Professor Xu Zhangrun’s sixtieth birthday falls on the 25th October 2022. He was born in an impoverished village in Anhui, a province that has been devastated both by the murderous policies of the Great Leap Forward and by torrential rains and flooding. He was lucky to survive; one of his older brothers had died of malnutrition.
Sixty years later and even though China has experienced dramatic changes, the authoritarian spectres of the past continue to haunt the present. Today, they do so in the person of Xi Jinping, the master of China’s party-state-army and chairman of everything, and via the leadership collective surrounding Xi that was anointed at the Communist Party’s Twentieth National Congress on 23 October 2022.
In a poem written to mark this day, Professor Xu wrote:
(The next stop is a parting of the ways
In the meantime, fuck China’s KGB!)
Below we reprint ‘A Writer’s Desk & the Vastness of China — 1989, 2019’ to mark Xu Zhangrun’s birthday. It was originally published on 4 June 2019 as a chapter in our series Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University — Voices of Protest & Resistance.
And, as universities throughout China devote themselves to clamorous celebration of the ‘guiding spirit’ of the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress, we offer a corrective in the form of ‘The Incompatibilities of Xu Zhangrun’ (China Heritage, 1 May 2019).
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Society
25 October 2022
- Notre seul parapluie — ‘Life is a shitstorm, in which art is our only umbrella.’, China Heritage, 15 August 2022
A Writer’s Desk &
The Vastness of China
Despite being under a formal interdiction that bans him from writing or publishing new work, Xu Zhangrun has taken to reworking and releasing essays on a range of topics composed before the authorities of Tsinghua University launched their ‘kangaroo investigation’ into him in late March 2019.
In these works, published by H-Media 合傳媒 (defunct as of July 2020), Xu touches on such topics as Chinese society, legal dilemmas, civil society, politics, totalitarianism and contemporary thought. Below we offer an overview of the nine essays that Professor Xu has published to date, with links to the original texts. An earlier work — ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’ ‘哪有先生不說話?!’, China Heritage, 10 November 2018 — provides a preface to this material, which is ‘Banned in China’. In this series of ‘old tales retold’, Xu describes himself with characteristic mordant humour as being ‘an unemployed professor awaiting a job assignment’ 待業教授.
As we have previously noted in this series — ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’ (see, in particular, Anon., ‘Silence + Conformity = Complicity — reflections on university life in China today’, China Heritage, 30 March 2019 [subsequently deleted at the request of the author, Lao Dongyan]) — the 30th of March 2019 marked the fortieth anniversary to the day since Deng Xiaoping announced the Four Cardinal Principles 四項基本原則 that have frustrated China’s political evolution. These ex cathedra ‘principles’ were formulated by Deng and his colleagues in consultation with the Party ideologues Hu Qiaomu 胡喬木 and Deng Liqun 鄧力群, figures whose baleful influence on that country’s political, intellectual and cultural life lasted for over fifty years.
The Four Cardinal Principles were a response to the popular protests and unregulated speeches and essays that flourished for a time on and around Democracy Wall at Xidan, west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The ‘Beijing Spring’ served the needs of Party leaders, but it also allowed for dissent and open opposition to a one-party state that, for nigh on three decades, had visited misery on the nation. Earlier in March a young protester by the name of Wei Jingsheng 魏京生 posted an essay titled ‘What Do We Want: Democracy or Another Autocrat?’ 要民主還是要新的獨裁?, which contributed to the sense of urgency Deng and his comrades felt about shoring up their legitimacy. Wei was duly arrested, tried on nebulous charges and sentenced to fifteen years in jail. In late 1979, Democracy Wall was demolished.
In many ways, Deng’s Four Principles and Wei’s protest against autocracy have bedeviled China ever since. In the treatment of independent-minded intellectuals like Professor Xu Zhangrun, not to mention teachers, writers, publishers, media figures, rights lawyers, dissidents, religious leaders and groups, in 2019, we are reminded of those seminal moments in March 1979. As we have marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Beijing Massacre, we have recalled the fate of Wei Jingsheng in 1979 and the origins of the 1989 Protest Movement — the February to June ‘petition protests’ were sparked by a letter that the dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi 方勵之 addressed to Deng Xiaoping in January that year. In it he called for the government to announce a political amnesty to mark the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Communist state, one that would see the release of Wei from gaol.
