Long rolling waves of time
bring all things to light
and plunge them down again
in utter darkness.
— Sophocles, ‘Ajax’ Αἴας
trans. James Scully
In early February 2020, Professor Xu Zhangrun published an excoriating essay about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan. Building on a series of searing analyses written from 2016, Xu’s essay ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’ offered a further critique of the political crisis of the Xi Jinping era. He identified the core of the problem as being one-man rule and the Communist party-state. As he wrote:
‘It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state is thereby on display as never before.’
China itself was now dominated by:
‘…an evolving form of military tyranny that is underpinned by an ideology that I call “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism” [Fa-Ri-Si 法日斯], one that is cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought [Fa 法; that is, 中式法家思想] wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism [Si 斯; 斯大林主義] along with the “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism [Ri 日; 日耳曼法西斯主義].’
— from Xu Zhangrun, ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’
China Heritage, 24 February 2020
Shortly after ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’ appeared, Xu Zhangrun was placed under informal house detention and his contact with the outside world was blocked. As he was recovering from an unrelated medical emergency he was granted permission to travel to his family home in Anhui province where his ninety-year-old mother was being treated for cancer. During his sojourn in the south, Professor Xu composed the following prose-poem. The Chinese original has only been circulated as a ‘WeChat samizdat’.
With Xu Zhangrun’s permission, we offer this meditation in sombre commemoration of the Beijing Massacre of 3-4 June 1989.
Xu Zhangrun’s work stands at that boundary where prose is uplifted in order to become poetry, in so doing the author addresses a moment in eternity in language that also makes that moment eternal. The style is challenging, the language replete with references, be they immediate (the author alludes to his family and recent personal dramas) or literary and apart from gestures in the direction of historical incident, the writer includes lines and phrases from a range of works, a few of which we note. He also focusses his sights on the politics of the day.
‘Wall of Ice’ 封凍之牆 was a sculpture cum art performance created in late January 2020 by Ai Song 艾松, a Beijing-based artist. A work built in the mode of ‘land art‘, the site-specific installation was made from material drawn from the immediate environment in combination with sculptures fashioned by the artist. It was built to be undone.
Pellucid slabs of ice were hewn from a frozen river and layered to construct a storied prison for the incarceration of effigies sculpted from barbed wire, the artist’s preferred medium. The images included men and women of conscience, both living and dead. Among their number are martyrs like Zhang Zhixin 張志新, the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波, the renowned reformist Bao Tong 鮑彤, The Tiananmen Mothers, the novelist Yang Xianhui 楊顯惠, as well as other writers, academics and many others persecuted by Communist Party fiat. Nine of Ai Song’s original one-hundred sculptures were censored by the authorities. As a result the ‘wall of one hundred’ contains only ninety-one images. Xu Zhangrun’s image remained untouched and perhaps his words can help fill in the nine ‘memory holes’ created by the official interdiction.
The Wall of Ice stood for twenty-four hours following which Ai Song dismantled the edifice, releasing thereby the prisoner-avatars whom he had confined therein. Xu Zhangrun’s commemoration of the Wall of Ice offers permanence to that evanescent memorial by means of the written word, arguably the most hallowed tradition of Chinese culture.
The artist’s work is further transformed by the writer’s alchemy that transforms the particulars of today into a work relevant to a time yet unknown and unimaginable. Such word-memorials are written in a style that draws both on a millennia-old heritage and modern sensibilities. The result is what I have previously refereed to as an ‘intersection with eternity’. Xu Zhangrun’s meditation is an impossible celebration; it is an elegy for human striving in the face of inhumane obstacles.
This bilingual text is published at a time of anguish, in Hong Kong, in Beijing, throughout the United States and in many other parts of the world. Many people are sharing in what Jelani Cobb, in the specific context of racism in America, calls a ‘democracy of grief’. It is one that can bind ‘those of us who survive people who were violently dispatched from this life.’ As Erin Overbey, archive editor of The New Yorker, asks:
‘How can you recover and move forward… when a wound is never fully allowed to heal?’
In the People’s Republic of China the democracy of grief, like representative democracy itself, as well as a range of basic rights, is outlawed.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 June 2020
In ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’, his unsparing analysis of China’s socio-political predicament published in July 2018, Xu Zhangrun made an appeal to the authorities:
“Overturn the Verdict on the ‘4th of June’ [1989 Beijing Massacre]. Over this and next year China will mark a series of sensitive anniversaries: it will be the fourth decade since the policies of [what would become known as] the Reforms and Open Door, the centenary of the May Fourth Movement [of 1919, a major feature of which was modern student activism and strident patriotism; it was also a contributing reason for the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921], as well as the thirtieth anniversary of 4 June. The upshot of the Sino-US Trade War will extend through this period and will only serve to add to the uncertainty of things.
