When Oliver Sacks learned that his ocular melanoma had returned after a period of what he called ‘intermission’, he said he wished for a ‘speedy dissolution’. In My Own Life Sacks describes the feelings experienced as a person gradually loses loved ones and friends. He calls it a kind of ‘abruption’:
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
A tearing away, a sense of rending, heartfelt pain and emotional despair: that’s how I responded to the news this week that Liu Xiaobo, China’s leading Nobel Laureate and pre-eminent political prisoner, had been given ‘medical leave’ from gaol to receive treatment for late-stage liver cancer.
Geremie R. Barmé
30 June 2017
I’ve been mourning Liu Xiaobo for a quarter of a century.
For five intense and eventful years in the late 1980s and early 1990s Xiaobo and I shared what I believe was a real friendship, something special to both of us. We weren’t pengyou 朋友 in that vacuous, Sino-American ‘everyone’s my friend’ kind of way; nor were we gemen’r 哥們兒, that smart ass Beijing version of buddy-buddiness. Much less, thank heavens, did we ever become lao pengyou 老朋友, an accursed expression that, in reality, indicates a long-term association reaffirmed by bonds of mutual benefit, imposing thereby an exploitative emotional burden on both parties. Nonetheless, we were, to use the Beijing argot, tie 鐵, iron-clad.
From the time we first met in the autumn of 1986 we recognised in each other a similar temper: we shared existential doubts about a treacherous world that were tinged with a kind of ebullient, and often unjustified optimism. We expressed our mutuality with garrulous humor, contempt for the commonplace and hilarious one-upmanship.
What would Xiaobo think of our long-lost fellow feeling today; twenty five years have passed, and we’ve both been ravaged by cancer? My illness was treated thanks to a decent public health system that I could enjoy along with my liberty. Still, the rounds of chemo- and radio-therapy hit me so hard that I all but lost myself; it’s only in recent months that I’ve dared to imagine normality once more. Everyone who has been through the ‘Big C’ and survived its initial depredations knows that theirs is an uncertain sentence: remission, or rather what Oliver Sacks called ‘intermission’.
But Xiaobo? Tears blind me as I write. Xiaobo: diagnosed who knows when, treated now with cynical and calculating precision, the kind of precision that keeps the high-speed trains of the People’s Republic running on time. A cynicism synchronised so that this dastardly year in which Xi Jinping will duly, daresay humbly, accept a second five-year term as party-state Chairman of Everything can unfold without a political hitch. A diagnosis that, perhaps, will allow a little more time to a man who has been robbed of so much time over this quarter of a century. How did his wife, Liu Xia, put it? Her words break my heart and assault the decency of every thinking person in the world: ‘Can’t operate, can’t do radiotherapy, can’t do chemo.’
Xiaobo: Forgive me, I can’t look at the pictures and videos that the Communists are drip-feeding the media in China and internationally, purportedly evidence of the benevolent treatment you’ve enjoyed in prison and are receiving now in hospital. You’d probably laugh at me for being so fragile. I hope you’d still laugh; all I can do is weep.
We were introduced by the poet Wu Bin 吳斌, a mutual friend who was, at the time, Liu Xia’s husband. I had read with excitement the hilariously unceremonious speech Xiaobo (and one immediately called him ‘Xiaobo’ 曉波 because anything more formal would have rung phoney) had made at a conference convened by the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing to extol and promote the literature of China’s ‘New Age’ 新時期, the early years of post-Cultural Revolution Reform and Openness.
Like me, he was a graduate scholar; we were both in our mid thirties and working on doctoral dissertations: me under the supervision of my old Chinese teacher Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) in Australia, him at Beijing Normal University. My friend the translator John Minford and I had just published Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience in Hong Kong. It was a book about the explosion in the alternative cultural world of what we called the ‘Chinese Commonwealth’: Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Mainland. Xiaobo was attracting controversy by mocking the smug littérateurs of the day, warning about the dangers of revived traditional feudal culture and China’s possible slide into the ways of the past. He was mocked, but also celebrated, as a cultural “black horse” 黑馬, an unexpected, and for many, an unwelcome, interloper. Wang Meng 王蒙, the liberal-minded novelist recently appointed Minister of Culture, dismissed him as an over-hyped wannabe.
