Dai Qing, Stefan Zweig & the Victory of the Defeated

Spectres & Souls

In the Preface to Spectres & Souls, we quoted ‘Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work’, a commemorative essay written by Stefan Zweig to celebrate his old friend. A cosmopolitan in an earlier age, Zweig declared that:

‘The invisible republic of the spirit, the universal fatherland, has been established among the races and among the nations. Its frontiers are open to all who wish to dwell therein; its only law is that of brotherhood; its only enemies are hatred and arrogance between nations. Whoever makes his home within this invisible realm becomes a citizen of the world. He is the heir, not of one people but of all peoples. Henceforth he is an indweller in all tongues and in all countries, in the universal past and the universal future.’

We noted that, in 2021, Romain Rolland’s ‘Déclaration de l’Indépendance de l’Esprit’, a century-old appeal to the hearts and minds of thinking men and women, resonates still, albeit in plangent tones, once more as barriers have been thrown up and frontiers closed. Rolland’s manifesto was a challenge that also reflected the ideas of Ramakrishna, a sagacious figure who spoke about the ‘limitless infinite, effulgent ocean of spirit’, and it gave voice to what he said was an ‘oceanic feeling’.

Both Romain Rolland and Stefan Zweig believed in the mutual regard among people of conscience, intellectuals and humanists. As Clive James observed in the portrait of Zweig with which he concluded Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (New York, 2007), however:

‘The natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities is one of tension, suspicion, rivalry and, all too often, enmity. Only a catastrophe can bring about, among its survivors, any degree of the mutual regard that Zweig dreamed of so fondly. A great deal of creativity arises from conflict between the creators, and it tends to be annulled when they are driven to make peace by supervening circumstances.’

As James also notes, Zweig ‘was always looking for concrete, tangible realizations of a coherence that can exist nowhere except in the spirit.’ And so it is that, in 2021, we too seek solace in the invisible republic of the spirit.

— adapted from ‘The Invisible Republic of the Spirit’
China Heritage, 18 January 2020


At the height of his powers, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most popular, and prolific, writers in the world, and he produced a steady stream of stories, essays, biographies and memoirs, as well as any number of cultural and historical studies. His historical novel The Right to Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin (translated into Chinese under the title 異端的權利) was published in 1936. Although the book was set in Geneva in 1553, readers at the time readers saw in it a refraction both of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia; subsequently, to some it even adumbrated George Orwell’s 1984.

The following essay by Dai Qing (戴晴, 1941-) expresses her view of principled dissent, a disposition that developed both in her writing and in her activism in the late 1980s. (Translations of Zweig’s work had become popular among Chinese readers from the late 1970s; see ‘Habsburg Nostalgia and the Occidental Other’ by Arnhilt Johanna Hoefle). Having begun her literary career as a writer of short stories, Dai employed her talents as a fiction writer to write a series of popular and controversial historical portraits from the mid 1980s. Below, her admiration for Miguel Servetus, one of the protagonists of Zweig’s The Right to Heresy, suffuses her portraits of her own ‘exhumed’ historical subjects: Liang Shuming 梁漱溟, Wang Shiwei 王實味, Chu Anping 儲安平 and Zhang Dongsun 張東蓀.

‘The Victory of the Defeated’ appeared just over half a century after Zweig’s warning about what Hitler’s rise meant for Europe. Dai’s essay was both a meditation on her work at the time and an unknowingly forecast about her own life as an apostate after 4 June 1989. Her position of principled opposition both to hardline Communist Party rule and simplistic, frenzied dissent — something for which she would be repeatedly condemned — resonates with Zweig’s own observation that:

‘Every nation, every epoch, every thoughtful human being, has again and again to establish the landmarks between freedom and authority: for, in the absence of authority, liberty degenerates into license, and chaos ensues; and authority becomes tyranny unless it be tempered by freedom.’