“In pursuit of the usual posture of Stability Maintenance [the authorities will daresay] ‘use policing methods to deal with political issues’ in the process of which they will ‘deploy the mechanisms of the state machine [政制] to clamp down on [鉗制] the political situation [政治]’. The system will go to extremes rather than approaching matters by ‘dealing with politics by employing politics [to resolve matters]’ [as we witness in the West when they deal with difficult political issues]. Back in the day, the ‘5th of April’ [1976 Tiananmen Incident when protesters flooded to Tiananmen to mourn the recently deceased premier Zhou Enlai and denounced Mao and his coterie, later known as the ‘Gang of Four’] was re-evaluated [literally, ‘rehabilitated’] and ever since then that date has no longer been one of any particular political sensitivity. This was precisely because [after Mao’s death, the authorities] ‘confronted a political problem by employing a political solution’ — as the old saying puts it: ‘when an army approaches a good general knows how to block its advance; when the waters rise we know how to sandbag against flooding’. Everyone took from that [decision regarding the 5 April 1976 Tiananmen Incident] what they wanted and all were satisfied.
“That’s why, in light of the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of 4 June [in 2019], I would encourage Those In Power to find a suitable moment either this or next year to rehabilitate ‘4 June’ publicly [that is, to re-evaluate an event which is still officially classified as a necessary military action launched to quell a ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’ by hooligans in Beijing against the Chinese state with the aim of toppling the Communist Party]. This would not only demonstrate a sincere and wise application of the principle of ‘politics embracing the political’, it would also mean that from then on there would be no need to treat the 4th of June every year like a political emergency. [The authorities, that is Xi Jinping] would clear the way for all Chinese to enjoy a peaceful coexistence, it would uplift people psychologically and benefit [the party-state] by accruing political capital to its legitimacy.”
— Xu Zhangrun
- Simon Leys, ‘After the Massacres’, The New York Review of Books, 12 October 1989
- The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Boston: Long Bow Group, 1995
- ‘The Gate of Darkness’, China Heritage, 4 June 2017
- ‘Mourning’, China Heritage, 13 June 2017
- ‘A Writer’s Desk & the Vastness of China’, China Heritage, 4 June 2019
- ‘藝術家艾松 | 他把100塊冰封人物壘成的牆砸碎之後…’, 2020年2月17日
- 杜曦雲, ‘封凍和釋放——艾松的儀式營造’, 2020年2月19日 (for a version including short videos, see here)
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, China Heritage, 24 February 2020
- Perry Link 林培瑞, ‘为什么要纪念 #六四 “Why must you remember June Fourth?” ’, YouTube, 2 June 2020
- Xu Zhangrun Archive, China Heritage, 1 August 2018-
An Ice-Shroud for Lost Souls
Cast on a Torrent of Blood
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Thus have I heard:
On the 20th of January 2020, the celebrated artist Ai Song constructed a wall out of one hundred blocks of ice. The bricks were chiseled from the gelid waters of the Hailang River at a place once known as Ningguta, a hyperborean clime that is one of the coldest in China. Each block contained a niche in which the artist placed a sculpted portrait that he had fashioned from old barbed wire collected from labour camps.
Over the following twenty-four hours, the Wall of Ice was baptised by the winter light in a place of unforgiving cold. At sunrise on the second day, Ai Song dismantled the Wall brick by brick and, with his icepick, he then chiseled free those ice-caged portraits, one by one. As the authorities had confiscated nine of the original one hundred effigies, there were only ninety-one portraits to free; the disappeared were represented by their empty ice coffins.
It was the lunar season of the Severe Cold in the Year of the Rat [20 January 2020]. At Hailang River the very earth and the skies themselves groan heavy with hoarfrost.
The Wall rose up, a shroud of mourning that spanned those vast skies that form a vault over our pitiless land. For a moment The Wall proffered a place of solace gathering up in itself the incalculable sorrows of our nation’s creation. It confronted the merciless violence of this realm without flinching, crystallising in a frozen moment of choked anguish, breathless as ‘the noose draws around a throat pulsating with the lifeblood of freedom’. [Note: This is a line from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.] For the bloody maw of hell had opened wide to engorge them, men and women made strangers in their own land. The words of their mother tongue become gibberish discouraged by the chattering mouths of the ruling vermin. We ourselves were lost.
