Tsinghua’s War with Tradition — How a Chinese University Decoupled Itself from its Better Angels, Again

Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University 


Upon taking up a position at Tsinghua College (later Tsinghua University) in 1914, the prominent thinker and political activist Liang Qichao (梁启超, 1873-1929) addressed a student audience on the need to support academically outstanding and socially committed men and women. In his comments Liang employed the classical term 君子 jūnzǐ, one that we previously noted in our discussion of 君子人格 jūnzǐ réngé, or the ‘personality of the superior individual’.

The concept of 君子 jūnzǐ is championed in The Analects 論語, which is attributed to Confucius. There it denotes the learned, morally sound and socially adept individual. The ‘jūnzǐ ideal’ was the basis for the dynastic-bureaucratic empires of China from the time of the Han dynasty. Simon Leys describes it in the following way:

Originally it meant an aristocrat, a member of the social elite: one did not become a gentleman, one could only be born a gentleman. For Confucius, on the contrary, the “gentleman” is a member of the moral elite. It is an ethical quality, achieved by the practice of virtue, and secured through education. Every man should strive for it, even though few may reach it. An aristocrat who is immoral and uneducated (the two notions of morality and learning are synonymous) is not a gentleman, whereas any commoner can attain the status of gentleman if he proves morally qualified. As only gentleman are fit to rule, political authority should be developed purely on the criteria of moral achievement and intellectual competence. Therefore, in a proper state of affairs, neither birth nor money should secure power. Political authority should pertain exclusively to those who can demonstrate moral and intellectual qualifications.

Simon Leys, The Analects of Confucius, pp.xxvi-xxvii
quoted in Xu Zhangrun, ‘The State of a Civilisation’
China Heritage, 8 March 2019

In 1914, Liang had a particular kind of modern 君子 jūnzǐ in mind:

The scholars at Tsinghua are learned individuals who are familiar both with Chinese and Western learning; they are talents that hail from all parts of China, congregating here whether as teachers or as students they are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge in concert. In the future this place will also attract foreign talent who will help introduce the latest things that modern civilisation has to offer. This will contribute to the betterment of our society and help develop the political life of China. If Tsinghua is not to become the home to just such jūnzǐ, where else shall we find them?



In his discussion of the cultivation of such ‘Noble Individuals’ Liang also quoted the I Ching 易經, the classic Book of Changes, a venerable oracle and a source of philosophical wisdom. The two lines to which he referred — one from each of the first two Hexagrams in the ancient text — would later become, and they remain to this day, the motto of Tsinghua University: 自強不息, 厚德載物, the official translation of which is ‘Self-Discipline and Social Commitment’.

these paragraphs are from the editorial introduction to Feng Chongyi 馮崇義,
‘A Scholar’s Virtus & the Hubris of the Dragon’China Heritage, 22 May 2019


In the following essay, Bai Xin 白信, an independent writer based in Beijing, employs the term 士大夫 shìdàfū (also shìdàifū), ‘literatus’, or ‘scholar-gentlemen’, to refer to Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, the outspoken law professor at Tsinghua University who, since 2016, has repeatedly voiced his criticisms of Xi Jinping and his leadership as the head of the party-state-army of China’s People’s Republic.

In the title to his essay, Bai Xin makes two other references, one, in the expression 最后一个士大夫 — ‘the last scholar-gentlemen’ — recalls a well-known book by Guy Alitto called The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity (1979) and the other is to 脱钩 — ‘decoupling’ — the multi-faceted envisioned disengagement between China and the United States initiated by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

Bai also uses the term ‘elegy’ 哀歌 in his title, and in the essay itself he suggests that there is an analogy between the fate of Xu Zhangrun in 2020 and the suicides of Wang Guowei in 1927 and Lao She in 1966. The author also strains to claim that in cashiering Xu Zhangrun, Tsinghua engaged in an act of self-harm that should also be regarded as resonating with the circumstances surrounding the death of those two earlier figures. For the translator, such an association is both more sombre, and questionable. While there is no indication that Xu Zhangrun is planning to emulate Qu Yuan, the ancient loyal ‘protest-poet’ who legend claims drowned himself, we should also note that there is no reason to believe that the obduracy of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping will be any more successful in capping the wellsprings of independent thought, creativity and liberalism in China than it was under previous leaders.

