The 9th of September 2020 marked the forty-fourth year since the death of Mao Zedong. On the 10th of September, Professor Xu Zhangrun, formerly of Tsinghua University, issued the following statement:
On 9 September 2020, the 22nd Day of the Seventh Month of the Gengzi Lunar Year, Geng Xiaonan and her husband [Qin Zhen 秦真] were detained by the Beijing police. And so it is that the good and the worthy suffer under the tyranny of this vile regime. This is an outrageous act of injustice!
Today, any Chinese citizen of conscience and decency who raises a voice in protest against inequity may be subjected to similar violations without warning. They too can be thus deprived of their freedom.
I appeal to all compatriots who reject such a condition of enslavement to join me in my appeal for their release. Free Geng Xiaonan! Demand justice!
— Xu Zhangrun
Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男 had been in the international news since early July when, following the detention of Xu Zhangrun by police in Beijing, she had spoken out in his defense. As Chris Buckley reported in The New York Times:
He was detained on an accusation of consorting with prostitutes, according to Geng Xiaonan, a friend who said she had spoken to the scholar’s wife and students.
“It’s just the kind of vile slander that they use against someone they want to silence,” said Ms. Geng, a businesswoman involved in film and publishing.
“He foresaw this day,” she said. “He kept some clothes in a bag hanging inside his front door, so he wouldn’t have to go without a change when they took him away.”
Geng Xiaonan has been a constant presence in the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’, our record of the persecution of Professor Xu Zhangrun. She is a noted cultural critic and publisher, as well as the editor-in-chief and proprietor with her husband of Ruiya Books 瑞雅書業, a commercially successful and much-celebrated enterprise, and a film production company. With a background in theatre and film, Geng was a producer of River Road, an award-winning film which premièred at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival.
Geng is also known for her outspoken support of Chinese men and women of conscience, including, among others, the legal scholar Xu Zhiyong 許志永, the citizen journalist Chen Qiushi 陳秋實, the lawyer Ding Jiaxi 丁家喜 and Reverend Wang Yi 王怡. Over the years, as the Xi Jinping autarchy has increasingly encroached on China’s cultural life, she has been unstinting in her behind-the-scenes support for many other older dissidents as well as less-controversial cultural figures.
Geng Xiaonan has promoted the essays published by Xu Zhangrun from early 2016 which, taken as a whole, constitute the most thoroughgoing critique of Xi Jinping’s rule over China’s party-state-army and warn of the ongoing political crisis of the People’s Republic. In the introduction to the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’ we quoted the lapidary summary of Xu Zhangrun’s work formulated by Geng Xiaonan:
Blows directed at their Achilles Heel;
A sword pointed at their Sacred Heart.
Living with increasing state repression, along with the possibility of censure, police harassment and even arrest, other prominent cultural entrepreneurs like Xu Zhiyuan 許知遠 have long since fallen silent. Some internationally lionised Chinese thinkers like the Tsinghua academic Wang Hui 汪暉 are said to take delight in the parlous condition of liberal thinkers like Xu Zhangrun. Indeed, shortly before Geng Xiaonan and her husband disappeared, such establishment Marxist-Leninists celebrated the reappearance of Steadfast 中流, an odious revanchist publication long sponsored by Maoist nostalgics until it was ordered to cease publication.
Geng Xiaonan has been steadfast; she has been an outspoken supporter of open discussion and free thought throughout the tumultuous Gengzi Year of 2020. Apart from her public advocacy and private acts of charity, her activities have included the production of ‘Gengzi Free-range Talks’ a series of online lectures,《庚子自由談》.
Following Xu Zhangrun’s detention and release by the Beijing authorities in early July, Geng Xiaonan gave an extended interview to Bei Ming 北明, a noted émigre writer, broadcaster and commentator on Chinese affairs.That interview was broadcast in two parts in Bei Ming’s ‘Washington Notes’, a series produced for Radio Free Asia. In it, Geng acknowledges that her support for Xu Zhangrun could well result in her own arrest.
The following translation of Geng Xiaonan and Bei Ming’s exchange is prefaced by Xu Zhangrun’s ‘Letter to China’s Dictators’, which he released on the evening of 10 September, the day word got out that Geng and her husband had indeed been detained.
