A Madman’s End15 min read

Geremie Barmé and Liu Xiaobo remember Li Ao


It is impossible to describe the exhilaration I felt upon reading Li Ao’s A Monologue on Tradition (獨白下的傳統) when it first appeared in 1979. At the time, I was working for The Seventies Monthly (七十年代月刊), a prominent Chinese-language magazine edited by the noted Hong Kong journalist Lee Yee (李怡). After years studying in late-Maoist China immersed in the works of the Great Helmsman #1 and stilted Party prose, the initial shock of Hong Kong’s cultural richness was immense. The British Crown Colony was the entrepôt of the Chinese multiverse, one where traditions from before 1949 and the world of that ‘Other China’ Taiwan were as freely accessible as the cloaked realm of the People’s Republic of China.

And then there was Li Ao, whose prose, and his ideas, were liberating, scintillating and, after my time on the Mainland, bracingly scandalous. I was soon surreptitiously ferrying copies of A Monologue on Tradition, a collection of essays on history and the Chinese national character, to friends in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Around that time I launched my own writing career as a Chinese essayist (one which lasted from the late 1970s until the early 1990s); Li Ao, among others writers, was both a challenge and an inspiration. Li Ao died on 18 March this year, but for many of his past admirers Li’s real end came in 2004. His passing gives us pause to consider his plangent fate.

Li was notorious, and had been dubbed the “madman” of Taiwan letters. It was a reputation cemented by one of his most famous statements:

In the last fifty years, and for the last five hundred,
The three greatest writers of vernacular prose in Chinese have been Li Ao, Li Ao, Li Ao.
Even the people who disparage me for being boastful,
Actually kowtow to my ancestral tablet in their hearts.

The introduction to A Monologue on Tradition provides another characteristic sample of Li Ao’s style:

Chinese intellectuals lack a very important quality: independence … the result being that there is no difference between A and B, or C and D. They say the same things, write the same bullshit, and lick the same asses. A, B, C, and D might look a little different, but they’re united in their lack of character and originality. …
The tradition is unforgiving when it comes to nonconformity. In other respects Chinese society may be completely inefficient, but when it comes to dealing with the true talents and people of conscience who won’t conform, China is number one; it has a real genius for banning and killing. Individualists share a congenital disinclination to longevity. Most of them die young, and if they’re lucky to live they still find it hard to escape calamity.

It is an insight into Chinese culture made all the more poignant by the fact that Li Ao, who lived to the ripe old age of eighty three, became a caricature of himself, while one of his most pointed critics – the outspoken dissident Liu Xiaobo – whose views on Li Ao feature below, passed away last year at the relatively young age of sixty two.


A famous student of the leading May Fourth-era writer and academic titan Hu Shi, Li Ao soon achieved notoriety in Taiwan, where he’d moved with his family in 1949 (he was born in Harbin in 1935). During the era of Martial Law imposed by the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek, Li was a garrulous advocate for the freedom of expression, democracy and wholesale Westernization. Although in the United States the Republic of China was lauded as “Free China”, its government was quick to punish dissent. Li Ao’s work was frequently banned and he was arrested in the early 1970s for political agitation. Sentenced to ten years in jail he was released after only five years due to an amnesty announced following Chiang Kai-shek death in 1975.

Free once more, this irrepressible “madman” generated a stream of new works, some of which were collected in A Monologue on Tradition (later he churned out a book every few months; his collected works run to forty volumes). I later translated material from it for New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Voices of Conscience (from which the translations in this essay are taken), edited with Linda Jaivin in the wake of the events of June 4th 1989.

Li’s coruscating prose read like the next stage in the evolution of the polemical style of the May Fourth Era (1917-1927) yet, despite the gradual cultural opening of the Mainland during the 1980s, it was not until 1989 that Monologue was finally published in Beijing. Years earlier, in 1986, I had met an upcoming literary critic by the name of Liu Xiaobo. He too was known for his “madness” or “wildness,” a term with various, often positive, connotations in the Chinese tradition, and one used by the early twentieth-century writer Lu Xun in the title of his most famous work, ‘A Madman’s Diary’ (狂人日記).

Liu’s rambunctious public manner and vitriolic style of writing reminded me of Li Ao and we often discussed the famously prickly Taiwanese contrarian (later, our mutual friend Jin Zhong 金鐘, editor of the Hong Kong journal Open Magazine 開放雜誌, declared that Liu Xiaobo was “the Li Ao of the Mainland”). As things unfolded, however, neither of these “madmen” had a nice word to say about the other. From 2004, when Li Ao made a debut in the Communist Party controlled media, Liu Xiaobo, by then one of China’s most famous dissidents, was unstinting in his contempt. Li repaid the compliment by reportedly deriding Liu as a “dummy” who “doesn’t even qualify to criticize the Communist Party.”

