Liu Xiaobo, whose name means “morning wave,” is known to his friends as Xiaobo or Liubo. He recently got a nickname as “Wavy” on the Internet thanks to the censors, as his name was blocked and people had to come up with something new. After his arrest, since “Charter 08” sounds like “county chief” in Chinese, people often refer to him as “Chief Liu.” When we happen to talk about his wife Liu Xia over a meal, then, we are more likely than not to call her “Madame Chief.” Nothing beats the name a used-books website conferred on him. The author listed under his titles, including The Fog of Metaphysics and Aesthetics and Human Freedom, is none other than “Big Stutter,” a reference to Xiaobo’s well-known speech defect. Incidentally, copies of Metaphysics from 1988 have gone from 50 cents to $20, while Aesthetics has shot up to $120. It’s rather amusing how demand for his work is growing, “so that paper becomes dear in the capital,” as the ancients would say.
Liu Xiaobo is a good man. And a good friend.
The first time I found out about Liu Xiaobo was in September 1986. The Literature Research Institute at the Academy of Social Sciences held a seminar on “Reform Decade’s Literature,” and my classmate at the Film Institute, Yu Ji, was invited. When he came home that night, he re-broadcast the lively if somewhat chaotic event, mimicking Liu Xiaobo’s Northeast accent with a slight stammer: “Contemp-porary Chinese lit-terature is only a shoddy imi-ta-tation of our classical literature.” After this talk, Liu became known as a “Black Stallion” in the literary circle, as his fame was both sudden and impressive, and could be chalked up in part to a rebellious streak. It was a time swept along by sudden turbulence, and “perceptive subjectivity” was much encouraged, as a tentative answer to Marxist dogma. The passion of Liu’s critique, and his daring candor, impressed us, and one critic gave him credit for his “tenacity of viewpoint and anxious sincerity.” Liu became friends with many known figures in cultural circles.
I attended his lectures at Beijing Normal University several times when we still did not know each other. He was a very effective lecturer. Even though the course was on literary theory, he always started out by copying some classical poetry on the blackboard and savoring it with his students. His writing and thought were rather popular during the 1980’s. A friend told me that when film director Zhang Yimou was shooting his “Red Sorghum,” the entire core team pored over Liu’s Critique of Choices in between scenes. In retrospect, it was a time which belonged properly to the last century.
My next sighting of him was on television, when he had already become, according to authorities, “the black hand behind the chaos” during the protests of 1989. Soon after, many famous people decided they had to help him, even if they had to fight their way to it. Others, equally famous, thought it no longer entirely convenient to keep such company. It is a “sensitive” matter to be friends with Liu Xiaobo in China. Much later, when I picked him up for a meal or for getting out of the city, he would often tell me, “today we’ll have a car following us.”
I can’t recall exactly when I became friends with Liu Xiaobo. It may have been in the mid-90’s during one of the periods when he was out of prison. He was planning to edit a collection of interviews of cultural figures, and wanted me to contribute and maybe to help put it together. Liu’s writing really gets to me. He has his finger on the pulse whether it be cinema, literature, or philosophy, and he never misses out on the pleasure of each text. Later on, when I brought up “The Pornographic Imagination” of Susan Sontag with him, we both felt that she was on to something. We both prime ourselves to be alert to the texture, structure and intertextuality in literary works, and to focus on taking pleasure in them. He has a solid foundation in Chinese and foreign literature and philosophy, and always adds his own particular views to his mastery of the subject. Xiaobo is always upfront about his own confusion and fear. Once, he described his arrest after June Fourth. He was walking on the street, when a car pulled up, several men jumped him, and shoved him in. He told me that his knees were shaking the entire time.
Even later, he wrote better and better. With all his erudition and intellectual training, he never veered from what is sensible, right and human, and always told things as they actually were. This honesty is to become a clear hallmark of his political and social commentary. Rather strangely, he, like his writing, became more mild, supple, and sturdy over time. He stayed in place despite the jolting of outside events. At the same time, he kept his warmth, precision, and edge. I can count very few among my acquaintances who have gone through such a radical personality change. When his friends talked over this change amongst ourselves, we all agreed that this was thanks to his wife’s influence. Liu Xia is by nature calm and steady. In the middle of the 90’s, in order to guarantee jail visits to Xiaobo, Liu Xia insisted on marrying him there, and succeeded in getting the government to agree.
We have our complaints about her, though. She often turned down our invites for some chow time together, or to top off a mountain hike to Changping with grilled fish, preferring to paint oils or shoot photos by herself off somewhere. The colors of her oils feel good. Her rather simple palette tends toward more neutral colors, holding back a bit, while her design favors breaking with the rules. After Xiaobo’s arrest and the award of the Nobel prize, all photos of him used in the major media were taken by his wife. That must be a record of some sort. In 2006, en route to planning a film festival in Brazil, I asked Xiaobo what I could bring him. All he wanted was a few ugly dolls; Liu Xia could use them in her photos. I brought back several comely rag dolls. Xiaobo said that I was off and they were not nearly ugly enough. It was only when I saw Liu Xia’s photo ensemble of dolls that it dawned on me she has what it takes to take on ugliness. Liu Xia likes wine, while I happen to be allergic to alcohol. Whatever wine friends bring me almost all end up at the Lius’.
