A Farewell to My Students

An Excerpt from ‘Ten Letters from a Plague Year,’ by Xu Zhangrun, Translated and Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé

Translator’s Introduction

In a scathing analysis of the Chinese government’s failure to respond to the unfolding Wuhan coronavirus epidemic published in early February 2020, Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, squarely laid the blame at the feet of Xi Jinping and the sycophantic bureaucracy his rule had fostered. The Chinese system itself, he wrote, “turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe.”

In the following months, as the epidemic in China turned into a global pandemic, Xu maintained his outspokenly critical stance. He had gained international fame in July 2018, when he published a fierce point-by-point appraisal of the Xi Jinping era and warned of the calamities that lay ahead. It was part of a series of critiques begun in early 2016 published in Chinese as China’s Ongoing Crisis: Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog in New York in late 2019.

In early July 2020, police in Beijing detained Xu purportedly for soliciting prostitutes during a trip with friends to Sichuan in late 2019. It was a spurious charge, one often used in China to silence political critics. During his time in custody, the Ministry of Education authorized Tsinghua University to send a delegation to see Xu at the police station where he was being held. They formally notified Xu that he had been fired from the job that he had held for two decades and informed him that the university was confiscating his pension and all accrued benefits; even his accreditation as an educator had been withdrawn on the order of the educational authorities. Tsinghua also demanded that he vacate his apartment on the university campus. An outcry both in China and internationally possibly influenced the decision to release him without charge after seven days. As soon as he was free, Xu started publishing new broadsides, and over the following eight months he published a series of uncompromising essays in China Heritage. On February 11, 2021, the eve of the Xinchou Year of the Ox, he posted the introduction to a collection of those essays titled Ten Letters from a Year of Plague.

The full Chinese text of Xu’s Ten Letters was published in New York in early August. In response, the Beijing authorities have repeatedly demanded that Xu withdraw the book from circulation; they have even pressured his publisher, all without success.

The following translation is an edited version of the seventh of Xu’s Ten Letters. It is addressed to the students and young scholars who participated in “The Three Talents Salon” which Xu founded in 2003, a biannual symposium devoted to fostering “three talents” or skills in the participants: in-depth reading, freewheeling discussion and debate, and convivial social drinking. Under Xu’s aegis, members of the salon published numerous edited volumes on topics related to law, history, philosophy, and politics while also developing an active online presence; by February 2021, the public WeChat account of The Three Talents Salon had posted more than 1,600 essays on a range of topics covering everything from law and history to philosophy and culture.

Xu’s written style is an elegant but highly personalized form of literary Chinese commonly used by the country’s élite from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. It is a prose free of Party jargon but replete with references both to classical Chinese literature and thought as well as to Western literature and philosophy. Quotations from predynastic thinkers like Xunzi and Mencius jostle with lines from Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and John Rawls.

In this letter, Xu repeatedly refers to a celebrated statement by Sima Qian (circa 145-circa 86 BCE), the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, who declared that his aim was “to examine the concerns both of heaven and of humanity and to divine meaning from the welter of past and present events alike” (究天人之際,通古今之變). Sima also said his work “gives unique voice to my understanding” and that, over time, “the wise will appreciate my words even though they fall on deaf ears among the common crowd.” Xu believes that his efforts, both as a writer and as a teacher, are a continuation of that millennia-long tradition.

He remains defiant.

Geremie R. Barmé

A Farewell to My Students

First, an Apology

I hope this finds you all well. Please accept my apologies for having taken so long to get in touch. I’ve been meaning to write ever since they released me from jail [in July 2020] to let you know that I’m safe and to thank you for your expressions of concern. Of course, I also wanted to see how you’ve all been doing. But, with everything that’s been going on since then, and despite my guilty conscience, I gave up after a few attempts.

Before I knew it, summer had given way to fall and the Fifth Lunar Month—a cruel time of ill omen—waned with the waxing of chrysanthemums and the autumn moon. Even as that season unfolded, I still couldn’t bring myself to write. Eventually, I felt overwhelmed by the need to unburden myself and to tell you all what’s been on my mind, but by the time I’d revised an initial draft, the trees outside were decked out in autumnal glory.

