Celebrating Dai Qing at Eighty

Spectres & Souls


As part of our commemoration of this anniversary year China Heritage is publishing a series of work about and by Dai Qing (戴晴, 1941-), a renowned writer and environmental activist who celebrated her eightieth birthday in early 2021.

We first met in Beijing the summer of 1983, enjoyed a significant, albeit relatively modest, collaboration in Hong Kong in the summer of 1988, and met again in 1989 when I was in Beijing to discuss her work on the lost tradition of independent Chinese intellectual life. Our conversation would continue following her release from jail in 1990 and we have had occasion to work together on and off ever since.


‘The Trouble with Dai Qing’, reproduced below, was originally presented at the biennial conference of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia on 4 July 1991, a revised text of which was published by Index on Censorship in August 1992. It offers both an overview of Dai Qing’s activities and an introduction to translated excerpts from ‘My Imprisonment’, a controversial account of the time she spent in jail after June Fourth 1989. That translation will be published separately. Both the following essay and ‘My Imprisonment’ should be read in conjunction with ‘Using the Past to Save the Present: Dai Qing’s Historiographical Dissent’ (East Asian History, No.1, June 1991: 141-181).

‘Celebrating Dai Qing at Eighty’ is part of ‘Over One Hundred Years’, a series of essays that commemorates the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party in China Heritage Annual 2021: Spectres & Souls.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
1 October 2021

Dai Qing at the Western Hills, Beijing, autumn 1998. Photograph by Lao Shu 老樹


Dai Qing & China’s
‘Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia’


As the fortieth anniversary of our friendship approaches, I celebrate Dai Qing’s unwavering spirit of honesty, her tireless quest to question and to speak out, her refusal to play the role of dissident that others would assign to her, and her scintillating prose and sardonic understanding, one that is always tempered by a profound humanity. I also celebrate her work on Liang Shuming, Wang Shiwei, Chu Anping, Zhang Dongsun, Huang Wanli and others in the tradition of intellectual independence. They are figures whose examples stand as an accusation of the vast majority of state intellectuals who, today more so than at any point since 1976, accommodate and serve the power-holders. In so doing they may well conform with an ancient lineage of servitude, but they also knowingly betray the promise and sacrifices of their more independent-minded forebears.

What then are they, these modern-day intellectual courtiers? Whether they justify themselves as reluctant fellow-travellers or memorialists, hoping that a line here or a thought there may be ‘taken on board’ by the party-state, or men and women who contribute their particular brand of sophistry to intellectual authority, all the while enjoying the lavish emoluments and opportunities that complicity affords, these are China’s twenty-first century ‘Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia’ 皮毛知識分子.

The neologism ‘Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia’ is of my invention. It is inspired by comments that Mao Zedong made in the summer of 1957 at the height of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the vast ideological purge stage-managed by Deng Xiaoping (and subsequently re-affirmed by the Party from 1978) that crippled the ability of Chinese people from all walks of life to pursue any substantive form of independent, and effective, intellectual and critical engagement with the nation’s political life. Official figures hold that over 500,000 men and women were blighted by the 1957 purge, although unofficial estimates are much higher. The intellectual and political life of China has never recovered from that devastating intellectual pivot.

At the time, Mao quoted a line from The Commentary of Zuo 左傳, an ancient narrative history, to declare that ‘The intellectuals must transform themselves into proletarian intellectuals’:

‘There is no other way out for them. “With the skin gone, to what can the hair attach itself?” [皮之不存,毛將焉附] … At present what kind of skin do intellectuals attach themselves to? To the skin of public ownership, to the proletariat. Who provides them with a living? The workers and peasants. Intellectuals are teachers employed by the working class and the labouring people to teach their children. If they go against the wishes of their masters and insist on teaching their own set of subjects, teaching stereotyped writing, Confucian classics or capitalist rubbish, and turn out a number of counter-revolutionaries, the working class will not tolerate it and will sack them and not renew their contract for the coming year.

