Something in the Air

Geremie R. Barmé on a Maoist education, and Tiananmen remembered

Tōutīng dítái!


The gruff voice barked over the cement trough. I was in the washroom of our dorm building at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute. He was a Worker Peasant Soldier Study Officer 工农兵学员 (the Maoist term for ‘student’) wearing, even at that darkling hour in the morning, a high-collar blue Mao jacket. Steely faced, his tone was that of warning and accusation. I had no idea that he'd just said:

'You're furtively listening to enemy broadcasts!'


Contentious Friendship

Geremie R. Barmé on Kevin Rudd and a decade of zhengyou

It’s ten years since I suggested that Kevin Rudd use the expression zhengyou in a speech he gave at Peking University in April 2008. Zhengyou means a friend or an adviser who dares give voice to unpleasant truths, one who offers uncomfortable opinions and counsels caution. It’s an ancient term in Chinese; in the glib journalese of today it might be rendered as “speaking truth to power.”

Rudd was Australia’s newly elected prime minister and the speech at Peking University was on the itinerary of his first overseas trip in the office, one that included courtesy calls on political leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, as well as those in Beijing. The China leg of the trip was particularly fraught because of controversies surrounding the international leg of the Olympic Torch Relay and the recent uprising in “Tibetan China,” what the Beijing media dubbed the “3.14 Riots.” These were mostly peaceful protests against Chinese rule that had broken out in March not just in the official autonomous region of Tibet, but in areas with sizable numbers of Tibetans. The official media blackout imposed on foreign journalists coupled with the draconian repression of protesters had caused consternation around the world, in particular among Western political leaders who were anxious that China’s vaunted “coming out" party at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that August go off without a hitch. Hopeful international politicians, academics, media commentators and China watchers speculated that China’s further integration into the international community as symbolized by the Olympics might be matched by a greater openness and relaxation within the People’s Republic itself.


A Madman’s End

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.