Liu Xiaobo and the Crystal Spirit

July 1, 2012

Liu Xiaobo, (Bilingual Edition, Jeffrey Yang trans.) June Fourth Elegies, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Liu Xiaobo annoys people. He refuses to forget the bloodshed of June 1989 and he will never forgive. Liu Xiaobo holds people responsible for their actions and for their inaction. Killing peaceful students and bystanders in Beijing; harassing grieving parents; imprisoning supporters of the protest movement across China; censoring the media and social networks; and denying for decades the government’s crimes: these are all contemptible actions of the autocrats which Liu Xiaobo condemns. But sitting back in the years since the deaths, embracing hedonism and political amnesia, single-mindedly making money, these are forms of inaction that he cannot respect. And he cannot always respect himself.

Liu Xiaobo advised student activists during the 1989 protest movement in China. At the time he was a popular lecturer at Beijing Normal University, specialising in aesthetics and cultural criticism. As an engaged intellectual Liu Xiaobo took a leading role in a hunger strike defying the government, but he worked to prevent bloodshed on the streets of China’s capital city as tanks approached Tiananmen Square, encouraging students to withdraw peacefully from the symbolic centre of their resistance. He was imprisoned as a “black hand” behind the protests and for opposing the military crackdown. And he was, of course, dismissed from his teaching post. But Liu Xiaobo has never forgiven himself for taking refuge in the foreign diplomatic quarter once the killing began, while many “ordinary folk” remained on the streets of Beijing to defy the military. And he has never forgiven himself for making a public confession that precipitated his first release from prison in 1991, a confession used for propaganda purposes by the Chinese State authorities. His self-criticism is expressed through his June Fourth elegies:

Besides a lie

I own nothing

Since his release in 1991 Liu Xiaobo has been a gadfly and a relentless critic, refusing to bow to Party dictate and co-authoring the human rights declaration “Charter 08,” which immediately attracted twelve thousand Chinese signatories. For this stubborn resistance he has been subject to reform through labour or imprisoned three more times. He is still in prison today.

Each year from 1990 until his most recent imprisonment in 2009 he has commemorated June Fourth with poems that narrate events of 1989 and speak to, or speak on behalf of, the departed souls. These poems honour parents still seeking justice. They force recognition from a world that may prefer to forget. They confess Liu Xiaobo’s errors or failures, and express his guilt. They expose historical lies.

Liu Xiaobo’s poems force the reader to reconsider, and to rethink iconic images of June Fourth:

Who was it, the one casually photographed

the young lad standing before the tank

waving his arms

moving the whole world

and yet, save for the tank’s muzzle

no one could see his face

His name, too,

no one knows

And then…and then

his trace disappeared

the world that cried for him

didn’t want to keep looking for him

His words are troubling, making us confront reality even as we slip into forgetfulness, demanding that we recognise our choices. He reminds us of

The ease with which money

forgives bayonets and lies

But in remembering the dead Liu Xiaobo does not mystify heroism or valorise the cause of liberty:

Some say

to die for freedom

is a kind of greatness

that a child sacrificed for freedom

attains the sacred

but maternal love, rooted in ties of blood

prefers its own child

to live an ordinary life

The struggle to live an ordinary life, an honest and an examined life: this is the struggle of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, the poet and photographer to whom Liu Xiaobo dedicates some of these poems. Liu Xia made up her mind to marry Liu Xiaobo while he was in prison, despite official censure and the full knowledge that husband and wife would be harassed and separated. When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Liu Xia was prevented from attending the ceremony in Oslo. Liu Xiaobo was in prison. Liu Xia was placed under house arrest. Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia and China were therefore represented on the world stage at the Nobel Prize ceremony by an empty chair.

But, Liu Xiaobo might ask, who needs a chair, when kneeling before tombs and in palaces has such a long history in China?

This nation

is used to memorializing tombs as palaces

before slave owners existed

it was already well-learned

so as to kneel with the most exquisite grace

Throughout these poems from 1990 to 2009 a number of words repeat, particularly wangling (departed soul). The poems are full of words like shiti (corpse), jiankong (surveillance), jianyu (prisoner), guizishou (executioner) and fenmu (grave). But speaking to, for, and with the departed souls in their unmarked graves, Liu Xiaobo also repeats words and images such as liming (dawn) and yongheng (eternal). Because of the events of 1989 themselves, but also because of people like Liu Xiaobo and his conscious acts of remembering, June Fourth will become, over time, a landmark event in Chinese history. Just as Qu Yuan and his poem Li Sao (“Departing in Sorrow”) are remembered two thousand three hundred years after his legendary ritual suicide, the protest movement of 1989 and the example of activists such as Liu Xiaobo will have a place of honour and a defining role in a transformed and more democratic China. In this, the Chinese dead of 1989 join those who struggled in the past for reform or revolution, for democracy and science. They join with the living of the future who will eventually reverse the verdict of the guizishou who ordered their soldiers to kill Chinese citizens.

George Orwell, the Lu Xun of England and an internationalist, immortalized the young republicans of Spain and their “crystal spirit” through his actions on both the battlefield and the political frontline, and especially through his poems, essays, and his Homage to Catalonia. Liu Xiaobo’s actions on the streets of Beijing and in various prisons, his honest and uncompromising words over many years, and his Nobel Peace Prize, are all components of the crystal spirit of Chinese dissent. The June Fourth Elegies are Liu Xiaobo’s homage, they are poems for China and for the world. In this bilingual edition Jeffrey Yang has brought Liu Xiaobo’s spirit to a broader international readership, though Liu Xiaobo himself remains locked away in prison, serving an eleven year sentence for attempting to “subvert state power” through free speech, peaceful dissent, and a call for multiparty elections. Liu Xiaobo is hidden away from the world, but as Don DeLillo says “we see [Liu’s] face in his words.” During his current incarceration we do not know, however, if Liu Xiaobo is able to continue writing his June Fourth elegies.

In a statement prepared for his 2009 trial Liu Xiaobo said: “I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.”

Liu Xiaobo annoys people. He holds rulers, ordinary citizens, and himself to account. This trait reinforces his ongoing importance. As George Orwell explained: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The rulers who ordered in the tanks, rifles, and bayonets in 1989 do not want to hear from Liu Xiaobo or from other people who refuse to forget. They, and their lineal descendants, prefer a different narrative, one focused on economic development and political control disguised as “social harmony.” But as Lu Xun, an internationalist and the George Orwell of China, wrote in 1926 in response to a political massacre: “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.” Every year since 1989 June Fourth has been marked in Hong Kong by large and heart-felt commemorations. Can we imagine a future time when such commemorations will attract free crowds back to Tiananmen Square?

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