The Kafkaesque Trials of Geng Xiaonan

Viral Alarm

‘But I’m not guilty,’ said K., ‘there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.’

‘That is true’, said the priest, ‘but that is how the guilty speak.’

― Franz Kafka, The Trial


Xiaonan, We Are Just as Guilty!

Guo Yuhua


  • She ran [with her husband] a small cultural publishing house. What crime is there in that?
  • She organised academic and cultural symposiums. What crime is there in that?
  • She arranged intellectual salons, invited people to meals and thought up various group entertainments. What crime is there in that?
  • She protested against the persecution and detention of a friend framed for having spoken out. What crime is there in that?

We have all been involved in the same activities. The only difference is that Geng Xiaonan has been more active, more creative and more successful in all respects.

Xiaonan: if you are guilty of anything, then we are just as guilty as you!



To the government agencies concerned:

  • By detaining Geng Xiaonan and her husband, you have broken the law!
  • By willfully neglecting to notify family members, by condemning elderly parents to seek out news about what has happened to their loved ones, you have broken the law!
  • By refusing to the recognise the power of attorney those detained signed with their lawyer, you have broken the law!
  • By resorting to spurious excuses to prevent those detained from meeting with their legal counsel, you have broken the law!
  • By denying legal counsel the right to meet those detained at a time that yourself had appointed on the sudden excuse that the detained were ‘being interrogated’, you have broken the law!
  • By blocking legal counsel the right to wait until the questioning had been concluded so they could meet with the detained, you have broken the law!

Are you only there to violate the law?!




trans. G.R. Barmé




wéi, to contradict, transgress, separate, in the hand of Wang Duo 王鐸. In the above, Guo Yuhua repeatedly uses the expression 違法 wéifǎ, ‘to violate the law’


In the editorial introduction to ‘Geng Xiaonan, a “Chinese Decembrist”, and Professor Xu Zhangrun’, (China Heritage, 10 September 2020) we quoted Jerome A. Cohen, Faculty Director Emeritus of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, to the effect that:

‘This week saw the detention in China of Geng Xiaonan, a well-known Beijing publisher and outspoken supporter of the famously harassed former Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun. Geng is reportedly destined for “very heavy” punishment, not the 15 day maximum in an unpleasant detention cell usually imposed for minor offenses not deemed sufficiently grave to constitute a “crime.” The initial “illegal activity” charge against her is vague enough to cover either her publishing business alone or her open support for Xu or, very likely, both. How long her husband, detained with her, will be held will depend on how important his interrogation seems to her case.’

from ‘The Vagaries of Crime and Punishment in China’,
The Diplomat, 15 September 2020

Following the formal announcement of the detention of Geng Xiaonan and her husband, Qin Zhen, on 12 September, Franz Kafka’s shade made an appearance:

Despite the fact that Geng had signed a Power of Attorney with Shang Baojun 尚寶軍, a well-known rights lawyer in Beijing, the authorities now informed him that to be able to represent the accused he would require her in-person confirmation of his status. However, since Shang was denied access to his client — despite having been allocated a time for a formal meeting with her — Geng and her husband were cast into a legal limbo.

On 16 September 2020, Shang Baojun was informed by the police that the couple had been denied bail.

People familiar with the situation reported that, on 18 September, having now been able to meet with Geng Xiaonan’s mother and younger sister, Shang Baojun had secured a new Power of Attorney that confirmed his role in the proceedings. However, for him to see the incarcerated Geng, he still had to apply for permission online. The Haidian Public Security Bureau, where Geng and her husband are being held, placed strict limits on access to prisoners, limiting it to twelve prisoners per twenty-four hour period. Since the number of prisoners far outnumbers this small quota, the lawyer had no choice but to vie for one of the twelve places in the early hours of each new day. Competition is fierce and, for the time being, he has been unable to secure a number.

As a result, Geng Xiaonan and her husband remain without formal legal counsel or protection. At the time of writing, it is uncertain how long this absurd state of affairs would continue.


