Spectres & Souls
Chapters in the 2021 issue of China Heritage Annual: Spectres & Souls, have appeared throughout the year, and which will overlap into 2022, we posited that many of the spectres and shades, as well as the enlivening souls and lofty inspirations, that assert themselves both in China and the United States in 2021 may present an even more compelling aspect when considered in the context of the 160-year period starting in 1861. In November that year, the successful Xinyou Coup 辛酉政變 at the court of the Manchu-Qing dynasty that had ruled China for two centuries ushered in a short-lived period of rapid reform, one that, in many respects continues to this day, even as it falters.
In February 1861, seven slave-owning states broke with the Union that had been established under the Constitution of 1787 resulting in a four-year civil war. The successful conclusion of that war saved the Union, but the failure of the subsequent era of Reconstruction had profound ramifications for the state of that union, and the United States of America generally.
The successes and failures of that era are, in January 2021, more relevant than they have been for 160 years as a new president appealed to ‘the better angels’ of the nation, echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, delivered at The Capitol in Washington on 4 March 1861, declared:
‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
In early 2021, there were some who believed that the ‘better angels’ both of America and of China could possibly usher in a period of concord, if not amity. Readers of China Heritage will, however, be familiar with our view that simplistic yearnings for positivism ignore both human nature and human history.
Spectres & Souls began with a pair of introductory essays:
- ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons — Part I’, China Heritage, 20 January 2021
- ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons — Part II’, China Heritage, 31 January 2021
We conclude the year by reprinting an old essay by Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波, one of China’s better angels. His words echo with disturbing relevance, some thirty years after he wrote them, and reading them today the profound sense of loss resulting from his cruel death in custody murder overwhelms us anew (see ‘The Pity of It’, 14 July 2017).
We are, yet again, grateful to Lois Conner for her kind permission to use work from her series ‘Shooting 5th Avenue’ (2020-2021), a project supported by Robert Rosenkranz and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
New Years Eve
31 December 2021
More on and by Liu Xiaobo:
- Liu Xiaobo interview with Bai Jieming (Geremie Barmé), December 1986, subsequently published under the title 中國人的解放在自我覺醒——與個性派評論家劉曉波一席談 in The Nineties Monthly 九十年代月刊, March 1987
- G. Barmé, ‘Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989’, 1990 & in Chinese at: 忏悔、救赎与死亡：刘晓波与八九民运, 石默奇译
- Liu Xiaobo, ‘The Tragedy of a “Tragic Hero” ’ and ‘At the Gateway to Hell’, translated by Barmé in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Random House, 1992
- G. Barmé, China’s Promise, China Beat, 10 January 2010
- Barmé interviewed by Philippe Grangereau on Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize, Libération, 8 October 2010
- Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, Liu Xia, eds., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013
- 劉曉波文選, 獨立中文筆會 (select essays by Liu Xiaobo, in Chinese)
- ‘Mourning’, 30 June 2017
- ‘The Pity of It’, 14 July 2017
- An Interview, 15 July 2017
- Liu Xiaobo, ‘The Specter of Mao Zedong’ (1994), reprinted in ‘Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong’, 20 September 2021
- Liu Qing 刘擎, ‘Can China Think Without America? 离开美国我们就无法思考吗?’, The China Story Journal, 4 February 2013
- Less Velvet, More Prison, China Heritage, 26 June 2017
- Xu Zhiyuan, The Anaconda and the Elephant, China Heritage, 28 June 2017
- Václav Havel, ‘History as Boredom — Another Plenum, Another Resolution, Beijing, 11 November 2021’, China Heritage, 14 November 2021
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘Celebrating Dai Qing at Eighty’, China Heritage, 1 October 2021
The Inspiration of Liu Xiaobo
Geremie R. Barmé
In March 1989, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波, 1955-2017) was a visiting scholar at Columbia University when he wrote the following essay. It was composed as the conclusion to a series about Chinese intellectuals and China’s traditional autocracy that he worked on in New York. At the time of his death in a mainland Chinese jail in June 2017, some three decades later, he was China’s most famous political prisoner and a Nobel Prize laureate.
