Why Chinese intellectuals shun literary critic Liu Xiaobo
By Channa Li
(Channa Li is a student in the Chinese Classics department at Renmin University, specializing in Tibetan language and literature.)
BEIJING – For most Chinese intellectuals, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident literary critic Liu Xiaobo seems a puzzling choice since he is now considered an anachronism from the early days of the economic reform period when China opened its doors to the world. Once an admired avant-garde figure of contemporary literature and political thought, he has long since fallen into the extremist fringe of Chinese intellectual life.
In the literary and art circles of China in the late 1980s, Li Zehou and Liu Xiaobo were the two most influential figures, expressing opposite viewpoints that aroused a firestorm in critical theory and political ideology. Their clash centered on the extent that China should adopt Western values and lifestyles. The philosopher Li advocated a merger and coexistence between Chinese and Western cultures, while Liu launched a thorough and scathing critique of the Chinese classical tradition.
It seems strange that the global media should refer to Liu Xiaobo as “the first Chinese Peace laureate”, since he adamantly rejects the culture of the land of his birth. According to his own account, Liu reinvented himself as a child of Europe. His dream has come true now that the Nobel Committee recognizes him as one of their own.
As the bete noir of contemporary literature in China, he won instant fame with his improvised speech The Crisis of New Age Literature, given at a literature conference in 1986. In that seminal statement, he boldly denied the value of rationality and collective consciousness, arguing instead for personal sentiment and individualism. From that point onward, his articles went farther and broader to depreciate China’s traditions while promoting the civilized and liberal culture of the West.
Coming in the nick of time, his writings appealed to the reverse psychology among intellectuals in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and struck a sympathetic chord in academia. With new admirers and foes, Liu quickly made his mark as the “Manchurian Tiger” and “Dark Horse” of contemporary literature.
A late modernist, he demonstrated a mastery of Western philosophy, psychology and sociology in his literary criticism. In Naked Approach to God: Aesthetics and Subconscious, Liu cites Freud’s psychoanalytical structures of id, ego, and superego to warn of the hazards of rationality to an essentially irrational human nature.
In his view, aesthetics – our ideals of beauty and truth – is profanity. The relationship between aesthetics and the ego is the central issue throughout his academic career. In Intuition and Aesthetic Appreciation, Liu states that a new type of aesthetics that can break loose from the slavery of the superficial ego (our values learned from society) and liberate the suppressed deep ego (one’s inner urges) is antagonistic to reason. Freedom can be realized only though immediate perception, concepts similar to those of Romanticism and later the hippie movement in the West.
A pioneer in the period when China made contact with the external world, Liu veered into fanaticism with his uncritical adoption of Western modernism. His radicalism was inherited from earlier thinkers of the New Culture Movement of disillusioned intellectuals in the 1920s, including the fiction writer Lu Xun, who rejected Chinese culture after the Republican revolution failed to methodically implement its modernization program. Liu, like his forerunners, went astray by falling into the trap of anti-traditionalism.
The next logical step came with his essay The Tragedy of Enlightenment: Critique of the May Fourth Movement. This political basis for New Culture arose from a major student-led protest in 1919 against the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, which turned over the former German colony of Shandong to Japanese occupation. Liu’s essay turned out to be a premonition of the ideological debates among the student factions during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
In his Tragedy, Liu argued that the May Fourth Movement failed because its leaders did not adopt wholesale the Westernization required to modernize China. The conversion of China to Western values was later blocked by Chinese nationalism in its reaction against imperialism and then by the Revolution. In his eyes, the quest for individualism should have been the only project for the Chinese throughout this period.
The strength of his argument turned into personal aggression with harsh polemics against the leading intellectual of his time, as revealed by the sarcastic title of his most famous work Selective Critique: Dialogue with Thought Leader Li Zehou. To his credit, Li refused to respond to the demeaning vilification.
In his worldview, Western values are perfection, while China is hopelessly backward. Everything Chinese must be broken down. Only through demolition can the quintessential human spirit be rescued and elevated. To put his thinking into a historical perspective, his prime years coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Western bankers were administering “shock therapy” on the Russian people.
Liu tried to build a kingdom of individual subjectivity through a scorched-earth campaign against Confucianism and Taoism as well as by belittling other intellectuals. His arguments, reminiscent of the radical anti-traditionalism of the Cultural Revolution, assailed the values of community and benevolence in Confucianism for depriving individuals of democratic rights. Chinese traditional values, he says, serve to idolize and sanctify powerful elites so that people willingly surrender their rights. The deprivation of the ego results in servility and nationalism.
His self-image is one of a savior, a modern-day Moses who will deliver the Chinese people out of China and into the Western world. Along his path of deliverance, however, Liu sinks into the mire of self-contradiction by trying to replace one tradition with another tradition. Like a convert to a foreign religion, he worships a pantheon of foreign saints – Rousseau, Freud, Nietzsche and Sartre – while demonizing classic Chinese thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu and even modern revolutionists like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong.
Across the developing world today, including China, intellectual leaders are proposing new development theories that stress indigenous modernization efforts rather than lessons from former colonial masters. Progress and democracy are being constructed not on the basis of cultural self-hatred but on the foundation of the legacies left to us by our ancestors.
Certainly the negative habits of conceit and servility still exist today, so there remains a need for a radical democratic school to challenge the rotten dregs from our nation’s past. Liu Xiaobo unfortunately failed China by rejecting the genuine achievements of its civilization and culture, thereby deeply offending Chinese pride. The Chinese take their traditions quite seriously and sometimes with sternness when dealing with an offending critic.
For Liu the Nobel laureate, the larger tragedy was not so much a prison sentence as it is his own inability to recognize the treasures behind the veil of the Chinese classics.