The following material is included in Viral Alarm — China Heritage Annual 2020, as well as being a chapter in our series ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’, links to which can be found in the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’ on this site.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 September 2020
‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’
— Fyodor Dostoevsky
Geng Xiaonan’s Arrest:
- ‘警方稱耿瀟男印銷非法出版物被捕 許章潤、蔡霞和鮑彤挺身相助’,《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年9月12日
- 喬龍, ‘曾聲援許章潤的出版人耿瀟男夫婦涉「非法經營罪」被刑拘’,《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年9月10日
- 北明，華盛頓手記 (插播), ‘耿瀟男夫婦被刑拘，許章潤呼籲營救，海內外眾聲嘩然’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年9月10日
Bei Ming on Geng Xiaonan:
- 北明，華盛頓手記, ‘耿瀟男的閨房話’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年8月11日
Geng Xiaonan on Xu Zhangrun:
Bei Ming on Xu Zhangrun:
- Bei Ming 北明, ‘Let the Record Show — an Account of Xu Zhangrun’s Protest and Resilience’, China Heritage, 30 August 2020
- ‘中國民營企業出版人耿瀟男在洛杉磯和華語媒體會面’，《Amtv全美電視臺》, 2018年11月9日
- The Editor, ‘無可奈何 — So It Goes’, China Heritage, 6 July 2020
- The Editor, ‘Xu Zhangrun & China’s Former People’, China Heritage, 13 July 2020
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘A Letter to the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University’, China Heritage, 19 August 2020
- Guo Rui, ‘China detains publisher who voiced support for Communist Party critic Xu Zhangrun’, South China Morning Post, 10 September 2020
- 狗哥, ‘耿瀟男，陳秋實背後的女士!‘, 《看中国的狗哥DogChinaShow》, 2020年9月11日
Geng Xiaonan’s ‘Gengzi Free-range Talks’:
- 《庚子自由談》，耿瀟男主持. This series offers an eclectic range of ideas from some of China’s most prominent, if embattled, thinkers, academics and cultural commentators, curated and introduced by Geng Xiaonan
A Letter to China’s Dictators
On the Detention & Incarceration of Geng Xiaonan
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
It is the Seventh Month of the Gengzi Year [according to the traditional lunar calendar; that is, September 2020], a time to enjoy the cooling relief of early autumn. Who would have thought that your persistent miasma would manifest itself in the form of your thuggish arm descending upon the innocent unannounced. The disastrous floods of the summer months are still receding while the threat of the coronavirus remains. Outrage voices rail against China around the world and on your doorstep the constant threat of war is looming. One may well have thought that, confronted by all of these challenges and in light of the economic straits of the common people, surely we might enjoy a measure of [social and political] relaxation? Would it be too much to expect that you, the power holders, might pause to reflect on your missteps? Might you not even admit a measure of responsibility and fault as part of a broader hope to create a propitious environment.
But no! No one could could have imagined that, given all of this, even now The Axelrod [Xi Jinping] pursues his devious course and in the process continues to incite opposition and displeasure in every quarter. He devotes his energies to making enemies.
We heard the astounding and shocking news that, yesterday, the Beijing police detained Ms Geng Xiaonan, a well-known publisher and cultural figure. You had her incarcerated along with her husband [Qin Zhen]. The international media already regards China’s image with sheer incredulity and now this! This news sends a numbing winter chill through the hearts of all Chinese people of conscience and decency.
Geng Xiaonan has for many years now been an active arts publisher and cultural critic. She has also devoted herself to the public good and pursued an eclectic range of activities, contributing to our society with selfless dedication. Xiaonan has repeatedly and bravely spoken out in support of the men and women of conscience whom you have chosen to persecute. Xiaonan has been tireless in providing succour to those in need, regardless of the cost and in the face of inevitable failure. She has done so with passion and with honour. Her own writing is suffused with an uplifting beauty, just as her heart-mind reflects a clarity of soul. Hers is a personality of clarion power and she is possessed of a moral sense that brooks no evil. One finds in the person of Geng Xiaonan beauty, talent and moral rectitude. As all of her friends know: this is a stunning woman who is also a real master. She is a real Chinese Decembrist, one truly admirable stature.
When I was detained and held by your police on those spurious charges [of having ‘solicited prostitutes’ in early July], Geng Xiaonan spoke out loudly and wielded her pen to protest openly. She made sure that the world knew just what was going on and thereby earned the undying enmity of you, the power holders. You have had her in your sights ever since.
