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Yaxue Cao, April 16, 2019
In August 1988, two months after receiving his PhD in literature from the Beijing Normal University, Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) left the Chinese capital for a series of academic visits across Europe and the United States. The first place he went to was University of Oslo in Norway. A few months later, he visited University of Hawaii, where he completed the book “China’s Contemporary Politics and Chinese Intellectuals” (《中国当代政治与知识分子》) at its Center for Chinese Studies. It seems that the purpose of his visits was to construct a framework for exploring ways to change China, and it was for this reason that he felt an urgent need to see the West up close.
In March 1989, Liu Xiaobo arrived in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. According to his friends at the time, he went to art exhibitions and Broadway, and bought a leather jacket. Though the Chinese of the 1980s were still donning Mao suits, the sense was that China was on the doorsteps of a new era and a transition. All kinds of new popular vocabulary, ideas, and new “reform” trends were in the air, sparking both expectancy and uneasiness. The title of Liu Xiaobo’s dissertation, “Aesthetics and Freedom” (《审美与自由》), sounds like the name of a rhapsody.
Walking the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art triggered an epiphany in Liu. He suddenly felt the ridiculousness of the discussions that were taking place in China about “novel” concepts that were just everyday life common sense in the free world.
When a group of people who knew Liu Xiaobo in New York got together a few years ago for a meeting to recall their time with him (Liu had been imprisoned for six years by this point), one of his friends, a poet, said that Liu’s “enthusiasm for politics at the time greatly belied other interests of his, such as literature.”
Liu had built friendships with the small number of Chinese democracy activists in exile, and took on editorial work for their publication, “Beijing Spring” (《中国之春》).
April 15, 1989 saw the death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the Chinese Communist Party general secretary who had been ousted for his reformist stance. Hu’s death sparked memorial events in college campuses across the country. In the days that followed, throngs of students left their campuses for Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to the deceased leader. Few guessed that condolences for one man would lead to millions of people taking to the streets and voicing their political demands. Around the world in New York, the tiny group of Chinese democracy activists watched with bated breath. It’s said that at the time, at least five of them decided to return to China, and that “when it came time to depart, other four found various reasons not to leave, and only Xiaobo returned” to China.
I can almost see Liu Xiaobo’s silhouette as he gathers his luggage and hurries to the airport. Perhaps it was the call of fate. Thirty years have gone by. In hindsight, the Chinese democracy circle in Flushing was indeed too small a pond for him.
Liu arrived in Beijing on April 27, 1989 and went to Tiananmen. In the morning of June 4, he was one of the last to leave the square. From June Fourth to Charter 08 and winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and then to his death in prison two years ago, nearly half of this period of his life he spent incarcerated and forgotten, as time marched by outside the prison walls.
Even though the world had pretty much ignored him, for the Communist Party in China, it was imperative that he be completely wiped out. Death was not enough; his ashes must be thrown into the sea so as to leave nowhere for people to memorialize him.
2019 is the 30th anniversary of the June Fourth Massacre. One of the many activities being planned in anticipation is the placement of a bust for Liu Xiaobo, as he was very much a man of the June Fourth activist generation, and his aspirations belong to 1989, the year that changed the world.
In the summer of 2018, Columbia University unveiled a bust of late Czech dissident and president Václav Havel. This provided inspiration for Zhou Fengsuo (周锋锁), who chairs the non-profit organization Humanitarian China: a bust of Liu Xiaobo could also be made and erected on the Columbia campus. In 2006, Havel accepted an invitation to be a guest lecturer at Columbia and spent seven weeks there. Likewise, Liu spent several weeks here as a visiting scholar before his stay was cut short by the democracy protests in Beijing.
Liu’s widow Liu Xia (刘霞) agreed with the idea, though she expressed doubt about whether or not anything would actually come of it. The many years of her husband’s imprisonment, the monthly train trips to and from the prison in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, her own eight years of house arrest and the abyss of depression it engendered — all this left her with a deeply jaded view of the world that lingered even after her emigration to Germany made possible by protest by the international community.