In the absence of Liu Xiaobo at the time of Li Ao’s death, others stepped into the breach. Writing in his regular online newspaper column, Lee Yee, the journalist and editor who remains a clarion voice in Hong Kong, quoted unofficial Mainland opinion:

Over ten billion people have time-travelled back to the Ming dynasty [with the enthronement of Xi Jinping as China’s absolute ruler] without a peep [of protest], but just look at the emotional outpourings following the demise of this Literary Thug. It reflects the true state of affairs among China’s thinking people.
Following Li Ao’s death, many comments posted on the mainland Internet refer to him as an “Old Thug”. I think it’s inappropriate. Now, I’m not expressing any particular respect for the dead Li Ao, but people are complex. As Confucius said, “A gentleman does not approve of a person because he expresses a certain opinion, nor does he reject an opinion because it is expressed by a certain person.” A writer’s oeuvre should be treated like “public property”; it shouldn’t be negated holos-bolus just because the person who authored it happens to be odious.
But some mainland netizens conclude that: “The problem with Li Ao was that he lived too long. The first half of his life is justly celebrated because he was jailed for opposing Nationalist Party totalitarianism [in Taiwan], but in his later years he betrayed himself when he acted like a Pied Piper for totalitarianism [on the Mainland].” Others say: “In Taiwan he was [like the principled writer] Lu Xun, but on the mainland he was [like the fawning Mao-era literary lackey] Guo Moruo,” and: “Li Ao was vilified in direct proportion to the level of acceptance he enjoyed by the Chinese party-state.”

As Simon Leys noted of Guo Moruo, who was eighty-four – one year older than Li Ao – when he died in 1978: “The methodical use of kowtowing is incontestably a recipe for longevity.” Thereby, Guo had acquired “a flexibility in his leaping about, a chilling agility in his pirouetting that the most flexible music hall contortionists would have envied him.”

The sobering truth of the matter is that, for all of his early brilliance, Li Ao was a writer-intellectual for whom China was in itself a core faith, a religion. When Taiwan matured into a modern democracy his was but one voice in the everyday din of freedom. His chagrin was palpable. Wealth and power — the century-old dream of national renewal — were in their turn seductive; the China Dream conspired to stifle Li Ao’s voice of conscience. For many illiberal intellectuals he became a reassuring paragon of complicity.

In 1965, Li Ao wrote ‘The Art of Survival, a User’s Guide’ (避禍學大綱), a satire about political repression and intellectual life in Taiwan. He said it summed up “the art of living in the chaotic world while keeping yourself in one piece.” In it he offered readers fifteen ways “to keep your head, stay out of jail, and remain free from the watchful eyes of the authorities.” The last strategy was to “be like a flea.” Over half a century later, Li Ao’s advice reads like a comment on his relationship with Liu Xiaobo:

The thing about fleas is that when they bite you it itches but it never really hurts, and they jump away immediately after biting, so the person can never be bothered to catch them. The majority of writers today are like this; they squash a few fleas and they think they’re heroes.

The following essay by Liu Xiaobo was written in 2004. It is one of a number of critiques that he published about Li Ao, a man who was once widely admired by free thinkers in the People’s Republic. For a time, in the 1980s, these two extraordinary contrarians basked in the same limelight, but in the end one – Li Ao – only truly achieved the stature of a flea, while the other – Liu Xiaobo – matured into a hero of conscience. Here Liu catches the performing flea in the act. ∎


Well-honed hubris – Let’s talk about Li Ao

by Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波, translated by Geremie Barmé

Chinese: 話說李敖—精明的驕狂


Li Ao is Taiwan’s master of self-promotion. In the 1980s he enjoyed a period of fame on the Mainland when he was celebrated for his undeniable talent and his unsparing style, as much as for his unbridled literary wildness and vulgarity. Above all, he was appreciated on the Mainland for his unfettered panache, something that was underpinned by his experience as a prisoner of conscience. Since Taiwan evolved into a democracy, a man who could enjoyed all the largesse allowed by the freedom of expression revealed that he was a spent force. Recently, he has been beguiled by a belief that Greater China Nationalism is more important than Liberalism. His opposition to Taiwan independence is wrong-headed, he spews oleaginous obfuscations, and he plays up his origins as a Mainlander as he expresses his contempt for local Taiwanese. In particular, since the election of 2000 he has heaped praise on [the Communist Party strategy for controlling Hong Kong and absorbing Taiwan known as] “One Country, Two Systems.” He has degenerated, and the higher he hoists the banner of Patriotism, his fall appears all the more precipitous.

Like attracts like, just as tribes are divided by kind. Phoenix Television is generally called the “Hong Kong channel of Chinese Central TV in Beijing.” Of course it is smitten with Li Ao and his support for “One Country, Two Systems.” They’ve given him a show all of his own called “Li Ao Has Something to Say.” Watching his fawning performance, you realize that in-house intelligentsia of the Chinese Communists now has some serious competition.

