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On October 16th, a group of five friends attempted to visit Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese activist who is currently under house arrest in Dong Shigu Village. This is the event that followed. By Murong Xuecun Translated by Cathy
On the evening of October 14th, I was lecturing at the University of Qingdao Haiyang. During question time, a student asked me, “Will you try to go see Chen Guangcheng?” Taken off guard, I spent the next few minutes mumbling something, without answering whether I was going, or not going. My ambivalence embarrassed me. I’d defended Chen Guangcheng once on Weibo but it was a trivial and superficial expression of solidarity. Right now, he is sitting alone in a dark cell. I’m sitting in a bright room sipping a cup of coffee.
Some people say that Chen Guangcheng’s encounter with the government is our own encounter with the government, so to visit him is to visit ourselves, our better selves. But at the time, I couldn’t decide whether or not I wanted to go see him. I had my worries. I made my own petty calculations. I didn’t want my books to get banned. I didn’t want to become a “sensitive topic.” I’d been invited to lecture in several countries. Most importantly, I was scared. I’m scared of pain, scared of getting beaten, scared of losing my freedom. Some people might feel that I’m being dramatic. It’s just paying someone a visit, right? That’s a normal person’s normal logic. But in this abnormal world, the spectacle of visiting one’s friend is indeed this dramatic. I don’t want to make excuses for my weakness. I live in this kind of world and I carry with me the deep knowledge that freedom is precious, even if it’s a hopeless kind of freedom, the kind that exists only through cracks. Once I told a story I called “The Prisoner and the Bone.” A prisoner on death-row is thrown a bone, and is willing to kneel on the ground with that bone until he dies. I was that prisoner, kneeling on the ground and licking that bone. For a little fame, some benefits, a little protection.
A couple hours after the lecture I saw Wang Xiaoshan at Qingdao’s Grand Theatre. We started talking about Chen Guangcheng. He said, “We all owe him our moral duty.” I agreed, but I still hadn’t made up my mind whether or not I was going to go see him. Neither had Xiaoshan. I felt awkward, and was sure he felt the same way.
The next afternoon I had lunch with Xiaoshan, Enchao, Zhongqiang and Miss Nuola. We hit it off right away, and somewhere during our meal, we decided to go to Linyi, to Dong Shigu, to visit that tormented yet fearless hero. I was chicken, and needed a lot of encouragement from the others. We objected to Miss Nuola’s insistence on coming—she’s slight and delicate and physically didn’t look up to the trip. But she was unrelenting, “You can go but I can’t? If you don’t take me, I’ll find a way and go alone!” Zhongqiang brought up Liu Shasha, arguing that women shouldn’t involve themselves with something this dangerous. Dong Shigu stands at a time thousands of years away from us, they could easily pull something dirty, punch us in the head, kick us in the nuts, rob us, frisk us! Nuola was unmoved, “I’m not scared! Anyway, I’m going, with or without you guys!” The scene got awkward, and lightheartedly I interjected, “O.K, O.K! Let’s just all go! It’s just threat and danger right? What’s the big deal? It’s not as if they’re going to throw rocks at eggs.” Nuola’s eyes brightened, “Exactly! It’s not as if they’re going to throw rocks at eggs.”
Zuo Yeben got a van for us, and helped us plan our trip. To prevent the unexpected, Wang Xiaoshan and I left our wallets and credit cards with our friend Yang Ruichun. We took our IDs and some cash. We mulled over the prospect of going to a backwards time. Inside, each of us tried to give ourselves a pep talk: The worst thing that can happen is that you get a beating. Don’t be scared.
The car came an hour later. Zhongqiang said, “We need prepare ourselves for the possibility of a beating. Expect to get hurt and to be put into detention. Enchao added, “And be prepared for the possibility of getting things shoved up our asses.” I joked, “And be prepared to like that feeling. Be prepared to wind up chasing that feeling for the rest of your lives.” The things we said were very crass, but funny. We all laughed.
We entered Lingyi at dusk. The city was shining. There were ads everywhere extolling “The Grand Beauty of Lingyi,” “The Culture of Lingyi,” “Lingyi Lifestyle.” A large screen broadcasted the words “A Civilized People Create a Civilized City.” I thought about Chen Guangcheng, and couldn’t help but feel that this city had its own brand of black humor.
