Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (XXIX)
— Xu Zhangrun 許章潤
In late June 2019, as Hong Kong was rocked by demonstrators protesting en masse against an Extradition Bill proposed by Carrie Lam (Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor 林鄭月娥, 1957-), the city’s Beijing-anointed chief executive, Professor Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University in Beijing published two books in the territory that, as chance would have it, highlighted the widespread concerns being expressed on the streets of the former British colony.
Making a Case for Humanity Over Banditry 《人間不是匪幫》, published by Oxford University Press, is a selection of commentaries, essays, reviews and memoirs written by Xu Zhangrun between September 2012 and February 2019. Many of the chapters have previously appeared online, while some were composed following the publication of the author’s controversial July 2018 essay ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待 (China Heritage, 1 August 2018). Although the ninety essays contained in Xu’s new book range over many topics, they reflect an abiding theme in the author’s thinking: humanity and decency, as opposed to the hypocrisy and lawlessness of one-party autocracy.
Below, we first pause to introduce the Introduction of Professor Xu’s book by offering an essay from the collection itself. ‘A Life at the Lectern’ 一輩子站講台 originally appeared in March 2016 and, unbeknownst to its author at the time, it would be something of an envoi to his previous life since, due to his increasingly outspoken criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party dating from that year, he would eventually be banned from his beloved career as a university lecturer. From late 2018, he was cautioned against all forms of public engagement and, from March 2019 further explicitly banned by ‘special investigators’ assigned to his ‘case’ at Tsinghua University from publishing, be it on Mainland China, in Hong Kong, Taiwan or elsewhere. His response to such interdictions has been that of unswerving recalcitrance and although Xu’s fate alerted people both in- and outside China to the increasingly blighted intellectual landscape of the People’s Republic, his work as well as the voices of his supporters have been a warning and a clarion call to all those who oppose and who are willing to resist Communist Party dominion.
‘A Life at the Lectern’ is the second chapter in Making a Case for Humanity Over Banditry. Two other chapters from the collection have previously appeared in translation in China Heritage:
- And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing! 哪有先生不說話?!, China Heritage, 10 November 2018: and,
- To Summon a Wandering Soul 私塾先生, China Heritage, 28 November 2018
The Chinese title of the collection — 《人間不是匪幫》 rénjiān bù shì fěibāng — contrasts the words ‘humanity’ 人間 rénjiān and ‘bandits’, or ‘gangsters’, 匪幫 fěibāng (which is also the Chinese translation of ‘Gangsta’ as in ‘Gangsta Rap’ 匪幫說唱). Both here and in his other writings and speeches, Xu Zhangrun posits that the realm of human decency is in principled opposition to that of ‘banditry” or ‘bastardry’ — the gamut of behaviours germane to the lawless and the illegitimate.
人間 rénjiān, literally, ‘among human kind’, is an ancient expression used variously to indicate the concepts of ‘society’ and ‘popular’, as well as the Buddhist idea of the sphere of human incarnation. Here it means ‘the human condition’. The expression 匪幫 fěibāng — a gang of thugs, brigands, crooks, bandits, gangsters, mobsters, desperados — has profound traditional resonances as well as being significant in China’s modern history. Indeed, 匪幫 fěibāng evokes images of some of the most undesirable aspects of that country’s social and political life. 匪 fěi means bandit, outlaw or brigand; it is a word that comes to mind when discussing the outlaws — celebrated as desperado heroes — of The Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as The Water Margin 水滸傳), a famous late-fourteenth century novel. Those fictional rebels frequently featured in twentieth-century Chinese politics, in particular during the Cultural Revolution era (c.1964-1978). As ‘toughs’, ‘good fellows’ or ‘sterling-quality thugs’, or 好漢 hǎo hàn, they exemplified raffish rebelliousness, violence and even the concept of ‘honour among thieves’ 義氣 yìqì (for more on 好漢 hǎo hàn, see W.J.F. Jenner, ‘Tough Guys, Mateship and Honour: Another Chinese Tradition’, East Asian History, 1996, Issue 12 [December 1996]: 1-34).
