Xu Zhangrun — Words of Gratitude & Elegies of Anger

Xu Zhangrun Archive


On 6 January 2023, Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 was awarded a book prize in absentia. The presentation was organised by Rong Wei 榮偉, founding editor of Bouden House 博登書屋, an independent Chinese publisher in New York. The prize recognised both the intellectual impact as well as the publishing success of a series of essays that Professor Xu had published amidst considerable controversy, and at great personal cost, in 2018-2019, a 戊戌年 wùxū nián, or Wuxu Year, according to the traditional Chinese calendar.

[Note: See Six Chapters — One Hundred and Twenty YearsChina Heritage, 1 January 2020.]

The 2018-2019 Wuxu Year marked the 120th anniversary of the ‘Wuxu Reforms’ 戊戌變法. Also know as the Hundred Day Reforms of 1898 百日維新, these were a series of ambitious political changes supported by the Guangxu Emperor of the Qing dynasty formulated by predominantly young literati that were aimed at speeding up the modern transformation of the Chinese empire. A palace coup saw the emperor detained and a number of his young advisers arrested and executed — the martyrs are celebrated as the Six Gentlemen of Wuxu 戊戌六君子. The reforms were abandoned and a volatile era of brittle autocratic rule finally ended with dynastic collapse and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912.

In six lengthy essays published in the Wuxu Year of 2018-2019, Xu Zhangrun addressed themes highlighted by the reforms of 1898 and the resonances of their failure in contemporary China. Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes, a lament for the end of the post-Mao Reform Era, is the most famous of these works as not only was it a daring critique of Xi Jinping’s rule it also outlined a series of policy prescriptions aimed at salvaging the situation. In five follow-up works, Xu Zhangrun analysed the historical context of China’s continued struggle with modernity, the state of the dominant party-state and the mixed prospects for its future. Along with practical policy advice, the cycle of essays warned of the dire consequences of China isolating itself  from the Western-led international community and the threat posed by Beijing’s imperial global ambitions. Xu titled his collection 戊戌六章 Wùxū Lìu Zhāng — Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year, which was a pointed reference to the failed Hundred Days Reforms of 1898 and the calamitous fate of the Qing dynasty.

Six Chapters was originally contracted to a university press in Hong Kong. In the repressive atmosphere that followed the quelling of the Hong Kong Uprising of 2019, however, the publishers were forced to withdraw from the project. As a result of the good offices and speedy work of Rong Wei, the book was published in June 2020 under the auspices of Bouden House in New York.

Unemployed and stripped both of professional and social status, Xu Zhangrun lives bound to Beijing and under constant surveillance. He sent a message of thanks to Rong Wei via a circuitous route that was read out at the award ceremony on 6 January. A translation of his remarks along with the original text are published below. We also include a précis of the award citation composed by Rong Wei and an encomium by the noted political scientist Andrew J. Nathan, who is an adviser to Bouden House, in which he celebrates Xu Zhangrun as well as Rong Jian 榮劍, a Beijing-based writer recognised at the award ceremony for his book Summoning the Spirits of Revolution: a critique of Wang Hui 為革命招魂——評汪暉的中國革命史觀 (New York: Bouden House, 2022).

With Professor Xu’s permission, we are also publishing a series of impromptu poems that he composed in January 2023, as the coronavirus ravaged his hometown in Lujiang county, Anhui province.


We conclude this chapter in the Xu Zhangrun Archive with video recordings of two lectures and a letter:

  • The first is a masterclass on civil society and the law delivered in 2011; and,
  • The second, recorded in 2014, takes as its theme autocracy and the virtues of constitutional governance.