The following translation is a revised version of ‘The Victory of the Defeated’, originally published in Dai Qing, ‘Piquant Essays (I)’, Chinese Studies in Philosophy (Winter 1995-1996), pp.72-76. It is included here as a chapter in our series ‘Celebrating Dai Qing at Eighty’. We publish it at yet another significant moment in the death-spiral of historical memory: recently, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation announced a total ban on Memorial, a celebrated organisation that has been devoted to the excavation and preservation of historical memory and human rights; the decision in Moscow came shortly after Hong Kong universities, now under the sway of Beijing’s National Security Law, removed public monuments that commemorated the Beijing Massacre of 4 June 1989; and, only days before police raided the offices of The Stand 立場新聞, the last major independent news outlet in Hong Kong, forcing it to cease publication.

On 26 December 2021, as Russians noted the thirtieth anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, crowds of Chinese zealots rowdily celebrated the 128th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong with official encouragement (the anniversary is called 毛誕節 Máo dàn jié in Chinese, as opposed to 聖誕節 shèng dàn jié, Christmas). For our part, we would encourage our readers to recall ‘The Unbuilt Wall of Sorrow — on the centenary of the Russian Revolution’, an essay by the noted Hong Kong editor and writer Lee Yee 李怡, published by China Heritage on 7 November 2017.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
30 December 2021


Celebrating Dai Qing at Eighty

Further Reading:


Dai Qing’s Own Heresy

‘Since, in every age, violence renews itself in changed forms, the struggle against it must continually be renewed by those who cling to the things of the spirit. They must never take refuge behind the pretext that at the moment force is too strong for them. For what is necessary to say cannot be said too often, and truth can never be uttered in vain. Even when the word is not victorious, it manifests its eternal presence and one who serves it at such an hour has given proof that no terror holds sway over a free spirit, but that even in the most cruel of centuries there is still a place for the voice of humaneness.’

Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy

Dai Qing’s lurch into heresy began in 1988. In the summer of that year she published ‘Wang Shiwei and “Wild Lilies” ’ in both Hong Kong and on the mainland and in September, elected by her newspaper as a representative to the Sixth Congress of the All-China Women’s Federation, she spoke out against the opaque and rigged electoral system used to appoint the leadership of the federation.

The curt prologue of Dai Qing’s study of Wang Shiwei, the most famous but the most misunderstood victim of Mao’s Yan’an Rectification Campaign of 1942-1944, shocked Chinese readers. Overnight Dai Qing herself became a focus of political controversy:

The wind blew thick dust into even the tightest seams of people’s clothing…

Spring 1947, Shanxi

Whistling through the mountains, the wind blew thick dust into even the tightest seams of people’s clothing. Even though it was after the Qingming Festival [April 5], the landscape was still devoid of any spring growth.

Xing County was a small and dilapidated township. The only sign that it was the capital of the Jin-Sui Revolutionary Base were the small flags poking out of the windows of the cavelike huts here and there.

Although the war between the Communists and Nationalists was raging in Hexi only a few hundred miles away, here in Xing County it was a tranquil dusk.

The General Police Bureau of the Jin-Sui Administrative Office was located at Caijia Yao.

A young man with the bearing of cadre and carrying a machete goes into one of the huts and pulls out a middle-aged man. He drags him some distance to a desolate and remote valley.

His raises his arm and the machete falls.

Red blood splatters the hard and dry loess earth.

The deceased: Wang Shiwei. His crime: Trotskyite, Nationalist spy and head of an anti-party clique.

There had been no formal trial or court decision; no appeal had been allowed. The sentence was carried out in accord with an internal report.

In the forty-one years of his life Wang’s most outstanding act and the thing that rained misfortune down upon him was his essay about wild lilies. It was written in four parts and it was published in two installments in the March 1942 Literature and Art Supplement of Liberation Daily in Yan’an.

At a meeting of Party leaders in 1962, Mao Zedong touched on those articles and Wang’s fate.







— 戴晴,‘王實味與《野百合花》’, 1988


As I have previously noted, I first encountered Dai Qing in Beijing the summer of 1983; we 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. We continued our conversation following her release from jail in 1990, and we have had occasion to work together on and off ever since.