We booked three rooms at a hotel in the center of the city. Nuola slept in one room by herself. Xiaoshan and I roomed together in room 1310; Enchao and Zhongqiang roomed together in room 1317. Out of the four men, Enchao and Zhongqiang have their names blacklisted on the internet. Afraid that someone on the staff might search their names, we decided to use Xiaoshan’s and my I.D to register (Both of us use pen names. His name is Han Chunsan. My name is Hao Qun.) The middle aged man registering us would not stop staring at me.
We ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant on the 17th floor. We ordered local dishes: Baniupang，Bansanqi，a pot of chicken soup, and Enchao’s favorite shredded potato. Perhaps because we were all tired, and perhaps due to nerves, Xiaoshan and Enchao, who are normally lushes, drank very little.
After dinner we returned to room 1310 to discuss our plans. Enchao suggested that we bring pieces of paper with us before entering Dong Shigu. The writing on the paper would say:
Guangcheng, the farthest distance in the world isn’t between life and death, but from the gate of the village to your house.
Xiaoshan and I objected. We were just going to see a friend. That is normal behavior, and we didn’t need to make it so grand. On the internet we’d received news that Hu Chenchen’s “21 People” were coming to protest at the gate of Dong Shigu the next day. Zhongqiang asked if we wanted to get together with them. Xiaoshan shook his head, who knew whether there’d a be mole among those 21 people. Plus, we were just going to visit a friend, there was no need to make noise.
Feeling heavy in the dead of the night we came to the agreement that no matter what, we would not raise our fists in retaliation. If they beat us, we’d bear the beating. If they beat us too much, we’d run. If we couldn’t run, we’d leave it up to fate. Some people accuse us of doing all this for show, but at the time, we really did prepare ourselves, prepared to bleed, prepared to suffer pain. We just wanted to verify what it takes in this country, at this time, to visit an imprisoned “free man.” But it was not until the end that we learned the outcome and truly understood the distance spanning between us and Chen Guangcheng. It was exactly like as Enchao said: The longest distance in the world was from the gate of his village to his house.
It was October 15th, 2011. It was an ordinary day. Four fat men and a woman arrived in an unfamiliar city. In the deep of the night, the woman slept. The two fat men sleeping in another room snored loudly, threatening to wake the whole city. Another fat man snored in a different room, mumbling in his sleep and occasionally grinding his teeth. The fourth fat man couldn’t sleep. He sat on the toilet and smoked a cigarette, mindlessly flipped through a book. In a village near these five people, a group of guards surrounded a door, their eyes watched a single room.
In that room sits a blind man. He has been tortured for his activism. He sits in darkness and yet he struggles to find light for the rest of us. On this tranquil night, I hoped that he was having a good dream, a dream filled with color, a dream filled with light and the memories of home.
On the morning of October 16th, we were awakened by the hotel concierge. It was already light outside. We hurried and washed up. We got into a taxi. The driver was a chubby fellow with a sunny disposition. His face was honest and simple. He was kind and treated his job seriously. He worried that he was charging us too much, and was shy when he shared oranges with us, saying “we meet because fate wants us to.”
It was clear that none of us were used to waking up early. Everyone’s eyes were red. On the way we stopped at a small street vendor for breakfast. 5 bowls of soy milk, 5 eggs, 12 youtiaos. It wasn’t the classiest joint. We ate on a small table and sat on tiny chairs. The pot heating the soy milk was covered in dust. Wang Xiaoshan didn’t touch anything, scared that it would upset his stomach. Enchao and I called him our delicate senior official. He replied curtly, “Just keep eating, will ya? Go ahead, eat, eat. They’re just going to beat it out of you later.” Well, what he said was spot on, but the youtiao and the soy milk were so good we ate our fill anyway. After eating I went to pay the bill: 23 RMB.
Qingtuo is ten kilometers from Dong Shigu. Our car ran for ten minutes and arrived at an old aqueduct, a remnant of Mao’s era. We’d driven to the Dong Shigu’s village gate but then turned around after seeing a couple of burly guards at the entrance.