Throughout much of the twentieth century, 匪 fěi — brigandry and bastardry — featured prominently in the nation’s politics. The rural rebellions encouraged by factions of the Communist Party from the mid 1920s were decried by the urban-based authorities as being little more than ‘peasant uprisings’ and, right up until the late 1980s, the KMT-Nationalists spoke derisively about ‘Commie Bandit’s 共匪 gòng fěi, ‘Mao Bandits’ 毛匪 Máo fěi and ‘Red Bandits’ 赤匪 chì fěi. They were also steadfast in their pursuit of ‘bandit suppression’ 剿匪 jiǎo fěi, even after they retreated to the island of Taiwan. For their part, the Communists mocked their establishment enemies as nothing more than 蔣匪 Jiǎng fěi — ‘Chiang [Kai-shek] Bandits’ — or ‘White Bandits’ 白匪 bái fěi, a term used in diachronic contradistinction to their proudly bloody hue; it was also analogous to the anti-Bolshevik ‘White Army’ of the Russian revolution. Over the years, 匪 fěi was used in conjunction with such terms as ‘riff-raff’ 痞子pǐzi and even ‘hooligan’ 流氓 liúmáng.
From the earliest days of his revolutionary careers, Mao Zedong appreciated the importance of banditry and rural uprisings; the observations he recorded of the oppressed peasantry in his home province of Hunan in 1927 would eventually became a central feature of Mao Thought. Where others identified destructive menace, Mao found a ‘movement of riffraff’ 痞子運動 pǐzi yùndòng that could further the greater ends of revolution:
The right-wing of the Kuomintang says, “The peasant movement is a movement of the riffraff, of the lazy peasants.” … In short, all those whom the gentry had despised, those whom they had trodden into the dirt, people with no place in society, people with no right to speak, have now audaciously lifted up their heads. They have not only lifted up their heads but taken power into their hands. They are now running the township peasant associations (at the lowest level), which they have turned into something fierce and formidable. They have raised their rough, work-soiled hands and laid them on the gentry. … Those who used to rank lowest now rank above everybody else; and so this is called “turning things upside down”.
From the early 1950s under the direction of Mao and his colleagues, the whole country was swept up in a calculated and murderous ‘riff-raff movement’. Society was repeatedly convulsed by political movements that ‘turned things upside down’ and, forty years after Mao’s investigations in Hunan, another ‘riff-raff movement’ was launched with chaotic intensity by the Red Guards in 1966-1969. The student-led Red Guards believed they would achieve the revolutionary romantic ideals of the Communist Party where others had failed; but they also replicated in their language and behaviour the fictional world of the Mount Liang rebels of The Outlaws of the Marsh. The Red Guards might have envisioned themselves as ‘Mini Mao’, play acting revolution with deadly earnestness, but not only did their language and behaviour readily recall those Ming-dynasty fictional upstarts, for their ignominious fate had also been foretold in the bloody denouement of the novel. But even unto death Mao celebrated the surly peasant rebellion and, in 1975, he launched a political purge based on his interpretation of The Outlaws of the Marsh.
As we noted above, in the title of his new book — Making a Case for Humanity Over Banditry 《人間不是匪幫》 — Xu Zhangrun pairs the word 匪 fěi with 幫 bāng, another derogatory term used to describe a clutch, group, clique or faction. 幫 bāng famously occurs in the political expression 四人幫 sìrénbāng, or ‘Gang of Four’. Originally an invention of Mao Zedong, ‘Gang of Four’ was intended to be a cautionary shorthand describing his four closest allies, a group centred on Jiang Qing 江青, his fourth wife. The Chairman warned the group against giving falling into clumsy (and strategically ill-fated) factionalism — nonetheless, he encouraged their political ambitions. Shortly after Mao’s death in September 1976, the expression ‘Gang of Four’ was used in anti-Cultural Revolution offical propaganda to denounce the four revolutionary stalwarts — Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan — who were arrested in October 1976 along with many of their supporters. The expression was subsequently employed to attack policies associated not only with the ‘Gang’ but, by association, with Mao himself.
