Over the years, a number of writers have directly addressed China’s censors, a vast and lavishly funded system of disparate individuals and groups that ranges from high-level ideologues in Beijing like Politburo Standing Committee Member Wang Huning to lowly Internet invigilators in the provinces.
In January 2021, Xu Zhangrun, perhaps China’s most famous dissident legal scholar, released a letter addressed not only to China’s censors but also to the editors and publishers with whom he had worked for decades. That essay, translated below, is Letter Eight in his Ten Letters from a Year of Plague (庚子十劄), a collection that, read as a whole, is an account of the persecution he has suffered since he published a fierce point-by-point appraisal of the Xi Jinping era and warned of the calamities that lay ahead. The letters also comprise an agonized farewell both to his former life and to China’s short-lived era of progressive reform.
In the weeks following the appearance of Xu’s jeremiad in late July 2018, all evidence of his existence was gradually and meticulously scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. In response to what amounted to an official act of damnatio memoriae, Xu issued another critique in which he asked, “do you honestly believe you can simply make me evaporate and disappear entirely from the ranks of humanity?” Despite being reduced to the status of what in the Soviet Union was known as a “former person,” Xu has continued to circulate his writings as best he can in China as well as in the international Chinese media. A bilingual archive of his “rebellion in writing” is also available.
As a result of his ongoing defiance, Xu Zhangrun was stripped of all of his professional duties and rights as well as repeatedly harassed by both the police and other state security organs. While detained by police for a week in July 2020, Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions where Xu had worked for nearly two decades, sacked him and confiscated his pension fund. Ever since, he has survived on his savings and a meagre unemployment benefit. Living in relative isolation and under constant surveillance, he is forbidden from receiving any support from friends or admirers.
The following letter was written after an encounter that Xu Zhangrun had with a number of his former editors in late December 2020. In a record of that occasion, he noted that “my remaining friends are as few as the scattered stars at dusk” and that “here I was, an unemployed nobody who, having come into town to buy groceries, had happened to encounter a gathering of ‘somebodies’ celebrating their latest academic achievements.” It was a painful affair for all involved. At the end of the reverie that he composed that night, Xu mused: “In Heaven’s Will there is perhaps a sense of decency. Humankind, too, may boast some saving grace. Regardless, the tortuous beauty of this moonlit night leaves me feeling as though my soul has been rent asunder.”
Below, Xu invokes the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote: “Truth, though powerless and always defeated in a head-on clash with the powers that be, possesses a strength of its own: whatever those in power may contrive, they are unable to discover or invent a viable substitute for it. Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it.”
Arendt also observed that: “Where everybody lies about everything of importance, the truth-teller, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the unlikely event that he survives, he has made a start toward changing the world.”
Xu Zhangrun is just such a truth-teller.
A Note on the Translation
This is an edited translation of “Letter Eight” in Xu Zhangrun’s Ten Letters from a Year of Plague (庚子十劄), the Chinese original of which will be published in New York in July 2021. Deletions and annotations have been made with the author’s permission.
—Geremie R. Barmé
A Letter to My Editors and to China’s Censors
‘The Lost Poetry of Our Talk’
My Dear Former Editors,
I hope you’ll indulge me by finding time to read this letter. Apart from my fellow educators and students, those I had the most to do with over the years were you, my editors.
While for me the bond between teacher and student fostered a sense of “being at home,” publishing houses and editors were akin to a courtyard that was attached to the spacious main building of my true vocation. You have all been part of the intimate world of loved ones and friends that provided a haven from the outside world, although you also determined the outer limits of our self-imposed confinement.
My academic home offered me a contemplative environment in which to work, and the courtyard you provided was like an open space in which I could perambulate. The inner dwelling and your inviting courtyard were connected and air circulated freely between the two. When the skies were clear I could see the distant mountains or, when necessary, I might limit my gaze to the courtyard, occupying myself by following the twists and turns of its paths. At times, I might linger for a moment and contemplate the wisteria trailing along the walls as it was buffeted by a soft breeze or that glistened with drops of water from a recent shower. It’s hard to express the myriad of pleasures that I felt there.