Instead we got off a kilometer away from Dong Shigu. Nuola stayed to set up our base. It was eight in the morning. Just as we were leaving a young man, medium height, skinny, ran towards us with a green coat in his hands. He looked like he’d just finished his night shift. Seeing us, he reached for his phone and made a call. We pretended not to see, and walked towards Dong Shigu.
At the gate of Dong Shigu is a single road. Flanking the road are two ordinary houses. There were people both inside and outside those houses. I walked towards one of them when a short man wearing a grey-green jacket blocked my way. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Is this place Dong Shigu village?” I asked, smiling.
Ignoring my question, he repeated his, “What are you doing?”
“We’re here to see a man called Chen Guangcheng. May I ask if he lives here?”
Taken aback by my directness, he paused. Then covertly he leaned in towards me to say, “Well, there have been some robberies recently here in the village. You know, chickens, cows. So I can’t let you in.”
I chuckled, “Oh we’re not here to steal anything. Don’t worry. We’re just here to see Chen Guangcheng. We’ll leave immediately afterwards.”
His expression turned stern. A few others came out of the house, among them a middle aged man wearing a black velvet jacket. The man had a mild face but his words were brusque: “It’s harvest season. All the men are gone. We’re afraid of losing things so you can’t come in.”
“We’re not here to steal!” exclaimed Enchao, “Don’t worry!”
Xiaoshan started talking legalities, “Who knows who you guys are? Look, come over here, come, come. I’ll introduce you. I’m a writer, called Murong Xuechun. This here is Wang Xiaoshan, newspaper columnist; This is Zhang Enchao, digital web director; This is Hu Zhongqiang…”
Velvet Jacket started to lose his patience, “I don’t give a shit who you people are. I said you can’t come in didn’t I? That means you can’t come in!”
The scene turned stiff and airless. I took a wad of cash from my pocket, probably around 2000 RMB. “Afraid we’re going to steal from you? Look, I’ll just put this money here with you, as collateral.”
“Or you can come with us if you don’t trust us. When we come out you can inspect us,” said Enchao.
Velvet Jacket shook his head vigorously, “Put your money away! I don’t want your money! What would I do with your money?”
“How about we give you our IDs. That would give you a piece of mind, right?” said Enchao
They stopped talking. None of them spoke. I decided to start walking again. Two steps in, Green Jacket grabbed me, “Stop! Stop Walking!”
After that they gave us another two, three minutes of silent treatment. No matter what we said, no one replied. Zhongqiang took out a pack of Tarzans and went around offering each guard a cigarette. None of the guards responded.
In China, when one confronts trouble, one of the only solutions is to appeal to a political leader. Xiaoshan said, “If you can’t make a decision, then call your village chief. We want to talk to him.” A few of them started speaking at the same time, in a local dialect. Something sounded off, they sounded…like they were laughing at Xiaoshan. ‘And you want to talk legalities? Who says the “Chief” anymore?’ (Incidentally we learned that the “Village Chiefs” have been rechristened as “Village Directors”)
We stood there for almost an hour but still couldn’t get into the village. We also didn’t want to leave so we lingered around. Meanwhile, there were villagers strolling and biking in and out of the village gate. No one even seemed to notice us. They looked calm. It was clear to us that these villagers had seen situations like ours. Some of them even stopped to talk to Velvet Jacket. They smiled sweetly at him and spoke in ellipses, as if they shared a secret language. These people must have known Chen Guangcheng. They might have even been his student, friends, or relatives. But in this place, at this time, no one cared about what was happening to him. These villagers treated him as if he were a stranger, or an enemy. All these villagers had gotten together to gang up against one blind man.