‘… Some intellectuals are now unsettled. Suspended as they are in mid-air, they have nothing to hang on to above and no solid ground to rest their feet on below. I say, these people may be called “gentlemen in mid-air”. Flying in mid-air, they want to go back but are unable to because they find their old home, those skins, gone. … They still hanker after what they know is gone. What we are doing now is persuading them to wake up. After this great debate, I think they will wake up somehow or other.’

Mao Zedong 毛澤東, ‘Beat Back the Attacks of the Bourgeois Rightists’
在上海各界人士會議上的講話 (記錄要點), 一九五七年七月八日

Mao’s sixty-year-old clarion ‘wake-up call’ finds a ready echo in Xi Jinping’s new era. It is one in which the old, fragile market of ideas rejects embargoed products in favour of questionable sophistry and self-serving posturing. (For more on this topic, see the five-part series ‘Drop Your Pants!’)

Where then does Dai Qing locate herself among the intellectual rabble of this era? Her recent books literally ‘speak volumes’ about her stance and we recommend them here:

As the conclusion to the following essay makes clear, however, even during the Counter Reform years of 1991-1992, Dai Qing was an advocate of ‘hopium’. It is a subject about which we agreed to disagree.



The poet Bei Dao once wrote: I—do—not—believe! Today, I too declare: I do not believe . . .

I do not believe that the Chinese will forever refuse to think for themselves;
I do not believe that the Chinese will never speak out through their writings;
I do not believe that morality and justice will vanish in the face of repression;
I do not believe that in an age in which we are in communication with the world ‘freedom of speech’ will remain an empty phrase.

Dai Qing, 8 February 1989

(from Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, New Ghosts, Old Dreams:
Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992)

The Trouble with Dai  Qing

Geremie Barmé

She was born in Chongqing in 1941. Her mother, Feng Dazhang (also known as Yang Jie), came from a well-connected family, and her father, Fu Daqing, was a Party activist from Jiangxi with a varied and colourful history which led him to study Russian in Moscow, to be made Borodin’s interpreter, to take part in armed rebellion in Nanchang and Guangzhou, to become a Party organiser in Southeast Asia and a close friend of Ho Chi Minh, to be a colleague of Zhou Enlai and, eventually, as Dai Qing put it, to be ‘given as a gift to the Third International’ by the CPC. Both of her parents were Party members and had close connections with the Party elite from the 1920s. She was only three when her father was imprisoned in Beijing; it is believed he was eventually executed by the Japanese. Her mother was also jailed for a time; after she was released, her daughter was adopted by Ye Jianying (1897-1985), an army leader and later one of the Ten Great Marshals of the People’s Republic of China. Ye had moved to Beijing in the late 1940s where he oversaw the Communist takeover of the city, becoming the military commander and then the first Communist mayor of the new capital. Ye, who had been the witness at Fu Daqing and Feng Dazhang’s wedding, offered to take the girl to reduce Feng’s burdens.

When her mother remarried, Fu Xiaqing (Dai Qing’s original name) stayed with Ye’s family. Despite her very special family background, in retrospect Dai sees herself as being different from other cadres’ children in that she was always something of an outsider, one who was always very ignorant of the connections and background of the people she knew. She did not even think of asking Ye what part of the army he was connected with until shortly before his death. He was so surprised by her question that he slapped her.

After graduating from high school, where she was known as Fu Ning, her mother having changed her name when she started her schooling, she went to what is generally known as the higher institute of learning for cadres’ progeny, the Harbin Institute of Military Engineering, where she studied in the Guided Missile Engineering Department from 1960-66, specialising in automatic missile guidance systems. After graduation, she returned to Beijing and worked for a few months on gyroscopes for intercontinental ballistic missile guidance systems in the research institute of the Number Seven Ministry of Machinery Industry, where she also met her future husband, Wang Dejia, a model research worker, shortly before the inception of the Cultural Revolution. She joined the Party in 1965 while still at university, although not without some minor difficulties.

