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Ten years from now, I’ll be writing this letter to a friend...


Photo:AP

Dear XXX,

Just arrived in Beijing.

The first thought that struck me the moment my plane landed on the tarmac was the lament the exiled dissident writer Liu Binyan (劉賓雁)(1925-2005)made near the end of his life, when it became clear that the CCP would never allow him to return to China: “all I want is to tread on that good earth once more, even if it’s just for a few steps.” (「我只是想重新用自己的腳踏一踏那片土地」)

Liu probably couldn’t have foreseen that it would take a quarter of a century after his death for freethinkers to be able to set foot in mainland soil secure in the knowledge that no harm will come to them, for the CCP is, finally, no more.

Only in hindsight can I retrace the way an epiphany that struck me one night in 2019 has set me upon my current path. On that occasion I formed a Baltic chain with other Hong Kong people to protest against the extradition law.

As we sang 榮光 and waved our mobile-turned-flashlights in the air while passengers in moving vehicles signaled their solidarity by waving their lights back at us, suddenly I had a vision of 吳宓 (1894-1978) - the father of comparative literature in China - in his last moments, when he summoned the little strength he had left to unleash, for the final time, his anguish over CCP’s relentless persecution of him and his fellow intellectuals: "turn on the lights for me, I am Professor Wu" (「給我開燈,我是吳宓教授」). I knew right then that my 「煲底之約」would take place north of the border - it would involve me turning on the lights again for 吳宓教授, picking up the pieces and showing younger generations of mainlanders how real English writing and real learning are like.

Thanks for telling me that a couple of western media have adopted my translation of the mainland sociology professor Zheng Yefu’s (鄭也夫)(1950- ) oft-quoted admonition, that the CCP should long have「有體面地淡出歷史舞台.」 The English version I came up with - “the CCP should have gone gentle into that good night” - was actually inspired by 吳宓. I was trying to replicate the unspoken drama latent in his translation of the title of the 1940 film “Waterloo Bridge” - 《魂斷藍橋》.

The ceremony to remove Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square will take place this Saturday. I consider myself lucky that all these years, I was able to tap into the wisdom of James Stockdale, the prisoner-of-war who languished in a jail in Vietnam for seven years. His illuminating discovery was that prisoners who were the most optimistic ended up least likely to leave the prison alive. Over the past 10 years, how many times did I have to remind myself to “stop!” when I caught myself fantasizing about CCP’s imminent collapse; for my own good I had to avoid falling into the mental trap of Stockdale’s “optimists”: “they said, ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

You may have heard that the new government is going to carve those words that 劉賓雁 had hoped to get inscribed on his headstone: 「長眠於此的這個中國人,曾做了他應該做的事,說了他自己應該說的話。」 I hope to attend the unveiling of the new headstone too. I’m so happy I didn’t bring dishonor upon myself when the CPP ruled over Hong Kong. Otherwise I’d feel too ashamed to show my face in Beijing (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Yours,
Michelle

Another version of this letter first appeared in Apple Daily: By their fruits you shall know them

I specialize in teaching Chinese students how to write native or near-native English. Interested parties can contact [email protected]

My website: https://michellengwritings.com/


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