For too long now we’ve leaned upon the blade of the bayonet’s lies, shamelessness, selfishness, weaknesses, so that we’ve wholly lost both memory and time – life numbed, unceasing and interminable, from zero begins to zero it ends: what qualifications can we claim for our mighty nation? None with the least merit. And what remains for us? Across this land even the deserts are at fault. The deserts with their vast nothingness and desolation – is this what’s left for us? I, too, eat steamed human-blood buns: at the most I form decorative ornaments against an anti-humanist system – caught then released, released then caught – and do not know when this game will ever end, nor know if I’ve actually done anything for the departed souls, to be able to let myself recollect with a clear heart and conscience.
I long to use resistance and imprisonment as atonement, to try to realize my idealistic convictions with integrity, but this creates deep, painful wounds for my family. In truth, imprisonment for me, for activists working against an authoritarian system, is nothing to flaunt – it’s a necessary honor living at the mercy of an inhuman regime, where there’s little choice for the individual but resistance. Inasmuch as resistance is a choice, imprisonment is simply a part of this choice: the inevitable vocation of traitors of a totalitarian state, like a peasant must take to the fields, or as a student must read books. Inasmuch as resistance is a choice to descend into hell, one mustn’t complain about the darkness; as far as I think there’s an indestructible wall up ahead, I still must exert the strength to smash into it – and the wound in my head that flows with blood is self-inflicted. One cannot resent anyone, cannot blame anyone, but must bear the wound alone. Who was it who let you deliberately fly like a moth into the flame, rather than circle around?
As I toasted the elders of the autocracy, and my unwavering stance – with a righteousness inspiring reverence – won me the brave epithet of “democracy activist” with an awareness that this was a moment of consummate achievement and virtue – precisely then the slow inner torment of my close, extended family began. Each day I’m rarely concerned with the actual people who live around me, but am usually only concerned with sublime abstractions: justice, human rights, freedom. I use my family for my day’s security as I gaze with troubled heart and trembling flesh upon the everyday failings of the world. During a three-year prison sentence, my wife made thirty-eight trips from Beijing to Dalian to see me, and eighteen of these trips she couldn’t even bear to actually face me and quickly dropped some things off and hurried back alone. Trapped in an icy loneliness, unable to preserve the slightest amount of privacy while being followed and spied on, she tirelessly waited and tirelessly struggled, with a hair-turning-white-overnight perseverance. I’m punished by the dictatorship in the form of a prison; I punish my family by creating a formless prison around their hearts.
This is a particular kind of totalitarian cruelty where the bloodshed remains unseen – and in China it is especially cruel and severe. From the time agrarian reform was initiated in the 1950s (“suppression of counterrevolutionaries,” “ideological remolding” via the Three-Anti/Five-Anti Campaigns, the Gao-Rao Anti-party Group, the Hu Feng Anti-party Group, “purging counterrevolutionaries,” “socialist transformation of industry and commerce,” the Anti-Rightest Movement) to the 1960s and 1970s (the Four Cleanups Movement, the Socialist Education Movement, the Cultural Revolution, “criticizing the rightist deviationist Wind of reversing verdicts,” the April Fifth Movement) then through the 1980s and 1990s (the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, the Anti-Liberalization Campaign, the June Fourth Movement, “suppressing the Democratic Party and all other political dissidents,” “cracking down on the Falun Gong and all nongovernmental organizations”), fifty years have passed: China grows in enormity with a population of 1.9 billion and yet it’s nearly impossible to find a whole family intact. Man and wife divided; father and son turned enemies; friends betray each other; a dissident tries to implicate a group of innocents; an individual’s imprisoned for holding different political views – among family and friends we all must bear unlawful harassment from the police.
While across this stretch of earth, so many innocent victims are condemned and even derided behind the so-called “selflessness” of career politicians. For their own power, reputation, status, and so called “perfection of character” – in order to receive the adoration of a god – they treat people as their personal stepping-stones; even those closest to them can only serve the authorities’ absolute perfection and sacrifice everything for nothing. China’s ancient political wisdom and political character, too, was one of “self-perfection to achieve selflessness,” and was marked by a cold-bloodedness that lacked a shred of humanity or human happiness – from the mythical Yu the Great trying to tame the floods for thirteen years and passing his home three times and not entering once to see his family to Mao Zedong’s wife who died in prison, such has been consecrated as a paragon of political character. The victors in particular among them never say to those they’ve victimized (including their own family), “I’m sorry,” their hearts ever at peace without any anguish (at most they assume the appearance of a guilty conscience and remorse). Instead, they transform these victims into saintly, godly capital for themselves to flaunt about society – upon their own fake faces they paste another layer of gold.
If the excessive blood-soaked policies of the totalitarian state didn’t exist, a politician would have no need to let others sacrifice so much, and family, in particular, pay the highest price of the sacrificed. Often when I think about the road of resistance I’ve chosen, scattered with the sacrifices my family has been forced to make, it’s almost unbearable. During these recurring moments I truly resent myself, to the point that I feel I am indeed a most repugnant cause.
Long before June Fourth, I had been digging plots of unfilial piety and national nihilism in the ancestral graveyard; yet what nation do I face – “motherland”: this large, empty word has always retained a suspicious posturing, and especially for us here patriotism is a villain’s last refuge. I’ve never been one to ask about a person’s race or ethnic background, but instead ask about the place where this person became one of many unique individuals, if life there upholds dignity, civil rights, freedom, love, beauty. Long ago I once made an excessive statement about “three hundred years of colonization.” Today, I lean toward “comprehensive westernization,” in the sense of “westernization” meaning humanization: to treat people equally as human beings. For in China, past and present, the government has never treated its citizens as human beings, to the extent that the Chinese people must experience the servitude of Wang Shuo’s Please Don’t Call Me Human to know how to live. And China’s so-called intelligentsia is, for the most part, the dictator’s conspirator and accomplice. Some have called me conceited, and yet I cannot deny the awe and humility I feel deep within my soul. In the presence of Christ’s sacrifice, in the presence of Kafka’s desperation, in the presence of the true backbone of Lu Xun’s courage to embrace the corpses of dissenters with bitter tears, in the presence of Kant’s wisdom, in the presence of Daoist metaphysician Jin Yuelin’s pure love for Lin Huiyin, I’m always the smallest of humans.
My wife and I are most grateful for that eve of the millennium – the anniversary of June Fourth – which will be engraved in our memories for the rest of our lives. Of course that night wasn’t extraordinarily significant for us, being just one night among countless nights, and yet possessed by the bitter grief of the tomb it continues to confront the memory of the departed spirits. The living should really shut their mouths and let the graves speak; let the dead souls teach the living what it means to live, what it means to die, what it means to be dead but still alive.
Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese political prisoner and poet. Liu was a leading activist during the Tiananmen Square protests of June 4, 1989 when several hundred to possibly thousands of unarmed protesters were murdered by authorities. In 2009, he was imprisoned for “inciting subversion of state power,” and he is currently serving an eleven-year sentence. Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his prolonged non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” making him the third person in history to receive the award while in prison. A longer version of this essay appears in his recently translated June Fourth Elegies published by Graywolf Press.