Ran Yunfei (冉云飞): Where Will the Fear End? A Talk that Could Not Be Delivered

Blogger Ran Yunfei (冉云飞) posted the following on one of his blogs. CDT thanks the translator, who wishes to remain anonymous:

November 4, 2009

Ran Yunfei note: This is a talk I had planned to deliver at the invitation of some friends in at academic meeting at Hong Kong University. Since I was not able to go there to deliver it, I wrote it and gave it to them as a journal article. Actually when I take part in a colloquium or give a talk, I never write out an outline, much less write out a speech before I give it so that I could think it over carefully. I admire those who when they do things can get get every little detail right, and can write out their speech word for word before they give it. As for me, I feel that doing that detracts from the spontaneous nature of a speech and will make the audience feel like they are just listening to a recording, making it less interesting. These are my thoughts for sending along by means of the web, blogs etc., please let me have your comments.

November 4, 2009 6:40 at Chengdu

In my childhood I lived in the Dawulin mountain district. When I read Tao Yuanming’s “Peach Blossom Spring”, I thought the place described there was very much like my home area. The sky, the limestone caves, the underground river, the stalactites and the karst formations — they all felt like home. Naturally my home town of Xiyang County, Chongqing City and Changde County, Hunan Province as well as some other places argued constantly that they were the true origin of this imaginary “Peach Blossom Spring”. The two areas fought it out for top billing. Naturally commercial motives for this were far stronger than any desire to learn about the past to understand the present or any scientific motivation.

I myself didn’t care just where the “Peace Blossom Spring” originated from; what really interested me was taking part in the exploration of those limestone caves, row on those underground rivers, and climbing up towards the sky. I wanted to experience what Wang Anshi said in his “Traveling in Zen Mountain Chronicle” — “The greatest beauties and wonders of the world, extraordinary views, are often in dangerous and distant places, and so seldom visited. Therefore only the ambitious ever reach them.” One time a group of us children, large and small, lit a branch and squeezed into a big, dark, silent cave that had many passageways. Bats were flying around and we didn’t know just how far it went. The timid turned back, while the braver ones pressed forward. Later, even the bravest lost their confidence and felt they had to turn back. But we had lost our way. Everyone was reproachful of each other but didn’t say a word. Hopelessness and fear was spreading, our torment felt like how after having been bitten by a poisonous snake, the numbness spreading little by little across the entire body and then breathing becomes difficult. We felt that a great calamity had befallen us.

As time passed slowly by, we still couldn’t find our way to the exit. Everyone kept quiet, the air was stifling, and then a few of the children started to cry. The crying, catalyzed by that pitch black darkness and our helplessness, spread the feeling of helplessness and made us feel even more afraid. I and another of the more reckless children said, “Cry, cry, what good is crying going to do you?” We wanted to keep walking but every little while we took turns yelling out. Staying depressed and quiet and not yelling out our feelings will make it impossible for our families to find us. This certainly true, since a voice carries much further than the light from a small flame. Not long afterwards, one part of the group of people looking for us children came and found our group of tired and hungry children. Nearly all the children started to cry softly, enjoying their rescue and feeling that they had gotten their lives back.

Yes, you may have guessed it — I want to use this experience of misfortune from my childhood to explain to everyone why I have been writing a blog for a long time, and have been adding an entry to it every day. If I don’t keep on speaking up, if I lose confidence that we will be able to save ourselves, and the rescuers do not know where we are, and do not join efforts to organize themselves, then we will suffer a great calamity alone in the vast darkness. If everyone speaks up, no matter how weakly, then the weak will be able to help one another. We can all light a candle in the darkness and so enlighten more people and make the fear that everyone feels recede a little. If nobody will speak up and all the people are muzzled, that that makes the job all the easier for those in the habit of making isolated information islands, covering things up and hiding the truth, and doing violence to the personal interests of individuals. I make an entry in my blog everyday just to continue to call out to the outside, that there are people in this great darkness, come save me. Or so that someone else in the darkness will say, “I am here too.” and more and more people will respond that I am here too. After all in the darkness there are many friends like me who are willing to raise their voices and so plans to save ourselves and to save others gradually coalesce than move gradually into action. Yet all this depends upon creating a foundation of the free flow of information, creating a diversity of views, and a diversity of methods for it to be gradually implemented.

