Liu Xiaobo, the monumental poet and critic who became the defacto face of Chinese political dissidence during the Tiananmen Square uprising, died soon after being transferred from his prison cell in Jinzhou to a medical facility Shenyang, where he was treated for cancer. He was 61 years old.
Liu came to international prominence after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu became the first Chinese laureate to be awarded a prize while living in China, and the second laureate to be unable to claim it due to his imprisonment. During the ceremony, Liu’s chair sat empty while a large portrait of him loomed above. The citation for the prize read:
“For over two decades, Liu Xiaobo has been a strong spokesman for the application of fundamental human rights also in China. He took part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989; he was a leading author behind Charter 08, the manifesto of such rights in China which was published on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 10th of December 2008. The following year, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison and two years’ deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power”. Liu has consistently maintained that the sentence violates both China’s own constitution and fundamental human rights.”
Liu’s began his career in letters as a poet and firebrand literary critic. He made his name early while still in a doctoral student with a debut book-length work of criticism that challenged the ideology of the contemporary Chinese philosopher Li Zehou (who himself was later placed under house arrest). His doctoral thesis Aesthetics and Human Freedom (1988) would be published as his second major work.
Liu was a visiting professor at Columbia University when protests broke out in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He returned to join the protesters, many of them university students, leading a 3-day hunger strike that helped to quell the military’s violent crackdown, preventing further bloodshed. For his actions, Liu was jailed for the first of four times in his life and subsequently barred from teaching and banned from publishing (new editions of his work were printed in Taiwan around the same time).
Despite encouragements from friends and family, Liu declined invitations to be given asylum abroad and remained in China where he continued to write and be active in political opposition. He met and married his second wife, the artist and poet Liu Xia, at a labor camp in 1996 during his third interment. Upon his release in 1999, Liu spent the next decade publishing several political and literary works, including a definitive, eponymous collection of his and Xia’s poetry, through his Taiwanese publisher.
In 2003, Liu helped to cofound the independent PEN China, where he used his position as director to shed light on the plight of China’s dissident writers and activists. The specter of Tiananmen Square continued to haunt Liu, and on the 15th anniversary of the uprising in 2004, penned one of his better known poems, “Fifteen Years of Darkness“:
15 years ago
a massacre took place at daybreak
I died then was reborn
15 years have passed
daybreak bayonets dyed red
is still a blade fixed in the eyes
15 years have passed
I still have nightmares of those departed souls
I see them soaked with blood
I write each stroke each line
as an outpouring of the tomb
15 years have passed
within the darkness of vanished freedom
I wait for the hour-hand to point to pre-
dawn’s advent of the fifteenth anniversary offering
Tonight, in this city without altar
I hope the dead souls can see my eyes
and turn my watchful gaze into the flicker of a candle flame
Not the sacrificial spirit money for the ancestors
not the raging blaze that illuminates the cold night
but memory’s nakedness
is like a bone that will not decay
In 2008, Liu participated in the drafting of a manifesto that called for, among other things, the end of China’s one part-rule, a bill of rights. Published as Charter 08, this document was signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and political activists. Despite making these demands peacefully, the government responded harshly by arresting Liu, charging him with intent to “incite subversion to state power.” His trial was closed to the public, and Liu was forbidden to defend himself or be in touch with his wife. Despite worldwide protests and appeals from several public figures and heads of state, including then president Barack Obama, Liu was quickly given a harsh prison sentence that he would serve out until just weeks before his death.
At the Nobel Ceremony, and unable to make a speech, Liu’s written defense, penned during the mock trial, was read aloud on his behalf. It was later published as the short, poetic declaration, “I Have No Enemies”:
“I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities, including Zhang Rongge and Pan Xueqing who act for the prosecution at present. I was aware of your respect and sincerity in your interrogation of me on December 3.
“For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love….
“I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints.”
The excerpt of “Fifteen Years of Darkness” is taken from June Fourth Elegies, a collection of Liu’s poems translated by Jeffrey Yang and published by Graywolf Press.