Raised in the northeast of the country, Liu first came to prominence in Beijing in 1986 when he was still working on his doctoral dissertation in philosophy. He courted controversy by publicly decrying the prevalent smug self-satisfaction about the cultural achievements that had been attained since the Cultural Revolution and he was one of the first members of a younger generation of intellectuals to argue publicly that the Chinese culture was in deep crisis and that none of the established figures writers, scholars, or critics would confront the fact.
Liu aimed virulent criticism at the traditional role of intellectuals in China; although at times he somewhat simplistically equated the ‘communised’ intellectuals of the post-1949 period with the literati and court scholars of imperial times. His acerbic critiques extended to contemporary intellectuals, literary figures of whom he became increasingly dismissive. He spared neither the reformist cultural establishment nor the cultural underground in his numerous speeches at forums and universities. He offended people across the political spectrum but gained an enthusiastic following among university students.
In August 1988, Liu made his first trip overseas. He initially accepted an invitation to go to Norway to give a series of lectures at the University of Oslo and to attend an academic conference. Three months later he was invited to the United States. During his stay in both Europe and the United States (Honolulu and New York), he moved away from his narrower literary concerns and began writing prolifically on Chinese politics. One of the essays he wrote during this time, Contemporary Chinese Politics and Chinese Intellectuals 中國當代政治與中國知識分子, was serialized in the Hong Kong publication Cheng Ming 爭鳴 in 1989-1990 and published in Taiwan as a book in mid-1990. The essay published here is the postscript to that work. It was written shortly before Liu became involved in the protest movement in early May 1989.
Liu’s stay in the West unsettled him deeply. As this essay shows, it helped inspire him to move from the relentless acerbity of his earlier work toward a more profound and self-critical reflection on the broader issues facing China. He also became convinced that only through action and sacrifice could a Chinese intellectual like himself find redemption for the ‘sins’ of his or her silent complicity in party rule.
Xiaobo was particularly outraged by the fawning posturing of some of China’s most prominent ‘intellectual dissidents’ when former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang died on 15 April 1989, an event that led directly to the mass protest movement of 1989, one that saw popular protests in dozens of Chinese cities.
Liu wrote that ‘The depth of sincerity of emotion [among the intellectuals mourning Hu’s passing] is redolent with an air of servitude normally seen only in the relationship between loyal mandarins and their emperor.’ He noted with irony that those who were mourning:
‘had always been extremely grateful to Hu for the way, directly and indirectly, he used his position and power to protect them or allow them greater freedom of speech. What developed was the ideal relationship between an enlightened ruler and his enlightened thinkers … a mutually beneficial relationship.’
He concluded his lambasting critique by declaring that ‘either you go back and take part in the student movement, or you should stop talking about it.’ He cut short his stay in America and returned to China just as many of the most prominent Chinese intellectual dissidents he had been talking about gathered in Bolinas, California, for a symposium (see On The Eve: China Symposium ’89, 27-29 April 1989).
Liu was highly critical of the movement in Beijing, even before he went back. He saw it as following the same, tired pattern of political agitation common in China since the 1910s — a period of street marches, sloganeering, and popular enthusiasm, invariably followed by exhaustion, silence, and despair. Nonetheless, he believed that it was important to support the protesters and stand by them. The concept of personal guilt and the need for redemption that become a feature of Liu’s thinking informed his actions during the movement. Apart from providing logistic support for the students, he also wrote a number of samizdat pamphlets, which are among the most sophisticated works of the period. (Elsewhere, I have written in detail about Liu’s involvement in the protest movement and its significance, see ‘Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989’, 1990).
