Xu Jinchuan (徐錦川, 1960-) is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist. The following essay, titled ‘Those Who Love’ 那些愛著的人們, appeared on 15 November 2020 in the series ‘Xu Jinchuan’s Reading Life’ 徐錦川的讀書生活. It is an elegiac meditation on ‘those we have lost’, that is men and women known to the author who have been lost, not to COVID-19, but to the virulent virus that infects the body politic of mainland China.
Xu’s essay can be read in tandem with ‘Adieu, China! — Jianying Zha’s Long Farewell’ (China Heritage, 10 November 2020), part of our series ‘Spectres & Souls’. Zha’s reflections on China and the United States have a further resonance as Xu’s essay quotes Emma Lazarus just as Stephen Miller, the poet’s posthumous bête noire, was ‘canceled by association’ in a majority decision by America voters in early November 2020.
Our ever-reliable Reader #1 remarked when pointing out a few typos in the following translation that Xu Jinchuan’s sentiments brought to mind a line by Albert Camus:
‘In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.’
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 November 2020
Xu Jinchuan’s Weibo
- ‘Writer, Screen writer — living right in the wrong time’
Xu Jinchuan Talks:
On 1980s literature
On Wang Xiaobo
On Wang Shuo
On Kitano Takeshi
- On Xu Zhangrun, Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive (1 August 2018-)
- On Chen Qiushi, ‘The Heart of The One Grows Ever More Arrogant and Proud’, China Heritage, 10 March 2020
- On Geng Xiaonan, ‘A Chinese Decembrist and Professor Xu Zhangrun’, China Heritage, 10 September 2020
- On Xu Zhiyong 許志永, ‘Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go’, ChinaFile, 26 February 2020
- On Ye Kuangzheng, ‘Hollow Men, Wooden People’, China Heritage, Christmas Eve, December 2017
- Viral Alarm — China Heritage Annual 2020
Those Who Love
Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
Professor Xu [Zhangrun] turned up just as we were about about to start eating. He was all smiles as he said: just add a chair and a pair of chopsticks. We were all taken aback as no one had any inkling that he might be able to come. For his part Professor Xu confessed that, no, he hadn’t been invited and, for his sins, he should be relegated to the worst seat in the house. In the event, he just pulled up a seat and plopped himself down right next to me.
There’s no two ways about it: Professor Xu’s quite the character.
Thereupon, we set about drinking some hard liquor while digging into a Mongolian hotpot feast. We all chatted away, though we didn’t touch on politics. Ms Geng [Xiaonan] and Lawyer Chen [Qiushi] were also there. Despite his loquacious online performances, in private Young Chen is not at all garrulous.
We took a group photo after the meal, as you can see:
When I was rummaging through the old photos on my computer while writing this essay, I came across this picture and felt a pang. That’s because all three of them [Xu Zhangrun, Geng Xiaonan and Chen Qiushi] are now beyond reach.
[Note: Xu Zhangrun is under virtual house arrest and, although he enjoys limited freedoms, for many except old friends he is all but uncontactable. Geng Xiaonan is in police custody. Accused of ‘illicit business activities’ she and her husband, Qin Zhen, are awaiting trial. Chen Qiushi, a well-known lawyer turned citizen journalist, was ‘disappeared’ in early February 2020 when reporting on COVID-19 from Wuhan, the epicentre of the then epidemic. He was reportedly released into the custody of his parents who live in Qingdao, Shandong province.]
Sometimes I’ll think of them when gazing out of my window. No matter how bright and sunny the day might be, inside my heart is frozen by this unforgiving season, for China is going through a political winter.