As I was putting the finishing touches to this letter today, I noticed that the trees are bare and the chill of winter is upon us. As the day’s light fades, there’s not a breath of wind in the hills and I’m keenly aware that a punishing cold is closing in. Soon enough, unforgiving winds from the Gobi will sweep through. As desolation unfolds over the Rivers and Mountains of China [that is, the geopolitical landscape of the nation], we all realize what lies ahead.

Yet, even as a heavy solemnity advances, for the moment a lingering brilliance lends the landscape a beguiling sheen. The fading fall colors are a final flourish that marks an end-point in the annual cycle. As though it is aware of what awaits, the autumn clings on defiantly even while it speeds headlong through the gateway of renewal. How can we not stand in awe of creation’s beauty? The changing seasons remind us that our petty tribulations are but part of a grander rhythm. Regardless of what may befall us, this I do know: We must give voice to our individual songs fearlessly. That is why, as I write this to you, my heart is entwined both with sorrow and with joy.

I imagine you’ll remember that, in March 2019, Tsinghua University banned me from teaching. Although I was only 56 years old, they put an end to my professional career. Of course, this was hardly unexpected. Long ago, Boyi and Shuqi [famous “dissenters” in the second millennium BCE] set an example that I had consciously followed by advocating a righteous cause. In sacking me, Tsinghua forced us to cancel our 2019 spring-summer symposium, which would have been the second part of the intellectual journey we’d embarked upon in the winter of 2018.

Then, as you know all too well, at the height of last summer, Tsinghua formally fired me and the authorities stripped me of the right to teach at any other institution. They also ordered me to vacate my apartment on campus, making it all but impossible for us to meet. In one stroke, I was deprived of the pleasure of our ongoing conversations and debates.

These events have forced me to bid farewell to middle age and embark on a journey of decline. On that fateful early summer’s night [of June 3-4, 1989, when the writer was 27], I had experienced an earlier climacteric. That event brought a sudden end to my youth; overnight, I felt as though I’d entered middle age. Given these more recent personal dramas, now I find myself in a position to contemplate the ultimate stage of my life with equanimity; regardless, I am determined to tend carefully whatever spark of passion remains in me. Time no longer holds any power over me and I have nothing left to lose. As the poet Anna Akhmatova put it: “I don’t have much time, and there’s nothing left to fear.”

So this is where we find ourselves just as the whole world is trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel a particular pang of guilt as circumstances have forced me to abandon my recent class of students just as everyone is focused on writing up their graduation theses. I’m like a shepherd who has suddenly lost his flock, though I do find a measure of comfort in the fact that our emotional and intellectual bond survives and that our teacher-student relationship remains. So our physical separation presents no real barrier.

During my years at Tsinghua, I devoted myself to work and rarely left the campus. The university was my homeland; my sole métier was teaching, and it was also my livelihood. Now that I am becalmed, superficial minds may think that I’m finally able to enjoy a well-earned break; in reality, I’m in exile and I am forlorn. What I miss the most are you, my students. Over the years, I had the annual delight of welcoming a new batch of young scholars. You’d come to me in the green blush of youth and eventually move on having grown to intellectual maturity. How I miss the privilege of being able to engage with you on a day-to-day basis.

Our Fellowship of the Spirit

Over the spring and summer months that we worked together [in our biannual Three Talents Salon], we would first closely read works related to the year’s theme. [The annual themes included “Nationalism and the Nation”; “Constitutional Patriotism”; “The Secular Order—from the spiritual realm to a politics based on law”; “Enemies”; “Party Empire”; and “Historical Jurisprudence.”] The rhythm of the seasons enhanced an annual project that was itself about rebirth and possibility, one focused on appreciating how Law relates both to human sensibilities and things that lie beyond the narrow confines of everyday understanding. After all, the study of Law is itself a search for better ways in which people can live together; it is also an investigation of the broader moral landscape that relates to all living things. Any in-depth explication of the Law demands delving into human sentiment. It follows then that the positive laws of human society should not betray the universal truths of natural law.

Over the autumn and winter, we would share and build on what we had read both individually and collectively in the summer months. Time always seemed to fly by, so much so that when we finally looked outside the mountains west of the city would already be capped in snow. How high our spirits had soared in our self-imposed solitude! But we would not shiver now at the thought of the cold; its inevitable assault served only to temper the mind and anneal one’s character.