This work is presented here in part because of its relevance to our ongoing series, ‘Xu Zhangrun vs Tsinghua University’ (for links to that material, see The Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive), and also because of a recommendation from its protagonist.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 August 2020


Related Material:

Background Reading:

Iconoclasm at Tsinghua University led to the pulling down of the Wang Guowei stele inscribed with Chen Yinque’s famous epitaph


An Elegy for Liberalism

Tsinghua University Decouples Itself
from the ‘Last Literatus’ in Beijing



Bai Xin

Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé


When Professor Xu Zhangrun, a scholar of the law at Tsinghua University, was released by the police this Monday [actually, Xu returned to his apartment in the early hours of Sunday 12 July 2020, Beijing time] he was officially notified by Tsinghua that he had been dismissed and stripped of his academic status as a professor. They even took away his pension. Studied silence greeted this news; long inured to keeping shtoom, Beijing-based intellectuals had probably thought it was inevitable. Professor Xu himself had remarked in an essay published at the height of the coronavirus plague early this year [titled ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’] that, ‘I can all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments’. However, even the Good Professor probably never imagined that, just as south China was being inundated by flood waters that the Beijing police would chose to manipulate their Sichuan fellows to detain him in the capital on charges of ‘soliciting prostitutes’, moreover, in so doing, that they would attempt to befoul the very thing that an intellectual like Xu holds so dear: his reputation and moral probity. [Note: for more on the charges leveled against Xu, and his response, see ‘China’s Former People’, China Heritage, 13 July 2020] This calumny was nothing less than character assassination. Although they hesitated before actually having him ‘taken out and executed in public’, Tsinghua University was happy enough to work hand in glove with the police. In fact, they have achieved a more noteworthy outcome: having so decisively de-coupled themselves from the very things that universities are supposed to treasure they have themselves, in effect, committed suicide.

[Note: ‘taken out and executed in public’. Here the author employs the term 棄市 qì shì, literally ‘to be cast into the market place’. Originally meaning that the corpse of a criminal executed in the market place would be left in the open unburied. 棄市 qì shì also means ‘to reject’ or ‘to negate’. With the metaphorical meaning of the term in mind, here we variously use the expressions ‘character assassination’ and ‘commit suicide’ to convey the author’s intention]

清華法學教授許章潤本週一剛剛被警方釋放,就被清華大學通知予正式解職且附加開除公職、取消退休金待遇等。消息傳來,眾皆默然。沈寂已久的北京知識分子對此結果似乎早有預料,許教授年初大疫之際行文也「預感必有新罰降身」 。不過,許教授本人大概也未想到南方大水之際,北京警方會假手成都地方公安拘之「嫖娼」,以知識分子最看重的清譽和道德作為犧牲,侮辱其人格然後棄之於市。當然,性命之憂尚不至於,清華大學此番與警方的密切配合、迅速脫鈎倒是另一種「棄市」。

For those familiar with modern Chinese history, such dastardly behaviour will readily bring to mind the events of 1927. In that year the revolutionary army engaged in the Northern Expedition [aimed at defeating the fractious warlords who ruled much of Republican China] were advancing rapidly from the south. During one week in April that year a number of noteworthy murders and deaths took place. First, Zhang Zuolin had the famous Peking University scholar Li Dazhao strangled to death; shortly thereafter, local revolutionaries [who were possibly aligned with the Communists] had Te-hui Yeh, the grand Confucian scholar of Hunan province, shot. Then, on 1 June, immediately following the end of the spring term at Tsinghua University, the forces of the Northern Expedition took the city of Zhengzhou [not far from Beijing]. It was at that moment that the World Herald published an article titled ‘A List Compiled in Jest: people who should be arrested when the revolution reaches Beijing’. The Tsinghua scholar Wang Guowei’s name was on that list [and it is believed that he felt that, after years of abuse, this final insult to his character was too much to bear]. The following day, which marked the start of the university’s summer break, Wang drowned himself in Kunming Lake at the Former Imperial Summer Palace.

這不能不讓人想起1927年的相似一幕:南方北伐革命如火如荼之際,在四月的一周之內,張作霖絞死了北大教授李大釗, 革命黨人處決了湖南大儒葉德輝,6月1日清華大學春季學期結束,北伐軍攻入鄭州,《世界日報》登出《戲擬黨軍到北京後被捕的人物》,其中即有王國維的名字。王國維終於在暑假開始的第一天,即6月2日投昆明湖自盡。

How similar, then, the fate of that man ‘abiding until daybreak’ at home — Professor Xu Zhangrun. He is a scholar who can boast a prodigious output, something particularly evident in the powerful philippics that he published following the ‘Constitutional Revision’ of March 2018 [that granted party-state-army leader Xi Jinping ‘terminal tenure’] As Chen Yinque’s epitaph engraved on the stele dedicated to the memory of Wang Guowei at Tsinghua University reads:

