I first wrote this in New York in June 1989, after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and after I heard that Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) had been arrested in Beijing. I had to vent my feelings.
The Liu in this article is the highly individual literary critic Liu from more than 20 years ago. We were all very young then, and the world did not seem as complicated as it seems today; what I’ve written here feels rather green behind the ears to me now.
At the end of 1993, when I went back to Beijing, he was already out of jail. We went through many things together in the years after, but I have never shown this text to my old friend.
In 2000, I was jailed and deported. In 2001, I founded the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) in exile, with Meng Lang’s (孟良) assistance in Boston and Liu’s help in Beijing. After Liu became chairman of the ICPC in 2004, his role in China grew in importance, but we also had a lot of differences and disappointments.
At the end of 2008 he was jailed again, because he co-authored Charter ’08. On Christmas Day last year my friend was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion.”
I am sad and incensed; I miss him very much and can hardly express my feelings. This is why I’ve updated this article. When this is published, at least Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia (劉霞), will be able to read it.
Liu Xiaobo is very gentle, but he cannot stand any false kindness; he emphasizes individualism, though in daily life he needs his friends very much ... His unique personality highlights exactly the kind of character that is so extremely rare among Chinese intellectuals.
I am trying to describe him with simple words, because he is such a man of flesh and blood, a very resolute man; a man of action who is also deeply immersed in thinking. Some people go to jail, and what they leave behind are their deeds and opinions, while their personality and their image become more and more blurred. But he, a man of such strong opinions, has left us so much character and spirit, so many stories — and for me there is also a kind of silent frustration, when I think back to more relaxed times, which makes me not at all relaxed now.
This is my friend, my good friend Liu. He is a very fidgety professor, pacing back and forth through a room, cigarette in his mouth, absent-mindedly trying to brush off some dirt from his shirt with one hand, with the most inane expression on his face, asking me the most trivial questions about my daily life. He gets on my nerves, my face may even begin to show it. I am trying to answer him, to somehow enter his system, so I can develop my anxiety within his stammering questions. Or maybe I can change the subject, ask him a few metaphysical questions and make him go on talking till morning.
As long as you are with him, you have no rest anyway; you have to travel along the way of his thoughts. He will expound on Kant, and in the next moment he has jumped to Camus. I have often heard him repeat that sentence from The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus says: “I have never heard of anyone who died for ontology.” He even told me that at his home in Beijing he would recite his favorite classical books from the West to his wife, his son and the walls. He said he had recited A Hundred Years of Solitude three times all the way through, and he can make you believe that he has recited Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation), also three times.
In 1987 in Beijing, he said I would just scurry around on my bicycle the whole day, while I retorted that he could go on prattling the whole day on his bicycle.
In the spring of 1988, in this volatile period, I had a strange idea. I wanted to find someone who could “team up for prattling” with him. So I wrote him a note on a piece of paper and gave it to a friend who would visit him that day. I just asked him to come to a certain classroom at the Foreign Languages Institute at Weigongcun, at 2 o’clock on a certain day. “See you there!” That was all. By that time he was already teaching at Beijing Normal University. But he came, riding his bike, at the time I had requested.
When he saw me, he asked half in jest what kind of holy mission I had in store. I just led him into the room and introduced him to the poet Duo Duo (多多) and other writer friends waiting there for him. Liu was very surprised, but he understood what I had in mind. We sat down, and Duo Duo began asking questions, with a little assistance from me.
From the May Fourth Movement of 1919 we moved on to the European enlightenment; from Kant we leaped to Wang Guowei (王國維), the Chinese historian and literary critic at the beginning of the 20th century; from Liu’s take on a series of Western philosophers he moved on to his opinion on a whole bunch of famous Chinese intellectuals. Liu just kept going, one question after the other. This was the time when many books from the West were translated at once.
We started from socially engaged thinkers like Camus, Sartre and Hannah Arendt, then Liu dissected a few problems in the works of the famous contemporary Chinese philosopher Li Zehou (李澤厚) and spoke of the Chinese intellectuals’ split personalities in times of dictatorship. After a few hours like that we had come to face reality; we were overcome with sadness.