These are followed by a link to A Farewell Letter to My Students.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 January 2023


Reports on the Bouden House Award Ceremony

Books by Xu Zhangrun Published by Bouden House

Further Reading

From The Other China

From Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Xu Zhangrun in The New York Review of Books
August 2021


Xu Zhangrun’s Jeremiad, and After

July 2018 to December 2018 

After the Future in China
Xu Zhangrun’s Triptych for Today

From December 2018 to January 2019, Xu Zhangrun published three long, interconnected essays to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the launch of what are know as China’s ‘Reform and Openness’ policies. The following translations have appeared in China Heritage:

Viral Alarm, 2020

Bouden House Award Citation

Rong Wei

Since its publication, China’s ongoing Crisis: Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog by Xu Zhangrun has resonated with readers like a modern-day work the Elegies of Chu, as being akin to Lu Xun’s Calls of Protest and even as a twenty-first-century version of Zheng Guanying’s Words of Warning in a Prosperous Age.

Xu Zhangrun’s writings are not merely part of an intellectual tradition, they also encapsulate the demand of a modern thinker for Chinese power-holders to be responsible to those over whom they rule. Xu knows all too well that although an academic like him may be powerless, he is possessed of a unique weapon — the pen. And it is through the pen that any daring writer can appeal to readers, hold the authorities to account and demand justice.

The essays in Six Chapters are disturbing and uplifting. They constitute a rebellion in writing. Three of the essays included therein are a daring critique of contemporary China, an analysis of the response to the coronavirus and a dark foreshadowing of China’s global isolation. Upon publication these essays resonated powerfully with readers in China and internationally and today, nearly five years later, they stand as a testament to Xu Zhangrun’s insights into the polycrises facing China’s rulers.

As Xu Zhangrun predicted, the people are no longer fearful. They increasingly see the system for what it is. The clock is indeed ticking.

Bouden House is honoured to recognise Xu Zhangrun’s achievement by awarding him its inaugural prize. We avail ourselves of this occasion to call on the Chinese authorities to reinstate Xu Zhangrun’s professorship at Tsinghua University and to restore his personal liberty.

Long ago, the great scholar and reformer Hu Shih observed that: ‘Teachers will have their say’. Xu Zhangrun remains determined to have his say, just as every thinking person in China should, by rights, have their say. For this is the bedrock of all modern civilised nations.

— précis by G.R. Barmé



榮偉 賀詞

《戊戌六章》China’s ongoing Crisis: Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog

《戊戌六章》由博登書屋出版以來被廣大讀者譽為當代之《離騷》,末世之《吶喊》,更是《盛世危言》。其振聾發聵,為民立言,為民請命,為天地立心,為萬世開太平,不但體現了中國傳統士大夫憂國憂民的家國情懷,更體現了一個現代知識份子批評監督政府社會歷史責任感。如他自己所說:書生無用,一聲長嘆。唯有執筆為劍,用力,用心,用命討公道,求正義。本書收集的其中三篇文章《我們當下的恐懼和期待》、《憤怒的人民不再恐懼》、《世界文明大洋中的中國孤舟》在當年發表時產生的廣泛而轟動影響, 可以說是批判中國執政當局三篇檄文!而今天中國大陸的現狀正應驗了他當年振聾發聵的危言:政治敗壞、政制潰敗、政治德性馨盡、內戰治理全面衰頹,鎖閉一切改良可能性,中國再度孤立於文明世界體系之外,人民已經不再恐懼,敗象已現,倒計時已經開始,立憲時刻將至。


The stele commemorating Wang Guowei at Tsinghua University, January 2020. Photograph by Xu Zhangrun


Acknowledging an Award for

China’s Ongoing Crisis:
Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog

Xu Zhangrun
Beijing, 6 January 2023


Thank you for honouring me with this award. It is both a recognition of my work and a source of comfort. Although I am unable to share this special occasion with you in person, I nonetheless do so in spirit. Traversing the wastelands of confinement, mine is now a solitary journey. I may have been condemned to ceaseless homebound peregrination and my voice stifled yet at my desk the life of the mind flourishes regardless. This is an unexpected blessing from providence.

