Love, a Decisive Moment
From China Digital Space
Li Jingrui published the reflection on love and her political awakening translated below to her WeChat account (available here). Li was formerly a reporter for the Beijing News. She currently writes a column for Tencent’s online magazine Dajia. Her writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal. She is the author of several books, including collections of short stories and the novel “Small Town Girl” (小镇的姑娘).
At first I didn’t want to revive this thing called Valentine’s Day. After my romantic life became more than stable, I lost interest in talking about it. Last night, our whole clan went out for hot pot. A ladder to the sky made of goose intestine, duck webs, tripe, pig brain, blood vessels, and eel. We stank of hot pot when we were done. Then we all walked home together. By the river, lovers were sending paper lanterns into the air. The heavy shadows of trees fell on this ruined old city, on the trash-laden ground. We came to a row of dilapidated houses. I said to Xiao Han, “Did you see? If we ever get divorced, we have to come here to take care of the formalities.”
Everyone laughed. That was that. We got back home, ate fruit, bathed, and threw our clothes into the washing machine. A Valentine’s Day evening. We reminisced for a while. We couldn’t remember last Valentine’s Day. We can’t remember every Valentine’s Day.
Last March, I wrote a long essay, about myself, and about my friends. This essay can’t be published in China. After I sent it to a few friends, they eagerly contacted Hong Kong and overseas publishers on my behalf. But for several reasons that I can’t explain, I didn’t want to publish it in the end.
I thought of it all of a sudden today. I have put two passages from the essay here, to serve as a belated Valentine’s Day update. The full essay was originally titled “Outsider in the Plague.” I randomly chose a title for this selection.
I’ve talked about romantic love a few times before. It isn’t its most compelling here. Sometimes it’s just excessive. Its particulars don’t depend on life or time. Of course, I had never truly lived with someone before. I think there’s a place in my soul where I want to always be single, in order to escape commitment and disappointment. I didn’t even move in the first few months of my marriage. I preferred to come out from my own place every other day with a change of clothes. Then I really entered into married life. We bought a house, and I lost my choice. But Xiao Han says that losing one’s choice is a good thing.
What’s written below is just what marriage means particularly to me. In a relationship, a mixed-up hipster girl found her inner self.
Love, a Decisive Moment
Is there a decisive moment that turns “us” into “us”?
In my first year at university, I watched a set of documentaries made by someone in Japan called “LS’s Truth.” [Note: Li is referring the documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” produced by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton. “LS” stands for Liù Sì 六四), i.e. June 4th.] The pirated VCD was grainy. I have a vague memory that WD was a skinny young guy, that CL at that time looked like she was putting on weight. A long braid rested on beautiful Teacher Xiaoyan’s chest (the first time I saw her later on, I asked ruefully, “Teacher Xiaoyan, what happened to your braid?”). The fresh blood in the film, and my father’s reminiscence years later about his dream girl, Du Xian (dressed in a black suit, reading the decision of the Central Committee as if it were a death notice), and also the books in the “Moving Toward the Future” Series at home, all gave me a rough idea of the 1980s and of that final summer.
Close to graduation, in the shabby, humid female dormitory at Nanjing University, I finished reading “How Did the Red Sun Rise.” That book was a pirated copy of unknown provenance. Only later did I learn that in this form it had first circulated through Nanjing University’s campus, then slowly moved on to the rest of the country. The author was actually a professor at our university, and I had taken several of his electives. Even though I spent most of my time in the back of the lecture hall texting my boyfriend, I was still inscrutably arrogant. Cold showers could not put out the fire I felt from head to toe. Something that made me feel an unfamiliar pleasure and pain flowed under my skin. Perhaps it was because the poisoned sun in that book had burnt me. Perhaps it was because Nanjing was approaching 40 degrees Celsius.
Except for a kind of intellectual vanity, nothing came of these moments of passion. I graduated and went to Guangzhou, where I became a political correspondent at what claimed to be the country’s best Party newspaper. Work was busy. Sometimes I left work after 10. My colleagues and I went to a fast food place in Wuyang New Town for squab at RMB 9.80 each. We excitedly discussed the names that appeared in the headlines and unverified secrets emanating from official circles. I thought this a rewarding and dignified exercise. I was a little girl who already frequented provincial Party committee meetings, my name solemnly printed on the list of attendees. I went to a fancy restaurant to eat an enormous lobster sashimi. When the meal was done, one official called another to come pay the bill. The second official brought over several thick stacks of cash. I watched wide-eyed as he counted out more than a hundred notes. I would witness this scene many more times. Sometimes I thought it was absurd. Other times I was satisfied with its absurdity.
