Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
And on Thursday, at the age of 61, he died of liver cancer while still in prison. He was, as many have pointed out, the first Nobel laureate to die in prison since Carl von Ossietzky, the German pacifist who died in Nazi custody.
Chinese censors continue to scrub nearly all mentions of his name from the Internet. The entry on him in the state-approved Baidu online encyclopedia describes him as highly critical of Chinese culture and thus a traitor to the motherland, as well as a paid agent of the United States. (The source for this latter claim is “an Internet user.”) The Nobel Committee’s decision to award him the Peace Prize, the entry claims, was a violation of international law.
But comparisons to Ossietzky fail in that — and most commentary so far has missed this point — imprisoning or executing people for writing something contrary to the government’s point of view is a venerable Chinese tradition. Hell, the Chinese have a specific term for it: wenziyu, or “word prison.” It is such an inextricable part of Chinese history that the earliest instance dates back to 548 B.C. Another early example occurred in 54 B.C., when the emperor ordered one courtier bisected at the waist for writing a letter of complaint.
The practice of “word prison” really came into its own starting in the Ming Dynasty in the late 14th century. Since then, there have been innumerable cases of death and imprisonment for nothing more than expressions of dissent — or sometimes not even dissent but merely materials that could be interpreted as dissent, such as poems or works of fiction. In 1404, the emperor even had one man beaten because His Majesty saw the man’s library and disapproved of what was in it.
In an infamous case in 1733, the Yongzheng emperor felt so threatened by the writings of one Lü Liuliang, an intellectual who’d been dead for 50 years, that he personally authored a rebuttal of his views and publicized it across the country. He then ordered that the man’s grave be dug up, his writings be burned, his son be executed, and his grandchildren be enslaved.
But the Lü case also demonstrated the limits of tyranny in general and of “word prison” in particular. Popular sympathy for Lü’s family was such that when Yongzheng died under mysterious circumstances two years later, folk legend claimed that Lü’s granddaughter assassinated the emperor in righteous revenge. In 1911, when republican revolutionaries overthrew Yongzheng’s descendants, they were in part inspired by Lü's writings. History always remembered the emperor as the villain and the scholar as the hero.
As for Liu, if Beijing objected his criticisms of Chinese culture, then putting him in “word prison,” one of China’s worst traditions, surely made his point for him more eloquently than any writing could have ever done.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."