When she wrote the following essay, and at the height of her fame as the journalist-historian who uncovered the unknown stories of Wang Shiwei and Chu Anping in 1988-1989, Dai was one of a cohort of writers who hoped that the Communist Party, once confronted by the lies that it had fabricated about its own history, might eventually be able to deal with the past in a manner that allowed it progress in the direction of greater openness, even political evolution. Unbeknownst to those extraordinary journalists, historians and editors they were all ‘historical nihilists’ before the fact.

In today’s China, one ruled over by a Communist Calvin in the form of Xi Jinping, such heresy is not tolerated.



A Note on Stefan Zweig’s The Right to Heresy

‘The town had assumed a morose visage like Big Brother’s own, and by degrees had grown as sour as he, and, either from fear or through unconscious imitation of his sternness, as sinister and reserved. People no longer roamed freely and light-heartedly hither and thither; their eyes could not flash gladly; and their glances betrayed nothing but fear, since merriment might be mistaken for sensuality. They no longer knew unconstraint, being afraid of the terrible man who himself was never cheerful. Even in the privacy of family life, they learned to whisper, for beyond the doors, listening at the keyholes, might be their serving men and maids. When fear has become second nature, the terror-stricken are perpetually on the look-out for spies. The great thing was–not to be conspicuous. Not to do anything that might arouse attention, either by one’s dress or hasty word, or by a cheerful countenance. Avoid attracting attention; remain forgotten. The people, in the latter years of Big Brother’s rule, sat at home as much as possible, for at home the walls of their houses and the bolts and bars on their doors might preserve them to some extent from prying eyes and from suspicion. But if, when they were looking out of the window, they saw some of the agents of Big Brother coming along the street, they would draw back in alarm, for who could tell what neighbour might not have denounced them? When they had to go out, the citizens crept along furtively with downcast eyes and wrapped in their drab cloaks, as if they were going to a sermon or a funeral. Even the children, who had grown up amid this new discipline, and were vigorously intimidated during the “lessons of edification,” no longer played in the debonair way natural to healthy and happy youngsters, but shrank as a cur shrinks in expectation of a blow. They flagged as do flowers which have never known sufficient sunlight, but have been kept in semi-darkness.’

“Most savagely of all were punished any offenders whose behaviour challenged Calvin’s political and spiritual infallibility,” Zweig continues. Calvin resorted to punishments equal to the Inquisition’s worst to maintain his supremacy over all religious matters: flogging, pillorying, racking, red-hot irons stabbed through tongues. So when Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician and theologian living in France, wrote a tract questioning the principle of predestination, one of the pillars of Calvinist belief, Calvin vowed that if Servetus ever set foot in Geneva, he would not leave alive.

Unfortunately for Servetus, his escape route after being jailed for heresy in France took him right through Geneva, where he was spotted, thrown into prison, and quickly tried and convicted of “execrable blasphemies.” The only point of debate was just how he should be killed: Calvin called for chopping his head off; his council held out for burning at the stake. On October 27, 1553, he was put to flames with a copy of his book chained to his leg.

In itself, given the times, the event might have gone relatively unnoticed. As Zweig writes,

In a century disfigured by innumerable acts of violence, the execution of one man more might have seemed a trifling incident. Between the coasts of Spain and those of the lands bordering the North Sea (not excepting the British Isles), Christians burned countless heretics for the greater glory of Christ. By thousands and tens of thousands, in the name of the “true Church” (the names were legion), defenceless human beings were hauled to the place of execution, there to be burned, decapitated, strangled, or drowned.

Servetus’ killing, though, was, in the words of Voltaire, the Reformation’s first “religious murder.” It demonstrated that Protestantism was just as susceptible as Catholicism to dogmatism and orthodoxy. Which, Zweig points out is illogical at least: “In and by itself, the very notion of ‘heretic’ is absurd as far as a Protestant Church is concerned, since Protestants demand that everyone shall have the right of interpretation.” Calvin, however, tried to show that his act could be justified with the same cold logic by which he structured his theology, writing a “Defence of the True Faith and of the Trinity against the Dreadful Errors of Servetus”. To eradicate all those who held opinions subversive to authority was a “sacred duty,” Calvin argued; only those who, for the sake of doctrine, are willing to suppress “tout regard humain“–all regard for things human–that can be considered truly pious.

