China: Liu Xiaobo the intellectual

On 8 October 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is a renowned literary critic, political essayist and activist based in Beijing. Trained in literature and philosophy in the 1980s, he was then described as a ‘dark horse’ in China’s literary circle for his pointed critiques and emerging prominence. This is how Xu Youyu, professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, describes Liu Xiaobo in the 1980s in his open letter calling for the peace prize to be awarded to Liu:

What brought Liu such attention at the time wasn’t merely the sharpness of his writing or his pointed critiques, but also how thorough he was in his thinking and how much more influential his criticisms were of mainstream ideology and dogma in China than those of other intellectuals.

Fast forward 20 years, and there is a great transformation in Liu’s style and thinking. This is how Evan Osnos, who last met Liu in December 2007, describes him in the New Yorker (8 October 2010):

Liu had always been a classic type of the Chinese intellectual class—lean as a greyhound, bespectacled, with a wry sense of humor—but on this December day he looked even gaunter than usual: his belt looked it like was wrapped nearly twice around his waist, and his winter coat drooped. Unlike some Chinese scholars popular in the West, he exuded no aroma of privilege: he had no dual appointments at universities abroad, no obvious awareness that he could be the toast of New York or Berlin, no Davos-worthy polish. Nor did he have the posture of a firebrand. Instead, he struck a technical and unhurried tone as he explained why he had co-authored an open letter that summer, urging Chinese leaders to do more on human rights. He described it not as an act of provocation, but one of duty.

For Liu, the year 1989 was a transformative one. He left his post as visiting scholar at Columbia University to play a crucial role in China’s pro-democracy movement. He spent two years in prison for his role. The political upheavals had transformed Liu’s outlook. In an essay reprinted in the website China in Perspective, Cheng Yinghong, a Chinese scholar, described this shift in Liu’s ideological orientation as from romanticism to empiricism; in style as from arrogance to humility:


In Liu Xiaobo’s eyes, if repression on the individual and human nature in the 1980s was due to cultural or transcendental reasons, then today’s repression is due to more empirical reasons such as the country’s political system. Therefore, though the targets have changed, his sympathy and humanity have not. And this is what links the two Liu Xiaobo’s together.

Cheng further explains how Liu’s scope of criticisms on the society has gone beyond his early training in literature and philosophy after the transformative year, and how this makes him different from other intellectuals in China:


Liu Xiaobo is different from other representative figures of liberal intellectuals in China, such as Qin Hui, Liu Junning, He Qinglian, Xu Youyu and Zhu Xueqin. They have remained experts in their original academic fields. Though they may have extended their knowledge and training, non have experienced transformation to the extent of Liu’s. People in academia know that such transformation is difficult. You can sometimes express opinions outside your field, but it’s difficult to be expert in that field. Judging from the breadth and depth of Liu Xiaobo’s comments, it is clear that he has not reached the level of expert in all fields. However, he is well aware of all the key issues in each field and their linkage to social realities, and grasps the overall picture of relationships between the key issues. Therefore, his writing not only serves as a bridge between academia and the general reader, but also becomes a channel through which people can understand the evolution of liberalism and social transformations in China.

Hu Ping, chief editor of Beijing Spring, further comments on Liu’s writing and networking in a recent article in China Human Rights Biweekly:


Xiaobo is the main organizer of the China’s dissident movement. A large proportion of open letters, protest letters, appeals and declarations issued in recent years were initiated or drafted by Xiaobo. This is not only because of his sharpness and quickness of thoughts, but also because of his reputation and networks. Whether it is in China or overseas, Chinese or foreigners, governmental or non-governmental, young or old, academia, cultural, legal or media, activists or writers, all are willing to make friends with and co-operate with Liu Xiaobo. Although some have expressed dissatisfactions with Liu, within the dissident community, who, if any, can match Liu’s networks?

Books by or about Liu Xiaobo in foreign languages are somewhat hard to come by. As Hu Ping explained in his article, he and a few other friends are close to finishing the process of editing a book containing selections of Liu Xiaobo’s writing. However, readers need to wait until next year for the English and German versions of the book. Hu Ping explains why the process of editing the book is so difficult:

我对晓波的著述非常熟悉,按说选起来应该不费力气;然而一旦着手编选,才发现这项工作很不好做。第一,晓波的著述太多,11本书,近千篇或长或短的文章,要从这么多著述中选出二、三十万字的一部文集,如何取舍就是个大问题。第二,晓波写文章,总是面对中国读者,尤其是大陆的读者。由于文化差异,更由于语境的差异,外国人读他的文章是不是能读明白,能准确领会,挑选哪些文章更合适,也是一个很麻烦的问题。再有,对晓波这样的人物,一般读者不但对他的思想观点感兴趣,而且也会对他的生活经历感兴趣。然而晓波虽写过几百万文字,却没写过自传,也缺少别人给他写的传记。这不能不是个 缺憾。

As I am very familiar with Liu Xiaobo’s writing, editing the book should be an easy task. On the contrary, I find it very difficult once I embark on the process. Firstly, Xiaobo’s writing is too plentiful – 11 books, plus nearly a thousand pieces of articles. To select 200 – 300 thousand words from this pool and collect them into a book is a big task. Secondly, Xiaobo’s writing are all directed towards Chinese readers, especially those in the mainland. Because of cultural and language differences, the selection needs to take into account foreigners’ understanding and interpretation of the articles. Furthermore, general readers will not only be interested in Liu Xiaobo’s thoughts, but also his life experience as a personality. Unfortunately, although Xiaobo has written millions of words, he has not written about himself. We also lack a biography of him written by others. We cannot help but admit that this is a regret.


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