Living Lies in China Today

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


It was not until 1989 that ‘Live Not By Lies’, an essay written by the Soviet dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) in 1974, finally appeared in the Soviet media. It was possibly also the first time that the writer’s name was published  along with a work by his hand — rather than being named or quoted in a ritualised denunciation — since he had been banned from publication decades earlier. ‘In the essay, already widely circulated here in typewritten copies,’ reported Michael Dobbs for The Washington Post, the newspaper that first published ‘Live Not By Lies’ in February 1974:

Solzhenitsyn appealed to his countrymen to resist the “lie” of communist ideology. It has sometimes been referred to as his “moral testament.” Acknowledging that it was unrealistic to ask Soviet citizens “to march into squares and shout the truth out loud,” Solzhenitsyn went on: “Let us refuse to say what we do not think… . Once we realize where the perimeters of falsehood are (everyone sees them in his own way), our path is to walk away from this gangrenous boundary.” The choice for Soviet citizens, according to Solzhenitsyn, is simple — “either truth or falsehood. Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.”

Michael Dobbs, ‘Solzhenitsyn Essay Printed in USSR’
The Washington Post, 21 March 1989

Thirty years later nearly to the day that Solzhenitsyn was finally able to address Soviet readers on the topic of that ‘gangrenous boundary’, the  Chinese academic Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University in Beijing was formally deprived of his rights to write or speak, let alone to engage in research work, to teach, or to publish. Even though Tsinghua placed him under official ‘investigation’ on nebulous grounds, Professor Xu was still granted the right to read. Not only does he record what he is reading, he also recommends works that offer a measure of solace, both to himself and to his friends.

One of Xu Zhangrun’s most recent recommendations was Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Live Not By Lies’. Published in English by The Washington Post on 18 February 1974 only days after the novelist was forced into exile, a Chinese translation of the Solzhenitsyn essay first appeared as a bilingual online text on 31 July 2009 (see Ruan Yifeng 阮一峰, [俄] 亞歷山大 · 索爾仁尼琴, 活着,并且不撒谎). In early May 2019, Ruan’s translation was reprinted by ‘First Philosopher’ 第一哲學家. Xu Zhangrun immediately shared the link with his circle of friends. (We would note that, while Solzhenitsyn’s message has powerful resonances for thinking people in China, it is also one used by champions of conservative and ‘alt-right’ positions in North America.)


Solzhenitsyn outside the German writer Heinrich Böll’s country house near Cologne, West Germany, in February 1974, following his expulsion from the Soviet Union. Source: ‘My First Days in the West’


The ideas that Solzhenitsyn expressed in ‘Live Not by Lies’ would find elaboration in the writings of the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, in particular in his 1978 discussion of ‘The Power of the Powerless’ which emphasised that to ‘live within the truth’ could enable individuals and groups to counteract the dominant Communist Party culture of ‘living within the lie’. As Havel’s biographer remarked on the political environment to which Havel was reacting at the time:

Within the system, every individual is trapped within a dense network of the state’s governing instruments … themselves legitimated by a flexible but comprehensive ideology, a ‘secularized religion’… it is therefore necessary to see, argued Havel, that power relations … are best described as a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self-censorship which swallows up everyone within it, at the very least by rendering them silent, stultified and marked by some undesirable prejudices of the powerful…

Vaclav Havel, et al, John Keane,  ed., The Power of the Powerless:
Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe
Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1985, pp.273-274

What is true of the Eastern Bloc of yesteryear pertains to the Chinese world today, and in crucial respects to the Anglophone world as well. Indeed, as we have observed in our work on the Velvet Prison and Memory Holes since 1987, as well as in relation to 4 June 1989, the lessons of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe — as well as the insights of those who have struggled over the decades while trapped in the embrace of the homeland of global communism — are of inestimable value to those who would seek to understand the People’s Republic of China, be it in the past or today.