[Note: See Cyclopes on My Doorstep, 22 December 2020]

Since the Year of the Dog [2018-2019], through its efforts Bouden House has dedicated itself to weaving the broken skein of independent and engaged Chinese thought at the same time as expanding its purview by publishing new work. In so doing it has sought to break through the embargo imposed on Chinese letters by Beijing’s censorship-state.

Bouden has repeatedly breached the wall of ignorance that the power-holders attempt to impose on a befuddled populace. It offers thereby a means of which Chinese-language thought and scholarship can wrest itself free and find a refuge from the confines of the ‘besieged city’ of China. These efforts contribute to the grander enterprise of advancing China’s modern civilisation.

Your work focuses on vouchsafing intellectual worth, nurturing new insights and facilitating the easy communication of ideas. They are a significant part of the ceaseless struggle between civilisation and barbarism and the tireless resistance that freedom mounts against tyranny.

Today you are celebrating the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Yours is a demonstration of the universal aspirations of the human heart and a validation of the pursuit of freedom and equality. We all see ourselves reflected in this endeavor. Such points of light as these can pierce the gloom of our present age. They will shine on far beyond the darkness and partake of eternity. The are as luminous as stars in the firmament.

In thanking Bouden House allow me also to express my sincere respect for Rong Wei, Bouden’s founding editor. This is also an opportunity for me to pay homage to all Unfettered Souls, Independent Spirits and to Thought itself, the most beguiling attribute of our existence.

We share this journey. May our efforts continue until the brilliance of freedom radiates throughout the Chinese world.

Xu Zhangrun
The Fifteenth Day of Twelfth Month of the
Renyin Year of the Tiger
6 January 2023

trans. G.R. Barmé






An Encomium for Bouden House &
In Praise of Xu Zhangrun and Rong Jian

Andrew J. Nathan


Bouden House performs a unique and essential function at a time when the publishing industry in China is unable to publish any work that is independent, critical, and honest. Many intellectuals in China have penetrating ideas and deep learning. Yet their voices are muffled by the need to hide their thoughts under layer after layer of conventional thinking and official jargon.

When intellectuals are unable to publish what they really think, a small number will explore their ideas in works that cannot be published — so-called “for the drawer.” But most will find that if they cannot write, they cannot fully think. When publishing is blocked, writing is hampered, and thinking is crippled. Without independent publishing, a civilization stagnates. Today only Bouden House makes possible the development of new thought for mainland China. Bouden House publishes the authors who explore the true challenges that China is facing today. It is a painful, effortful process, and the fact that we do not know where it will lead is precisely why it is so important.

The books published this year by Xu Zhangrun and Rong Jian are distinguished examples of such hard thinking and eloquent writing. Professor Xu Zhangrun is a great scholar, an elegant stylist, and a courageously independent critic not only of dictatorship but of the social norms that support it. His Six Essays provide a penetrating analysis of the decay that one-man dictatorship imposes on a sophisticated and humane civilization. Public servants become servile bureaucrats, citizens become resentful slaves, and caring colleagues isolate themselves from each other in fear.

Rong Jian’s deeply learned refutation of Wang Hui’s new leftism makes invigorating reading. Rong attacks those who, in what he calls a “Heidegger Moment,” take leave of their intellectual independence to sing the praises of the dictator. Rong stands up for the common sense of liberal values like rationality, cooperation, and fairness, against the obscure mythology of leaderism. He exposes the mystical language of those who use vague, romantic language to call for coercion and repression.

It is especially welcome that Bouden House has also produced an English language translation of Rong Jian’s book. There is too little communication between the two vigorous linguistic worlds that share a common interest in a great subject, China.

Both of these books cannot be published in China, as is the case with the other books and articles that Bouden House has published. But there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese outside of China who can read these books, and I hope some of them will bring the books home. In the more distant future, when intellectual freedom returns to China, the library of works that Bouden House is creating will serve as the Chinese people’s intellectual capital, as they consider where they stand in the long historical process of China’s development.