The protests of 1978-1979, as well as those of late 1986 and during the first half of 1989 — along with the stifled attempts by people from all walks of life to speak out against persistent autocratic Chinese traditions renewed by a modern totalitarian ideology — have, in many respects, reflected an ongoing widespread desire for normalcy, a constantly renewed aspiration for an untrammelled world, for lasting peace and quiet after the tumult and suffering of the past, as well as in the face of the ever-looming threats of the future. Perhaps again today that mood of multifaceted protest can best be understood as a universal impulse and not merely as one limited to the concerns of China’s men and women of conscience.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 June 2019
- Note: The word 愕 / 諤 è famously features in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Simon Leys used the quotation in which it appears as an untranslated epigraph in his 1971 critique of Maoist China, The Chairman’s New Clothes. In 2018, Xu Zhangrun repeatedly employed it in his fearless polemics:
The refusal of one decent man
outweighs the acquiescence of the multitude.
— Sima Qian, ‘Biography of Lord Shang’
司馬遷, 《史記 · 商君列傳》
If in a country the size of China
there is no room for a writer’s desk,
I feel I can remain silent no longer
There is a venerable tradition in China of petitioning rulers, and an equally ancient tradition of rulers punishing those who dare petition them. Bi Gan 比干, an argumentative minister of the Shang dynasty (twelfth century BCE), is said to have so infuriated Zhou 紂 that the tyrant, having said, ‘They tell me sages have seven holes in their hearts’, ordered the minister’s chest cut open so he could see for himself. (紂怒曰: 吾聞聖人心有七窍。剖比干觀其心。参見司馬遷《史記 · 殷本紀》）
But appeals to the throne were not always so hazardous. Outside the court, from early days, a drum was placed that could be beaten by petitioners who wanted the court’s attention. The marble huabiao 華表 pillars on either side of Tiananmen Gate were also a reminder to emperors to accept petitions with equanimity.
Petitioning was a major element of the 1989 Protest Movement, a momentous event that is ostentatiously avoided by Official China, but which global China, and the international community, cannot forget. While the Student Movement, or Democracy Movement as it is often called, was generally considered to have begun with the overt student agitation that followed the death of the deposed Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang in April that year, we regard the 1989 Protest Movement as having begun in early January at the initiation of Fang Lizhi 方勵之, the astrophysicist who was purged from the Party for his outspokenness in 1987. He was the ﬁrst prominent Chinese intellectual to declare publicly that he was carrying on from where Wei Jingsheng 魏京生 left off in 1979. He did so in an open letter addressed to Deng Xiaoping dated 6 January 1989:
Central Military Commission
Communist Party of China,
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is also the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. There are sure to be many commemorative activities surrounding these two events. However, people may well be less interested in reﬂecting on the past than on the present and the future. They hope that these two anniversaries will give them cause for optimism.
In view of this, I would most sincerely suggest that as these anniversaries approach, a nationwide amnesty be declared for all political prisoners, and particularly Wei Jingsheng.
I believe that no matter what opinion one has of Wei Jingsheng, to release him now after he has served some ten years of imprisonment would be a humanitarian gesture that would contribute to a healthy social atmosphere.
This year also happens to be the bicentenary of the French Revolution, and however one views it, the slogans of liberty, equality, fraternity, and human rights have gained universal respect. For these reasons, it is my sincere hope that you will consider my suggestion, thereby earning even greater respect in the future.
Over the next two months, Fang’s petition inspired a series of similar appeals to the government from writers, scholars, and scientists who had been emboldened by the government’s failure to retaliate against Fang. Later petitioners generally sought safety in numbers. Their appeals were aimed as much at other ordinary Chinese as at the government, for they called for the awakening of conscience, for fairness and justice. They were also cries of desperation, urging people to act before the economic, political, and cultural crises facing China in the late 1980s drove the country to catastrophe.