Within the confines of that courtyard, I would also encounter beguiling individuals who found pleasure in the blossoms that they cultivated. Although they readily took fright when some petals fell without warning, they would soon adjust to the changed climate; henceforth, they would speak in a whisper and tread more carefully.
Educators like me devoted themselves to teaching as well as to writing—the latter is both a personal pleasure and a professional requirement. It was essential that we were published, and that our work appeared frequently. So it was inevitable that people like me had a lot to do with people like you; we needed you and so we were in constant contact. However, as you well know, due to the dramatic change in my circumstances we have recently drawn apart. In fact, I’ve lost contact with all of you, and the people with whom I’d been in constant communication have long since fallen completely silent. Given that I was all but drummed out of academia, it is hardly surprising that my former colleagues haven’t been in touch. Although, now that all of the editors with whom I’d previously worked so closely have also gone quiet, it really does feel as though the walls are closing in on me. To put it another way, it feels like dusk on a gloomy winter’s day. Now I wander aimlessly up and down the noisy streets of a northland that is cloaked in a suffocating smog-haze. I’m surrounded by flitting shadows and robbed of all human warmth.
Over the years, you inundated me with the academic books and journals you published, even if I hadn’t ordered or subscribed to them. Since 2018, that reliable tide gradually receded until it has now disappeared entirely. Of course, in the grander scheme of things it’s hardly worth mentioning even if, quite frankly, I’m left feeling abandoned and with a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s funny now to remember that I used to think those waves of books and journals were an annoyance; now I realize that they were as much a part of my life as the main sites of my work: my study at home, the library, and the lecture halls of Tsinghua University. Moving between those three places was the all-engrossing itinerary as well as being the rhythm of my daily round. Now I’m barred from the libraries and I’m not even allowed in a lecture hall; express deliveries of the latest publications no longer appear on my doorstep, and I’ve been reduced to relying entirely on my personal library. It’s stultifying.
When, upon occasion, I do venture into the city to browse the bookstores, although I’m relieved to see that both old friends and relatively recent acquaintances are still publishing lavishly produced tomes, I can’t help feeling resentful that my name is banned from appearing in print. It brings to mind that famous line by the great historian Chen Yinque, who said: “Though I’ll be dead soon enough, who knows when my work will ever appear?”
[Note: An internationally renowned scholar, Chen had chosen to stay in China after 1949 and was courted by Mao, who offered him a leading role in the reconstituted Academia Sinica. Chen said he would only take the position if Mao promised that neither he nor his colleagues would be required to study Marxist-Leninist dogma. In 1962, Mao’s powerful secretary, Hu Qiaomu, visited Chen at his university in Guangzhou. During their conversation, Chen made the remark quoted here by Xu Zhangrun. In reply, Hu declared:“Your work will be published soon and you’ll be with us for years to come.” In reality, Chen remained an isolated independent academic and died a broken man at the height of the Cultural Revolution. His unpublished works only appeared well after Mao’s demise. By comparing himself to Chen Yinque, Xu Zhangrun is saying in effect that he will not be published again until Xi Jinping is dead and buried.]
What’s to be done? At least I’ve finally been able to get another WeChat account, so I have access to a relatively wide range of material. I can even follow the goings on in academia; I suppose that’s something. Still, it’s somewhat like a window into a foreign land: there they all are, my former academic friends as well as the present intellectual stars, the businesspeople, and the retired bureaucrats. I follow their discussions and debates, as well as all the intellectual grandstanding; why, I can even learn all about their lavish recent trips around the country and their new ventures. Then there’s all the photos and the video clips that they post of themselves. All of it affords me a momentary escape from my sequestered courtyard; it’s as though I can take a stroll in the raucous streets outside. Thankfully, there are some decent types among them and, no matter how constrained the overall atmosphere is right now, I think to myself: surely some worthwhile things will still be produced that will leave a meaningful legacy for the future. After all, not everyone will be sentenced to social death like me! Frankly, the only things flourishing in my ongoing intellectual isolation are at best banal and mediocre. Or, to put it more plainly, once your academic life has been assassinated, as your mind atrophies, it is inevitable that your spirit will also wither. Those lines from “Temptation of the Poet” by the Welsh writer R.S. Thomas hold true:
“The temptation is to go back,
To make tryst with the pale ghost
[. . .]
