No Comment, Six Questions — May 18, 2009, 2:06 pm

The Chartist’s Plight: Six Questions for Sha Yexin

“The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.” These soft but firm words introduce Charter ’08, a manifesto issued by two thousand leading Chinese citizens, which boldly calls for a series of decisive changes, including the end of one-party rule. One of China’s greatest living playwrights, Sha Yexin, is a signatory. Sha’s work has sometimes been controversial in the past– some of his pieces gained official favor, while others were criticized and suppressed. Since the publication of Charter ’08, however, Sha is clearly viewed as a dissident, and his latest book, Jiang Qing and Her Husbands, could only be published in Hong Kong. I put six questions to Sha Yexin about his life as a chartist.

1. What considerations led you to sign Charter ’08?


Like all other signatories of the charter, I endorsed this document out of a thirst for democracy and a hunger for freedom, a desire to defend human rights and an expectation of constitutionalism. The political appeal of Charter ‘08 is very mild and rational. It was a a discrete, cooperative, constructive, and operational document and was worked out only after fully taking into account China’s present conditions, the possibility of political transformation at a modest social cost, and the need to avoid social disasters caused by large-scale turmoil. I think it was an expression of goodwill on the part of a group of honest elites. However, far from being a servile entreaty, it represents a serious appeal made with a strong sense of justice and a temperate wording. Our objective is not to overthrow the Communist Party, but to push it to go forward. Our intention is not to replace it, but to urge it to reform. What we want is a long period of peace and stability for China, and the happiness and well-being of the Chinese people. Our intention and sincerity are clear to all and can be witnessed by Heaven and on earth.

2. While many of the signatories of Charter ’08 have faced strong repression—the fate of Liu Xiaobo, for instance, was recently highlighted in a feature story in the New York Times—you seem to be treated by the authorities with much greater deference. Why do you think this is the case?

As a matter of fact, the moment I signed the charter, I anticipated being arrested. I signed the document with a sense of responsibility. I had to have the courage to bear all consequences, including possible arrest, the imposition of a sentence, imprisonment or reform through labor. Speaking out without accepting this risk would reflect a slick character, perhaps crafty and shrewd, but not responsible. This is not my way of acting as a man and a writer. People who want to speak out but refuse to take risks are bound to bend their knees and surrender when faced with a real danger. They might even become turncoats by betraying comrades and friends. I have only contempt for them.
Liu Xiaobo was the principal sponsor of Charter ’08, and he has paid a heavy cost. At midnight on December 8, 2008, he was detained by the police and put in custody at an unknown place. On December 12, the fifth day after his arrest, forty-one signatories of the charter, with me heading the list, issued a prompt, firm statement, “We and Liu Xiaobo Are Inseparable.” It appealed to the authorities for the release of Liu at once and the restoration of his freedom. In the statement, we declared: “Sharing the same thought and ideal, we have an inseparable relationship with Mr. Liu Xiaobo. Charter ‘08 is like our soul, and every one of us is part of its flesh. Together we constitute an integral whole. If Mr. Liu Xiaobo is harmed because he is a signatory of the Charter, it also means every one of us is harmed. If Mr. Liu Xiaobo cannot gain his freedom, it means every one of us is imprisoned.” It is regrettable that six months have passed since he was detained, yet he still remains in custody.

My present circumstances do not differ much from those of the overwhelming majority of the signatories. Shortly after the publication of Charter ‘08, I gradually became aware that appointments were made for a talk or questioning by the security department with the following other signatories: Yang Hai and Zhao Changchun of Xi’an, Fan Yanqiong of Fujian, Li Junzhuo of Changsha, and others.
On December 14, I wrote the following passage in my diary:

I am well prepared and will not be startled by a knock on my door at midnight. A knock at the door during the day is also welcome. I even expect the arrival soon of someone from the security department. I will receive all visitors as guests, with hospitality. I will remain calm and composed, showing neither haughtiness nor servility.

The reason I expected the early arrival of someone from the police was that I am inseparable from all signatories of the charter. We should stick together when in trouble. While others except me were either summoned or invited for a talk, it seemed that I was enjoying exemption from danger owing to some sort of special status. This would be highly unfair. I don’t want to be a special person whose safety seems always guaranteed.

After four days, on December 18, I again wrote in my diary:

What I had expected finally happened. But the person I received was not from the police or security department, but Mr. SL, who is a leader of my work unit. At 4:30 p.m., he came to visit. No cordial greetings were exchanged. As soon as he sat down, I said, “Let’s get to business.” Then I gave him a full account of how I came to sign the charter.

My position was clear-cut. I said I was in favor of the contents of the charter, seeing it as a fairly good solution to the problems facing China. The charter was intended not only for the good of China, but also for the good of the Chinese Communist Party. The charter conforms to the historical trend and the universal values of the world. It points to the only road to social progress. In reconfirming my position to him, I said that history will judge it fairly.

Secondly, I told Mr. SL to his face of my firm opposition to the illegal detention of Mr. Liu Xiaobo and my demand for his prompt release. I hoped that the authorities would not do such stupid things as to go against tidal waves, or to pick up a rock to crush their own feet.