According to rumors, Dong Shigu has implemented a multilayer security system. The gate was only the first step, probably the easiest to get past, and yet we’d exhausted ourselves to no avail. As I said, all I wanted to know was what it takes to visit a person, and I’d gotten my answer: As impossible as walking to the sky. I sat down with my legs crossed and put on a loutish pose. With all the hate I could muster towards Velvet Jacket, I said: “You don’t let us into the village. Well, I’m going to sit here! If I don’t see Chen Guangcheng today, I won’t leave!” Inside I thought, “Well, I guess this isn’t a bad way to buy time…”
At the time, I had no idea what they were going to do. Very quickly, two buses arrived. The doors opened and what followed was a skirmish to try to get us onto the bus. Two men grabbed Zhongqiang, two men had Enchao, and one man had Wang Xiaoshan. No one paid attention to me. Only after pushing the other three onto the bus, did the guards make a circle around me. Two of them grabbed my left arm. Another two grabbed my right arm. They dragged me violently towards the vehicle. The scene was anarchy. Everyone was yelling something. I was screaming too, “Let go! I’m not leaving!” People were pushing and shoving. I grabbed the bus door, and refused the let go. They started shaking the door. The conductor panicked, “Let go! Don’t break my car!” I held on. Velvet Jacket blew his top and started punching my arm. Someone yelled “Stop! Stop!” By that point Xiaoshan told me, “Forget it, and just come in,” and so finally, I let go. Humiliated, I stepped onto the bus. Before the door closed, I turned to Velvet Jacket, “You wait, I’ll be back immediately!” He ignored me. The driver yelled “Close the door! We’re going!”
I bought four bus tickets. Because of all that happened, I didn’t even notice how much I paid, or where we were going. The driver and the ticket collector had obviously seen this kind of scuffle before. They looked calm. I got their attention and said “We just wanted to go see a friend!” Xiaoshan got up too, “There is a blind man in this village named Chen Guangcheng! Who has heard of him!” One of the patrons replied: “I think I’ve heard of him. Heard he was in jail.” The middle aged woman next to me muttered “In jail? Sounds like a bad apple!” I had no words. Slowly I felt a pain in my right hand, and discovered that my ring finger was gushing blood. Probably hurt it when we were pulling at the door.
The bus arrived at the aqueduct. I told the driver to stop the car. He smiled, and said, “There’s no use getting off here. Take a look at what’s behind us. They’ve been tailing us the whole time. Even if you could get off, they’d kick you back up here.”
One of the cars was a black Santana with no license plate. I didn’t know what kind of car the other was.
At Qingtuo we got off the bus. Thirty, forty meters behind us, the Santana cruised slowly. We moved, they moved. We stopped, they stopped. The windows were tinted, but I had a feeling that the man inside the car was taking pictures of us. I wanted to confront them, but Enchao stopped me.
At the end of the road we waved down two buses, but neither stopped for us. The first one actually stopped and asked us where we were going. We said Dong Shigu, but the conductor waved us off, “Not Going!” He slammed the door with a loud clang, and then proceeded to drive directly in Dong Shigu’s direction. The second bus didn’t even stop for us. It slowed down at first, but drove away quickly when it got a close look at us. Zhongqiang said “I bet you all the buses on this line have been warned, we shouldn’t depend on them.” The other three answered in unison, “Then we’ll walk to Dong Shigu!”
The distance from Qingtuo and Dong Shigu is about ten kilometers, not far, but not close. Xiaoshan said Dongshan’s scenery wasn’t bad, and we could treat it as exercise. We started our journey on foot. This was late Fall of 2011. The sky was blue. The air smelt like dry grass. Leaves were shedding.
Once I saw a photo of Chen Guangcheng on the internet. Wearing an old suit, he stands in front of his house with his head tilted. He wears a sunny smile, and looks confident. While writing this essay, I searched for this photo more than once. I didn’t understand how he could wear such a fresh smile, but slowly, it began to dawn on me. Here is the difference between those who are brave and those who are ordinary. We are all made the same. Like everyone, he is afraid of suffering and he experiences fear. And yet he continues to hope, continues to believe that the world gets better, that these abnormal days will come to an end.
Almost everyone in our generation has read the book “Believe in the Future” 《相信未来》：
When cobwebs clog my stove
When its dying smoke sigh for poverty
I will stubbornly dig out the disappointing ash
And write on snowflakes: Believe in the Future
This poem was written in 1968 during an abnormal time. That year, the historian Jian Bozan and his wife committed suicide. Tian Han, the lyricist of our national anthem, died in prison. That year, ordinary citizens silently endured a life of injustice. But the real heroes were the ones who held onto hope, who still believed in the future, who still had faith that the world would turn back to normal.