Make no mistake:

Geng Xiaonan is a hostage and her detention is a threat. The Beijing authorities arrested her on the pretense of investigating ‘business irregularities’, but their aim was to exact revenge on her, silence and punish Xu Zhangrun, and threaten those whom she has supported over the years.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
20 September 2020


Geng Xiaonan with Bao Tong (鮑彤, 1932-2022), former Director of the Office of Political Reform of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and Policy Secretary of Zhao Ziyang, the Party leader purged in June 1989. Bao himself was incarcerated for over eight years and, since his release, has been under surveillance. Here Geng is shown holding a calligraphic inscription composed for her by Bao that reads: ‘鑒湖英氣在,靜定自無倫’. ‘The heroic spirit of Mirror Lake lives on’, 鑒湖英氣在, is a reference to Qiu Jin (秋瑾, 1875-1907), the famous activist and revolutionary martyr who called herself ‘The Woman Warrior of Mirror Lake’ 鑒湖女俠. Qiu was executed in 1907 for her involvement in a planned uprising against the Qing government. Shortly before she was beheaded Qiu wrote a poem, the most famous line of which reads: 秋風秋雨愁煞人, ‘Autumnal winds and rain — such sorrowful companions’


Ai Xiaoming on Geng Xiaonan:

Bei Ming on Geng Xiaonan:

Geng Xiaonan on Xu Zhangrun:

Bei Ming on Xu Zhangrun:

Bei Ming and Xu Zhangrun on Geng Xiaonan:

  • ‘瀟男夫婦9月10日被失去自由,羅列經濟罪名抓捕。這是她自己預感到要被動手前的徵兆,接受亞洲自由電台北明女士的採訪,做的自述。有愛心的朋友請幫著一起傳播呼籲停止對她們的加害和恢復對她們的人生自由’, 《庚子自由談》, 2020年9月11日

Related Material:

Geng Xiaonan’s ‘Gengzi Free-range Talks’:

  • 庚子自由談》,耿瀟男主持. This series offers an eclectic range of ideas from some of China’s most prominent, if embattled, thinkers, academics and cultural commentators, curated and introduced by Geng Xiaonan

‘It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.’

‘A melancholy conclusion,’ said K. ‘It turns lying into a universal principle.’

— Franz Kafka, The Trial

Chronicling an Arrest Foretold —

A Personal Exchange with Geng Xiaonan


Geng Xiaonan and Bei Ming in Discussion

Washington Notes, Radio Free Asia


Translated & Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé



Bei Ming

The following material is taken from an ongoing exchange that I had with Geng Xiaonan, a noted Chinese publisher and the host of a number of highly regarded independent cultural and artistic salons in the People’s Republic of China. Our ‘conversation’ (which consisted of back-and-forth voice messages) followed on from the formal interviews that I conducted with Geng regarding the status of Professor Xu Zhangrun in Beijing. As a result of the original interview listeners interested in the broader issues of freedom and justice in China today also expressed concern about Geng Xiaonan herself. Many were deeply impressed by the values that she espoused, as well as being moved by her courage and thoughtfulness. Of course, they are now also deeply concerned about her personal safety.

Since I recorded the original interviews we stayed in touch and, because of the value of our exchanges, I sought her permission to record her comments. With her encouragement, I made a another program on the basis of our discussion, our ‘private conversation’ that she agreed could be made public. The following is my transcription of that recorded material.
In our exchanges, Geng’s responses to my observations and questions touched not only on matters of personal, even private concern, but also embraced broader social issues. With Geng Xiaonan’s kind permission, below I share a selection of her comments with my listeners. I believe that we are fortunate to be able to hear more from this powerful female voice, one that echoes through the concrete valleys of China’s capital city, Beijing. As she continues to forge a path forward, Geng Xiaonan offers us further insights into her private thoughts. Thereby we gain some glimpses of her undaunted spirit.

