The Art of Survival in the Age of Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter XIX, Part I


When I launched  China Heritage in December 2016, I offered some tentative advice about how to deal with and survive the Age of Xi Jinping (see Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals). Addressing an audience of (mostly younger) academics, I observed that,

on balance it is more than likely that most of you will outlive Xi Jinping’s reign… You are engaged with a Chinese world that, despite the best efforts of the Communist Party, its propaganda organs and twisted party-state education and indoctrination, is open to you. Contact with a living, complex, contradictory China is in many ways easier than ever before; you can join in fellowship with friends, colleagues and mentors in the Chinese world. China is silent, but only superficially, and The Silence will hopefully be coterminous with the tenure of Xi Jinping.

I was still on an unsteady rebound from a bout of cancer and wasn’t sure that I’d see out the first decade of the Xi era. Many people have not been so fortunate and I gravely doubt that I’ll see the end of China’s doleful Chairman of Everything.

Apart from the historical significance significance of today — 4 May China Youth Festival — the day also happens to be my sixty-ninth birthday. What better way to celebrate personal resilience than by sharing with readers two of my favourite aphoristic essays about survival?


‘The Art of Survival in the Age of Xi Jinping’, is the first part of a two-part chapter on ‘copium’ in China today. Together they form Chapter XIX in the series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium. First we offer an essay by Li Ao (李敖, 1935-2018), a gadfly littérateur, composed in 1965. This is followed by a meditation on endurance by the translator and playwright Yang Jiang (楊絳, 1911-2016).

Both of these essays were included in ‘Floating’ 浮, a section in New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (New York: 1992). In our editorial introduction, Linda Jaivin and I wrote that:

Floating is a feeling of rootlessness, of uncertainty about the future and even the present, of pedaling in thin air.

But exile on home territory is a normal state for the independent mind, the creative artist, and the individualist. These people can feel equally alienated, foreign, and strange whether at home in their birthplace or wandering the world. … [They feel] out of step with their times and live in a state of ‘internal exile.’

For those who remain in China, particularly in difficult and politically oppressive times, we take ‘floating’ to be the art of survival and the maintenance of personal integrity. It is the spiritual alternative to the political ponderousness demanded by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues in late 1989 when they said that ‘stability crushes all else’ [穩定壓倒一切]. Li Ao, an intellectual who has survived to speak out again and again, reviews historical techniques of self-help in his satirical essay ‘The Art of Survival’. For Yang Jiang, the best defense is to don the ‘cloak of invisibility’.

As we have previously observed, Xi Jinping’s ‘cultural revolution’ shares much in common with the Counter-reform years of 1989-1992, dark years during during which Linda and I compiled New Ghosts, Old Dreams (for more on this, see Prelude to a Restoration). In 2023, old lessons about coping with authoritarianism and the hard-won insights of writers like Li Ao and Yang Jiang are salient once more. We would also note that both writers, one in Taipei, the other in Beijing, only flourished after the death of the autocrats who ruled over them — in the case of Li Ao the demise of Chiang Kai-shek was liberating and only when Mao Zedong ‘went to meet Marx’ could Yang Jiang enjoy a second lease on life.

In the Age of Xi Jinping, the lexicon of survival continues to evolve and traditional expressions share the limelight with neologisms:

明哲保身、潔身自好、難得糊塗、退避三舍、銷聲匿跡、隱姓埋名、避秦時亂、朝隱、隱身、遁世、看破紅塵、遁入空門、削髮披緇、超脫世俗、玩世不恭、冷觀世情、遊戲人間、逍遙、悠哉悠哉躲入元宇宙、歲月靜好、躺平、内卷、當御宅族、宅家何時了、蝸居、 潤學、冒充陽光開朗孔乙己 …

No doubt Chinese inventiveness will further enrich the thesaurus in the years to come.


The rubric for this chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is 熬 , ‘to stew’, ‘simmer’ or ‘endure’.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 May 2023
Youth Day (PRC)


Related Material:

More on May Fourth:

避 bi, ‘avoid, flee, escape, elude’, in the hand of Ke Jiusi (柯九思, 1290-1343年)


The Art of Survival

A User’s Guide

Li Ao

translated by Geremie Barmé with Linda Jaivin


Li Ao’s ‘Art of Survival’ 避禍學 is one science you’d better bone up on if you want to keep your head, stay out of jail, and remain free from the watchful eyes of the authorities.