Why is the free origination and dissemination of information so important? This is because only the free origination and dissemination of information can create for everyone a foundation for making their own rational judgments. Only living in truth can enable people to be more reasonable in their thinking and not be influenced by the lies and deceptions of officials. Only through the free dissemination of information will we be able to form free associations based on our own thinking, and to help each other drive out the fear that has been naturally created because we are all on our own so weak and small. These forces that were not previously aware of one another will then have the opportunity to come together and join forces.

Why is it that the totalitarians want to block the free flow of information? It is not simply to preserve their own monopoly on information, to be better able to carry out their idiotizing-the-people rule, and to reduce the costs of suppressing resistance to their swindling away the interests of others. No, more important than those things is to make everyone be along on their own isolated information island, putting everyone in their own dark room of information isolation. There unable to communicate, unable to know or respond to the isolated resistance of others. Each is made painfully aware of their weakness in isolation. They are unable to work for their common interests and more easily split off from others, to be humiliated, and made to live or die alone. To put it another way, we are like potatoes sent in our own individual sack, with each having its own vague memories but forever unable to transform the pain for their own oppression into joint demands to protect their own interests and so unable to make strong pressure on the people and organizations that are oppressing and exploiting them. That is one reason why I use blogs to join into the free flow of information.

Yes, for sixty years we have suffered much and had to endure hellish calamities. I think it is depressing and unjust. I don’t remember what old man told me that I want to live an ordinary live, like that of a dog or a pig, so that I can be a witness. This wisdom moved me very much. Unfortunately, this kind of wisdom is rare in China today. We have suffered many disasters, many of them extremely tragic. There should be a very developed witness literature, but there has not appeared anything comparable to the witnessing like that of the writer Elie Wiesel after the holocaust that the Jews suffered. Naturally, I could never write a great work of witness literature like [Wiesel’s] “Night“. We cannot keep silent after we have lived through disasters or else we will simply continue in our slavery. This witnessing is an indispensable resource in our efforts to gain freedom.

Looking at from a broader perspective, our suffering becomes the midwife of freedom and a harbinger of democracy. You may not dare to be an historian like Si Maqian, fear standing against the tide of the times, because it is very painful and [castrated as he was] he was not able to know the pleasure of sex. But you can leave behind some historical materials for the historians for the future, so that those people who suffer in the burning of the books and the scholars are not lost to history. If sufferings are not recorded, that is slavery because if they are not recorded, those sufferings will not serve to reduce or eliminate the sufferings of people in the future. In other words, we need to learn from our mistakes. But we have made many mistakes and fallen down many times and become more foolish each time. That is because many of us have have suffered and then drank the [the brew of forgetfulness] or Mengpo, goddess of the wind. A healthy society needs to make sense of past disasters so as to prevent their recurrence. Just as the scholar Xu Bi said, “We need to emerge from the shadows of the disasters of history, achieve social reconciliation; we need to not take into account past grudges but we need to remember them. We must remember our past disasters in wounds not in the spirit of settling accounts or in the spirit of “a tooth for a tooth” but so as to get a proper understanding of history for the sake of building reconciliation and harmony. This will enable use to build new, righteous social relationships. Getting apologies for the mistakes of the past is not a matter of determining responsibility and guilt. It is rather making a promise in the name of the entire society that we will never make that mistake again.” (from “Why People Should Remember”, p. 1)

Human beings have many fears. For people without religious feelings, death is a final fear that hovers around them and just won’t go away. However, since we generally have to go through several decades of life before this fear looms before us, when we are young we are aware of but don’t think about death. If some disaster should suddenly occur, well there is just no predicting that and no time to be afraid so we don’t then feel the psychological affliction and drawn out torment that fear of death can bring. The kind of suffering this long drawn out torment can bring can even exceed that of physical suffering or even death itself. We often describe people tormented by fear as suffering a fate worse than death. They have no dignity or personhood, they may not even have food or clothing. Might these people be called the living dead? Everyone please open your eyes and look around you. How many of these living dead are there? There are so many living dead around because of organized intimidation that has put great psychological pressure on people.