In this vast land of China, one beset with so many difficulties, it is so often chivalrous women like this who prove willing to put their lives on the line in defense of righteousness. Their actions shame the menfolk of this land. No matter that they are no match for their enemies, time and again they prove themselves to be unwavering in their beliefs and resolute in their actions. In their person and in their behaviour they resist oppressors like you. They do so not as some vainglorious quest to be regarded as heroes, for their interests lie rather in cultivating finer things in the privacy of their own lives. Yet they are the valiant ones and by means of their passionate focus they prove ready to sacrifice themselves for a higher goal.
No matter how hard you may try to sully the name ‘Geng Xiaonan’, all know that she is actually a martyr to these dark days. She is someone who has the unstinting courage to continue the purposeful trek along the rocky path to freedom. She may be a victim of your totalitarian dictatorship, but she is a victim who is unswerving in her devoted opposition. She is an Outstanding Citizen of China, a person whose spirit of fearlessness suffuses our very land in its quest for democracy.
Stay your hand. Put an end to your evil and lay down your butcher’s blade! Release Geng Xiaonan. Restore her freedom. Let her and her husband out. Prove to the world that you can also be decent!
Pitiless are the workings of Heaven and Earth. My plaintive appeal is a song of sorrow. I call out to that Greater Power: open your eyes wide and witness what is happening among humankind… …
If Xiaonan is guilty, then the guilt is also mine. Do not persecute this woman. If you must have someone to jail, even to kill, then let it be me!
Twenty-Third Day of the Seventh Month,
The Tenth of September 2020 CE
Geng Xiaonan’s Insights into
The World of Xu Zhangrun (Part I)
24 July 2020
Translated & annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
The circumstances surrounding the fate of Xu Zhangrun, a noted intellectual in the People’s Republic of China and former professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing, have become emblematic of the state of the Chinese nation itself. This is because … he has moreover refused pressure to self-censor and he has continued to speak the truth unwaveringly. As a result he is on the front line of the ranks of Chinese people who resist injustice, falsehood, the absurdities of the system and the dark realities of contemporary China. By dint of his efforts he has become yet another one of those people who themselves are writing the history of China. Falsehoods may well obscure history, but the lies can never obliterate history itself. This is even more so in today’s globalised world. There is no aspect of reality that the Chinese Communist authorities might wish to cover up that can entirely escape the notice of the world at large.
In this episode of ‘Washington Notes’ compiled for Radio Free Asia, I interview Mr Xu Zhangrun’s good friend Geng Xiaonan. She has been the CEO of the Tianhua Huatian Film Corporation and editor-in-chief of Ruiya Books. Both organisations are well known on the Chinese mainland for their cultural contributions. Geng has also been the host of a popular independent cultural, intellectual and arts salon. More relevant than any of these to our program, however, is the fact that she sees herself as, to use her words, ‘a stable hand taking care of the horses of the heroic figures who fight for justice, someone who provides practical succor to prisoners of conscience and a person who cares for the corpses of the valiant souls who die in the wilderness.’
It is for this reason that she has a particularly important and unique status among Xu Zhangrun’s numerous supporters. By interviewing Geng Xiaonan I hoped to learn about Xu Zhangrun who is under house arrest and no long able to speak for himself.
(The transcript of the following interview was revised both by the host of ‘Washington Notes’ and Geng Xiaonan. 以下訪談文字是受訪人和主持人先後依據訪談錄音整理，內容略有變動或調整。）
— Bei Ming 北明
Bei Ming: Recently, Professor Xu has been stripped of his teaching post and fired by Tsinghua University. Do you have any idea what he is planning to do in the future?
Geng Xiaonan: None of his friends have seen Professor Xu since he was released from detention on the morning of Sunday 12 July. At the moment, he is forbidden from leaving his apartment and no one is allowed to visit him; he is, in effect, under house arrest. The formal reason given by the authorities is that he is ‘subject to two weeks of coronavirus-related quarantine’. As a result, none of us have been able to talk to him about his future plans, although I imagine that when we finally can see him this will be a major topic of conversation. From my own rather limited understanding of Professor Xu, practicalities and financial matters are not necessarily his strong suit, nor of any great interest to him. In the time that I have known him, I don’t believe I’ve ever observed him giving a thought to his own future. Quite to the contrary, I would imagine that even now his overriding concern relates to the fate of this nation and its people.
