A Meaningful Life

In an interview in 1999, Li Shuxian, wife of dissident Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi who passed away this month, recalled their early days together.
2012-04-27
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An arrest warrant for Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi (R) and his wife Li Shuxian being shown on state television on June 12, 1989 after both had taken refuge at the US embassy in Beijing.
An arrest warrant for Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi (R) and his wife Li Shuxian being shown on state television on June 12, 1989 after both had taken refuge at the US embassy in Beijing.
AFP

The granddaughter of a wealthy landlord who nonetheless began her life in poverty, Li Shuxian joined China's ruling Communist Party in 1954, only to be expelled three years later in one of the "anti-rightist" purges, and reinstated along with other purge victims in 1979. Li is the wife of late dissident physics professor Fang Lizhi, was expelled from the party in 1987 for his political views. The couple were allowed to flee the country, living first in Britain and then moving to the United States in the aftermath of the 1989 military crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

The following are extracts from Li's contribution to a joint interview broadcast by RFA's Mandarin service on April 10, 1999. It concludes with memories of their early married life together, and a half-remembered on-air duet:

"When we were students at the Tongji High School, we sang 'Our Troops Are Here' and 'Mountain Life is Good.' We openly read [the revolutionary Soviet novel] How the Steel is Tempered, and, half-openly, Mao Zedong's On Coalition Government, books like that. But by the time the Anti-Rightist Movement came, everyone was just offering an opinion. Why were they treated in such a manner?"

"When I was reinstated as a Party member, they held a big meeting to decide under what circumstances I had been labeled [a rightist] in the first place, and under what circumstances I had been expelled. They asked me if I had anything to say. I thought they probably wouldn't like what I had to say: 'I'm not going to thank any of you. I want to thank the large numbers of people who underwent rectification; the large numbers of people who were rectified to death. This has come about through their tears and their lives.' So I didn't get up there, and I didn't say a word. That was how I was reinstated."


Li Shuxian and Fang Lizhi sing a duet in an interview with RFA, April 10, 1999.

In 1986, the students of Peking University, on the back of the demonstrations centered around the Science and Technology University, were offered the chance to put forward nominees for election to district and county-level parliamentary bodies, or People's Congress. Li, who was then a teacher at the university, describes how she came to take part:

"Peking University is just like the rest of China; everyone there is approved by the Party committee. I was unlikely to be chosen. The students came to me and said that under China's Election Law, I could seek nomination if I had the backing of 10 people. They said they wanted to nominate [me], and they hoped I would stand. Actually, I never wanted to do this. I just did it because my students asked me to and to exercise my democratic rights; naturally I would do this. After they posted my resume, some students with official backing tore it down. I had a constant stream of knocks on my door from the Party committee and the Youth League committee, asking me to withdraw from the election. Before that, I hadn't cared much about it, but once this started happening, I got really angry. I told them, 'I am a citizen of the People's Republic of China. I am over 18 ... actually I am 35 years old. I have the right to take part in elections and to be elected. Why should I withdraw?' After that, the authorities used photographs of me giving talks to students at a 'Democracy Salon' and said they were of me at Tiananmen Square. Actually, that Democracy Salon was held on April 5, and Hu Yaobang wasn't even dead yet. A lot of Chinese Communist Party propaganda is lies."

Li said she had avoided mental collapse during the most difficult times of her life by studying the inner workings and history of the Chinese Communist Party:

"I have continually improved my understanding of the Communist Party, and this has alleviated some of the suffering for me...Times were very tough back in 1961. Each person was given a ration coupon to buy four ounces of sugar once a month only. We hadn't eaten sweets for several months, and [Fang Lizhi] had a lot of sisters, so we bought 10 yuan's worth of "high-quality sweets." We were able to buy two pounds of them, and we invited some of my teachers round as well. Later on, people wanted us to sing, so I sang 'My Heart Is Singing,' which was written by a blind man singer whose entire life and mentality were governed by love. There was one party we had for New Year, when they wanted me to sing 'Dartsendo Love Song.' In that song there's a line about a woman from the Li family being looked at by a man from the Zhang family, and they sang it so that the guy's family name was Fang. I think we sang that song, too, that day. Then, the pair of us sang 'My Heart is Singing' together. He didn't really remember the words properly, but we just sang it anyway."

"Now, I'm no longer young. I think life is more meaningful if you have something to aim for. Something true. Something good. Something beautiful. Once you have decided that something is worth pursuing, then life becomes meaningful. Ever since I became aware of how the world works, I have pursued this sense of meaning throughout my whole life. I have also let go of a few things, because I came to believe that I hadn't seen them for what they were."

Reported by Zhang Min for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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