The September 1989 Guangming Daily attack on Dai Qing by Kuang Yan concluded with the comment, ‘As far back as the Cultural Revolution Dai Qing was a personality in the rebel faction. At the time her name was Fu Ning; only after the Cultural Revolution did she change it to Dai Qing. But despite the change of name her thinking has remained unchanged, the only difference being that she has leapt from the extreme left to the extreme right . . .’ In fact, she has never attempted to hide her past as a ‘revolutionary rebel’ (zaofanpai), and when she won a literary award in the early 1980s she wrote it into her official autobiographical note.

The rebel organisation she and her future husband joined in their unit was called ’16 September’ (Jiu yaoliu). As a child she had always been extremely obedient, and she now sees her involvement in the Cultural Revolution as a result of wanting to obey Chairman Mao’s call to rebel. Like others she wanted to give herself to the Revolution and to Mao. Dai’s clear enunciation made her a natural speechmaker and she was a good writer. She recalls saying in an essay that she wished there was a science that would make it possible for young people to give up their youth for the Chairman, say one year of their life so that Chairman Mao could live one minute longer.

She did not take part in raiding anyone’s home or beating people up. Her half-sister Ling Zi (Ye Xiangzhen) executed a plan to take Peng Zhen, Lu Dingyi, Luo Ruiqing and Yang Shangkun (the ‘Peng-Lu-Luo-Yang clique’) prisoner. Dai was present at the meeting that decided on the strategy but did not take part in the actual operation. Dai reasons that she was relatively cool-headed because of her education and training in science and therefore refrained from some of the more extreme and irrational acts of her peers.

She was most active in the first six months of the Cultural Revolution, after which she married and became pregnant. She says her first doubts about the purity and meaning of the Cultural Revolution came as early as January 1967 when she was editing a Red Guard newspaper. She had managed to obtain a denunciation of Liu Shaoqi for the paper written by his own son and wanted to print it in the first issue; her editorial comment, she recalls, praised the excellent situation and stated that even Liu Shaoqi’s son had come over to the side of the people. Radical Party propagandists Guan Feng and Wang Li, and finally even Jiang Qing, however, interceded, claiming that to print the piece would only give Liu Shaoqi a propaganda advantage. Dai’s colleagues tried to talk her out of publishing it, but she insisted that the only person she would take orders from was Chairman Mao. She felt that for her own comrades-in-arms to make a retreat like this on a matter of principle cast doubt on their whole enterprise. Following the ‘February Backlash’ (Eryue niliu) of 1967 she was denounced in her work unit as ‘Zhu De’s black hand’.

The First Clash

Dai was in cadre schools for three years, 1968-71, first in Zhanjiang and then at Dongting Lake in Hunan. In the countryside she was suspected of being a ‘May 16 Element’ and then denounced at a mass meeting as a counter-revolutionary after she and her husband snuck off to Beijing from their Hunan cadre school in late 1971 without permission. ‘Up till then they had always trusted me, protected me.’ This was her first clash with the authorities, and the first time she used state regulations to protect herself and oppose the leadership.

‘As I have written in “My imprisonment”, I had no desire to defend myself, but I wanted the whole world to know of this injustice and my resistance. I realise now that the thing that infuriates them most of all is insubordination. They don’t mind what else you do: embezzle money, plagiarise, or whatever. All else can be forgiven; but to be disobedient is completely unacceptable.’

Another incident in the Cultural Revolution that involved her mother, Feng Dazhang, also figures prominently in Dai’s recollections. Feng, who had been working in the petroleum industry since the 1950s, had been denounced as a traitor and revisionist; Ye Jianying had meanwhile been sent off to Xiangtan in Hunan and a number of his children, including Ye Xiangzhen, had been jailed. Dai says that the first time she realised the ‘humanity’ of a ‘non-person’ — an engineer in her mother’s organisation who had been denounced — was when he helped Feng when she was dangerously near death while no Party members would lift a finger to assist her.

It was during this period that for the first time in her life Dai Qing began to have contacts and make friends with people outside her ‘circle’ (quanzi) or social stratum. Only when she began to speak with people who had actually been destroyed by Party policies did she begin to learn what the Party had done to ordinary people. This perhaps began her fascination with these people, a desire to find out what it was like to live and survive as a victim and to discover how all this had come about; this coupled with a realisation that she had received an education that was full of distortions and lies.

