Dust and Spring in Beijing

Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University


The following essay by Xu Zhangrun has been translated with the author’s permission.


In His Dark Materials — a trilogy by the novelist Philip Pullman — the concept of ‘Dust’ or ‘Rubashov Particles’ is used to indicate consciousness and independent thought. The Magisterium — a joyless, inhumane and authoritarian theocracy — regards Dust as being related to Original Sin and therefore to heresy. At every turn, the Magisterium attempts to outlaw and destroy Dust. As in Pullman’s fictional world so too in real life China today: no matter how tireless the efforts of those who wield the broom, Dust can never be completely swept away.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 December 2019


Further Reading:


On Dust

Dust came into being when living things became conscious of themselves; but it needed some feedback system to reinforce it and make it safe, as the mulefa had their wheels and the oil from the trees. Without something like that, it would all vanish. Thought, imagination, feeling, would all wither and blow away, leaving nothing but a brutish automatism; and that brief period when life was conscious of itself would flicker out like a candle in every one of the billions of worlds where it had burned brightly.

Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, Chapter 34

‘Fuck ’em!’ 去他媽的。Xu Zhangrun (left) with a friend, Shanghai, October 2019. Courtesy of the author


Dust and Spring in Beijing

The Master of Erewhon Studio

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


In this Jihai Year of the Dog spring arrived with its annual promise. The prospect of the season suffused the world, enticing even the most reluctant to celebrate its bounty.

Over night, parasol trees budded with new growth, branches of peach blossomed and willows trailed their tendrils. Life thus renewed, glimmers of hope even sparkled in the darkling recesses of my mind. I found myself drawn to venture out. Just then — although it was hardly unexpected — the Powers-that-Be at Tsinghua University banned me from taking on new research students. A lifetime devoted to the routine duties of pedagogy was thereby rudely terminated. It was as though a mountain had come crashing down on me. Given the season, perhaps I should compare that the severity of their ban to those vicious dust storms that pummel Beijing during the spring. Now I experienced for myself the true meaning of that expression: ‘in the twinkling of an eye warm embraces are torn asunder by frosty disregard’. But their interdiction also afforded me a new perspective. Three decades at the blackboard in a whirl of chalk dust was relegated to the past. For now, at least, I could take a breath; I had been unencumbered.


It had never occurred to me — indeed, how could it? — that, as I approached my sixtieth year, life would throw up this unexpected vista, and one so tenebrous. So I chose to seek solace in poetic fancy and nature while busying myself also with quotidian minutiae.

It is to You, Heavens Above, that I must express gratitude!




The mob demolition of the original main gate of Tsinghua University by Red Guards


The market of Zhaolan Yuan is located on the other side of the creek just south of the original main gate of Tsinghua University. During the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, that gate — long since made redundant by the expansion of the university campus — was deemed to be one of the ‘Four Olds’: something belonging to the reactionary past. That’s why a hoard of Party Gentry Red Guards took it upon themselves to demolish it. Years on, in 1991, as part of the commemorations of the founding of the university, a new gate was built on the site of the old as a simulacrum of the original.

Just outside the old gate, two compounds — Zhaolan Yuan and the neighbouring Xinlin Yuan — had been built in the years before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 to house professors and their families. Both the two-story Western-style buildings of Zhaolan Yuan and the single-story Chinese courtyards of Xinlin Yuan were stand-alone structures with separate entrance ways and sequestered gardens. Even the relatively elegant names of the compounds — Zhaolan, ‘Reflected Waves’; and Xinlin, ‘New Forest’ — hinted at the temper of that earlier age, the Republic of China.

Many tales are told about the prominent academics who had lived there and the memoirs of the political historian K.C. Hsiao in particular contain accounts of that era [see 蕭公權, 《問學諫往錄》]. There’s also any number of colorfully embroidered stories about the ‘Wives’ Salons’ of faculty members; they beguile and entice China’s literary youth to this day. The original inhabitants could never have imagined that the old residential compounds of Tsinghua faculty would, over time, turn into unseemly tenements crowded with just about any and everyone other than academics. One of the more prominent buildings in the area — a jerrybuilt construction slapped together with the most mean materials — boasts a supermarket on the ground floor. The upper stories are taken up by eateries. The Zhaolan Compound Market which was destination of my outing invariably teems with activity from dawn to dusk; the endless round of consumption and replenishment means that it is little better than a public convenience.


On the day in question there was no hint of wind as I had strolled southwards through the campus. With my purchases from the Zhaolan Supermarket secured in my shopping bag I was retracing my steps and on my way home at a fairly leisurely pace when I happened to bump into an acquaintance. Although we both worked at Tsinghua, we were usually so busy that our paths rarely crossed. On this occasion, however, this fine gentlemen happily took the time to have a chat. For my part, I couldn’t have been more grateful for this simple kindness.

So, there we were: two middle-aged fellows exchanging commonplaces about the unfolding delights of spring and the encroaching absurdities of human design. We found comfort in the fact that the weather was excellent and, what mattered, after all, was  we were both hale and hearty. There was no good reason to eschew the verdant delights of the season. Surely, it was an ideal moment to take a skiff out on the water and enjoy a libation… And so the conversation unfolded, smiles lighting up our features. We ranged over many topics and chortled loudly as we did so. Buoyed by the fortuitous encounter we bid adieu in high spirits.