Some of the petitions originated in Chinese communities in Europe and the United States. In Hong Kong the response was particularly strong: A petition organised in February calling for the release of China’s political prisoners was signed by more than 12,700 people.
The Protest Movement often took on the appearance of a rebellion of the young against the old. The picture the Western media presented was largely one of a movement led by students in their early twenties. Indeed, many of the slogans that appeared during the massive street marches attacked China’s leaders as being too old to govern. Despite the youthful image of the movement, however, the young did not enjoy a monopoly on rebellion.
A number of the masterminds of the movement’s ever-changing strategies were intellectuals in their thirties and forties who generally stayed behind the scenes. And as we read these petitions we also hear the voices of much older people. These include Bing Xin 冰心 and Ba Jin 巴金, writers in their eighties and members of the original May Fourth generation who had called for democracy and freedom in the late 1910s and 1920s, and others like Wang Ruowang 王若望, a Shanghai writer in his seventies who had also been purged from the Party in early 1987. Fang Lizhi himself was in his ﬁfties. In fact, Deng and the other party leaders felt most threatened by the protests of the older generations.
On 28 January, Fang, Wang Ruoshui 王若水 and Su Shaozhi 蘇紹智 were among those present at a salon organised by the independent intellectual journal New Enlightenment 新啟蒙, whose title had been inspired by the May Fourth Movement — also called the ‘Enlightenment Movement’ 啟蒙運動. The gathering was held at the Dule Bookstore 獨樂書屋 in southwest Peking. A number of the guests made statements to the effect that China was facing a crisis of which a central feature was the reappearance of ‘feudalism in the guise of Marxism-Leninism’. Today, during the reign of Xi Jinping three decades later, this expression has an even more powerful resonance.
On 13 February, a petition in support of Fang Lizhi’s letter was organised by the poet Bei Dao 北島 along with Chen Jun 陳軍, an entrepreneur cum political activist. Bei Dao and Chen Jun collected thirty-three signatures for their petition. A number of the signatories were controversial ﬁgures in their own right; others, like Bing Xin (born in 1900), were important members of the cultural establishment. The letter was distributed publicly along with Fang’s January petition at a press conference held at Chen Jun’s JJ Café in Peking on 16 February. The JJ Café was used as a venue for the gathering of more signatures for the letter.
On February 22, a spokesperson for the Party judiciary made public an ofﬁcial response to the petition:
Even after this letter was attacked by the authorities in the Chinese media, Bing Xin defended her action by saying that Wei Jingsheng may have been guilty of treason as accused, but it was normal to announce an amnesty on an occasion such as the fortieth anniversary of the state.
After all, she commented to a reporter from an ofﬁcial newspaper, Puyi 溥儀, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty and the puppet ruler of the Japanese state of Manchukuo, was released in the 1950s under just such an amnesty. She hinted that if a traitor like Puyi could be the object of such ofﬁcial magnanimity, so could Wei jingsheng.
On February 26, another petition signed by forty-two intellectuals, mostly scientists, was sent to party and state leaders.
Also on 26 February, Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian 李淑嫻, were prevented by Chinese security personnel from attending a Texas-style barbecue hosted by U.S. President Bush at Peking’s Great Wall Sheraton, to which they had been invited by the president. The Chinese authorities, who had vetted the guest list, had not indicated beforehand to either Fang and his wife or the Americans that they would object to Fang’s presence at the banquet. On 27 February, Bei Dao wrote an outraged letter to the government in which he captured a sentiment shared by many people in the Chinese capital at the time.
Last night (26 February) the police physically prevented Professor Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian, from attending U.S. President Bush’s farewell banquet at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel. The actions of the police constitute a gross violation of the human rights of Fang and Li. This incident has deeply shocked me; it is without question a great blot on China’s human rights record.
Professor Fang represents the cream of Chinese intellectuals. The crude infringement of his rights is an insult to every self-respecting Chinese intellectual. If this incident is to be construed as the government’s response to Professor Fang‘s open letter of 6 January and the Petition of Thirty-three, which I initiated on 13 February, then I feel nothing but profound sorrow.