I quickly adapted to the language of my work unit and, thanks to my slight gift with words, became proficient in it. A profile I wrote for the organization department of the provincial Party committee was rather well-received. I heard that a copy elicited a memo from the committee secretary. The leadership asked me to write an “elegant” piece in praise of the Communist Party for a special issue of some journal. I wrote it, with much elegance. At the newspaper criticism meeting it earned extra points. I think I got over RMB 300 for it. I bumped into the deputy director of some department in the elevator. He deliberately patted my shoulder, saying, “Not bad, little girl.”I was happy. I thought I’d done well. I thought this was my future. At that time I had not even an inkling that words have a soul and dignity. The words Teacher Gao Hua wrote and the words I wrote would both be handed down through history in black ink printed on white paper. But his words would flow to the sea, while mine would moisten the mud.
I still liked to read. I read the newly published “Milosz’s ABCs.” It said, “I have always considered myself a crooked tree, so straight trees earned my respect.” I thought this was a great line, so I marked it in red. And I read Milosz’s poetry:
You better learn to like your shame because it will stay with you.
It won’t go away even if you change your country and your name.
The dolorous shame of failure. Shame of the muttony heart.
Of fawning eagerness. Of clever pretending.
Of dusty roads on the plain and trees lopped off for fuel.
…And, always humiliated… [Source]
Then I would turn around, open up my computer again, and turn the provincial committee’s copy into a report. The words I loved so much and the words I wrote occupied two parallel worlds. As for myself, I had no shame. I went on ingratiating myself.
Then I got to Beijing and started working at a commercial city paper. I was still the hippest of hip. I spent RMB 680 on the stage production of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” with Huang Lei and Yuan Quanna. Yun Zhifan was unbelievably beautiful. Even at her cruelest moments, she was the loveliest camellia blossom. My greatest sadness in life was only that no one had sung “Pursuit” to me. “You’re the floating cloud in the clear blue sky / You’re the shooting star in the midnight dark.” Yun Zhifan said, “Look, hope is everywhere. Just like us two. Wouldn’t you say so?” On the subway, I dripped tears all the way back home to Tongzhou.
Outside of my melodrama, bit by bit I awakened something else. Maybe it was because I reread “Tombstone” and “The Road to Serfdom.” (Hayek quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.“) Maybe it was that as soon as I dissociated from all that I ought to do, common sense and self respect struggled in the fierce light to open my eyes. In my writing and my speech, I took care not to use terms like “after the founding of the country,” “three-year natural disaster,” and “Chairman Mao.” The source of pride in my work changed from whether I was noted by the provincial secretary to whether I could get the spokesperson to tell me his stance on the Nie Shubin case. But one will always instinctively advocate for one’s own life. When I thought of the past, I hastily told myself, “What about it? That was just work.”
I covered the Two Sessions for a few years. I would work 13 to 14 hours a day. Blisters formed by my lips, acne on my forehead. A photo of me with messy hair and a sleep-deprived face somehow got online, onto “Beautiful Female Reporters at the Two Sessions.” A classmate who had once pursued me sent me a text: “I see you’ve fattened up.””I only weigh 82 catties!” I shot back, flustered. In order to interview some vice minister, I sat outside his room for two hours. The substance of the interview didn’t matter. What mattered was that I interview yet another high official. It seemed that his title could raise my quality. I didn’t really like being a journalist, but respect for work is also an instinct. I still don’t understand standing at the back at work. It’s an inescapable principle. Many years later, it was from Milosz that I came to understand that “respect for work” has its complications. In 1949, when he was a Polish diplomat to the U.S., he went to a party. They drank and danced:
We were on our way home at four in the morning; it was summer but the night was cold. And I saw jeeps carrying prisoners, people just arrested. The soldiers guarding them were wearing sheepskin coats, but the prisoners were in suit jackets with the collars turned up, shivering from the cold. It was then that I realized what I was part of. [Source]
One year, I attended the premier’s press conference. I dressed meticulously: pure-red woolen coat, crystal earrings I had bought in Tibet. I vainly hoped the camera would pan over me, so that my parents and suitors could see how beautiful I was. The very last question, I forgot whether a reporter from Agence France-Presse or Reuters asked it. There was a person in Beijing named Hu Jia standing trial. The charge against him was “inciting subversion of state power.” It was the first time I’d heard this name. A month later, Hu Jia was sentenced to three years and six months. While I was on foreign websites reading film reviews, I inadvertently saw a picture of his wife, Zeng Jinyan, standing outside the courthouse. She had short hair and was holding a baby. She wore an ashen look.
Too bad, I thought, the child will be nearly four by the time he gets out.
That was all I felt at the time, stemming from a distant compassion. So it went. I skipped over LS’s truth, Gao Hua, Milosz, and Yang Jisheng, over my neighbors in Tongzhou, Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, over murky introspections and irritations. I considered myself merely a citizen of a literary utopia. There were things I no longer understood, but they really had nothing to do with me.