C. V. Starr East Asian Library: ‘We Must Decline the Proposal’
Last December, on Liu Xia and Zhou Fengsuo’s behalf, renowned Sinologist and Columbia political science professor Andrew Nathan (黎安友) put forth the suggestion to the Columbia president that Liu Xiaobo’s bust be donated to the university. (The following correspondences were turned over to me by Zhou Fengsuo, and Prof. Nathan has authorized the publication of their content).
The suggestion was transferred to Curator of Art Properties Roberto Ferrari, who gave Nathan a prompt reply. He explained that all artistic contributions required approval by the Committee of Art Properties, and that whether or not approval could be granted depended on there being an academic department in favor of displaying and maintaining the artwork. Ferrari noted that the Committee had recently approved the busts of Vaclav Havel and Eleanor Roosevelt, and that he was happy to work with the donor to bring this proposal to the Committee. He also said that he would make an inquiry with Jim Cheng, head of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, as to whether they would be interested in displaying the bust.
In the following weeks, Zhou Fengsuo tried multiple ways of contacting Jim Cheng, from calls to text to email. He got no response.
On February 8, Nathan got an email from Christopher Cronin, the Associate University Librarian for Collections overseeing both Starr Library and Avery Library. He said he had discussed the matter of the Liu Xiaobo bust with Jim Cheng and Roberto Ferrari, the Art Properties curator. According to Cronin, the Starr Library would take two policies into account in deciding whether to accept a bust: first, if the person depicted had been a distinguished alumnus at Columbia; and second, if the donor was prepared to provide an endowment for the maintenance and care of the artwork.
“However,” Cronin continued, “Starr does not accept busts or statues that represent religious or political figures. As the Liu Xiaobo statue does not fit these criteria, we must decline the proposal for Starr.”
According to Cronin, the original proposal would nevertheless be submitted to the Committee of Art Properties for discussion at its next meeting, to be held in late April or early May, even though the Starr Library could not accept the bust and nor has another location on campus has been identified. He hinted that the outcome of such a submission was clear, and that “Roberto will be in touch shortly thereafter to communicate the decision of the Committee.”
I thought about Liu Xiaobo in relation to the three “criteria” Cronin mentioned. Firstly, though Liu was a Nobel Prize laureate and notable for that reason alone, he was only at Columbia for a few weeks, is he or is he not an alumnus? But if Václav Havel could be approved, why not Liu Xiaobo? Secondly, if a monetary donation was required for the acquisition, perhaps we could organize a crowdfunding event in light of the fact that Humanitarian China would not be able to foot the costs alone.
The third criterion set by the Starr East Asian Library is baffling. Excluding Liu for this reason implies that he is a political figure (that he is not a religious figure is self-evident), and that, by extension, erecting his bust would favor one political perspective over another. Now, between which political sides does the Starr East Asian Library wish to maintain its neutrality and independence?
The last time Starr Library accepted a China-related piece of art was in January 2016. A New York-based non-profit organization, the Dragon Summit Foundation (美国龙峰文化基金会), and an organization named China-America Friendship Association (CAFA, 美国中美友好协会), which is registered in New York as well, had donated a bronze bust of Tao Xingzhi (陶行知). Tao Xingzhi was a left-leaning education reformer during the Chinese republican era (1912 – 1949). From 1915 to 1917, Tao had studied education at Columbia. In addition, the Dragon Summit Foundation donated $100,000 to establish a “Columbia University Dragon Summit Fund.” The New York Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China took part in the ceremony, and the event was reported on by People’s Daily. Another article, by China Daily, is no longer available on their website.
That August, these two organizations partnered with the Columbia University Teachers College, changing the Center on Chinese Education to the Tao Xingzhi Center for Chinese Education.
According to the CAFA website (original preserved here), in 2015, it raised $600,000 for the C.V. Starr East Asian Library of Columbia University: $500,000 for the Xu and Song Education and Culture Endowment Fund, which will “support collection, development, administration, public programming, and research at the Starr Library,” and $100,000 for a Dragon Summit Endowment Fund, which is probably the “Dragon Summit Cultural Fund” for the same library.
