Gu Zhun

Posted May 4th, 2008 and filed in People
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Today I want to tell you the story of Gu Zhun 顾准, a Chinese intellectual who lived in the 20th Century. He was a member of the accounting profession, an economist, a government official, a scholar, a man of integrity and devotion. He is a representative of Chinese intellectuals, for it is our tradition that an intellectual should bear the responsibility for the whole nation.

Gu Zhun was born into a poor family in 1915. He finished his apprenticeship in a renowned accounting firm in Shanghai, and became widely known as a genius. He started teaching at the age of 17. By age 24, he was the professor of three famous universities, had published important books in accountancy, was fluent in several foreign languages, and was making an excellent living. He was a star, and the dream of many girls.

When he was only 20, he secretly joined the Chinese Communist Party, as did many other brilliant and idealistic young people at that time when they realized the prevailing social injustice and the nation’s agony under foreign occupation. Many of them were murdered or executed by the government. Gu Zhun actively involved himself in underground work. He later went to the base of the Chinese Communist Party, serving as an official and military commander.  For 14 years, he fought against repression and corruption for a new China. His wife, another loyal communist, was one of his earliest comrades. They worked on different missions in different areas, spent much more time apart than together, and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause at any time.

In 1949, at the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party, Gu Zhun naturally became a high level official of the new government, in charge of the Finance Bureau and Tax Bureau of Shanghai, one of the largest economic centers in the Far East. His superhuman intelligence and capability became legendary. Unfortunately, he was also known for his straight speaking, his conviction and pride in his own opinion, and his unyielding spirit.

An honest intellectual, he was doomed under the dictatorship of Chairman Mao Ze Dong, a man of greatness but not of democracy. Gu Zhun was swept down during the first dissident-cleansing movement started by Mao in 1952. In 1957, he was deemed a “rightist”, the synonym for “enemy of the Party”. This was the end of his political career and the beginning of his personal ordeal.

In those torturous years, his non-conformist attitude brought him severe beatings and his family endless misfortunes. Confident in his own thinking, even during the worst public beating and humiliation, he still managed to raise his head and say loudly to the crowd: “I will not yield!” It shocked even his tormentors. Such a highly intelligent man, yet he had not the wisdom of self-preservation.

He was sent to a “school for the officials”, a mild labor camp where the fallen officials were put through a “re-education”. He lost touch with his family, although he kept writing to them, especially his wife. His family was under extreme pressure for being related to him. He was worried about his loved ones.

Finally he was allowed to go back home to Beijing. Full of hope, he was only to discover that his wife had committed suicide and his children had officially terminated all relationship with him. He lived in the same city with his aged mother yet could not see her even once. His siblings forbade it for fear of the social and political plague he carried. The old mother and her beloved son lived as if they had been separated in two different times and spaces, and hopelessly missed each other.

Tortured by cancer, bereft of all loved ones (either dead or alive), and living in poverty, he devoted himself to studying the ancient Greek political systems, hoping to find a safe road for China to democracy. Every morning, he left home with a bottle of water and two pastries made of plain flour. He stayed in the Beijing Library all day, immersed in thoughts, reading and writing. Often running a fever and coughing blood, this lonely scholar wrote his monologues full of courage and honesty, sometimes 100,000 words in 3 months. These last works, unfinished, were only published long after he died. As a scholar, he was proficient in Mathematics, History, and Economics, and well-versed in Philosophy, Law, Religious Study, Sociology, and Political Science.

He died of cancer in 1974. Seeing his children was his only dying wish. To get approval from the authority for the children to visit, he had to sign a statement of his alleged fallacies, which he had refused to sign even when threatened with death. This time, he signed with a trembling hand. All his life he gave in only this once. Afterwards, this strong man cried, and told his friends this surrender was the only stain on his life record. The authority approved the visit, but all the five children refused to come. In his reply, the youngest son wrote: “There cannot exist any father-son affection between my love for the enterprise of the Party and my hatred for Gu Zhun.”

One friend was with him at his deathbed. This friend, Wu Jinglian, would in his old age become the most influential economist in China and the principal of China’s most renowned university. He would carry on his dead friend’s pursuit, and be known for his genuineness and integrity. Once, in the spotlight of the press, he said he had not learned how to be a human being until his middle age, and he had learned it from his friend Gu Zhun.

Gu Zhun said his last words to this friend, a plain sentence: “Open the cot and have a rest.” He said it when he awoke from unconsciousness for the last time. No self-pity, no self-concern, even at his last moment.

Many years later, his children, who are now old, read his books and diary, and realized what a father they had deserted. His daughter wrote after her reading: “I followed his life year after year. Since 1957, every step he took was waddling through hell. His deepest thinking was done at the intervals of countless beatings and public humiliations. When he needed family the most, his family abandoned him. Everyone has only one father. What have we done to such a father?”

Gu Zhun is now recognized as one of the most important thinkers in China in the past half century.

For me China is a great country because we have people like Gu Zhun, not because we have the largest population, not because we have one of the oldest civilizations, not because we have a fast-growing GDP, not because we have a large purchasing power as a market, not because we are now the world’s factory and industrial garbage dump. China’s spirit is passed down to us through people like him. And this spirit is universal in all nations, big or small. A nation with men or women like this will not die.

At my darkest moments, Gu Zhun’s name is a reminder of duty. My personal tragedy paled in comparison with his hardship and the choice he made in it. This gaunt, spectacle-wearing, ordinary-looking man, is a monument in my conscience.

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