Ai Xiaoming on Geng Xiaonan’s ‘Dance of Defiance’

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As Jerome A. Cohen, Faculty Director Emeritus of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes:

‘This week saw the detention in China of Geng Xiaonan, a well-known Beijing publisher and outspoken supporter of the famously harassed former Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun. Geng is reportedly destined for “very heavy” punishment, not the 15 day maximum in an unpleasant detention cell usually imposed for minor offenses not deemed sufficiently grave to constitute a “crime.” The initial “illegal activity” charge against her is vague enough to cover either her publishing business alone or her open support for Xu or, very likely, both. How long her husband, detained with her, will be held will depend on how important his interrogation seems to her case.’

from ‘The Vagaries of Crime and Punishment in China’,
The Diplomat, 15 September 2020


The following poem by the scholar, film-maker and activist Ai Xiaoming 艾曉明 celebrates Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, protests against her detention in Beijing and lambasts the silence of some of her erstwhile comrades. At best, a translation of Ai’s poem can only offer a clumsy approximation of the author’s word-thoughts and sentiments. A few notes have been appended to elucidate the English text.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 September 2020


Further Reading: 


Left to right: He Weifang 賀衛方, Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男 and Xu Zhangrun 許章潤


Her Dance of Defiance
— for Geng Xiaonan

Ai Xiaoming

Translated & annotated by  Geremie R. Barmé



It’s their horses now that drag you down, protecting stablehand
You, who would take a bullet, are in the steady line of fire
One who would succour the dead, muffled thus by zombies massed

瀟瀟嘶鳴 敢怒者無言以對
子夜時分 單挑帝國
九月 頭顱轟然墜落
二士同心 春風剪裁白雪
不棄不捨 十二月 黨人不絕
忘身家性命 雌雄同體
你情書如火 寄予江山社稷

Hear that — the bitter winds howling
Witness, too, the impotent muted anger:
Vainglorious men averting their gaze
Yours is a defiant spirit; you are ever marvellous
Weaving a martial dance with lightening-eyes

At midnight hour the empire faced that solitary challenge
September now, yet it is your head that clamorously falls
The countless mountains yearn, thirsty
These two upright souls as of one mind:
Their spring wind would scythe the drifts of snow
Ever faithful and enduring, you, fated new Decembrist
Forgoing family, life itself — hardy yang in yin embodied
Blazing words of love alight the land, and to the very heart of power

收監吧收監 監室蒼老
唯英雄年少 鏗鏘劍氣凌霄
盛裝妖嬈 揚眉出鞘

You, horse-handler, fallen, captive now
The other stallions: where are they?
Taken in and thus confined; even as that cell may age
Its hero-inmate shall boast undying youth

Your glinting sword pierces yet, heavenward
We wait for you and, when those shackles fall,
In raiments ever more resplendent, undaunted
Draw again that proud rapier from its sheath

15 September 2020



First Stanza of the Chinese Text:

In an interview with Bei Ming of Radio Free Asia, Geng Xiaonan said that:

‘If I could not be a hero, at least I could offer garlands to the heroic few and cheer on their endeavours. I could help them on their way or perhaps even take a bullet for them. Or, then again, I might serve by helping retrieve their fallen bodies from the battlefield… … The spirit of the ‘Decembrist Wives’ [of nineteenth-century Russia] is deeply ingrained in my personality and their resonate fame remains an inspiration to me.’


from Bei Ming, ‘Geng Xiaonan, a “Chinese Decembrist”, and Professor Xu Zhangrun’
China Heritage, 10 September 2020

‘One who would succour the dead, muffled thus by zombies massed’ 收屍的被屍收了: as noted in the above, Geng sees herself as being someone whose role might be to perform obsequies for the heroic dead. In the translation, the words ‘zombies massed’ refer to an observation made by the former professor of history at the Central Party School, Cai Xia 蔡霞, who is also a friend of Geng Xiaonan’s, that the Communist Party ‘has become a political zombie’ 政治殭屍. (See Chris Buckley, ‘She Was a Communist Party Insider in China. Then She Denounced Xi’, The New York Times, 18 August 2020)