. . . there to renew
The lost poetry of our talk
Over the embers of that world
We built together. . .”
They reflect both my present situation and my mental state.
To return, however, to the topic at hand, as editors and publishers I imagine that you now find yourselves in a harsh new era of “Qin Rule” [of the kind praised by Mao Zedong, who said of himself that he was Marx plus a modern-day version of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty]. You are in the sights of an odious regime that shores itself up by silencing dissenting voices. Although each publishing house is dealing with the situation in its own way, I know that you are all faced with an impossible dilemma and subject to all kinds of overt control as well as covert pressure.
China’s present totalitarian order has imposed a regime of censorship the likes of which has never been seen before. Under it, editing has become a particularly fraught occupation and shepherding anything through to publication a hazardous process. Everyone involved in the industry is hesitant. Authors feel that they are treading on thin ice. They still have to appeal to the good offices of publishers who may now respond in any number of ways. Those who contribute to what are presently deemed to be “core ideological publications” enjoy considerable state largesse, even if it means dealing with editors whose professionalism is a joke at best. The worst of them squeeze everything out of the system that they can while barring access to others. Such editors can constantly indulge themselves with well-lubricated banquets and frequent official trips to scenic spots. They cream money off the funds allocated for the various symposiums that they organize and rationalize it all by thinking they simply have to rip off the system to get by. Even though I’m no longer involved in the scene, I know that every law journal produced in China has such scumbags working for it. But those “core publications” are the worst.
Forgive my ranting: It’s been so long since I’ve seen any of you, and I have no one to share my outrage with so I get quite emotional whenever I think about what’s going on. So, here I am, blurting out far more than I should.
I would hasten to add, however, that I remain extremely grateful that, throughout my own publishing career, I rarely encountered any editors who were motivated by such personal avarice. For the most part, they were all pretty much down to earth and quite a few of them were themselves really decent bookish types. Only now can I truly appreciate how lucky I was to have enjoyed such amicable working relationships. Then again, publishing tends for the most part to attract good people even though, like teaching, it isn’t a particularly popular career path.
As I’m writing this late at night, the faces of all of you—the editors I’ve worked with over the years—appear in my mind’s eye. I think back to all the times we agonized over a particular word or expression and how, sometimes, we ended up in heated arguments. Since it’s not possible to share my reminiscences with you over a drink, I am forced to savor these agreeable memories alone; never again will we wrangle over the minutiae of producing and printing my work, though I do remember an observation made by one particular editor-in-chief:
“Oh, that Xu Zhangrun, he’s just a drain on our resources. Do your best to avoid getting mixed up with his projects.”
Since all that’s left to me is the freedom to commit my thoughts to paper, my mind roams like an untethered horse and I’m writing down as many details here for you so I don’t forget. . . As I embark upon my autumn years, my mind is often crowded with past memories, my heart sunk in the lost courtyard that I once shared with you all. I also increasingly recall details from my youth and, as my memory speaks, I’m doing my best to make sense of things and find thereby some meaning and solace. It’s a welcome respite from my present predicament; for a moment, the warm glow of the past dispels the encroaching chill of winter. I may well be alone, but I refuse to be lonely.
So, this is how you find me today, wandering around my virtual courtyard, chanting poems to myself and engaging with you in what Parisian leftists [like Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet in Dialogues] called a “conversation that is a double capture” [that is, an “a-parallel evolution of two beings who have nothing whatsoever to do with one another”]. It’s a form of mental exercise that keeps me from going completely stir-crazy. After all, a series of precipitous events suddenly thrust me into old age, the presumed summit of a person’s life. It’s rather knocked the wind out of me.