Fear is buried all around us in our everyday life. It can emerge at any time to grab a hold of us. This is a description of reality and is no exaggeration. How can we rid ourselves of this fear? How can we get rid of this Sword of Damocles that hangs over our heads? This will be a long difficult process that will require great efforts. I have no idea myself how long this process will last. This is like that long walk in the darkness when I was young. I felt that the darkness stretched boundlessly before me. I had no idea just where that long, dark passage would end. Many people like to ask me, what good does it do to do what you do? You have be a critic for so many years, but has society changed? I don’t want to exaggerate my role; it would not be accurate to say that it hasn’t done any good. I believe in the view that life is a journey and don’t believe that one should be short-sighted and not a partisan of the power struggles in which winners are then called kings and losers are then called bandits. So do not apply your poisonous standards of success that violate good conscience to measure me. I won’t swallow that poison. All humans have the seven emotions and the six sensory pleasures. All people are limited but it is important that people hold to their ideas and maintain a basic sense of decency.

I agree completely with Chu Anping’s view that under the Kuomintang freedom was always a question of a greater or lesser degree of freedom while under the Communist Party it was a question of having some freedom or none at all. Many people look back fondly at the freedom of speech, press and association that they enjoyed before 1949. This is completely understandable. But this was not due to any kindness on the part of the Kuomintang. Rather it was because at the time there were many forces that constrained their freedom of action. For example there was the armed force of the Communist Party and opposition parties like the Youth Party [Qingniandang], privately owned media and publishers (as well as the freedom of intellectuals to discuss and express themselves), and the educational freedom of private and religiously-based universities. The dictatorship of the Kuomintang was a timid one. Oftentimes it was not that it did not want to suppress but it was unable to do so. This of course is no argument in favor of a more capable dictatorship.

After 1949, press freedom suffered a disaster and intellectuals were completely emasculated. Today we cannot establish relatively free newspapers, publishing houses, political magazines or apply to open up a new newspaper office when the old one has been closed down like we could in the time of the Kuomintang rule. But at least after you close down my blog I can immediately start up a new one. To a certain extent, the existence of the Internet brings us back to the time before 1949 when media would be closed and then reopened again, and this can be done by lone individuals. Luo Yonghao, manager of the Bullog who was mocked by the journalist Wang Xiaofeng as the “Beijing King of Being Shut Down and Opening Again,” is an example of this. I am merely reviving on my blog the spirit of those pre-1949 newspapers that we closed but still re-opened. I write an entry each day, thirty a month, comparable to a small magazine. Each day I have at least a few thousand readers and even more on a monthly basis. Actually, setting up a blog is fairly easy and, combined with the emergence of micro-blogs like Twitter, the forces available to spread information and engage in social criticism are getting much stronger. Although there are not many people who think like me, there are more and more of us like Chen Wanying, Chief Editor Chen Gang, and book “China’s Fierce Bloggers” by Zhai Minglei who prove this point.

“A thousand sailboats pass by the shipwreck and ten thousand flourishing trees stand before the diseased tree”. That [Chongqing dialect] expression is too passionate and too fool-heartedly optimistic for me to use, so I won’t use it. I would rather say that I have the kind of optimism that sees a great wind starting from small things as it gathers its forces. With a call to action, a group gathers, perhaps subjectively the time is not right, but in the encounter with reality, pushing day by day, finally it is achieved. My hope is that our efforts will pay off in the end and that we should not give up. The introduction to my blog is called “Pushing day-by-day until it is done”. I didn’t make it up, but it is the invention of a friendly adversary.

I’ll always be grateful to Hu Shi and want to be like him in making freedom the idea that I cherish and uphold all my life and in my daily life. Naturally, since I am of course just a being of flesh and bones, the demands are too great but perhaps in some future life. People need to be able to live with some fear in their lives but with regards to our political lives and our freedom, we do have the right to demand that the government create for us an environment in which we do not fear, in which we will have freedom from fear. We cannot live under organized intimidation, under a system of intimidation. We need to work hard to eliminate this fear that threatens the freedom of our bodies and minds.
Chengdu, October 18, 2009 first draft, October 19th second draft.