Li Chengpeng’s talk at Peking University: “Speak”
Monday, November 19, 2012 at 11:11AM
Liz Carter

Original here


I’ve been invited to speak here at Peking University tonight, and standing here where such revered figures as Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, Bo Sinian, Xu Zhimo and Yu Pingbo have stood before, I cannot avoid speaking of “free-thinking principles and an all-embracing approach” [as advocated by former PKU president Cai Yuanpei]. But this topic is too broad, so I can only speak on a smaller topic. In my opinion, “an all-embracing approach” is just having many opinions, while “free-thinking principles” is most directly understood as freedom of speech. So today, I will talk about “speaking.”


China is currently in the process of losing its ability to speak.


Even animals are practically able to speak. When it stops raining, birds begin to chirp. When flowers blossom, bees buzz everywhere. When spring comes, male wolves smell female wolves and begin to bark excitedly. People, as high-level animals, have mastered the most basic form of speech: “I’m hungry.” Infants cry when they are hungry – that’s the language of infants. Even infants can express when they are hungry, but about 50 years ago, or around 1960 to 1962 for about 3 years, a full 600 million people on this planet somehow could not say they were hungry. You feel hungry instinctively, but you can’t say you are hungry…because that would be disgraceful for a socialist country. With high production, and the ever-correct red sun, we must tighten our belts and give our crops to our brothers; we can’t say that we are hungry. During the Great Famine, the whole nation lost its language. Not only did they lie to their family and friends in political struggles, but they also lied to their own stomachs.


At the time, to show how great production was, newspapers ran pictures of crops growing so closely together than several fat children could sit on top of them. Later it was discovered that those pictures were made by bringing several acres of crops together and planting them close together. Because the wind couldn’t blow through, those crops quickly died. Yet in the official discourse system, there was no “truth,” so everyone pretended to believe that the news of great yields were true, and that their hunger was fake. But that famous library manager of yours [Mao Zedong worked in the PKU library] was from the countryside, how could he not understand? Peng Dehuai was also from the countryside, and he once said the truth – that it wasn’t possible that an acre could produce so much…everyone knows what happened to him later [disgraced and died from persecution after questioning Mao’s policies].

It’s not only hunger that we can’t speak of. We can’t even say, “I love you,” openly. Everyone’s read “Guan guan, go the ospreys, On the islet in the river” [the first line of the Book of Poetry]. Even birds can sing their love. But at that time, people could not say things like that, because it was bourgeois. When I was young in Xinjiang, I always loved watching “sluts” get caught…at that time, they loved to go after sluts. Back then, anyone could be a slut, not just adulterers, but also anyone who had a partner in the outdoors. I thought that of all the supposedly bad people, and there were many types, at least the sluts were a little prettier, and usually more refined. At that time, Hami city had an outdoor movie theater called “Little Brook Cinema.” As cool waters ran down on the mountain, the sluts would be forced to walk on either side of the brook and talk about how they became sluts, how they kissed…although I can’t get into the rest of it, even this little bit was very interesting to me. Everything they said was like a movie, it was things I couldn’t read in my textbooks, it was the truth, it was human.


There was a man surnamed An who was always getting caught. Not only did he like to be a slut in the wilderness, but he liked to play the saxophone beforehand. That was just his style, he liked to do that, but it wasn’t allowed. I saw him once after he was caught, and they made him play something on the sax. He was smiling a little, and played a very nice tune. After that, I thought playing the sax must be the same thing as being a slut, and that being a slut must be something that was very beautiful. Yet however beautiful it was, it was still being a slut, which wasn’t allowed in those times, and even saying “I love you,” was practically considered immoral.


When the movie “Love is the Last Word” came out, and the male and female leads shouted, “I love you, I love you!” at the mountains, the entire nation was shocked in theaters. It was a successful film, and it went into the history books just by having characters publically say, “I love you.”


You can’t say “I’m hungry,” and you can’t say “I love you,” and you definitely can’t speak the truth. Take, for example, Peking University graduate Lin Zhao. This beautiful girl not only discovered that the truth was different from what the papers were reporting, and spoke the truth herself, but she also helped her classmates report their grievances, and then she was arrested. She was released, spoke the truth, and was arrested again, spoke the truth, was arrested, and after many times, she became mentally ill and died.


In that era, the entire nation lost the ability to speak. You couldn’t say what you knew instinctively: you were hungry. You couldn’t say what you felt: I love you. You couldn’t criticize the leaders’ speeches – massacring your comrades wasn’t right. You couldn’t speak of science – you had to say that an acre could produce 20,000 jin. You couldn’t even describe nature. For example, saying the sun was poisonous would reflect badly on leaders. Speaking, as an animal instinct, a way of thinking, a right…it was taken away. We were even worse off than Sima Nan, at least after he was castrated, he was able to continue to complete his histories. We’ve only produced literary trash.