Outside, the Tsinghua campus was silent as we read late into the night, enjoying the company of the ancients and their formidable wisdom. It was as though we could make out their voices resonating down the ages. We were in their thrall then, just as we are connected to them still. Their lights illuminate our path, just as our efforts are building on their achievements.

Most of the time, Tsinghua was like a raucous marketplace; there was no escaping the encroaching cacophony. It certainly wasn’t an academic Pure Land any more. [See Zi Zhongyun, “My Tsinghua Lament.”] Only when we—that is you young scholars and me—met in intellectual fellowship to engage in our more expansive pursuit of knowledge that, together, our free spirits could roam over vast territories and survey expansive horizons. The vistas were like oceans of learning while our mind-travels allowed us to appreciate more readily the significance of the commonplace travails of people everywhere.

We could see that the true Superior Way is one of Peace and, although an arrogant totalitarianism may once more hold haughty sway, it is an enterprise built on shifting sands. [Note: Xi Jinping often claims his government follows a “Kingly Way” (王道, wáng dào), an ancient term translated here as “Superior Way.”] Contemplating the present in the context of the broad sweep of history, knotted brows would relax and our heart-minds would open to those worlds beyond. I remain confident that we should still devote ourselves heart and soul to such a pursuit. We should “make our path straight, with no fear of the rest.” [Note: This is a line from “Nine Pieces: Crossing the River” (九章·涉江), attributed to Qu Yuan, a famously disaffected figure who was active in the 3rd century BCE.]

When we hold a book in hand, be it written by ancient sages or modern thinkers, the author’s spirit materializes in front of us. We can appreciate what they did in the past as we focus our attention on the dilemmas of today. Observe where we are: The howling wind and pelting rain are a constant reminder that our reading relates to the present moment. You can laugh at your teacher’s dreamy imaginings if you will; perhaps you’ll even think that my solitary meanderings have addled me.

Last night stars twinkled in heaven’s vault and this morning pearls of dew were glistening on the ground outside. The stars and dew are as a pair, just as the sun and the moon are conjoined. They pulse at the interstice of existence itself; they capture what has gone before and what is yet to come in the eternal present. Can’t you see that here, too, in these scribblings on this fragile paper? This is the true enterprise of the scholar; ours is a territory that knows no bounds. Shouldn’t we pay our respects to those who have gone before, raise a hand in supplication and offer them our thanks? Shouldn’t we also put hand to heart in reverential acknowledgement and gratitude? For this is why I can still find a measure of joyful meaning in my suffering and why we—teacher and young scholars—can still delight in our work. Physical limitations dissolve as we devote ourselves to ever greater endeavors.

Why Law?

After all, when it all comes down to it, the only surviving evidence of the dramatic changes wrought by time are the strings of words left on paper. The most consequential thing that they digest—a thing that bedevils us and one which, unless managed with the utmost care, can all too easily end up in rivers of blood—is what humankind has learned about how people can best live together in an environment that both supports their needs and prevents endless cycles of political mayhem. Every failure to find a modus vivendi invariably leads us back to the law of the jungle and tragedy. That’s why together we examined the endeavors of individuals and groups throughout history in our search to find answers to this conundrum.

We ourselves are similarly committed to understanding how societies today can maintain a productive and peaceful balance so that we can all avoid the scenario [described in the Annals of the Warring States of the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE] resulting in “fields littered with corpses, landscapes awash in blood.” Over time, Law and laws have evolved to manage the competing needs of groups that, unless modulated, may otherwise rend the fabric of society. Law provides a basis for us to live together; it is a necessary nexus for maintaining collective order. Contrast a society grounded in the rule of law with a party-state determined to dissolve the differences between the public and private spheres; one that attempts to forge a seamless whole in which the functions of the state are subsumed by one political party. We know that what you end up with is a political wasteland, a society devoid of creative possibility. Tyrannies appear in various guises, but they share a common desire to obliterate difference.