When I initiated that petition I trusted the government would react in a rational and enlightened way. I thought the government would at least listen in a spirit of forbearance to a suggestion made by writers and scholars, especially as our voice was so mild. But if even this cannot be tolerated it shows how fragile democracy and legality are in China. Capitalism has no monopoly on the protection of human rights and freedom of speech; they are the standard of any modern, civilised society.
I believe every Chinese intellectual realises how extremely tortuous China’s path to Reform is. However, during this process, the rulers must become accustomed to hearing different, even discordant, voices. It is beneﬁcial to develop such a habit; it will mark the beginning of China’s progress toward becoming a modern and civilised society.
I am a poet with no interest in politics. Nor do I wish to become an object of media attention. Originally I hoped to withdraw after the publication of our petition, to return once more to my desk, to return to the world of my imagination. Yet if in a country the size of China there is no room for a writer’s desk, I feel I can remain silent no longer.
‘There is no longer enough room for a quiet writing desk in the whole of North China.’ This statement was originally part of the student manifesto of the December Ninth Movement [which called for national unity in the face of the invading Japanese] of 1935. For Bei Dao to paraphrase this declaration shows the level of anger and shock among young people at the repressive attitude of the Communist Party of China regarding the question of human rights.
— Lee Yee 李怡, editor of The Nineties Monthly
(for more by Lee Yee, see The Best China)
On 12 September 1935, student demonstrations led by Communist Party activists at Tsinghua University in Beiping (Beijing) protested against the increasing encroachment of the Japanese Imperial Army in North China. On 13 September, the organisers of the protests published ‘An Appeal Letter to the Nation by Tsinghua University’s Save China Committee’. One line in the appeal — ‘There is no longer enough room for a quiet writing desk in the whole of North China’ 華北之大, 已經安放不得一張平靜的書桌了 — became the slogan both of resistance to the Japanese invaders and of ongoing protest against the supine Nationalist government in Nanking.
Shock at Fang’s treatment and growing concern over political and legal rights in China led to an overwhelming response among Hong Kong Chinese, overseas Chinese intellectuals, and China scholars and writers.
Meanwhile, from early March onward, posters attacking the government and supporting Fang Lizhi and calling for demonstrations in support of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ began appearing at Peking University. Since 4 May 1988, concerned intellectuals had met at Peking University in unofﬁcial gatherings called Democracy Salons. On 9 March, such a salon was organised by Wang Dan 王丹, a history student who later became one of the movement’s leaders. The speakers called for action. They included the former 1978-1979 Democracy Wall activist Ren Wanding 任畹定, a dissident and founder of the Chinese Human Rights League who had only recently been released from jail.
In April the government attempted to close down the salon at Peking University.
On 17 March, forty-three important cultural ﬁgures in Peking wrote to the Chinese People’s Congress in support of the call for an amnesty for political prisoners. They stressed their belief that such an action would accord with the constitution as well as reﬂect the popular will.
This letter was initiated by a scholar in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. First on the list of signatories, however, was Dai Qing 戴晴, a prominent journalist, party member, and member of the privileged circle of elite party families. When Dai Qing was later accused of ‘instigating rebellion’ against the party, her involvement with this letter was construed as one of her criminal acts. At the time she defended her action in a telephone interview with the sometime correspondent for The Nineties Monthly in Hong Kong, Zhang Langlang 張郎郎 (who also wrote under just the name Langlang 郎郎):
Langlang: Does the appearance of your petition have anything to do with the upcoming sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Congress?
Dai: Of course; we’re aiming the petition at these meetings.
Langlang: So you are hoping for some concrete results?
Dai: I hold out no such hope. But I think we have to speak up. Now I feel at least I can look myself in the face. What type of person would I be if I didn’t even dare make this type of statement?
I do not believe that the Chinese will forever refuse to think for themselves;
I do not believe that the Chinese will never speak out through their writings;
I do not believe that morality and justice will vanish in the face of repression;
I do not believe that in an age in which we are in communication
with the world “freedom of speech” will remain an empty phrase.