I’m not saying this to praise myself. I’m no hero. I’m someone who wants to be at the side of a hero, doing the little that I can.
We’d gone 200 meters in the direction of Dong Shigu when another van drove towards us, stopping in front of us. A young man jumped out. He was tall, wore his hair stylishly and wore a black round neck t-shirt that revealed part of a tattoo on his chest.
There were six men behind him. Some of them were wearing black. Silently they surrounded us. The afore-mentioned young man decided that I was the chief criminal, and ran straight for me, grabbed my neck with one hand, and pressed my arm violently behind my back with his other hand. At the same time the van roared past our bodies. Zhongqiang and Enchao yelled, “What are you doing? If you have something to say, say it!” Our antagonists acted as if they didn’t hear a word and shoved us onto the other side of the road.
I was furious, we all were. Crowding in, we yelled “Where the hell do you get off!”
One of them said “This is my territory, I do as I want!”
Beside himself, Enchao roared, “This is Qingtuo not Dong Shigu! This is your territory?”
“Who’s your leader? Let’s sit and talk,” I said.
They said nothing.
“Then we won’t go to Dong Shigu, we’ll go to Lingyi. You can’t do anything about that,” said Xiaoshan.
Xiaoshan started walking, and was grabbed by a guy, “Stop, don’t move!”
I started to panic, and pulled out my housekeeping moves, “Get this straight. We are the citizens of the People’s Republic of China! Without a trial, no one can take away our freedom!”
I admit that these words weren’t appropriate at the time. They were extremely naïve. In this country, the law is not a shield, at least not our shield. So I wasn’t surprise when the young man knocked down my words, “Law? We’re not talking law with you!”
These words effectively enraged everyone. We’d been were standing with our backs against each other, but now each man stood his own ground. My deepest impression is that of Enchao. Some guy kept on tearing at him. Enchao looked like a lion experiencing psychosis, his eyes wide, and his long hair loose. He kept howling in anguish at his opponent, “Where do you get off?! Where do you get off?! Where do you off?!”
A few minutes later another bus came towards us. They tried to shove us onto the vehicle. We struggled against them. I had only one thought: Leave. The farther we go the better! One man kept following me, harassing me and twisting my arm. He was very strong. Mixed in with this chaos were the sound of a bus engine, the sound of wrists cracking, and the words: “You lowlifes!”
Afterward I found out that all of us had met our misfortunes. Enchao’s new leather jacket had been ripped. Zhongqiang got hit in the stomach twice. Someone had kicked Xiaoshan in the legs. I didn’t feel anything at the time, but found bruises on my arms after I returned to Beijing. These wounds don’t represent the totality of what our antagonists could have done to us. It wouldn’t have been hard to mess me up completely. It wouldn’t be hard to kill me. I have to admit that they never tried to hurt us badly. Theirs was a symbolic form of violence.
At one point the young man in the black t-shirt grabbed my neck and shoved me forward. I fell onto the ground.
Lying there I screamed, “You hit people! You hit people!”
The young man replied, “Who’s hit you? Who’s hit you?”
“You threw me onto the ground. That counts as hitting!”
“Who hit you? You fell!”
I was so livid I couldn’t find the right words. “Hah! So you’re scared too! What are you scared of? Tell me, what are you scared of?”
“What am I scared of? I’m scared of nothing!” he said, gritting his teeth.
What happened next was a blur. I didn’t know whether the bus had been driven to us, or if we’d been taken to the bus. Again we were forced onto the vehicle. Xiaoshan screamed, “I’ve remembered you! I’ve remembered your faces!”
Afterwards, Xiaoshan and I discussed what we’d seen. My argument was that they weren’t all bad people. Perhaps, they’d fallen for something they shouldn’t have fallen for. If they truly believed that Chen Guangcheng was a national traitor, then naturally they would hate him, and by association would hate his supporters. This was normal. Xiaoshan, however, disagreed, “They don’t count as good people either. They’re doing this for money. 1600RMB every month to do nothing. To beat people. Where do people even find jobs like that?”