Generations of thinking people have bequeathed to us a formidable corpus of ideas related to politics and public life. In it, Peace is a constant principle that is underpinned by the Rule of Law. Just as Freedom is seen as the most noble value in modern life, and Justice the eternal lodestar of law and its ultimate standard, Peace is the guiding spirit of all political endeavors. But what kind of Peace are we to have? How can it be achieved and how can it best be maintained? Moreover, on what political and moral foundations will this proffered Peace be built? Previously in China, the search for answers led to political reform, a recognition of the need for meaningful change, as well as a call to treasure individual human worth. Public life grounded in law offers a path along which, I believe, all thoughtful societies must inevitably travel; it is a journey on which all human dramas unfold.

In China, we are heirs not only of a civilization that dates back to what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, but also of a profound process that first unfolded in the Mediterranean and the transatlantic nations at the dawn of the modern age during what was a new era of international commerce and imperial expansion. That transformation also included an advocacy of epoch-making ideas related to democratic rights and political systems that are based on the division of powers. It gave rise to governments that upended tyrannical and authoritarian politics in favor of rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. Over time, some political actors also worked to create an international order of public law underpinned by a treaty system that modulated competing national interests with the aim of frustrating future hegemonies. This long-drawn-out process has also challenged Euro- and America-centric biases that were grounded in a hierarchical view of civilizations. For only when these are abandoned is a truly global transformation possible, one that can ensure lasting peace for all humanity. That’s why the core question of politics is how to deal with Power; how political autonomy can be established; how alliances and enemies are determined; how to delineate the public from the private in a meaningful way—all aim to ensure sustainable peace.

That was the overall background of The Three Talents Salon and it’s why we emphasized the study of political philosophy. Doing so enabled us to think about law and politics in the context of specific historical circumstances which then led to our discussions about optimal forms of governance. In particular, our work suggested that natural law is best equipped to frustrate the negative effects of bad laws. The possibility of such a politics has been a major chapter in the history of the human spirit and, as I have repeatedly argued, history has proven that constitutional democracies that allow for broad-based popular participation are the best form of government for modern civilized nations interested in protecting basic freedoms. As I have also repeatedly advocated, they are the optimal form of political arrangement for they are based on the people’s sovereignty and a viable constitutional order that embodies the separation of powers and the maintenance of adequate checks and balances.

Constitutional states support societies that also allow people to realize their potential as individuals. In sharing my confidence in this view with you all over the years, I have also outlined the undying threats to this way of thinking. Nonetheless, I believe that because of our work together we developed a shared sense of optimism, albeit one hedged by a measure of pessimism.

The Passing Cavalcade

All of this—be it law, politics, or morality—unfolds in historical time and forms the skein of this world and our flawed and deeply wounded existence. As Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the Han Dynasty, wrote over two thousand years ago, the human spirit strains throughout “to divine meaning from the welter of past and present events alike.”

Yet, as we marveled together, so too we let out an exasperated sigh of recognition: Time and again people have shown how forgetful they are. At times it seems as though all of those earlier efforts made to improve things and to affirm the unique value of the individual have been in vain. It appears as though people are all too willing to ignore, overlook, or simply forget the wounds of the past. They even avoid any mention of the evils that they have either experienced or witnessed themselves. As for those who wronged others, or who stood by while others were hurt, how many of them are willing to admit their guilt, even to themselves in the depth of night? And how many of them feel any remorse?

Yet this is what it is to be human. We are thus bound by creation, and there is nothing we can do to escape our condition—“La Comédie humaine.” As a result, humanity condemns itself to play out the same tragedies time and time again. We study history so we can better appreciate the commerce between humanity and nature. I have worked with young scholars like you and, by studying philosophy in tandem with history, we have gained insights into our chosen field: Law. We have sought to apply those insights to interrogate various schools of legal thought and better understand their human core. The process has enabled us then to explore broader truths.

We have also sought to investigate those eternal and transcendent principles that, although abstract, are embodied in the Law. In the process, we have come to appreciate the skein of ideas in our own minds, ideas with which we are entangled, against which we struggle and which force us time and again to recognize that this is “just how it goes”. . .

And so it is that we came together, year after year, to pursue our work in a Chinese linguistic environment. We worked to formulate an understanding of the law on the basis of broad-based research in the history of legal thought, both in the context of and despite our contemporary realities.

