Commemorating an Anti-Authoritarian Provocateur: Reflections on Wang Xiaobo (May 13, 1952–April 11, 1997)

By Sebastian Veg

Wang Xiaobo, an important Chinese literary and intellectual figure who died of a heart attack 20 years ago this week at the age of 44, remains largely unknown to the reading public outside China.  Only a few novellas and one important essay of his have been translated into English.  In China, by contrast, his popularity reached unprecedented heights in the late 1990s, and he was even included posthumously (with five other “emeriti”) on the first list of China’s 50 “most influential public intellectuals” published in 2004. Even now, his books are still reprinted and widely read: Changjiang Literature and Art has just published a new seven-volume selection of his writings to mark the anniversary of his death.

Many readers were first attracted by his fiction, in part due to its shockingly hyperbolic depictions of sex.  It is his essays, though, which are peppered with a distinctive black humor and were widely disseminated through the new commercial press outlets of the mid-1990s, such as Southern Weekend and Orient Magazine, that may have had the most lasting influence. Probing their deeper impact offers a useful opportunity to assess the evolution of the Chinese intellectual scene over the last twenty years, underscoring the unique character of Wang Xiaobo’s voice at a time when ideological quarrels among China’s intellectuals have become ever more acrimonious.

“The Silent Majority,” the title of Wang’s most famous essay, hints at his belated authorial debut: throughout his years as a “rusticated youth” during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, then as a student and teacher both in China and in the United States in the 1980s, Wang Xiaobo remained “silent,” just like most ordinary people, in contrast to China’s always loquacious intellectuals. As he wrote a few weeks before his death, alluding to the stridently nationalistic best-seller China Can Say No: “A foreigner recently said to me: I hear you Chinese people are all saying no? … I very firmly replied: … The Chinese people you know are saying no. I know no such people. … I know many wise people, but they are all keeping silent.” [“Preface” to My Spiritual Home: even though few of Wang’s texts are translated, I will refer to each here by a translation of their titles, with the Chinese originals listed below.] This silence was the result of a strongly held conviction that speaking out meant entering the realm of propaganda, lies, and power politics, the realm of the “right to speak” that it has become fashionable to claim in China today. He published his first piece of fiction, The Golden Age, in 1992.  A novella that ironically mocked and desacralized the whole Cultural Revolution experience, it was the first work in what became a torrent of essays, short stories and novels that poured out during the final half-decade of his life.

At the time it appeared, China’s intellectuals were still shell shocked after the violent repression of the 1989 democracy movement. The consensus between intra-Party reformers and intellectuals that existed throughout the 1980s had broken up: some blamed the “radicalism” of modern Chinese political culture for the tragic outcome of the movement, others advocated refocusing on academic work rather than getting carried away by overly broad theoretical or ideological debates, and still others threw in their lot with Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, embracing the lowbrow pop culture brought by marketization as the decisive force which could liberalize China (this triggered the so-called “debate on the spirit of the humanities” in the early 1990s between advocates of pop culture and partisans of a retreat to academia). Wang Xiaobo fits into none of these categories.

Similar discussions have dominated until now. On the one hand, a group of academics, journalists and technocrats known as “liberals” argued that, in a situation of political stalemate, market capitalism and economic reforms would ultimately democratize society. On the other hand, a group of critics congealed in the late 1990s, arguing that economic liberalization in fact impeded democracy, because of capitalism’s intrinsic link with authoritarian politics. These critics, some of whom came to self-identify as members of a Chinese “New Left,” expressed a fundamental distrust of representative democracy and advocated reexamining the intellectual resources of the Mao era for critical tools to fight capitalism. Initially critical of the Chinese state and its embrace of globalization, they increasingly sided with it as a bulwark against Westernization, especially after the events of 2008. Both sides were eager to claim Wang Xiaobo as one of their own, either as a liberal empiricist in the tradition of Russell or as a Foucauldian critic of (Western) Enlightenment.

These two groups obviously hold very different views of democracy, one side emphasizing liberal institutions and their ability to protect individuals from state encroachment, the other grounding democracy primarily in social equality. But both sides tend to engage in theoretical arguments. While some (though by no means all) liberals lack a critical appraisal of the realities of market capitalism and its compatibility with, if not propensity for, authoritarian politics, many left-wing critics tend to use egalitarian definitions of democracy only as a foil to avoid engaging in a critical reflection on Maoism and to legitimize the role of an unelected Party in governing China today. Wang Xiaobo, by contrast, never engaged in abstract theorizing. Writing in the tradition of the Chinese essay, he used details from daily life and from his readings to reflect on politics and history.

His position was unique in offering a critique of both the modern state and Maoist ideology from a bottom-up perspective, and advocated axiological neutrality à la Weber rather than a political stance. Of course, his thinking was lastingly influenced by his own experience of Maoist politics. His father, a famous professor of logic in the 1950s, insisted that his five children all study science rather than humanities, and preferably disciplines so technical that no outsider could understand the nature of their research.

Contrary to many of his contemporaries who criticized the Cultural Revolution as remnants of premodern “feudalism,” Wang Xiaobo clearly understood the modern nature of Mao’s discourse of the new man, grounded in Enlightenment ideals, however deformed. Indeed, he critically recalls his own revolutionary enthusiasm in the Cultural Revolution: “When I had just been sent down to the countryside, I fully wanted to emancipate humanity, I had not a selfish thought. But I must admit that I was very ignorant. … Educating other people through one’s own ignorance is the greatest sin of good people.” [“The Pleasure of Thinking”] Enlightenment in Wang’s view is not mechanical but always self-critical.

