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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:

如果说80年代在刘晓波的眼里,是文化传统或者一种比较超验的东西在压抑人性、人欲和自我,那么今天则是国家和政治体制这些更加直接或者容易被经验证实的因素在压抑个人。因此,对像不一样了,关怀仍然没有变。我想这大概也是把前后两个刘晓波联系在一起的线索。

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:

他不同于大陆自由主义知识份子的其他代表人物,如秦晖、刘军宁、何清涟、徐友渔、朱学勤等人,他们原来是什么方面的专家,现在仍然是那个方面的专家,在知识和训练上也许会有很大的扩展和延伸,但没有经历过那样的全面转型。凡是学界中人,都会了解这种转型的艰难。你可以偶尔对跨专业的问题发表一点意见,但很难成为那个方面的内行。就对每一个专业问题发表意见的深度和广度来说,刘晓波在他所涉猎的每一个领域里当然起不到上述专家的作用,但他对每一个领域中和现实关系最密切的关键问题却始终保持着敏感,而且对这些敏感问题之间的关联有宏观的把握。因此他的写作不但起到学界和一般读者之间的桥梁作用,而且也成为人们了解大陆自由主义思想发展和社会演变之间关系的一条途径。

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:

晓波也是中国异议运动的主要组织者。多年以来,中国的异议群体发表了大量的公开信、抗议信、呼吁书以及纲领和宣言,其中相当一部分是晓波起草、发起或组织的。这不但是因为他思想敏锐,笔头快,而且也因为他声望高,人脉广泛。晓波交游广阔,国内的海外的,华人洋人,体制内体制外,老年中年青年,学术界文化界法律界新闻界,民运人士维权人士独立作家,很多人都愿意和他打交道,愿意和他合作。虽然说对晓波不满者也不乏其人,但平心而论,在异议阵营中的头面人物里,又有几个-如果有的话-比晓波拥有更多的人脉呢?

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.

6 comments

  • Charles Liu

    Liu Xiaobo has received hundreds of thousands of US government funding via the NED in the past five years to conduct domestic political activity in China (including advocating abolition of China’s constitution.) Check NED’s China grants for Independent Chinese Pen Center and Minzhu Zhongguo magazine, which Liu heads.

    If Liu were American he would be in violation of FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act). Ron Paul had once commented “What the NED does in foreign countries… would be rightly illegal in the United States”.

  • zhuzidi

    Democracy is not right for China at the moment, and Liu’s overly idealistic Charter 08 would bring chaos to the country. However, jailing him, detaining his wife and threatening Norway is childish and unnecessary and only brings more negative attention to China.

  • […] in the works. See Global Voices Online's earlier posts on China's first Nobel prize here and […]

  • […] in the works. See Global Voices Online's earlier posts on China's first Nobel prize here and […]

  • […] in the works. See Global Voices Online‘s earlier posts on China’s first Nobel prize here and […]

  • […] top news was of Chinese citizen Liu Xiaobo being awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu Xiaobo is an intellectual who has advocated for political reforms in China since 1989. His most recent arrest was in June […]

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