‘It is through his death that This Man demonstrated an independent and free mind. His act was not occasioned by mere personal grievance … [H]is was an Independent Spirit and his a Mind Unfettered — these will survive the millennia to share the longevity of Heaven and Earth, shining for eternity as do the Sun, the Moon and the very Stars themselves.’ [—trans. in ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 28 April, 2019]



Over the years I’ve encountered Professor Xu at any number of symposia in Beijing and I have heard for myself his powerful style of delivery, as well as come to appreciate a kind of legal scholarship which employs literary Chinese to express ideas regarding liberalism that is framed in terms of what Xu calls ‘constitutional democracy and a people’s republic’. I also caught sight of him at the Wang Guowei stele at the Tsinghua campus during the harsh days following the publication of his ‘memorial presented on pain of death’ [in July 2018; see ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待]. The impression I have is that perhaps he is the very last literatus [or ‘Scholar Gentleman’] of the Chinese tradition.


Without doubt, Xu Zhangrun’s voice offers a clarion elegy for Chinese liberalism. Over the past eight years, labouring as they have in the shadow of the Communist Party’s ‘Document Number Nine’, tertiary institutions throughout China have been pitilessly purged. The aim has been to create some kind of purified ideological environment. In the process ‘dissenting intellectuals’ have been dismissed from their university jobs for being merely intellectuals who have felt free to ‘gobble up rice produced by the party while trying to destroy the wok in which it is cooked’. Such ‘wok-wrecking professors’ have been fired, CCTV cameras and microphones have been installed in lecture theaters, and student spies, or ‘information officers’, have infiltrated classes. Unified teaching materials in the humanities and social sciences have been imposed and lecturers are required to submit the teaching materials they compile, as well as their social media accounts, to the scrutiny of the Party authorities.

Furthermore, limits have been imposed on international academic exchanges and those that are allowed are subject to strict monitoring. This includes the screening of the themes of conferences and the papers being presented. Even the political stance and attitude of foreign participants are questioned. Numerous reports about university teachers being informed on for comments made at private meals have made people increasingly wary. The result is that there are now far fewer such personal interactions.

Teachers who have attracted the unwelcome attention of their students or colleagues and have been reported, or those who have been noticed by the ‘watch dogs’ of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Party Publicity-Propaganda Department can expect to be called in ‘for a chat’ by people attached to one or more of the many bodies charged with their oversight, including members of the ‘leadership’ in the administration, the party organisation of their departments, faculties or colleges, as well as university security cadres, not to mention functionaries working in the ‘cultural security’ offices of the Ministry of Public Security.

The forms of ‘liberalism’ and independent thought, along with the limited free speech and the independent critical environment and possibility for political engagement that had managed only with the greatest difficulty to establish itself in universities over the four decades of the Economic Reform and Open Door policies [from 1978 to 2018] are now all but dead or in suspended animation.


A deadening pall hangs over Tsinghua University, although it is one that is by no means limited to that campus. In the numerous essays that he has published in recent years Xu Zhangrun enumerated at length the causes and state of China’s political and social anomie. His work has also elucidated the process of regression and the overt development of a reactionary politics. In so doing he described with mounting concern a national situation in which ‘we are faced with a civil war against the nation, one administered by a Sick Man Autocrat who gives license to the rule of the mob’. In so doing, Xu Zhangrun was giving voice to the kinds of anxiety and fear shared by a majority of the country’s thinking people and social elites; that is to say:

‘How is it that we are going backwards? Why is this happening and just how far will the situation deteriorate?’


To put this another way, Professor Xu Zhangrun — that man who is ‘abiding until daybreak’ —shares in the kind of despair experienced by Wang Guowei in June 1927 and by Lao She in August 1966. It was a despair that led both men to drown themselves. For Xu Zhangrun and all of those who think of themselves as being liberal intellectuals, the latitude for them to exist in China has constantly diminished; their future is looking bleaker by the day. Meanwhile, scholars who are no better than fascists or intellectual courtiers parade around university campuses with impunity, and they now dominate the lecture halls. [Note: see Chris Buckley ‘Clean Up This Mess’: The Chinese Thinkers Behind Xi’s Hard Line, The New York Times, 2 August 2020] Professor Xu limned this landscape in ‘China, a Lone Ship of State on the Vast Ocean of Global Civilisation’, an essay published in May 2020 that was written in response to the official hype surrounding China’s ‘Great Anti-Coronavirus Struggle’ that resulted from the Wuhan Pneumonia epidemic. [He wrote in that essay]:


‘… As for those Sino-Carl Schmittians and all their talk about “China Exceptionalism” — they can sprout their feeble parroting of the threadbare language of Latin-American leftists as much as they like, and they can formulate ever-new myths about some ‘leader-leviathan’. But they are playing fast and loose with populist nationalism as they promote the virtues of the so-called “Revolutionary Personality” [a reference to the Tsinghua statist Wang Hui’s long-winded celebration of V.I. Lenin]. All the while they are adding fuel to the Sino-American conflict. They are but fabulists spinning tales about the decline of the stygian West and the glories of a resplendent East. They generate hyperbole and exploit the exaggerated phantasmagoria surrounding [the untested miracles of Chinese medicine and its promoters like] “Zhong Nanshan and Zhang Boli”. It’s a veritable prestidigitation: ’white gloves’ disguise the iron hand of stability maintenance. There is no trick beyond them, no ruse that they will ignore as they mislead the willfully ignorant masses. Vile of mien and mean of aspect: they are outdoing Joseph Goebbels and they put the Tass News Agency to shame. Their antics would even infuriate [the Cultural Revolution theoretician and member of the Gang of Four] Zhang Chunqiao. They can pretend as much as they will, but the seething reality cannot be denied. As for those third-rate wordsmiths and all of their vituperative and violent rhetoric, those characters who make much of China’s nuclear threat [like Hu Xijin, editor of The Global Times, the rabble-rousing paragon of Chinese yellow journalism], they are merely making fools of themselves and are popularly derided as nothing more than “shit-stirrers”. —— At this moment of national tragedy that, in the normal course of events, should have brought people together in a spirit of collective concern has to all intents and purposes been thrown away in a careless and hapless fashion.’ — see Xu, ‘Remonstrating with Beijing’, China Heritage, 21 May 2020]

‘至於其間大小漢語施密特們,或搬用「例外論」,或炒作拉丁左派陳詞濫調,鸚鵡學舌,編寫巨獸神話,操弄民族主義,煽忽革命人格,炒作中美對抗,織造中西明暗強弱寓言,開發感動,利用「鐘南山 — 張伯禮」式巧偽之徒維穩白手套,白臉紅臉,牽引盲眾,種種伎倆,狡黠險惡,而又愚蠢無比,超越戈培爾,羞煞塔斯社,氣死張春橋,卻終究紙包不住火,更是不在話下。 至於粗鄙下作文痞天天喊打喊殺,把核彈掛在嘴上,成事不足敗事有餘,民間稱其「攪屎棍」,更不論矣。 — — 一場本應賦予國族以生聚教訓的苦難,似乎竟然就這樣白白流逝了。’

It is impossible to know whether that Highest Political Authority in Beijing was either taken aback or set on edge when confronted by the public criticisms launched by Xu Zhangrun and the few other remaining people of conscience and valour like Ren Zhiqiang [see the note below]. We do know, however, that their response flies in the face of global civilisational norms: they defamed Xu Zhangrun in an attempt to undermine his position, his reputation, his dignity and his person and, by so doing, they were sending out an unmistakable message to all members of the intelligentsia and various social elites. That’s to say, they are aiming one final blow at the long tradition of liberalism in China, one which has at its heart the idea of a ‘Free Spirit and Independent Thought’ — it is a tradition that reaches back to the May Fourth era [of 1917-1927], although Xu Zhangrun would readily correct me with a smile for he sees its origins as dating back to the New Policies of 1902 [known as the ‘Gengzi New Policies’ as they were launched in response to the failed Boxer Rebellion of the ‘gengzi year’ of 1900]. More importantly, however, is the fact that the whole process is part of a ‘theoretical clean sweep’, a house-cleaning undertaken in preparation for the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communists to be held in two years time [in October-November 2022].

[Note: See Ren Zhiqiang 任志強, ‘Denunciation of Xi Jinping: stripping the clothes of a clown who is determined to be emperor’ ‘任志強「討習檄文」:剝光了衣服堅持當皇帝的小丑’,《新世纪》, 2020年3月6日. For a partial translation, see Josh Rudolph, ‘Essay by Missing Property Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang’, China Digital Times, 13 March 2020]


