Twenty days after the first letter to her husband, detained legal activist and scholar, Guo Yushan, Pan Haixia posted another exquisitely written follow-up letter to him online. In the time in between, Pan writes she is determined to honour Guo’s zest for life by not isolating herself: “I don’t want you to criticize me for indulging in self-pity” and “it would be unreasonable for me to act half-dead” when loved ones have been so supportive. Pan’s mood has become increasingly reflective, drawing on wisdom gained in moments past, as she finds herself embracing the philosophy that, “we little people all have an ultimate freedom that no one can take away: the freedom to choose the attitude with which we face our destinies.” She remains hopeful Guo will return home.
Economic scholar and influential think-tank founder, Guo Yushan, was taken from his suburban Beijing home by police officers on October 9, at around 2 a.m., on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” — an increasingly common offence used to silence China’s growing community of rights activists.
Posted to Pan Haixia’s Sina Weibo account on November 7, 2014
A Letter to My Husband: II
Darling, it’s been twenty days already, and the lawyer still hasn’t been able to see you, so I don’t know how you’re doing. I only hope that you are eating and sleeping well, and staying calm. Good or bad, we’re in this together. As long as we are still alive, there is always hope.
After you were taken away, I was thrown into a state of panic and confusion. Anxiety, anger, and worry followed, but now I have begun to calm down. Since you’ve been gone, I’ve gotten together with our friends many times; we’ve eaten hot pot, even gone out to sing karaoke. But passing the time happily with friends, there remains a tiny voice in my heart asking, if you knew, what would you think? Would you feel angry, or lost, or relieved? Or would you once again “praise” me for being heartless?
Darling, don’t be angry, and don’t feel lost. I’m acting this way because I don’t want you to criticize me for indulging in self-pity. On top of that, our families and friends have been so good to me; it would be unreasonable for me to act half-dead around them. When I catch myself slipping into pessimism, I force myself to make positive plans, and life seems to become normal again – I no longer wake up in the middle of the night, or sit around in a daze during the day. Friends say that I’m looking better and that my spirits have improved. Yes, just like we agreed in the past, I am trying to live passionately on your behalf. Only that way can I honor the exuberance with which you live.
But without you, however normal life gets, there is a chill in a corner of my heart that I cannot warm up, no matter what I do. From time to time, it jumps out at me, reminding me that it still exists, and that it’s important.
Just like the other day in the subway station, when I came across a billboard advertising the November 11 Singles’ Day sales,1 and I suddenly remembered that November 11 is the anniversary of our marriage registration! Because we’d always celebrated our anniversary on the day of the ceremony, we’d never paid any attention to the date of our registration.2 I chose November 11 to signify that we would be “together for the rest of our lives.”3 On the day we registered, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was underway in Beijing, and as usual, your movements were restricted, so we had to travel by police cab (a lot of roads were closed to normal traffic).4 We left the house at eight o’clock and strode through the door of the Civil Affairs Bureau at nine – the auspicious times that mother had selected for us. After eight years, it’s as though nothing has changed: an international conference, traffic control5 … apart from the fact that you aren’t by my side.
Then there was the other day. Under the vast, clear sky – so rare – I sat in the conservatory, watching the sun turn everything golden yellow and warm. The tall trees beyond our outer wall swayed in the wind like they were dancing. The world was silent apart from the rustling of the leaves. The scene was so overwhelmingly harmonious and peaceful that I fell into a reverie. I imagined that you had never left, and were just taking a walk down by the lake. The next moment, I seemed to hear your laughter from beyond the wall, and a while later, I saw your stocky figure coming in through the door, calling out, “Wife, I’m back.” I held onto this vision, and waited, but it didn’t last … When I came around, it felt like everything had lost its meaning. What is life? What is love? In this world, there is only emptiness, so where did all these things that fill up our lives come from? In the end, the human realm is just a heap of yellow earth. What, then, can these pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows, amount to? Why should we care about them?
Thankfully, this chill only lasts a short while. Yes, it is precisely because this world causes people to give up all hope that love is precious. And it is precisely because life is short and unpredictable that we must allow it to unfold naturally. You and I have always lived passionately, exuberantly. During this temporary separation, each of us must do our best to pursue that kind of life, so that when we next meet, we won’t have outgrown each other.
Putting it that way sounds pessimistic, like you’ll be away for a long time. Maybe you’ll be able to come home soon? I don’t know. It’s impossible to avoid the unforeseen in life. There are some things that we actively initiate, whose outcomes we don’t intend or even anticipate but must passively accept as beyond our control. Take Lisha, for example. When she put up the yellow umbrella poster,6 she certainly didn’t consider where her actions would land her. Then there’s Chen Kun,7 who was away at the time (he and Lisha were planning to get married soon): when he sent you that message, in the hope that you could help her, he also hadn’t thought that he would soon be implicated because of the email Lisha sent him. Similarly, when you, away at the time, called the police to “intercede” on their behalf, even less did you anticipate that you would cause the police to suspect you as the instigator … Even if that is absurd in the extreme, I’m still trying to respect their suspicions, and quietly await the outcome. But after more than twenty days, it must be absolutely clear to them by now whether or not they should investigate you. So why haven’t they let your lawyer see you? What are they planning? Darling, I really don’t know what kind of unexpected things life has waiting for us around the corner.