CAFA is the organizer of many large-scale activities, including U.S.-based training programs for Chinese Communist Party cadres, performances at Lincoln Center that brought performers from China, and parade and flash mobs near the White House during the 2016 Labor Day weekend that were held in celebration of the “China-U.S. Tourism Year.” According to CAFA’s website, these activities are typically held under guidance from the Chinese embassy and consulate, and in cooperation with Chinese businesses such as state-owned banks and corporations.
It appears that no updates have been made to the websites of these two organizations since around the end of 2017, leaving it unclear if they have ceased operations, or if they have simply stopped providing information about their activities online.
The Making of the Liu Xiaobo Bust
Meanwhile, the creation of the Liu Xiaobo bust started. At the end of last year, a friend of Zhou Fengsuo from the Václav Havel Library Foundation in New York put him in contact with Bill Shipsey, the founder of Art for Amnesty, Amnesty International’s global artist engagement program. In January, via Shipsey, Humanitarian China commissioned Czech sculptor Marie Šeborová to make Liu Xiaobo’s bust. The bust of Havel previously erected at Columbia University is her work.
On April 15, the Liu Xiaobo bust was unveiled at the DOX Centre of Contemporary Art in Prague. Liu Xiaobo’s friends Professor Xu Youyu (徐友渔) and Zhou Fengsuo pulled the veil. Liu Xia had planned to attend but in the end didn’t make it for “personal reasons.” For the time being, the bust will be displayed at DOX.
For those looking to donate the Liu Xiaobo bust, the goal was to have it placed on the Columbia campus; the idea of it being displayed at the Starr East Asian Library was only a suggestion made by the Curator of Art Properties. The donors hope that there are other departments at Columbia University that would be willing to accept the offer, and that the Committee of Art Properties gives the matter serious consideration at its upcoming meeting.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Acceptance Speech for the 2018 Annual Disturbing the Peace Literary Prize for a Courageous Writer at Risk
Liao Yiwu, September 27, 2018, New York City
I thank the award committee for conferring this honor upon me. The award is named for Vaclav Havel’s first work, his autobiography Disturbing the Peace. When translated into Chinese, however, the title of this work means about the same as “provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事). During the existence of the Czechoslovak communist regime, and under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), many dissidents have been sentenced for these “crimes”.
When the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 occurred, I wrote and recorded my poem “Massacre” (《大屠殺》). As the final line goes, “Faced with this unprecedented slaughter, the only survivors are the sons of bitches.” For this “disturbance of the peace” I got four years in prison, where I tried to kill myself twice. Instead of dying, I started writing as a witness, and I have not stopped since. Ten years ago, my work The Corpse Walker (《吆尸人》), which was translated by Huang Wen (黃文), again disturbed the peace.
In 2011, I bribed a triad organization to smuggle me to Vietnam. My sole aim in escaping China was to be able to publish the autobiography that I wrote in prison. I have spent the last seven years in Germany as a political asylee. I still don’t know much German, but Fischer has published eight of my books in the German language. My next book to be published in German next year will be Mr. Wang, the Man In Front of the Tanks (《王先生，挡在坦克前面的那个人》), and in it, there will be an essay titled Liu Xiaobo: The Final Days (《刘晓波的最后时刻》). It is about his persistence and our failure.
At the moment, Liu Xia (刘霞) and I are here, but her late husband Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) and Havel have gone to a faraway place. They have finally met each other in Heaven. Two Charters, drafted by two honest men. A few days ago, before we came to New York, Liu Xia and I travelled to Prague to visit Vaclav’s younger brother Ivan. I wonder, are we still “disturbing the peace”?
I have been disturbed as well. The day after Liu Xia arrived in Germany in July, China sentenced another dissident, Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) of Hubei Province, to 13 years in prison. He has been in jail twice and is 65 years old now. Not long ago, it was reported that in my hometown of Chengdu, Sichuan, Huang Qi (黃琦), a 55-year-old dissident who founded the “64tianwang.com” [a site dedicated to documenting social injustice], suffered from kidney failure in prison and is on the verge of death. His 80-year-old mother published his will, and pleaded that “Huang Qi is not guilty”.
Havel once had a round of debates with writer Milan Kundera about protests, politics, prison, and forgetting. What meaning is there to it all? Will Qin Yongmin and Huang Qi walk out of prison alive? And if they don’t, who will record their stories? It’s not something I can do, because unlike Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo, I don’t know enough about them or the things they have experienced.