Bei Ming: There are many members of the intellectual elite among your acquaintances. Professor Xu is part of that circle and he has been a particular focus of media attention since the outbreak of the coronavirus in the last few months — what could be called the ‘2020 Genzi Year Epidemic’ 庚子疫情. Could you tell us how you met him?
Geng Xiaonan: First please allow me to correct you: Professor Xu attracted the attention of the international media long before the recent epidemic. Actually, he has been famous for quite some time, although he’s not one of those populist scholars; rather he is more at home in the ivory tower. Added to that is the fact that he is not much given to socialising or public engagement and so his views and publications are not well-known among a broader common readership. I would, however, hasten to add that over the last two decades he has on average published a new book every year: twelve major academic monographs, three collections of essays, as well as four translated books. Such a prodigious level of productivity would hardly have been possible had he not devoted himself to his work, or if he had been distracted by commonplace socialising. I would also like to mention that, in 2014, Xu Zhangrun was celebrated as one of China’s ten foremost legal scholars…
He had a solid scholastic record and was already a famously talented university lecturer long before all of this. To put it somewhat crudely, he was regarded as something of an academic star. In other words, Professor Xu has enjoyed a formidable reputation both in China and internationally for quite some time.
Let me illustrate my point. I was in Japan in the capacity of a visiting scholar when the authorities [of Tsinghua University] initiated their persecution of him in March 2019 [when the university suspended him from teaching and research, radically reduced his wages and put him under formal investigation]. I witnessed for myself the impressive media event that seventy-two leading Japanese scholars and media figures organised at the time to protest his treatment.
My first encounter with Mr Xu was some years ago at a gathering of public intellectuals in Beijing. It’s so long ago, in fact, that I can’t even recall the details of the event, although one memory has stayed with me. All the scholars present, be they from the south of China or based here in the north, were well known to each other. They were all old friends and the atmosphere was relaxed and jocular. At one point, the conversation turned to the thought that if, one day, China really was ‘liberated’, what role would most suit so-and-so in the new order, and what about such-and-such? For example, who should head a new Chinese parliament and who should be put in charge of the department of justice? And then there was foreign affairs to think about, and so on. I distinctly recall that amidst all the lively banter Professor Xu merrily chimed in loudly that: ‘If such a day does indeed eventuate, I can assure you that on the morning after I’ll set myself up in opposition to the lot of you… …’
This telling remark stayed with me. Our subsequent interactions confirmed my belief that Professor Xu is one of those truly independent scholars, a man possessed of a naturally critical independence of mind and clear rationality; he is an ‘eternal member of the opposition’ and he abides by that credo both in words and in deed. He keeps the wealthy and the powerful at arm’s length and has always cultivated his independence.
Bei Ming: Could you give us an overview of the work that Professor Xu Zhangrun has published in recent years, including his new book China’s Ongoing Crisis — Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog. [Note: for details of this book, see ‘Six Chapters — One Hundred and Twenty Years’, China Heritage, 1 January 2020]
Geng Xiaonan: In recent years, Professor Xu has produced ten major works of political analysis and critique that have attracted widespread attention. The first of these appeared in 2016. [Note: See ‘Reaffirming the Magisterial Importance of the Idea of a Republic’] But the real ‘breakout’ works in this series [starting with ‘Defend the “Economic Reforms and Open Door Policy” ’ and including the famous jeremiad ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’] were published in the 2018-2019 Wuxu Year of the Dog. Because the key works in his series of political pamphlets appeared during the Wuxu Year, he decided to call his new book Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year. As a matter of fact, the book actually contains ten major works, including essays that he wrote both in 2016 and 2017. It also includes some material written in 2019.
Bei Ming: Can you tell us about the overall impression that you have of Professor Xu: his personality, his style and manner? The way he navigates the world. Would it be possible to illustrate your observations with a few examples or anecdotes.
Geng Xiaonan: It’s quite a challenge to capture a complex personality like that of Mr Xu in a few short sentences. Let me sum up my overall impression of him by saying that he is, above all, a 士 shì, a ‘literatus’ [a traditional term for a learned person who is also possessed of great moral integrity].
