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’?”
When Chen arrived in Xi’an ten years ago, it felt like exile. A native of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, he had tested into the elite Peking University. He then landed a job at Xi’an’s Northwest University of Politics and Law. It wasn’t bad for an ambitious young academic, but in the 2000s Beijing was open and vibrant while Xi’an felt like the middle of nowhere. So Chen began inviting guest speakers, including prominent public intellectuals such as his Peking University professor He Weifang, the economic and social reformer Mao Yushi, the independent historian Wu Si, and the civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang.
But still he was dissatisfied. Over the past decade, most universities in China have been moved to remote campuses, where they enjoy more space but students are purposefully cut off from faculty and society. Chen set up a book club, which began reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution and Democracy in America. Because the administration wouldn’t give him a classroom, students met in his office. When that got too crowded, they gathered in the stairway. Soon newspaper articles began appearing about Chen’s “stairway lectures.”
The public security forces, though, opposed his activities and once detained him when he tried to travel to Hong Kong for a conference. In 2013 he quit his job, much to the consternation of everyone he knew. “No one supported me,” he told me between lectures one day at Zhiwuzhi. “My wife? We sat down and cried about it. They worried that in China’s system I’d find no work. Professor He Weifang called me and said, ‘Don’t resign.’ But I did.” Later that year the Communist Party banned universities from teaching certain foreign ideas, including constitutionalism—the topic Chen taught. “They’d have fired me, so it was fortunate that I did quit.”
The restrictions on university life were part of a broader attempt to reverse tentative steps toward a more open society. After the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the government doubled down on economic reforms, making it easier for people to switch jobs, live where they chose, and travel abroad. Media companies remained under state control but were told to commercialize, leading many to attract readers by exposing problems in society.
The arrival of social media in the 2000s made this trend feel unstoppable. Bloggers like Han Han slyly criticized the government and society. Editors like Hu Shuli published investigative reporting. Artists like Ai Weiwei fought government control. All were heralded at home and abroad as leaders of a new, inevitable era of citizen participation in society.
This soon ended. In 2009 and 2010 the government blocked most foreign media sites, including search engines like Google and social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In 2011 it reacted to the Arab Spring in North Africa by ramping up its “stability maintenance” program, detaining many prominent dissidents and hiring thousands of online censors.
Once Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012, this trend intensified. In 2013 the government arrested prominent bloggers and two years later ended the “rights protection,” or weiquan, movement, by detaining most of the remaining human rights lawyers. To prevent subtler forms of subversion, it put limits on nongovernmental organizations and implemented the restrictions on universities that caused Chen to quit. Most recently, it has shut Protestant churches that embrace the doctrine of the Social Gospel, which seeks to use Christianity to address social problems.
After a year in Beijing taking stock of his future and six months doing more of the same in Hong Kong, Chen launched Zhiwuzhi in the summer of 2015. Despite his friends’ concerns, he is sure it was the right move: “At the university, I could only give a few lectures a month and the authorities still had to approve everything. If I tried to lecture, the students’ advisers would try to convince them not to attend and would record who attended. Now, we give on average ten lectures a week.”
I wondered how Chen managed to keep Zhiwuzhi open despite the crackdown on so many independent bookstores and venues across China. He said that it could be closed any day, but added, “I’m not a revolutionary. If you’re too much of an activist you won’t achieve anything. You want to be an activist? Then great, be an activist. But then you’re closed tomorrow.”
Instead, he wants to improve people’s analytical abilities. Only this way, he said, can society really change: “China has a saying that it takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred to cultivate a people. Real social transformation takes time. A scholar wrote four characters to describe our work: jing shen chong jian, which means ‘spiritual reconstruction.’”
Chen’s own spiritual life includes religion. In 2009 he converted to Christianity, part of a wave of “cultural Christians” who were interested in the faith. Many were attracted by the concept of immutable God-given, instead of capricious government-granted, rights. Chen isn’t a regular churchgoer but says the faith’s ideas underlie his life. One is that small acts have larger consequences. When I asked him what he meant, he recited a verse from the Gospel of Luke. It was the parable of a man sowing seeds: some fell on rocks or were eaten by birds, but some landed on rich ground. “One seed can make a difference,” he said. “Who knows what grows from it?”