A few years later, my critical moment came. Xiao Han and I fell in love quickly, married quickly. The new world came rushing in. It was happy, frightening place with crazy things on the road ahead. It made it so I couldn’t distinguish between love and hate. Just like Beijing spring.
At first, we only talked about literature. Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Shen Congwen, Maugham. I bought Li Er’s “Truth and Variations” and Norman Manea’s “On Clowns” for him. He had me read Brodsky‘s “Child of Civilization.” I read works full of political import, but I barely connected them to the vibrant world outside my window. I had fallen in love with a professor who taught LS, but I didn’t realize the hidden depths that could be behind it. In midsummer we went out drinking in Houhai and saw the lights on the water, but soon retreated. There was a period of time when light and dark coexisted. From the in-between spaces came amorphous shadows, and that is where I dwelled.
The radius of our discussions expanded uncontrollably. Literature could no longer fill up our love, because that’s how life is. He brought up LXB. I looked him up. Oh, he’s a poet, but a mediocre one. He brought up Wang Juntao. I looked him up. Oh, his lawyer is Zhang Sizhi. I know about Zhang Sizhi. He brought up Xu Zhiyong and Teng Biao. Of course I know about them. I’m a reporter. All reporters ought to know about the Sun Zhigang case. He especially brought up Guo Yushan, so I especially looked him up. Oh, he studied economics, worked on two NGOs, one called Zhuanzhixing, the other called Gongmeng. He’s fat.
One day in July 2009, we went to the Mr. Pizza on the ground floor of the Tongzhou Carrefour, across from Giordano. I liked taking him here for the RMB 32 salad bar. It was torturously hot outside, while in the mall the air conditioning was turned down too low. Languidly, we ate plate after plate of fruit, and stretched the pizza cheese into long white strands. The chatter symptomatic of heady love had gradually dissipated, and we had started to enjoy each other’s wordless company. Outside the glass door, a girl holding an umbrella passed by, the sunlight dappling her bare calves.
He answered the phone. After a few minutes, he hung up and told me, “Xu Zhiyong has been taken away.”
Back then I wasn’t ready with a set of questions about being “taken away” like I am now: Who took him? The “national treasure” or the local police? Were there any formalities? Which? Was he summoned or detained? Administrative or criminal detention? What’s the crime? What’s the maximum prison sentence? Did he give power of attorney to a good lawyer beforehand?
Back then, I could only stupidly say, “Ah… Now what?”
Just like every time afterward when a friend was “taken away,” everyone talked about what to do. But there never really is anything to “be done.” They have prison, while we (according to our side’s standard response) have only faith, justice, and love. It was as if these words were in our phones, ringing from time to time to remind us not to be afraid, not to let prison occupy our hearts. But prison is prison. Many eyes are on you when you go to the toilet. You can only wash your hair once a week. Cabbage boiled with fatty meat is a better meal. You can’t read a single book. You can’t listen to Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life.” (Teng Biao has said that when he was “taken away” for two months in 2011, he was crazy for the copies of the Beijing News left folded under his boxed meals. Every day, he would ask the officers to put on propaganda films, because that way he could have background music.)
These things scare me out of my wits.
In Coetzee’s “Inner Workings,” I read Benjamin‘s story. He met Lacis in Italy in 1924. Afterwards, he said, “A genuine love makes me resemble the woman I love.” Lacis was a staunch communist, and Benjamin was a Jew. Lacis said, “The path of thinking, progressive persons in their right senses leads to Moscow, not to Palestine.” Because of this, Benjamin didn’t go to Palestine.
Then Benjamin killed himself. I don’t want to die. I’m terrified that Xiao Han will will one day go to prison, too, but there’s nothing I can do. I’m 27. It’s not easy to find a man you love who loves you back. I can’t abandon love because of a terrifying possibility. But I’m weak. In all my life, the greatest physical pain I’ve suffered was when my wisdom teeth were pulled out. I shed a few tears when I cut myself with a kitchen knife, too. Never once had I imagined that falling in love would require that I steel myself to dash head-on into danger.
I forget exactly what we “did” in the end. I seem to recall that Xiao Han went all over the place in a black car to gather signatures for an open letter. I think Guo Yushan called in the middle of the night. The two men went on talking for five hours. I woke up a few times during their call. I saw that the darkness outside was little by little less dark. Then I turned my head from the window and drifted off. Later on, Xu Zhiyong was released.
