I’d rather be bored than overwhelmed in life, so I can make a choice and do what I choose to do. Most people overfill their lives. Escaping freedom is their unconscious choice. We need to be alone, for honest reflection and conscious choice, and continuous new beginnings. Every day the self should be recreated and redefined, so we don’t carry errors committed, goals achieved, or attitudes hardened, in our luggage. There should be no set image. We cannot afford to be limited. The world does not like fluid minds, but we must keep one. The inner child shall not die, the possibilities must be kept open, so that life is ever fresh. Keep your defiance, to either condemnation or glory. Do not conform, at least, not in your heart.
Her name can be roughly translated as “the Lady of Sunshine”. This is her title, not her real name. This title was given to her when she was made a princess.
She is one of the Four Beauties in China’s history. Born in the picturesque Three Gorges area into a modest family, she was like any other industrious village girl, working and playing on the green hills and clear waters.
That was during the Han Dynasty. The emperor had three thousand wives in his massive palace, most of whom would never have a chance to see him. Yet year after year, pretty girls were sought from all over the country and sent to his imperial harem, waiting to be his bride for maybe one night. The degree of his attention and affection determined these women’s status. Those who never got to be near him would be the most inferior, living in seclusion, despised by even their servants.
Because his wives were so numerous, to ease the burden of interviewing each one, the emperor made his choice based on portraits painted by his court painter. Since the competition was fierce, the court painter sought and received huge briberies from the ladies in waiting.
When Zhaojun was brought into the palace, she had too little money and too much dignity. She refused to bribe the painter. The painter painted her portrait in minute detail; then, upon finishing, he let a drop of ink from his brush fall onto her face, which completely ruined her beauty in the portrait. She did not get selected. This beautiful girl was therefore locked up in the deep chamber of the royal palace, destined to grow old alone. She lived like this for years.
On the political side, the war on the northern border between the Mongolians and Han, which went on for generations, finally came to a ceasefire, thanks to a new wise khan of the Mongolians. Though a fearless warrior, he understood the importance of peace and wished to learn from his prosperous southern enemy. The Han was the most powerful and largest empire in the whole world, as well as the most advanced civilization.
The emperor welcomed the khan’s peace offering. In addition to all other friendly gestures and gifts and treaties, the emperor promised the khan a beautiful Han woman as his wife, to build an eternal bond between the two nations. This woman would be given to the khan in the status of a princess, as if she had been the daughter of the emperor.
This honor was offered to the untouched ladies in the back chambers. The ladies were horrified. Although it was a cruel fate to grow old in seclusion, at least they were living in the comfort their refined civilization could provide, of delicate clothing and fine cuisine. They could live with their familiar customs and language, in a mild climate and green landscape. Besides, there was always a slim hope of gaining the emperor’s attention someday. The North was harsh. The Mongolians lived on horseback, were nomads, warriors and hunters. They chased after the pasture with their herds. They ate meat, and drank milk and wine made from milk. They wore leather. Transportation was far from developed. Once gone they would never see their folks again. Nobody wanted a life in exile.
Nobody but one. Zhaojun volunteered. A woman of unmatched wisdom, courage and spirit, she preferred the unknown to a prisoner’s life.
Since she was the only one willing to go, she was chosen. On the day of her departure, she would be received in the court, where a grand ceremony would be held to make her officially a princess.
On that day, she dressed up magnificently. The moment she made her entrance, the whole court was illuminated by her radiance. She was the most beautiful woman in her time. Her immaculate beauty overwhelmed everyone.
Both the khan and the emperor fell in love with her. In his shock and anguish, the emperor retrieved her portrait to see why he had missed her in his viewing. The painter’s scheme and crime came to light and the poor fellow was executed. However, despite the emperor’s admiration for Zhaojun, he had no choice but to keep his word. He gave her away as his daughter, with a title to match her glowing beauty, and a dowry suitable for her royal status. There were tales about how he lived in agony and regret ever after, but none could be proved.
Zhaojun went to the North with the brave, wise khan and became the Mongolian Queen. She adapted to the new life, and developed a deep loving relationship with her husband. Together they ruled Mongolia for many years, bringing peace and prosperity to the people. After her husband died, according to the Mongolian custom at the time, she married his successor, the son of her late husband and his first wife. She remained the Queen for the rest of her life. Mongolia and Han lived in harmony and the border was quiet. She won the hearts of Mongolians, and was deeply admired and loved. She became a legend for two thousand years. To this day, her tomb is still a tourist attraction in Inner Mongolia.
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.