The hunger strike Liu Xiaobo led on 2 June in support of the students occupying Tiananmen Square was brought to an abrupt end in the early hours of 4 June as the Chinese army crushed the six-week old protest movement with devastating violence. Liu joined his fellow hunger-strikers — Hou Dejian, Zhou Duo, and Gao Xin — in helping negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of the remaining students from the center of the square. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 6 June. Following the Beijing massacre, the Chinese government denounced Liu Xiaobo as a leading ‘instigator of turmoil’. He was also accused of links with Hu Ping and the Chinese Democratic Alliance in the United States, and of being their agent in Beijing. (In the United States, he had certainly met Hu Ping and his fellow dissidents, but he had actually distanced himself from the Alliance, wary of its endless factional strife.) Liu was formally charged in late 1990 and tried in January 1991. Although the court found him guilty of ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda and instigation’, and of ‘attempting to overthrow the people’s government and the socialist system’, in view of his efforts to get the students to leave Tiananmen Square on the morning of 4 June it ordered his release.
Chinese government criticisms of Liu focussed above all on his supposed ‘national nihilism’, something for which earlier critics, many of whom are now in exile themselves, had previously condemned him. Such labels have always been standard issue for dissident intellectuals in the socialist world. The following essay can be read as Liu’s reply to these accusations. It is a succinct, if abstract, meditation on the question of nationalism, the abiding dilemmas of Chinese intellectuals in exile, and the nature of independent intellectual activity.
Liu’s comments on God and original sin may seem strange coming, as they do, from a mainland Chinese. However, the discussion of ultimate values, guilt, and redemption is by no means foreign to Chinese intellectuals or the modern Chinese intellectual tradition.
Liu is one of the few contemporary Chinese thinkers to see exile as an existential state, a condition of the 20th century, rather than the unfortunate fate of the Chinese alone. His awareness and self-doubt make him a rare figure; he has seen beyond mere intellectual debates and political strategies to the essence of the Chinese dilemma, which the June 1989 massacre and developments in the erstwhile international socialist camp have only tended to exacerbate. His was a powerful and unsettling voice, not only for the Chinese authorities, but even for his comrades.
Liu Xiaobo’s name along with his work, much of which is as relevant today as it was twenty or thirty years ago, have long been banned in the People’s Republic. In Xi Jinping’s China the latter-day scholar-official and ‘thought-leading’ courtiers — the kinds of contemporary ‘literati’ 文人 wén rén and 書生 shūshēng that Liu Xiaobo mocked decades ago — now presume to pass judgement on him and his achievements. In fact, those who dominate the academic and publishing worlds of Xi Jinping’s China, and many of those who still advertise themselves as ‘liberal thinkers’, do not even regard Liu as an bona-fide ‘Chinese intellectual’ 中國知識分子 (a specific category of ‘knowledge-producers’ best not confused with independent-minded thinkers found in other climes). As I have pointed out elsewhere, this is a particular caste; they are a ‘Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia’ 皮毛知識界 painstakingly nurtured by political fiat and a decades-long process of acculturation, one that melds seamlessly with post-Song-era practices (for more on this topic, see ‘Celebrating Dai Qing at Eighty’, China Heritage, 1 October 2021). Readers who are interested in gleaning the sparse and unedifying fields of self-serving ratiocination can consult the excellent Reading the China Dream blog. Therein, and in China’s state media and academe more generally, one can observe what ‘intellectual diversity’ looks like when, to use Steve Bannon’s deathless expression, you ‘flood the zone with shit’.
(Some of the material in the above is based on my 1990 introduction to the following translation.)
The Inspiration of New York:
Meditations of an Iconoclast
translated by Geremie Barmé
During the cultural debate of the past years I have consistently maintained the stance of an anti-traditionalist. I always thought my theories were up to international standards; now l realize that I have been deluded by deep-seated arrogance. This trip overseas has forced me to wake up to myself.
There may be some merit in my anti-traditionalism, but only if it is considered within the context of China or with a view toward transforming China. That’s because China and her culture are truly moribund, ossified, decrepit, and corrupt. To find the determination, strength, and wisdom necessary for self-reform requires us to experience a deep-felt sense of shame over our backwardness, something which can only come from the threatening stimulation and challenge afforded by [contact with] an entirely different civilization. As a basis for comparison, Western culture clearly throws into relief the general nature and myriad weaknesses of Chinese culture. Against it we can measure our decrepitude. As a form of constructive wisdom, Western culture can inject a new life-force into China.
