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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Responsibility of Intellectuals

Hyperlink to source text in Chinese: 知识分子是有责任的    
Translated by @krizcpec

Ran Note: This is an informal interview that Za Zhiyang had with me while he was putting together in Western China a special feature on peach blossoms. It was to me a surprise that he would want me to talk in his special feature. And talk I would, happily of course. But like he said, these words, published with constraint, may sound somewhat incomplete – my apology for that. But it is my long held belief that we should speak in traditional media whenever we have the chance, so that our views can spread further. I would post the interview here in my blog so that more readers can read it.

As for the Ching Ming memorial, think I'd write about that two days later. Need to take a break and go to used books market to hunt for some books—haven't been there for quite some time now, I dearly miss it.

April 5, 2009, 6:53 in Chengdu

[The interview]

To me, peach blossoms in general have two layers of meaning in Chinese culture. First it is the beauty of them, which is why we Chinese would liken beautiful women to these flowers, and we would use them as metaphors when we talk about extramarital affairs and similar topics. Second, peach blossoms are a metaphor for utopia. In China, The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring is somewhat utopian in nature.

Apart from study and passing the imperial examination to become officials, there were not many channels for people to showcase their talent. As a result, many intellectuals in those days would criticize dictatorship, and bad government in a very tactful manner. People like Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu would make up stories of good societies of ancient times and effectively made oblique criticism of the governments of their time. They did not dare to criticize the government directly, which would cost them too much. And so they made up those so-called world of supreme virtue and society of great unity—the Peach Blossom Spring, or utopia. 

This interest in utopia set a trend of seclusion in ancient times. My understanding of that is, either it was done to stay away from the problems, or as a form of passive resistance. The Chinese people had the freedom to flee. But no one can escape from society altogether, not even those hermits. Wherever you hide, you have to pay tax, one form or another. Just like the saying in the West goes, "The only two things certain in life are death and taxes". There's no way to run from this.

In fact, there exists no society on earth that is so good that it becomes impeccable. We don't need to work for that either. The effort put in to create a flawless society would only be futile, and unnecessary. Utopia like that should only exist in the mind of the thinkers.

In society there are inevitably areas that are not perfect, what we need to do is to improve those when we spot them. If we spot something imperfect today, we work to improve it today. If we spot another area that needs improvement tomorrow, we work at that tomorrow and make things more reasonable, more human-friendly.

Of course, if as a personal choice, there is no problem if you want to lead a quiet life, a life that the hermits would lead. But if you run away from the public domain, say, when your rights are infringed upon. That's not a choice. That's playing ostrich. A mindset like this would harm the interests of all, including those waiting for a free ride [in rights protection].

There are too many people in this society who want to get a free ride, only a handful have the sense of responsibility and consider efforts necessary to bring forth a better society. The thinking of Chinese people is all about being practical and looking for an immediate pay-off: they want what they did today to pay off tomorrow. This is just like the Chinese’s attitude towards reading. They would do it willingly if they were to be paid five dollars for each character they learn; otherwise they would rather play Mahjong. Bertrand Russell spoke of the three passions that had governed his life: “the longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” The Chinese people do not think in this way, they are full of anxiety and yet they get very anxious, if they cannot see their target become reality, they would not work at it. 

Therefore at times when something big happen, the intellectuals become speechless. That could of course be attributed to many reasons. On a personal level, it is okay not to speak on certain matters. But if the people are collectively speechless, then intellectuals have the responsibility [to speak out]. And one must not speak irresponsibly. If Yu Qiuyu is only making money for himself, I would not criticize him. But he was there “advising in tears” that the earthquake survivors should avoid causing troubles or they would bring shame on China. Such remarks are not just an indication that Yu is ignorant. It is a sign of his shamelessness. And there is that Wang Zhaoshan, who said “[the quake victims] are happy even if they become ghosts”. This is to me a saying that has crossed the line. Remarks like these, if left unchecked, and let them confuse what's right and what's wrong, would cause tremendous harm to the entire community.

This is actually just a common sense. Yet many people consign them to oblivion and do something that is really stupid. Just like if you want to love a country, you should begin with loving your parents, your family and friends, the place you live, and yourself. You don't just love a country without these. Stupid behaviors like these harm not only the interests of those who commit them, but also the public interests of others, my own included. This is why I want to criticize them. I see that I should do my part, take actions [to stop them].

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