Our venture was a wondrous expression of the human spirit! . . . Even as corporeal reality limits us, our heart-minds can soar out to infinity. Although mortal ourselves, we share in immortality. That’s why the idea of eternal life should not be a response to the fear of death, rather it must be an awareness that death itself can be transcended. All things perish except for the human spirit and human ideals; although they too expire they never truly die. Chen Yinque [a Republican-era historian who, in his 1929 epitaph for the famously independent-minded scholar Wang Guowei] said they “share the longevity of Heaven and Earth, shining for eternity as do the Sun, the Moon and the very Stars themselves.”

This everlasting life transcends this moment in time; there is no need to fear physical decay, just as there is no need to be concerned with fame or fortune. By thinking in this way now I am able to appreciate anew my reverence for everyday life and thereby our commonplace world is cloaked in a new dignity. This, again, is why I believe that in working together we developed a shared sense of optimism, as well as a measured pessimism.

Historical Jurisprudence

And so it was that over the years we gathered in The Three Talents Salon, to read, debate, and drink. The name of the salon perfectly encapsulated both our method and our aspiration. We would get together every year, first in the spring and again in the autumn, to pursue a shared passion for learning that was never divorced from the enjoyment of life; our intellectual activities were integral to the way in which we engaged with the world. The pleasure we found in working together—young scholars with a senior academic—was an example for others. Surely it’s what “academic training” should really be all about? It was the best way for young scholars to engage with their subject, just as it was an ideal way for their teacher to interact with his students.

From 2003, our convocations produced a series of edited volumes titled Historical Jurisprudence. Over the years, and despite various setbacks, we published 13 volumes. A few more were planned on topics relevant today, such as “Peace,” “Tyranny,” and “Suffering.” Then there were the two books—Lex iniusta and On Leaders—that, banned from being published on the mainland, finally appeared in Macao, four years late. Agents from the state security organs even turned up there to interrogate the publisher, who nearly ended up in serious trouble. That was yet another sign of how far Beijing is willing to go in its efforts to censor our work and crush our spirits.

So this is where we are, after more than three decades (from 1978 to 2012) during which China enjoyed a period of renewal following the calamity of the Mao years from 1949 to 1976. Despite that era of devastation, our civilization finally seemed to be coming to life again. Yet, even before the smoldering embers could give rise to a vigorous new flame, they were tamped down by the deadening hand of darkness. Amazing China may well boast of opulence nowadays, but it lacks substance; its vulgar fireworks may dazzle some but the tenuous light of meaningful culture is fading. Make no mistake: these are not the workings of Fate, they are the machinations of Man. This era of misrule betrays both the true betterment of China and the greater weal of humanity. It debilitates the spirit and suffocates the soul. This is the way it is, and this is why it is. And this is how we now find ourselves in a state of frustrated disbelief.

Do you remember the thrill we felt every time we selected a theme for the year? Once we had divvied it up into topics and subtopics, we’d read all the material relevant to our chosen subject. Participants were encouraged to pursue their research in a spirit of independent inquiry. Each time we met collectively, the in-depth reading we had done by ourselves in preparation helped us to contribute to everyone’s working papers. We encouraged the kind of open-ended debate known to the thinkers at the ancient Jixia Academy [of the 4th century BCE, in Linzi in modern-day Shandong province, where advocates of contending schools of thought gathered freely]. That long-lost tradition informed our salon, just as we hoped to emulate another bygone world—that of the Sophists in ancient Athens. The essence of their approach was profound yet simple, and it resonated with us. Although we might not be able to measure up to them, we hoped to inherit and transmit their method, confident that this is how civilization can survive and flourish.

Five Lessons

Over the decades I spent both as a teacher and as a student of pedagogy, I was constantly honing my skills. Below, allow me to reiterate to you five things that I’ve learned.


One: Writing

It is crucially important to be able to make a clear written argument. The aim is to come up with a considered, well-researched, and factual piece of writing that you can share with others—something summed up in the traditional saying that “literary friends are best made on the basis of an admiration for each other’s writing.” It seems obvious enough, but given the fact that the Communist Party’s dominance of Chinese academia means most people simply regurgitate Party nostrums or follow the lead of hacks, bad habits have become the norm. People have become timid due to constant intellectual bullying, and they seek safety by repeating clichés. As a result, most academic meetings are little more than social gatherings paid for by the public purse. People are shameless about it and bombast, obfuscation and plagiarism have become the norm. That’s why our salon championed in-depth reading, considered debate, and joyful social interaction.