(Talking of Lisha, for two weeks after you were taken away, I blamed her for having triggered all this. So much so that when her mother came to Beijing to deposit some money and other things for her,8 I was unwilling to speak to her mother on the phone. Later, after I had calmed down, I found myself thinking of Lisha’s mother often, imagining the sorrow and anguish in her heart as she rushed around Beijing. The more I think about it, the more I am ashamed. I have no right to blame Lisha, and even less to treat her mother coldly. When you helped Lisha, you didn’t think for one second of what you stood to gain or lose. As usual, you took it for granted that you should act, and just did it, while I could barely manage even a few warm words … Oh, I’m truly ashamed. My heart is still not as soft as yours. I’m truly sorry.)
But, darling, although I don’t know what is going to happen, I’m already less afraid than I was before. Is it because Teacher Ziming has gone?9 The few days after he passed away, I kept thinking about a phrase I had heard in Hong Kong martial arts movies when I was young: “What is joyful about life, and what is bitter about death?”
At the time I thought this phrase was difficult to understand, but it left a deep impression on me, especially because the protagonist’s voice rose and fell melodically as he said it, always with a look of imposing righteousness. Thinking about it now, I can grasp some of the meaning. Living is not necessarily joyful, and passing away doesn’t have to be painful; since life and death are this way, and we just take our leave, there’s no need to be overly anxious. Besides, no matter how brutal a destiny we face, we little people all have an ultimate freedom that no one can take away: the freedom to choose the attitude with which we face our destinies. This is Heaven’s mercy on human beings, and we must make ourselves worthy of it.
You see, darling, although I still get upset sometimes, lately I’ve been feeling much more relaxed. Today the repair work on our central heating system was finally finished, and I am suddenly filled with hope (illusory) that you will be able to come home this winter. Sometimes, our friends and I talk about how to punish you when you get home (someone suggested that you should cook for me for three days), and it feels so natural, not at all upsetting. So, although you must be very lonely over there, you must stay calm, and spend these unusual days as best you can.
Just come home. Your family is waiting for you to light the stove and heat up the cooking pot.
Your wife who loves you.
November 3, 2014
1 Based on the connection between singles and the number 1, November 11 (11.11) is celebrated as Singles’ Day or Guanggun jie (光棍节) by many young people in China. The festival originated in Chinese universities in the 1980s, as a day for single people to socialize and look for romantic partners. In recent years, the day has become associated with online shopping among China’s broader populace, and is now the largest online shopping day in the world, with many major retailers offering exclusive deals for Internet shoppers. The billboard that Pan mentions here would have been an advertisement for one such Singles’ Day promotion.
2 To become legally married in the People’s Republic of China, couples must register their union at the Marriage Registration Office of their local Civil Affairs Bureau. Many couples, like Pan and Guo, chose to hold private ceremonies or celebrations on a different day.
3 Pan’s decision to register her marriage to Guo on November 11 was based on a complex proverbial wordplay that yields an auspicious meaning in Chinese. She refers to the Chinese characters that make up the phrase, “together for the rest of our lives”: “一生一世要在一起.” Spoken aloud in Chinese, the phrase contains four ones: three yi (一, the number 1) and one yao (要; yao is an alternative pronunciation of the number 1), which together signify the date 11.11.
4 Pan and Guo were taken to register their marriage at the Civil Affairs Bureau in a police car by officers assigned to monitor Guo’s movements during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The Chinese authorities routinely place restrictions on the movements of citizens tagged as “sensitive” (usually scholar-activists, public intellectuals or rights defenders) during important domestic or international political events, such as annual sessions of the National People’s Congress or visits by high-profile foreign delegations. During the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Guo Yushan’s movements were restricted probably on account of his role as co-founder of Gongmeng (“The Open Constitution Initiative”), an independent legal aid institute that advocated the rule of law and greater constitutional protections.
5 Here, Pan refers to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, which was held in Beijing on November 10-11, 2014.
6 According to Amnesty International, Ling Lisha was taken into criminal detention on October 2, 2014 on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” for posting slogans in support of the Hong Kong protests, which Pan may refer to here. She is currently being held at the Haidian Detention Center in Beijing. See: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/chinese-activists-detained-supporting-hong-kong-protests-2014-11-07.
7 According to Amnesty International, Chen Kun was taken into criminal detention on October 5, 2014 on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Like Guo, he is currently being held at Beijing No. 1 Detention Center. See: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/chinese-activists-detained-supporting-hong-kong-protests-2014-11-07.
8 While being held in detention centers, detainees with money may purchase extra food and daily necessities. Lisha’s mother came to Beijing to deposit money and clothing for her daughter in detention.
9 Chen Ziming, a Chinese scholar and democracy advocate, died at age 62 of pancreatic cancer in Beijing on October 21, 2014, two weeks before Pan wrote this letter. Along with Wang Juntao, Chen was identified by the Chinese authorities as “black hands” behind the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and as a result spent more than a decade in prison and under house arrest. In the 1980s, Chen and Wang founded an independent think-tank, the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute. In 2010, Chen’s collected writings were published in Hong Kong as the Collected Works of Chen Ziming. Guo Yushan and Pan Haixia enjoyed a long friendship and significant intellectual common ground with Chen, and held him in high regard as a pioneering scholar of China’s civil society.