無可奈何 — So It Goes

Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University


The work of Professor Xu Zhangrun has featured in the virtual pages of China Heritage since August 2018. We were preparing to publish Professor Xu’s latest essay, one that he was writing to commemorate his famous Jeremiad —  ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待 — but have been prevented from doing so as the author was detained by the authorities on the morning of Monday 6 July 2020.

Professor Xu’s latest book — a collection of the six major critiques of the Xi Jinping government that he published during the 2018-2019 Year of the Dog — was slated to appear with City University of Hong Kong Publishing House in May 2020, and to feature at the Hong Kong Book Festival. Even before Beijing imposed its ‘Hong Kong Region Security Law’ on 1 July, Professor Xu’s publisher had been pressured to drop the book. In late June, Bouden House 博登書屋, a New York-based Chinese-language publishing house, produced the volume under the title《戊戌六章》. In response to a request from the author and the publisher, I suggested an English title that reflected the contents of the book: China’s Ongoing Crisis — Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog. For details of this book, and the introduction, which Professor Xu invited me to write, see Bai Jieming 白杰明, ‘Six Chapters — One Hundred and Twenty Years‘, China Heritage, 1 January 2020.

It is rumoured that the appearance of that volume, along with the fact that Xu Zhangrun had repeatedly stated that he would continue to write and publish his views undaunted, led to the decision to silence him. In his work Professor Xu repeatedly warned that censorship and enforced silence — 箝口 qián kǒu — was having disastrous consequences for China, and by extension for the world.

The following essay is included in ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’, as well as being a chapter in our series ‘Viral Alarm’, itself a collection inspired by Xu Zhangrun’s ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, which he published in early February 2020. This material is also included in Lessons in New Sinology.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 July 2020


Recommended Reading:

As Clive James observes:

Hope Against Hope is about a gradual, reluctant but inexorable realization that despair is the only thing left to feel: it is the book of a process. Hope Abandoned is about what despair is like when even the memory of an alternative has been dispelled: the book of a result. The second book’s subject is spiritual desolation as a way of life. Several times, in the course of the text, Nadezhda proclaims her fear that the very idea of normality has gone from the world.

“I shall not live to see the future, but I am haunted by the fear that it may be only a slightly modified version of the past.” ’

from Clive James, Cultural Amnesia (2007), p.416

Nadezhda Mandelstam died in 1980. ‘Nadezhda’ Наде́жда is Russian for ‘hope’.


‘頻有哀禍,悲摧切割,不能自勝,奈何奈何。省慰增感。’ — 王羲之,《頻有哀禍貼

This fragment in the hand of Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361 CE), who is famed as ‘The Sage of Calligraphy’ 書聖, reads:

‘Time and again grieving over calamity. Heartache as painful as a slashing blade; acute feelings overwhelm. Hope, then? Hope forlorn. Consolation only inflames despair.’

Our thanks to Annie Luman Ren 任路漫 for recommending this excruciatingly exquisite work.



lài chuāngbā


Xi Jinping, the Chairman of Everything who is now also known in Chinese as ‘Xidalin’ 習大林 (Xi + Stalin), heads a regime that shares much in common with the fictional Ah Q, the most famous invention of Lu Xun. It seems apposite that Ah Q’s centenary will coincide with the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The protagonist of ‘The True Story of Ah Q’ is known for his unerring ability to score own goals and for constantly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, right up to the bitter end.

From ‘A Brief Account of Ah Q’s Victories’

… Ah Q who ‘used to be much better off’, who was a man of the world and a ‘worker’, would have been  almost the perfect man had it not been for a few unfortunate physical blemishes. The most annoying were some patches on his scalp where at some uncertain date shiny ringworm scars had appeared. Although these were on his own head, apparently Ah Q did not consider them as altogether honourable, for he refrained from using the word ‘ringworm’ or any words that sounded anything like it. Later he improved on this, making ‘bright’ and ‘light’ forbidden words, while later still even ‘lamp’ and ‘candle’ were taboo. Wherever this taboo was disregarded, whether intentionally or not, Ah Q would fly into a rage, his ringworm scars turning scarlet. He would look over the offender, and if it were someone weak in repartee he would curse him, while if it were a poor fighter he would hit him. Yet, curiously enough, it was usually Ah Q who was worsted in these encounters, until finally he adopted new tactics, contenting himself in general with a furious glare.