Spy, Journalist, Historian

Back in Beijing in 1972, Dai and her husband were desperate to have their residence permits transferred to the capital. To make this easier they got jobs as technicians with the newly established ’29 March Factory’ of the Ministry of Public Security which produced surveillance equipment. Dai specialised in television cameras. She worked there until 1977, experiencing some minor trouble in 1976. In 1977, she sought help from people in Ye Jianying’s office so she could get into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Foreign Languages Institute in Nanking where she studied in the English Department. As she had studied English by herself she was able to graduate in the summer of 1978. She then returned to Beijing to work in the Second Department of the Headquarters of the General Staff as a technician. After she published her first story in 1979, Dai was transferred to the intelligence section and given a cover as a foreign affairs liaison officer in the Chinese Writers Association under the poet-bureaucrat Bi Shuowang. As a writer, Dai was anxious to get out of her technician’s job, and the Writers Association was willing to accept her because she knew English. Furthermore, the PLA continued to pay her wages, and she had her own apartment, two very important considerations. It was in this new job that she gained her enduring reputation as a ‘spy’. She says she received no instruction in the techniques of undercover work and her priority at first was to improve her English and ‘make friends’. During the approximately two years she worked’ in the Association (1980-82) it was her (secret) duty to establish contacts with Eastern European writers. This was at the time when China identified the Soviet Union as its greatest enemy.

This was a particularly busy time as she had three jobs in one: as a foreign affairs officer of the Writers Association she had to accompany foreign writers’ delegations; as a professional writer she was expected to be publishing new works; and as an intelligence agent she had to write regular reports on her work and contacts. As part of her job in the Writers Association she accompanied Studs Terkel, the author of a number of books of oral history such as Working and American Dreams: Lost and Found, during his visit to Beijing. Her experiences with Terkel and her observations of his interviewing methods deeply influenced her own future work as a reporter, in particular her interviews with scholars, and as a writer of historical studies.

In 1982, her name was on a list of a number of Chinese agents that was revealed to the USA by a member of the Chinese intelligence organisation, and the PLA judged that she was no longer useful as an undercover agent. Forced to give up her job in the Writers Association, she also decided to leave the army.

A series of coincidences led Dai to Guangming Daily, the paper in which she had published her first short story in 1979, and she was offered a job as a reporter in 1982. Since Dai was an established writer by this stage, the paper was anxious to have her and its editors asked her if she had any conditions. Although somewhat taken aback by their enthusiasm, Dai listed three conditions: she wouldn’t keep office hours; she would write articles but not edit those of others; and, finally, since her interest was in the grass-roots, she refused to report on government meetings. Although there was never a written agreement, the newspaper remained faithful to its promise to accept these conditions.

In his September 1989 denunciation, Kuang Yan claimed in retrospect that ‘the only thing she was interested in doing was running all over the country interviewing people who obstinately adhered to bourgeois liberalism.’

The 1989 Protest Movement

Dai’s response to the 4 June massacre in Beijing was immediate: she announced that she was resigning her Communist Party membership. She also joined with the playwright Wang Peigong in drafting a letter of protest to the Chinese government. This letter was never published, although the authorities carried out exhaustive investigations into this failed attempt at protest. On 11 June, in a telephone interview with the Taiwanese daily Lianhebao she explained her reasons for quitting the Party:

‘It’s entirely a personal decision. I’m not interested in attracting attention or starting .a trend, I just want to distance myself from politics, and keep from political activity. I want to withdraw and preserve my individuality. Quitting the Party is not an anti-Party act; I still hope the best for them.’

But the government had a different view of her actions, both after 4 June and during the months leading up to it. In the official government report on the ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’ from April-June, Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong named Dai Qing along with a number of other leading intellectuals as an advocate of ‘bourgeois liberalisation’ and an ‘instigator’ of the civil unrest. In July, Dai was detained by the police and, in mid- September, a long and vicious attack on her appeared in the Guangming Daily entitled: ‘Dai Qing, “Reporter” for the Turmoil’.