He came over for dinner. This was our first meeting. Not too long in, I could tell that we had different sensibilities. He wasn’t like Guo Yushan, he wouldn’t become our close friend. Yet, as we sat together cracking seeds between our teeth, it felt unreal to me: the person before my eyes has a Ph.D. in law from Peking University. He was in a new term as people’s representative of Haidian. A professor who had been on the covers of Esquire and Southern People Weekly. Who had spent a full two months living in a petitioners’ village (an experience that surely prepared him for prison). Once, I went to report at the supreme court, and ran into him standing outside the entrance with a group of petitioners. That was in the dead of winter in Beijing. My face enveloped by a cashmere scarf, I hustled towards the warmth inside. When I emerged, after a stately, solemn press conference, he was still standing there, bundled in a gray quilted jacket. At first glance, he looked just like a petitioner. This is exactly the type of person who should be on “Touching China.” But since he set up Gongmeng, a legal aid NGO, he mysteriously went to prison, and just as mysteriously regained his freedom.
I had made a few simple dishes. I’m pretty good at a few dishes, but I secretly reserve my best work for friends. When Guo Yushan and Xia Lin came over, I spent five hours making peppered meat. I marinated the chicken wings a day ahead, and at dawn I went to the market at Baliqiao to select fish and shrimp. When Xu Zhiyong came over, I spent an hour putting together four dishes, enough to satisfy him. He ate with gusto and told us excitedly about the “New Citizens Movement.” He went to jail for this in 2013, for four years. But at the time, I had no interest in this “movement.” I only wanted to gossip with Xiao Han after Xu had left: Who’s his girlfriend now? Is he going to make a career as a counterrevolutionary? Doesn’t he want to get married?
A few years later, we went to Xu’s wedding, in a beautiful courtyard on the north side of the city. The sun was blazing. Ah Pan and I took photos by the lotus pond, while children clung to our legs, vying for their little faces to be in the frame. We were steeped in summer, in lotus leaves, in the buffet. So we completely ignored the table of uninvited guests, the people dressed in black pressed into a corner, coldly watching the sun-baked party. As the newlyweds took their vows from the teachings of the Baha’i faith, we whispered, “Xu Zhiyong is lucky. His wife seems reliable. She’ll be able to suffer with him.” Who knew that she would be bringing him meals to prison. Cui Zhenggang was pregnant when Xu Zhiyong was caught. After the baby came, a photo of her holding the child waiting for visitation circulated on friends’ social media feeds. It was the middle of the night when I saw the photo. The child was well cared for, with a round head like his daddy. Cui Zhenggang had lost quite a bit of weight. She stared blankly at the floor. That short-skirted summer leapt before my eyes: dewdrops rolling down the lotus leaves, the bride putting on fresh red lipstick. I cried in the dark night.
Back to 2009. On the first of October (I am deliberately avoiding “National Day“), my paper sent me to Tiananmen to cover the evening celebration. Before I left, a black car driver and I poured over a map of Beijing, finally drawing up a circuitous route around all the closed roads and into the city. For once I made it into the city from the Beijing–Harbin Expressway—I mean, the city outside of Chang’an Avenue, since it was almost entirely blocked off. Beijing, at this moment, was a strange land: a frighteningly blue sky, a frighteningly quiet city, frighteningly clear streets. We saw no more than ten cars between South Fourth Ring Road and South Second Ring Road. Most stores were closed, and the aunties wearing red armbands were gone from the intersections. When this city has a celebration, even pigeons and kites are prohibited from flying.
At 3 p.m. I got to Jinshuiqiao and took over for my colleague. At 3 a.m. he had gone through security, and had been sitting on a little wooden stool waiting stupidly for seven hours. For the next five hours, I exchanged forlorn looks with a group of grade school children holding red and yellow ribbons standing several meters away. I was on edge. I held a parasol. Some of the people in front of me were so exhausted, they laid down on Chang’an Avenue to sleep. I envied them. It seemed that they could set this world aside. When the festivities were over, I walked from Tiananmen to the Forbidden City. But since I couldn’t hail a cab, I went back across Tiananmen to catch the shuttle bus. Not since I had climbed 4700 meters up a mountain in Tibet had I walked so far. But what frustrated me wasn’t fatigue, but absurdity and humiliation. That night reminded me of Manea’s description of Ceausescu’s birthday in “On Clowns”: The country put together a grand celebration for him every year, both solemn and vulgar. The throngs were supposed to keep order, but even the police couldn’t help snickering.
I remember the dancing ribbons, the enormous wreaths in the square. I couldn’t believe I was there. I was afraid I would appear in a photo, a photo of me sitting in the once-bloody square, joining in their party. Jews wouldn’t go to a new year’s party hosted at Auschwitz. I can’t be like that, either.
It was about at that point that I made up my mind to be done with them. I didn’t want to join them as they locked up my friends, then turned around and set off fireworks. There’s an old photo where everyone has their right arm raised in salute to Hitler, while one man coldly takes in the scene, his right arm at his side. I’ve decided to keep my right arm at my side. I’m a little afraid, but not really, because that man stood alone, but I have my husband and my friends. [Chinese]
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