It so happened, however, that after Ah Q had taken to using this furious glare, the idlers at Weizhuang grew even more fond of making jokes at his expense. As soon as they saw him they would pretend to give a start and say:

‘Look! It’s lighting up.’

Ah Q rising to the bait as usual would glare in fury.

‘So there is a paraffin lamp here,’ they would continue, unafraid.

Ah Q could do nothing but rack his brains for some retort. ‘You don’t even deserve… .’ At this juncture it seemed as if the bald patches on his scalp were noble and honourable, not just ordinary ringworm scars. However, as we said above, Ah Q was a man of the world: he knew at once that he had nearly broken the ‘taboo’ and refrained from saying any more.

If the idlers were still not satisfied but continued to pester him, they would in the end come to blows. Then only after Ah Q had to all appearances been defeated, had his brownish queue pulled and his head bumped against the wall four or five times, would the idlers walk away, satisfied at having won. And Ah Q would stand there for a second thinking to himself, ‘It’s as if I were beaten by my son. What the world is coming to nowadays!… ‘

Thereupon he too would walk away, satisfied at having won.

from ‘The True Story of Ah Q’, in
Lu Xun: Selected Works, Volume I
translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang
Beijing, 1956, p.108-109

In his regular ‘Ways of the World’ 世道人生 column published in Apple Daily, Lee Yee remarked on 6 July 2020 that, overnight, Hong Kong had experienced a great leap in time from 30 June 2020 to 1 July 2049. ‘The thing about authoritarianism’, he observed, is that ‘orders issued on high are invariably pursued with excessive vigour by underlings.’ 專權政治的特點,是上頭有旨意,下面就加碼執行。After listing the restrictions on free speech and assembly that are multiplying by the day he says that upon learning that the Hong Kong Department of Education would soon be organising lessons related to the new security law for kindergartens, some online commentators said it was best to start from before the cradle by introducing ‘foetal state security education’.

‘It’s just like the ringworms on Ah Q’s head,’ Lee Yee observed about ever-encroaching censorship and self-censorship:

‘He refrained from using the word “ringworm” or any words that sounded anything like it. Later he improved on this, making “bright” and “light” forbidden words, while later still even “lamp” and “candle” were taboo. ” There are so many taboo or sensitive words on the Mainland Internet, and they continue to proliferate, that people often have to come up with roundabout ways to say the most commonplace things. Once you have rulers who think like Ah Q then they will continue to extend the absurdity endlessly.

Recently, Roy Tsui (Lam Yat-hei 林日曦) started his talkshow [on TVMost] by saying that since so many topics were now out-of-bounds, he could fit the whole two-hour program into a minute.


林日曦在Talk show開場時說,兩個小時的節目現在一分鐘就講完,因為許多話題變得敏感了。

Lee Yee, ‘At a Loss for Words’
李怡, ‘失語狀態’, 2020年7月6日



shùn wǒ zhě chāng


Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 was detained on the morning of Monday 6 July 2020. Friends in Beijing reported that he had been taken into custody by police from Sichuan province and there was a suggestion that he would be charged with ‘soliciting prostitutes’ during a trip to Sichuan in the autumn of 2019 organised by his supporters.

The accusation of ‘soliciting prostitutes’ 嫖娼 has been used so frequently by the Chinese authorities that a new twist has been given to an old expression. The saying ‘submit to me and you will prosper; resist and you will perish’ 順我者昌,逆我者亡 shùn wǒ zhě chāng, nì wǒ zhě wáng first appears in the pre-Qin text Zhuangzi when the villainous brigand Liuxia Zhi 柳下跖, better known simply as Robber Zhi 盜跖, grants the obsequious Confucius (Kong Qiu 孔丘) an audience. ‘Let him come forward,’ bellows Zhi:

‘Confucius came scurrying forward, declined the mat that was set out for him, stepped back a few paces, and bowed twice to Robber Zhi. The robber, still in a great rage, sat with his legs sprawled out, leaning on his sword, eyes glaring. In a voice like the roar of a nursing tigress, he said,

“Qiu, come forward! If what you have to say takes my fancy, you will live. But if I take offense, you will surely die!”

