A legal scholar’s searing critiques of Xi Jinping’s government draw much of their power from China’s rich literary language and centuries-old tradition of eloquent, principled dissent against unjust rulers.

The evolution of modern China toward constitutional democracy—envisaged over a century ago by participants in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which brought an end to over two millennia of dynastic rule—has been a fitful process. Although the Republic of China on Taiwan has realized those revolutionary aspirations, the age-old despotism that the Xinhai revolutionaries feared might all too easily reassert itself has flourished in the People’s Republic on the Chinese mainland, first for the three decades of the Mao era (1949–78), then during the autocratic turn of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s, and again now during the Xi Jinping era that began with Xi’s elevation in late 2012 to become what I have dubbed “Chairman of Everything.”

As part of the effort to slough off the political and cultural habits of the past, China’s twentieth-century modernizers championed a modern, politically relevant, standard vernacular written and spoken language to replace the classical or literary written language that had been the narrow preserve of the educated ruling elite. Even though that elite was a fluid cadre of educated people of varied social status and from all parts of the old empire, the vernacular, now known as “Standard Chinese” or putonghua, gave large swathes of the population access to education and social engagement in unprecedented ways.

Although the literary language—a term that covers numerous literary forms and registers dating back to the first millennium BCE—was sidelined, that language, and the vast corpus of writing that used it, remained the wellspring of modern Chinese expression. Through translation, political change, and social transformation, the written language was constantly enriched to become a supple vehicle. To understand the linguistic multiverse in which people writing, or for that matter speaking and singing, in Chinese today can function, imagine if someone fluent in contemporary English could have easy access to everything written in Koine Greek, Latin (from before the Roman Republic, through the Vulgate, and up to present usage in the Vatican), Old, Middle, and Modern English, and the Romance languages.

Of course, Chinese writers and cultural creators are not equally fluent in all of the registers of such an overwhelming literary inheritance, but many can and do draw on aspects of the living tradition. The telegraphic and allusion-rich written language has found new popularity in the burgeoning of online culture over the past two decades. Expressions, quotations, or references to the various styles of poetry, prose works, historical novels, philosophical tracts, and dramas going back centuries, and in some cases millennia, are all accessible and can readily be employed by the most learned scholars as well as the most social media–obsessed Bright Young Things. We might call it the “total library of Chinese” (pace Jorge Luis Borges).

One of the contemporary masters of the full linguistic range of this language is Xu Zhangrun, a noted professor of law and writer in Beijing. In a powerful series of essays published from early 2016 to June 2020, Xu employs an elegantly terse style combining the classical and the modern with a fluency that evokes some of the beguiling traditions of Chinese literary expression, historical disputation, and philosophical thought. In Chinese, this is a form of writing encapsulated in the expression 文史哲 wén shǐ zhé, “the literary, the historical, and the philosophical.”

In Xu’s prose, classicisms and ancient metaphors are mixed with colloquial turns of phrase and references to contemporary online humor, along with lambasting sideswipes at the “wooden language” of Communist Party officialdom. The resulting work appeals to both the heart and the mind of the Chinese world. Merely to mine this kind of writing for transient and ill-conceived political purposes, or to fail to appreciate the broader cultural, social, and political ambience that it reflects—one far beyond the limited purviews of the Communists and their immediate critics—is to overlook an essential part of Chinese cultural, and indeed political, expression.

In his essays, Xu interrogates at length, and in cauterizing detail, the political, economic, and cultural trajectory of the People’s Republic of China under Xi Jinping, the leader of the nation’s party-state-army. In February this year, for example, Xu published “When Fury Overcomes Fear,” a fiery criticism of China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. He followed it in late May with “China, a Lone Ship of State on the Vast Ocean of Global Civilization,” in which he warned about the country’s bloated self-regard. Published online in Hong Kong, these essays were circulated widely in various formats that readers frequently use to confound the censorship algorithms of the authorities and their Great Firewall.

Both works appeared long after Xu Zhangrun had been put on notice by Tsinghua University, “China’s MIT.” In March 2019, he was banned from teaching, his pay was drastically cut, and he was forbidden from pursuing any new writing projects or research work. The school also launched a formal investigation into the professor, his social connections, and his overseas contacts.

Xu Zhangrun’s voice is one of the most vital in the Chinese world today.