On the other hand, if your concern is with the fate of humanity as a whole or with the future of the world, or even with individual fulfillment, my anti-traditionalism seems completely meaningless. My concerns have been both narrow and superficial: those of a Chinese preoccupied with the problems of China. There is nothing in my work that reflects a concern for humanity as a whole or for the future of the world, let alone the tragic nature of existence itself; equally, [in my work] there has been no transcendental concern for the need of each individual to find self-fulfillment. The value of my anti-traditionalism exists only within the context of the worthless cultural rubble of China. My failings are all too obvious: narrow nationalism and a blind fawning before the West.
Since my involvement in the cultural debate, I have been labeled an advocate of “total Westernization” and a “cultural nihilist.” In fact, everything I have said about Chinese and Western culture has been as a nationalist wanting to reform China. It has had nothing to do with “total Westernization.” In my opinion, the most important feature of Western culture is its tradition of critical rationalism. Real “Westernization” would consist not only of a critique of Chinese culture, but a critical re-evaluation of Western culture as well, a concern with both the fate of mankind as a whole and that of the unfulfilled individual. It would be a critical re-evaluation based on a commitment to “knowledge for its own sake,” a commitment to a complete, self-sufficient ontological and value system that transcends mere utilitarian values. Because my use of Western culture has been solely aimed at transforming Chinese reality, I have remained a typically self-referential Chinese and not a “Westernizer.” This China-orientation has limited my interest in and consideration of higher questions (as it also limits the majority of Chinese intellectuals — it’s the reason why modern China has not produced great thinkers has a lot to do with this narrow nationalism.) I have been incapable of concerning myself with the fate of humanity and therefore of coming to grips with international Western culture; I have also been unable to achieve personal, religious transcendence based on self-realization, let alone reject all worldly inducements and engage in a pure exploration of knowledge. I am too utilitarian, too practical; I remain caught up in the vulgar concerns of the problems of Chinese reality.
This has led me to think of Lu Xun, a man whose tragedy lay in the absence of transcendental values, a tragedy of godlessness. His understanding of the tragic nature of the human condition went beyond an outward despair for the condition of society to become an internalized angst. We can chart the course of this development in Lu Xun from [the 1923 short story collection] The Cry to [the 1926 collection] Wandering. In [the 1927 volume of prose poems] Wild Grass, Lu Xun achieves a profundity unmatched by any of his other writings.
The Lu Xun of Wild Grass cannot be judged by any mundane standards. He had moved from his earlier penetrating criticisms of Chinese reality and culture toward self-examination. Only transcendental values could have helped him overcome the deep-seated and weighty burden of psychological disintegration and depression [expressed in this book]. He reveals his hopelessness, a sense that all that lies ahead is the grave. It is here that God’s direction is needed. Unable to find a standard that went beyond utilitarian worldly values, Lu Xun found it impossible to move beyond Wild Grass.
Indeed, Wild Grass represents both the high point of Lu Xun’s career and his final resting place. After this he could no longer tolerate the loneliness, solitude, and hopelessness. He couldn’t bear the endless intellectual doubt. In the end he struggled free, but not by finding some transcendental value. Returning to vulgar reality, he spent his time engaged in futile polemics with a pack of mediocrities. Having become thus entangled, he surrendered to the mediocre. Or to put it another way: after overcoming the limitations of Chinese reality and culture through his critiques, Lu Xun found himself alone. Yet he could not bear to face the unknown world by himself; he could not cope with the solitary terror of the grave. He did not wish to engage in a transcendental dialogue with his own soul under the gaze of God, and it was at this point that the traditional utilitarianism of the Chinese literati raised its ugly head. Bereft of transcendent values, Lu Xun could only regress. He only enjoyed “struggling with the dark” in the dark, but he could not overcome the darkness itself. Lu Xun had been profoundly influenced by Nietzsche, yet there was a great difference between him and Nietzsche: after having lost faith in man, Western culture, and himself, Nietzsche was able to use the reference of “superman” to achieve a personal sublimation. Lu Xun failed to find any transcendental values to help him continue, and so once more he fell back into the reality which he had previously rejected in disgust.