Furthermore, as we noted in the ‘Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals’, the December 2016 keynote address that culminated with the launching of China Heritage:

It is a quarter of a century since Zhou Lunyou 周倫佑, a poet of the ‘Not-not’ 非非 school in Sichuan, produced his manifesto ‘A Stance of Rejection’. Written in response to the cultural capitulation that followed in the wake of the 4 June 1989 Beijing massacre, Zhou’s manifesto called on his fellow writers and artists to resist the blandishments of the state. ‘In the name of history and reality,’ he wrote,

in the name of human decency, in the name of the absolute dignity and conscience of the poet, and in the name of pure art, we declare:

We will not cooperate with a phoney value system—

•   Reject their magazines and payments.
•   Reject their critiques and acceptance.
•   Reject their publishers and their censors.
•   Reject their lecterns and ‘academic’ meetings.
•   Reject their ‘writers’ associations’, ‘artists’ associations’, ‘poets’ associations’, for they are all sham artistic yamen that corrupt art and repress creativity.

Perhaps such hauteur seems too much, even impractical, for the career-driven academic today (it certainly was for Zhou, and he has gone on to enjoy a successful career as a writer and academic). Some might even feel that such a stance of rejection might equally apply to global neoliberal academia. But, in the era of Xi Dada, just what position will you take? As China’s propagandists promote the One Belt One Road initiative, many former colleagues have participated in the lavish conferences and gabfests devoted to the topic, adding their academic weight to a party doctrine aimed at global influence and strategic advantage. Others have been given trophies and awards for their research work in everything from gender studies and translation to Confucianism. It is chilling to see how many former colleagues and erstwhile friends have accepted these accolades (and monetary prizes) with alacrity. [Surely, today, following the death in custody of the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo on 14 July 2017, Zhou Lunyou’s words haunt people of conscience, even those who are enticed by the largesse of Xi Dada’s China?]

published in China Heritage
20 July 2017

Given the globally reported humiliation of Xu Zhangrun at Tsinghua University, the ongoing repression of left-wing students, activists, lawyers and so many others throughout the People’s Republic — not to mention the Brobdingnagian cultural and religious cleansing long under way in Xinjiang and Tibet — Solzhenitsyn’s advice remains powerfully relevant, not only to those within the People’s Republic of China, but also to those academics, writers, artists, business people and varied others who chose to make a living by ‘cutting a deal with Xi Jinping’.

As Solzhenitsyn observes:

And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul—don’t let him be proud of his “progressive” views, don’t let him boast that he is an academician or a people’s artist, a merited figure, or a general—let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It’s all the same to me as long as I’m fed and warm.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 May 2019


And if our youth, once it has learned everything and understood everything, does not support us, then that would be because of lack of courage… And then both it and we will have deserved our sad fate, and we will not be able to complain about anyone, only about our internal slavery.

In our country, the lie has become not just a moral category, but a pillar of the state. In breaking with the lie we are performing a moral act, not a political one, not one that can be punished by criminal law, but one that would immediately have an effect on our way of life.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quoted by Christopher S. Wren in
Solzhenitsyn Calls on Russians to Reject ‘the Lie’
The New York Times, 22 January 1974

Live Not By Lies

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Solzhenitsyn dated this essay 12 February 1974, the same day the secret police broke into his apartment and arrested him. He was exiled to West Germany the following day. This following English translation was published by The Washington Post on 18 February 1974.



At one time we dared not even to whisper. Now we write and read samizdat, and sometimes when we gather in the smoking room at the Science Institute we complain frankly to one another: What kind of tricks are they playing on us, and where are they dragging us? Gratuitous boasting of cosmic achievements while there is poverty and destruction at home. Propping up remote, uncivilized regimes. Fanning up civil war. And we recklessly fostered Mao Tse-tung at our expense—and it will be we who are sent to war against him, and will have to go. Is there any way out? And they put on trial anybody they want and they put sane people in asylums—always they, and we are powerless.

Things have almost reached rock bottom. A universal spiritual death has already touched us all, and physical death will soon flare up and consume us both and our children—but as before we still smile in a cowardly way and mumble without tongues tied. But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength?

We have been so hopelessly dehumanized that for today’s modest ration of food we are willing to abandon all our principles, our souls, and all the efforts of our predecessors and all opportunities for our descendants—but just don’t disturb our fragile existence. We lack staunchness, pride and enthusiasm. We don’t even fear universal nuclear death, and we don’t fear a third world war. We have already taken refuge in the crevices. We just fear acts of civil courage.