As former students and international academics put together petitions to protest Tsinghua University’s behavior, Xu’s friends, colleagues, and supporters went online to publish essays, reflections, poems, and even a song in his support that reflected that same 文史哲 wén shǐ zhé “literary-historical-intellectual” tradition that features in his work. This outpouring of protest included a moving lamentation by Zi Zhongyun, a prominent retired authority on Sino–US relations in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, about the suborning of education in China by party politics. Zhang Weiying, a professor of law at Peking University, composed and sang a satirical folk song about protest. Zhang Qianfan, a specialist in constitutional law also at Peking University, criticized the illegality of Tsinghua’s behavior, while the noted sociologist Guo Yuhua demanded that Tsinghua explain its actions.

Geng Xiaonan, a film critic and publisher, knew exactly why Xu was being punished, and she summed up her understanding in the style of classical Chinese that her friend employed with such devastating effect. She said that his works were nothing less than “Blows directed at their Achilles’ heel; like a sword pointed at their Sacred Heart,” 直擊七寸, 劍指廟堂.

Loyal Opposition

On the morning of July 6, 2020, Xu was detained by police at his home in the western suburbs of Beijing. Friends speculated that the publication of his antigovernment philippics in book form a few weeks earlier, in direct contravention of repeated warnings from the authorities, had finally triggered his detention.

China’s Ongoing Crisis—Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog 《戊戌六章》, which was released in late June by Bouden House [博登書屋], a New York–based Chinese-language publishing house, was originally slated to appear in Hong Kong in May, but the publisher, City University of Hong Kong Press, was pressured by the local authorities to renege on the agreement. Xu’s previous book, Making a Case for Humanity over Banditry 《人間不是匪幫》, a selection of commentaries, essays, reviews, and memoirs written between September 2012 and February 2019, had been published by Oxford University Press in Hong Kong in June 2019.

Professor Xu invited me to write the introduction to China’s Ongoing Crisis, and I did my best to compose an essay in emulation of the nuanced literary Chinese that he employs with such effect. In fact, it was the elegance of his prose style, as well as the powerful message that it conveyed, that had first led me to translate Xu’s work. In July 2018, I turned my hand to “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” [我們當下的恐懼與期待], a lengthy jeremiad in which he analyzed the dangerous despotic turn that China had taken in recent years and offered a series of practical policy suggestions to address public concerns and save China from the international isolation into which it is in danger of being led by the revanchism of Xi Jinping.

In my efforts to introduce readers to the complex and vital tradition of 文史哲 wén shǐ zhé, and to the study of China that I call “New Sinology,” with Professor Xu’s permission I have continued to translate his essays over the past two years. In a number of cases, the parallel texts that I have produced for readers of my journal China Heritage feature lengthy annotations and exegeses compiled so that interested readers can delve into the layers of political, cultural, and historical references that make Xu Zhangrun’s voice one of the most vital in the Chinese world today.

During the early seventeenth century, scholars at the Donglin Academy, a center of learning at Guishan in Wuxi, east of modern-day Shanghai, openly expressed their opposition to the corrupt rule of the dynastic court in Beijing. They reserved particular ire for Wei Zhongxian, a notorious “eunuch dictator” who held sway during the Tianqi reign (1621–27). Deng Tuo, a prominent twentieth-century establishment writer, published a poem praising the scholars of the Donglin Academy, the site of which he had once visited, in 1960, at the height of Mao’s murderous Great Leap Forward. His verse invoked the tradition of loyal opposition:

Donglin’s teachings inherit those of Guishan

Forever concerned with human affairs.

Think not that men of letters are vacuous

The blood stains mark where their heads fall.

[東林講學繼龜山,

事事關心天地間。

莫謂書生空議論,

頭顱擲處血斑斑。]

Xu Zhangrun’s loyalty is to a tradition of principled opposition and to a modern, democratic China for which he, like so many others, has laid his life on the line.

On July 12, Xu was suddenly released from detention. The Communist Party committee that oversees the administration of Tsinghua University had taken the opportunity of his disappearance to strip him of his remaining salary, health benefits, and pension. It also formally expelled him from the university, where he had been a prominent academic leader for years. He mused that his detention had been a trial run, one disrupted by the furor that it had provoked both in China and internationally. He was, as the title of one of his books puts it, “abiding until daybreak,” 坐待天明.