The Ba River in Xi’an’s eastern suburbs is synonymous in classical Chinese poetry with sadness: after crossing it a friend or loved one would truly have left the capital for one of the empire’s far-flung outposts, often never to return. Today it represents another sorrow: the drab uniformity of modern Chinese suburbs. The district is now an endless series of fifteen-story apartment buildings divided by razor wire and streets lined with broken sidewalks and parked cars.
I was traveling with Jiang Xue, a forty-five-year-old journalist who made a national name for herself as head of the opinion section of an influential newspaper and now works freelance, writing long essays published on the social media app WeChat about detained human rights lawyers and others on seemingly hopeless quests. She was here to visit, as she put it, her qianbei, or elder: Zhang Shihe, a pioneering citizen journalist who was driven out of Beijing during the 2011 crackdown. He had returned to his hometown of Xi’an and, like Jiang, found intellectual refuge at Zhiwuzhi.1
Jiang looks up to Zhang with the affection one might have for an eccentric uncle whose honor caused him to exchange a life of privilege for penury. Born in 1953, Zhang comes from a kind of nobility: the “red aristocracy” that founded the People’s Republic in 1949 and whose children, including Xi Jinping, now largely run the country. Zhang’s father had been a senior official in the Ministry of Public Security, and the family enjoyed all the perks of China’s early Communist era: a spacious apartment, cooks, drivers, and flunkies—just like in the pre-Communist era.
But in 1966 power became a liability. That year, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, in part to prevent this new oligarchy from holding power permanently. It soon spun out of control, with schools shut and millions tortured or killed. Zhang’s parents were imprisoned, and his formal schooling ended. Eventually, he was forced to work, as he puts it, as one of “Mao’s child laborers,” building a dangerous railway line through the mountains.
When the Cultural Revolution ended a decade later, people like Xi made up for lost time by working furiously to regain what they saw as their rightful place at the top. Zhang and many others, however, turned to more quixotic pursuits to understand and expose the dark side of the system that had made Mao possible. He spent eight years in Xi’an running one of China’s first independent bookstores, until the 1989 massacre made him decide to leave for the capital to join a growing community of activists hoping to effect change.
In Beijing Zhang made a name for himself interviewing China’s downtrodden and became a citizen journalist—one of many who used newly emerging digital technologies to record interviews and post them online, thus bypassing traditional forms of censorship. He adopted the online name of Tiger Temple, or laohu miao, which is still how most Chinese know him.
Beijing also became Zhang’s base for long bike rides into China’s hinterland. One year, he spent five months following the Yellow River and producing more than forty videos on people’s daily lives, pollution, and corruption. About thirty of them can be seen in China. The others were censored but are still available on YouTube. “Everyone wants to travel but few have the time,” he said. “Everyone’s busy making money. I thought: I have time but no money. So I thought I’d travel poor.”
When the government began cracking down on the Internet, Zhang found it harder and harder to do something meaningful with his life. Here, back in Xi’an, he is spending his later years working at Zhiwuzhi, videotaping talks and posting them online.
Xi’an seems like an unlikely stronghold for this culture of discussion. Over the millennia it has been the capital of ten dynasties, including the Tang, but in recent years tradition has seemed more like a burden. The city’s medieval walls, its heavy industry, and hinterland of dusty, yellow earth made it the epitome of China’s grimy interior. In 1993 the writer Jia Pingwa published one of the most famous novels of the post-Mao era, Ruined City. Set in a thinly fictionalized version of Xi’an, it described a once-great capital turned into a filthy backwater.
But Xi’an now feels more vibrant than Beijing. It has what is reputed to be the highest concentration of universities and institutes after Beijing and Shanghai, while its distance from the capital and its traditions seem to give it a small bit of shelter from Xi’s crackdown on dissent—for how long is uncertain.
I asked Zhang if this explanation made sense. He laughed. “No! The reason why we can do anything here is it’s a stupid city. The officials don’t get what the [central] government is trying to do. And the police are stupid. If the police here were to train in Beijing they’d come back way fiercer!”