盜跖曰:使來前。孔子趨而進, 避席反走,再拜盜跖。盜跖大怒,兩展其足,案劍瞋目,聲如乳虎,曰:丘來前。若所言順吾意則生,逆吾心則死。

Even before they met, Robber Zhi had sent word to the peripatetic thinker that:

‘Your crimes are huge, your offenses grave. You had better run home as fast as you can, because if you don’t, I will take your liver and add it to this afternoon’s menu!’


from ‘Robber Zhi’, Zhuangzi《莊子 · 盜跖》
The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu
translated by Burton Watson
with modification

Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the movement that led to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912 and a man celebrated in the People’s Republic as the Father of the Nation used the expression when talking about the tide of progressive change and democratic revolution:

‘World progress is like a tidal wave. Those who ride it will prosper, and those who fight against it will perish.’

quoted in Barmé, ‘The Tide of Revolution’
China Heritage Quarterly, December 2011

In his powerful critiques of the vaunted ‘New Epoch’ under Xi Jinping, Xu Zhangrun aligns his own efforts with the long-frustrated impulses for progressive change and meaningful reform that date back to the Tongzhi Restoration of the 1860s. The Open Door and Economic Reform policies of post-Mao China are not the simple invention of Deng Xiaoping and his cohort of Communist leaders, rather they are a continuation of that early effort at national self-strengthening in the nineteenth century and the more mature attempts under the Republic of China to create a constitutional democracy promised by leaders as varied as Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. Here we would recall that, throughout the 1940s, Mao and fellows repeatedly promised in numerous public statements, speeches and interviews that China under the Communists would finally realise the democratic aims of the republican revolution of 1911. (For a collection of this material, see Xiao Shu 笑蜀 ed., Voices of History: solemn promises made half a century ago 歷史的先聲——半個世紀前的莊嚴承諾, published on the eve of the 1st October National Day in 1999 (and immediately banned).

Today, the ancient expression that ‘resistance is futile’, inspired by Robber Zhi’s thuggish rejection of Confucius’s appeal to morality has been reworked as:

shùn wǒ zhě chāng, nì wǒ zhě bèi piáochāng

‘Submit to me and you will prosper; resist and you will be accused of soliciting prostitutes.’

When commenting on trumped up criminal charges in terms of the Chinese tradition it is handy to refer to the expression 莫須有 mò xū yǒu, ‘it could be true’, from the Song dynasty, or the older line 欲加之罪,何患無辭: ‘if you need to accuse someone of a crime, there’ll always be an excuse’. Given what Xu Zhangrun has called the 法日斯 (Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinist) nature of Xi Jinping’s China, I prefer a line attributed to Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Joseph Stalin’s state security administration:

‘Show me the man, and I’ll give you the crime.’



wú kě nài hé


The Chinese and English title of this chapter in our series ‘Viral Alarm’ — the theme of China Heritage Annual 2020 that was inspired by Professor Xu’s essay ‘Viral Alarm — When Fury Overcomes Fear’, published by ChinaFile on 10 February 2020 (for a bilingual version of this text, see China Heritage, 24 February 2020) — contains two literary references.

The first — 無可奈何 wú kě nài hé — appears in many texts from pre-Qin times onwards. Here we use it to refer to the concluding paragraph of the last essay that Xu Zhangrun published shortly before his detention:

‘Ultimately, we all confront a reality in which both Good and Bad are inextricably enmeshed; ours is a world damaged and inadequate, yet it is also one both of beautiful grandeur as well as of vile evil. It has come to be that our spirits inhabit this physical realm; we cope as best we can. There’s nothing for it but to move fitfully ever onwards. With each step we fulfill a life that is one third blithe ignorance, one third hopeful longing, and one final third that is an awareness: it is all simply what it is.’


from 無齋先生,‘蓬萊上國的漢方名醫’,2020年6月27日

For this writer, the expression 無可奈何 wú kě nài hé brings to mind a well-known poem by Yan Shu of the Song dynasty:


— 晏殊,《浣溪沙》

A cup of wine, songs with new lyrics,
Back in this pavilion, the same weather
The setting sun, what of the morrow?
Blossoms falling now, it is the way
Swallows from an earlier time return
And me, pacing in this small garden.