— Dai Qing 戴晴, 8 February 1989
— adapted from New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese
Rebel Voices, ed. Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin,
New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.23-29 and p.470
Dai Qing was quoting Bei Dao’s well-know 1976 poem ‘The Answer’ 回答, which included the lines:
Let me tell you, world,
I — do — not — believe!
If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,
Count me as number one thousand and one.
Some thirty years later, during the protests over the suspension of Xu Zhangrun by Tsinghua University in April 2019, the same lines were referred to, albeit obliquely, by Liu Jianshu 柳建樹 in another powerful poem, ‘They’re Afraid’ 他們怕了:
And that’s why, this spring,
They are fearful again
Fearful of those who believe
For they believe in nothing themselves
Fearful too of those who don’t believe
For they dare to say: I DO NOT BELIEVE!
- For the full poem, in Chinese and English, see ‘They’re Afraid’, China Heritage, 26 April 2019. On 31 May 2019, Dai Qing published her own account of the events of 1989. See 戴晴,《鄧小平在1989》, 香港: 田園書屋。
At Home Reading
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
When I was young I didn’t have a desk for reading or studying. And so any and everything could be my desk, regardless of whether it was the desks in our schoolroom or the table where we ate at home. Lying on a reed mat on the wooden frame of my bed, one leg cocked over the other, I could study while lying on my back: the Heavens above were my desk. Or, sprawled out on my stomach on some flagstones, or maybe on a patch of grass head supported by my hands, I could read just as well: the Earth beneath me was my desk. The words on the page were like a flotilla of sails, their vessels bearing riches from far-flung lands. Those books with worn, dog-eared pages, texts missing passages or lacking whole pages fired my imagination even more. They opened my heart to an expanse more vast than the Heavens, and they let me secretly nestle Heaven and Earth in my heart.
In my teens I did have a desk, and it meant a great deal to me. Sitting there I could focus and delve into the innermost thoughts of the writers of today; I could just as well imagine the myriad of concerns of writers past. Ancient sentiments thus mingled in my own thoughts; as my spirit took flight the grinding deprivations of reality were as nought. That desk was a bastion, books like serried ranks of troops; a few inches of space bestowing command over a vast landscape.
‘I Read Therefore I Am’: time is of the essence for it is eternally now. In my mind-travels I encountered beguiling beauties, yet too I experienced stormy nights with my solitary thoughts. My books were a protection and they guarded me from vainglorious pursuits. I also felt the thrill of high aspiration yet would also find myself spent by indulging in lofty self-regard. My desk could usher in such misfortune, too; lives on paper thus speeding past.
In middle age you come to understand that books are just that, books, yet they are not merely books, for you realise that the world itself is unfolds around you like a tome; the story of the human heart is just such a volume. You are now aware that books cover your desk, o’erfill the libraries and are found throughout the world. When you leaf through a volume opened in your lap you take delight in it as it responds to being read, no matter how outward fate might unfold like clouds unfurling and roiling above your head.
Whether recumbent or leading against something, eyes exhausted with fatigue, I think that I have only two intimates that truly know my mind: wine and books; people, however, come and go in endless succession. You can never hold on to the ephemeral delights of the season, all you need is a book, for then things that press on the heart and the troubles of the world are whisked away as if on a flowing stream or along with the scudding clouds. Distant travels may be beyond reach, but at one’s desk in the light of the moon you can find yourself in the company of all that was the past. Achievements or losses, concerns and worries, the passage of time, fame and fortune, right and wrong, reading from dusk to dawn, working as a humble teacher, mine is a life that is lived in the embrace of books.
In old age what does reading hold for you? Who am I to say for sure. Confucius already put it well [when asked about death by his disciple Zilu]: ‘You do not yet know life, how could you know death?’ On this planet, life and death are transitory, forever ancient yet ever modern. Everyone gets one chance to experience life, but one’s awareness dawns only gradually. Compared to those who strain for some immediate understanding, it is best to let things take their course, to reveal their lessons over time. The incomparable balm of a book read at night, that one volume in hand, fate within one’s grasp, enlightenment gradually dawning, like the handiwork of nature itself. How can one not be ever thankful?