Looking back over the last few years, I realise that we moved from the early frosts to a deep freeze in what seemed like a matter of days. With the onset of this cruel season, things have simply gone on and on. Of course, there’s the hopeful few who like to quote that famous line by Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ Sure, they find a measure of comfort in such sentiments but, to my ears, it just sounds like a somniloquy — an empty phrase mumbled in one’s sleep. It just make me feel more downcast, even more depressed.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I think about another winter. That too was a few years ago. It was already well into the season. Friends had put together a cultural event that involved the reciting of poetry. The venue was way over past the East Fourth Ring Road, and that meant it was a real trek from my place. On the subway going over there, I suddenly got a notification from the organisers: the authorities had closed the event down. Still that wasn’t going to deter anyone and they’d soon managed to find a spot over on the western side of the city. I simply changed trains and headed in the other direction. Then, my phone buzzed again: that second venue had also been shut down. Undaunted, the organisers said they’d be in touch again shortly.
While waiting I got a call from the poet Ye Kuangzheng. He wanted to know where he should be going, but I told him I didn’t know; perhaps we should just meet up while we waited. Ye had just reached Taoran Ting station, having taken the subway from Beijing South Station after arriving from Shandong [province, the capital of which is some 400 kilometres south of Beijing]. I headed over there and we met up on the subway platform.
[Note: For a poem by Ye Kuangzheng, see ‘Hollow Men, Wooden People’, China Heritage, Christmas Eve, December 2017.]
In the event, I just about did a subway circumambulation before ending up at a hotel they’d found for us far from the centre of the city, a place beyond the North Fourth Ring Road. By the time all the participants — and there were dozens of us — gathered there we were pretty shellshocked, and there we were variously seated or standing, in a sombre mood. The organisers announced that instead of reciting our selected poems, each of us would be called on to say a few words.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
The authorities had people there, too, listening in, on the sly.
That was when I finally got to meet both Professor Gao Quanxi and Jin Gang [金鋼] in person — up until then, we had long enjoyed a ‘meeting of minds’ on the Internet.
[Note: See Gao Quanxi 高全喜, ‘A Breach of the Law, a Betrayal of Autonomy’, China Heritage, 18 May 2019.]
After the event a clutch of us found a place for a meal. I was squashed in right next to Dr Xu (not the Professor Xu mentioned above [rather it was the civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong]). He had this determined air about him and he didn’t say much. He seemed weighed down, melancholy even. At the time, he’d only been out of jail a short time — and, as I write this now, he’s been beyond contact for nearly a year. It seems that his fate is to be repeatedly ‘thrown inside’.
[Note: See Xu Zhiyong 許志永, ‘Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go’, ChinaFile, 26 February 2020. Xu was detained by the authorities in Guangzhou on 15 February 2020.]
In the group photograph taken that day, I guessed that over ten percent of the participants were either ‘released after serving a sentence’, ‘released on medical grounds’ or ‘living under constant police surveillance’. Of course, in the narrow legal sense, none of them had been punished for what they had said or written; various nebulous charges had been leveled against them. The upshot of all of this has been that, despite the relief that these victims were free, [many would daresay be convinced that] supporting universal values was not only dangerous, it would result in you being cowed.
This then is the fate of China’s intellectuals.
Regardless, they do not succumb to feeling aggrieved. It is inevitable that when a country is in crisis that its thinking people are the first to suffer. After all, intellectuals have a disproportionate responsibility to pursue the truth and reveal what is really going on, at least in comparison to everyone else living under the regnant political system. What does that old expression about ‘studying the classics’ really mean? It means learning to express your doubts, to critique, to raise your voice in a clamour. That is the duty and responsibility of thinking people, just as it is inevitable that one will live with the consequences.
They suffer because they truly love.
At the height of the viral alarm earlier this year a group of us were longing to drown our sorrows, so we found a little eatery that was still operating where we could catch up. A few days later one of our little band also disappeared. He, too, was now beyond reach. Why, I don’t even dare mention his name here.
I’m not really an intimate or close friend of any of the people that I’ve mentioned in the above. Yet, I feel that pang whenever I think of them. It is as though I, too, am behind bars. It leaves me unsettled and unable to continue reading quietly any more.
Sometimes, I might spend a day staring out the window. Gazing into the hazy distance my heart feels as empty as the vast vault of heaven above.
Chinese original (screenshots of a PDF):