Over the years, generations of academics have made a name for themselves by showboating and advancing spurious arguments in reams of academic papers. Some of them are my former students. As the ancients observed, “being learned lies not in showing up the deficiencies of others, but rather in the ability to see one’s own shortcomings.” It is as true for our generation as it was for those who come before us. Constant hard work and a mindful continuity with the past is essential if the Sinophone world is finally to produce some truly outstanding legal minds.

Two: Speaking

Participants in our salon were required to present their ideas persuasively with the aim of fostering respectful and meaningful debate. They were discouraged from making vacuous statements or indulging in political grandstanding. You’ll recall that in my role as both teacher and friend I was quick to criticize such behavior, just as I would praise those who were at their best.

I well remember what lectures were like when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s. Decades of educational autocracy meant that rote learning had become the norm. There was no room for classroom discussion or seminars, nor even a Q&A at the end of lectures. Even when there was some form of discussion, because of the deep-rooted habits of “The Hall of One Voice” students were still reluctant to speak up. We allowed ourselves to be “Silent Orientals.”

I never made a peep, even when it was allowed. Then, in the autumn of 1983, after joining the M.A. program at the Graduate School of Law of the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, I found my voice; soon I realized that I simply couldn’t shut up. The reason was obvious: Things had been loosening up and I finally felt free. Back then, everyone wanted to make a racket about everything, including social and political issues. We just wanted to be heard before we were silenced by yet another round of repression.

Three: Revising

You should revise your verbal presentations so they can be appended to your formal thesis. It’ll help you build up a solid body of carefully considered writing. Some people [at our symposia] spoke from scribbled notes and later couldn’t be bothered to rework their remarks. Such laziness was actually a betrayal of their earlier efforts. Let me be frank: There are quite a few famous scholars of mine who, due to youthful laziness, never really devoted the necessary time to revising their work. They have revealed a similar lack of seriousness over the years. Now that I’m a disinterested party who has been driven out of academia, I feel I must be honest about this, even if saying such things may cause some to take offense.

Four: Engaging

When in any quest for truth, either at a seminar or a symposium, everyone should be treated equally. The most important thing is for people to contribute to the discussion, regardless of their intellectual camp, their generational cohort, or their relationship to others present. I’m only stating the obvious when I say that it’s important to foster an atmosphere in which people can discuss and debate things freely. By all rights, this should be the normal state of affairs. However, it is all but impossible in an environment dominated by the Communist Party-state when our intellectual traditions are fractured and academia is hamstrung. Yet this is a crucial time, when we need more than ever to be able to confront honestly and openly issues of unique and immense consequence. Having said that, I am confident that, just as my generation managed to outshine our predecessors, so too will you prove to be better than us.

Five: Dissenting

Dissenting views should always be welcome. Don’t aim for a phony consensus. Attempts to forge an intellectual consensus, even if it be in the vain hope of generating good will, invariably leads to new evils. Quashing dissent encourages spiritual oppression and narrow-minded intellectual dominance; it’s autocracy by another name. As the poet Joseph Brodsky put it in “Anno Domini”:

“The grave will render all alike.
So, if only in our lifetime, let us be various!”

The expression “aiming for consensus” should be taken to be in the present continuous tense. It’s a process, not an end point. To “seek consensus” is a generative process not an existential or ontological one. I support the American philosopher John Rawls’ concept of “overlapping consensus.” It might not be entirely satisfactory, but an overlapping consensus can forestall people with an authoritarian mindset who want to impose intellectual conformity. It’s worth recalling the famous liberal thinker Hu Shih’s dictum that, at least in this context, “tolerance is more important than freedom.”

“The China Obsession”

For me, like you, everything ultimately revolves around “The China Question.” We devote our hearts to it just as we obsess over it in our minds. No matter what the focus of our research may be—regardless of whether it is a particular theory, a prominent figure, an historical incident or some written work, be it now or in the past, in China or elsewhere, whatever the topic or the final form that our work might take—it’s always intimately concerned with this singular preoccupation. It’s a fixation about the here and now; no matter if you’re conscious of it or not, you can’t escape being deeply engaged with and worrying about CHINA.