It’s the art of living in the chaotic world while keeping yourself in one piece. From ancient times there have been periods of turmoil. There are those people who can roll with the punches; some even thrive on chaos. The less fortunate go under; some even end up in exile. These unfortunates fall into one of three categories:

  • one, those who find their heads no longer attached to their bodies;
  • two, those who land in jail; and,
  • three, those who live in perpetual fear of the police.

Of these three types of no-hopers, only the third really concerns us here. The other two categories are already done for, they’re losers, lost souls; let’s just forget about them. The best we can do for them is pray they have more luck in the next life. Better still, get them to pray for themselves.

The third category of people, however, are ideal pupils for my correspondence course in the Art of Survival. My only regret is that I wasn’t born in an earlier age: I could have given the ancients some advice on how to survive. Chinese history is full of fine men who were unjustly persecuted to death. Such a pity, and quite unnecessary, too.

Take, for example, Bo Yi 伯夷 and Shu Qi 叔齊. These two loyal ministers refused to eat the ‘unrighteous grain’ — 不食周粟 — of the Zhou king who conquered their state. Instead they fled to Mount Shouyang 首陽山, where they lived off ferns. What dopes! Didn’t they realize that even the grass they were eating belonged to Zhou? If you ask me, they starved themselves to death for nothing. It wasn’t worth it. Furthermore, such methods are definitely not for modern man.

[Note: See Sima Qian, ‘On Bo Yi’, A New Sinology Reader.]

Then there’s the case of Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 [fourth century]. After the world fell into chaos he changed his name to Tao Qian [陶潛 ‘the hidden’], gave up his government job, and went to live on his neglected farm. Of course, he was lucky in that he had servants and his young sons waiting there for him, as well as a good stash of wine. His contemporary, General Tan Daoji 檀道濟, couldn’t understand why Tao made things so hard for himself. But from our point of view Tao had it easy. Despite the chaos of the world outside he had his fields, servants, dumb kids, wine, dog meat, and chrysanthemums. At least he didn’t have to worry about obtaining a residency permit, nor did he have to fear the local police — or even more endearing characters — coming to knock on his door at night. He was a damn sight better off than people today. Tao Yuanming’s art of survival has no modern application.

The above examples illustrate survival methods of which I cannot approve. Bo Yi and Shu Qi were too extreme, too crude in their approach, whereas Tao Yuanming was too restrained, reclusive, and laid-back. Given his station in life, he was far too passive, too concerned with saving his own skin. He should have come out into the open and done something for the multitudes. Tao Yuanming’s case reminds me of Feng Dao 馮道, a man who called himself the ‘Contented Old Man,’ although everyone else knows him as a turncoat who served the rulers of all the Five Dynasties. Now, Feng could have been like Tao and retired from the world, but he chose to play the shameless old man and work for his enemies. Sometimes, with a well-placed lie, he cleverly saved a town from the barbarians or got them to spare the lives of tens of thousands of people. Despite the historical verdict that he was a traitor, you can’t ignore the fact that he did a great deal of good.

Methods have to change with the times. Today’s survivors would be ill-advised to adopt the ways of Bo Yi and Shu Qi, or even Tao Yuanming. Thus it is necessary to review and reevaluate the details of the Art of Survival for the sake of all those people who, while not in prison, can feel the blade at their throat.

To my mind, the Art of Survival is a body of wisdom that exists in the small fissure between A: selling out body and soul to the tyrants and helping them do their dirty work, and B: having your head removed or being jailed or purged.

The Art of Survival allows for self-preservation and self-expression between these two extremes. From my observations there are fifteen variations of this art all told. They are enumerated below for my comrades’ reference:

  1. Head for the mountains. The Bo Yi and Shu Qi method. No longer practicable.
  2. Take to the sea. Confucius suggested ‘taking a raft into the sea’ [乘桴浮於海] when things go badly. The modern equivalent of this is to hide out in the foreign concessions or to go to the United States. [Note: In the Xi era, this is known as 潤學 rùn xué, ‘the science of escape’.] This is strictly for the inept. You’re beyond the reach of the law, so you don’t have to pay the price for what you say. No points for character.
  3. Hide in the countryside. Tao Yuanming’s method. You live off the land and write poems about flowers and weeds. No longer practicable.
  4. Play mah-jongg. You devote yourself entirely to the 136 tiles of a mah-jongg set. Déclassé.
  5. Practice the martial arts. You put your trust in flying swords and spears that can lop off an enemy’s head at a great distance. Very Ah Q, and déclassé as well.
  6. Drink. Xinling Jun 信陵君 was into that: ‘Xinling enjoyed heady wine, how many heroes has it undone?’
  7. Womanize. The general Cai E 蔡鍔 [of the early republic] went in for this. But there are few women like Xiao Fengxian 小鳳仙 around today. Where are you, great ladies?
  8. Play mad. Sunzi 孫子 and Fan Sui 范雎 both tried this. Unfortunately, today there are psychiatric hospitals. One session of shock treatment and the game’s up.
  9. Ah Q is the protagonist of Lu Xun’s most famous story, ‘The True Story of Ah Q’. He is a Chinese Everyman, proud of his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and hypersensitive about the scars on his scabby head.
  10. Play stupid. It is hard to convince people you don’t know what’s going on. Of course, it’s even harder to convince them that you do.
  11. Engage in self-mutilation. Yu Rang 豫讓, an assassin in the Spring and Autumn Period, disguised himself by lacquering his body to look like a leper and swallowing ashes to make himself a mute, but he was caught all the same. Gong Zizhen 龔自珍 spoke of ‘illicit ejaculation,’ masturbation behind closed doors.
  12. Feign illness. You pretend to be dizzy all day and say your legs are too weak to carry you. Complain about feeling run-down and having back pains. You’ll seem impotent but only prove to people that you’re also a person of no real substance.
  13. Smile. Joke and laugh your way through the day, avoiding all discussion of politics; if the conversation does touch on politics, laugh it off or swear about it. Never go so far as to cause real trouble. A successful example was Ji Xiaolan 紀曉嵐 [a Qing dynasty writer of ghost stories], while failures end up like Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 [an exuberant seventeenth-century writer and literary critic who got himself killed].
  14. Put on a mournful face. Look as dour as the master of a mortuary. No one will want to go near you, so of course you can’t get into any trouble.
  15. Go into business. Fan Li 范蠡 [of the Spring and Autumn Period] turned to business when he tired of politics. In his day there was no need to rely on official speculators or tax evasion to make yourself wealthy. Nowadays things aren’t so simple.
  16. Be like the flea. The things about fleas is that when they bite you it itches but it never really hurts, and they jump away immediately after biting, so the person bitten can never be bothered to catch them. The majority of writers today are like this; they squash a few fleas and think they’re heroes.
  17. Well, take your pick. If you want to survive in today’s chaotic world, you can choose one or two of these methods. If you apply them well, you’ll be okay; if you’re careless, however, and you give the game away, it serves you right….




  • 李敖,《避禍學大綱》translated in New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.438-442


[Note: Li Ao failed to take his own advice and he was jailed, first for five years from 1971 to 1976 and again for six months in 1981-1982.]

陸沉 lù chén, ‘to drown on dry land’, ‘to disappear’, in the hand of Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, written for Lost in the Crowd


The Cloak of Invisibility

Yang Jiang

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Mocun is Yang’s husband, the scholar Qian Zhongshu.



Mocun and I have jokingly discussed what type of magical powers we’d like to have if we had a choice. We both decided on the cloak of invisibility. With it we could go traveling together and do as we wished, free from all restrictions. Not that we’d want to do any evil or harm. But quite possibly we’d get carried away and upset some innocent person with our mischievousness. And finally our presence would be detected and we’d have to flee in panic.

‘Heavens, in that case we’d also need the power to travel long distances instantaneously.’

‘And talismans for self-protection.’

The more we thought about it, the more we knew we’d need. In the end we decided to forget about the cloak of invisibility altogether.

But you don’t need supernatural powers to do things that are not allowed in this world of ours. You can find the cloak of invisibility wherever you are. It is a cloak made from a humble, insignificant weave.

If you occupy a lowly station in life, you’re sure to be ‘seen through,’ to be treated as if you were invisible. People don’t think of this cloak as something precious; indeed, they are terrified that once they’ve put it on it will stick to them like a wet shirt and they’ll never get it off.

An old Chinese story tells of the spirit of a dead man who returns home to find his family in mourning. They cannot see him. He speaks, but no one hears his voice. They are seated around a table eating and he eagerly tries to join in, only to find that there is no place set for him.

People of lowly status are like that disembodied spirit. If you are nothing in other people’s eyes, then naturally they will not see you; if they don’t acknowledge your existence in their hearts, they will look straight through you. No matter how mortified you feel or how much you grieve at being slighted or insulted, no one will take the slightest notice of you.