Our recorded exchange was not done in the usual, more formal style of ‘Washington Notes’ in which interviewees respond to well-researched questions. Rather — to use an expression from The Bible — this ‘rib of Adam’ is responding to the fate of Man. It is an informal exchange and, as such, I ask you to forgive our casual tone.

主持人(北明) :各位朋友,這次節目為您播出一次計劃之外的話語,幾段大陸民間文化學術藝術界沙龍主持人和出版人耿瀟男與北明私下聊天的語音。




Geng Xiaonan: Sister, lately whenever I go out I know that I’m being followed, either by car or on foot. I’m in no doubt whatsoever that they definitely have me in their sights. And they know just what they are doing. For example, no one follows me if I’m only going to do some shopping at the supermarket; or, if my husband and I go out for a meal they’ll leave us alone. But if I’m going to meet with members of the international media — just look out: there’ll definitely be a vehicle tailing me. Or, say I have arranged to meet with Professor Xu Zhangrun, the second I step out the door they’re right my tail. That’s why I say their technique is impressive.


Bei Ming: Xiaonan, I am truly concerned about your personal safety. Shouldn’t you perhaps rein it in just a little? Maybe try and avoid going out too often and keep in touch with people by phone. If you are being followed — be it by car or by some ‘shadow’ — that means that you are in a precarious situation and that they are on to you. They might not resort to some ideological sanction when it comes to dealing with you. (As Bei Ming notes: ‘that’s to say, there’s no need for overt political repression; they can simply arrange something like a “traffic accident”.’) They can always think of some other way to hurt (kill) you. That’s why I’m pleading with you not to be too ‘thick’, or ‘nerdish’. You talk about your ‘ambition to soar’. but don’t let your aspirations drag you down.


Geng Xiaonan: You’re right, I shouldn’t be too ‘thick’ [obdurate]. Absolutely, spot on! There truly is no reason to sacrifice oneself needlessly. Of course, I agree. But then, when you are confronted by the overwhelming power of the state, we simply have no escape. There’s nowhere to go; they control every aspect of your existence. They have sway over our families and relatives, our assets and income, our … …


Bei Ming: I know, and that is the broader context of all of this: there is no escape, how could there be? But, please, I beseech you, try and play it smart, be canny about how you go about things.


Geng Xiaonan: In Beijing at the moment under the cover of responding to the coronavirus epidemic the authorities have been successful, and I would say holistically instituted what Mr Xu has described as ‘Big Data Totalitarianism’ [see Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm — When Fury Overcomes Fear’,ChinaFile, 10 February 2020]. So, that means we are faced with a situation in which whenever we leave the house, whether it be to a café, a restaurant, a teahouse, any retail outlet at all, or an office, in fact anywhere in public at all, we need to register our movements using a ‘digital health tracer’.

That means, whenever you go out your whole itinerary will be collected in a data sweep, one that allows them to identify with frightening precision every stop you’ve made. Of course, you’re free to leave your mobile phone at home, but then all you can do is wander the streets, because you won’t be able to perform any everyday commercial or consumer activity.

耿瀟男:現在北京,他們借 著疫情,在2020年借著新冠疫情的這個借口,成功地、整個地對全民實現了——許先生的原話是——“大數據極權”,“大數據極權”。那姐姐我們現在面臨的狀況就是,我們一出門,我們要去任何咖啡廳,任何餐廳、任何茶館、任何商(業)超(市)系統、任何寫字樓,我們去到任何一個公共的地方,我們都需要用手機去進行健康碼的掃碼。那麼你出去轉一圈,你的這個整個的大數據,能夠精確的掃描到你去了哪一些地方,非常的精確。如果我不帶手機出去,也可以,那你出門就只可能在路邊兒走一走而已,你進行不了任何日常生活的購買行為呀、消費行為。

So, the coronavirus has enabled the Communists to impose a skein of Big Data Totalitarian surveillance that has all of us in its sights. We are all prey to this reality. If you enter a mall, for example, there will be a data reader set up at the entrance where you have to register using your phone and then, no matter what business you visit inside the mall — a restaurant, for example — you’ll have to register again. After that, if you happen to pop into a teahouse you’ll have to scan your phone again. That’s why there is, quite literally, no escape. You can’t run and you can’t hide.

