I Will Not Submit, I Will Not Be Cowed

Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (XXXI)


On the 5th of October, Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 reprinted an essay that he had written earlier this year, on the 23rd of March, just two days after he had effectively been ‘cashiered’ by Tsinghua University, the Beijing educational institution at which he had for many years been a prominent professor of law.

Previously published in Hong Kong beyond the reach of the state, the essay, translated below, was now introduced to Mainland readers with a line by Professor Xu that was eloquent in its simplicity:


I will not submit,
I will not be cowed


Apart from his career as an educator, Xu was also a prominent editor, essayist and public intellectual who actively participated in the long term and broad-based professional effort to nudge the People’s Republic in the direction of constitutional rule and legal probity. The incisive critiques of the Xi Jinping era (December 2012-) that Xu Zhangrun published from early 2016, and in particular the powerful warning he had issued in late July 2018 regarding the nation’s direction under its new Chairman For Life (see his Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes 我們當下的恐懼與期待, China Heritage, 1 August 2018), had made him the most famous, and most outspoken internal critic.

On the fateful day of 21 March 2019, the personnel department of Tsinghua University notified Xu Zhangrun that he was suspended from all duties effective immediately pending the results of a global investigation into his ‘case’. Apart from being banned from teaching and any contact with students, Xu’s income was radically reduced; he was also required to refrain from all public engagements, from publishing anything and from contact with the media, be it in China or internationally. Xu was also informed that he was obliged to cooperate fully with the task force appointed to investigate him. Until further notice, his life was on hold; he was required to attend on the university’s eventual adjudication regarding his fate.

We have chronicled the outraged response to Xu Zhangrun’s suspension in China Heritage by publishing a multipart series titled ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University — Voices of Protest & Resistance’. After six months and as this round of persecution reaches a new stage, and to mark the 10th of October 2019 celebration of the original Chinese revolution and the founding of the Republic of China, we offer the following translation as an homage to the professor’s undaunted spirit.


This essay was written at the invitation of Rong Jian 荣劍, a prominent independent curator and cultural critic, and it was composed as a preface for an exhibition of fifty busts of prominent Republican-era Men of Letters and Politicians created by the noted sculptor Tian Yuemin (田躍民, 1958-).


‘Facing The Republic — sculptures by Tian Yuemin’, an exhibition curated by Rong Jian


When the exhibition of Tian Yuemin’s sculptures was opened at the Jindu Art Centre 錦都藝術中心, founded and administered by Rong Jian, Xu Zhangrun was forbidden from participating. He was also unable to take part in the discussion of the show. The essay that he had written for the exhibition could not even be published under his own name; it appeared in the independent Hong Kong media outlet H-Media 合傳媒. It was ascribed to ‘Teacher Yan Wu’ 言午老師. Melded together the characters ‘言 yán‘ and ‘午 ‘ form the word/ surname 許 , as in Xu Zhangrun (see 言午老師, ‘蒼茫人世的時代之子, 他們擔道護憲只從真理’, 合傳媒, 2019年4月4日). The reprint of the essay below was signed ‘Mr Li Zao Run 立早潤先生’. We would note that the characters 立 + 早 = ‘章’ zhāng; when placed next to the word ‘潤’ rùn the result is ‘章潤’ or Zhangrun, which is Professor Xu’s personal name.

A photographic copy of the essay as it was reprinted online in the People’s Republic on the 5th of October follows the translation. It is prefaced by an editorial note signed ‘Xiao’ 瀟, the one-character name used by the film critic and publisher Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男. At the time of Xu Zhangrun’s suspension in late March 2019 Geng observed in an online post that, taken as a body of political analysis and commentary, the essays published by Xu over recent years were nothing less than:

直擊七寸, 劍指廟堂。

Blows directed at their Achille’s Heel;
A sword pointed at their Sacred Heart.

from the Editorial Introduction to
‘J’accuse, Tsinghua University!’
China Heritage, 27 March 2019

Introducing the present essay, Geng remarks:

The exhibition went ahead as planned in the late spring of this Jihai Year of the Pig. Yet the author of this valedictory introduction was barred from attending the opening. No matter; he has composed a work that speaks to a world far beyond the confines of a gallery. Mirabile dictu: for such writing to appear in an era such as this; for a scholar of such calibre to be living among us.

Read and re-read these words — not merely for what they say, but also to appreciate the deeper meaning they convey and to contemplate the demesne that they lay before you.

