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 …
Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality
by David A. Palmer and Elijah Siegler
China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future
by James Miller
Last year I got a call from Abbess Yin, an old friend who runs a Daoist nunnery near Nanjing. I’ve always known her as supernaturally placid and oblique, but this time she was nervous and direct: a group of Germans were coming to spend a week learning about Daoist life; …
Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China
by Lian Xi
Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall
by Margaret E. Roberts
A year ago, the remains of Liu Xiaobo were scattered in the Yellow Sea. Over the decades, many gallant Chinese have spoken up for individual rights and government accountability, but Liu stood out for his systematic critique of China’s government, as well as his moderation and advocacy of nonviolent protest.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Chinese writers grappled with the traumas of the Mao period, seeking to make sense of their suffering. As in the imperial era, most had been servants of the state, loyalists who might criticize but never seek to overthrow the system. And yet …
Ian Johnson: You got your PhD in law from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. You could have kept teaching in the capital but you chose to come to Xi’an. Why did you do that?
Chen Hongguo: You don’t realize how pitiful the students are here. The quality of teaching isn’t that good and they don’t get to hear good speakers. So I began to invite prominent intellectuals… I set up reading clubs to interact more closely with the students… We met in the stairway. People called it the “stairway lectures.”
Enter Xu Zhangrun. A fifty-six-year-old professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu is well known in Beijing as a moderate and prolific critic of the government’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism. The government is, of course, adept at marginalizing such voices. As a result, Xu and his supporters are unknown to the vast majority of Chinese people. That makes it hard for public intellectuals to effect change. But they perform another, important function: reflecting the Zeitgeist of an era.
Ian Johnson: Haven’t some people given up on civil society?
Jiang Xue: It was our hope. Now, a lot of people have lost hope. The way society has developed under the Communist Party, it’s impossible to develop civil society. Public media has been killed. Public institutions have been closed. Teachers who dare to speak up have been driven off. It seems that civil society has no force.
But I don’t agree with this view. Civil society is something we have to struggle for. It’s something we can fight for bit by bit.
Ian Johnson: Where does it come from, this sense of justice—your experiences in the Cultural Revolution?
Zhang Shihe: Mao ordered young people to the countryside. I was sent to work on the Xi’an to Qinghai railway, with some 26,000 others. Most were broken when they came home. Today, they have children and grandchildren, but thousands died prematurely after coming back—it ruined so many people’s health. These old guys don’t want that forgotten.
The exiled Chinese author Liao Yiwu, the International Literaturfestival Berlin, and a group of prominent international authors are jointly appealing for an international reading in support of the imprisoned Chinese author Li Bifeng.