As we chatted, even at that hurried first meeting and then later in the year when he agreed to be formally interviewed for the Chinese-language Hong Kong magazine that I wrote for, we realised that we shared a contempt for: the remnant Maoists under whom I had studied in the 1970s and of the kind that he had previously suffered; the venomous pro-Party ‘neo cons’ like the intellectual hitman He Xin 何新 (whose writings in the 1980s adumbrated the ressentiment of China today); the suffocating embrace of reformist cultural and intellectual coteries; the foreign salons of Peking run by diplomats and others, along with their condescending attitudes to the ‘pet primitives’ of the Chinese avant-garde; the paternalism of the up-and-coming, party-funded academic authorities; as well as for the tenured foreign academics who corralled the rambunctious world of lived China in neat disciplinary packages, ever mindful of not doing anything to endanger their precious visa status.
I immediately found fellowship with Xiaobo and many of our ideas chimed; we shared a pessimism about China that originated, at least in my case, with the arrest and gaoling of Wei Jingsheng in 1979. I like to think that he was sincere when he said he enjoyed my Chinese-language cultural criticism published in Hong Kong, as well as the satirical essays 雜文 that I had been writing since the late 1970s. Of course, he was delighted that I ‘got’ his barbed writing style and that I was soon able to incorporate parts of the interview we did in an expanded North American edition of Seeds of Fire that appeared in 1988.
Xiaobo was ecstatic when Li Zehou 李澤厚, a revered reformist philosopher and his bête noire, attacked me for having defended him in the Chinese media. Among other things, I’d said that Li, as well as Liu Zaifu 劉再復 — the ‘godfather’ of then-progressive literary analysis — were the self-appointed gatekeepers of China’s new cultural orthodoxy, one that cloaked itself in threadbare artistic openness and rejected truly original voices like that of Liu Xiaobo. In response, in a published interview Li Zehou spluttered: ‘This Foreign Effendi Geremie Barmé will only be happy when All-Under-Heaven in China is in chaos’ 白傑明這個洋大人唯恐中國的天下不亂！We guffawed and chortled: no wonder Mao had it in for the intelligentsia!
Xiaobo shared my revulsion for Beijing’s mini cultural hegemons, like Li Tuo 李陀, men (and they were all men) who, although independent of the Party bureaucracy, were like Mafia bosses, busy carving out a critical (and profitable) space for themselves in the ideological hurly burly of the day. As Xiaobo wrote:
The famous in China are much taken with acting as benefactors of others who caress and suckle the unknown. They use a type of tenderness which is almost feminine to possess, co-opt, and finally asphyxiate you… . Some people have the talent to excel, but shying from the dangers of going it alone, they instead seek out a discoverer 伯樂. They look for support, for security, so they can sleep easy; lunging into the bosom of some grand authority or other, and doze off in their warm embrace.
But, we also knew what the stakes were, both politically and culturally. The fate of Wei Jingsheng, the stalled purge of Spiritual Pollution in 1983, then the student demonstrations in late 1986 calling for media freedom and the resultant fall of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in early 1987: we knew that the People’s Democratic Dictatorship lay in wait with deadly intent. Sure, despite my years in China and involvement in the literary scene for over a decade, I had a foreign face, an Australian passport and a return ticket home. Xiaobo was wedded both psychically and physically to China and its fate. I think from the start we sensed that things would not end well. A tragedy without catharsis. But from the moment I first read him, and even more so after we got to know each other, I knew him to be a unique individual; I would gradually learn just how manic, talented, outrageous, obnoxious, loveable, treacherous and courageous he was.
In late 1988, on his first extended trip outside China, Xiaobo gave an interview to Jin Zhong 金鐘, an editor I’d worked with in Hong Kong. He said to Jin:
There should be room for my extremism; I certainly don’t mean of others that they be like me… . I’m pessimistic about mankind in general, but my pessimism does not allow for escape. Even though I might be faced with nothing but a series of tragedies, I will still struggle, still show my opposition. This is why I like Nietzsche and dislike Schopenhauer.
Two years later, following his jailing for involvement in the 1989 Protest Movement, when writing about Xiaobo I quoted the poet Joseph Brodsky. By then I was fearful he’d never escape the clutches of the Chinese state:
… the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated, something even a seasoned imposter couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin; not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do with its innate insecurity, but this realisation, again, is of small comfort when Evil Triumphs.
— Joseph Brodsky, A Commencement Address, 16 August 1984.