Another aspect of the success of the Communists is that, say, although Wuhan is declared virus free, when a case is detected in Beijing then it might go from being a low-risk city to becoming a city of medium risk. Then, when the cases in Beijing go down, maybe two cases are detected in Dalian. That means within China as a whole, they have a ready-made excuse to maintain their digital surveillance at all times, everywhere. The upshot of all of this is that your basic rights, your privacy, as well as your rights as a citizen to move around, relocate, pursue job opportunities, that is to say, all of the most basic freedoms and rights, now fall prey to their control.

這次新冠疫情,執政黨更加成功的對我們進行了一個大數據極權的一種完全的掌控。整個我們目前就更加淪落到這樣一個地步。我們進到一個大mall 裡面,這個大mall 的門口,我們必須要進行掃碼,要登記,從這個大mall進去在這個Building裡面,進到某一家餐館,餐館又要進行掃碼登記。然後從餐館出來,我們要進到一個茶館裡面,又要掃碼登記。所以說真的是逃無可逃啊姐姐,目前我們真的是逃無可逃。而共黨更加成功的是,比如說今天武漢的疫情剛解,他又給你報道說,北京的疫情又從低風險地區進入到中風險地區,北京又發現一例。那也許北京的疫情下去了之後,說大連又發現了兩例。那麼全國就完全是有借口,不是這兒起疫情,就是那兒起疫情。這種對你的人權、隱私權,對你這個公民的自由的遷徙、自由流動、自由的去勞動獲得生存成本的這樣一個自由,是完全的,就完全的淪陷了!

Bei Ming (addressing the audience): Such a system whereby your phone, which has to be registered under your real name [and linked to a national digital ID card], is used to record all the details pertaining to a person’s movements. The instant the QR code on your phone is scanned everything about you is recorded: your full name, age, gender, job, home address, people you are with, as well as the time and place of your activity. What exactly is the extent of this kind of go-to-whoa monitoring? According to statistics posted by China’s own Ministry of Information and Industry, by December 2015, over 1.306 billion people of the country’s population of 1.374 billion had access to a mobile phone, that’s 95.5 percent of the country.

That was five years ago, and some 29.6 percent of those users were on the 4G network (see  ‘中國手機用戶數衝破13.06億戶 4G滲透率達29.6%’, 26 January 2016). In other words, theoretically, apart from the roughly one million Uyghurs confined in ‘re-education facilities’, and people in isolated mountainous regions or in the distant plateaux, nearly everyone in China can be monitored by the electronic surveillance system. The authorities stipulate that everyone has to allow access to their private lives and movements on the grounds of preventing the spread of malware and software viruses. In effect the whole country is shackled with by personal tracking devices. Would any other normal — and here I mean modern, civilised nation — anywhere in the world impose such a system on the grounds of dealing with coronavirus?

主持人(北明):利用私人手機和實名制登記制度,在私人在所到之處掃碼,記錄下每一個私人居家之外的行跡,包括這個人的姓名、年齡、性別、身份、住址、同行者、時間、地點等。這種從頭到腳掌控普遍到什麼程度呢?據中國工信部數據顯示,截至2015年12月底,中國手機用戶數量在當時全國13.74億人口中,衝破13.06億戶,手機用戶普及率達到95.5部/百人。這是5年前,2015年的統計(注:引自 風傳:“中國手機用戶數衝破13.06億戶 4G滲透率達29.6% “, 2016-01-26)。也就是說,理論上,除了被關在「再教育集中營」裡的一百萬新疆維吾爾族人以及極為邊遠山區、高原的少數人口,中國幾乎百分之百的人口的戶外活動均在被監控中。以防範病毒為由,利用現代高科技手段和你手中的手機,收繳你的隱私,監督你的行動,給你在監獄外面戴無形的手銬腳鐐,世界上有任何其他國家——我指的是文明國家,文明的程度不高的國家也包括在內——用這種方式控制新冠疫情的嗎?