Calvin’s attempt to establish his right to act as an agent of divine judgment that moved Sebastian Castellio, a Reformist theologian and teacher in nearby Basle, to write an eloquent rebuttal, “De haereticis”, which cut it to shreds with a logic even colder and sharper than Calvin’s. The very notion of heresy was not only contrary to Protestantism, but wholly absent from Bible. Heresy is man’s invention, not God’s: a relative, not absolute concept: “When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views.” Given that this one statement effectively condemned “a whole era, its leaders, princes, and priests, Catholics and Lutherans alike,” it demonstrated “immense moral courage.”

But Castellio not only punctured the pretense of heresy as an excuse for authoritarianism, he went on to claim that “freedom of thought had a sacred right of asylum in Europe.” “De haereticis”, Zweig shows, stands as a milestone for civilization for not just defending the right to think and speak freely, but for asserting that tolerance is the state to which we should all aspire: “We can live together peacefully only when we control our intolerance. Even though there will always be differences of opinion from time to time, we can at any rate come to general understandings, can love one another, and can enter the bonds of peace….”

Perhaps those words seem mild today, but they inflamed not just Calvin but many others who understood how directly Castellio’s argument undermined the very basis of their political and religious power. Although nominally protected as a citizen of the free city of Basle, Castellio was forced from his university post, ostracized, and driven into poverty and sickness. His death in 1563 prevented Calvin from orchestrating his return to Geneva (Castellio had lived there and even worked alongside Calvin for a time) and trial. Still, Calvin’s followers dug up Castellio’s body, burned it on a bonfire, and scattered the ashes as a post-mortem retribution.

Today, Calvin’s name is far better known and remembered than Castellio’s. Yet it is Castellio, not Calvin, Zweig argues, whose views were ultimately to win the greater number of converts. Both the American and French revolutions recognized freedom of religion and speech as fundamental rights, and “the notion of liberty–the liberty of nations, of individuals, of thoughts–had been accepted as an inalienable maxim by the civilized world.”

Brad Bigelow, The Neglected Books Page, 26 July 2008

Michael Servetus (1511-1553), Spanish theologian, physician and astronomer, is burned at the stake outside Geneva, for heresy and denial of the Trinitarian doctrine, 27 October 1553


The Victory of the Defeated

On Reading Stefan Zweig’s The Right to Heresy

Dai Qing 戴晴

translated and annotated by Geremie Barmé


The Right to Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin was one of Stefan Zweig’s last books. Before his suicide in 1942, Zweig also wrote The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European and ‘The Royal Game’, a forty-thousand-word novella. There is also his last testament, a work so calm and collected that it leaves the reader virtually gasping for breath. But The Right to Heresy was really the last book to which Zweig brought his penetrating vision and creative energy. To write it he not only delved into his own memory and emotional world, he also laboured arduously, undertaking detailed research and travelling extensively to collect material, sifting through historical documents to delineate a skein of argument in a mass of chaotic materials.

Chinese readers are unfamiliar with The Right to Heresy. While many may know some of Zweig’s other works, like Letters from an Unknown Woman, The Burning Secret and The Tide of Fortune, only a handful have even heard of Castellio. Of course, quite a few know of Calvin and have seen that famous oil painting of the Reformers: three men, two fat and one thin. But what about the real Calvin? What do we know about his emotional life, his personal predilections? Was he enthusiastic or reserved, tolerant or caustic? Did he like wine and women? The forests and the sea? Children and dogs? Scholars may feel that such details have about as much to do with the course of history as do an individual’s heartbeat or bowel movements. They are trivia, part and parcel of life, of course, but of no interest to anyone other than the man’s wife. (Except, that is to say, if that person happens to be a great leader or a living Buddha.) To the historian, the only reality, the only thing of concern to future generations is a man’s achievements.