In combining the words 匪 fěi and 幫 bāng — 匪幫 fěibāng — Xu Zhangrun suggests an illicit and lawless grouping that has nothing but mayhem, mischief and deviltry in mind. For this reader, it recalls an observation about the Chinese Communist Party made by Simon Leys in 1977:
The psychology and behaviour of Peking’s ruling clique are those of gangsters. This in not just a colourful and polemical way of speaking but a sober statement of fact, and in fact it is the underworld which might find the comparison insulting — after all its members do have some sense of honour (even of a perverse variety), personal loyalty, and a warped kind of brotherhood in arms. That is a lot more than can be said for the turncoats and cut-throats of the Forbidden City, whose ceaseless intrigues and mutual waylaying round the corners of the corridors of power, as well as their cynically shifting alliances, are proof of a lack of principle which would have brought a blush to the cheeks of the members of the secret societies of the old Shanghai underworld.
— Simon Leys, Peking Duck Soup reprinted in
China Heritage, 23 January 2018
Insights into the vast world of Party gangsters or 匪幫 appeared just as the Communists struggled to salvage their position, and the nation’s economy, at the outset of the era of ‘Reform and Opening Up’. In September 1979, two years after Leys wrote the words quoted above, the prestigious Beijing literary journal People’s Literature published ‘Human Monsters’人妖之間, a report on the staggeringly corrupt activities of the apparatchik Wang Shouxin (王守信, ? -1980) by the investigative journalist Liu Binyan (劉賓雁, 1925-2005). In describing Wang’s network of payola and intrigue Liu shocked readers who, given what they knew of the first three decades of Party rule, by all rights should have been inured to news of such institutional skulduggery. As the historian Jonathan Spence observed:
What was powerful about Liu’s piece was its universality: everyone in China knew people like Wang Shouxin, and it made everyone think of all those who had not been brought to justice.
Forty years later, although the scale of Party corruption has reached ever more breathtaking levels, a system that by its very nature breeds ‘bastardry’ continues to extend its grasp. Although the system is entrenched on the Mainland, it was being challenged in Hong Kong just as Xu Zhangrun’s new book appeared. As Ching Kwan Lee, a professor of sociology at UCLA, observed that momentous moment:
June 2019 will go down in history as a turning point, because the actions of Hong Kong’s people have opened up new territories in their hearts and minds, something Beijing has tried in vain to capture for 22 years.
— Ching Kwan Lee, ‘Hong Kong’s new political lexicon’
Los Angeles Times, 8 July 2019
In making a case in favour of humanity against bastardry, one could argue that the behaviour of the Hong Kong Communist government 港共, in particular that of its executive officer Carrie Lam and the constabulary, should be entered as ‘Exhibit A’.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 July 2019
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, Making a Case for Humanity Over Banditry 《人間不是匪幫》, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press 香港：牛津大學出版社, 2019
- Hong Kong, The Best China, China Heritage, 1 July 2017-
- Various, ‘A Writer’s Desk & the Vastness of China — 1989, 2019’, China Heritage, 4 June 2019
- The Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive, China Heritage, 1 August 2018-
- Geremie Barmé, ‘Wang Shuo and Liumang (“Hooligan”) Culture’, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no.28 (July 1992): 23-64, revised and expanded under the chapter title ‘The Apotheosis of the Liumang’ in Barmé, In the Red: On contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp.62-98
A Life at the Lectern
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
As the spring was giving way to summer in 1993 there was a gathering at the Law School [that is, China University of Political Science and Law] at No. 41 College Avenue to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of our graduate program. We were addressed by Mr Wang Tieya [王鐵崖, 1913-2003, a veteran legal specialist and a former student of Chow Ken-sheng 周鲠生], head of the doctoral program of the Peking University’s Law School. Dressed in the most dignified manner Wang was a formidable figure. Following his remarks, I had the job of speaking on behalf of the graduates. The contrast couldn’t have been greater for despite my soulful self-importance I played the part with an air of insouciance. After the formalities Mr Wang came over and put a friendly hand on my shoulder: ‘Your comments were incisive and very well expressed, Young Zhangrun,’ he said. ‘But, tell me: how good is your English?’ Before I could say a word Mr Wang added: ‘I imagine you’ll spend your life at the lectern!’ Now I really wanted to take him up on that point but before I could a group of graduates surged around us and Wang was swept up in the crowd.