From 1984 to 1988, Wang accompanied his wife Li Yinhe who was enrolled in a PhD program in Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, and while there he audited classes in the East Asian Studies program under historian Cho-yun Hsu. This is probably when he first read Foucault’s History of Sexuality, which left a lasting impression on him. His understanding of society and its relation to the state bears the imprint of Foucault’s theory of power: Wang understood social phenomena as power relationships, in which the disciplinary techniques developed by states are counteracted by bodily resistance.

When Red Guards engage in a fight in a school washroom and a bloody piece of ear is found on the floor, Wang takes consolation from the fact that humanity has been preserved from cannibalism by instinct (the piece of ear was spit out and not swallowed). He consequently describes Maoism as a two-sided experiment in humiliation: “Some masochists like to call themselves an insect, and their partner the sun — Chinese people don’t say an insect but rather a screw or a brick. As to the sun, that would be too plain: they must add ‘the reddest red sun in my heart’.” [“Foreign Devils and Gu Hongming”] This comparison of political domination (the “red sun” was a standard way of referring to Mao in the Cultural Revolution) to sadomasochism provided the central metaphor for Wang’s most popular (and shocking) fictional work, The Golden Age. While on an institutional level such an analysis of the Maoist state might be deemed simplistic (a recurrent critique of Foucauldian analyses that conflate democratic and non-democratic forms of power), it highlights the twofold prism through which it was experienced on the individual and psychological level.

His unique understanding of Maoism led Wang to observe continuities between China under and after Mao. He probably coined, or at least popularized, the notion of “vulnerable groups” (ruoshi qunti), which completely turned around the Marxist theory of society, and became a central object of academic discourse. Vulnerable groups in his perspective are not social classes based on income or property, but the subaltern groups that cannot articulate their dominated status: the “five black categories” of Maoism (landlords, rightists…), sex workers labeled as “hooligans,” migrant rural workers who enjoy no legal protections in the city, and the homosexuals studied by Wang’s wife Li Yinhe in her groundbreaking book Their World (1988), which Wang coauthored. But for Wang, advocating dignity for the downtrodden is not compatible with nostalgia for the Mao era; in fact, the migrant workers in the reform era are a new incarnation of the disenfranchised “black elements” of Mao’s time. “Every year at the peak of the New Year’s travel rush, the media will show us several hundred people squeezed into a train carriage, with several dozens squeezed into the toilet … every aspect of the phenomenon will be discussed, except one: that these migrant workers have been deprived of personal dignity — as if this wasn’t important.” [“Personal dignity”] This understanding of society as a mosaic of vulnerable groups under the thumb of the state informed the activities of an entire generation of “grassroots intellectuals”: academics, legal activists, and NGO workers, whose work has only gained momentum since Wang’s death.

Indeed, Wang Xiaobo’s most important contribution is undoubtedly his debunking of the myth of the Chinese intellectual. Although critical of the Enlightenment, Wang was a strong advocate of value neutrality, which he contrasted directly with the traditional moralizing attitude of Chinese intellectuals. This also set him apart from China’s neotraditionalist “postmodernists.” (As Wang Hui noted in “Contemporary Chinese thought and the question of modernity” in 1997: “What is particularly amusing is that Chinese postmodernists turn the postmodernist critique of Eurocentrism on its head to argue for Chineseness and to search for prospects for China repositioning itself at the center of the world.”) Whether studying the victims of the Cultural Revolution or the subordinates of reform-era China, his principle was to disentangle the pursuit of knowledge from moral and ideological judgments. He criticized the twisting of knowledge under Mao to serve power (he repeatedly quotes Lin Biao’s famous characterization of Mao Zedong Thought as a “spiritual atomic bomb”) and advocated liberating knowledge from instrumental use, thus making it “pleasurable.” Similarly, he denounced the conflation of academic study and moral judgment in commonly accepted discourses on “vulnerable groups.” He saw this moralizing posture as the essence of the role played by Confucian thinkers over the centuries, who were always eager to speak louder and impose their moral judgments on other members of society by “taking responsibility for the world under the heavens.” This is the “monistic” mindset that Joseph Levenson attributed to both Confucians and communists, according to which there is only one “true” way of understanding society.

By contrast, Wang advocated a skeptical, self-critical role for intellectuals, one that few other academics or writers have embraced. As he wrote: “The New York Times once defined intellectuals — I hardly dare quote their standard — as people who are critical of society. According to this definition, China has none or almost none.” [“Chinese intellectuals and their medieval ways.”] Wang Xiaobo tried to distance himself from the stifling embrace of the state and from the role of many generations of intellectuals in sustaining it. Many of China’s popular young writers of the 1980s and 1990s, including critical ones, have ended up joining state institutions, and their works have become legitimate objects of study in universities. Wang Xiaobo remains an outlier, impossible to co-opt and impossible to absorb, a perennial irritant to the system.


Wang Xiaobo works mentioned above:

  • “Preface” 序 to My Spiritual Home (Wo de jingshen jiayuan 我的精神家園).
  • “The Pleasure of Thinking” 思維的樂趣;
  • “Chinese intellectuals and their medieval ways” 中國知識分子與中古遺風
  • “Foreign Devils and Gu Hongming” 洋鬼子與辜鴻銘 in The
  • Pleasure of Thinking (Siwei de lequ 思維的樂趣).
  • Their World (Tamen de Shijie 他們的世界)
  • The Golden Age (Huangjin shidai 黃金時代)

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