Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, edited by Geremie Barme and John Minford, New York: Hill & Wang, 491 pages, $19.95
When Chinese students and workers marched by the millions, the Henry Kissingers, the Winston Lords, and the John K. Fairbanks were stunned. Reflecting this confusion in the ranks of China watchers, the Washington Post pronounced itself mystified by the sudden bursting forth of "a hunger for democracy which was unprecedented in China and which few people anywhere anticipated." They were equally shocked when the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party sent tanks and indiscriminately shooting soldiers against unarmed students and workers, resulting in a massacre of thousands.
The China watchers and media shouldn't have been stunned. Despite the flat, misleading interpretations of official propagandists and foreign apologists, Chinese political and artistic life had developed an unruly richness and anarchic complexity in the '80s. Had China watchers been listening to the young people, rather than just to superannuated and out-of-touch leaders like Deng Xiaoping, the student movement for democracy would not have caught them by surprise. Had they borne in mind recent Chinese history, the willingness of those same leaders to liquidate their political opposition would not have come as such a shock.
Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience reads like today's headlines, a bracing gust of wind straight from the Chinese democracy movement. Here, unencumbered by false or self-serving interpretations, in translations that are impeccable, are China's new generation of dissident writers and thinkers, appealing directly to the common humanity and conscience of Chinese and Westerners alike. The editors, Geremie Barme and John Minford, both of whom studied under the great sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (also known as Simon Leys), are to be congratulated for assembling this unique and fascinating anthology.
Not the least of their achievements in Seeds of Fire (the title comes from the work of Lu Xun, China's greatest 20th-century writer) is to bring within reach of the Western reader the full range of China's authentic voices. From novelists and cartoonists, to essayists and democratic activists, to newspaper reporters and film directors, all those engaged in the ongoing struggle against censorship and state oppression in China are represented.
A standout among the short stories included is Lin Xinwu's "Black Walls." A young man, something of an enigma to his neighbors, begins to paint the walls of his apartment black, a symbolic exorcism (no doubt) of the conformity forced upon him by the Chinese state. His neighborhood committee meets (all urban Chinese are under the control of such committees), mutters about the impropriety, and is set to intervene in force when a boy present derails their plan by innocently pointing out that the room is, after all, the young man's.
Chinese authorities have all too frequently resorted to the use of deadly force, as the several accounts of labor camps, prison trains, cadre schools, and places of exile amply illustrate. The most powerful indictment of the Chinese gulag is "Murder at Nenjiang Camp." Written by the well-known journalist Liu Binyan, who specializes in documentary reporting, it is the factual account of a prisoner who was gut-shot by guards for talking back. The man was left untended where he had fallen—it was the better part of a day before he actually expired—while a guard stood watch at a distance.
Chinese authors ply their craft in political currents that are uncharted and often treacherous. Their writings are often greeted with official party bullyings (known as criticisms), and not a few have been required to engage in ritual self-flagellation (known as self-criticisms). Barme and Minford have interspersed bits of official criticisms throughout the text, providing much needed context for the Western reader who might otherwise wonder what all the fuss was about. Shortly after the publication of "Black Walls," Lin Xinwu was attacked by the Literary Gazette, the authoritative party journal of literary criticism, for having "created a fraudulent set of characters…to express ideas that are neither new nor of any profundity."
Not a few authors have actually gone aground on the shifting shoals of party intolerance and repression. Liu Binyan, for instance, was expelled from the party in 1987 for his reportorial indiscretions and has now defected. Others have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Among the most moving passages in Seeds of Fire are excerpts from prison diaries. Noted dissident Wei Jingsheng's account of his days at Beijing Prison No. 1, which he calls the "Twentieth Century Bastille," is a grim and ghastly tale of psychological abuse, while Xu Wenli's description of his show trial could have been written by Kafka. For having the temerity to continue to set their thoughts to paper at the very time they were being punished for previous writings, both men were punished further, and Wei Jingsheng is now said to be insane.
To continue to write and publish beyond the bounds of the permissible is an act of political dissent. The system that launched the repression of the Hundred Flowers, the Cultural Revolution, and the campaign against "spiritual pollution" is still in place in China today. Nor have the methods used against dissidents in the past been repudiated, except as to nonessentials. Each of the writers in this book knows the fate of the students on Tiananmen Square may well be his or hers.
With the publication of Seeds of Fire, we need no longer rely on the alternately obscure, self-serving, or apologetic formulations of China watchers. Here are the authentic voices of China's conscience, speaking honestly about what is on their minds. Whether the pieces translated here will one day rank as literature remains to be seen. But they already rank, each and every one, as rare acts of courage.
Contributing Editor Steven W. Mosher is Bradley Resident Scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is on sabbatical from the Claremont Institute, where he is director of Asian Studies.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Rare Acts of Courage".