A day in the life of Xu Zhangrun

Domestic News

Legal scholar Xu Zhangrun, formerly of the prestigious Tsinghua University, has been a pariah in Beijing since he wrote a takedown of Xi Jinping four years ago. In this work of creative nonfiction introduced and translated by Geremie R. Barmé, Xu takes us into his new life as a social outcast.

Illustration by Alex Santefé

Xǔ Zhāngrùn 许章润 came to international attention in July 2018 when he published Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes, a detailed critique of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and the first five years of his rule over China’s party-state.

Xu’s jeremiad was written in literary Chinese, a vehicle perfectly suited for what was a scarifying, and often humorous, dissection of Communist Party policy free of the “word jail” of Party jargon. In that critique and subsequently, Xu declared that the fundamental nature of the Communist Party:

…has remained unchanged and, whenever it has weathered a crisis, the Party merely redoubles its efforts. Whatever it may achieve is always hamstrung by the energy it puts into denying all other political possibilities and by its dogged refusal to evolve. The obdurate pursuit of power and the insatiable appetite for self-approval have created a system that, at its heart, is paranoid and brittle.

As an educator for decades, Xu trained cohorts of legal scholars and practitioners who from the 1990s were part of a broad quasi-official and civilian network of social change. (For details, see A Letter to My Editors and China’s Censors and A Farewell to My Students.)

For his troubles, and his obdurate refusal to back down — he continued to lampoon the Party and excoriate Xi Jinping personally over the following years, an effort that included an unforgiving analysis of China’s COVID-19 response, released online in February 2020, and a lambasting of Xi, “an autocratic roué,” published by the New York Review of Books in August 2021 — Xu Zhangrun was fired from his job as professor of jurisprudence at Tsinghua University in Beijing, stripped of his pension and his academic and pedagogical accreditation, and denied the right to travel, undertake research, or publish. He was even cut off from offers of financial assistance from friends in and outside China. For all intents and purposes, since July 2018, Xu Zhangrun has been a “former person,” a remnant of the pre-Xi Jinping era, and a reminder of the more enlightened hopes of the People’s Republic of China.

Becalmed in Beijing and under constant surveillance, Xu Zhangrun is a rare outspoken witness to the Xi Jinping decade. The following account offers readers an insight into the contours of “social death” in China today. It follows on from an earlier work published under the title Composed of Eros & of Dust — Xu Zhangrun Goes Shopping.

This translation marks four years since Xu issued his original jeremiad and it was done in anticipation of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at which it is presumed that Xi Jinping — “The People’s Leader” — will continue his suffocating tenure.

Reports of my social death are no exaggeration”

Xu Zhangrun

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

Dawn of a New Day

The rain-drenched summer means that after years of cruel drought the North China Plain finally has something to celebrate. That’s why, shortly after breakfast this morning, I was surprised to see that for a change the sky which has long been darkened by storm clouds was clear. For some reason it brought to mind that hard-won breathing space between the two world wars; I knew that this patch of clement weather might be similarly short lived. 

The puddles on the ground sparkled in the dappled light created by the shadows of the trees and they seemed to be dancing in time with the joyous song of the birds that were flitting around the branches above. Everything was stirring back to life as though momentarily freed from a long period of torpor. Like a clarion call, this set my thoughts racing. Faintly at first — the mere gossamer of a hint — it gradually swelled into a crescendo, enticing me to go out for a walk.

Long forbidden by the authorities from leaving Beijing, and with no real reason to go anywhere even close at hand, I initially confined my rekindled sense of ambition to the grounds within our walled and gated residential compound. Even here [to quote the I Ching] I could “take in the broad heavens and appreciate the vast earth”, and ruminate thereby both on worldly affairs and the caprice of history. Once again, my mind could wander unfettered; it may take flight even though I cannot.  

Taking the Morning Air

When I stepped out I made a point of saluting each and every one of the nine surveillance cameras and microphones that were strategically located around the entrance, windows and access points of my humble dwelling. I gestured at them as though I was greeting a long-lost friend or encountering an old acquaintance visiting from some far-flung land. As I walked towards the entrance of the compound — a journey of a mere 7 or 8 minutes — I encountered quite a few of my neighbors who, like me, were taking advantage of the clear weather. Some were walking their dogs as a family, others were just out to enjoy a solitary stroll. Everyone studiously ignored each other as they passed by in silence; they were so focussed on enjoying the break in the weather, I guess; they had no time for anyone or anything else.