This brings me to another question: why have so many outstanding writers in exile from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe appeared in Western Europe, whereas there have been none from China? Why is it that famous Chinese cultural figures, once in exile, achieve nothing? Certainly, there are linguistic barriers, but I feel a more important reason is that Chinese cultural figures are blinkered. All they care about is the “China problem.” They are too utilitarian: all they are concerned about is practical values.
Chinese intellectuals lack the motivation to transcend themselves as well as the spirit that motivates individuals to pit themselves against society as a whole; they lack the internal fortitude required to cope with solitude and the courage and curiosity to face an unfamiliar and unknown world. Chinese intellectuals can only survive in their own, familiar surroundings, bathed in the limelight and applause provided by the ignorant masses. This is particularly so in the case of the famous, who cannot bear to abandon the fame they have achieved in China and start all over again in a foreign land. This “China-fixation” is virtually inescapable; its most outstanding feature is the absence of real individuality.
Thus, China’s leading cultural figures cling to nationalism with all their might. They do not see themselves as individuals confronting reality, they do not live for the realization of true self-worth. Their existence is determined by a false sense of worth that derives from an adoring and moronic mob, they live for the hallucinatory sense of superiority they get from playing the Messiah.
In China, their every action and word attracts the respectful attention of society. Overseas, they are alone, unable to attract doting gazes. Apart from the indulgence of a handful of foreigners with an interest in China, nobody else takes much interest in them. What it takes to be able to cope with a solitude bereft of applause and bouquets is not external support, but inner strength: the talent, wisdom, and creativity of the individual. No matter how famous or how important you were in China, the moment you are placed in this new and unfamiliar world you are forced to deal with the world as an ordinary individual.
This is why I have been such an energetic advocate of Western culture, and such a virulent critic of Chinese culture. Nonetheless, I am still nothing more than a “frog in the bottom of a well,” staring up at a small patch of blue sky. Theoretically speaking, you don’t need to be incredibly well informed to engage in a self-examination and criticism of Chinese culture. In fact, you don’t even need to be creative. That’s because the theoretical constructs of which I avail myself in examining Chinese culture are givens, ready-made, and do not require any new discoveries. These theories, which Chinese intellectuals treat as profound and innovative, have been clearly explicated by Westerners; they have been around for hundreds of years in the West and are regarded today as old-hat. They don’t need us to add any footnotes to them. I think I’ll be doing well if I can achieve a passably solid and accurate understanding of them.
Wang Gongxin on a Batrachian Point of View
In ‘Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World’ at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, October 2017 to March 2018, the artist Wang Gongxin (王功新, 1960-) reconfigured an installation that he originally created in Beijing in 1995. At the Guggenheim he opened a skylight in the floor:
The original, Sky of Brooklyn—Digging a Hole in Beijing, consisted of a 3.5-meter “well” dug in the living room floor of the artist’s Beijing house. A television monitor at the bottom of the well showed footage of the sky of Brooklyn in a continuous loop. Wang added a soundtrack: “What are you looking at? What’s there to look at? There are a few clouds in the sky. What’s there to see?”
The artist imported his old floor tiles for the Guggenheim show and replicated the well. This time the work was called Sky of Beijing—Digging a Hole in New York, and the television monitor offered an unbroken view of the sky over the Chinese capital. Sotto voce, small-scale, discreet, Wang’s work is a welcome relief after the cacophony and bristling ambition of much of the rest of the exhibition. Wang’s bottomless well invites the viewer to reflect on two clichés: one is the notion that if you were to dig a hole straight through the earth you would end up in China; the other comes from Zhuangzi, the third-century BCE Taoist thinker who said that you can’t discuss the vast ocean with a frog at the bottom of a well for he only sees what is over his head.