Geng Xiaonan: What’s even more terrifying is that the average Chinese is fairly clueless when it comes to their basic rights and they are not tuned in to such things as privacy. At the moment you can see how people are simply accommodating themselves to things as they unfold without question, overall they accept that it is all part and parcel of the coronavirus emergency.


Bei Ming: After we broadcast that episode [in two parts, titled ‘Geng Xiaonan’s Insights Into the World of Xu Zhangrun’] there has been a strong reaction and people here at Radio Free Asia started paying attention to you. So, all in all, that’s a good thing. They even suggested that I keep on eye on your unfolding situation.


Geng Xiaonan: Your interview really was a gift both to me and to Professor Xu, and I’m indebted to you. As you know, over the years the professor was never one of those scholars who produced easily accessible work or whose writings appealed to the general reader, unlike, say Professor He Weifang, or people who are not scholars, like Ren Zhiqiang. These gentlemen have addressed issues in a far more popular style. Mr Xu, however, focussed on writing for decades and he’s published some thirteen books and four translated volumes. On average, that’s a book a year.

He really is one of those ivory-tower scholars devoted to his research whose writing style is beyond the grasp of many. As a result, his circle of ‘fans’ is pretty much limited to the intellectual elite. In other words, he’s not a populariser or someone who panders to the public. As a result, when these troubles befell him [starting in August 2018] there’s been far less awareness or public attention paid to his situation relative to other endangered scholars. But then, he has quite an international reputation as the preeminent Chinese legal scholar. So, on balance, things haven’t been too disastrous; it’s his international reputation that has come to his rescue. Indeed, the response to the news of his persecution has been much greater internationally than in China. For the moment he’s survived [this is a reference to his detention and release in early July]. That’s why I’m particularly grateful to you for your interview. It introduced people to Mr Xu’s work. Since I don’t express myself in a particularly highfalutin way, that interview allowed your listeners — everyday people — to glean some sense of Mr Xu and what he does.


Bei Ming: You’re right. It seems that our exchange resonated among listeners and the reverberations have continued. But, I must say that, as has been the case with other popular programs that I’ve done, as soon as the number of hits goes up [that is, there has been an increased number of listeners] those ‘Fifty-cent Trolls’ get in on the act and do their best to confound things. It’s become something of a pattern. No one will troll you if what you’re doing has no impact, but as soon as you do — say when you get tens of thousands of hits — then they’re on the case. ‘Fifty-centers’ started popping up shortly after the first part of our conversation was broadcast. But, regardless of that, people are paying attention and we know that because they have been posting comments expressing concern about your safety and wellbeing.


Geng Xiaonan: Of course, I understand, but none of that scares me — none of the negative postings, the insults or nasty responses matter. That doesn’t worry me at all; it’s evidence that our discussion is having an impact and that’s a good thing, despite the fact that it elicits that kind of stuff. Far worse is silence; that is, if people simply don’t listen or pay attention. Forget the bouquets and brickbats — it’s silence that scares me. Like Mr Xu, I feel that when all of that happened [when he was detained in early July], it didn’t matter that they spread lots of fake news and ridiculous stories internationally, including claims that Xu had solicited prostitutes. [Note: Here Geng uses the expression 藍金黃 lán jīn huáng, literally ‘blue-gold-yellow’. 蓝 lán signifies the efforts of the Chinese internet police (who wear blue uniforms) to censor online information; 金 jīn refers to the use of bribery to control individuals; and, 黄 huáng indicates honeypot ploys employed to ensnare victims.]

Just think about it, my profession [as a publisher and film producer] is about providing content; you could say that I’m in the media, and so I’m aware of my situation and completely mentally prepared [for what the authorities could get up to]. Rest assured. When a program like ours has an impact, even when half of the responses are negative, when you get the same number of brickbats for all the bouquets, or even when two thirds of the responses are negative, it doesn’t matter. That’s because we have already achieved our aim of getting word out about heroes [like Xu Zhangrun], not only about who they are and what they’ve done, but about what they have said and what they stand for.