Second Stanza of the Chinese Text:

‘Witness, too, the impotent muted anger/ Vainglorious men averting their gaze’ 敢怒者無言以對/ 男子漢多是垂目低眉 is a reference to those otherwise voluble men — many of whom have enjoyed Geng’s generosity in the past — though outraged by her arrest proved to be reluctant to protest or speak out on her behalf.  We would note that there is an ongoing debate among oppositionists as to which is more effective: speaking out at length and loudly, risking all in the process, or the pursuit of a softly-softly meliorism, something that might be just as futile, but can both act to salve the individual’s conscience while ensuring the survival of themselves and their loved ones. (For a meditation on the expression 敢怒而不敢言 gǎn nù ér bù gǎn yán, ‘choked with silent fury’, see ‘The Heart of The One Grows Ever More Arrogant and Proud’, China Heritage, 10 March 2020) As Ai Xiaoming remarked in an interview with Ian Johnson in 2016:

‘…in the past perhaps I believed in the goodness of human nature. I believe this is naïve. Actually, human nature in this totalitarian society has become very vile. This power has changed Chinese people’s psychological makeup. Most people, very many people, are really terrible; they’re afraid of losing things. I don’t mean ordinary people. In fact, ordinary people are often quite clear about the system. I mean, a lot of people in universities, a lot of intellectuals, they know. But the pressure is so great. A lot of people don’t want to sacrifice because being inside the system has a lot of advantages. Why would they want to give up such a comfortable life?’

‘Defiant Spirit’, or 刑天 Xíng tiān, ‘the deity who opposed Heaven’. Xing Tian is a legendary figure who defied the heavenly ruler and continued their martial dance of resistance even after having been beheaded.

‘At midnight hour the empire faced that solitary challenge’ 子夜時分 單挑帝國. This is a reference to Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 who, in a series of ten major essays published between January 2016 and January 2019 — China’s ‘midnight hour’ — launched a blistering critique of Xi Jinping and his leadership. Xu added to the series in early February 2020 when he published ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, his response to the Chinese government’s mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic. (See the ‘Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive’)

‘Two upright souls as of one mind/ Their spring wind could scythe the drifts of snow’ 二士同心 春風剪裁白雪 refers to Xu Zhangrun and Geng Xiaonan, two people whose shared values could be like a spring wind that sweeps away the blight of winter being suffered by China today.

‘And you, ever faithful, a fated new Decembrist’ 不棄不捨 十二月 黨人不絕, which refers to Geng’s principled support for Xu Zhangrun’s critiques and, picking up on her own observation, calls her a modern-day Decembrist, one who has joined the rebellion against autocracy. (See ‘Geng Xiaonan, a “Chinese Decembrist”, and Professor Xu Zhangrun’)

‘… hardy yang in yin embodied’ 雌雄同體: Geng Xiaonan has spoken of herself as being ‘masculine’ or like a man, both because of her name ‘Xiāonán’ 瀟男, which contains the word 男 nán, ‘man’ or ‘male’, and also as a gendered self-representation of her outspoken and daring activism.

The second stanza of the Chinese original contains an acrostic, or 藏頭 cáng tóu, poetic line. By taking the first character of each line you get the sentence: 瀟男好女子九一二不忘你, ’Xiaonan, you are an outstanding woman, and we will not forget you on this day, the 12th of September’. The Beijing authorities formally announced Geng Xiaonan’s detention on 12 September 2020.

Third Stanza of the Chinese Text:

Here the poet recasts the three images used in the First Stanza.


As Jerome Cohen observes:

‘… as China’s criminal justice again takes center stage, universal condemnation of China’s unfair punishment systems may be the only credible defense available to Geng, Xu, the hapless “Hong Kong 12,” and millions of others, including those detained in China’s Xinjiang, Tibetan, and Mongolian regions.’