In retrospect, however, it turns out that he was right: I’ve spent the last three decades standing at a lectern. In the time that remains to me I am certain, definite and determined that it I will inevitably continue standing at a lectern. Cogito ergo sum, although in my case, just as ‘I become through thinking’, my being is also predicated on standing, for in standing there, where I do, I think; or, rather, it is precisely because I can think therefore I can stand there, Moreover, I can stand there with my head held high.
There’s a hoary dispute as to whether material reality determines thought processes or if thought itself can change the way we are in the material world. Is there any certainty about either side of the argument? Regardless, the contention continues. And so, for me, the years have slipped by: chalk on blackboard, lips peeling from all the endless talking; the seasons change one after another and the years come and go. Am I ‘I’ because I am thinking on my feet, or am ‘I’ thinking because I’m on my feet, or is there something else at work? In this case, too, the contention must continue. So let me put it like this: my lectern is me and I am my lectern. If the day comes when I’m no longer able to stand, or if I’m not allowed to stand there any more, I will nonetheless still be able to think, even if I can only do so lying down. — But, then, where will that ‘I that is me’ — the one who was because I stood at the lectern — have gone?
Back then I was quite clueless and didn’t really appreciate the significance of Mr Wang’s remark, so I gave it no further thought. Maybe he’d said it just for the sake of having something to say to me. But today, now that I’ve passed the half-century mark and Mr Wang has long since passed away [in 2003], even with the flush of youth far behind me I remain, in many ways, just as clueless as ever, yet I think I finally know what he meant.
I’d forgotten about our exchange long ago. Today, however, it came back to me: Tsinghua was smothered by a heavy pollution haze and I took part in a symposium on the university’s ‘tradition of legal scholarship’ held in conjunction with the celebration of the publication of Mr Lou Bangyan’s Collected Writings on Law [Lou was a noted legal expert specialising in constitutional law. He was denounced as a Rightist in 1957 and only exonerated in 1979, the year of his death]. The scion of the Lou Family officiated and Mr Wang Tieya’s three daughters were also in attendance. They all reminisced about how Tsinghua had once been an idyllic place for the pursuit of scholarship, one in which outstanding scholars like Mr Wang and Lou had been prominent figures. And that’s when I suddenly remembered [that 1993 encounter]. Our gathering came to an end and that nostalgic wistfulness dissipated. Having woken late at night in my solitude I decided to recorded a few thoughts here.
Stories told in lamplight, reflections of a greying fellow glanced in the mirror — I offer these in wistful reverie.
Daybreak, 18 March 2016
- The following essay is written in a contemplative style. I am grateful to the author for explicating passages that, in their telegraphic elegance, stymie simplistic interpretation.
Making a Case for
Humanity over Banditry
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Over time, the rhythms of daily life swell into a sense of customary normality and a meaningful sense of community requires a degree of respect and shared collectivity. We are bound together in just such a skein of mutuality. The life of the individual, too, relies on a certain level of common sense, as well as a belief in basic principles that accord with a kind of commonsense reality. In the normal course of events, none of this should prevent one’s spirit from being able to soar; after all, such moments of uplift are most precious of all.