Reading these words, at every twist and turn one is aware of the tensile strength of a coiled dragon and the roiling of a potent serpent. These words are hard-won, their majesty resounds like a shock wave. By all rights an essay like this should be included in high school textbooks, yet as I say this I think to myself: Am I indulging in some vacuous ‘China Dreaming’? Or is China now a land where such dreams go to die?

from Xiao’s Editorial Note (see below)


Xu Zhangrun’s prose embraces some of the most powerful forms of written Chinese. His is a lapidary style that effortlessly employs the combined virtues of what is often summed up in the shorthand 文史哲 wén shǐ zhé — that is, the literary-historical-intellectual traditions. In this lyrical and telegraphic work a gossamer of word-ideas, historical associations and literary tropes is woven to co-join the temporal with the eternal.

The draft translation offered below — one that, for the moment, must go without the extensive footnotes that are called for — attempts to convey not only the lexical meaning of the author’s ‘sprung rhythm prose’, but also something of its poetic intent.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
10 October 2019
108th Anniversary of
The Republic of China


Further Reading:

‘The Institute of Chinese Studies, Tsinghua University’ 國學研究院, an oil painting executed by Chen Danqing 陈丹青 in 2001 to celebrate the Republican-era academics Yuan-jen Chao 趙元任, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao 梁啓超, Wang Kuo-wei 王國維, Ch’en Yin-k’o 陳寅恪 and Wu Mi 吳宓


The Truly Learned engage wholeheartedly with the Great Issues of the Times in their hearts; they are stirred by profound concern for their minds encompass Vital Matters of Universal Significance. Their very Being reverberates empathetically with the Shared Plight of Humanity.

The Truly Learned respond to the Higher Demands of Truth; they neither pander to, nor do they fawn before those in Power.

Lifeblood courses through their writing; their pens ploughing fields of creativity to cultivate a bounty. Even if they must pay the ultimate forfeit, they sally forth undaunted.


Xu Zhangrun


The Genius of an Era

A Vast World That Was


Mr Li Zao Run


Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


For the Republic was just such a time: A time when all that pertained to the past was challenged and transformed in the crucible of the present. The Republic was also just such a place: One in which far distant poles of East and West could commingle.

It too was suffused with such an ambience: One in which the extremes of the best that might be and the most vile of what was promised to evolve into new fraternity. In that mixing and melding lay possibility; it was an Heroic Era pulsating with all that was ancient suffused with everything that was contemporary. It nurtured them, these figures whose genius shone like brilliant points of light in heaven’s vault.


Time is remorseless, its meaning undeniable. The thunder heard through long summer months and the relentless blizzards of bitter winter — none can escape their ever-changing moods. The seemingly endless spaces that open up ahead are also finite, nothing could be more real or particular. All ages past are found therein, all vicissitudes are as breaking waves on the shores of that ever-changing landscape. Such was the world they inhabited, each in a fashion unique unto themselves.

These sculptures, the busts of these figures, arranged here in this exhibition reach out to us with an intimacy, for their long-distant stories are woven into the very fabric of our own times. With an assured blade the sculptor has evoked, one by one, the frozen mien of history itself; that which seemed irrevocably lost is ushered forth once more; it is in our midst. The dead are as though resurrected; herewith a realm beyond being breaks into our now unannounced.

時間無情而有意,夏雷冬雪,無不落諸具體人身; 空間浩瀚卻微茫,滄海桑田,總是起伏於一己方寸。眼前塑像數尊,今古牽連,將時間凝固於刀劈斧鑿; 逝者倏然返場,生死回視,空間霹靂而成世界。

The world that was their battlefield remains long defeated, yet thereby time itself has not been vanquished. The world is ever new, its forward course like an enmeshing skein that cannot be rent asunder. So it is then that they live again; for us their message is vital still.


They are all Men of Letters — Literati. In the Republic such people still existed; thereafter, all that remained were Literary Hacks.

Such Men of Letters appear as our intimates; they radiate an inner warmth that shares the deep lustre of precious jade. Here we see Wang Guowei and Hu Shi: in the luminosity of their writing they invited the finest of the tradition to join them in a modern guise.

Such Men of Letters are soulful. Here we see Shen Congwen of West Hunan and Lin Yutang of Longxi [in Fujian]. In their travels and their constant writing, fueled by conviviality their poetic chivalry meant that they were guardians of a shared humanity.

Such Men of Letters can also be difficult and uncompromising. Here then are Liang Shuming and Zhu Ruiyuan. Both were renowned for being prickly and defiant in their bookish ways. Theirs were, however, inspired spirits whose works share an unmistakeable timbre.