At the time, Liu was called a dark horse; first he startled the established literary world with his critical theory, then he used his thorough knowledge of classical Western philosophy to stir up a Chinese world of thinking that was only just taking form again after the Cultural Revolution. People spoke of the “Liu Xiaobo phenomenon” or the “Liu Xiaobo shock.” At all the private book stands in the capital, Liu’s book A Critique of Choice — Dialogue with Li Zehou was only available at several times the original price, and even then you were made to buy two other slower-selling tomes on top.
It was April in New York when he called me. He was determined to return to China within the next two days. In fact, he had already bought a non-refundable ticket where the date could not be changed. I put down the receiver and hurried over to his place. Once I saw him, I said: “Xiaobo, I am proud of you. You go first, I’ll follow you soon.” He showed nothing anymore of the confusion of the days before. With a rare calm, he said, still a little haltingly: “Bei Ling, we ... at this time ... we cannot go on waiting here in New York, isn’t this the moment we kept preparing ourselves for all our lives?”
In those days we sat in front of the TV night and day, watching thousands and thousands of enthusiastic young students walk in the streets, demonstrating for the future of our republic. They were so sincere. What were we doing, getting excited and crying in New York in front of the TV — we had to go back, to be part of Beijing, together with the students.
Finally, he just went, without looking back. He was prepared to go to jail, even prepared to be arrested on arrival at the airport, and he knew how they treated intellectuals in prison. But what we had not expected was that our government would let the army open fire on the students, would let tanks and armored vehicles drive over the bodies of ordinary citizens. Who would have wanted to imagine such cruelty?
That month, after June 4, Liu walked out of the apartment of the Australian diplomat and writer Nicholas Jose at the embassy compound in Jianguomenwai. He didn’t want to hide any more. He had survived, but in this time of dying and killing he needed to be together with his students, with the people of Beijing. He certainly had nothing to be ashamed of.
When he left New York, I was worried for him. Going back at this time could arouse the suspicions of the government, he could be seen as a “manipulator” on a political agenda.
However, Liu said: “I am going back to take up my responsibility as a university teacher. Everything I have done in the US is public knowledge. In my writings, I have emphasized the need for intellectuals with an independent character, who are not involved in any political organization. I have supported the democratic process and non-violent principles. Besides, my kind of temperament would not be welcome in any political group.”
He walked out into the street and was arrested. He had put his actions behind his words. He had written five books and given numerous lectures. He stammered and then kept on talking up a storm; he took sides all right; his combative style would let the objects of his critique feel that he lacked calm and objectivity. His disregard for “face,” his cutting and uncompromising remarks, made people uncomfortable. He didn’t care at all what people said about him.
In a nutshell, according to common custom, he had too many faults, but his unique personality highlights exactly the kind of character that is so extremely rare among Chinese intellectuals. He is very gentle, but he cannot stand any false kindness; he emphasizes individualism, though in daily life he needs his friends very much.
Actually, he is easy to get along with; he knows how complicated people can be and still keeps yearning for simplicity. He speaks the truth and never tries to gloss over human weakness. His understanding comes close to “the-thing-in-itself,” but he never styles himself as speaker of “the real thing.” The more you get to know him, the more you can sense something like an instinctive breath of fate.
Liu really has gone to jail and has a heavy prison term hanging over his head. And I was afraid, so I keep on vegetating on US soil. We had agreed to return together, even booked tickets, but I hesitated. We were together from morning to night, but now there is such a huge difference between us. I blame myself; I am ashamed of my cowardice.
There is no other choice anymore. All this young blood, those departed souls, all these people in the depths of jail, and now Liu in prison. All of this will restrict my life, and my pen — anything I will do from now on.
This is Beijing; this is the city I grew up in, where I went through all sorts of difficulties. The people are very direct and friendly. Beijing, the blood of Beijing, the people of Beijing, the students; Liu Xiaobo, Zhou Duo (周舵), Hou Dejian (侯德健) and the ones who were arrested, they will always come after me and keep haunting my dreams.
Bei Ling, poet and essayist, divides his time between Germany and Taiwan. He was imprisoned in 2000 in Beijing for trying to publish Tendency, a literary magazine.
TRANSLATION: MARTIN WINTER
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