Fiction, however, sees things in a different light. Its ‘fabricators’ emphasize the dimensions of the soul; they are particularly interested in the secret recesses of the mind. They write of princes and nobles, adulterers and concubines, peasants in desolate backwaters, their chickens and ducks… They are not in awe of powerful families. They manipulate their material with freedom, regardless of the period with which they are dealing.

For them the important thing is to describe people. And readers are accustomed to the distinction between history and literature. From youth when we would sit in class with our hands behind our backs, teachers and textbooks made that distinction more than clear: literature is not history and vice versa. But Zweig refuses to recognize such a strict division. The Right to Heresy is an historically faultless narrative in which he describes real people and the hidden motives behind real events. Zweig’s ‘dissection’ is horrifying; reading his study of Calvin is akin to witnessing the cunning of a ravenous lion as it lures its prey to the slaughter.

For most people who have not read The Right to Heresy, Calvin is nothing more than an abstraction, an impressive archetype: a Reformer and Anti-Feudal Warrior. He enjoys a place in the process of orderly historical progress along with all of the other bearded worthies dressed in long gowns. Until I read Zweig, I did not know that Calvin, a man persecuted for his ideals and a member of the emerging bourgeoisie who was hounded into exile would, upon achieving power, prove to be so unimaginably cruel and dictatorial in dealing with those who were once, or even still were, friends and comrades. They did not want to usurp his authority; their only crime was to disagree with his theology. All that Miguel Servetus wanted to do was discuss his work with Calvin. He even sent Calvin, a man he addressed as his ‘dearest brother’, a copy of his unpublished manuscript with a respectful request for his comments.

However, Servetus was doomed from the start. The four religious groups of Zürich renowned for their persecution of heretics may have failed to condemn Servetus, a learned scholar of medicine, to death, but Calvin showed no mercy. This came after Servetus, whom Zweig describes as ‘a lean, pallid, emaciated man, with a tangled beard’, a fellow in filthy rags, attempted in a spirit of reconciliation to engage the renowned Calvin in open debate ‘man to man, Christian to Christian’. For his part, however, Calvin demanded nothing less than submission, both spiritual and intellectual. Perhaps for another man this would not have been such an unreasonable expectation. Yet Servetus was someone for whom spiritual independence was an inviolable principle. Calvin was asking for too much and Servetus remained steadfast in his refusal to recant even though he knew full well that his obstinacy would led to him being condemned to death by a slow fire, the flames of which would, as Zweig puts it, burn him into ‘a charred mass, a loathsome jelly’. Nonetheless, Servetus ‘would rather suffer agonies for half an hour, winning thereby the crown of martyrdom, and attaching to Calvin for all time the stigma of utter barbarism.’

But the story did not end there. Calvin may have thought that the extermination of the ‘heretic’ Servetus would bolster his spiritual dominion, but he underestimated the human quest for freedom and the courage of those who were willing to fight for it.

Outraged by the vicious murder of Servetus, Sebastian Castellio, an independent thinker who was engaged in his own scholastic pursuits decided to ‘put aside his peaceful labours’; thereupon, this modest and humane man threw himself into an uncompromising struggle with Calvin’s autarchy. Intellectually, Castellio was no comrade of Servetus; it is quite possible that he disagreed with Servetus’ controversial Christianismi restitutio, the work that had led to his condemnation. Nonetheless, Castellio, ‘a nemo, a nobody, a nullity’, as Zweig calls him, was ‘an impoverished scholar hard put to make a living for wife and children by translations and private tuition’, took a stand. Declaring war on a man regarded as being an inviolable authority, Castellio took his fight to Calvin ‘in the name of the desecrated rights of man’. As a result, during Castellio’s lifetime ‘no printer who worked within Calvin’s sphere of influence was bold enough to publish [Castellio’s] work.’ Following his death, ‘the censorship of his chief writings endured for decades and for centuries.’

