The Single Talent Well Employed
Wang Ruowang, 1918-2001
The Central Funeral Home on 41st Avenue in New York's Flushing district is, one of the ushers told me, the largest Chinese-owned establishment of its kind in the city. On Saturday we had its biggest room, but that was still too small for the crowd of mourners who came to pay tribute to Wang Ruowang. More than 200 were crammed into the dim, windowless space, filling all the seats and standing against the walls all around. Those walls were themselves covered with tributes, written out in elegant Chinese characters on large sheets of white paper. Huge floral displays were stacked here and there. The casket, open, was set against the far wall. In front and to one side of the casket was an easel bearing Wang's photograph, framed with flowers. Beside the easel two tall incense tripods were set, in the fashion Chinese people settled on 4,000 or so years ago. Above hung a mourning banner: WANG RUOWANG — DEPARTED FOR EVER.
Wang Ruowang, who died December 19th at age 83, was the senior living Chinese dissident, and his life was a chronicle of the appalling history of China during the middle and later 20th century. He was jailed by all the major Chinese despots of that era: by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s, by Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, and then by Deng Xiaoping after the student movement of 1989, which Wang — then aged 71 — vigorously supported, helping to organize a march on Shanghai's city hall.
Having joined the party in 1937, Wang would, by the time of his death, have qualified for the revered status and handsome pension of an "old revolutionary" if he had been able to keep his mouth shut. That, however, he could not do. Having very early seen through the communist facade of "progress" and "social justice" to the amoral thuggery beneath, Wang enjoyed the distinction of having been expelled from the Party twice: in 1957 for "rightist deviation," then, after having been rehabilitated in 1979, yet again in 1987 for referring to Chinese socialism as "essentially feudal" and to Deng Xiaoping (who is said to have personally ordered this second expulsion) as "a senile dictator."
When, in the early 1990s, it dawned on the Chinese Communist Party that the best way to deal with nuisances like Wang was simply to throw them out of the country, they threw him out. He spent his last years in a tiny shared apartment in New York City, supported by his second wife's earnings as a babysitter and by occasional gifts from admirers. So far as I know, the only one of Wang's books that has been translated into English is the autobiographical Hunger Trilogy. When published in China during a brief spell of liberalization in the early 1980s, this book infuriated the Party with its assertion that both Chiang's dictatorship and Mao's had used starvation as a peacetime political weapon, and that of the two dictators, Mao had been the more systematic and ruthless in using that weapon.
I have occasionally preened myself in these columns for my contrarian cussedness in the face of all the petty dogmas and what Orwell called "smelly little orthodoxies" of our age, but I sink to my knees in awe and humility before cussedness on the Wang Ruowang scale. Wang was not merely a member of the Awkward Squad; he was a mounted, armored, helmeted, shield-bearing and lance-wielding knight of awkwardness. And this, not in the plump, mild, pampered world that I inhabit, where the worst consequence a writer has to fear is a bad review or a dispute over expenses, but in a very harsh environment indeed, one in which an incautious word or a too-forthright opinion could bring about public humiliation, long imprisonment, and death — not only for yourself, but for those you love. Wang endured his first spell of imprisonment at age 16, his last at age 72. He spent most of his forties and fifties in jails and labor camps, and his first wife was terrorized to death by the communists. Still he would not shut up, still he insisted on bearing witness to the truth.
Wang is nearly unknown in China, where of course the communists have done all they can to erase any memory of his life or works. In the West he is even more obscure: his book has Amazon rank 2,067,858. Among exiled dissidents, though, his name shines bright. A bomb let off at the Central Funeral Home on Saturday would have pretty much wiped out the U.S. chapter of the dissident movement — by far its largest component outside the Sinosphere. Everybody was there:
- Fang Lizhi, the physicist who lived for two years in sanctuary at the U.S. embassy in Beijing while the communists demanded his hide for supporting the 1989 student movement;
- Liu Binyan, once the most famous journalist in China for his fearless reporting of corruption, purged from the Party and thrown out of his job in 1987 for "promoting bourgeois liberalism";
- Wei Jingsheng, whose call for democracy in the "Beijing Spring" of 1979 got him 17 years in jail;
- Liu Qing, who saved Wei Jingsheng's life by printing a transcript of Wei's rigged "trial" — an offense that cost Liu years in jail, including four years — four years! — of sitting all day long on a "punishment chair" (the seat made of hard rope that cut into his flesh) while common-criminal prisoners were brought in in relays to curse and spit at him;
- Wang Dan, the 1989 student leader, expelled from China after 7 years in jail;
- Yan Jiaqi, who was an adviser to Party secretary Zhao Ziyang before that gentleman was disgraced for his perceived sympathy with the 1989 students;
- Harry Wu, tireless exposer of the horrors of China's slave-labor camps, in which he himself spent 20 years for being a "rightist";
- Jiang Feng, whose father is in jail right now for having had the temerity to suggest that people should light candles on the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen killings;
- Gao Zhan, the U.S. resident who was convicted of "espionage" in China last July because the communists needed a pawn to play in some negotiations with Colin Powell, and whose 5-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, was locked up for a month out of contact with relatives and consular protection, in violation of all diplomatic courtesies, not to mention civilized norms …
Being in a room full of people with résumés like that makes one's own life seem very tame and pointless.
