China: A Small Bit of Shelter

Chen Hongguo lecturing on King Lear, China, 2018
Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos
Chen Hongguo lecturing on King Lear at Zhiwuzhi, an arts and culture space in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China, 2018

At night, a spotlight illuminates four huge characters on the front of the Great Temple of Promoting Goodness in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in northwestern China: mi zang zong feng, “The Esoteric Repository of the Faith’s Traditions.” Twelve centuries ago, during China’s Tang dynasty, the temple was a center for spreading foreign ideas. Buddhist missionaries from India lived there, translating texts from Sanskrit into Chinese and advising emperors on their faith’s new ideas about life and society.

Today the temple is a tourist site. During the day visitors snap selfies and pray for good fortune; in the evening, it is dark except for the spot-lit characters. Across the street, though, the third-floor windows of a nondescript commercial building burn brightly, lighting up a sign with five English words: “I Know I Know Nothing.”

In Chinese, this Socratic paradox is rendered as Zhiwuzhi, which is the official name of what has become China’s liveliest public forum. An arts and culture space, Zhiwuzhi offers at least one lecture a day and a dozen reading groups, and it broadcasts its events on Chinese and foreign video websites like Youku and YouTube.

One rainy Saturday evening, thirty people listened intently to Chen Hongguo, a former university professor, talk about Shakespeare’s King Lear. “King Lear had three daughters,” he said. “Two told him what he wanted to hear. They weren’t being honest. He didn’t listen to the other one.” Chen, a fidgety forty-five-year-old with a mischievous smile and a slightly hoarse voice, slouched in his chair on the stage, holding a remote that advanced a slideshow of movie stills, Shakespeare quotes, and bullet points.

“The problem with King Lear? He didn’t listen to his honest daughter. He didn’t have to. Absolute power: this is a political problem that Lear faced, but he didn’t recognize it.”

Chen spoke for nearly two hours, but no one left. China is in the midst of its most repressive era in decades, with artists, writers, lawyers, and professors silenced or forced to toe the government line. Others are addicted to smartphone games, gossip, and sanitized news. But many want more, and on this evening they kept coming: a journalist who had lost his idealism but recognized it in Zhiwuzhi; an off-duty policeman curious about morality; a high school teacher upset by her students’ apathy; a successful entrepreneur who felt that society needed different voices in order to thrive. Few were familiar with King Lear, but all knew that whatever the topic, at Zhiwuzhi it would become vital.

“So I want to ask you one question,” Chen said, as he opened the floor to questions. “Are the politics of our era ‘when madmen lead the blind’?”

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