Castellio could have stayed quiet, choosing instead to keep his own counsel. He could have lived in peace and produced superb French and Latin translations of the Bible. History would have moved on regardless: two hundred and then three hundred and fifty years later, Voltaire would still come to the support of Jean Calas and Zola would speak out on behalf of Dreyfus. Again, in China, Wen Yiduo would still have made his furious protestations against the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, refusing to be cowed by the bullets of a dictator… All of these things would have happened regardless of Castellio’s actions. Yet, still he chose to wage a battle for ten long years, a struggle that promised scant hope of success. No one in power supported his efforts and he enjoyed no public acclamation. The only thing of value that he had to put on the scales of justice was his own life.

For people today, Castellio’s struggle appears commonplace, and the justice of his cause seems as undeniable and as an accepted commonplace as the steam engine or computer technology. The search for truth and the expression of what one believes to be true should never be treated as a crime. Nobody should be forced to submit to dogma. And yet the number of those who have died fighting for truth over bigotry is probably similar to that of those killed in the two world wars.

The Right to Heresy was completed in 1936, two years before Adolf Hitler as commander-in-chief of the German Wehrmacht would be at the height of his powers enjoying the adoring cheers and bouquets of supporters as he annexed Austria and the Sudetenland. It was at this historical juncture that Stefan Zweig, a writer working without the support either of a gun or military force, declared:

‘…we must never cease to remind a world which has eyes only for monuments to conquerors, that the true heroes of our race are not those who reach their transitory realms across hecatombs of corpses, but those who, lacking power to resist, succumb to superior force — as Castellio was overpowered by Calvin in his struggle for the freedom of the spirit and for the ultimate establishment of the kingdom of humaneness upon earth.’



  • The quotations in this text are taken from Stefan Zweig, Castellio gegen Calvin oder Ein Gewissen gegen die Gewalt (1936), translated as The Right to Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin by Eden and Cedar Paul, London: Cassel and Company Ltd., 1936, and D.A. Prater, European of Yesterday: A Biography of Stefan Zweig, Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1972, respectively


  • ‘The Victory of the Defeated’, in Dai Qing, ‘Piquant Essays (I)’, Chinese Studies in Philosophy (Winter 1995-1996), pp.72-76

Chinese Text






《異端的權利——卡斯特里奧反對加爾文》對中國讀者說來是陌生的。如果有100萬讀中文譯本的青年和不再是青年的人知道《陌生女人的來信》、知道《看不見的收藏》、知道《人類星光璀燦時》,他們之中可能找不出10個人能說出卡斯特利奧和他的生平與著作。當然這裡邊會有上萬人多多少少知道加爾文,看過那幅有名的兩個胖子一個瘦子的宗教改革者油畫,但他的性情、他的嗜好呢? 他熱情還是冷漠? 寬厚還是刻薄? 愛不愛醇酒婦人? 迷不迷森林與海,還有孩子和狗? 也許學者們認為這一切與歷史進程毫不相干,恰如心跳與排泄,這檔子每個人與生俱來又相攜逝去的那回子事,沒人會感興趣——除了他的老婆。當然如果這人是領袖或者活佛,則又當別論。在史學家眼中,後人所關心的,只是業績! 業績!


同樣是在描寫人類! 讀者已經那麼習慣於這種分界,甚至在我們背著手坐在課桌後邊的時候,老師與教科書就為我們規定好了:文與史。但茨威格顯然成心與這一分類作對。他在他無懈可擊的歷史敘述中,剖出了那真名實姓、進行著確曾發生過的行為和主人公最不為人所知的本性。這種剖析是驚心動魄的,甚於我們看到一頭猛獅分泌為獵物所誘出的涎水。









我們要永遠不停止去提醒整個世界: 它眼裡只有戰勝者的豐碑,而我們人類真正的英雄,不是那些通過屠刀下的屍體才達到曇花一現統治的人們,而是那些沒有抵抗力量、被優勝者暴力壓倒的人們——正如卡斯特利奧在他為精神上的自由、為最後在地球上建立人道主義王國的鬥爭中,被加爾文所壓倒一樣。



  • 戴晴, ‘失败者的胜利——读茨威格《异端的权利》’