Xiaobo’s was a big personality in a country that, despite its vast size and population, is choked by extraordinary political and cultural pusillanimity. This is Liu Xiaobo’s tragedy, as well as being a Chinese tragedy: paradoxically, as that country has become greater, it has also become smaller. The difference for Xiaobo was that he always knew that his was an inescapable destiny, even as he hoped for and devoted himself to change. He wrote:
To be quite honest, no matter how vicious a tyranny may be, people should not be scared, nor should they complain; all must decide whether they will subject themselves to it or rebel. Whenever the Chinese start heaping scorn on authoritarianism, they should be blaming themselves instead. How could things have reached their present state, where the most outrageous things are taken for granted, if it weren’t for the Chinese being so weak-willed and ignorant? Tyranny is not terrifying; what is really scary is submission, silence, and even praise for tyranny. As soon as people decide to oppose it to the bitter end, even the most vicious tyranny will be short-lived. The only thing that is worthwhile is one’s own choice and the decision to accept the consequences of that choice. Why the long face of the suffering martyr when you make a plaintive criticism of the violence of tyranny? Do what everyone else does: Either stay silent or give in entirely. Move ahead cautiously, cover the hilly terrain slowly, follow the serpentine course of the river tenaciously. You won’t upset the autocrats, and you’ll win the highest accolade of traditional Chinese morality: You’ll be known as “subtle.” …What good fortune! If you’re already aware of how pitiless the autocrats are and you know that any opposition to them will only be getting disaster to fall from the skies, and still you go ahead and bash your head against a brick wall, then you’ve got no one to blame but yourself if you split your head open. You can’t blame the people who are watching you, nor can you blame the autocrats. If you want to enter hell, don’t complain of the dark; you can’t blame the world for being unfair if you start on the path of the rebel. If all you do is complain, you’ll never get anywhere.
— trans. Geremie Barmé, in Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Random House, 1992, p.451.
During his involvement with the 1989 protests, Xiaobo articulated his ideas about democracy, rationality, freedom from hate and the need for civility and due process. They were ideas that would inform his future writing and political activism. In the end, his words and deeds may have garnered him a Nobel Prize, yet in an authoritarian system, one that since 1989 has oscillated merely between the poles of the cruel and the pitiless, they sealed his fate.
Our relationship did not survive much past his first incarceration in 1989-1990. Tragically heroic in the public sphere, in his personal life Xiaobo’s behaviour left much to be desired. I decided to treasure memories of happier times. Over the years, I’ve continued to follow his writings, I’ve expressed concern for the waves of persecution and even, upon occasion, I’ve signed on to one or two of the numerous petitions that he concocted with such regularity.
In 1989-1990 I had been involved in an attempt initiated by friends in Norway to nominate him for a Nobel Prize; so, naturally, I was delighted when, nearly twenty years later, he was awarded that recognition. The reaction of the Chinese party-state to the honour was as inevitable as it was unimaginative. At the time, I had no doubt that I shared Xiaobo’s disgust and contempt for the usually prolix progressive and new-left Chinese intellectuals who now demurred from celebrating this victory for decency, democracy and rationalism in a country that is so sadly lacking all three.
In my dealings with Chinese officialdom, in my writing and translating, as the founder of a major research centre on China, I always tried to maintain fellowship with the Other China, a China that nurtured me and that I loved from the time I was a student there from the age of twenty. Xiaobo will always be part of that Other China: the China of possibility, hope and humanity. I believe that I have always honoured our shared sensibility. I’ve often thought: if he read this or knew of that, how we’d laugh and instantly rekindle what we once had, what in Chinese is called shénjiāo 神交. It’s not simply a meeting of minds, it’s a mutuality of spirit, a solidarity of the heart.
Over the years, I have spoken out in China and elsewhere about the vengeful incarceration of Xiaobo, as well as of the plangent fate of Liu Xia. He, accused of a fictional offence and cruelly gaoled, Liu Xia, guilty by association and, although resident in one of the world’s great cities, condemned ‘to disappear on dry land’ 陸沉, as the ancient Taoist thinker Zhuangzi puts it.
I have mourned Liu Xiaobo and I have sorely missed what, for a precious five years, was, I believe, a true meeting of minds and of hearts. I have missed the easy camaraderie we enjoyed. I mourn as one mourns so many things about China, about life and, indeed, about the world. I have mourned Xiaobo, and I mourn him now. I will continue to mourn this tragic hero for the rest of my life.
The Pity of It, 14 July 2017
An Interview, 15 July 2017
Cutting a Deal with China, 20 July 2017
- Liu Xiaobo interview with Bai Jieming (Geremie Barmé), December 1986, subsequently published under the title 中國人的街坊在自我覺醒——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
- Joseph Brodsky, A Commencement Address, 16 August 1984, collected in Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One, Selected Essays, London: Penguin Books, 1987, p.385, quoted in Barmé, ‘Confession, Redemption and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the 1989 Protest Movement’, 1990, n.5
- 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