January 2023

‘I saw this line today: The whole of China is tussling with the Grim Reaper trying to save their parents’ lives. Everything is awash in tears.’ Source: the Chinese internet


Covid Elegies

Xu Zhangrun

Draft translations by Geremie R. Barmé

[Note: As the coronavirus epidemic swept through China in January 2023, Xu Zhangrun composed a series of elegies from which the following excerpts have been selected. The translations are in rough draft. — GRB]



A millennium flips on the horizon
Names inscribed back to front
Corpses float across the river
While the unspeakable travels in hushed tones
The vile and odious, however, ride high

The sun, sunken into the earth’s molten core,
Is forged into spikes
Which search out their kind
The empty eyes of the dead hang in the dark night
Deception glistens everywhere, like stars in heaven

The stricken are ninety million strong, their names stolen
Each now beyond harm by sword or halberd
All in this blood-laced confinement
Nothing for it, their breath cracks the windows
And subsumes their dreams of Grand Unity, breaching its fortresslike walls

I am become Death
My body marked by grief and wounds
Carrying my own tomb I leap into the furnace
No map to follow on the onward journey
Brothers and sisters,
Let us go then, you and I
Together to The Square

The Fourteenth Day of Twelfth Month of the
Renyin Year of the Tiger
5 January 2023
An extempore composition








The souls of the death
The fury of the living

Today I learned that the mother of a dear friend had just passed away.
My own mother lingering in death’s borderland fights for her life.
I wrote the following in state of furious agitation:

One of Two

No matter how worn and weary my heart
Hot tears of agony can still well up
In the dark pavilion the constellations appear
The moonlight steals in, but cannot clean these wounds

I would beat loud the drums
Cry out for these wronged souls
I would blow the trumpets
To summon back the dead

The light of dawn smiles no more
The sun invisible in the depths of this ocean
The flowers still blossom, but only the rabble celebrates
In this prison-land our cells are death’s antechamber

Give the salt back to the vast oceans
They too will one day be dry
Give the blazing light back to the sun
When it dies you will burn with us …

The Nineteenth Day of Twelfth Month of the
Renyin Year of the Tiger
10 January 2023
An extempore composition







太陽熄滅,吾與汝偕亡 …



They’ve run out of coffins

Night pitch dark, as though in mother’s womb once more
May that most beautiful of women give birth again
I entered the world on a sorrowful February morning, blameless
As I grow old, let me be a wandering bard

Spring in my hands, my first love’s blush on my cheeks
Repeating again what has been said a million times before
The prisoner would be free of their shackles
To grow old before your time leaves you with a life of regret

Let life then torment life
Force those tears back into the eyes from which they fell
Those burning lips don’t need to burn on a candle holder
The searing snow consumes the corpses on the hills and in the fields

In final death you will embrace the world
All of your curses left to the beggar-soul
Oh, King, praise you then this bitter weaping
This world you’ve created in which
There are no coffins for the dead

The Eighteenth Day of Twelfth Month of the
Renyin Year of the Tiger
9 January 2023
An extempore composition








A Vast Graveyard


My homeland is a graveyard
Tombs crammed together, covering 90,000 kilometres
We are all related, these men and women
In the mud stifled muttering warms the night
Each season filled with the cremations
Rotting footfall striding through the days
Lines of mourners on a death march mouthing the truth
Each hurriedly treading on the shadows that go before in a headlong rush to Hell
Life and death compounded here, the same insoluble riddle
Life and vitality both lunging in search for Fate in the deep
These winter flames burn ever bright, the skies suffused with crimson light
The smoke and ashes spewing forth to cover all those treasured relics
Heads crack open, spewing speckles of rust
The way forward too painful to contemplate
We are born, we are sent to our death, we are buried, we rot
Those of us who are still among the living are relieved, as yet untouched …

The Thirteenth Day of Twelfth Month of the
Renyin Year of the Tiger
4 January 2023
An extempore composition


我們更慶幸自己還活著,暫時沒事兒 …


Xu Zhangrun — Two Lectures & a Farewell Letter