Li Ao plays up the unfettered craziness of his reputation, having declared that he’s the greatest writer China has produced in 5000 years, but he’s not so crazy as to negate everything. He has the finely-honed skills of a politician and he trims his sails to the wind; he has with a Fingerspitzengefühl [intuitive feeling] for knowing just what to say, when and how to say it, with ultimate finesse. Faced with the powers-that-be in Taiwan – whether it be during the rule of the Chiang Family, or under the presidency of Lee Teng-hui [from 1988 to 2000] or Ch’en Shui-pien [from 2000 to 2008], he mercilessly trashes all politicians and celebrities, without exception and without compunction. What’s more he does it with unbridled glee, dumping shitloads of foulness on them. But when faced with the power-holders on the Mainland and high-level cadres, he’s a study in moderation and sincerity; he oozes flattery. When he does venture some criticism it is carefully honed to avoid giving offense; he’s a model of good manners and measured behavior.

Li Ao has repeatedly denounced the White Terror of the Chiang era; he has decried Lee Teng-hui as a traitor, a cheat and a man who sells out his family. As for Ch’en Shui-pien [president of Taiwan at the time of writing]: he’s nothing but a “slave in the service of the slaves of slaves,” a “toothpick-hawking Hitler.” Although, with regard to this last remark he’s quick to add: “Here I must apologise to Hitler since at least he was capable; after all, he nearly conquered the whole world, but here in Taiwan Ch’en Shui-pien is nothing more than a useless tramp.” He decries Taiwan’s phony democracy: Ch’en Shui-pien got into power not by inheriting a throne or as a result of military valor; he doesn’t serve the people, nor was he democratically elected; he’s nothing but a swindler. “All the leaders of Taiwan rely on one thing and one thing only: deception… From Ch’en Shui-pian down, they’ve got into power through trickery.”1  What he fails to explain is just how someone like him, Li Ao, can get away with saying the most outrageous garbage without having to worry about the consequences? How come he mounted a presidential challenge in the year 2000? Nor can he explain that internationally, the majority of democratic nations acknowledge that Taiwan is indeed a democracy? The truth of the matter is that he calls Taiwan a “sham democracy,” a “scam,” because people didn’t vote for him and elected someone he despises instead.

However, when Li Ao turns his gaze to the Chinese Communists and their privileged elite, he rejects Taiwan democracy in favor of Mainland autocracy. He plays the apologist for the follies of the Mao era and extols Mao as an example of a true political leader. He even excuses the Butchers of the Fourth of June [1989], and expresses his admiration for Deng Xiaoping, a politician who weathered three falls from power and three political rehabilitations. When he speaks of the US President Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping meeting [in 1979], he calls Carter a hypocrite for saying that China doesn’t allow the freedom of movement and is lacking both in democracy and freedom; but he has nothing but praise for Deng Xiaoping’s raffish response: “Democracy and freedom, then. How many people do you want us to send over to you? One or two million, or I can give you 10 to 20 million: will you take them?”

It was obvious that Jimmy Carter was talking about freedom of movement within China, and not immigration to the USA. Deng knew that full well, but he had no good response yet he needed to save face, and that’s why he muddied the waters in that way. Li Ao’s interpretation is even more shameless: “Fuck it: you don’t even want one, you say what you will and expect us to suck it up, and how are we supposed to cope?”2

Li Ao also talks about freedom of expression. Here, he is particularly enamored by his own heroic struggles for free speech in Taiwan. However, as soon as the focus turns to the Mainland he becomes quite the sophist. He never mentions the Mainland censorship system or the frequency with which books are banned, or anything about the persecution of writers. He’s positively tolerant when considering the lack of freedom of expression on the Mainland. Even when Phoenix TV censors him, Li Ao’s response is one of sympathy. The contrast between this and his cutting outrage in denouncing censorship during the era of Martial Law in Taiwan couldn’t be greater.

Someone asks him: If you had stayed on the Mainland and lived during the Cultural Revolution, would you dare say things like this? Why do you only attack Taiwan yet don’t dare cuss the Mainland? His reply is cunning. Suddenly he’s no longer the self-proclaimed hero and openly admits his craven attitude:

There are times when you’re just going to be a wimp. … When I recall how I dealt with my incarceration I know I’d treat everything like it was a joke, I’d transcend the moment, I’d be sly and deceptive, and I’d use trickery to avoid being caught up in the disaster. You don’t need to speculate about what I, Li Ao, would have done if I’d stayed on the Mainland: I might have done some underhanded things, or I might have done a few little surprising things. Who’s to say? You can never respond to a counterfactual scenario.’3

In reality, Li Ao provided an answer in ‘Li Ao Has Something to Say’ for Phoenix Television, carefully crafted and underhand – it’s called tailoring your speech to suit your audience. That’s also the normal state of affairs for patriots on the Mainland today. ∎


Liu Xiaobo’s essay was translated by Geremie Barmé, and originally published April 23, 2004, on Boxun.
Header image: ‘Solitary Cloud, Wild Heron’ (that is, an unfettered spirit), in the calligraphy of Li Ao.
  1. ‘Li Ao Has Something to Say,’ from Episode 1, March 8, 2004.
  2. Ibid., from Episode 14.
  3. Ibid., from Episode 31, April 19, 2004.