The community garden maintenance brigade was also out in force and they were busy clearing water channels, mowing lawns and pruning bushes and trees. The team is made up of farmers in their 50s and 60s hired from the nearby villages. It was the kind of casual and light work that they could easily do during the down times on the farm. Over the years I’ve seen quite a few of their number grow old and pass away. 

Usually I’d stop to have a chat, in part because it gave me a rare opportunity to speak to someone — I am reduced to such a solitary and isolated existence now that I’m keenly aware that I need to get as much practice at speaking as I can before I lose the power of speech all together. A particular concern is that these long periods of enforced silence will serve to hasten my cognitive decline and lead to early senility, even dementia. I don’t want to lose any basic communication skills. After all, when I’m stricken and in pain I want at least to be able to call out for help. 

One member of the garden brigade was a fellow everyone called “Old Zhang.” His leathery skin had been burnished dark by years in the sun. Lifting the rim of his hat he called out to me in a gravelly voice: 

Hey there you, how come you spend all your time sitting on your ass doing fuck all? What’s that about? 

I couldn’t really tell if he was asking me a question or making a statement; it certainly wasn’t an order nor did it seem to be an invitation to reply. Old Zhang and the others all knew that the “Mr Xu” of yore had been demoted; nowadays they all simply addressed me as “Old Xu.” They were generally pretty chummy. A slightly younger member of the group — a slightly stooped bald guy in his early 50s known to be a bit of a joker — chimed in from the sidelines:

Since you’ve got nothing better to do, we might as well put you on as an apprentice gardener. You can learn on the job; no one is ever too old to learn a few new tricks. What’s more, you can make a tidy little sum every month, enough to pay for food at least. 

Just as I was giving a shrug, my hands lifted up haplessly and my eyebrows raised, a fellow on the other side of the group known as “Old Li” yanked the cigarette out of the corner of his mouth and with smoke billowing around his head declaimed in a raspy voice: 

Forget it. No way! We are poor-and-lower middle peasants, salt of the earth types who long suffered under the oppressors in the old society. That makes us rusted-on members of the proletariat, too. Our whole brigade has been politically screened and they’ve confirmed our class bona fides. But this fella here is in the “Five Black Categories”’ [of the Maoist era, who were: landlords, wealthy farmers, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists] and truth be told people like him still deserve to be “struggled against, denounced and reformed.” We’ve gotta remind him of his proper place and that he has to be careful to behave himself. We can’t afford to let people like him get up to any of their old tricks. He’d never pass muster!

This screed immediately reminded me of the pitiless class struggles and brutal cacophony of mass political movements of the past. Both from what he said and the way he said it, I knew that this Old Li had to be well into his 60s, otherwise he’d never have been able to regurgitate all that “revolutionary” garbage so fluently. In the normal course of events it was the kind of specialized verbal bric-à-brac best left to the fossicking of intellectual historians.

Before I’d had a chance to say my bit, a shrill voice sounded up behind me. It was like the castrated bleat of someone who’d lost their balls in Zhongguancun [the university district that was once home to many retired imperial eunuchs]: 

“The way I see it,” the voice wheedled, “you’re perfectly suited to this kind of work.” 

Upon turning I saw that the voice issued from a fellow who looked like some kind of team leader: he was paunchy, had closely cropped gray hair and had an overall hang-dog look. A large key chain was jangling on his belt as he sauntered over. He was around my age — in his late 50s — and his expressionless face served like a disguise, not that he made any effort to conceal the ungainly tufts of salt-and-pepper nose hairs that jostled out of the twin grottoes of his nostrils…He came marching over huffing and puffing. On the surface, he seemed well enough disposed and, then, I realized that his voice reminded me of that of a former acquaintance. Still, I couldn’t quite place him; in fact, I didn’t place him at all, nor could I recall his name. 

Throughout my academic career I’d pretty much limited my social interactions to the campus of Tsinghua University. My social life was quite limited. It suddenly dawned on me that this fellow had also been at Tsinghua and I even vaguely recalled that he’d actually been an administrative heavyweight in something like engineering. And here he was, a neighbor in this far-flung spot.

I also remembered that we had occasionally bumped into each other at Tsinghua and had even exchanged the odd word. Our conversations were always limited to such inconsequential things as university policy — the latest news about bonuses, for instance; issues related to performance pay; all the folderal involved in acquitting project expenditures…that sort of thing. He had this tag line, a statement of sorts that he’d invariably blurt out regardless of the context, something forgotten as soon as it was said. 