In the end we agreed: this was a group of individuals who’d been sedated, who couldn’t care less about good or evil, who cared only about their immediate wellbeing. In certain cases, at certain times in history, these were the people who had the capacity to assist monsters. If they had a gun, they would aim it. It didn’t matter to them who they aimed at.
Wang Yanan, the former president of Xiamen Universityand translator of Das Kapital, once said: “There are three types of people in a Pre-modern society: Liars, Fools and Mutes.” I think he must have overlooked the fourth type: the Participant. In an abnormal society, the Participant makes up the society. There are lots of them so each of them has only to do very little. None of them needs to own up to their actions. When times change most of them will be able to defend their actions by saying that they were fooled by someone else, that they were victims too. This isn’t untrue, but it is because of their willingness to participate that makes them the very creators of evil itself.
We rode our bus back to Lingyi. A black Buick followed us the whole way. This was probably the world’s most patient car. Wherever we went, it went. We pressed the gas, it pressed the gas. We turned around, it turned around. We stopped to drink sodas and eat noodles, and they sat outside waiting for us. I didn’t know who owned the car, but I can bet that they were spending tax payers’ money.
We arrived in Xuzhou at three in the afternoon. Every one felt more relaxed after leaving Shandong. Someone called Xiaoshan to ask him where he was born. He said that we’d left Shandong, and didn’t mention Xuzhou. If someone had asked me, I would’ve answered. My thoughts were that we were just going to see a friend. There’s nothing more normal than this and there’s no need to be dramatic. Later some things happened, proving that Xiaoshan, an old pro, was right to take precautions. It also proved that in an abnormal era, one pays a price for normal behavior. This is China and I am a Chinese citizen. I have the right to lead a normal life. This is the lowest requirement for life. But at this time, in this place, it has become a dream.
Four days later, the five of us met up in Beijing. Xiaoshan played with his smart-phone. Enchao wore a different leather jacket. Zhongqiang played poker. Nuola sat beside us smiling. I’d offended Enchao with another inappropriate joke and spent the rest of that meal apologizing to him. We ate, drank two pots of coffee, and said things we didn’t need to say. It was as if we’d returned to our ordinary lives, but we were all deeply aware that at that very moment, Chen Guangcheng was still in Dong Shigu, still sitting alone in a dark cell. I know that Nuola will never forget. Zhongqiang will never forget. Enchao will never forget. Xiaoshan will never forget. There are others who will never forget. As we sat in that bright and clean room with our drinks, Chen Guangcheng was still in Dong Shigu, sitting alone in a dark cell.
If you live in Dong Shigu you are very close to Chen Guangcheng. When he was encountered by the government, everyone was encountered by the government. His fate is everyone’s fate. A single man captive, the whole of Man captive. You don’t have to care about Chen Guangcheng, but you do need to know that at the moment his freedom was arbitrarily taken away, your freedom came under threat.
I once read this passage on the internet: “China’s road towards development is long and slow. It doesn’t promise to be smooth. If there’s going to be blood, then please, start with me. If we’re doomed to bear loss, then please, start with me. I will bleed, but that means that you cannot let others bleed. I am willing to bleed to death. If I lose, no one else is allowed to lose. I am willing to lose everything.”
Chen Guangcheng did not write these words, but it might as well be him who said it. I hope, in a future not too far away, to read this passage to him on a warm spring day. I hope to sit down and have a drink with him. Then finally I would have realized this dream: To live a normal life.
On that night of October 15th at the hotel in Lingyi, I was reading a book called The Blinding Absence of Light by the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun. The book described a dark cell. In this cell sat a group of prisoners waiting to die. For them, time no longer held meaning. There was one boy, however, named Karim who continued to cherish this thing called time. Sitting quietly in a dark corner, he counted each passing minute. Everyday, for three times a day he would announce the time to his fellow prisoners, giving shape to their lives. Though he’d lived in utter darkness, he found light in time. Though physically imprisoned, he’d found freedom.
The second day after I came back to Beijing, someone sent me a message: You are a writer. What was the purpose of what you did?
My answer: For Light, For Time