As I write this, I find myself suddenly splashing into stream-of-consciousness. One time, while driving to the mountains in Changping County to have grilled fish, we realized that the maximum-security prison Qincheng was only two kilometers away. We drove there and parked out front. Since Xiaobo and Liu Di had both been kept there, they went over its interior setup and the rules. After Xiaobo’s arrest for Charter 08 work, friends cooked up a lame joke about our organizing a house-flipping tour that day to keep Xiaobo company while he viewed the real estate. The fact is, Xiaobo never stayed there during this arrest.
Four or five days before Xiaobo’s arrest we had dinner together, and he showed the rest of us the Charter. I raised a few issues over wording, and he made some minor changes with a few casual pen strokes. Then I signed my name, quite deliberately, in black marker. That day, all of us at the table thought this was a most rational and constructive text, and did not have the slightest inkling that this was something dangerous enough to send him to a dark prison cell for eleven years.
I remember this day well. On December 10, 2008, I got the news that Xiaobo was arrested. I called Liu Xia. I had no words to comfort her with. My colleague Cui Weiping called to ask my opinion of the sentence Xiaobo received. My response: “I am his most abject groupie when it comes to his writing. I am in complete agreement with the Charter, and wouldn’t so much as nudge one word out of place. It would seem that he himself did not expect to go to prison for the sake of the Charter. I also did not expect that his trial should have become a powerful way to de-sensitize certain issues, with many people speaking up against the government’s cruelty and folly.” Not unlike those midnight calls from the Dark Side in certain supernatural thrillers, Cui’s on-the-record calls struck terror into many a heart during this time. Many cultural figures left the imprint of their voices on history.
What was even less expected was how the peace-loving international community did come through with some support for Chinese people’s fight for freedom, some praise for the spirit of peace and reason. On October 8, 2010, I was unfit for writing anything, and spent the entire time listening to Beethoven’s Egmont, Coriolan, and Leanore, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The wait wore into the afternoon. Finally, at five, the countdown timer on the Nobel official site clicked to zero. Never, until I heard the Nobel Committee Chairman mispronounce “Liu Xiaobo,” did I understand what it means to cry from happiness. I wailed long in my song, in the tradition of our Chinese lyrical forerunners. Twenty-one years have passed since the Tiananmen massacre. This is the first time I, finally, can cry. Chinese social media went off all afternoon. That night, after certain commands silenced the China-based microblogs, Twitter carried on. Many grown men came clean about their shameless breakdown. The best Tweet with the biggest bang I saw: “Black Hand Liu – could it be you finally got what you deserve!”
Liu Xia’s phone line has not worked since. We had agreed I would drive her to Jinzhou, in a Northern province, to visit Xiaobo. It was scheduled for today, and I had bought three cartons of two brands of eight-treasure rice pudding, figuring this way we’ll know which brand he likes better next time. Someone reported on the Internet that Liu Xia left in a government vehicle yesterday, so at this moment Xiaobo should have already had his belated consolation. The three cartons of rice pudding are still sitting in the trunk of my car. I don’t know when I can hand them over to Liu Xia, and even less when I can get to see Xiaobo. I would really like to give him a hug.
As I am ending this piece, I poked my head in on Twitter again, and saw that Liu Xia just met Xiaobo, today, on October 10, and Xiaobo already heard about his prize from prison authorities yesterday. During Liu Xia’s visit, they talked about the Tiananmen Mothers and those who lost their lives, and Xiaobo wept. He said that this Nobel belongs to the dead of June Fourth.
In Sternstunden der Menschheit: Twelve Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig wrote about how certain fleeting moments turned the tide of history, such as when General Grouchy decided to have his troops hunker down rather than go to Waterloo, or the split second Handel saw the script of “Messiah.” The impact of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize on Chinese history is, for now, unclear to me. I can clearly feel, however, that the Nobel can be counted as a watershed event in the fight of the Chinese people for guarantees of their liberty under a constitutional democracy. The same echoes resound throughout Liu Xiaobo’s “I Have No Enemies” statement during his trial, what the Nobel Committee did, and the universal values Premier Wen Jiabao mentions in his speeches. They have not died out.
In the last few days, I have entertained a bit of an extravagant hope. I hope that the government would undertake a sincere self-examination and to recognize the importance of universal values, that the political reforms visualized by Premier Wen can be launched now, and that during this process the moderate and reasonable recommendations of the Charter can be drawn upon. How I wish the National People’s Congress can confront the political appeals of civil society, realize the promises Premier Wen made to his people, bring about social reconciliation, and with the hands of master craftsmen put together a common and prosperous blueprint for the Chinese people’s future, integrating us securely into the great family of the world community.
Liu Xiaobo is crying out to us from behind bars, and civilized societies are waving the olive branch at us from Norwegian Wood. Is the answer to be yes or no? Let us get back to them.