This Wall of Ice is like a shuttle whose shimmering weft traces a path through the warp of torment to complete a woven swathe of truth. Those powerful blows to the earth cleaved out jagged runnels of suffering, indelible furrows, the traces of the jostling lives of prisoners. That frozen vestment shrouds their stricken forms. Through days and nights all bear witness to the unflagging workings of the spindle. At the height of summer the ogival tomb entrance will give way and crumble.
The Wall of Ice is the ponderous caterpillar track etched into ground by an ineluctable vehicle, one that grinds bodies into bone meal, churning up the earth in its ever-forward motion. The carrion is served up at their banquets; flesh and blood a roseate tincture adorning the vanity dressers of the rich. Summer heat unrelieved by rain, through the countless years they are prostrate. Distant winter thunder a warning that those dark schemes cloaking the land are but a paltry, faded disguise.
The Wall of Ice is a gargantuan mill stone, one that grinds ever on, clearing a path for carriages destined for camps crammed with slave laborers. The dusty remains on the grinding mill steady a harp that sings an incantation to the end of days; everywhere chests swell in tremulous response. Give back the terror to those who have created it; sculpt the remains of the dead into a chalice in which an ice beam glints. A skull holds that cup aloft, it overflows with a violent outrage carried on a boreal wind, twisting, turning into the jagged shapes of a heavenly flame, shooting out, scorching the snow-bound plains of wanton acts and through the wastelands in which defeat is buried. Consume all of their lies in the flames, burn to a cinder that bloated muzzle, crepitate also ‘tous les silences de la terre‘.
[Note: This is a line from ‘Cantilène pour un joueur de flûte aveugle‘ by Marguerite Yourcenar.]
The Wall of Ice is a lattice of spectral flashes, a crisscross made from piles of bones; in the impenetrable darkling night it is possible to glimpse the sweep of mountains and the expanse of sea. These souls, nephrite shards, on the tenebrous outer reaches of our land are silent witnesses weighed own by thought. They are a heaving sigh that resounds through the ages. A black wind scours the frozen river, whipping the golden serpent of light into a writhing dance, the bones lie broken now, so much scattered kindling. A multiverse of explosions resounding at the barbarous outskirts of civilisation that are lashed by wind and rain. Yet in these bodies spring’s hope rises still, irrepressible.
This Wall of Ice is the hair of loving mothers turned ashen by the agonies of experience. Entangled by a myriad of events: they were helpless as their babies starved to death in those boisterously halcyon days [of the Great Leap Forward]. That was my mother, too; the dead child my eldest brother. That myriad of entanglements. Then, without warning [in the Cultural Revolution], the call goes out to mobilise once more and the hunters set out to round up their hapless prey; dark shadows vie for advantage. Suddenly her husband, too, is bound and dragged off without warning, long gone and no whisper of news. The mountains had long been forced into submission while the thoughtless ones, men and women, carried on as before, oblivious to these realities. Harsh winds harsher still in that frosty world scoured the plains, yet the White-haired One remembers. That is why then, this Great Wall of Ice… But then it is but the feeble flame of a lantern on a windowsill, a mere flicker of insubstantial light that can offer no resistance, or it is as a plaintive recitation heard in snatches from some distant, unfamiliar village.
This Wall of Ice is a lake secreted in a vast forest, one surrounded by autumnal hues. Profound beyond measure, transparent to its depths, its surface undisturbed by ripples. In its capacious volume it can take in the countless sorrows and joys of existence itself. The snow-bound immensity, like a serpentine garden of many aspects, witness to a hundred generations of dynastic rise and fall, bound yet in the clammy embrace of the long millennia of obfuscating fog. The agonies of honesty are disguised deep at the bottom of the lake, offering yet a flicker of possibility, waiting patiently for sailors returning over penumbrous seas.
This Ice Wall is a solitary citadel erupting upwards from this vacant enormity. Its foundations are the truth of what was; its material made from ribs cemented together with the still-warm lifeblood of the victims. The structure reaches upwards, yearning for an apex of Justice and Love. The souls of those struggling for freedom seek a republic that is a true home. Now, though, that citadel has fallen and its inhabitants are scattered. Nothing remains but overgrown ruins, hope itself marches in serried ranks into exile, a universe of experience naught but a sigh of desolation. All is reduced to bleakness and silent mourning.
This Wall of Ice is of tears shed by the sky, translucent yet beclouded. Confronted by the countless crimes, Heaven itself averts its gaze, crestfallen and ashamed at what Fate has wrought. For sentient Heaven too grows old. What remains is a cauterised pity. The candle drips tears until it is exhausted. This Wall contains a frozen truth that, once released, floods forth and in the swell ocean tides rise up to submerge this forlorn wilderness.