“I’m a remnant from the past,” he’d always say. “It’s crazy that they kept me on at the university after I graduated; after all, I’ve never had a particular talent for any of it.” After he learned that I had also been kept on at the university after graduating, he dropped this particular defense. More recently — that is, over the past year or so — we had pretended not to know each other even on the rare occasions when our paths had crossed, so much so, in fact, that I’d entirely forgotten who he was.

I guess that makes me “one of those superior types who are given to forgetting the small stuff,” as the old adage puts it. 

As all of this ran through my mind, I suddenly realized that I’d better make an effort to reply. Now, what I meant to say to him was: “I haven’t seen you for ages,” but I surprised myself by actually blurting out: “Truth be told, it should fucking well be your lot, buddy!” The paunchy middle-aged team leader with the jangling keychain had already walked on and catching my comment he increased both his pace and his panting. Still, he managed to turn his head and let loose a parting shot:

Whatever! At least, unlike you, I’m not guilty of flouting the law of the land and violating workplace discipline! 

An Afternoon Adventure

For some reason, I woke from my midday nap in a particularly foul mood and I thought a visit to one of my favorite bookstores in town might lift my spirits. All Sages, the bookstore I had in mind, is located between Tsinghua and Peking universities. Both campuses were now forbidden zones to me and, since I didn’t have any academic affiliation or valid work ID, I was also barred from all of the libraries in the capital. Bookstores, fortunately, were another matter. As commercial enterprises rather than government entities, they still granted me entry. 

On that day, I thought to myself that in a bookstore I could roam around the laden bookshelves, my eyes free to hungrily range over all kinds of books and journals. Why, I might even pick something up. Then for a precious moment I would be able to lose myself in some grand mind palace and even make new friends on the page. Despite everything that had happened to me, reading and research remained my true métier, albeit in my unemployed state both were now more of a leisure-time activity than anything else. 

Over the years, when I still worked at the university, I’d been in the habit of visiting a bookstore after dinner most nights and I’d happily while away a few hours, lost in the company of books. More often than not I’d return home carrying some new bounty. Rather than drive, I’d take a leisurely walk through the campus to All Sages so that the expedition would double as a daily constitutional. Before I knew it, another evening would have passed in happy distraction. 

Since I’ve been becalmed in the western suburbs of Beijing, however, I have to drive if I want to go anywhere. Although the physical pleasure of my habitual book-shopping has been reduced considerably, I still find solace in the thought that driving to a destination makes the whole exercise somehow feel more like a professional undertaking. Anyway, that’s how I grudgingly justify it to myself.

Since my outings into the city were such a rare occurrence, I tried to make an occasion of it. Our floating lives do, after all, consist of just such stuff — getting dressed and putting on a face to deal with the outside world, mechanically setting off to work and returning home, interacting with people of all kinds and exhausting oneself in a myriad of other ways, all part of our quotidian rituals. [As the Song-dynasty poet Péng Yuánxùn 彭元逊 put it:] “Our woes increase year on year akin to the swelling spring waters while our days ebb away like the dying of the east wind.” Ceremony is all about making something particular out of nothing very much, even when it is all comically ephemeral — here I am being all sardonic yet again. I simply can’t help it.

But let’s get back to that book-shopping expedition. I’d arrived at the bookstore and, just as I was making a left-hand turn to go up the stairs into the store proper, I noticed the fellow who was making his way down the stairs, heading in my direction. Our face masks concealed our identities to an extent — I’d gotten into the habit of further disguising myself by wearing a cap that I pulled down to hide my features — but, despite the relative anonymity, I immediately recognized him as a former colleague. Although quite a bit younger than me, he had graduated from the same college and we had even taught at neighboring universities for a time. Although we were never in particularly close contact, we were more than mere acquaintances. 

Given my recent troubles, added to the widely-known dramatic deterioration in my personal circumstances [that is: being expelled by Tsinghua University, treated like a pariah, and living under constant police surveillance], I was always careful not to initiate contact with other people or even to offer an unsolicited greeting to anyone from my former life. It’s a lesson that I learned the hard way: Following my fall into ignominy, whenever I made a friendly gesture to an old acquaintance, or greeted someone with an extended hand, I would be unceremoniously fobbed off or, at best, granted an unenthusiastic or grudging response. Now, whenever I was out in public I wore a studiously blank expression. This gave anyone I encountered license to pretend that they didn’t know me; they could pass by as though I simply didn’t exist. Such a tactic lifted the burden of recognition from both parties although, I would note, there were times when I caught a muffled whisper behind my back: “Was that really him?” “Don’t worry, it’s nobody,” came the inevitable reply. Of course, I would continue on my way pretending to be oblivious to what had been said. 