Chinese people are familiar enough with the word 士 shì, after all everyone comes across it from an early age. But, let me ask you and your listeners: you may have heard about the 士 shì of the past, but have you ever actually encountered one in the present? My guess is that the vast majority of Chinese people simply have no idea what a living 士 shì might really be like. But I can proudly say that I do, and that’s because I know Xu Zhangrun. He answers to the definition of 士 shì in that, for me, in his person he combines ‘intellectual excellence’ with the accomplishments of a ‘public intellectual’ and the virtues of a ‘model citizen of the Republic’.
Moreover, apart from his outstanding academic achievement there’s in the kernel of his personality a unique individual resonance [性靈]. [Note: 性靈 xìng líng, an expression that was prominent in the late-sixteenth century, was revived in the 1920s by writers who advocated independent thought and non-aligned literature. The term enjoyed another revival in the 1980s.] He can lose himself listening to Shostakovich all night; he himself says that he is a failed art-school student; but he can be so moved by creative works that he will happily write essays about them in appreciation, and he finds it easy to make friends with artists. … Long years of intensive academic work have in no way leached vitality from his spirit. On the contrary, apart from being an acknowledged academic authority, he has a breadth of interests that is more commonly found in an artist or a creative writer; his is a personality that is deeply empathetic and hungry for inspiration. Even in the casual essays that he dashes off I’ve been astounded to detect that he naturally engages with the ‘classical three unities’ that are so much celebrated in the dramatic arts. I’ve seen him readily form friendships with musicians who find in him a ‘soulmate’. He also delights in the company of outstanding writers, just as he is immediately at home in the company of successful artists. A famous film director noticed that there is some ineffable quality in Mr Xu’s personality, a certain charisma pull, something he shares in common with our most outstanding performers.
There’s another thing about Mr Xu that can perhaps best be described by using a somewhat disrespectful but popular online term. You see, he’s a bit of a ‘nerd’ [二 èr]. It’s a term that pretty much covers his lack of interest in the kind of canny socialising aimed at benefitting oneself. He’s not at all calculating and, yes, perhaps he’s too frank in his views. He’s someone who has no interest in manipulating a situation to his advantage and he doesn’t play it safe at all. To put it another way, that popular expression that extols ‘having one’s way with the world and being practiced at manipulating others’ reflects a worldview that is entirely foreign to his way of thinking, so much so that it might as well be Martian. A more polite way of describing his personality would be to say that he has pretty minimal emotional intelligence; or, more crudely, you could call him ‘nerdish’, so much so that he’s even a bit of an ‘über-geek’. But then again, that all makes sense when you really think about it. After all, if he wasn’t someone with so little concern for turning things to his advantage or for his own well-being, a man so absorbed in his scholarly pursuits, how could he ever have written those magisterial works that respond to this tumultuous era with such resounding force, works that, at the same time, have placed in him such clear and present danger? When I say that Mr Xu is a ‘nerd’, I don’t mean to say that he’s just a socially inept wonk. Rather he’s that rare kind of person in China today for his spirit remains untrammeled and without artifice.
Bei Ming: I have the definite impression that the three words ‘Xu Zhang Run’ are among the most oft-repeated in the Sinophone world today, be it in the corridors of power or more broadly, in China or among Chinese speakers internationally.
I just did a Google search for Xu’s name and, in exactly 0.38 seconds, I got some 2.74 million items. I followed that with a search for a well known older scholar — the aesthetician Li Zehou — and, in 0.39 seconds, 310,000 items turned up. When I searched for He Weifang, a well-known independent-minded legal scholar of Xu Zhangrun’s generation — I got 340,000 items in the space of 0.48 seconds.
At a guesstimate, that means the average well-known Chinese intellectual can pretty much boast of about 300,000 Google entries. Compared to that, Mr Xu Zhangrun has 2.7 million. Xu’s name has also been mentioned by America’s political heavyweights when calls have been issued for his release from custody [in early July].
Xu Zhangrun’s name is now aligned with the pursuit of freedom and democracy in China. That’s also how people have come to know about him, in particular because he is someone who has openly and directly challenged Xi Jinping and his retrograde policies. Still, it’s now impossible for people to know more about a man who, though he is in the public eye, is someone who is forbidden from being public. Can you tell us what it is about him, his character and personality, that make him so special? Can you be more specific?