This country has some problems in the area of, “Speaking freely.” This extends to all areas, as Li Shutong in his song “Goodbye,” demonstrated: “Outside, along the ancient road, grass and sky combine…later, our goodbye is only a farewell between partners in war, a step along the journey. Shedding a few wordless tears, our revolutionary paths part ways forever.” That’s even considered literary compared to later verses: “The bonds between fathers and daughters cannot rival our gratitude towards the Party.” By this point, even ethics is left by the wayside.


What has made us betray our human instincts…


Having lost the ability to speak the truth, we will tell many lies. What’s even more frightening is that in addition to lies we have invented a new kind of speech: ghost-talk. Lies are just meant to deceive others: our village produces 20,000 jin per acre. But ghost-talk is meant to hurt, to consume: all our country’s villages must produce 20,000 jin per acre. Anyone who doesn’t comply will be killed, no matter what their rank. When speaking the truth will cost you your life, no one is willing to speak the truth. When telling a lie was rewarded with promotions and wealth, this country became the Kingdom of Lies. This process continues uninterrupted to this very day, and it hasn’t yet reached completion. For example, our railways are the fastest in the world, then accidents happen, or “the Chinese people’s restoration is 62% complete,” and then we discover more than 62% of officials are corrupt….to give you another example, if you want to speak a little truth, there will be a group of people who come out of the woodwork and say, “What makes you qualified to say that so many people died during the Great Famine? Did someone in your family die? Did you see Lin Shao tortured with your own eyes? Were you there at that very moment? If you weren’t there, stop spreading rumors.” They seem to not believe that there is a such thing as records in this world, or documentaries, or people who have testified to these events. According to their logic, Jews could not have died in gas chambers at the hands of Nazis, because you didn’t see it with your own eyes. They can’t even prove they are their parents’ children, because they didn’t see it with their own eyes.


Besides lies, and “ghost talk,” a lot of ridiculous terms have also come into being: “temporary rape,” “vacation-style treatment,” “protective eviction,” “contractual cheating,” “policy-related control,” “ritual gifts,” “Policy-related price increases,” “fishing-style law enforcement,” “decisive election.” In the end, everyone just says, “customary bullshitting.”


This country has already lost lively language: News broadcast, the Global Times…raise highly, go deeply, continue to intensify, maintain, climax, even higher climax…this kind of language is inferior, and to be honest I’m surprised that the campaign against pornography hasn’t yet resulted in its elimination.


It’s undeniable that this country has made great progress. Yet we still have not regained our ability to speak. Censorship of published materials is still harsh. Zhang Yihe wrote a book about Li Yuan that is still banned today. If you’re afraid of the lives of actors and actresses, you’re worse than Empress Dowager Cixi. Every time I see relevant organs announcing that, “Our country has the most books and newspaper distribution in the world,” I think, well, our country also produces the most Kleenex in the world. In this porcelain country, we produce the greatest number of sensitive words: democracy, freedom, and reform, or Nanhu, ship, Tiananmen, “the masses,” and “gather.”  Even “the Chinese Communist Party” was sensitive for a while; it had to be changed to “Our Party,” before you could press send. Can we only sing, “I love Beijing Tiananmen, The sun rises above Tiananmen! Greatest Leader Chairman Mao, Leading all of us forward!”? Chinese are a smart people, so they invented the river crab, sausage, Sparta, the pearl…many years from now, archaeologists will not be able to understand. They’ll think that this is a new era in characters with so many fake names. We also have so many jokes and snide remarks and text messages, but no good words, or deep literature. I also often use these remarks or jokes, but from a certain point of view, it seems that it isn’t the development of new words, but the withering of speech.


I have long wondered why the Shenlong master used so much evil magic to keep the people from being able to speak in Jin Yong’s novels. For one thing, they thought Hong Antong could lead them to a beautiful new world: everyone was brainwashed. For another, more importantly, the master Hong An had a tool to control the masses – a magic pill. This pill was no regular capsule; when you swallowed it you would obey all orders, and feel immense pain if you did not. Recently I’ve read some works by Anthony Lewis, Hu Ping, and Jefferson on freedom of speech: you cannot determine whether a country has freedom of speech by whether those with power are willing to listen and accept criticism and advice, but by whether or not they have the power to punish those with dissenting views. Freedom of speech is the first precondition for democracy, and it’s also democracy’s last line of defense.

Shifang, Qidong, and Ningbo…these were not political incidents, they were just people expressing themselves, but in the end they spiraled out of control. Some people even said these incidents were the work of officials. I think that the heart of the matter is that the power structure has a design flaw. When it was first designed, there was a big bug, and to fix the bug, it used anti-virus software, but the software itself had a bug, so they used a new bug, and another bug appeared, so they used an even newer bug…it always thought that the people didn’t have the right to speak, and it had the right to punish their speech. It was arrogant, sensitive, and autistic: an autistic giant.