In a collection of enigmatic aphorisms titled All Things Are Possible, the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov wrote:
“To be irremediably unhappy—this is shameful. An irremediably unhappy person is outside the laws of the earth. Any connection between him and society is severed finally. And since, sooner or later, every individual is doomed to irremediable unhappiness, the last word of philosophy is loneliness.”
Aristotle spoke of the world “beyond the polis,” one in which only beasts and god could exist. As I have been exiled from the “polis,” I have therefore become, to all intents and purposes, beast-like and a “former person.”
Actually, this letter will be included in a book that I’ve been writing. It will be in a collection that is something of a psychological account of my recent travails. This effort, too, is part of my ongoing struggle to fend off loneliness. I fear, however, that even before my words have run their course, the well of my inspiration will run dry, my soul will freeze and my solitude increase as I’m reduced to abject solitude.
Perhaps countless others who have been “irredeemably unhappy” at other times and in other climes will one day open my account of solitude while reading by a window and join me in a spirit of understanding. Perhaps they will smile knowingly, lost in some inebriated state and, in that instant, they might be able to dispel for a moment the profound sense of isolation that all of us confront. Together, we can be like Shestov’s “unhappy ones.”
Now, as the gengzi lunar year [of February 2020-February 2021] draws to a close, I’m revealing myself to you here in an effort to express what I can only presume is a shared sense of misery and, by communicating with you in this way, also to seek some consolation in fellowship. . . These are, at best, self-absorbed musings, recorded as I contemplate the emptiness that has enveloped me. Even though I seek hereby your companionship, I can hardly force you to embrace me with bear hugs.
An Editorial Education
My Dear Readers,
Over the years, I’ve been something of a part-time editor myself. You probably don’t know that in my callow youth I was very much taken with editing. [In the mid-1970s,] I compiled and wrote out the school paper that we regularly posted [written out in calligraphy on large sheets of paper and glued up on a dedicated wall]. In the process of editing, I’d add my own crude illustrations, do curlicues around the titles of articles, and play around with formatting. I even became fairly adept at selecting different character fonts and colors. I didn’t have much of a clue and pretty much did whatever I pleased; my aspirations were only limited by the fact that paper itself was in short supply.
Working on the school paper was one of the ways that helped me get through the harsh years of my youth [during the Cultural Revolution; the author was born in 1962]: all that dedicated concentration and the long hours of selfless industry helped dispel the feeling of desolation outside; added to that was my determination to overcome the limits of my frail and easily exhausted body. . . Hah, you’ll laugh if I dare suggest that those activities fired a maturity beyond my years.
After a night of toil, I’d set off in the faint light of dawn only to be subjected to the daily round of derision, contempt, and isolation at school. In class, I’d be called out and shamed in front of everyone, my work held up as a “negative teaching example”. . . During those years, school was a daily stint in purgatory. It’s ironic, but that’s how my lifelong dedication to teaching really began—and also how it has ended, with me now having been stripped of the right to teach at all. Fate can play such cruel jokes.
I often wondered what my teachers were really trying to teach. As intellectuals, they had been classified as the lowest of the low and had been subjected to the thought reform campaigns of the Communists and forced to endure frequent humiliation. Yet, here they were, imposing the [Mao-era politicized] education system on us. To a greater or lesser extent, they were the willing accomplices of the power holders. That the oppressors were also oppressed, or that those who had been wronged did wrong in turn, was, of course, hardly unique to that time. It was a reflection of the human condition itself; yet another example of the tragic nature of our existence and further evidence of the slavish underbelly of so many human relationships.
So-called social and political progress—if, indeed, “progress” as a substantive and meaningful concept is still desirable—should surely be about reducing and eliminating all kinds of enslavement while in the pursuit of greater, albeit invariably unattainable, freedom. Human beings are inherently free, just as they are also born enslaved and bound in the shackles of master-slave relationships. Freedom demands the breaking of those bonds so that the individual can enjoy autonomy and seek self-realization. It allows for the fullest expression of the self: our lusts, our enthusiasms and dynamism. Our innate sense of freedom is the closest thing we have to divinity. Our sense of transcendence is the means by which the world can truly be a place where human potential can be realized.