— from Geremie R. Barmé, ‘China’s Art of Containment’
The New York Review of Books, 27 November 2017
When I visited the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I finally came to the realization that what l’d always considered my brilliant insights don’t really amount to much at all. Confronted by another world, I feel myself vanquished by it. For far too long I have lived cut off from the world in the barren and ignorant cultural atmosphere of China, where thought is superficial, and life itself stymied. Eyes that have grown accustomed to the darkness cannot instantly adjust to the daylight. When New York tore away all of the external embellishments and illusory fame that I had in China, I suddenly realized how weak I really was. I was incapable of immediately finding the courage to face myself; nor could I possibly engage in a dialogue with the upper strata of the international intellectual world. But defeat should be like this, thorough and pitiless; it was a far more significant experience than any of the empty accomplishments that I had achieved in China.
My position was that of a narrow nationalist trying to use Western culture to reform China. My critique of Chinese culture was based, however, on an idealized version of Western culture. I overlooked, or purposefully avoided, the limitations of the West, even those weaknesses of which I was already aware. I was therefore incapable of a higher level of critical examination of Western culture, which would focus on the weaknesses of mankind itself. All l could do was to “ingratiate myself” with Western culture glorifying it in a manner quite out of proportion to reality, as if it not only held the key to China’s salvation, but contained all the answers to the world’s problems. But now, looking beyond this, it is obvious that my idealization of the West was a way of making myself out to be a veritable Messiah. I always despised people who assumed the role of savior; now I realized that drunk on the notion of my own beneficence and power, I was playing — consciously or not — a role that I detested.
I know that Western culture can be used at present to change China, but it cannot save humanity in the long run. For the weaknesses of Western culture highlight the congenital defects of mankind. In the”Autumn Waters” chapter of Zhuangzi [the classical Taoist philosophical text] the point is made that no matter how large a river may be, it cannot be as vast as an ocean, and compared to the universe, even an ocean is minuscule. The self-confidence implied in the statement [at the beginning of that chapter) that “all beautiful things under heaven can be found in oneself” is nothing but an illusion. By pursuing this metaphor, we can say that China is backward compared to the West, while the West has its limitations within the context of humanity as a whole, and faced with the vast universe, humanity itself is but minuscule in turn. The overriding arrogance of mankind is reflected not only in the self-satisfied Ah Q spirit of China but also in the Western belief in the omnipotence of rationalism and science. No matter how strident in their criticism of rationalism those in the West may be, no matter how strenuously Western intellectuals try to negate colonial expansionism and the white man’s sense of superiority, when faced with other nations, Westerners cannot help feeling superior. Even when criticizing themselves, they become besotted with their own courage and sincerity. In the West, people can calmly, even proudly, accept the criticisms they make of themselves, but they find it difficult to put up with criticisms that come from elsewhere. They are not willing to admit that a rationalist critique of rationalism is a vicious cycle of self-deception. But then who can find a better critical tool?
As someone who has lived [nearly] all his thirty-odd years in China, I must be prepared to launch a two-pronged attack if l am to be able to reflect intelligently on larger questions. On the one hand, I must use a Western perspective to criticize Chinese culture and reality; on the other, I must rely on my own individual resources to make a critique of the West. Neither of these approaches can replace or override the other. So, while criticizing [the West for its] overemphasis on rationalism, science, and money that has led to the undervaluation of the individual, and criticizing the development of an international economic hierarchy and the weakening of opposition due to the homogenizing influence of technology and commercialization, as well as pointing out the ills of conspicuous, unreflective consumerism and the worship of wealth, along with the cowardly flight from freedom, it is vitally important to keep in mind that none of these criticisms is relevant to China. Rationalism, science, and money have only just begun to enter the Chinese consciousness, for the Chinese are still doubly handicapped by poverty and restrictions on their freedom. Just as the standards used to criticize the West are not relevant to China, equally the standards of Chinese culture cannot be used meaningfully in a critique of the West, for they would only drag the West down. Some Westerners, dissatisfied with their own culture and life, look to the East for a key to unlock the mysteries of the human condition. This is blind and misguided; it is wishful thinking. Chinese culture cannot even cope with the dilemmas facing China, let alone those of the West or mankind as a whole.
