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The living must speak out

June 10, 2002

I first got to know Wang Ruowang through his writing. In early 1980, while I was doing research at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, I read a great deal of what was known at the time as “scar literature” or writing “that reveals the evils of the Gang of Four.” Many of these works were similar, but a few, such as Liu Binyan’s People or Monsters? and Wang Ruowang’s Hunger Trilogy, stood out as remarkably fresh. Their language was simple and clear, and yet they penetrated deeply and produced some shocking effects. Hunger Trilogy gives three accounts of the author’s life in detention — in a Kuomintang jail, under Japanese invasion and in one of Mao Zedong’s prisons. Of the three, the Mao prison is by far the cruelest. But (and this is to Wang Ruowang’s credit, artistically speaking) the author does not preach his conclusions, or force them onto the reader. He simply writes down the unvarnished truth and let readers infer conclusions, and feel the impact, on their own.

Shortly after Hunger Trilogy appeared, the Chinese Communist Party made a decision that “scar literature” had gone far enough. At a widely publicized conference, Sha Yexin’s play What if I Were for Real? and two other works were criticized for “failing to consider social effects.” Soon a flood of articles appeared in China’s press criticizing most of the truth-telling writers for “ignoring social effects.” But I remember finding it strange that Hunger Trilogy drew no criticism. Not a word. How could such a bold work escape criticism? I asked some Chinese friends, and they said it was probably because the content of Hunger Trilogy is too solid, too irrefutable. To try to criticize it would not work, and would only draw more attention to the embarrassing horrors that the work reveals.

I decided I wanted to meet Wang Ruowang. In June 1980 I went to see him in Shanghai. The Chinese Writers’ Association assigned an official “escort” to accompany me. I’ve long since forgotten the escort’s name, but anyway he was a familiar type. He deflected all serious questions with a vacuous “ha! ha!” He gave the impression of having no brain, except that, underneath, he did have one of those savvy heads for self-protective politics that so many pitiable Chinese people of his kind are obliged to cultivate. Wang himself was entirely different. His person was just like his writing. He answered all my questions directly, with no fudging or dodging. This intrigued me, and I finally asked him, “How, Mr. Wang, can you be so blunt? Aren’t you afraid?” His reply was moving: “Dead people can’t talk. I’m still alive, and can still talk. So of course I ‘m going to!”

Now Mr. Wang is no longer among the living, and it is time for others to speak for him. This is what my friend Jonathan Mirsky, a distinguished American journalist who now lives in London, had to say:

If there was a more admirable Chinese during the last 60 years I have yet to hear of him. Like Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi and Wei Jingsheng, Wang chose not to lead a quiet intellectual life. He suffered torture, jail, and constant verbal attack in one of the most frightening political systems of the 20th century, one in which millions died before their time. He stood up for human rights, law, and decency over long periods. With Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, he was expelled from the Party twice. All of them knew what the consequences would certainly, absolutely, predictably be if they opened their mouths and spoke the truth. But they did it anyway. Because, as Martin Luther said centuries ago, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

When the organizers of today’s memorial service asked me to speak, they said I could “represent the Western scholarly world.” I feel honored to do this, and am certainly willing to bow one last time to Mr. Wang on behalf of all the Western scholars who have learned from him. But, in a deeper sense, I don’t think we need to be making distinctions between East and West, or between scholars and non-scholars. Especially as we stand before the no-nonsense, egalitarian spirit of Wang Ruowang, we don’t need to be dividing humanity into subcategories. We are all, in any case, what he referred to as “the living” — the living who have responsibilities toward the dead, the living who have responsibilities toward other living people and the living who, if they fail to speak out, are only wasting their chances to do so. This is the heart of Wang Ruowang’s legacy to us.

Perry Link

Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


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