Geng Xiaonan: Okay, let me give you an example. There was this occasion when we were all together having a very jolly night when suddenly someone noticed that Mr Xu had disappeared. We all set off searching for him and, eventually, we found him lying, somewhat tipsy, in the courtyard of the restaurant. As we helped him to his feet, he said: ‘I’ve just been looking at the stars. See for yourselves: the stars!’…
In his study at home you can see this card set up under a desk lamp that carries a message of his own composition: ‘Think complicated thoughts but nurture a heart-mind of clear simplicity.’ I feel this is a perfect word-portrait of the man I know. Whether it be in his academic work or in his concern for the fate of China, its people and the future, his mind is without doubt subtle and complex. But, when it comes to his own life, his personal situation and fortunes, even his own safety and his interpersonal relationships, his thoughts are absolutely pellucid.
Geng Xiaonan’s Insights into
The World of Xu Zhangrun (Part II)
30 July 2020
Translated & annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
Xu Zhangrun, a Chinese intellectual and a professor of law who has been dismissed by Tsinghua University, voiced his criticisms of the Xi Jinping regime without fear or favour. In so doing he has become another one of those unique individuals whose activities in essence write modern China’s history. For his pains Xu Zhangrun has had his reputation besmirched. He has been detained by the authorities and is subjected to constant surveillance. His name has been eliminated from the public sphere. On 27 July, it was reported that, after having been released from custody and allowed to return home on the 12th of the month, and after two weeks under ‘quarantine’, his WeChat account was now suspended. This meant his isolation was all but complete.
Censorship and interdictions on people speaking freely have long been factors in human history. It appears that it is natural for people who get into positions of power to think they have the right to control what people are allowed to say. That holds as true today as it did in the past. Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, however, censorship hasn’t merely been limited to excesses of human nature; it has been institutionalised. That’s why the fate of Mr Xu Zhangrun has come as no great surprise. What is particular in his case, however, is that in the context of the present regime of censorship, Xu Zhangrun’s persecution reflects something paradigmatic about the way in which Xi Jinping is re-introducing Mao-era methods for persecuting the country’s intellectuals. Xi’s aim and hope is that by acting in this way he can bolster his autocratic regime, the policies of which have been generating widespread dissatisfaction in China and are also proving to be profoundly problematic internationally.
In the previous episode of ‘Washington Notes’ broadcast by Radio Free Asia we interviewed Geng Xiaonan. She is a good friend of Mr Xu Zhangrun as well as being a noted cultural figure in Beijing in her own right. In her comments, Geng gave us some insights into this daring man, an intellectual who has taken a principled stand and spoken out about the situation in China today. As a result he has been subject to ever-increasing persecution.
In this the second part of our interview, we ask Geng Xiaonan to consider the significance of Professor Xu Zhangrun in the context of China today. In the process she tells us why she has become the most prominent advocate for Professor Xu and what dangers she now faces.
Bei Ming: What do you think is the most significant contribution Professor Xu has made to contemporary China? Is it more in the area of his ideas, his personality or is it rather the way in which he has comported himself?
Geng Xiaonan: That’s quite a challenging question. Since I am not a scholar, I have no way of responding in regard to his scholarship or the significance of his ideas. At best I can offer a few personal observations.
Because of the professor’s recent predicament [his sudden detention in early July, followed by his unexpected release a week later] I’ve become aware of a rather fascinating phenomenon. Be it among friends who know him well, or among WeChat acquaintances who have never met him, everyone has spontaneously started referring to him by the honorific of ‘Teacher’ [先生]. [Note: On the significance of the term 先生 xiān shēng, see Xu Zhangrun, ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’]. People variously refer to him as ‘Teacher’ or ‘Teacher Xu’ or even ‘The Master’… … I was delighted to discover that Chinese people today, no matter whether they are in the far south or here in the north, have spontaneously had recourse to an expression that has been long out of fashion, one that is both affectionate and respectful.
‘The Master has returned!’ [先生歸來] is a line that has featured in the media for quite some years, but this time, when Professor Xu was released from detention [on 12 July], it was the first time that I really had the sense that people were using it to express a profoundly felt sentiment, that it indicated a kind of popular will. The simple expression ‘Teacher’ or ‘Master’ suddenly seemed to sum up in a word this man who was speaking out on behalf of the nation as a whole. It was a shorthand that expressed the kind of thirst people have for a cultural hero of the likes of Professor Xu. It is a reverential expression used for a person who is seen as a champion of justice and decency. So, in response to your question: ‘What do you think is the most significant contribution Professor Xu has made to contemporary China?’ Let me say: ‘The Master has returned!’