Mr. SL only listened. He was mainly concerned about how I had come to sign the charter – signing it on the Internet or through other channels. This was also the main question put to all signatories of the charter.

The whole atmosphere was good, just like chatting between old friends, and unlike interrogation during a trial or summoning. Otherwise I would have treated him differently, instead of receiving him as a guest.

I don’t think that the authorities treated me differently. When Mr. SL came to visit, he was actually representing the authorities. It was true that they treated me with some deference, for which I am grateful. It may be due to my relative openness, transparency, rational manner, and goodwill. I am no conspirator. Nor do I try to establish ties with other people for some hidden purpose. They respect me in the same way I respect them. This is reciprocal.

So far, my personal freedom is not threatened. But my new book, Jiang Qing and Her Husbands – A Selection of Sha Yexin’s Banned Works, which was published in Hong Kong, is banned by the Party’s Propaganda Department. It obviously has something to do with my signing the charter. This is a punishment meted out to me. Without it, they would have been a bit too nice and deferential to me.

3. On the other hand, back during the student movement in 1989, your play The Fortunate Meeting with Mr. Cai was suspended by the authorities. How did you react to that decision? Has anything like it occurred since?

I need to make a correction in your question. The Fortunate Meeting with Mr. Cai was not suspended in 1989 but in 2005. On January 17 of that year, [former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary] Zhao Ziyang passed away. That year also marked the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Shanghai Drama Art Center. To commemorate this event, a decision was made to stage my play The Fortunate Meeting with Mr. Cai. During a rehearsal specially arranged for the censors, because there was a scene in the play describing a student demonstration during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the authorities worried that it would trigger a protest demonstration in connection with the death of Zhao Ziyang, and decided to suspend the play. Only people with extraordinary nerves could have been so sensitive as to make such an association.

Since the CCP came to power in 1949, they have imposed bans on so many books, newspapers, journals, films, and plays, as well as prohibiting the so-called “dimly-lit dancing parties,” “decadent music,” and what not. Such bans and prohibitions were not only introduced in the spheres of speech and ideology, but also expanded to include prohibitions on certain lifestyles, on wearing jeans or frog sunglasses. A wide range of reasons were given for taking such actions, some of which were ludicrous, beyond the imagination of a normal person. The panic and nervousness of the authorities may fit in well with the well-known Chinese idiom: “Every bush and tree looks like an enemy soldier.” They may even “mistake the reflection of a bow in a wine cup for a snake.” Hypersensitivity and sole reliance on instincts make them suspicious of everything. With groundless fears and endless worries, they go in for a wide spectrum of “preventive measures,” about which no one can reason with them. If a book entitled History of the Bans and Prohibitions in China were published, it would amaze readers by giving them a peep into this wonderland of absurdities.

It is hard for me to say whether they have banned my plays since 2005. The fact is that none of my plays have been staged in recent years. But they have imposed a ban on importing my new book Jiang Qing and Her Husbands – A Selection of Sha Yexin’s Banned Works, which was published in Hong Kong. Not only is its distribution prohibited but personal copies of the book carried by incoming travelers are even confiscated once they are discovered. The Chinese-language weekly Yazhou zhoukan carried a report on the prohibition.

Because I live in a country where rule by law does not exist, it is impossible for me to do anything on such matters. I cannot reason with them, fight the injustices, or file a legal complaint in defense of my rights. I can only respond to such things with a wry smile or a long sigh. It is fortunate that I am open-minded by nature. Undisturbed by favor or humiliation, I will keep a cool head and concentrate on my work as a writer. No banning can ever stop me from writing. These are the conditions of free writers who live under a totalitarian system.

4. During your career, Shanghai has developed dramatically as a major global commercial center. Its architecture attracts attention around the world. It clearly has emerged as one of the great world urban centers. Do you think it’s fair to say that Shanghai has developed in a comparable way as an intellectual center? If not, what factors have retarded the development of Shanghai as a center for the arts and culture and vigorous intellectual discourse?

My answer to your question is “No.” Many people have asked me this question. Not long ago, I answered a similar question put to me by a correspondent from Asahi Shimbun. I think my observations are based on the differences in regional culture between Shanghai and other cities. Shanghai is a commercial city. People here tend to think in terms of profit that can be reaped from invested capital. Meticulous calculation and strict budgeting are emphasized so that input and output can be carefully weighed. This has an impact on Shanghai’s men of letters as well as their cultural values. The Shanghai literati are only willing to participate in ventures that do not require them to put in their own capital. They will never strike a deal that does not bring them profit. In the presence of men of letters, they may denounce corrupt government officials. In front of government officials, they may condemn certain mean persons in the literary circles. They seldom denounce officials in the presence of other officials, or chastise men of letters in front of the literati. By behaving like this, they can display their sense of justice while evading any risks. If you ask them to write or speak the truth, to express their true feelings or offer honest opinions, you must guarantee that their interests and safety are ensured. Otherwise they would keep aloof and remain silent.