The Wall of Ice is like a seed that can germinate with the caresses of a nurturing earth. Yet even this innocent grain lies prone to that millstone, waiting until the poet’s incantations bring rain. Time stretches out, and walks its circuitous route, waking suddenly at the midnight hour, focussing the burning light of the ages on this one summer’s day. The seed sprouts and swells into an ear of wheat, gravid with promise. Then, with the solemn grace of autumn, no more must widows visit the graves of exiled husbands.
Finally, here, this Wall of Ice stands tall, an altar to eternity, a testament to a furious outrage only to be assuaged when the hero vanquishes tyranny, even at the cost of his own life. There will be no triumphal return. Heads will fall with the autumnal rains, and in the drought-stricken season sere winds will scour the mountains. No sorrow in the cancer ward this spring, just a watchful silence and anxiety for the season’s crops. The dancer flits to the mountains, the dancer launches into the river; their sacrifice drifts heavenwards to greet the sun. Listen, the vault of the heavens is being lacerated by the stampeding of iron hooves.
Demolish this Wall of Ice, cast it down. Only then will backbones long accustomed to hunching in servitude stand straight once more; eyes cast ever earthward may look up to drink in the world. Perhaps then the blue skies can restore memory. Bodies that once pulsated with human warmth, air that was sweet to breathe, behold that distant flickering light, for in the full glare of day the darkness must take flight and a subtle fragrance will waft up from behind the young woman’s ear.
Shatter this Wall of Ice, release those tormented souls. Freed from the binding matrix may a myriad of streams flow. See the bats now offering their Mass along the weary avenues? Rumours overwhelm all hearing in a tremulous tsunami. The bronze embraces bronze itself, the weeping ink of February put blade to the tyrant.
Obliterate this Wall of Ice, for with it the tyrant’s throne too will crumble with a thunderous clap. The blood that flows in the veins of his Myrmidons — that viscose stain long darkened by corrupt decline — will dry up and turn to ash. Under the glare of the burning torches, those luxurious vestments are opened and that golden crown is removed; it is a nothing more than a coronet pitched on the head of a performing monkey, filthy beyond words, like a cockroach scurrying along a ditch.
The Wall of Ice is pulverised. The walls of this bastille are breached and what stampedes forth is a ‘cortège led by a white horse drawing a silver catafalque’. [Note: A line from the contemporary novelist and essayist Wang Xiaobo, who died in 1997.] Pieces of shattered ice are scattered like stars in the Milky Way, or like the sails of biers ferrying between life and death itself. There is a cemetery on the fingertip of the universe that gathers together heroic hearts. Remember, the soaring ramparts of the empire’s keep are heavy with the stench of conquered borderlands. These too are, after all, but wild and passing tempests that signify nothing.
Demolish this frore barrier. Tonight humanity is struck dumb, but wait, see that slender shaft of morning light pinpointing the glacial river? Blood-waves well up to form a tidal response. The surge crests into a ragged range of snow caps, every mountain peak suffused by a fiery glow. Spring holds promise yet, the wayfarer ventures on, to nurture and nourish a future.
This day, tonight, my grey-haired fatherland, why are you so stooped, bent by time, your hands wrinkled thus, your face still scarred by furrows of tears? From spring to autumn I cry, I sing, I dance, I urge my horse onwards to ford the river. I drink deeply of the lees as I roam; I would drag the very sun into beehives to make new honey; my prayer is to embrace the echoes of those distant dancing peaks. No, I want the warming zephyr of a millennium of years to caress your face and set aside thereby my own humiliation. Let me rain down in a million drops and wash away the disfiguring traces of teardrops; may that cleansing shower absolve too my shame.
Preternatural fire is burning in the Heavens and there is kindling aplenty on the Earth. Our hearts pulse yet with unassuaged lifeblood. The lost souls are honoured with these ice-made shrouds, the river beneath is an incarnadine torrent of blood. In the combustion that incandescent flame will consume the tangle of barbed wire and incinerate the frozen walls of that city… …
It is a Gengzi Year, the season marks the Flourishing of the Grains. By all rights here, by the Yangtze River, this should be a time of universal renewal.
— Drafted on the Pure Brightness Festival of the Gengzi Year [4 April 2020]
Revised during the Grain Rains [20 April-5 May 2020]
On Chaohu Lake [in Anhui] near the Yangtze River
At a time when disasters — natural and manmade —
enveloped the world
Don’t sleep, don’t sleep, my artist,
Do not give in to sleep …
You are a hostage of eternity
You’re a prisoner of time.
Не спи, не спи, художник,
Не предавайся сну.
Ты – вечности заложник
У времени в плену.
— from Boris Pasternak, ‘Night’ Ночь
translated by Roger Pulvers
4 June 2020