Moreover, during these dark days — in particular from 2018, thorough 2019 and now in the Gengzi Year of 2020, Professor Xu has taken a stand despite the threat of political persecution and red terror. He has done so in particular by publishing ten major essays that are freighted both with an immediate public relevance and an academic value. In doing so, be it in terms of scholastic stance or moral courage, Xu Zhangrun has challenged the limits of free speech and thought in China today in an unprecedented fashion. He is a paragon for all who would champion freedom in China today. Professor Xu Zhangrun has set the standard for our time.
Bei Ming: You have actively advocated on behalf of China’s embattled people of conscience for many years, as well as supporting them in a variety of ways. When Professor Xu was detained ‘for solicitation’ this time around you really threw yourself into it by helping getting the word out. You gave interviews, sent out visual material and issued appeals on his behalf … To do all of these things as the situation is still unfolding is surely inviting trouble. What motivated you?
Geng Xiaonan: My reactions are visceral, I have responded according to the person I am; it’s a reflection of who I am and how I think about things. Such a reflexive response is not the result of calculation, or the upshot of carefully weighing up the pros and cons. But, since you’ve asked, allow me to try and explain my motivations:
In my younger days I experienced the sense of loss resulting from a hopeful but ultimately frustrated quest for freedom. As I matured I gradually came to appreciate my limits and the extent of my abilities. I realised that I’d never be one of those heroic types who can inspire others, nor would I be able to lead others through the pitch dark of night holding a bright torch aloft. But, even given my limited capacity as a nobody, I felt that I could still shoulder my share of responsibility.
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. The majority of Chinese women are a version of Lady Precious Stream or Guo Meimei, occasionally a Lady Meng Jiang [whose bitter tears breached the Great Wall] or a tragic figure like Dou E makes an appearance. Rarely do you see a ‘Chinese Decembrist’.
But there’s more — you know that saying, ‘freedom comes with a price’? Since freedom is the epitome of life for me, it only stands to reason that I must be prepared to pay a price for it. The small things that I feel I can do for all of the heroic people around me, the dangers I might experience, the things I might lose — these are merely the price I’m willing to pay for that freedom.
Bei Ming: Is there anything else you’d like to add at this point?
Geng Xiaonan: Of course, and it’s an important addition: Although Teacher Xu has been released, it is only temporary. His safety is far from assured. The butcher’s knife can come down at any moment. That’s why I appeal to all of those who cherish freedom to continue to pay attention to Professor Xu’s plight and to concern yourselves with his fate.
On 14 July 2020, a message was circulated on the Chinese Internet containing a poem written by Xu Zhangrun:
‘On 12 July, the Master of Erewhon Studio returned. Thereupon, Tsinghua University stripped him of his job and cancelled his professional ranking. On the third night of his release [the 14th of July], out came an impromptu verse:
Stumbling thence into their clutches, imprisoned,
Reputation befouled, vile minions still besmirch.
So long as blood yet courses through these veins,
Revelatory essays surge forth, energy undiminished.
The expression 斗牛 dǒu niú in the last line refers to the constellations 斗宿 dǒu xiù (Dipper) and 牛宿 niú xiù (Ox), two mansions or lodges in the northern Dark Warrior 玄武 quadrant of the sky, one that relates to protection and longevity.
— from ‘Xu Zhangrun & China’s Former People’
China Heritage, 13 July 2020
Three days after Geng Xiaonan spoke these words her prediction came true. As I said at the beginning of this broadcast, after Xu Zhangrun met up with friends on the 27th of July the authorities suspended his WeChat account. People familiar with his situation reported that Mr Xu, himself a legal expert, had signed a power of attorney and instructed two Beijing-based rights lawyers — Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun — to pursue a civil action against the authorities for the illegal punishments they had meted out to him.
That was by no means the end of it: On the 28th of July, Beijing time, two Beijing state security agents paid a visit to Mo Shaoping at his office. According to people familiar with the situation, the authorities warned the lawyers to limit their interactions with international media outlets so as to prevent the ‘highly sensitive’ case of Xu Zhangrun falling victim to a ‘media beat-up’.