In early May, the Protest Movement had moved from street marches to bicycle protests to the press rebellion and then to the mass hunger strike campaign and the occupation of Tiananmen Square on 13 May. Following the success of the massive protest march of 27 April that resulted from the People’s Daily editorial of the previous day, Dai Qing had been convinced that the students had won a tactical and moral victory; she reasoned that the best strategy would be to call an end to the demonstrations. At the very beginning of the hunger strike some two weeks later, she warned the students that the government would be incapable of a reasoned and timely response to their demands. She stood by helplessly as events unfolded, derided by the students for her stance and falling out with her fellows like Yan Jiaqi, Su Xiaokang and Su Wei because of her cautious approach. She was overwhelmed by a sense of frustration and hopelessness, attempting several times to mediate between the opposing forces. Convinced from early on in the proceedings that the protests would be manipulated by government leaders engaged in a power struggle, Dai Qing was determined above all not to forego her own intellectual independence in the emotionalism of the moment. With the declaration of martial law by the situation had changed dramatically. She was unwilling to sacrifice herself to an internal Party struggle, nor did she want to see others fall victim to it. Immediately after the massacre, she commented on the dilemma created by both the government and the students in May:

‘I don’t think that either Deng Xiaoping or [Premier] Li Peng set out to make such an extraordinary mess of things; nor were the students set on creating turmoil. The most horrible thing about it is that both sides stuck to their guns and made no effort to consider the other side. They took no notice of any opinions that differed from their own. The aims of both sides were quite similar, although the means they chose differed vastly, turning the whole thing in the end into a life-and-death struggle. This is why I have decided to distance myself from politics. It depresses me even to think about it. Why didn’t anyone have the breadth of understanding to be more tolerant?

‘In the end the students called for the overthrowing of the government. But what if it really were overthrown? Who could replace it? From the government’s point of view this was extreme counter- revolution, and quite unforgivable. Things were thus pushed to an extreme. Allthis is indicative of an abysmal level of political struggle.’

My Imprisonment

Dai Qing called her first volume of short stories No. She explained in 1986 that the unifying theme of her early fiction was self-respect. This sense of self-worth cannot come, she commented, from achieving an official position, or be judged by the size of your apartment, whether or not you have a chauffeur-driven car or are surrounded by flatterers and sycophants. ‘The highest expression of dignity,’ she said, ‘can be summed up in the single word: “No!”— being able to say “No!” when you disagree.’

After nearly a year in detention following the bloody crushing of the 1989 Protest Movement in Beijing, Dai Qing was still saying no. During the last months she spent in Qincheng Prison, China’s leading jail for political prisoners situated in the north-west of the capital, Dai was free to write and, among other things, she produced ‘My Imprisonment’ (Wode ruyu), an account of her fate following 4 June 1989. She offered it to her jailers to read, but warned them that if they changed a word it would never see the light of day. They declined her offer, presumably wishing to avoid being forced to respond to and therefore share a certain responsibility for the essay. Within days of her release from custody on 9 May 1990, she added a short postscript to the account, in which she noted that detainees had been treated in very different ways, and she made it clear that ‘My Imprisonment’ was a faithful description of her detention. Dai then had a friend smuggle the manuscript to Hong Kong for publication. She also sent a copy to Wenhui yuekan, a formerly controversial Shanghai magazine, to see whether they would print it. The editors failed to reply; not that they had much of a chance — the magazine was closed down by the authorities in June 1990.

Originally planned for publication in Ming Pao Monthly, a magazine which had previously carried Dai Qing’s studies of the intellectual dissidents Wang Shiwei and Chu Anping, ‘My Imprisonment’ — the first written account of its kind by a known Mainland dissident who had remained in China after 4 June — was serialised instead in Ming Pao Daily. Lianhebao in Taiwan, one of the island’s two major daily newspapers, also ran the series in late May.