[At one point in Bhagavad Gītā Arjuna says:] “I am both the field and the knower of the field [kṣhetram kṣhetrajñam eva ca].” This ancient Sanskrit song about self-recognition resonates with me deeply; I know you know that I know. After all, as living beings we have the same origin, ultimately, we will also share “in the death that devours all.” 

In the beginning was the Word; silence reigned before and after creation, be it in heaven or on earth. Even in that universal darkness, however, there was a silent howl.

But, there I go, letting myself get carried away yet again. 

When I encountered that fellow heading down the staircase that day at the bookstore you could say that, although we were hardly “enemies who were destined to meet,” we were nonetheless navigating such a narrow path that it did seem as though there was a certain inevitability about things [that is to say, sooner or later most Beijing academics would bump into each other at All Sages Books]. The staircase was just wide enough for two people and it was generally like a busy thoroughfare; at that moment, however, there was just the two of us. Since I had my head down — as per my new habit — I was surprised when he took off his face mask and said: “Teacher Xu, don’t you remember me? I’m so-and-so.” I was so touched that I hurriedly pulled off my own mask so I could offer a respectful response: “Why, hello there, Professor so-and-so”. As we hadn’t seen each other for a few years I half expected that we might actually end up shaking hands or even stop to have a chat so I was completely taken aback when he hurriedly adjusted his mask. As he rushed down the remaining stairs, he threw back an offhand: “I really must invite you out for a meal some time.”

I froze where I stood. I actually had some difficulty processing what had just happened. Meanwhile, he continued on his merry way, stomping down to the bottom of the stairs without missing a beat and turning to exit the building. In his haste he jumbled the long strands of the door curtain striating the gloom of the vestibule with flashes of sunlight. I quite literally rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Upon regaining my composure, I continued my ascent into the bookstore proper, oddly enough with a slightly more determined gait. 

Heavens, but there was quite a crowd up there! Most of them had the nonchalant and self-assured air of students. The roomy bookstore café was also packed with young people gazing at computer screens and tapping away furiously. All in all, it was an uplifting sight and I felt somewhat reassured by the studious atmosphere. It also made me regret the fact that I hadn’t been here for a few months. I shared precious little with the gardeners in my compound and the local farmers. Here, however, I felt a sense of belonging. But this train of thought left me feeling abashed. I took stock of the tangle of painful feelings that assaulted me at that moment and quickly quashed them. It all served me right.

But I’m being self-indulgent again. 

When you enter the bookstore you are faced with a long, low table that is some ten meters in length and about a meter in width. On it they display a curated selection of recent releases from publishers throughout China. Readers ranged along either side of the display were picking over books that had been selected to appeal to just about every intellectual fashion. I saw a few young people and a middle-aged reader standing on the other side of the display just over from me. I recognized the older man as yet another former Tsinghua colleague, one with whom I’d previously had quite a few dealings. Although I was only a few years older than him, previously he had treated me with the kind of extravagant respect usually reserved for an elder. At the time it had both surprised and, if truth be told, touched me. 

But all of that was before I had been “re-educated” in the great school of life over the past twelve months. Anyway, given my recent encounter on the staircase, I was wary of yet another off-hand reception. So I decided to play it cool and pretended to be unaware of our previous connection. However, the youngsters who were there with my old colleague were already stealing glances in my direction. After holding out for as long as they could, one said to the fellow, who was obviously their teacher: “That’s him, isn’t it?” “Yes it is,” he replied. “Now don’t say anything.” His little flock now moved around with what seemed like disdainful care and, for some reason, I ended up feeling as though somehow I was in the wrong. I simply shriveled up inside. After hearing that curt exchange, I kept my head doggedly bowed and focussed on the book in my hands. When I finally looked up, they were gone. 

The Remains of the Day

By then it was getting toward dusk and, given that the drive home was over 30 kilometers [18.6 miles], I decided to pay for my books and head out. Before setting off on my return trip, I also picked up a few things at a nearby supermarket — the round trip into town was a pricey exercise, so I did my best to pack in as much as I could. 

By the time I got home it was dark. After putting my books and the groceries inside, I felt a vague and unsettled emptiness. That, added to the fact that I still really wanted to take advantage of the clear weather, I went out again to stretch my legs. Who knew when the rain would return? 