Human nature is perforce complex and all too often the human heart proves to be unfathomable. Given the propensity for personal calculation and the pursuit of self-interest, humankind inevitably reveals ignoble propensities. The ruthlessly vicious struggles that arise therefrom are cause of ever new rounds of lamentation and cycles of regret. Moreover, it generally holds true that those who regard themselves as being particularly guileful and calculating invariably fall afoul of their own scheming. And so it is that humanity’s utopian enterprises are forever frustrated.
Heaven and Hell are used to explain the agonising dilemmas of human existence and offer but scant escape. Thus, we all face the irreconcilable frustrations of sodden life, with momentary release can sought momentarily by recourse to flights of imagination and through glimpses of possibility. Indeed, the realm of the possible enriches our lives, just as it encourages us to advance. And, hence, we can better appreciate the good and revile the evils of the world. Ultimately, however, even with the glories of each new day, dolorous burdens weigh us down, youth and vitality are eventually spent and all the while the chain of becoming continues ever on.
The wellsprings of human nature determine that we are by nature contrary beings. This is evident whenever we give ourselves over to solitary contemplation or, when sleep evades us and we turn in fitful fretting, we admit this to ourselves in our heart of hearts. Those who admit their wakefulness are then hampered by melancholic doubt. If only we were rid of the very thing that makes us who we are; if we could but banish the all-too-human heart that beats in us. For, if we fail to do so, this then is and so will remain the way of the world, one that unfolds in endless repetition up until the ‘ultimate celebration’, glorious pinnacle of life itself, its end. Until that moment, we can but edge ever onwards, seeking respite in and admixing our regret with the great breath of existence, our lives entangled both in sorrow and in joy. At most, one should seek solace in a drink or two, scribble down a few shallow lines and surrender then to fanciful sleep.
And so it goes, yet to what end? In the end, we human beings are simply not outlaws and thugs; here lies the grand scale of our humanity. Civilisation is the means by which the bottom line of common decency is maintained; it regulates how the very workings of life unfold. By means of this alone can there be true achievement, a sense of meaning and fulfillment. Judging by the tribulations of the past, however, we should all be aware that those horrors may be revisited; civilisation itself may be rent asunder casting us once more into a world dominated by the laws of the jungle. Beware, for this is no unfathomable past; it is an ever-present threat. It is also one that, inevitably, will confront those who come after us. The only thing we can do is to strive to the utmost, devoted to the betterment of things. This then is the weighty burden of a life well lived. Regardless, our very existence — that cycle of becoming — remains an admix both of coruscating grandeur and of vile filth. The human heart will not long tolerate oppressive burdens, nor will human nature accept suffocating confinement forever. The heart-mind longs for indulgent release; it is tireless in its quest to break free.
That which is brought about by the drums of war returns ever to the stuff of human kind — its loves and hates, joys and trepidations. Enchanting tunes about glistening moonlight on freshly fallen snow can never conceal the mounds of broken corpses. Our world is, alas, such a stage, its dramas but all in three acts: comedy, farce and tragedy.
This then is my story — a story about me and my homeland; it is also the story about where you are, as well as being a tale relevant to so many others; just, indeed, as it is an everyday story of every one — be they families, homes or individuals. As for other stories about more distant native lands, they are always recounted in the heart, as well as in one’s dreams. It is there, ultimately, that we find respite. It is, of course, an idyll, one in which — as the poets say — you can will be found ‘at leisure in a garden under fragrant plum blossoms, a pot of wine heating on the stove, hours idled away playing a melody’.
28 December 2018
The Erewhon Studio
The bitter winter of the
Wuxu Year of the Dog
Making a Case for
Humanity over Banditry
Table of Contents
- [Translated above]
- [Translated in China Heritage under the title ‘‘To Summon a Wandering Soul 私塾先生’, 28 November 2018]
- [Translated in China Heritage under the title ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing! 哪有先生不說話?!’, 10 November 2018]
喬治 · 奧威爾先生不上館子了
內藤湖南與唐娜 · 斯特里克蘭