It was, in fact, extraordinary to see them all in the same room. The exiles are a fissiparous lot, bearing countless bitter grudges against each other that I myself can never keep track of. (Ian Buruma has a go at it in Bad Elements, his excellent new book about the dissidents.) I would not have been very surprised to see a fist-fight break out. When I commented to a fellow mourner how remarkable it was that so many people could be crammed into one room, he replied, sardonically but correctly: "What's really amazing is that there's space enough for all their egos." In the event the whole ceremony — it lasted about 2½ hours — went off very well, with no sign of rancor. All the leading dissidents made speeches. A special envoy from the Dalai Lama (who cultivates the Chinese dissident movement with great care and patience) read a fax from His Holiness. A handful of round-eyes showed up: Andy Nathan from Columbia and Perry Link from Princeton gave speeches, Andy in his ripe American accent that makes Chinese people smile, Perry speaking like an extremely well-educated and highly literate Chinese person. Pretty much everyone else was Chinese, except for the two-man Tibetan delegation.
For all the mood of unity and comradeship, it made me sad to see so many exiles all at once. There is something inescapably melancholy about them, about their condition. Exile is not so bad for the younger ones, who come to the West unencumbered with wives and children, when their minds are still flexible and able to adapt. Some of the student leaders from 1989 have, in fact, done very well for themselves, easily picking up strings of degrees at America's dumbed-down universities and launching successful careers and businesses. For someone like Liu Binyan, though, who left China in middle age after being fired from a useful and prestigious job, life in the West is tough. It is too late for them to master English, or any new trade. Nobody is much interested in them, or in what they have to say. They eke out a thin existence on the fringes of American life, writing occasional pieces for western newspapers, addressing ill-attended meetings in draughty provincial college auditoriums, doing some ill-paid work for one of the dissident organizations, or — in one case I know of — selling insurance in Chinatown. The words "shabby" and "émigré" go irresistibly together. It would almost have been kinder for the communists to shoot them, if kindness were a thing communists are into. What use are their brave voices now, here, where those who can hear have little interest, and those they seek to reach are not permitted to hear them? What use is their pride, their patriotism, their integrity and superhuman courage, in exile? No wonder they fall to bickering impotently among themselves. Yet still they soldier on gamely, carrying shielded in their hands the feeble guttering candles of reason, of justice, of truth.
Wang Ruowang has now been cremated. His wife will take the ashes back to the Motherland, where his children live. Luo ye gui gen, say the Chinese — "The fallen leaf returns to the root." As obscure as he may seem from the merely worldly point of view, Wang's life was, by comparison with most human lives, one of utmost significance and luminosity. Never yielding, never bowing his head, never submitting to the intense pressure — pressure you and I cannot even imagine — to "reform his thinking," "confess his errors" or "correct his attitude," he spoke the truth, in the face of the most ferocious penalties for doing so, and the most tempting incentives to lie. He never mouthed falsehoods for the sake of a quiet life; he never agreed that, yes, two plus two equals five, if the Party says so.
Wang Ruowang showed that the human spirit can remain unbroken even in jails and camps and dungeons, even in the face of torture and starvation, even under the cruellest of tyrannies. This does not count for much on earth in this soft, dishonest, hedonistic, amnesiac age; but it must count for a great deal elsewhere, if human life has any point to it at all. As Samuel Johnson remarked on the death of his friend Robert Levet:
And sure th' Eternal Master found
The single talent well employ'd.
Wang Ruowang, rest in peace.