I immediately happened upon a few dozen workers who’d been doing house renovations. They had just finished for the day and I was swept up along with them. Not having shaved for a few days I’m sure I appeared quite unkempt, but I meandered along with them, lost in the darkling crowd. Transported beyond the everyday and lost in my musings, I was aware more than ever of the unpredictable vicissitudes of life. My desolate mood was underpinned by a certain majestic sense of moment.

As we approached the entrance to the compound I noticed that some buildings there were also being renovated. A large moving truck was parked outside one entrance having obviously just been unloaded. About a dozen students were standing around nearby — after a lifetime spent at a lecture podium I could tell that they were university students with a single look. Anyway, their backpacks and the little soft animal toys hanging off them were an immediate giveaway.

I stood there, transfixed by those young people who were happily chattering away and fooling around. Observing a world that was now lost to me, my eyes welled with tears. The troupe of workers I’d been walking with continued on their way while I stayed back to appreciate the happy banter and shenanigans of those young ones. They were in small groups noisily chattering away. I could pick out a few snatches of their excited conversations: “…final thesis defense is nothing to worry about,” declared one; “you know that teacher in the Marxism Department who is always ogling female students?…,” chimed in another. Then, unrelated: “but his specialty is admin law, so I have no idea why he’s on my civil law panel…” “The topic I originally chose was about infringements of the constitution, but my supervisor rejected it — ‘Don’t you have any idea about what’s going on?’, he said to me. ‘At a time like this, you’re crazy even to think about a topic like that. Anyway, if you’re determined to go ahead with it, you can count me out.’” And then this tidbit: “Are you kidding: you actually want me to say that the Party’s rules are not equivalent to codified law? All I can say is that there are some things that override the laws of the state; it’s just that simple.” 

It was easy to tell that they were law students, young men and women pursuing the same field to which I had devoted myself until I was cast out by Tsinghua. Now I was just some random unemployed old guy loitering and eavesdropping on them.

The lights went on suddenly although one doorway nearby remained cloaked in darkness. A middle-aged fellow appeared: he was rake thin, had rimless glasses and was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and long pants. With a mere glance in my direction I knew he had my measure. Motioning to the gaggle of students to gather around he said in a stage whisper: “You have to have your wits about you in these parts. We’re far from the city center here and there’s all kinds of questionable people in the vicinity. Be sure you don’t talk to strangers. Now, gather up your things and let’s go eat.”

Despite what he’d just said, a few of them approached me politely: “Master [师傅], it’s getting late and you must have had a long day. Maybe it’s time to go home for dinner. We’ve been helping our teacher move house and there’s really nothing worth hanging around here for.” That one honorific term “Master” put an abrupt end to my musings. I mumbled something in response and skulked off. As I did so, I heard someone mutter: “How clueless can you be? Why’s he been hanging around here staring like that? Talk about rude!” 

I’d really come to dislike the term “Teacher” [老师], despite the fact that it was generally regarded as being a respectful form of address. “Teacher” had long been devalued and it was applied indiscriminately — to celebrities, online influencers, fortune tellers, and all manner of scoundrels. And that doesn’t include the actual teachers who aren’t worthy of the title. I wanted nothing to do with it and it’s why I’d (only half) jokingly encouraged my own students to address me as “Master” [师傅]. That at least was an expression that denoted a person who could boast of some practical accomplishments. Before long, my students had all called me “Master Xu” [许师傅]. One of them was even so kind as to observe that imperial tutors like Reginald Johnston and even Wēng Tónghé 翁同龢 before him had been addressed as “Master”. 

Meanwhile, the term “boss” [老板] proved to be popular among the Tsinghua students who studied engineering and the sciences. Having originated in the business world far from academia, as political power and money had come to dominate everything “boss” had increasingly gained currency at the university. And that’s also probably why it never took hold in our part of the campus. 

It would never have occurred to me that I’d end up being addressed by that familiar old term “Master” by students so far from Tsinghua but, then again, I have come to appreciate the fact that the poet who wrote that famous line — “Ah time: your mysterious path leads us to perplexity” — had, like me, drunk life to the lees. It was a poetic line born of the writer’s trials and tribulations. [It was written by Chāng Yào 昌耀, a poet who was exiled to Qinghai in the late 1950s.] These students were guileless and they used the expression “Master” with ill-disguised delight. However, I wouldn’t give their lanky skeleton of a “teacher,” standing there in his billowing pants, the time of day. He didn’t really have a clue who I was and there he stood pretending that he was a scholar of legal studies. What a joke! He had his snout in the trough and deserved absolutely no respect. I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

But, then, I did have to laugh at myself: here was “Master Xu,” a self-important fellow, getting tied up in knots over nothing. Naïve, self-indulgent! I really have to learn to enjoy things as they are and appreciate whatever comes my way…. 