It is my belief that one of the greatest mistakes made by man in this century has been his attempt to rely on past accomplishments to overcome present problems. Neither the culture of the East nor the West, as they stand today, offers salvation. The superiority of Western culture can at most help the East achieve a modern lifestyle, but this form of progress brings with it its own tragedy. Mankind has yet to create a fresh form of civilization that can solve the population explosion, the energy crisis, the environmental crisis, and the increasing threat of nuclear war, much less overcome forever the pains and limitations of the human condition itself. No one can avoid the fact that the anxiety created by the possibility of nuclear holocaust is the subtext of all modern life. The finality of death makes a mockery of all. To be able to face this cold, hard fact while maintaining the courage to step into the chasm is the ultimate act of which man is capable.
Since the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, mankind has existed in a permanent state of exile. Western civilization is merely a stage in the course of this exile. Tragically, the “sense of original sin” that is so basic to Western culture is becoming increasingly weak, the confessional impetus increasingly atrophied. Religion has become but another form of entertainment, like rock ‘n roll. Since Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, no one else has come forward to sacrifice himself for the sins of others. Mankind has lost its conscience. The gradual disappearance of [the sense of] original sin has set man loose from his moorings; today’s decadence represents a second fall from grace. How can a person who has no sense of sin ever hear the voice of God? From the early Middle Ages, when God was rationalized and was later made an adjunct of the power-holders, to the pre-modern period when God became humanized, to the 20th century when God has been increasingly vulgarized and commercialized, civilization has been in decline. Man has killed with his own hand the [symbol of] transcendental value. Is the transmogrification of the concept of God a proof of human advancement or its decline? If it is decline, then with the death of God does the fall of man retain any significance?
Thus I have come suddenly to the realization of impotence. I face an agonizing dilemma. I now know that in using Western values to criticize Chinese culture l have been attacking an ossified culture with only slightly less ossified weapons. I am like someone who, though partially paralyzed himself, mocks a paraplegic. Having transplanted myself into a completely open world, I am suddenly forced to acknowledge that not only am I no theoretician, but l’m not a famous person anymore. All I am is a normal person who has to start all over again from the beginning. In China, the backdrop of [general] ignorance highlighted my wisdom. My courage was thrown into relief by the cowardice of others. l appeared healthy in comparison with the congenital idiocy of my surroundings. Yet, in the United States, now that this backdrop of ignorance and failing has disappeared, so has my wisdom, courage, and vigor. I have become a weakling unable to face myself. In China, I had been living off a reputation of which 90 percent was hot air. In the West, for the first time in my life I have been faced with real and hard decisions. When a person falls from the peak of fantasy into the chasm of reality, only then does he discover that he has never climbed a peak at all, but has been struggling all along at the bottom of that chasm.
Tao Li, my wife, said the following in a letter to me:
‘Xiaobo, you may appear to be a famous Chinese rebel, but, in reality, you have made a sly pact with society. You are tolerated and forgiven. Our society envelopes you, even encourages you, while all along appearing to reject you. You are an adornment, a decoration; your very existence is a negative validation of the system.’
When I first read this passage, it left me cold. Now I realize how perceptive her comments are. I am grateful to Tao Li. She is not only my wife, she is also my most relentless critic.
There is no way back now. Either jump over the ravine to the other side, or dash myself to pieces in the effort. Faced with reality one must confront danger.
- Liu Xiaobo, ‘The Inspiration of New York: Meditations of an Iconoclast’, trans. Geremie Barmé, Problems of Communism, January-April 1990: 113-118. The translation is based on the version of Liu’s text published in the July 1990 issue of Ming Pao Monthly 明報月刊, it differs slightly from the version used as the postscript to his Contemporary Chinese Politics and Chinese Intellectuals 中國當代政治與中國知識分子, serialised in Cheng Ming 爭鳴 in 1989-1990 and published in Taiwan by Tangshan chubanshe in 1990. For the Chinese text, see 劉曉波,《中國政治與中國當代知識份子》後記 below
The following revised text was published as the postscript of the book version of Contemporary Chinese Politics and Chinese Intellectuals 中國當代政治與中國知識分子.