The two most famous lines from Yan Shu’s poem in the calligraphic hand of Kang Sheng 康生, the murderous head of state security under Mao Zedong. The couplet was written for Wang Li 王力, a key theoretician during the early Cultural Revolution whose zealotry, in particular as it related to foreign countries and Hong Kong, contributed to his fall from grace. The ambidextrous Kang Sheng created this work using his left hand


So It Goes


As we noted in the introduction to the Xu Zhangrun Archive compiled by China Heritage:

Since mid 2018, Professor Xu’s works have generated widespread discussion — and sotto voce debate — in China; they have also attracted international attention. In late March 2019, the Communist Party Committee that administers Tsinghua University, Xu Zhangrun’s employer, informed him via the university’s Human Resources Office that his wages would be further reduced; that he was stripped of all of the duties and privileges as a professor at Tsinghua, effective immediately; and, that a formal Investigation Group would scrutinise in detail his activities and writings. That investigation would inform the Party bosses, both at Tsinghua and in Zhongnanhai, how he would be further disciplined, cashiered or legally sanctioned.

Tsinghua University’s actions elicited an immediate response among some of Xu Zhangrun’s colleagues, ranging from disbelief to outrage. The news also caused consternation among many Tsinghua graduates and within the wider community. We have translated some of those reactions under the title ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’ in the Xu Zhangrun Archive.

In the persecution of Xu Zhangrun, which began surreptitiously at the behest of Chinese officialdom in August 2018, some of the country’s leading academics and intellectuals identify a ‘case study’ in the broader malaise affecting the country’s educational and cultural life. For years, it has been widely recognised that even the limited intellectual freedoms tolerated under previous Communist Party leaders were under increased threat as a result of the implementation of revived ideological controls throughout the publishing, academic and cultural spheres. With the circulation in 2013 of ‘Document Number Nine’, which alerted Party members about the infiltration of potentially destabilising ‘Western Values’, and in light of the trial and jailing in September 2014 of the respected, and moderate, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, even relatively naïve and hopeful independent-minded educators in the country’s universities and schools became tremulously aware of a rising tide of Communist Party obscurantism.

As we have repeatedly observed in China Heritage (and in our work that goes back to the early 1980s), however, the origins of the escalating crisis in Chinese education and culture has its origins in 1978. At that time, just as the Communists formally recognised the disaster their rule had visited upon the country and made a series of decisions that would form the basis of the four decades of what is known as ‘Economic Reform and Global Openness’ 改革開放, they also made a fateful adjudication: at the urging of Deng Xiaoping, Hu Qiaomu and other ideologues it was decided that the repression of outspoken academics, intellectuals and others in 1957, known as the ‘Anti-Rightist Campaign’ was, in essence, correct. Although over 300,000 men and women unjustly persecuted due to that campaign were eventually exonerated, the charges against five ‘Rightists’ were upheld and used as an excuse to justify the purge, one that had been overseen by Mao Zedong and coordinated by the logistical genius of Deng Xiaoping.

The affirmation of the political necessity of the 1957 purge of intellectual and cultural life — along with the Thought Reform Movement of the early 1950s that initially crushed academic freedom (for more on this, see ‘Ruling The Rivers & Mountains’) — has repeatedly given the Party ideological license to police university life as it sees fit. In re-imposing stricter ideological controls on education, and in particular in tertiary educational institutions, Xi Jinping’s party-state has merely been exercising prerogatives long ago made possible by major Party decisions announced in 1978, in 1987, and again after 4 June 1989 and repeatedly since then.