Geng Xiaonan: I also appeal to listeners to be mindful of the situation of others like Dr Xu [Zhiyong, the prominent civil rights activist], [the citizen journalist] Chen Qiushi, [the lawyer] Ding Jiaxi, and Reverend Wang Yi of Chengdu [all of whom have been punished for their activities in recent months]… … and this blood-and-tear stained list of names just goes on and on. Each name on this roll call is a record of an outstanding member of our nation; they are all people who, in their pursuit of justice, have been willing to pay an enormous price. Please show your concern for them; please do what you can to support them and show care for their families.
People like me are minor characters, but what we say and do should be worthy of the suffering around us. In these tumultuous and uncertain times, even the most insignificant person has a duty to respond to challenge in such a way that they can take pride in themselves.
Bei Ming: Geng Xiaonan, thank you!
You will daresay be aware that this interview was undertaken at an extremely sensitive moment, when Xu Zhangrun was still under intense surveillance. It was also highly likely that due to her public advocacy on behalf of Mr Xu and her long-term support for him, Geng Xiaonan was herself being secretly monitored by the authorities.
Following Xu Zhangrun’s release various WeChat accounts related to him or which discussed his situation were suspended, including that of Lu Nan, a classmate from his days as a student at People’s University who now lives overseas. Professor Guo Yuhua of Tsinghua University, another prominent supporter of Mr Xu’s, also had her WeChat account suspended after she posted a picture of the cover of his new book Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog.
Geng Xiaonan’s undaunted heroism means that her own safety is increasingly at risk. After the first part of this interview was broadcast, on the morning of 28 July Beijing time, Xiaonan told me that her situation was precarious:
Geng Xiaonan: ‘They’ve all told me that I’m now in personal danger. I’ve been able to take the measure of things myself and I know that I’m constantly being tailed by a vehicle no matter where I go. I feel that my time is nearly up. However, I have brought this upon myself fully aware of the consequences of my actions. [Note: 求仁得仁 qiú rén dé rén, here Geng employs the same famous expression from the Confucian Analects that Xu Zhangrun used when he was suspended by Tsinghua in March 2019]. What will be will be; there’s simply no escape. Anyway, given the state of China today, there’s nowhere anyone can go.
‘If you study history you learn about the events of those other Gengzi Years [1940, 1900, 1960], each following on from a Wuxu Year. I poured everything I have into my six essays, they are my appeal to the Heavens, they are at one with the World.’
This was what Xu Zhangrun declared upon returning home from his recent detention. It’s the one and only thing he has said [so far, see the introduction and Xu’s letter of 10 September above].
Geng Xiaonan adds: ‘At the very least we need to be a people who can prove that they are deserving of such heroic figures [as Xu and others men and women of conscience].’
As I was transcribing our interview Geng Xiaonan added words to the effect that:
‘What we say and what we do should be worthy of our suffering.’
It’s a line inspired by a famous statement made by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky:
‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’
Dostoevsky lived in Tsarist Russia and his works were banned. He was arrested and even sentenced to death, although this was commuted shortly before being carried out. He was exiled to Siberia instead. Although his was a life of suffering, he concluded that:
‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’
‘Suffering’ is hardly an unfamiliar concept to Chinese people. The unfamiliar thing is the idea that one might prove to be unworthy of the sufferings one experiences. It is a way of saying that suffering is not a blight on life as much as something that offers a path to sublimation. To follow such a course is not to be lost but rather to advance despite all obstacles in the way. Only then may you truly become worthy of your travails.
The wellsprings of such a transcendent attitude can be found in a particular understanding of what is of true value in life: the notion that human beings are unique, straddling as they do the world twixt heaven and earth, or they are the creation of a greater power. Regardless, they are beings possessed of a spiritual essence that allows them, when the situation demands it, to find themselves unencumbered by material limitations and the mere physical so that, through their inner strength, they can achieve a higher level of being.
I believe that this is what Geng Xiaonan is talking about in her discussion of Professor Xu Zhangrun. It is the reason that she supports him and why she expresses such admiration for him. These are the very traits that elicit her admiration and her wonder as she contemplates the fortitude that he has continued to display to this day.