的它是如何運轉的,它的荒誕性與它的殘酷性一樣顯著。與昔日的蘇聯、東歐甚至八十年代的中國不同,在此刻的中國成為一名被禁作家,不含有太多憤怒與悲劇,它更象是鬧劇。它像是信息爆炸時代的一個娛樂新聞,具有15分鐘的熱度,然後立刻消失。因為在荒誕之事層出不窮,人們不會對幾個作家的命運表現處特別的好奇。一些人甚至覺得,它是出版商的另一種市場營銷策略。

The Diary of a Nobody

For me at least, two metaphors have been reconfigured: the velvet has worn thin as the cold iron bars of the prison have been exposed; and, the anaconda has slithered out of fantasy and into reality.
對我來說,這兩個隱喻變得鮮明起來。天鵝絨消退了,監獄的冰冷鐵欄杆暴露出來了;那條巨蟒則從夢境遊入現實生活中。

The irony is that even if the ban on me is never officially confirmed, no one will dare publish me, even the writing I do that is completely apolitical. I’m simply taboo. It doesn’t matter that nobody knows how the taboo came about, or how it might end.
儘管沒人確認這條禁令,但不再有機構敢於出版我的作品,即使它是毫無政治內容。我的名字成了某種禁忌,儘管沒人清楚這禁忌的因何而起,又會怎樣結束。

But that’s not the end of the story. Along with the atmosphere of oppression, fear and silence, China has been enjoying an unbroken tidal wave of entrepreneurship and consumption. Countless young people ride high on it and Chinese consumers travel the globe for pleasure and shopping opportunities. You get the sense that China is a place of boundless opportunity. I too am caught up in this paradoxical situation: I’m a persecuted writer, but I’m also riding the wave of entrepreneurship. I’ve formed a social media company with friends and I can avail myself to it to explore a new avenue for self-expression. The banned intellectuals of Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, and Yangon never dreamed of such a thing. Today, we the oppressed have our own opportunities.
但這也不是故事的全部。在壓抑、恐懼、沉默瀰漫的同時,中國社會迎來了一場巨大的創業與消費浪潮,一大批青年離開投身於創業浪潮,中國消費者蜂擁至世界各地遊覽、購物,這國家看起來充滿機遇。我個人也是這矛盾情緒的一部分。我是個遭遇出版困境的作家,卻有機會投身於創業浪潮,我和朋友組建了一家社交媒體公司,尋找另一種發揮個人創造力的空間。我猜,那些昔日華沙、布拉格、柏林、仰光的被禁言的知識分子,一定難以想象會有這樣的機會。我們似乎同時被壓抑與獲得機會。

There’s another unsettling fact: I’m concerned that, at some point in the future, my status as a public intellectual will hurt our brand. I’m no longer just me, I’m responsible for a whole team and a company. In China everyone knows: to be successful in business, you need to be politically submissive.
一個更令我不安的事實出現了,我越來越擔心,我知識分子的身份會對公司未來的成長造成傷害,我不再是一個獨立聲音,要為一整個團隊負責。這是中國再明確不過的規則,倘若你想獲取商業上的成功,必須在政治上保持温順。

The cover of Xu Zhiyuan’s The Protesters.

As a result, in effect I’ve abandoned my critique of politics and current affairs, and I’ve even distanced myself from some of my dissident friends. In late 2013, I had some reservations about publishing my book The Protestors 抗爭者 in Taiwan with Gūsa 八旗文化 [literally ‘Eight Banners Culture’, derived from the Manchu term ‘Eight Banners’, jakūn gūsa]; now, I’m fearful that some of my pointed opinion pieces might attract the attention of mainland censors. And there’s another side effect of my being banned: I’ve become insensitive to political violence in China. Since I can’t criticise or analyse it, I’ve come to pretend that it simply doesn’t exist. It seems that I’m content with this new kind of self-deception: I turn a blind eye to China’s authoritarian system: the ‘elephant in the room’.
我幾乎徹底放棄了對政治與時事的批評,在一些時候疏遠了我的異議者的朋友,對於在台灣要出版的新書,心存遲疑,生怕其中的一些激烈言論,可能激起大陸審查部門的不安。它也帶來了另一個後果。我開始對中國劇烈的政治變化感到麻木,既然我不能批評、分析它,我就假裝它的不存在。我似乎再次變成了一個自我欺騙者,象是對於極權制度這頭「房間裏的大象」視而不見。

Over the past two years, China’s locked-in syndrome has got worse. Not only has old-style ideological censorship become increasingly obvious by the day, the government has also achieved remarkable successes in controlling the Internet. What’s also evident is that average Chinese people have accommodated themselves to only having access to a restricted network. They accept the limited horizon with which they are presented. Such an environment can all too readily engender the cult of personality, statism, nationalism and bellicosity.
在過去的兩年中,中國陷入了進一步的封閉。不僅傳統意義上的思想審查日益顯著,政府對互聯網的控制也取得了顯著的成功,中國人已經全然接受他們只是在使用局域網這一現實。這也意味着,他們都接受了一個扭曲的世界圖景。在這個扭曲的圖景中,個人崇拜、國家主義、民族主義、仇恨心理都被輕易的被激發與操縱。

I feel humiliated; I’m ashamed of my cowardice. For the first time in my life I’ve started keeping a diary. In it I try to record my alienation from myself; I hope that this might act as a balm to my sense of alienation. Sometimes, Miklós Haraszti’s question comes to mind. If I see him again, I’ll tell him that I’m trying to write just the one version, but it’s hard.
我為自己的膽怯感到屈辱與羞愧。我第一次開始嘗試寫日記,記錄下內心的分裂,期待書寫能平撫它。偶爾,米克洛斯·哈拉茲蒂的問題跳進我腦中。如果再遇到他,我會說,我現在努力只寫一個版本,但是經常難以做到……

***

Translator’s Note: My thanks to Geremie Barmé for introducing me to Xu Zhiyuan and for inviting me to translate this essay, as well as for his numerous suggestions and revisions. Subheadings have been added by the Editor.


Further Reading