In the time of Jesus, this was the kind of salvation offered to people who were living in an irredeemable age; it is the same spirit that motivated the classical Confucians to pursue a positive role in the world. Without such possibilities, all of us are but adrift in an unprincipled realm of opportunism. If that is all there is, then people may just as well indulge in boundless hedonism and all kinds of craven behavior. Such individuals may like to think that they have broken free of convention and from their subjugation to others. In reality, however, they have only managed to enslave themselves in another way: they have sacrificed meaningful free will on the altar of mindlessness.
Maybe that’s why, as a university lecturer, I was always more interested in teaching my students how to think than in just expecting them to regurgitate the cut-and-dry formulas in the textbooks. I wanted to introduce them to the whole gamut of ideas and opinions regarding whatever the topic was under discussion. I was confident that was the best way for them to pursue the ideas in their own way and reach their own conclusions. Naturally, in the process, I’d share my views and idées fixes with them, but I was always keenly aware of the need not to hinder their intellectual curiosity. That’s why I never presented my take on things as being some kind of ex cathedra truth.
I suppose you could say that my pedagogical philosophy was typical of someone with a liberal mindset. After all, pronouncements like “the only possible conclusion is that. . .” are suited to law courts; monolithic approaches have no place in a university environment. Perhaps this is the basic difference between the kingdom of free thought and the mindset of the engineers, and from them come two completely different approaches, both in regard to social and political issues. You may well respond by claiming that society itself is a university and, in the “real world,” you’ll find yourself so embroiled in practicalities that you’ll soon forget most of what you’ve previously learned.
Of course, I acknowledge that school doesn’t result in a “finished product” as such, and that it is the life you have after your school years that really teaches you about how the world works. But a person’s school years have a crucial impact on their world view and the meaning of life. In particular, as it was in my case, you learn a great deal about good and evil. You learn how to respond to failure. Most of all, you realize how you will react to inequality and injustice. You also learn how to deal with the peers who betray you and how people in positions of power can make life hard for you. School tempers you in ways that help you better cope with the abuses that you might suffer, say, at the hands of a malicious police force, or the insults hurled at you by strangers. Among other things, it taught me how to deal with the fact that, in a society like ours, you’re completely powerless. Of course, on top of all of that is the inescapable reality that our political system denigrates you and discriminates against you at every turn.
It’s during your school years that you learn a whole set of social and political responses so that you can deal with all of these things, although it also encourages you to blame everything on an unjust fate or your lack of awareness. But, then again, learning how to make excuses for yourself is also part of your education. Once you’re out of school, regardless of whether things go your way, or even when you end up suffering one disaster after another, the manner in which you respond to whatever hand you’re dealt is very much determined by the things you have learned actively or passively during your early years.
Forgive me: I’ve let myself get carried away again. Maybe I should illustrate my point by saying a little more about my own experience. You see, I was tainted from birth because I grew up in a reactionary family [according to the strict Maoist era class system. Xu’s father was classified as unredeemable because he had been a member of the Nationalist Party’s Youth Corps before the Communist conquest of 1949]. Being congenitally politically suspect, I was shunned by society and so I sought a refuge in art and drawing. That’s how I ended up editing the paper at school. Although I was regarded officially as being little better than social detritus, my school was quite happy to exploit my talents—I proved to be useful, like recycled trash. Even though they pretty much left me alone and despite my ongoing sense of displacement, despite a sense of hopelessness, I somehow harbored a vague hope for the future. I was determined at the same time as being all but paralyzed by indecision. I dreamed of getting into art school, but after having repeatedly flunked the entrance exams, I realized that my future lay elsewhere. Eventually, I got into university [where I studied law] and, despite my continued impoverished circumstances, I also did my best to keep up my interest in art. Gradually, time whittled away my old motivation and I gave up on it entirely.