Besides, I’ve recorded so much, but has it changed anything? New crimes are committed and simply bury the old ones.
Still, I have to keep writing.
Before I stepped onto the stage to accept my award, I found Ms. Albright and Mr. Kissinger, two former U.S. Secretaries of State, in the audience. You still have influence in China. I hope you will pay attention to the aforementioned Qin Yongmin and Huang Qi, and put pressure on the Chinese government for their release.
(Note: As a friend of Vaclav Havel, Ms. Albright accepted the Czechoslovakian Democratic Transition Commemorative Award from the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation. In her acceptance address, she expressed congratulations to Liao Yiwu for receiving the award and said, in acknowledging his request, that when she visits China, she will definitely place a request with top CCP leaders to release the two political prisoners.)
Links to vhlf:
The Corpse Walker https://archive.org/stream/B-001-000-369/B-001-000-369_djvu.txt
— Speech on the Opening Ceremony of Book World Prague
By Liao Yiwu, published: December 9, 2013
In the spring of 1994, not long after I had been released from prison, a friend brought me a copy of The Collected Works of Vaclav Havel through underground channels. It was the earliest Chinese translation published by Hong Kong Radical Press and translated by Zhang Yongjin. Up to that point, I had been living in total despair. Because of a poem protesting the Tian’anmen Massacre, I paid the price of being locked up in prison and was cut off from the world for four years, and, upon my release, I found I was totally abandoned by society.
In my prison without walls, I read Havel ravenously. I came to know Charter 77, and I came to know The Plastic People of the Universe and how their souls, Havel’s and the band’s, found each other in an underground bar. Havel, who preferred classical music, heard the distress of a nation in what was regarded as street music. Thus, he made appeals to draw attention to the misfortunes of the band. He pointed out that what was truly “harmful to the morals of society” was the regime that detained the band members. Havel said, every nobody has their own history, they should all be respected.
At the time, I myself was just like the musicians, an aimless nobody monitored by the police. I was like The Plastic People, mingling in bars, but I had no way to make the kind of music that would move Havel. I drowned my worries in alcohol, and performed in a state of inebriation. Deep in the night the bar would go from raucous to empty, and the remaining patrons, in twos or threes, were those who either had no homes or were forsaken by love, or sometimes both. Some had no home to return to, and others had no country to belong to. Havel, who is now already in heaven, would definitely understand this feeling of not having a country to call one’s own. In The Power of the Powerless, he described [the period] after the Prague Spring and how the people of the Czech Republic turned from mass patriotism towards mass materialism because of fear. How similar this is to China after the Tian’anmen massacre.
Because I had to survive, I drew close to the bar patrons and made idle conversation with them. My goal was to earn money through performance. The first song I played for them was often free. After evoking their emotions, I would pretend I was going to leave. I knew they would pull me back and plead for another melody. And so, riding on their downward emotions, my flute would become increasingly sad and depressing. I would then make the best of it by collecting three times what I normally would. Along the way, I also heard the stories of many people.
My youthful years before going to jail gradually elapsed, or more precisely, my life was chopped into two sections. My real life started from the second section. It was as if I was in jail straight from birth, and then played flute in bars, falling into the company of farmer-emperors, human traffickers, escort girls, fortune tellers, fugitives, alcoholics, embalmers, etc. Inside or outside prison, I had always been one of them.
I hoped to meet Havel, who would later become the president [of the Czech Republic], but it was not possible. I did meet Liu Xiaobo though, who was often in and out of jail himself. He would occasionally page me while I was busy performing to insist that I go to receive his fax. Much like Havel, Liu Xiaobo was addicted to faxing political documents to everyone, pitting himself against a dictatorship. I didn’t pit myself against anything; I just signed my name to whatever campaign. Meanwhile, my literary career thrived under these ridiculous situation of flute-playing and name-signing.
So many years have gone by. Havel has died, Liu Xiaobo is in jail, and I am standing here, being called an author who has borne witness to this shameful era.
For goodness sake.
Berlin, May 9, 2013
(Translated by Jack, with permission from the author.)