A Voice from the Void

Back home night had fallen and the only sound to be heard was the chirping of frogs. The sky was overcast once more and it looked as though the rains might soon start up again. There was this one mosquito in my place that had had designs on me for quite some time, and now it was repeatedly dive bombing me in hopes of feeding on my blood. I feebly flicked it away a few times, but soon tired of the pretense and let down my defenses. So what if it drew a little blood? It was a small price to pay for the company of this tiny creature in the dead of night. Anyway, which of us had the greater right to be there? 

It was in this pensive mood that I suddenly recalled another recent encounter. I’d bumped into an acquaintance at a parking station. He had granted me the rare honor of actually stopping to chat. Among other things, he told me that my name had come up in conversation when a group of friends had been drinking together a few days earlier. An old professor of ours had even asked after me. 

At a loose end this evening, and with no other company than that of the mosquito, I pulled out my mobile phone and tried that professor’s old number on the off chance that it still worked. I was actually half surprised to realize that, for a change, I was doing something that was completely normal and commonplace. My call went through at once and the professor sounded exactly the same, although it soon became obvious that he was now quite hard of hearing. I don’t know why my raised voice attracted more mosquitoes but it wasn’t long before there was an incessant whining around my free ear.

After exchanging some perfunctory pleasantries, the elder became solemn. Getting straight to the point he said: 

I’m aware of your circumstances and all I can say is that you must pick yourself up from the very spot where you took that disastrous misstep. They tell me that you even need a cane to walk these days. I still don’t have to use one even though I’m much older than you! 

Now, you’ve brought all of this on yourself, as you well know. You made a grave error. Everyone knows you can get away with most things so long as you steer clear of politics. My advice to you is simple: face up to the error of your ways, analyze exactly where you went wrong and clean up your act. 

Anyway, I’m not all that well myself. It’s best if you don’t call again. 

With that, he hung up.

By ending the conversation so abruptly, and in that way, I found myself reflecting on our relationship. It began in 1983, now nearly forty years ago and I well remember that lustrous North China autumn when I first came to Beijing, a strapping twenty-year-old. I was a real provincial, penniless and pretty much adrift, but I’d got into a graduate program in the capital all the same. This older teacher taught me for a few weeks during my second year. His teaching style was typical of the era: all he did was read out from a prepared text in a monotone. He doubtless thought that he was putting everything he could into his recitation, but we students were far less enthusiastic than usual. It was a kind of pantomime in which both teacher and students dutifully played their part. 

He’d been given a university job after graduating, though at the height of the Cultural Revolution when the college was disbanded he was re-assigned to some far-flung public security organization. He got his original job back after the school was re-established [following Mao’s death in 1976] and that’s how we had ended up with our tenuous teacher-student relationship. Like him, I too was allocated work at our alma mater, and in his department as well. Although theoretically we were now colleagues, he was quick to take advantage of my lowly station. He leaned on me to draft a number of academic articles that he subsequently published under his name. It was all part of my “in-house induction.” Or, as he put it, “an excellent opportunity to learn the ropes.” He had readily accepted my unwitting contribution to his career.

Envoi: “We at least are safe”

In bringing this account to a close I should confess that, although I have put these notes together in a way that suggests that these were the goings-on of a single day, in reality the encounters detailed above occurred over the summer of 2021. I’ve woven a whole cloth from these disparate strands and included a few asides to add to the dramatic effect of the whole. After all, my friends, aren’t we all but players in the petty dramas of our own lives?

I’ll conclude with lines from two poems by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish Nobel laureate:  

Quality passes into quantity at century’s end.

For worse or better, who knows, just different. 

[from “Pierson College”]


And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves. 

[from “Sarajevo”]

How very right you are, Master Miłosz: they do indeed think “we at least are safe.” For their sake, let’s hope that they are right.


Drafted in the Seventh Lunar Month of the Xinchou Year in the company of a few mosquitoes. 

Revised as the autumn leaves were falling, on the Twenty-seventh Day of the Ninth Lunar Month (1 November 2021) at my home by the Old River.


The original Chinese text is below:






































































Geremie R. Barmé