Bei Ming (addressing the audience): In everyday life people of conscience all too easily fall back on a belief that ‘in the end, the public will always know the truth’. In reality, ‘public opinion’ does not necessarily accord either with the facts or with the truth. Einstein, Madam Curie and Mother Teresa were all denigrated and vilified during their lives, just as much as they enjoyed plaudits and affirmation. Or, even more striking is the case of Jesus Christ, a man condemned by his own people who ended up nailed to the cross. In the East, Confucius wandered the land, ignored for fourteen long years, and Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy, was condemned to drink hemlock. Or there’s Qu Yuan in the Warring States era, a loyal but disaffected minister who went into exile and eventually drowned himself … … The list goes on; it records the names of the heroic figures and people of conscience who struggled for freedom and decency, men and women who, in their quest for the public good, have ended up condemned by ‘public opinion’. Contemporary China seems to specialise in successfully marrying its particular brand of evil politics to willful public ignorance. For seventy years now, the muddled thinking of normal people has been complicit in the elimination of countless heroic figures.

But Geng Xiaonan had another concern, one distinct from that fateful marriage of malevolent power and public ignorance, something that is pressingly relevant:


Geng Xiaonan: My greatest fear is that they will do him to death without anyone even hearing about it; that the Communists will let him die in prison.



Bei Ming (addressing the audience): Either you may be exterminated by the regnant powers, unknown and unheard of, yours an ending enveloped in silence. Or, you might achieve such dangerous notoriety that you are belittled, besmirched and befouled by the authorities. In the process, you are stripped of all credibility with the public.

To live in China and to confront its realities you’ll only be able to pursue your belief in truth and justice if you are one of those rare individuals who, profoundly aware of its dark history, and despite it all — the growing pains, the fraught celebrations, the despair and struggles — loves the place passionately. Let us hear what else Geng Xiaonan has to tell us.



Geng Xiaonan: The year 2020 is indeed a crucial time and, although I’m only a minor figure in all of it, I too feel the need to answer the question: What have you contributed? So,I will do whatever I can to offer you my assistance and support. I’ll also undertake whatever ‘homework’ you might assign me. I’m not just talking about Professor Xu Zhangrun. Because of the work I have done over the years organising and participating in various discussion groups, symposiums and seminars, I’ve been in frequent contact with a range of China’s independent public intellectuals, as well as significant artist-activists. They included not only prominent champions of Chinese law and legal reform like the rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and Professor He Weifang [of Peking University], but also many other engaged public intellectuals, both in Beijing and Shanghai. I am happy to help in any way I can regarding contacts and organising things at my end.

As I’ve said, I am particularly aware of the importance of the critical year, 2020, although my more active involvement in things actually dates from 2018 [when Xi Jinping became effectively China’s ‘ruler for life’, resulting in a widespread sense of a looming political crisis]. Moreover, the roots of my hopes for these crucial few years were sparked over ten years ago. It was then [around the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games], that I was more focussed in thinking and working for China in the belief that we would see some significant changes within the decade, by 2018. I thought, surely by then enough will have happened [socially, economically, politically and culturally] for the county to be ready [for significant progressive political change]. China would be on the cusp. It was inevitable. But the years passed and things simply dragged on. I have no idea how long the Chinese people are fated to go on like this. Regardless, that’s why, Dear Ms Bei Ming [Note: This is an affectionate expression that Geng used in her conversations with Bei Ming], I am well equipped to respond readily to any ‘homework’ that you might chose to assign. I’ll undertake it to the very best of my abilities.




