In April 1989, Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and comparative literature professor, was a visiting scholar in New York City when he heard of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. He hurried back to Beijing and spent weeks among them—eventually saving many lives with his negotiations with the military as the June 4 deadly crackdown approached. Two days after the massacre, he was detained and jailed for the first time. When he was freed in 1991, he resumed his public demands for greater freedoms in China over the next two decades.
In 2009, he was convicted of subversion against the state for writing seven sentences as a co-author of a 2008 document that called on the Chinese state to fundamentally change its character, and given an 11-year sentence. Last June, China suddenly announced he had late-stage liver cancer. Countries sought to persuade China to let him leave for treatment abroad, but Liu died on July 13, 2017—a year ago today—in a hospital in northeastern China, after spending his last days with his wife, Liu Xia. The government announced his death in a brief statement that evening, making no mention of the Nobel peace prize he was awarded for his decades of nonviolent resistance to China’s authoritarian state.
It seems fitting to remember a man whose bravest stand was made with words by reading them. Here, in memory of Liu, is a short list of works written by him and about him:
Charter 08: Signed by more than 2,000 Chinese citizens, this is the document for which Liu was imprisoned in 2009. It’s unavailable on China’s internet and most people in China will never read it. It called for democratic elections and respect for human rights, declaring, “The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.”
“I have no enemies”: Two days before the verdict in his 2009 trial for subversion against the state, issued on Christmas day, Liu wrote this statement addressed in part to the authorities and those who had guarded him. Later, when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in absentia, Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann read it out at the ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2010. Here’s a bit of it:
Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.
June Fourth Elegies: Every year Liu wrote a poem to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This collection of them was published in English and Chinese in 2012, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama, who is reviled by China.
Steel Gate to Freedom: Yu Jie, a close friend and fellow dissident, wrote an authorized biography of Liu in 2012 (link in Chinese) that was published in English in 2015. It’s a fascinating look at Liu’s journey to becoming one of the world’s most revered dissidents, including his personal experience with the Cultural Revolution, his iconoclastic writing that stirred feathers when he was a rising academic, and his enduring relationship with wife, who once said, “I want to marry that enemy of the state!” You can read a fair bit of it online. Yu, also a co-author of Charter 08 who was detained and monitored in China, now lives with his family in the United States.
“The Songs of Birds”: This essay by writer Ian Johnson is a delicate ode to the extraordinary endurance and sensitivity of Liu Xia, a poet whose life and work was shaped dramatically by the person she happened to fall in love with—and whom she never fell out of love with despite years of separation. This week, China let her travel abroad after years of house arrest, and she is now in Germany.
I’m sad for my friend Liu Xiaobo, and for a China that can’t cherish its finest: Ilaria Maria Sala, writer for Quartz and other publications, reflected on her personal acquaintance of Liu, and her sorrow for a country that devours those it should admire the most.
Do you have a Liu Xiaobo reading recommendation for Quartz readers? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.