Besides working at Zhiwuzhi, Zhang is also making documentary films. His most ambitious project is a series of video interviews with others who slaved as children on Mao’s mountain railway. Several thousand died from the harsh working conditions, but none of their families received compensation or an apology. Every few weeks a group comes to Xi’an to petition the provincial government for redress, and they often stop by Zhang’s apartment. He knows that his videos of these people will never be shown in China. But he hopes that he is creating a record for future generations. “You keep asking me why, but I’m not so good with those theoretical questions,” he said. “I just know I’m going to keep going; it’s my responsibility to history.”
Zhiwuzhi is small for a center of intellectual activity. As one exits the elevator, there is a large conference room to the left, while to the right is a coffee bar and then the main room with a small stage facing rows of books and an open area of chairs, stools, and sofas. One wall prominently features bold calligraphy of the center’s name written by Chen’s mentor, Professor He of Peking University. Other walls are filled with photos of speakers and woodblock prints by the independent artist and documentary filmmaker Hu Jie.2
The space has several important patrons, including Li Tao, a former journalist and later the editor of a newspaper. When his newspaper was censored into irrelevancy, he began to invest in real estate and coal mining. “I left idealism far behind, but Chen Hongguo still pursues it,” Li said. “I must support him.”
At every event I attended, I met a thickset man in his forties who went by the name Zijia. “I’m in Public Security,” he said to me as we made small talk one evening.
“You mean, private security, like guards in front of buildings?”
“No, I mean Public Security,” and he laughed, motioning to an imaginary badge on his shoulder and saying in English: “Police!”
“Is this work?”
“No. I learn a lot and it makes me think. Today I saw a man on the bus with a big knife in his satchel. I could have just arrested him. Job done, commendation, boss happy. You know what I mean? He was wearing a [Muslim] skullcap.” He eyed me significantly. China is in the midst of a campaign against Islam, with Muslims often sent to reeducation camps for the slightest infraction.3 “But then I decided, no, let’s talk to this man.
“So I talked to him. He was on his way to work. He runs a halal butchery. So I said to him, ‘Brother, you really shouldn’t carry such a knife on the bus, but go on to work and carve up lambs. Leave the knife there and don’t carry it on the bus.’ We parted with smiles. I don’t know. It’s like sometimes you try to talk to people and understand their viewpoint a bit more.”
“And so you come regularly?”
“I think it’s amazing that there’s this thing here. Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s sensitive,’ but it’s just lectures.”
For millennia the Qinling Mountains south of Xi’an have been home to Buddhist and Taoist hermits seeking refuge from court intrigues—they are a place to cultivate oneself and then reenter the secular world at the right moment. In his book Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, the American writer Bill Porter explains that a common misunderstanding about hermits is that they are isolated, each one living atop a mountain. Hermits do live apart but are usually within walking distance so they can get help in an emergency. And they do interact with the temporal world to buy grain, oil, and other staples that are hard to grow in the mountains. They are alone but networked, and many later return to the mainstream to become ministers, counselors, or writers who help guide society.
One day I set off to explore these mountains with Jiang Xue, the journalist who had taken me to meet Tiger Temple. She appears demure and shy, but her writing is blunt, and over the years she has attracted supporters from China’s middle class. Our driver was a senior railway engineer and a Zhiwuzhi regular. When Jiang had mentioned that we were planning a trip to the mountains, he took off work and drove us in his SUV, his stereo playing Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Buddhist prayer beads swinging from the rear-view mirror.
Independent thinking has many wellsprings, but in China it’s rarely fostered at school. Instead, it usually results from firsthand experiences—an encounter or event that opens one’s eyes. Jiang’s awakening involved a family tradition of honoring her father’s father. Every Chinese New Year before dinner they would walk up to his grave and burn incense. And every year her father would stand before the grave and tell a story about how they had survived the Mao years.
Her grandfather died in 1960, aged forty-eight. It was the height of the Great Leap Forward, a messianic economic campaign initiated by Mao that resulted in more than 30 million deaths by starvation. The family of six had been farmers, but all private farmland and tools had been confiscated, and at the height of the famine they received one bun each day to share.
“My grandfather, he was a very just person,” Jiang told me. “He took a knife and cut the bun in six equal pieces. One for each person. Each one the same. My youngest aunt got the same as her father. My father, who was thirteen at the time, he got the same. But grandfather still had to labor. He needed more, but everyone got the same. They all survived but he starved to death.”