Recently, He Yiting, vice-president of the Central Party School, published an essay in which he declared that ‘Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ is nothing less than the embodiment of twenty-first century Marxism! [Note: see ‘A Birthday Gift for Xi Jinping?’, China Media Project, 25 June 2020] In so doing he was, in effect, offering an initial round of adulation for the advent of the Twentieth Party Congress [to be held in late 2022]. Added to that, from July this year, a ‘New Yan’an Rectification’ campaign has been launched [with Xi Jinping calling on Party members to ‘take the knife to themselves’ 刀刃向内]; the Party is paving the way to 2022 by casting itself back to 1942. [Note: on the original Yan’an Rectification Campaign, see ‘Ruling The Rivers & Mountains’, China Heritage, 8 August 2020]

Back then, even as they were confronted by the challenges of Japanese invasion, the Communists managed to focus on preparing for their Seventh Party Congress. In the original Yan’an Rectification, not only did they carry out a sweeping reform of the Party and purge vast numbers of cadres, they also murdered Wang Shiwei and silenced [pro-Party] intellectuals who were still trying to maintain a modicum of intellectual independence. All of this was done in the process of establishing the absolute authority of Mao Zedong Thought and building up what would become the personality cult of Mao himself.


The present trepidation about Xu Zhangrun and his punishment, which has been authored by the Beijing authorities is, in its essence, really about the 2022 Twentieth Party Congress. They are removing obstructions in the process of further entrenching the unquestioned authority of the Political Supremo and ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. In the process they want to eliminate This Man, China’s ‘remnant liberal’. Xu Zhangrun’s treatment is best understood as being a result of personal animus; it is the reprisal of the Leader himself, further evidence, if any were needed, of the very argument that Xu Zhangrun has repeatedly made about modern-day ‘court politics’ and the nature of contemporary Chinese tyranny. Xi and his ideological henchmen are more than ever before acting as though they have the power of life and death over all thinking people in China.

[Note: As Xu Zhangrun wrote in his February 2020 critique of Xi Jinping’s mishandling of the coronavirus:

‘A Party-state system that has no checks or balances, one that actually resists the rational allocation of duties and responsibilities, invariably gives rise to the rule of a clique of trusted lieutenants. Hence we have seen the equivalent of a court emerge and the political behavior endemic to a court. … With the over-concentration of power and a relative decline in efficacy, the One Leader’s inner circle becomes a de facto “state within a state,” something that the Yankees have taken to calling the “deep state.” ’ — from Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm’, China File, 10 February 2020]

As a ‘machine for the production of knowledge’ Tsinghua University has, ever since the Party-ordained ‘reform of tertiary educational institutions’ in 1952, and as integral part of its role in training ‘red engineers’, treated the intellectuals working there, including people like Xu Zhangrun as people who need to be under constant surveillance and kept in line with threats against them. That is why in their present actions, in their sycophancy to the Leader, in relation  to China and the institution itself it is clearly evident that liberalism has been completely decoupled from present-day China. Moreover, it is a process that is tantamount to decoupling China from the universities of the world, as well as from global civilisation itself.


All that one can do, as Xu Zhangrun himself has said, is to express ‘righteous indignation’. [As Xu wrote in February]:

‘…it is a kind of fury that results from repeated abrasion. Our own thinkers speak of it as “humanity combined with a sense of justice.” It is [what Mencius] called “the true way of the human heart” and, thus agitated, I—a bookish scholar who dares to think of himself as an “intellectual”—am prepared to pay for it with my life.

[Note: Here the author is referring to the famous Confucian text Mencius where it says: “Benevolence is the heart of man, and rightness his road. Sad it is indeed when a man gives up the right road instead of following it and allows his heart to stray without enough sense to go after it.” — trans. D.C. Lau, Mencius, Book VI, Part A: 11]

‘Ultimately, it is about Freedom—that Transcendent Quality; well-spring and fulcrum of conscious action; that secular value that is the most divine aspiration of humankind; that innate sensibility that truly makes us human; that ineffable “quiddity” that we Chinese share with all others. The spirit of the world, that spirit incarnate on earth, makes possible a glorious unfolding of Freedom itself. This is why, friends—my countless compatriots—though a sea of flames confronts us, can we let ourselves be held back by fear?’

— from Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm’, China File, 10 February 2020

惟其能做的,如許章潤稍早所言,「正是義憤,惟義與憤所在,惟吾土先賢揭櫫之仁與義這一 ‘人心人路’之激蕩,令書齋學者成為知識分子,直至把性命搭進去。畢竟,自由,一種超驗存在和行動指歸,一種最具神性的世界現象,是人之為人的稟賦,華夏兒女不能例外。而世界精神,那個地上的神,不是別的,就是自由理念的絢爛展開。如此,朋友,我的億萬同胞,縱然火湖在前,何所懼哉!」