In My Words — a poem by Xu Zhangrun

In the Xu Zhangrun Archive


The legal scholar Xu Zhangrun is a prominent specialist in constitutional jurisprudence. He was formerly a professor in the Faculty of Law at Tsinghua University, Director of the Centre for Research on the Rule of Law and Human Rights at that institution, editor-in-chief of the series Tsinghua Law Studies and special fellow at the Unirule Institute of Economics 天則經濟研究所.

In July 2018, the Unirule Institution released online Xu Zhangrun’s point-by-point critique of Xi Jinping and Xi’s ‘New Epoch’ (see  ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ — a Beijing Jeremiad 我們當下的恐懼與期待). Over the next eighteen months, Xu was repeatedly interrogated, harassed and silenced by his university — a college that likes to think of itself as ‘China’s MIT’ — state security authorities and the Ministry of Education. In July 2020, Xu Zhangrun was summarily dismissed from his academic position, stripped of his professional qualifications and his university superannuation. Since then he has lived in a book-lined apartment in the distant west of the capital region.

Living under constant surveillance (for details, see Cyclopes on My Doorstep) and shunned by all but a handful of his former colleagues, students and professional contacts (see Xu Zhangrun Goes Shopping and A Day in the Life of Xu Zhangrun), Professor Xu continues to read, think and write (see The Curse of Great Leaders).


In June 2022, China’s famously becalmed academic composed a series of poems, some earnest, others playful. ‘In My Words’, translated below, is written in the style of a ‘doggerel poem’ 打油詩. Circulated online by a former colleague and loyal friend it was soon culled by China’s censorate. Both poet and ‘publisher’ were subsequently subjected to hours of questioning and verbal abuse. Xu’s friend was barred from all social media platforms. The professor maintained his previous stance, which he sums up as:

‘I will not submit, I will not be cowed.’

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
1 August 2022

‘In My Words’ by Xu Zhangrun, as it was circulated on the Chinese Internet in June 2022


In My Words

Xu Zhangrun

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Ranked among the involuntarily unemployed
My fate is in the hands of police who hide behind aliases
I’d name them here, if I could, but
They’ve never told me who they really are


But their concern for me is real: Exactly when did I last fart?
When will I be venturing out? Above all,
They’re anxious about all the new words that
I may scribble during these relentlessly bright and sunny days


My words — an aperture drilled through the granitic façade
My words — relentless like the cane of a blind man at night
My words — pulsating with the life force from a severed vein
My words: they may merely be words, but they are what I have

我的字啊字 不過就是我的字

My words have been a lifelong love affair
My words are my fate, my unfailing guide
My words nurture my existence; they are my animating breath
These words of mine mark out time with an ancient beat


This lover has never abandoned me; they are ever by my side
They embraced the tempest in the face of that unruly July swell
Their energy ceaselessly draws upon the vast tundra
Their piercing rays light up the distant horizon


Ranked among the involuntarily unemployed
My fate is in the hands of police who hide behind aliases
One day, though, when we are all free, we may venture out together
I’d like to invite them to buy rice and to hawk these words of mine

19 June 2022