You exist, but you feel totally insubstantial, as if you had never been born. Is not a life so spent no life at all? To don the cloak of invisibility, to proclaim its virtue and to revel in its power, is (so some might say) to play Ah Q; in other words, sour grapes.

Chinese is full of expressions about trying to be ‘a man among men’ or seeking to put yourself ‘above the common herd,’ ‘enjoying the limelight,’ becoming ‘a tall poppy,’ or ‘pushing yourself to the fore’. This is itself proof that most people aren’t happy to be ignored. They resent obscurity, they chafe at it; they do their utmost to cast off the cloak of invisibility and to make themselves the center of attention.

In Anglo-American culture, society is compared to a snake pit. Snakes lie in a tangled heap at the bottom of a pit, each struggling to poke forth its head and thrust upward, squeezing through the mass to get on top. Heads rise to the surface and sink down to the depths again; bodies arch upward and subside; tails become entangled in an inextricable knot:

You’re on top, I’m on the bottom, it’s a life-and-death contest, a ceaseless struggle. Unless you can get your head up and out of the heap, you will spend your whole life buried. Even if you do succeed, you’ll be no better than a dancing bubble of foam on a boundless ocean, sparkling for a single moment in the sunlight. An outstanding person may realize certain ambitions, but the time spent on the crest of that wave is still only an instant. Certainly, that instant may well mark the high point of a life-time, something to be proud of. But are you a ‘good-for-nothing’ if you do not excel? On the other hand, will you be satisfied to spend your days subservient to others?

Heaven gives birth to all creatures, beautiful and ugly, talented and worthless. The fame of one outstanding general is built on the corpses of thousands; how else could a mere soldier become a grand hero? Some of us are born to sit in palanquins, others to carry them; there are the hosts and guests who occupy places of honor, and servants who bring them tea and food. At the banquet table there is a guest of honor and less important guests. In the kitchens a cook tends the stove while the menials add fuel. The talents with which nature has endowed humans are all so different; how can there be such a thing as equality?

People’s ambitions differ vastly as well. In Chapter 26 of The Scholars, Madame Wang enthusiastically describes the magnificent feast and entertainments she has enjoyed in the Sun mansion. She was given the seat of honor, and as she was wearing a veil of giant pearls, the maids on either side of her had to part the pearls so she could sip her honeyed tea. Sancho Panza, on the other hand, declares in Chapter 11 of Don Quixote that he prefers to eat a simple meal of bread and onions in a corner, free from the constraints of table manners and etiquette. Some people yearn to fly high; others are content ‘to drag their tails in the mud‘. Each to his own.

Some people know just what they want out of life, and it is useless to try to persuade them otherwise. If, for instance, they want nothing more than to drag their tails in the mud, it’s best to let them be. Then there are those who never realize their ambitions, who are forever at odds with fate. There is the mediocre fellow and his futile determination to become a ‘man among men’. Ambition is the root of all frustration; and the higher a monkey climbs, the more clearly its shiny red behind can be seen. Blissfully unaware that he is dressed only in the emperor’s new clothes, such a fellow strains to throw off the cloak of invisibility; all he does is reveal his own ugliness and perversity. Many people of moderate ability waste their lives trying to outdo others and still achieve nothing.

It is all so futile.

The ancients said, ‘They are but human, like myself.’ Westerners have a similar notion. Such sayings encourage people to do their best without becoming self-destructive. In Spanish it is said that ‘you are what you do’—a person’s worth is determined by his or her own efforts, not by birth or social position. Perhaps we should add, however, that
‘what you are determines what you can do.’ If you’re a turnip, you should hope to be a juicy and crisp one; if a cabbage, the ideal is to be a solid, full-hearted vegetable. Both of these vegetables are used in daily cooking and make no pretense at being fit to join the lavish offerings in a temple.

A children’s rhyme from my native place goes ‘On the third day of the third month, the shepherd’s purse vies with the peony.’ One would think there was no competition. Once I saw a delicate blue flower in a patch of wild grass, and because it was so small as to be almost invisible I have often wondered if it was what Westerners call a ‘forget-me-not’. But flowers and vegetables growing in the wild have no concept of being (or not being) ‘forgotten’: They just blossom at the behest of the sun-light, the dew, and the rain.