Bei Ming (addressing the audience): [The Soviet-era Russian poet] Anna Akhmatova would become known as ‘the pearl’s light of Russian poetry’ following the Great Terror of Joseph Stalin [in contrast to Alexander Pushkin who, when he died, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky said of him: ‘The sun of Russian poetry has gone down’]. In her singleminded dedication to finding out what had happened to her son [Lev Gumilev, who had been detained] she stood in line outside KGB prison headquarters [in Leningrad] day after day, through sweltering heat and bitter cold, for seventeen long months. One day, a ‘woman with lips blue with cold’ recognized her and quietly asked: ‘Could one ever describe this?’ Akhmatova replied in a whisper: ‘I can’.

Over the three decades of Stalinist rule Akhmatova was able to pass the test that she had set for herself and she did so in ‘Requiem’, a cycle of poems composed and revised from 1935 to 1940 [‘Requiem’ was published in full in the Soviet Union in 1987, until then only a partial version was in circulation. It is the best-known poetical work about the Great Terror. As Akhmatova wrote in the poem,‘my tortured mouth/ Through which one hundred million people scream’.]

Her voice of tragic power decries ‘the locks of a jail, stone, And behind them – the cells, dark and low’. [The famous, yet persecuted composer] Dmitri Shostakovich hailed that epic poem as ‘a memorial for the victims of the Great Terror’. Akhmatova’s poem was finally published in Russia fifty years after she began work on it. Over the years it was circulated in handwritten copies. … [In the recorded version of the exchange, Bei Ming plays Akhmatova: Requiem (1979-80) by the English composer John Tavener, a work which circulated in the Soviet underground during the 1980s.]

During its darkest days, China has had its own ‘Vladimir Highway’ [like the one that infamously connected Moscow to Siberia; that is, from the capital to the gulag]. It is a passage along which ‘the saints hold the hands of the geniuses; martyrs support the shoulders of the poets’. —— No one is standing behind Geng Xiaonan asking: ‘Will you be worthy of answering the challenge of the year 2020?’ But Geng offers a response anyway and in so doing she tells me that she would never forgive herself if she failed to rise to the challenge.

主持人:在苏联恶名昭著的斯大林大清洗年代,阿赫玛托娃,这位被称为“俄罗斯诗歌的月亮”的俄罗斯诗人,为打听被逮捕的亲人的下落,在克格勃门外的酷暑严寒中连续排队十七个月。一天,她被排在自己身后一位“嘴唇毫无血色”的女人认出来了,那女人突然在她的耳边低声问:“您能把这些都写出来吗?”阿赫玛托娃悄声回答说:“能”。此前此后历经三十年,阿赫玛托娃对那个暴政时代交出了自己的答卷:写出了她的组诗《安魂曲》。这是“苦役的洞穴”里的悲声,音乐家肖斯塔科维奇称其为那个“恐怖时代所有受难者的纪念碑”。此詩在蘇聯本土五十年後出版之前,以手抄本形式在地下流傳。… 在黑色的歲月裡,中國也有一條弗拉基米爾大道,在那條道路上,也是「聖徒拉著天才的手,殉道者扶著歌者的肩頭」。——沒有人站在耿瀟男身後這樣問她,你能交出庚子災變之年的答卷嗎?但是耿瀟男告訴北明,如果她不能交出一份像樣的答卷,她不會原諒自己。

Geng Xiaonan: I am grateful to you. I have been worried that I would hand in a ‘blank assignment’ during this crucial year of 2020. We are going through a major historical inflection point. If I were not to act now, I have no doubt that from the vantage point of old age, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.



Bei Ming (addressing the audience): Geng Xiaonan’s achievement is not a response to any particular questions or requests made of her. It is entirely of her own. This ‘intimate exchange’ between two close female friends is for me a profound reminder of the importance of people like Geng Xiaonan during an era of national despair of the kind China is presently experiencing.
In an age of unforgiving harshness, such intense and passionate dedication is like a dissolvent, it opens up a vista of possibility beyond the barren landscape that confronts and threatens to confound us.





‘The Death of Socrates’, by Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1782. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


I have so many things to do today.
I must slaughter memory to the end,
I need for my soul to turn to stone,
I must once again relearn to live.

from Anna Akhmatova, ‘Requiem’
trans. by Alex Cigale