It was only when I became a university lecturer that I realized that some of my old interests were also relevant to my new. That’s how I got back into editing. I initiated a series of books and became involved in setting up new academic journals. I particularly enjoyed commissioning articles and putting together thematic issues of my journals. For six years, I edited Tsinghua Legal Studies, confident that I could use it to elucidate some key legal principles [that were a feature of contemporary debates]. I also established Historical Jurisprudence, a book series that ran for over 10 years [and which is described in Letter Seven, addressed to my former students], in the hope that it would make a contribution to legal reform in China. As both an author and an editor, I came to appreciate the laborious yet exciting processes involved in editing and publishing. That’s why I can well understand the situation that now confronts you. I long ago learned that it doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you might be about something; I also learned that frustration and outrage are useless. Initially, you might feel generally hopeful about things but, over time, you come to realize that it’s best to be cautious even as you do your best to nurture a fragile sense of possibility, even as you strain to keep that deep-seated sense of despair at bay.
A Censoring Regime
All that means that I’ve had a lifelong involvement in editing and publishing; it also means that I’ve also been subject to constant censorship. Ah, the censoring eye: it’s a painstakingly cultivated form of vision, a kind of tireless invigilation trained to penetrate obfuscating skeins of words and divine dangerous intent lurking in the minutiae of ideas. As it sifts through mountainous haystacks in search of tell-tale needles, the censoring eye is always in a state of alert trepidation. Nothing escapes its scrutiny.
The fact of the matter is that, in China, one way or the other just about everyone works for the censorate—there’s the Party leaders, of course, but the regime also enlists the services of the broad masses and readers themselves. As you know all too well in your professional activities, there’s the kind of censorship that kicks in before something even gets published as well as post-production censorship. These are two aspects of a highly developed system that features such things as special-purpose censorship, routine censorship, emergency censorship, run-of-the-mill censorship, and task-focused censorship. Before any of that even comes into play, however, there’s a crucial internal, individual mechanism of self-censorship. [As the classic Tao Te Ching puts it:] “The myriad things are born from being and being is born from non-being.” Authors are so afraid of being “off message” from the get-go that, by and large, they are generally quite neurotic.
That’s why, if you want to identify the defining feature of the regime that has held sway in China for over 70 years, without a doubt it would be censorship, the tireless and boundless desire to shut people up and cripple their minds.
Why? Ours is a political system that was founded on lies and violence, and it can only maintain itself by telling more lies and pursuing ever greater violence. It is so afraid of the truth that it suppresses information, perverts people’s souls, and does everything it can to eliminate independent and free thought. To keep people safely cordoned off from the truth, it must plaster over every single crack in its edifice of falsehood. This is the modus operandi of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, be they in the East or in the West.
Being from a “reactionary family” I was, of course, congenitally tainted. That meant that, when I did something that didn’t measure up, it was never regarded as being due to a lack of ability, rather it was because my “bad attitude” had been bred in the bone. A “bad attitude” reflected a flawed “ideological orientation” that, it only stood to reason, meant that I had, and was, a “political problem.”
You didn’t need very much talent or skill to put together a high-school paper. My job was pretty formulaic. The devil was quite literally in the detail. Policing the contents of each issue of the newspaper demanded a very particular skill set. In the first instance, your class monitor and the head of your year’s study committee had to approve every item that might appear in the paper even before it was formally screened by the year’s student propaganda cadre and your own teacher. After they had all had a say, the head class monitor would have to make doubly sure that not even the slightest “potential problem” had eluded the various layers of vigilance. Sometimes, they’d call on the class committee to participate in the discussion and maybe even invite some relevant classmates, in particular the hyper-active Party types, so that they too could cast an eye over things. What kind of “potential problems” were they looking for? Something, anything, that might be construed as being sensitive or politically questionable, of course.
China’s “Red Dynasty” is a brilliant self-promoter, and over the years it has evolved numerous ways to celebrate itself. When you boil it all down, however, ultimately all the overblown rhetoric is really just about the “great, glorious, and infallible” leader. So, the real art of avoiding political problems was about, first and foremost, making sure that you had the correct political perspective on things and, secondly, honing your abilities so you could identify and uncover enemies of the revolution. You had to do so with unwavering conviction and resolute application; there was no room for prevarication or fuzzy thinking. The Party-state was by nature flawless