The ‘Xu Zhangrun Incident’, as some call it, is not merely about intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, it reflects the Xi-generated crisis in China’s ability to think about, debate and formulate ideas free of Communist Party manipulation, ideas that rightfully could and should benefit Chinese society, the nation and the world as a whole.

‘The Xu Zhangrun Archive’, or ‘Xu Case File’ offers some of the key works in Professor Xu’s recent oeuvre, as well as a sample of reactions to those works and an overview of his ongoing persecution.


On 30 March 2019 we received the text of a powerful article by an academic at Tsinghua University written in support of Professor Xu. We believed we had a clear understanding that China Heritage had permission to publish that text in translation. We were mistaken. Subsequent to publication, we were belatedly informed that the essay was, in fact, not intended for circulation outside the People’s Republic, nor indeed did the author want its existence to be reported. We were baffled by this surprising information, however, given the nature, and delicacy, of the situation, we were hardly in a position to protest ourselves, after all, it was impossible to determine what, if any, exogenous factors may have contributed to this untoward development.

We removed the translation and original text of that now self-silenced voice from China Heritage. The original Editorial Introduction and Dedication to the piece remain, as a 有字碑, a ‘stele covered in writing’ (as opposed to the famous ‘un-inscribed stele’ at the Tang-dynasty Qianling Tomb 乾陵無字碑), positioned to mourn silently such an untimely evaporation.

As 31 March 2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, I found solace in the wise mantra-like statement used by the author to punctuate a dark meditation on the evil of the times:

So it goes.

from ‘Silence + Conformity = Complicity’
China Heritage, 30 March 2019



bēi míng


The future cannot be known; indeed there may come a time when this Gentleman’s work no longer enjoys preeminence, just as there are aspects of his scholarship that invite disputation. Yet his was an Independent Spirit and his a Mind Unfettered — these will survive the millennia to share the longevity of Heaven and Earth, shining for eternity as do the Sun, the Moon and the very Stars themselves.


Chen Yinque 陳寅恪 on
Wang Guowei
3 June 1929

(from ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 28 April, 2019)

Xu Zhangrun, on commemorating Wang Guowei and Chen Yinque at Tsinghua University:


In Zhuangzi, Robber Zhi ends his encounter with Confucius by declaring:

‘What you have been telling me — I reject every bit of it! Quick, now — be on your way. I want no more of your talk. This “Way” you tell me about is inane and inadequate, a fraudulent, crafty, vain, hypocritical affair, not the sort of thing that is capable of preserving the Truth within. How can it be worth discussing!’

Confucius bowed twice and scurried away. Outside the gate, he climbed into his carriage and fumbled three times in an attempt to grasp the reins, his eyes blank and unseeing, his face the color of dead ashes. Leaning on the crossbar, head bent down, he could not seem to summon up any spirit at all.

Returning to Lu, he had arrived just outside the eastern gate of the capital when he happened to meet Liuxia Ji [Robber Zhi’s brother].

‘I haven’t so much as caught sight of you for the past several days,’ he said, ‘and your carriage and horses look as though they’ve been out on the road — it couldn’t be that you went to see my brother Zhi, could it?’

Confucius looked up to heaven, sighed, ‘I did.’

‘And he was enraged by your views, just as I said he would be?’

‘He was,’ said Confucius. ‘You might say that I gave myself the burning moxa treatment when I wasn’t even sick. I went rushing off to pat the tiger’s head and plait its whiskers — and very nearly didn’t manage to escape from its jaws!’


from ‘Robber Zhi’, Zhuangzi《莊子 · 盜跖》
The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu
translated by Burton Watson
with modification

Those who are caught in the jaws of Xi Jinping’s New Era cannot expect such a fortuitous escape from the tiger’s maw.


‘Liuxia Zhi Sends Confucius Packing’ 柳下跖斥孔圖 (1976), by Fan Zeng 范曾. This work dates from the Criticise Lin Biao and Confucius campaign of 1974-1976, when Confucian thought, and anything to do with the Chinese humanist tradition, was denounced by Mao and his nationwide supporters. The artist is a notorious cultural weathervane