“Our love is a firm religious sentiment”: Love Behind Bars

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  December 19, 2012  / No comments

The true love story of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia.

Liu Xia

Liu Xia cries on December 6, 2012, as AP reporters sneak into her house for her first interview since Chinese authorities placed her under house arrest two years ago. Photo: YouTube, AP.

This is a picture that makes all of Liu Xia’s friends break into tears.

  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.

Liu Xia is a sensitive poet and photographer. More than that, she is strong and dedicated, and the years she has spent with her husband, Liu Xiaobo, have “re-formed” her. In that time she has bolstered her delicate and even sentimental semblance with a hardened core. In her circle of friends she is famous for quarreling with the police when they knocked at her door to harass or try to take her husband away.

She married Xiaobo while he was in jail for the third time. Now, he is in jail for the fourth time and will not be out till 2020. She has had to endure the loneliness that accompanies being with her husband for a long time. We can see this in her August 1995 poem to Xiaobo, “Lonely Vigil”:

“I am a bitter fruit
In darkness
Sleeping in a dreamless page
Of this thick book
Not a permanent companion
On your journey”
(translated by Zhang Yu and Edited by Bonny Cassidy, ICPC Archiv)

She waited like this for him and his day of freedom for years—if only things had not been messed up by that Nobel Peace Prize!

Liu Xia’s own ordeal began in October 2010 with the announcement that Liu Xiaobo was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Days later, Liu Xia disappeared in front of her family and friends. Months later, it was clear that not only had the author of “No Enemies, No Hatred” become a “state enemy,” but his innocent wife had also been branded with the same label. Apparently the Chinese authority wanted to retaliate against the international community for honoring Liu Xiaobo with the Nobel, so it took its revenge on Liu Xia. Since then she has lived under strict house arrest, totally isolated from the outside world. She is only allowed to see her parents occasionally and to visit her husband in Jinzhou prison, some 450 km (271 miles) away from Beijing, once a month.

When Xia saw the AP-correspondents, who had snuck into her house on December 6, while the security police were out for lunch, she trembled and wept like a child. It was the first time in two years that she saw people who were not hostile towards her. The view of Liu Xia that these journalists present is heartbreaking, yet she always knew what it would mean to live with a “state enemy.” Anticipating this, in 1992 she wrote:

“I ever imagined to be with you
But what home should there be
To accommodate you
As the walls will make you choke

You can only be a wind, but the wind
Has never told me
When to come and when to go

As the wind comes I cannot open my eyes
After the wind is gone there are dusts everywhere”
(“Wind”, to Xiaobo, (translated by Zhang Yu and Edited by Bonny Cassidy)

It takes courage to be a dissident, but to be a dissident’s wife is even more challenging. Many marriages cannot survive the pressure. The poet Shi Tao was divorced by his wife when he got 10 years imprisonment. Wang Juntao and Yang Zili, along with many others, have wives who fought for their husbands’ freedom while they were in jail. Yet, when they are finally released the couples’ reunion is often the catalyst for the break-up.

During the three years Xiaobo spent in re-education, from 1996 to 1999, his wife wrote 300 letters to him. He wrote back two to three million words. Although most of the correspondence was lost in several house raids, one of the few letters of his that remains contains the following sentences:

“The foremost and last dependence of our love is a firm religious sentiment, upon the mutual trust and a hope for the future that will never be given up. In other words, the first and final meaning of our lives comes from our love. In love, we will peacefully survive all the ordeals: while hesitating love gives us faith; while fearing love gives us courage; while depressing love give us pleasure; while irritating love gives us serenity; while boring love gives us passion; while disappointing love gives us hope.”

This letter was read publicly in October 2010 at PEN International’s 76th Congress in Tokyo.

The life of the couple that is Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia is like a bipolar circle: Paradise and hell, home and jail. But As Xiaobo said, their love is like a “firm religious sentiment.” It will surely help them survive the ordeal, and in their survival we are the witnesses of the sublimation of an unusual love story.

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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