‘Grasses and trees all possess a nature of their own, they wait not for a fair maiden’s hand to pluck them.’

I love the line by the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo, ‘One can hide in the sea of humanity’; and I admire the philosopher Zhuangzi, who spoke of the sage who ‘drowned on dry land’ [陸沉]. Well may we compare society to a snake pit, yet in the skies above that pit birds fly free; in the ponds beside it fish swim at will. There are people who have always chosen to avoid the snake pit altogether, concealing themselves in the crowd or drowning on dry land. Their aim is to disappear like a drop of water in the sea, to be a wildflower camouflaged in thick grass, free of any aspiration to be a ‘forget-me-not’ or to ‘vie with the peonies,’ at peace in their own niche. If people have no desire to climb to the heights, there is no need to jostle with others, no need to fear a fall. They can retain their innocence, fulfill their original nature, and concentrate on goals that are within their power.

Dressed in this cloak of invisibility, you can achieve things nobody can ever take away. Su Dongpo said, ‘The bright moon that floats between the hills and the clear breeze on the water are all part of the inexhaustible bounty of nature.’ Certainly these things are to be enjoyed, and so too are man’s own creations: The ways of the world and the complexity of human relations are even more delightful and intriguing than the bright moon and the clear breeze. They can be read like a book or enjoyed like a play. No matter how lifelike the descriptions in books or performances onstage may be, they are, after all, only make-believe. The real world is often stranger than fiction, so strange that it leaves us shocked and astounded. It possesses a more vital worth, a more wondrous ability to delight. Only the humble person has the opportunity of observing the reality behind the ways of the world, as opposed to the spectacle of art performed for an audience.

But I’m probably wasting my breath. Those anxious to abandon the cloak of invisibility will hardly be impressed with what I am saying, while those who were unaware of the cloak’s existence will gain nothing from the knowledge of it. In all honesty, donning the cloak of invisibility, be it magical or mundane, has drawbacks and considerable inconveniences.

In The Invisible Man H. G. Wells describes a man who achieved invisibility by scientific means. Yet his invisibility brought him only pain.

When it was cold, for example, he had to stay indoors unless he wanted to go out without any clothes on. When he did get dressed—with shoes, hat and gloves—he appeared to others as a faceless man, and if he went into the street he would cause a fearful panic. Thus he was forced to conceal his face by pulling a hat over his brow, wrapping a scarf around his mouth, and wearing a pair of dark glasses. He covered his nose and cheeks with gauze and sticking plaster. What lengths he had to go to, to conceal his invisibility!

Such are the results of a blind and mechanistic science; they cannot compare with the magical cloak of invisibility. The cloak conceals normal clothing and may be cast aside at will. But the body it disguises is one made of flesh and blood, one that feels both heat and cold, one that can be hurt all too easily. A brick, or a club, or a clumsy foot can be painful enough, but what of the agony one must endure if attacked by a knife or gun, if scalded by water or burnt by fire? If one has not the magical ability to make a timely escape, the only way to ensure safety is to acquire an adamantine body.

The cloak of invisibility has other drawbacks. The human heart it conceals is all too vulnerable, it is sensitive to heat and cold, it cannot withstand rough handling. It is an arduous process to steel oneself to this, to train oneself to be impervious to all manner of attack and insult; and to watch what happens in the world without such training may make the heart burst with indignation, it may break it. In such conditions it is inconceivable to view things like a carefree playgoer. Perhaps one should simply choose not to watch at all. After all, the world is not a variety show.

If Lesage’s Devil upon Two Sticks were to invite me to go abroad with him one night, accompanying him as he lifted up the roofs of houses to peek inside, I would certainly decline. Is it necessary to see and experience everything in order to achieve wisdom? And by seeing and experiencing everything, will you necessarily obtain wisdom? How many lives does one have? The belief that on the basis of the experience of one lifetime you can achieve a unique vision and understand all human life may deservedly win no more than a furtive smile from others.

The cloak of invisibility can be found everywhere. It is no rare or magical treasure. Many people wear it. Are they all blind?

And no matter how you look at it, the cloak of invisibility is better than the emperor’s new clothes.



  • 楊絳,《隱身衣》, in Yang Jiang, Lost in the Crowd: A Cultural Revolution Memoir, trans. G. Barmé, Melbourne: McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1989, pp.127-133, also included in New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices


‘Declaration’ 宣言, multimedia artwork by Li Wei 黎薇, Shenzhen, 4 May 2023