Clever as the Devil!

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  August 1, 2012  / No comments

Some of China’s famous intellectuals do a favor for the CCP

Three young Chinese Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution. Photo: Villa Giulia. Creative Commons


The Chinese intellectual has an ambivalent relationship with power. In imperial China, a scholar could try to pass the imperial examination (keju) and become a government officer, in which case wealth and high positions would follow for the rest of his life. According to the Confucian doctrine, loyalty to one’s ruler and piety to one’s parents are at the top of the ethic scale. Becoming a state employee gave intellectuals more reasons to be obedient and loyal to the emperor and his absolute power.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Long before the Communist Party took power in China, Mao Zedong was already prepared to take control of the thoughts and minds of intellectuals. In 1942 he delivered the famous Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, and ordered that literature and art should obey politics and serve the country’s workers, peasants, and soldiers.

The Yan’an Talks laid the foundations of “thought reform,” which allowed the political campaigns of the 1950s to the 1970s—when intellectuals were first criticized and forced to criticize themselves—to sweep through China. During these campaigns intellectuals were banned to remote areas and exiled in their own country. In the process hundreds of thousands, even millions, died in hunger and dismay.

During the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were targeted and denounced as “cow devils and snake ghosts” as well as “the stinking ninth” because they were ranked lower than landlords, rich peasants, counter revolutionaries, evil elements, rightists, traitors, spies and capitalists. Falling to the bottom of the social ladder, with broken hearts and broken backs, the intellectuals degenerated into lackeys and accomplices of the CCP. The famous philosopher Feng Youlan (1895-1990) was one of the most tragic and embarrassing figures who bowed to suppression and betrayed his own conscience and knowledge. In his old age, he rewrote his History of Chinese Philosophy. According to his words in the preface to the book: “From my level of Marxism, I write my understanding of Chinese philosophy, history, and culture.” Marxism and class struggle became the guidelines throughout his book.

However, times change and today the intellectuals are no longer “the stinking ninth,” they are elite resources. Of course, the CCP knows how to use its resources well, and pressure plus conciliation is an irresistible weapon. Recently, the Party celebrated the 70th anniversary of the “glorious” Yan’an Talks and planned to publish a memorial volume. Mr. Wang Baosheng, assistant to the president of the state-owned Writers Publishing House, had an idea to make the volume more attractive: He invited leading figures in contemporary art and literature to hand-write the Talks.

Wang cut the “Talks” into one hundred sections and sent each with 1000 RMB (US $160) as a gift to the hundred writers who agreed to participate the “historical event.”

News of this spread online, and netizens became furious, calling the writers shameless and comparing them to prostitutes, eunuchs, and dogs.

One article, “One Hundred Writers, One Hundred Slaves” appeared on Canyu.org on May 26 (it is no longer available), and was reprinted in the Hong Kong-based OPEN Magazine. The names of the one hundred writers have also been posted. Surprisingly some very famous writers such as Wang Meng, Tie Ning, Feng Jicai, Jia Pingwa, Su Tong, and Han Shaogong are on the list.

Of course there are lots of other writers who rejected the invitation. Zhang Yihe, Yan Lianke, and Wang Anyi, among others, are not on the list, yet people are still shocked about how insensitive and indifferent the participating writers are, especially as most of the elder intellectuals were once victims of the system. It seems that the authority’s redemption policy has wiped their memory and their conscience. One gets goose bumps from thinking that the world has to face a huge country, an economic monster, with intellectuals like these. Dr. Faustus made a deal with Mephistopheles because he wanted to find answers to the mysteries of nature and the universe, but these Chinese literati made a deal with the devil for what? Not for the 100-odd bucks. Maybe they’ve never had a soul—they are so clever, they’ve even tricked the devil!

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

View all articles by Tienchi Martin-Liao

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