They were Men of Letters, the Truly Learned. The Republic of China produced such people; what has been nurtured in their wake are Intellectual Pickpockets.

For the Truly Learned through their reading and writing explicate the world; they address necessary principles and their works reverberate with justified passion. In their pursuit of the Truth they may elicit the hatred and jealousy of Lesser Beings, but ultimately those minions retreat defeated.

The Truly Learned engage wholeheartedly with the Great Issues of the Times in their hearts; they are stirred by profound concern for their minds encompass Vital Matters of Universal Significance. Their very Being reverberates empathetically with the Shared Plight of Humanity.

The Truly Learned respond to the Higher Demands of Truth; they neither pander to, nor do they fawn before those in Power.

Lifeblood courses through their writing; their pens plough fields of creativity and cultivate a bounty. Even if they must suffer the ultimate forfeit, they sally forth undaunted.


They were Intellectuals, that is people who regarded their worldly duty as being the Pursuit of Conscience; their everyday resilience sustained by Rationality; their mode of being fed by the wellsprings of Thoughtful Cultivation. Together these three things caused them to regard their contribution as being the quest for fulfillment, something to be achieved through Moral Purpose. Their ideal actions were based on principle.

When that new standard was hoist high [that is, when the Communist Party occupied Mainland China in 1949], Chen Yinque sought refuge far South in Guangdong. There he wrote about the beauteous [woman, Liu Rushi, young wife of the famous late-Ming dynasty literatus Qian Qianyi who resisted the Qing conquest]. Despite his physical frailty he was a Giant; his Studio of Cold Willows is immortal.

A champion of true Constitutional Rule [in the 1910s], Song Jiaoren sacrificed his life to vouchsafe the Republic. Although he was short-lived, his stature remains undiminished. Such sweet sorrow then to regard now his visage here and to be reminded of his promise.

Then there is Duan Qirui, a warrior of demonstrable prowess in those unsettled years [from the last days of the putative emperor Yuan Shikai in 1916 until the 1920s when Duan, for all of his limitations, resisted the restoration of monarchy]. His martial reputation was formidable; he was a man of famous frugality who ruled but then did not, before he did again.


Here then in this exhibition Tian Yuemin’s sculptures form a diorama of the Republic — an era when and a place where these Scholars assumed a role by fostering The Way; when men of ambition strived to Protect the Constitution and various other talents pursued their Poetic Vision.

It was a time of promise and possibility; each could exercise their abilities to the limit. It was an age without precedent and a time with no successor. Coming as it did at a unique turning point in the three millennia of China’s becoming, as the thirst for change, spurred on by raw necessity, offered a covenant for true transformation. That is why the creation of a new nation — and a republic at that — with the aim of fostering a democratic polity was rich in the hope that the future would give full sway to truly free individuals.

Despite its benighted beginnings and its penurious state, with its aspirations both cultural and political, The Republic ushered in an era of Celestial Talents. They were the Genius of an Era and through their multifarious efforts they bent themselves to contribute to the creative possibilities of the time. Their aim? Nothing less than than the founding of a new heartland for all the people, one in which everyone could enjoy equally the freedoms of a true republic. With its loss, lost too was the means for fostering education and culture; in its stead license would be allowed the darkest propensities of humanity; life itself was recast as worthless, and this world, our world, became one in which bastardry would be victorious over humanity [see Xu Zhangrun, ‘The Case for Humanity Over Bastardry’China Heritage, 10 July 2019].


If in the Heavens above then surely these Sagely Forebears are there still in full poetic flight, filling the world with future hope of clear skies and a pellucid moon. If yet as our feet trample the nether regions of hell, during this long night, kindly spirits may dance in celebration still, describing through their movements a future of aspiration and felicity. For, if not, this vast and desolate world of ours spins on vacuously, day and night do but alternate in meaningless succession. Therefore [as the poet wrote], ‘My people sit by the waters, nothing remains to them but tears, shame and gnawing bile.’


In the company of these sculptures it is as though we are invited to listen humbly to their admonishment. For they are with us still, these Worthy Ancestors, and we cannot yet give in to lamentations for things long gone that are so worthy of lamentation.

As we today confront a past that is revealed in these serried faces, how can we not experience uplift, for even now they challenge us anew? They loom before and above us then in the proud dignity of their achievement; steady and clement, yet in their brows we see an unsparing edge. They reach forth through a living connection that is us and their spirits resonate outwards towards distant vistas of promise even now.


23 March 2019
Erewhon Studio
Tsinghua University