Mr. Hou Baolin once said, speaking is an art. In my opinion, it is also a right.


I have suddenly remembered that today is still within the period in which I am forbidden to speak. As someone who is accustomed to being periodically forbidden to speak for long periods of time, to talk loudly of freedom of speech, I feel like a confirmed bachelor who wants to appear on the show, “If You Are the One.” Many people here are speech bachelors, people Lu Xun describes as “at first, unwilling, and at last unable.” Little by little, we have lost even this ability.


The United States also has a history of not being able to speak freely. For example, criticizing the president was illegal. In the movie “The Sedition Act,” they arrested everyone who spoke ill of the president and congress. In 1917, the U.S. fought in World War I, and the hawks had the majority, so those who spoke out against the war were not tolerated. Those with German heritage changed their names and even German cabbage was renamed “freedom cabbage” (just as we have replaced the Subaru emblem on Japanese cars with our national emblem). Several hundred people were arrested for their anti-war speech. Even a 50-year-old pacifist lady was sued for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag and support for the war.


However, the U.S. government later discovered that restricting freedom of speech in this manner was bad for the government, and the country as a whole. This is because it dampened the country’s innovation and creativity, and restricted the ability of citizens to supervise the government. Without innovation and supervision, failure was certain. They’d been continually improving for 200 years. Jefferson once wrote emotionally that, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter.”


In truth, ancient China had freedom of speech. For example, in the Tang Dynasty, mocking the emperor was accepted to a certain degree. If you read Bai Juyi’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” he wrote: “A Han Dynasty emperor was concerned with lust more than his own duties, yet for many years he could not find a woman to satisfy him.” (Isn’t this just mocking the emperor, can’t you see he’s just on the 5-1 Project Plan?) “They bathed together in the hot springs, the water on her pale skin, and her maids helped her out of the pool, too weak to rise: from then on, she was graced by the emperor’s advances.” (This is written quite boldly, as if it were heaven on earth.) “The spring nights came after short days, and the emperor did not hold morning court.” (By this point, he is almost openly criticizing the highest government official for neglecting his duties for pleasure). “All of her family were given lands, and their status was elevated, making others jealous.” (That’s just sleeping your way to the top).


Bai Juyi wrote this, operating within the system, and nothing happened to him. This poem even became a really famous song at that time. If the members of the Writer’s Alliance of China mocked the motherland, they’d be really asking for it. Bai Juyi was even eulogized by Tang Zongxuan when he died: that’s simply incredible. Freedom of speech was actually pretty good during the Tang and Song dynasties, and they were the golden era of Chinese culture. By the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the imprisonment of words began, and China was also abandoned and attacked by the world.


I am not a person with political ambitions, I only have ambitions to gain my own rights, my rights to write and speak. But the people of this country have lost their ability to speak, and replaced their speaking and writing with lies and ghost talk. It’s like I said at the Hong Kong book fair: we know that they are lying, and they also know that we know they are lying, and we also know that actually, they know that we know they are lying, and they also know that we are only pretending that they haven’t lied…but that’s the way things are these days. Everyone depends on lies, and knows that they are lying to get by. As Solzhenitsyn said, “lies have become a pillar of the state.”


We can’t speak the truth, or use vibrant language, and we can’t say romantic things, and we can’t make predictions. We’re like the world’s largest army of mutes marching forward. The most terrifying thing about this country isn’t poverty, or hunger, or not winning a Nobel prize, or not realizing a high enough GDP, or not producing enough Party reports, it’s that the people have lost their ability and right to speak. In my opinion, whether or not the people are able to speak freely is the most important standard for determining whether they can be considered a civilization. The only way this country will survive is if you let the people speak.


For a people that has produced the world’s most beautiful language, and has the most vibrant texts, and has maintained official censors for the longest period of time, “speaking” has now become a great problem. Everyone is bored to death, living in this sterile plastic land of official discourse, repeating lies, deceptions, and ridiculous claims that everyone knows to be false. English has Shakespeare, Spanish has Cervantes, France has Balzac and Dumas, and this country, which once produced Li Po, Zhou Bangyan, Xu Zhimo, Shen Congwen, and Li Xie shouldn’t rely on Zhao Benshan and Guo Degang to create its discourse.


I hope that this people has only temporarily lost its ability to speak. Discourse has always been the stage that’s easiest to occupy, but it is also the first fortress to fall.


Finally, though I am constantly critical of this country, I have always been full of hope for its people. 

Article originally appeared on A Big Enough Forest (
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