The reaction was immediate and negative. Readers were generally disappointed by Dai’s description of the good treatment she received at the hands of her jailers, and they were distressed by the relatively decent conditions in which she lived. The fact of her privileged social background and her widely rumoured history as a member of the government intelligence network led many overseas Chinese readers and commentators to discount Dai Qing’s work out of mere prejudice; for many of these readers, nothing she could have written would have been acceptable. The emotional reaction to the 1989 Protest Movement, the Beijing Massacre and the subsequent purges and arrests among Chinese and Sinologists alike made it nearly impossible for anyone to react to ‘My Imprisonment’ fairly or rationally. As is so often the case in contemporary Chinese affairs, the work of a daring individual whose ideas and actions do not conform with the ‘acceptable’ has thus been generally undervalued and dismissed for reasons that have little to do with its actual substance.

‘My Imprisonment’ is complicated and subtle, written in the acerbic style with which readers of Dai’s extraordinary historical studies of Wang Shiwei and Chu Anping were already familiar. Along with the 31 May 1990 petition by Hou Dejian, Zhou Duo and Gao Xin for the release of political prisoners, it remains one of the most important works to be published by a Chinese writer in Beijing since the 4 June massacre. In recent months Zhang Weiguo, the head of the Beijing office of The World Economic Herald and Zhou Duo have both spoken out about their detention and the 1989 movement.

There are a number of important points that should be kept in mind when considering ‘My Imprisonment’. The first is the nature of the social role Dai Qing has cast for herself since the mid-1980s. She styles herself an ‘independent intellectual’ (ziyoupai zhishi fenzi) and in her most important writings — her interviews with 40 intellectuals published from 1986-88, her historical investigative journalism, and her editing of books on the Daxing’anling Forest Fire in 1988 and the Three Gorges Project debate in 1989 — she has been highly critical of government fiat and repeatedly taken a stance in favour of free speech and ‘loyal opposition’.

Another example of her openly critical stance towards the powers-that-be is the story of her involvement with the Women’s Federation, that venerable Party-run organisation that theoretically serves the interests of Chinese women. In late 1988, Dai Qing published an account of her participation in the Sixth Congress of the Chinese Women’s Federation entitled ‘Pity China’s Women Representatives!’ She had been elected by her women colleagues in Guangming Daily to represent them at the Congress. The article is Dai’s account of her participation in and disruption of that Congress. Although no Mainland Chinese publication dared print it, the Hong Kong Ming Pao Monthly ran her frank, amusing and rebellious account of the incident, reportedly causing a furore in the Beijing bureaucracy. [Note: see 戴晴自述大鬧中國婦女第六次全國代表大會內幕]

In many of her published works she proved herself to be more openly, and directly critical of the Party than many more commonly lauded dissidents (the majority of whom are now living overseas). She has acted, however, predominantly as a critic who would rather see compromise than confrontation, conciliation over collision. Her activities during the 1989 protests were those of a mediator, and ‘My Imprisonment’ is an account that aims at both justifying this role and making another attempt at ameliorating the extreme antagonism that now exists between the Party and its opponents. To many this appeared to be at best a foolhardy enterprise, and a number of Dai Qing’s friends advised her against publishing the account. During those last months in Qincheng she also wrote a lengthy factual account of her activities from 15 April which she never completed. The eventual publication of this work may help balance out the somewhat distorted view of Dai that many readers have been given by ‘My Imprisonment’.

Another important factor that influences the tone of ‘My Imprisonment’ is that it was written after the investigations into Dai’s case had been concluded and she was living under loose supervision in the dormitory area of Qincheng. She was therefore describing her fate after 4 June with the hindsight and self-assuredness that came from the knowledge that she would eventually be released. For this reason, psychologically at least, she could afford to view her incarceration with equanimity. However, the general tone and actual literary style of the essay are entirely in keeping with Dai’s other writings.

Another point worthy of consideration in regard to this work is its significance as a political act of protest. In mid-1987, the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who had been officially condemned as an advocate of bourgeois liberalisation, broke a taboo by speaking out in his own defence to outsiders despite the fact that the Party had not itself rehabilitated him (see ‘The indiscreet thoughts of Academician Fang’, Index on Censorship, October 1987, p.28). With ‘My Imprisonment’ Dai Qing had gone one step further by publishing an account in which she both derides her critics and defends herself. Dai Qing spent the closing years of the 1980s writing historical studies of a number of leading independent intellectuals persecuted by the Party. These essays have been acclaimed by the Hunan literary historian Zhu Zheng as a form of ‘unofficial rehabilitation’ for those dissidents. In ‘My Imprisonment’ Dai Qing has ‘rehabilitated’ herself.