I had not gone five metres more when I encountered an old fellow in one of those electric mobility vehicles. As we approached each other I noticed that there was something in his mien that belied his air of seeming indifference. The old boy radiated vitality: he was a substantial figure and sported a full head of silver curls; the sole evidence of any frailty was his obvious lack of mobility. Directing himself straight at me he stopped and asked:

‘Are you the Xu Zhangrun they’re talking about?’

From the tone I was unable divine his intention, so I bent forward to confirm my identity courteously. Thereupon, he fixed me with a glare — it might only have been a few seconds, though it seemed to go on for ages. Then he recited a line at me, spitting out the words with clarion precision:

‘Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.’



It was a well-known quotation from the ‘Great Leader Mao Zedong’, one that, back in the day, people could rattle off without hesitation. You also heard it blasted from loudspeakers day in, day out, and it was chanted stentoriously at Struggle Sessions and Denunciation Meetings alike. The chanting was usually followed by punches and kicks, or it might be accompanied by wooden clubs or steel pipes, all of which rained down on whatever hapless Reactionary was being victimised. I also well remember that it was this particular quotation — vicious mantra that it was — that was changed in shrill tones just before they ransacked a home or an apartment.

As for ‘The Dust’ — that is the people to be ‘swept away’ by Revolution — they were, quite literally, scared shitless by these words. It invariably meant a beating; many ended up black and blue, some were even killed. Would everyone live, or may everyone die — it was all in the luck of the draw. After all, a Reactionary was, by definition, beyond the pale, a non-human, and the power of life and death was in the hands of others. In that topsy-turvy world, however, the very people who attacked others as ‘Dust’ needing to be swept away, might just as easily end up as victims themselves; then they would find themselves also being treated as ‘Reactionary Dust’. That is why at the time ‘politics was not coterminous with the walls of the polis’; barbarity encroached on everything; humanity itself was despoiled; the meat-grinder chewed up everything that fell into its hungry maw. That was how China launched itself into a return to atavism. Forget that talk about the gradual unfolding of evolutionary change or the millennia of the civilising process, for in China, overnight, it all counted for naught. We regressed collectively, our behaviour undeniable evidence that we could easily submit ourselves to the law of the jungle.

Although [having been born in 1962] for the most part I avoided things at the time, nonetheless, I did see and experience enough for myself. Even now, whenever I recall that era a tremor courses through me and a baleful sigh escapes my lips. Nonetheless, it had been many long years since I had heard that particular Mao Quote; in fact, I’d all but forgotten it. Yet now, here, right in front of me, was an old boy ensconced in his electric scooter incanting those dire words with earnest malice. It was like crossing paths with a malevolent night wraith, one who had the temerity to venture out in the full glare of daylight.


I had no idea who he was or why he had taken it upon himself to confront me with a  Maoism like that. Having thus unburdened himself he seemed to relax — daresay he was pleased that, in his mind at least, that he had scored some kind of victory. For my part, the encounter left me careening between shock and perplexity; in my mind outrage and pitying contempt mixed in equal measure. As I was reeling he set off in his vehicle, though I thought I could hear him mumbling something, as if in a brume of self-approbation.


I’ve always thought of myself as being rather naïve, as being someone with limited experience, not particularly world wise. At that moment, I found myself cast into something like a temporal daze — time and space swirled around me, the quick and the dead were confounded in a blur. Later, as the spring light faded I looked out into the distance: to think that we had all lived through similar things — sorrows authored by political strife; the heartache of broken families — and so then this endless entanglement.


Spring has arrived and with it there is a burgeoning of life. Yet here, here on this beautiful campus, I find myself to be experiencing a season that is as relentless as it is silent. So confronted, I find that I lack the wherewithal to respond.


Drafted on the 11th of April 2019
Revised on the 29th of November
While visiting Shanghai



A Note on The Master of Erewhon Studio 無齋先生

As we noted in And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing! (China Heritage, 10 November 2018), Xu Zhangrun’s studio name is 無齋 wú zhāi, literally, ‘The Studio That Isn’t’. The author has remarked that in his previously stretched circumstances, when his family lived in cramped quarters, he had no study — 齋 zhāi, ‘studio’, as such places for private creative pursuits are known — or even a settled place for his academic research and writing. Thus, when he did finally have a study, he decided to call it 無齋 wú zhāi, literally, ‘The Studio That Isn’t a Studio’, alternatively, No Study, Non-existent Studio, or even Nothingness Studio. That is to say, it was a place for study that was both nowhere and everywhere. (For more on studios in Chinese culture, see: Zhai, the Scholar’s Studio, China Heritage Quarterly, No.13, March 2008.)

I translate 無齋 wú zhāi as ‘Erewhon Studio’. ‘Erewhon’ is a garbled version of the word ‘Nowhere’, as well as being the title of a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872. A satire of Victorian social mores, the book was about ‘nowhere in particular’; Butler’s fictional ruminations are thought to have been inspired in part by his time in New Zealand. ‘Erewhon Studio’ thus links Xu Zhangrun’s prose, with its satirical undertow and utopian aspiration, and New Zealand, a distant island nation where China Heritage is produced. Of course, Xu Zhangrun’s feuilleton, which are produced ‘no-where’, are really about ‘now-here’.