Moreover, the environment for freedom of speech in Shanghai was seriously damaged by the successive demise of leading cultural figures of this region, who had been brought up under the influence of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and imbued with a democratic spirit through education and training. These include the composer He Luding, the dramatist Huang Zuolin, the writer Ba Jin, and the journalist Lin Fang. Last year, Wang Yuanhua and Jia Zhifang also passed away. They were all men of letters with a free spirit and an independent personality and had served as standard-bearers in Shanghai’s cultural circles. Although they manifested their independence in different ways, and their boldness in speech varied, they all basically adhered to the spirit of humanism. On the other hand, the present-day men of letters who are in their prime and enjoy a great measure of popularity all “grew up under the red flag” and were indoctrinated by the Party. Only a few decades ago, they regarded traditional Chinese culture as “the four olds – old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits” – and saw Western progressive culture as “fierce floods and savage beasts.” To use a current Chinese expression, they were all reared by wolves.

With such a specific regional culture, how could Shanghai become a center for the arts or culture or a center of vigorous intellectual discourse?

5. At the recent Beijing meeting on Chinese drama and literature, you said that playwrights should never forget the role of literature and the aim of writing, and that they should never write for power. Could you elaborate on that?

Why shouldn’t one write for power? Here are my reasons:

First, power corrupts. The British historian Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This famous quotation has now become political common sense. Its correctness has been borne out by the intensifying corruption in China, where power is exercised without oversight or restraint. When corruption and power exist in co-prosperity, how can people fight corruption? In present-day China, anti-corruption is kept at a certain level to ensure that people will not revolt while power will not get out of control. In some districts, corrupt elements have become leaders of the anti-corruption effort. Undiscovered corrupt officials are fighting those already exposed.

Second, power makes people stupid. By using mathematical theories, the American scholar Jonathan Bendor proves the great value of independent thinking and the limitations of decision makers. When leaders are too busily occupied with myriad state affairs, institutional methods can be used to ease their cognitive constraints, by seeking wise solutions from among the people and encouraging independent thinking in government officials. But in a totalitarian country, such institutional methods do not and cannot exist.

Most power-holders in such countries are fond of dictatorship. Each of them puts forward his “ideas” and “theories” when it is his turn to rule the country, hoping to see his thought adopted as the “guideline” to unify the thinking of the whole nation. Acting in this way, they deprive themselves of the kind of wisdom and talent that are needed to solve the thorny problems facing the country. As a bunch of dumbbells, they can not help becoming an object of ridicule among the people.

Third, power brings flip-flops and hence suffering to the people. Since power has reduced the wisdom and intelligence of the power-holders and their think tanks, setbacks caused by repeated policy changes including the adoption of reactionary measures are bound to occur. Frequent ideological reversals and repeated changes in ideas and policy bring about great social instability. It becomes very difficult to attain a truly harmonious society and avoid more flip-flops in the future.

Fourth, power produces cruelty. Those who hold power can be overwhelmed by the glare of the spotlight that accompanies power. They may experience a peak period in which they feel accomplishment, happiness, or pleasure. But according to Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, this peak period does not last long. The powerful had problems coping with the end of this period. Once they reject oversight, checks and balances that come from outside, they immediately become completely irrational and inhuman. If someone wants to share power with them or seeks to replace them with new power-holders, they become mad and cruel, and have no scruples in resort to guns, cannons, and tanks, producing huge social disasters.

If you are a writer who writes for power, objectively you are working, directly or indirectly, for corruption and stupidity, for more suffering and cruelty for the people. You may have some excuses if you are forced to write for power. If you write for power out of your own will, how can you evade your responsibility as an accomplice?

As may be easily understood, what I am speaking about is power in a totalitarian state. It is power without oversight and constraints, as compared with power born from democratic elections. Refusing to write for power also means refusing to write according to the will of those in power, or to promote their ideology in one’s writings.

One may choose to write for any other purpose: to write for art, for life, for oneself or others. But he or she must not write for power.

6. You have taken to presenting your thoughts through the medium of blog posting, a nontraditional medium for an author. What inspired you to blog, and what audience do you hope to reach through blogging that is different from the audience you reach as a playwright?

Blog posting represents a trend. It is a brand-new type of expression and writing; the operation is simple and quick. It is easy to make corrections and to get a clean copy. Delivery is very speedy, and you can insert illustrations in the text. Blogs can also convey your voice and image through audio and video files.

More importantly, there is more space for the expression of ideas, and less stringent oversight and censorship. In the beginning, many writers who had used a pen, a Chinese writing brush, or a typewriter as writing tools were not accustomed to the use of computer, let alone blog posting. However, I think things have drastically changed in recent years.

I feel lucky because, more than ten years ago, I became aware of the advantages of a computer and started to replace my pen with it.

The audience of my blogs consists of different groups. But the majority of them are people who have an interest in me and my plays, or who are concerned with China’s destiny and its future. I am very grateful to them for the tremendous support, kindness and love they have given me.

The interview was translated from Chinese.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today