Above a heavenly vault o’erstretched with books, below the expansive earth spread with volumes.
A desk to read tucked beneath the skies, a place to write supported by the ground.
I’m delighted that I will always have a desk for reading and writing.
It can always be found; it is everywhere: between those lofty skies and this sustaining earth.
— Erewhon Studio
26 November 2008
許章潤, ‘我家書桌在天地間’,, No.1030, 23 January 2019
Still Having His Say
In late October 2018, three months after his controversial polemical magnum opus appeared, Xu Zhangrun published a commentary which was, in part, also a letter addressed to China’s online censorate.
In ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’ 哪有先生不說話?!, Xu cautioned readers about the pitfalls of silence and complicity. Whereas the mechanisms of the state chose to cast the words and warnings of a man of conscience like him into oblivion, they nonetheless give free online license to some of the most heinous figures in post-1949 history, as well as providing liberal access to their writings. The irony is evident; the humour black. With its all-embracing and holistic approach to the media and heart-mind management, Xi Jinping’s China is working with the high-tech present and an Orwellian future to enhance the kind of regime beloved of the country’s autocrats for over two millennia. The author of the following essay points, in particular, to Qin Shihuang (秦始皇, 259-210 BCE), First Emperor of the Qin, the inaugural unified dynasty of China. Excoriated through the ages (even when being emulated), the First Emperor was to find favour with Mao Zedong: for unifying warring kingdoms into a dominant regime, for his rigorous rule of pitiless laws, for his repression of quarrelsome scholars and their contrary views, and for his obsession with standardisation (of weights and measures, transportation and roads, as well as of the written language).
Xu Zhangrun’s reference to the Qin ruler, and his use of quotations and expressions drawn from Sima Qian (司馬遷, d. c.86 BCE), the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty who chronicled both the achievements and failures of early governance, is hardly accidental. The Party has declared itself, and its Leader, Xi Jinping, to be the nation’s Ultimate Arbiter and Sole Source of Authority 定於一尊, a term that Sima Qian first popularised when describing the autocracy of the Qin emperor. The Qin looms large in other ways as the relentless push by the Communist Party for ever greater unity, standardisation and a politically manipulated ‘rule of law’ resonates with Mao’s obsessions, as well as with the lessons of the Qin and its successor regimes.
Since Mao found much in the rule of the First Emperor of which to approve, it is only fitting that critics of Xi Jinping not only detect the shades of the Great Leader in his inflated self-image (called a new personality cult, or ‘deification movement’ 造神運動), but also note traces in his behaviour of the Qin tyrant and his henchmen. As he wrote this essay in October 2018, Xu Zhangrun daresay had another lesson from the Qin era in mind — the advice of the brilliant and unscrupulous Li Si (李斯, 284-208 BCE), who counselled the First Emperor that, to prevent trouble, he should ‘burn the books and bury the scholars’ 焚書坑儒 (see China Heritage, 22 August 2017).
The title of Xu Zhangrun’s essay — 哪有先生不說話?!, literally, ‘When do teachers not want to speak up?!’ — is a line from a doggerel poem by the famous liberal scholar Hu Shi (胡適, 1891-1962). He was invited by Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist government, to a conference at the Cooling (Guling) hill station retreat of Lu Shan in Jiangxi province 江西廬山牯嶺 on the eve of formal war with Japan. The gathering included many other public figures, publishers, opinion makers and thinkers. The topic under discussion was the national crisis confronting the country and Hu made an impassioned speech in which he rejected much of the formulaic folderol of the others. A noted editor and publisher seated next to him dashed off a simple poem in admiration. Hu, famous for having encouraged the use of vernacular Chinese in writing poetry from the time of the literary revolution in 1917 (although the poems he produced were frequently lampooned as artless), immediately responded with an amusing reply (in my translation):
In springtime cats in heat do trill and meow,
While summer cicadas in chorus loudly sing,
All through the night frogs will simply croak,
And teachers, then? They just do their thing!
— from Xu Zhangrun, ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’
許章潤, ‘哪有先生不說話?!’, China Heritage, 10 November 2018