The party never admitted its mistakes or made amends. Instead, it allowed Mao to remain in power, and a few years later he launched the Cultural Revolution, causing more suffering. Jiang’s father never joined the party, and neither did she.
Our driver was visibly moved by Jiang’s story, and said he wanted to add something about modern-day utopianism. His job involves building a high-speed version of the mountainous rail lines that cost Tiger Temple and his generation so much. China’s bullet train network of 18,000 miles might amaze the world, he said, but most of it operates at a huge loss. He wondered if the money couldn’t be better spent improving regular rail service. “If only journalists like Jiang Xue had more of a voice,” he said, “then we could openly discuss what our country needs.”
When the 1989 protests began, Jiang was elated. She and her high school classmates wired money to Beijing, addressed simply to “Tiananmen Square students.” When the massacre occurred that June 4, they put out white flowers to mourn the victims.
She later attended the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi’an—where Chen would later teach—but the law bored her. Most graduates became prosecutors, judges, or police officers, but she saw what the system did to the men in her class: “They had internships and would go to villages to work for the police. Some went to work in jails. They came back and told stories of drinking and smoking and how they’d beat prisoners in jail. I saw them change from nice boys to that. So I knew I wouldn’t join the system. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that.”
She decided to intern at a newspaper and found she had a knack for writing. In 1996 she joined Huashangbao, one of the new commercial newspapers. She enjoyed the work, but it didn’t seem like a serious calling. Slowly, however, the concept of professional journalism began to spread, and she realized that serious writing required research and ethics. Then in 2003 came the Sun Zhigang case, which involved a student beaten to death in police custody. It ignited a national debate, with journalists exposing government malfeasance. Suddenly, her life and her profession had meaning.
For about ten years she published on a wide range of topics, such as police brutality and corruption, and later led the newspaper’s editorial department. But by 2013, the same year that Chen left the university, her superiors had made it clear that she could publish no more criticism of the party. She too resigned. Since then she has been spending her savings to write long profiles of people who resist the system. One is of the wife of the human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. Jiang also wrote a portrait of the wife of Guo Yushan, the founder of Transition Institute, a private think tank. But the pieces on WeChat are almost immediately blocked by the censors.
“I feel I have to write them,” she said. “In the past you were always being told you can’t write this or that. Now I can write.” To keep engaged with other people, she volunteers at Zhiwuzhi.
After a while, we stopped at a major Buddhist temple and had lunch with an abbot. Across the Qinling Mountains, the government has been on a demolition rampage. It has torn down villas built without proper building permits, but also hermits’ huts and extensions to temples. The demolitions are part of a broader move to bring all religions more firmly under government control. It is aimed primarily at Islam and Christianity, which Beijing sees as troublingly political. And yet all faiths have a social or political component. Over the past century, for example, a movement called “humanistic Buddhism” has encouraged its followers to address problems in society rather than retreating into quietism.
After touring the temple, I sat with Jiang in a small pavilion overlooking a garden. I asked her what it was about Buddhism that inspired her. She took my notebook and wrote out a verse, which roughly translated means:
The great wish of the Dizang Bodhisattva
Is if hell isn’t empty
He won’t become a Buddha;
Only when all beings are liberated
Will he realize Enlightenment.
“The meaning,” she said, “is that this Bodhisattva won’t achieve Buddhahood until hell is empty, but hell will never be empty. But he persists in trying, even though it’s impossible. It’s a bit like the myth of Sisyphus.”
Was her life really so hopeless? She told me that it’s something she often hears from people who tell her that what she is doing is romantic or interesting but pointless. But she said it matters if one still tries.
“It’s like [Chen] Hongguo at Zhiwuzhi. What hope is there of succeeding? It won’t have an immediate impact on society and any day it can be closed. He can be detained or thrown out, like Tiger Temple was in Beijing. But they still go out and do it. In my eyes, whether it’s Liu Xiaobo [the deceased Chinese Nobel Prize Laureate] or the 709 lawyers [the civil rights activists so named because they were detained on July 9, 2015], their spirit is a Bodhisattva’s spirit. They know what the outcome will be, but they still do it.”
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.