Essays

A Madman’s End

Geremie Barmé and Liu Xiaobo remember Li Ao

It is impossible to describe the exhilaration I felt upon reading Li Ao’s A Monologue on Tradition (獨白下的傳統) when it first appeared in 1979. At the time, I was working for The Seventies Monthly (七十年代月刊), a prominent Chinese-language magazine edited by the noted Hong Kong journalist Lee Yee (李怡). After years studying in late-Maoist China immersed in the works of the Great Helmsman #1 and stilted Party prose, the initial shock of Hong Kong’s cultural richness was immense. The British Crown Colony was the entrepôt of the Chinese multiverse, one where traditions from before 1949 and the world of that ‘Other China’ Taiwan were as freely accessible as the cloaked realm of the People’s Republic of China.

And then there was Li Ao, whose prose, and his ideas, were liberating, scintillating and, after my time on the Mainland, bracingly scandalous. I was soon surreptitiously ferrying copies of A Monologue on Tradition, a collection of essays on history and the Chinese national character, to friends in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Around that time I launched my own writing career as a Chinese essayist (one which lasted from the late 1970s until the early 1990s); Li Ao, among others writers, was both a challenge and an inspiration. Li Ao died on 18 March this year, but for many of his past admirers Li’s real end came in 2004. His passing gives us pause to consider his plangent fate.