But the piece has not pleased even all dissidents. A passage about democracy activist Yan Jiaqi particularly raised the hackles of Dai’s overseas critics. Although Yan and Dai were friends, she was completely opposed to his encouragement of the student protests in May.

‘… Yan Jiaqi and his fellows… were a group mindless of the inner workings of things, lacking the tact, foolhardy and emotional. What a pack of bookworms! From late April, he [Yan] did everything that the people who hated him wanted him to do. They thought he hadn’t been extreme enough in his speeches, so he published something really extreme; then they hoped he’d break the ultimate taboo [i.e. to attack Deng Xiaoping by name], which is exactly what he did. Then they figured words weren’t enough, they needed him to act, so off he went and established contact with the students. But that wasn’t enough, either, ideally he should set up an organisation, and that, too is just what he did. Then they were frustrated that he hadn’t come into conflict with the Martial Law Enforcement Troops, so off he went and helped waylay the army. Although they [must have] reckoned that all of this was more than sufficient, it was just a little weak; it would be best if he could break some major law, and he did…’

Dai was even attacked by many as a government agent during the Protest Movement because of her attempts to mediate between the authorities and the students. Throughout the movement, she was convinced that the escalation of confrontation would play into the hands of factional leaders in the Party. A year later, for her to defend her rational (and, as it turned out, humane) role opposed to the extremism of both the government and its opponents, and to point out how people like Yan had allowed themselves to get carried away on a tide of emotionalism, was regarded as anathema.

There has been considerable comment both overseas and among people in China who know of the work, about the veracity of Dai’s account. Those who were kept in Qincheng during the Cultural Revolution find her remarks about the guards and her interrogators hard to believe, while many others who have either spent time as guests of the people of Chinese jails or have heard about jail conditions, find her description of her spacious cell and considerate treatment highly dubious. However, two people who were released from Qincheng in 1991 confirmed after reading ‘My Imprisonment’ all of Dai’s descriptions. One of them had even been interrogated by Dai’s investigators and he confirmed that they were reasonable, intelligent and highly professional.

It is unfortunate, although not surprising, that Dai’s description of her jailing has led to such widespread antagonism and the dismissal of ‘My Imprisonment’, for it is an account written in the ironic, often sarcastic, style that characterises Dai Qing’s prose. It is also a work of calm reflection and self-justification that reveals an individual with her own view of the events of 1989, her role in them and its significance.

Revolution or Evolution?

Few wish to contemplate the significance of Dai’s stance in 1989 or her present activities. As a citizen, albeit one with a view of life conditioned by her special background, she has tried to play her part in the peaceful democratic evolution of China and use the existing body of laws to protect her rights to defend herself. It is a slow and painful struggle, and one which political activists find boring and frustrating. To them Dai’s stance, equivocal though it may sometimes appear, is abhorrent and even traitorous. That Dai stuck by her principles throughout the protests and the subsequent purge, and that she has now reappeared in public to vindicate herself, rankles people along the whole political spectrum.

What hope does she see for further change and renewal in China? Perhaps Dai’s attitude was best summed up in the interview she gave immediately after the June massacre. ‘All hope for change must wait until the first generation of old political leaders die off.’ In an interview in August 1990, she even mused, ‘One wonders which one of those ass-lickers up there [in the Politburo] might one day turn out to be a Gorbachev.’ As she has said elsewhere, the wait might be too long. The Last Ellipsis, one of the last short stories she published before becoming a full-time journalist in 1982, is about Pavlov’s dogs and the ultimate rebellion of one of the animals. ‘What I wanted to say [in this story],’ Dai has explained, ‘was that even an animal won’t tolerate endless manipulation. You can’t hold out the promise of hope and then repeatedly take it away.’