Viral Alarm & the Xu Zhangrun Archive
Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 wrote the following letter of thanks to the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University in acknowledgement of his appointment as an Associate in Research in that centre for the year 2020-2021, finalised in mid August 2020.
It should be noted that the Centre’s Associates in Research are:
‘China Studies scholars who come to Harvard to use Center resources and participate in Center activities’ and that ‘together with the Centre’s Visiting Scholars and Postdoctoral Fellows, the Associates in Research create a lively community for interdisciplinary exchange.’
— ‘Welcome to Our New Affiliates, 2020-2021’
We would emphasise, however, that Professor Xu’s affiliation ‘does not constitute a Harvard University appointment, nor does it grant agency on behalf of the Fairbank Center or any part of Harvard University.’ In normal circumstances, however, it would afford Xu Zhangrun access to library collections at the university and relevant participation in the intellectual life of the institution.
Becalmed in Beijing, under official surveillance, unemployed and barred from leaving China, Xu Zhangrun rightly observes that this ‘gesture and the spirit of fellowship that it represents dissolves in an instant the vast physical distance’ between him and colleagues in Cambridge, MA. The connection of an embattled yet resilient scholar of conscience in the People’s Republic of China to the international traditions of truth-seeking may appear to be little more than a gossamer, but Professor Xu’s tenacity is surely evidence of how precious, if fragile, such bonds may prove to be in this age of tumult.
The Chinese text of Professor Xu’s letter is published here for the first time, along with a translation. For more information about Xu Zhangrun, see the Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive on this site. This letter is also included in ‘Viral Alarm’, which is the title of China Heritage Annual 2020.
Readers unfamiliar with Professor Xu Zhangrun’s style of written Chinese will encounter a heady admix, one that combines the vernacular with various literary registers. The writer consciously avoids the lazy formulations and tortured syntax of official party-state prose, as well as the Europeanised circumlocutions of performative intellectual discourse common in China’s People’s Republic. In employing a semi-classical register, Professor Xu is not parroting old masters, rather his linguistic dexterity allows him to fashion a new and original voice that, while addressing the present with urgency, also speaks across time while appealing to the future. At best, my English rendition offers a clumsy approximation of the original. Unfortunately, my feeble, and prolix, attempts to mirror the soaring eloquence of Xu Zhangrun all too often founder. (The translator’s notes and interpolations are highlighted by the use of italic text in square brackets.)
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
19 August 2020
- The Editor, ‘無可奈何 — So It Goes’, China Heritage, 6 July 2020
- The Editor, ‘Xu Zhangrun & China’s Former People’, China Heritage, 13 July 2020
- The Editor, ‘Responding to a Gesture of Support — Xu Zhangrun’, China Heritage, 19 July 2020
- Bai Xin 白信, ‘Tsinghua’s War with Tradition — How a Chinese University Decoupled Itself from its Better Angels, Again‘, China Heritage, 6 August 2020
- Xiao Yu, Fang Bing, ‘Chinese Law Professor Fired for Views Receives Harvard Job Offer’, VOA, 21 August 2020
- Lu Nan 魯難, ‘被清華大學掃地出門，許章潤獲哈佛大學研究員聘書’, 《美國之音》, 2020年8月21日
- Jerome A. Cohen 孔傑榮, ‘哈佛邀請給許章潤“巨大鼓舞”，孔傑榮：我也想做類似的事’, 《美國之音》, 2020年8月21日
- ‘許章潤再度被北京國保約談 遭4禁全面封殺’, 《自由亞洲電台》, 2020年8月21日
The Chinese text of Professor Xu Zhangrun’s letter:
To: My Dear Friends at Harvard University
From: Xu Zhangrun
19 August 2020
Translated & Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
My Dear Friends at Harvard University,
It was with heartfelt delight that I recently received your formal invitation to become an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.
For over sixty years, the Fairbank Center has been home to the pursuit of scholarship that has constantly added to a tradition of learning, one enhanced over the generations and that has accumulated thereby a formidable record of acumen and academic knowledge, the depth and breadth of which all who know you are witness. You are truly a global center for the study of Chinese, China and Sinology. [Note: 漢學 Hàn xué, both ‘the study of things Chinese’ and the tradition of learning the origins of which date back over the millennia, also a term for ‘Sinology’].
To receive this invitation at this moment, a fraught juncture in my life, is deeply meaningful. For me, your gesture and the spirit of fellowship that it represents has dissolved in an instant the great physical distance separating us. Now, thus drawn into your presence, as true comrades in heart and mind, I must share my feelings of gratitude and felicity.
For me, status as an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center [which is not a salaried position, or one with fixed duties] is for me actually a substantive appointment, one that excites my core interests. This invitation is one that further encourages me to read, something that is a beloved pursuit fueling my continued intellectual journey, and affirms my obsession with writing, an activity that gives form to my mental labours. This appointment resonates with my vocation, one that Confucius described as being the ‘scholar attuned to the Way’. For I am one of those whose heart-mind dwells on the cavalcade of worldly events while also being someone who seeks to discern a deeper meaning and a moral order in the world. In this enterprise, truly, there is no schism between China and the West.
An appointment as an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Centre may be a relationship in name only. Even though this honour is not burdened either with duties imposed by an emolument or the need for me to exercise my pedagogical ability, nonetheless, it engages directly with the things of greatest consequence — be they related to kith and kin, or those that touch on the life-pulse of the nation itself. They are, after all, matters that both reflect and excite our shared humanity. And it is in the pursuit of these concerns — from the particular and the personal to the social and the political — that a scholar is inspired to rise daily at an early hour and forgo sustenance until late at night, devoting their time instead to reading and their studies. For the learned such a discipline pertains as much today as it did of yore. Having said all of this, however, I would emphasise once more that I recognise your generosity of spirit in extending this invitation to me. So, allow me to give voice to my heartfelt thrill once more, for your gesture is one of exemplary significance; it is freighted with undeniable symbolic weight. After all, everyone who is aware of the vicissitudes that have led to this moment, and to which this invitation also addresses itself, share a sense of outrage.
The exemplary significance of this invitation relates directly to indomitable individuals with unbending character, as well as to those who would truly champion ‘an independent spirit and intellectual freedom’. [Note: a famous expression formulated by the Tsinghua University historian Chen Yinque when he wrote an epitaph to celebrate his friend and colleague Wang Guowei following the latter’s death in 1927]. After all, if one lacks an independent spirit there is little chance that you can ever ‘break free of the shackles of mundane ideologies’. [Note: Another quotation from Chen Yinque that, at the time, referred to various political dogmas and intellectual vested interests.] Without intellectual freedom how can scholars possibly traverse the boundless realm of the mind without impediment?
For it is through Independence and Freedom alone that we mere flesh-bound mortals, individuals inured to this commonplace life in a secular world, can hope to aspire to the sublime. And it is in that we may pursue both plenitude and advancement, even as we live in a tireless diurnal reality calibrated by the rising sun and the waning moon. So then we strive, no matter how hesitant our step or how inconsistent the passage forward may prove to be.
It is here, yes, in the here and now, that those who are devoted to the life of the mind can follow The Way of Learning and resist thereby the blandishments of power. They can offer some worthy model of rectitude to those countless others who would seek it, and even have the courage to persist no matter ‘that there is a sharpened sword above one’s head, hanging there by the thinnest simple thread.’ And so I too will persist and refuse to submit and in this truly intersect with eternity.
For me, your invitation is also freighted with symbolism, for it demonstrates that our words, our deeds, and our heart-minds as well, are hereby linked in a glittering skein of intellectual mutuality. For scholarship is both a universal value and a shared bond, one forged in the pursuit of the public good. I have dedicated myself to studying the meaning and significance of Law. It is an effort aimed at clarifying the principles of justice. In devoting myself to this end, I have lived and breathed the Law as an academic discipline for four decades. In the process, I have also focussed on instructing others without respite; in the pursuit of Truth in the name of Law, I advocate the study of justice. Such sentiments are shared by scholars everywhere and they underpin a jointly held commitment to the freedom of thought.
Actually, we — that is, you, my colleagues, and me — exist together in the Kingdom of the Spirit. That is where we spend our days in toil, as if in intellectual servitude. It is there, too, that our ties of fellowship are sustained and advanced in the give-and-take of inspiration. We share our ideas in the common pursuit of Truth and encourage each other to follow The Way [of scholarship, learning and meaning]. That is why, even as I may be on the path to the Yellow Springs [that is, the underworld, or death], I know that in spirit my arm is linked in yours and that our hearts touch. On that journey I will never feel alone.
Moreover, I am unwavering in the belief that, even though justice may be long delayed, it cannot forever be denied. By the same token, I know you must be ready to lose your head if that dawn is to come. Be the days dark, we share this common bond, and the devotion to knowledge in our heart-minds lights the way ahead. Our spirits, undaunted, call out to that which is yet to come. Though we weather gales and storms, the crow of the dawn rooster beckons. Harrowing may be the path, yet majestic is our progress.
When contemplating the state of education in my homeland today, I am nostalgically awed by an enterprise that did once boast of a tradition both ancient and majestic. Coruscating in its brilliance, heretofore it enjoyed a heritage that reflected true grandeur. Yet, in modern times [from the nineteenth century], Chinese education lost its way and fell into desuetude. Over time, there came to be a precious few people who were sincerely inspired by the undeniable achievements of others and, determined to catch up, they forged a way ahead with singular resolution.
Then, tragically, more latterly [in the mid-twentieth century with the ideological contestation between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party], and after having been subjected to injurious blows both from the left and from the right, unthinkingly, unimaginably, China’s modern universities, just like China itself, ended up becoming a fertile ground for the experiments of the engineers of modern-day ‘Legalist Fascist Stalinism’ [that is during the Mao era, 1949-1978]. [Note: ‘Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism’ 法日斯 Fǎ-Rì-Sī is a formulation that Professor Xu uses to describe the Chinese party-state’s command-and-control ideology that is ‘cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought 法 (中式法家思想), wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism 斯 (斯大林主義) along with a “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism 日 (日耳曼法西斯主義).’] China allowed itself to fall prey once more to an Other, this time becoming little more than a colony under the sway of Soviet-style misrule. With the country thus subjugated, its multitudes ended up as hostages who served the state as nothing more than value-generating pawns. For all intents and purposes, The People [despite claims made by the Communist propaganda-state that it alone represented ‘The People’ of China] disappeared and the sovereign rights of the nation were evacuated by an autocrat who occupied centre stage. What was left in the stead of actual, living individuals were but reams of statistics and data about taxable units. And so it came to pass that totalitarianism overwhelmed everything, and a government steeped in violence held sway over a nation that it ruled with lies.
China’s educational culture was profoundly tainted by their barbarism, and the livelihoods of the people were regarded as nothing more than dust and ashes. In those decades, tens of millions of souls perished, countless were those who starved in their very homes while the numbers of those struggled to death in their own homeland were beyond calculation. The heavens responded to the outrage of the people with a fury of its own. Even now, one can only contemplate that history in muted horror.
Later still, those so-called ‘Economic Reform and Open Door Policies’ actually showed that the Communists were, to an extent, willing to admit the errors of the past and act on that awareness in a way that recognised undeniable reality. There was a fitful move to ‘humbly recognise and pay respects’ [to other nations, societies and economies that were more advanced and civilised] and, gradually, there was a return to meaningful path of development. It was forced upon them, and it was only because of it that we were all finally able to enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. [Note: See ‘Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility — Part I’, China Heritage, 31 January 2019; and,‘The State of a Civilisation — Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility, Part II’, China Heritage, 8 March 2019.]
The unfortunate truth, however, is that, while The Rivers and Mountains [of China] may have passed into the hands of new rulers [after Mao’s death], the nature of its totalitarianism remained obdurate and resistant to substantive reform. The self-preservation embedded in the structures of this narcissistic polity means that a peaceful political transformation has proved to be impossible. When China once more, finally, confronted the pressing need to make one truly significant effort to become a modern nation [that built on a socio-political and economic process dating from the Self-strengthening Movement of the 1860-70s], a deep-seated inertia reasserted itself. The smoldering embers of autocratic ambition have been reignited, for [the Powers That Be, that is Xi Jinping et al] are obsessed with their proprietary claims over ‘The Rivers & Mountains’ [that is, the geopolitical and numinous territory of China. See ‘Ruling The Rivers & Mountains’, China Heritage, 8 August 2018] and they have pitted themselves yet again against the universal valency of modern civilisation. In their arrogance they reject out of hand the idea that the People should enjoy true sovereignty, just as they deny that a nation should be founded on the principles of a true republic [that is, one based on constitutional democracy of the kind advocated when the Republic of China was founded in 1912, rather than on a ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ of the kind imposed by the Communist Party from the 1950s]. For eight long years [since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in late 2012], their system has doggedly protected an outmoded and flawed totalitarianism and they have pursued policies that amount to a retreat into the past. Yet again, the rulers have set China and all that it can promise in stark opposition to the kind of universally recognised form of politics based on what I have repeatedly called ‘constitutional democracy reflective of a substantive people’s republic’.
In the process, with their vainglorious gestures they have been frittering away the immense stores of wealth accumulated as a result of the blood, sweat and tears of countless Chinese [during the decades of the Economic Reform and Open Door policies initiated in 1978]. [Note: for Professor Xu’s critique of this profligacy, see ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — a Beijing Jeremiad’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待, China Heritage, 1 August 2018.] Today, we are witnessing the shocking possibility that the hard-won achievements of generations of my fellow Chinese may well be undone overnight. If the fate of the nation is thus imperiled, once more will the livelihood of everyday people be at grave risk. If you need any evidence of the looming danger, witness what is happening right now!
Ah, You Communists are so arrogantly confident that you possess a monopoly over the truth. But if that is really the case, why are you so afraid of mothers and children even opening their mouths? And why are you unsettled by the festive laughter of everyday men and women?
Long ago you occupied all of the prime real estate in our country, still you are not satisfied and you constantly issue new orders for the forced relocation of people and demolitions [to make way for your projects]. [Note: see 許章潤, ‘踐踏斯文必驅致一邪魅人間’, 25 June 2020.] Why can’t you tolerate women who truly wish to celebrate their femininity, or the raucous bustle in the cities? Why are you so jealous of the fact that the common people can finally afford the modest indulgences of the good life?
You hold the power of life and death over others; your will and whims decided who will flourish and who will come undone. That’s why, by all rights, you have no good reason to be so fearful of the fresh flowers placed on new graves, or the sorrowful tears of widows.
The very skies and earth, why, the air itself — why, you claim dominion over them all! Your power courses through the land with impunity and in your miscreant behaviour you evince no heartfelt trepidation, even when confronted by punishing calamities: be it the surging floodwaters or the plague that has scarred our land. [Note: Here the writer is referring to the calamities of 2020.]
This reflects a truth that has been unchanged from the days when you first came into being: you are contemptuous of everything civilised and decent; you are determined to befoul whatsoever is beautiful in humanity; you cannot tolerate the fact that the people just want a peaceful and happy existence. Even less do you have any real notion of the pleasures and delights of normal existence, for you worship at the altar of crude violence. In your pursuit of your evil calculations you cleave to the ingrained habits of fraudulence and treachery. Why? Simple: because really you are indeed afraid, and you are scared of everything. Why, you are even unsettled by yourselves! That’s because you know all too well that the only thing that can be detected in your empty hearts is the obsidian gloom of the jail house.
And that is why you have been unbending in your intention. It is why you revel in the fact that it is within your grasp and in your power to:
- Strip me of my calling as a teacher;
- Deny me access to a livelihood;
- Sever the lineage of my scholarship;
- Waylay me on my intellectual journey;
- Besmirch and insult my character; and,
- Restrict my freedom of movement.
On top of all of that, I know only too well that you may go so far as to throw me into jail. You may even choose to snuff out my life.
Yet, despite your best efforts, you will never be able to silence all of the poets who would speak of the desolate beauty of autumn, nor can you ever clamp down on the enticing yearnings of country maids. Human beings cannot be prevented from craving the world of sensation. This is more true now than ever before, since the People may chose to cast aside their fear. They have learned to delight in the enticing possibilities of nature and they observed the immutable cycles of change. [Note: this is a reference to the writer’s condemnation of Xi Jinping’s mishandling of the coronavirus in January-February 2020. See: ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, China Heritage, 24 February 2020.]
Oh, Heavens Above, are you asking me? That’s right, I am addressing that Greater Principle of Life: the mists rise and swirl around the distant mountains, yet the zephyr wind of the west swells still, for I am alive, I AM STILL ALIVE! I am sustained by that selfsame source understood by people the world over: an unyielding faith in Dignity and Freedom. For these form the eternal gospel that stirs in the hearts of all humankind; it is the good news that reflects the values that make us, frail humans though we be, what we are!
The ineffable beauty of this world remains yet, for do you not still see the sweet, sorrowful hurt in humble towns, something that no force should be allowed to sully? Even though this great land is reduced to silence once more, in the depths of night Lady Meng Jiang [whose bitter tears breached the Great Wall built by the despotic First Emperor of Qin, to whom both Mao and Xi Jinping have been compared] is preparing herself to sally forth, for flurries of snow are gathering at the foot of the Great Wall.
I appeal to that Higher Power, that Greater Principle of Life, above: look down upon this world of ours, observe this realm of wondrous variety. How can the unimpeded rampage of these ‘abhuman dementors’ be tolerated?
Dear friends, allow me once more to express my gratitude to Harvard University!
19 August 2020
The Four Bans Placed on Xu Zhangrun
Friends of Xu Zhangrun have revealed that after being summoned to a meeting with the Beijing security authorities last week he was notified that he was subject to a ‘Four Ban Order’ 四則禁令. That is, he is:
Banned from travelling outside of Beijing; banned from leaving China; banned from accepting media interviews; and, banned from receiving any financial support.
Reports in the international media quote Xu’s friends to the effect that the punitive measures taken by Tsinghua University in dealing with this outstanding scholar are evidence of a bestial intent. Now they are wielding the executioner’s blade quite blatantly. Their aim is to persecute Xu Zhangrun so that, impoverished and in ill health, he will eventually succumb to a lonely death, a despised man forgotten by the world.
— ‘許章潤再度被北京國保約談 遭4禁全面封殺’
Notification to Unemployed Personnel