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers said that Being is manifested in empirical existence. For the individual, existence can only be understood insofar as we are embodied. Not only do I exist in a physical state but all that I gain and grant is equally present in me. Everything I do is the result of my volition; I am the starting point of my actions. So, I say to all of you, my students, your burning concerns and heartfelt anxieties are a continuation of a century-long agony, one that also shares in the universal concerns of a broader humanity. For my part, despite the travails of recent years, I am still here. Though my mind is weighed down and my heart deeply wounded, I have no regrets even as I hear the clang of manacles and see that the only path ahead leads to jail. I am proof that the grand tradition of protest is constantly resurrected.

When it all comes down to it, after all, all I’ve really done is to adhere to meaningful academic principles or, to use an expression from the tradition, I have aspired to be “a scholar who is a moral actor.” Now that the attributes of civilization are being laid waste again, such actions take on a new significance. Having managed to survive one age of devastation [the aftermath of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution], I find myself living in this perverse new era. In the normal course of events, the weeks of guided reading and collective discussion that were part of our annual Three Talents Salon would, over time, have seen youthful saplings of possibility grow into mature stands of trees. Perhaps all the disparate drops of water that nourished that growth would even have swelled into a wave! But, when they ended my career they also terminated our enterprise. All that remains is my anguished cry to the heavens.

However, I still take heart from you because I know that you’re on a trek that we started together. I’m confident that you’ll pursue this intellectual journey, one that is about questioning, learning, and challenging yourselves. I hope that in your academic work you will continue to embrace the poetic imagination that was a central feature of our salon. From personal experience, I also know that every confrontation with evil demands steely determination. Look at the world unfolding before you, my students: Aspire to be known both for your academic accomplishments as well as for your cultural awareness. Most crucial of all is whether you chose to take an unyielding mortal stance.

Not Forsaken

As Heaven is my witness, I have no doubt that our hearts will beat on strongly. I marvel at the lustrous birth of an infant, just as the challenge of the sea elicits my thoughtful silence. I wish a solar wind would pick me up and sweep me past the equator. I too dream of the besotted delight of being with my lover as I nestle between her breasts—a joy akin to launching myself in the direction of Truth. For I have seen the lustrous warhorses canter through the sweet waters of Saharan oases. And, in the dark hours, I revel at the thought of the warrior and his partner enjoying the wild ecstasy of their first night.

As Heaven is my witness, my mission is to traverse the decaying heartlands, shield held high and sword at the ready. Yes, it is my fate to be deafened by the doleful tones of bells tolling over the vast, fossilized sea in the morning; I cannot escape the relentless onward churn of the wheel of this plague-ridden century and the long eclipse of night. The crowds that mill around the blood-red altar like wraiths terrify me, for death long ago pledged its dark promise and the tune of that ancient bamboo flute stirs our bone-strewn land. But, do you see: the roses of the gulag have never been so fragrant.

So I declare: I will go on resisting even as I face the firing squad. I will not allow the threat of their bullets to define my life in this capital of empire.

Jesus asked: “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Truth, as it turns out, reincarnates through the ages; it is a scar the world cannot conceal. After all, Truth has survived through millennia. If we are to find the Way today, then it must be by dint of our own effort; if we are to seek salvation, we must find it in ourselves. Forsaken? No, not at all: the language of people and of beasts, of the trees and the rain, all speak out; where the wind of longing abates, they speak out, too. They speak not of being forsaken but rather of being embraced. Thereby they transform time into something that is solid and real, just as the self understands that it is the subject, like the line in a poem by one of my former students says:

“In distant Heaven, the Creator knows who we are. . .
Tomorrow’s memories will salvage this first rose.”

The universe is the same today as it was in the beginning; it is as it will be in the future. . .


[Note: This line is from the pre-Qin philosopher Xunzi. Xu quotes this in a philosophical disquisition on history, time, and being in part of the letter not translated here.]

The 15th Day of the Ninth Month of the Gengzi Year
October 31, 2020
Written by the Old River Bed in the gloom of dusk as the wind strips the last leaves from the trees.
Revised on January 1, 2021, a day even more desolate because of the merciless winds and harsh rain.