We fear only to lag behind the herd and to take a step alone-and suddenly find ourselves without white bread, without heating gas and without a Moscow registration.

We have been indoctrinated in political courses, and in just the same way was fostered the idea to live comfortably, and all will be well for the rest of our lives. You can’t escape your environment and social conditions. Everyday life defines consciousness. What does it have to do with us? We can’t do anything about it?

But we can—everything. But we lie to ourselves for assurance. And it is not they who are to blame for everything—we ourselves, only we. One can object: But actually you can think anything you like. Gags have been stuffed into our mouths. Nobody wants to listen to us and nobody asks us. How can we force them to listen? It is impossible to change their minds.

It would be natural to vote them out of office—but there are not elections in our country. In the West people know about strikes and protest demonstrations—but we are too oppressed, and it is a horrible prospect for us: How can one suddenly renounce a job and take to the streets? Yet the other fatal paths probed during the past century by our bitter Russian history are, nevertheless, not for us, and truly we don’t need them.

Now that the axes have done their work, when everything which was sown has sprouted anew, we can see that the young and presumptuous people who thought they would make our country just and happy through terror, bloody rebellion and civil war were themselves misled. No thanks, fathers of education! Now we know that infamous methods breed infamous results. Let our hands be clean!

The circle—is it closed? And is there really no way out? And is there only one thing left for us to do, to wait without taking action? Maybe something will happen by itself? It will never happen as long as we daily acknowledge, extol, and strengthen—and do not sever ourselves from the most perceptible of its aspects: Lies.

When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: “I am violence. Run away, make way for me—I will crush you.” But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies—all loyalty lies in that.

And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me.

This opens a breach in the imaginary encirclement caused by our inaction. It is the easiest thing to do for us, but the most devastating for the lies. Because when people renounce lies it simply cuts short their existence. Like an infection, they can exist only in a living organism.

We do not exhort ourselves. We have not sufficiently matured to march into the squares and shout the truth our loud or to express aloud what we think. It’s not necessary. It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.

This is our path, the easiest and most accessible one, which takes into account out inherent cowardice, already well rooted. And it is much easier—it’s dangerous even to say this—than the sort of civil disobedience which Gandhi advocated.

Our path is to walk away from the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

And from that day onward he:

  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand nor raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately stalk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul—don’t let him be proud of his “progressive” views, don’t let him boast that he is an academician or a people’s artist, a merited figure, or a general—let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It’s all the same to me as long as I’m fed and warm.

Even this path, which is the most modest of all paths of resistance, will not be easy for us. But it is much easier than self-immolation or a hunger strike: The flames will not envelope your body, your eyeballs, will not burst from the heat, and brown bread and clean water will always be available to your family.

A great people of Europe, the Czechoslovaks, whom we betrayed and deceived: Haven’t they shown us how a vulnerable breast can stand up even against tanks if there is a worthy heart within it?

You say it will not be easy? But it will be easiest of all possible resources. It will not be an easy choice for a body, but it is the only one for a soul. Not, it is not an easy path. But there are already people, even dozens of them, who over the years have maintained all these points and live by the truth.

So you will not be the first to take this path, but will join those who have already taken it. This path will be easier and shorter for all of us if we take it by mutual efforts and in close rank. If there are thousands of us, they will not be able to do anything with us. If there are tens of thousands of us, then we would not even recognize our country.

If we are too frightened, then we should stop complaining that someone is suffocating us. We ourselves are doing it. Let us then bow down even more, let us wail, and out brothers the biologists will help to bring nearer the day when they are able to read our thoughts are worthless and hopeless.

And if we get cold feet, even taking this step, then we are worthless and hopeless, and the scorn of Pushkin should be directed to us:

Why should cattle have the gifts of freedom?
Their heritage from generation to generation is the belled yoke and the lash.



  • Alexander [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, ‘Live Not By Lies’The Washington Post, 18 February 1974 (reposted on 5 August 2008)

Chinese Translation: