‘Streams Descending Turn to Trees that Climb’ — five years of China Heritage

Spectres & Souls

I announced the launch of China Heritage at the end of a keynote address — ‘Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals’ — presented on 16 December 2016 at a conference on Chinese intellectual history held in Melbourne Australia. We published our inaugural essay — ‘A Monkey King’s Journey to the East’ — on 1 January 2017, along with ‘On Heritage 遺’, which offered the rationale that underpinned China Heritage.

Below we commemorate our fifth anniversary in the form of a New Sinology Jotting 後漢學劄記: two poems, one written by W.H. Auden in 1941 but only recently published, and the other by Su Shi (蘇軾, 1037-1101), which was composed some nine hundred years ago. We also quote from ‘Living with Xi Dada’s China’ and ‘On Heritage 遺’.

‘ “Streams Descending Turn to Trees that Climb” five years of China Heritage’ is a chapter in Spectres & Souls: China Heritage Annual 2021.

We are grateful to Callum Smith, Lois Conner, Reader #1 and other friends both nearby and afar for their support, corrections and encouragement.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 December 2021

… what we are not we shall be in time


We Get the Dialectic Fairly Well 

W.H. Auden (1941)

We get the Dialectic fairly well,
How streams descending turn to trees that climb,
That what we are not we shall be in time,
Why some unlikes attract, all likes repel.
But is it up to creatures or their fate
To give the signal when to change a state?

Granted that we might possibly be great
And even be expected to get well
How can we know it is required by fate
As truths are forced on poets by a rhyme?
Ought we to rush upon our lives pell-mell?
Things have to happen at the proper time

And no two lives are keeping the same time,
As we grow old our years accelerate,
The pace of processes inside each cell
Alters profoundly when we feel unwell,
The motions of our protoplasmic slime
Can modify our whole idea of fate.

Nothing is unconditional but fate.
To grumble at it is a waste of time,
To fight it, the unpardonable crime.
Our hopes and fears must not grow out of date,
No region can include itself as well,
To judge our sentence is to live in hell.

Suppose it should turn out, though, that our bell
Has been in fact already rung by fate?
A calm demeanor is all very well
Provided we were listening at the time.
We have a shrewd suspicion we are late,
Our look of rapt attention just a mime,

That we have really come to like our grime,
And do not care, so far as one can tell,
For whom or for how long we are to wait.
Whatever we obey becomes our fate,
What snares the pretty little birds is time,
That what we are, we only are too well.



  • This previously unpublished poem first appeared in The New York Review of Books on 16 December 2021, vol. LXVIII, no. 20

Xi Jinping & the Desertification of China

(an excerpt from ‘Living with Xi Dada’s China’, 16 December 2016)

Allow a superannuated academic like me to beg your indulgence as I reflect on the choices I have made in nearly fifty years of living with China (my interest began as a thirteen-year-old high-school student when I learned about the youth rebellion in Beijing in 1967). As I said earlier, for me 1980 was a year of some significance, and, although I launched many small jibes about the Communist state in the Hong Kong Chinese-language press from 1978, it was not until 1983 that I first spoke out in the English-language media about cultural repression in China. It was during the first post-Cultural Revolution political movement against Spiritual Pollution [see Spiritual Pollution Thirty Years On]. That movement passed, although during it Deng Xiaping and his ideologues such as Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun reinforced their early message about Party control over thought, politics and culture; it was a warning for the future that was generally ignored, both in China and internationally. Then there were the student demonstrations of 1986 and the purge of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in early 1987, which John Minford and I recorded in the second edition of Seeds of Fire, published in 1988.

After that, for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, the events of 1989 were all but a foregone conclusion. As I pursued at-arms-length academic work, I also spoke and wrote about these events, more so than ever after 1989. And then, in 1995, we released our controversial film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, for which I was the main writer and academic adviser. The film and the accompanying website garnered much praise, and not a few awards, but we also attracted the obloquy of some academics, journalists and a range of China dissidents in the US and globally. For those of you who have an interest in such things, you’ll also be aware of the long years of litigation instigated in 2007 by Tiananmen’s ‘Goddess of Democracy’ Chai Ling and endured by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, colleagues of the Long Bow Group in Boston.

What I would observe is that deciding to take a stand and articulate your views is not a one-off act of braggadocio. In my case it has been a career-long undertaking; I look back over these forty-five years of engaging with the Chinese world, in Chinese and English, as a writer, translator, academic and film-maker without discomfort or embarrassment. Long ago, with the help of teachers in Australia, exemplars in China and Hong Kong and through reading, I learned the value of a humanism that is:

In the connection between all the outlets of the creative impulse in mankind, humanism made itself manifest, and to be concerned with understanding and maintaining that intricate linkage necessarily entailed an opposition to any political order that worked to weaken it. (Clive James, Cultural Amnesia.)

You have all worked out and will continue to negotiate your own relationship with the Chinese world. Today, I would suggest, you are all faced with the latest version of, to take an expression from Lu Xun, ‘Silent China’ 無聲的中國 (also translated as ‘Voiceless China’).

Clamorous public debate — circumscribed and self-censored discourse even at the best of times — has been gradually corralled. That is not to say that there is a dearth of noise or verbiage in the People’s Republic, or a lack of boisterous chatter on its global web, but the Storm and Fury is increasingly limited to the stentorian messages of the party-state and its loyalists, although sometimes they sound more like a threnody that repeats itself and reverberates like the death-bed message of the emperor in Kafka’s Great Wall of China. For me, this new phase of Silent China reached something of a nadir with the closing of Consensus Net 共識網 in early October this year [2016]. It was supposedly taken offline for ‘disseminating erroneous ideas’ 傳遞錯誤思想.

The present silencing of China began in earnest around the new year of 2013, shortly after Xi Jinping’s investiture as party-state-army leader. That was when Southern Weekend was attacked for advocating ‘constitutionalism’, a code expression for limiting Communist Party power (see China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China). The silence of China’s Others has spread, and I would emphasise that the pall of The Silence has been partly enabled by the policies of the US Obama administration.

As I think about China today l’m taken back once more to 1971, the year I participated in that ABC panel discussion ‘Leave Something for Us’. That was also the year when, as part of our high school ancient history class, I first read selections from Tacitus’ Annals. That historian, who chronicled the rule of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius and Nero, famously wrote:

Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
They made a desert and they call it peace (see also Mary Beard).

Or, as Lord Byron poetically recast these words in Bride of Abydos:

Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease!
He makes a solitude, and calls it — peace.

Today, with the desertification of the Xi Jinping era, all those working in the Chinese world are faced with the dilemma of how exactly they can and will cut a deal with Xi Dada, his regime and Silent China.

Our response can be found in the virtual pages of China Heritage. After all, as Reader #1 reminded me, Stefan Zweig long ago remarked:

‘Truth to tell, we are all criminals if we remain silent.’

Meanwhile, the lugubrious and suffocatingly loquacious rule of Xi Jinping persist with policies aimed at intellectual and cultural impoverishment. The latest evidence of the doughy and very visible hand of the state in matters related to the heart-mind can be found in the remarks that Xi addressed to a joint congress of China’s officially funded culturati on 14 December 2021, along with the obligatory and fawning commentaries publishing in the official media thereafter. See, for example:

The Rain & Mists of Mount Lu
The Tidal Bore of Zhejiang

In the hand of Li Hsiao-kun 李蕭錕

At this juncture, and in the tradition of New Sinology that we have championed since 2005, we recall a famous poem by Su Shi, aka Su Dongpo, the Song-dynasty scholar-official. He is said to have addressed these lines to his son shortly before his death:


In prose translation they read:

‘If you never see the rain and mists of Mount Lu and the tidal bore of Zhejiang you’ll always regret it.

‘After visiting the rain and mists of Mount Lu and the tidal bore of Zhejiang, [you’ll think]: is that all there is?’

And, for 2021, that indeed is that.

(For more on the tidal bore of Zhejiang, see ‘Tides 潮’China Heritage Quarterly, March 2012.)


The circularity of Su’s poem is thought to have been inspired by an equally famous work, an anecdote later included in The Collected Anecdotes of the Five Lamps 五燈會元, compiled in the Southern Song around the year 1252:

‘Before I took up Zen practice I regarded mountains as being nothing more than mountains and rivers as merely being rivers. As my practice developed and I found an “entry point” and I no longer regarded mountains as mountains or rivers as rivers. Now finally at ease, however, I appreciate anew that mountains are indeed mountains and rivers are indeed rivers.

‘Are these three ways of perceiving things similar or different. For those who work I’m waiting for you here.’


— The Collected Anecdotes of the Five Lamps 五燈會元, 卷十七.

Su Dongpo’s poem bookends China Heritage 2021 and should be read in conjunction with ‘Ox Herding & the Xinchou Year of the Ox 辛丑牛年’, published on 12 February 2021 to mark the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Cottage Industry

Spectres & Souls: vignettes, moments and meditations on China and America, 1861-2021 was the theme of the 2021 China Heritage Annual. As we remarked in our Editorial Introduction to the series which was published on 18 January 2021, Martin Luther King Day:

Spectres & Souls does not presume to offer a new or alternative history to the bilateral relationship between China (that is, the Qing Empire, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic) and the United States of America. Rather it is hoped that its chapters will, by evoking the varying shades of the past in the context of historical incident and inflection points, as well as in the form of analogies, aspirations and failures, help cast some light on some uncanny parallels in the history of the two places, while also distinguishing their glaring, and ever-increasing differences. Some of the chapters will offer accounts in which such similarities and contrasts are noted; others shall juxtapose ideas and personalities in an attempt to articulate an argument that militates against the dogma of exceptionalism that is willfully, and exhaustingly, promoted on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. I would note that we do so from a considerable physical remove — this journal is produced in rural New Zealand — as well as from a perspective granted by what Stefan Zweig called ‘the invisible republic of the spirit’.

Therein we also quoted a famous line from the I Ching:

For every plain there is a slope, 無平不陂,
For every going there is a return. 無往不復。

Hexagram XI, I Ching
周易 泰掛繫辭

The words from the ancient oracle are something of a leitmotif of China Heritage; we first used them as an epigram in ‘On Heritage 遺’, an essay composed in early 2016 to offer a formal rationale for founding China Heritage (itself a continuation of China Heritage Quarterly [2005-2012] and The China Story [2012-2016]). As we noted there: 

In recent times, as the perennial discussion of China’s unique history, civilisation, political disposition and place in the world is promoted as part of the Official China Story 中國的故事,another hoary expression has regained currency. Some claim that because of its unique approach to politics and culture China ‘exists apart from the world’ 遺世獨立; it flourishes in a realm of its own, partaking of the global order yet all the while remaining above it. The expression originally meant ‘to cast aside worldly cares’ or ‘to leave behind the mundane world’ 遺世.

In his celebrated ‘Rhapsody on the Red Cliffs’ 赤壁賦 the eleventh-century Song-dynasty scholar-official Su Dongpo 蘇東坡 describes an autumn evening spent boating and drinking with friends. ‘We floated high on the water as if airborne,’ he wrote, ‘leaving the world behind transformed into heavenly immortals’ 飄飄乎,如遺世獨立,羽化兒登仙. The four-character expression also features in an essay by China’s great twentieth-century ‘artistic exile’, Feng Zikai 豐子愷: ‘Although I was physically sitting in a train,’ he wrote in 1935, ‘my spirit was free of worldly thoughts and remained as though sequestered in my study at home’ 那時我在形式上乘火車,而在精神上彷彿遺世獨立,依舊籠閉在自己的書齋中. (見豐子愷著《車廂社會》). Throughout the ages many have chosen to abandon the secular world and renounce its blandishments 遁世遺榮; and, for those who identify with alternative Chinese traditions that question or disavow the ‘dusty world’ 塵世, the expression yíshì 遺世 resonates still.

Published in a small town that lies in the shadow of a large mountain range and which is abutted by a large lake — our Lu Shan 廬山 and Poyang 鄱陽湖 — China Heritage is the product of ‘cottage industry’.