Nearby Café Home > Art & Photography > Liu Xia: Silent Strength


A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Glanzer, Jim (English)

Jim Glanzer

Jim Glanzer

“My Dolls Have Lives, My Silk Has Soul”

By Jim Glanzer, financial manager and human-rights advocate

One day soon, Liu Xia will accompany her husband Liu Xiaobo when he finally receives in person the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to him in December 2010 and which he was prevented from receiving by the Communist Party of China that same year. Until that day happens, I will continue to do everything that I can to help bring about Liu Xiaobo’s freedom. Along with my efforts to obtain Liu Xiaobo’s release, I continue to try to communicate with Liu Xia and, as well, to promote her artwork. I do so because it is meaningful to her contemporaries in China, to artists and critics outside of China, to me, and to so many others.

Liu Xiaobo is serving out the remaining part of an 11-year sentence in prison, sent there on the preposterous charge that by voicing his request for open discussion of China’s political arrangements he was somehow guilty of “incitement to subvert state power.” Putting aside their specific legal failings, both the charge and the sentence were, in a word, idiotic. And as a byproduct of this particular idiocy, Liu Xia remains under house arrest despite never being charged with any crime, specific or general. In other words, she is being punished solely for being married to a man who is not guilty of any crime but is serving a lengthy prison term regardless.

If I sound angry, you should be too.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

I was there in December 2010 when the Nobel Peace Prize was formally given to an empty chair reserved for Liu Xiaobo in Oslo’s City Hall, a large photograph of him hanging above the dais and Nobel dignitaries seated all around. I was there as one of the delegates selected by Liu Xia on behalf of her husband. I was there, in tears, when the actress Liv Ullmann read Liu Xiaobo’s closing statement to the Beijing court.

That court statement ends with an expression of his love for Xia. It is written in prose poetry and — no matter who reads it or in which translated language that statement is read — his words are filled with both warmth and fire.

“If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness, whipped by fierce wind and torrential rain, so cold that no one dares touch me. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.”

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

At the end, I turned and looked at my own wife to give a whispered thought. “You see, he is a better writer in English than I am.”

I have absolutely no doubt that Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia will one day soon be liberated from their separate confinements. That they will one day soon be free to do and say whatever they please inside or outside of their home country. I know this will happen because of the inexorable logic of history which Liu Xiaobo has written about so trenchantly. It will happen because no society can condemn itself forever to maintaining a malignant state apparatus that cedes no space to public debate.  And it will happen if only because the internet — like progress in most other spheres of human endeavor — is a marvelous thing.

The purpose of this note is to explain my rather small participation in these events and how I more or less inadvertently came into possession of several of Liu Xia’s vivid and startling photographs. A number of these images appear in the exhibition circling its way around the globe, courtesy of Liu Xia’s many friends across our common planet. I should caution that my own part of this story is genuinely uninteresting, were it not for the inestimably low odds of my participation in such a meaningful exposition.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

A brief aside. Liu Xia is first and foremost an artist. She had no intention of becoming a spokesperson for a movement or even, for that matter, for her husband. No, it was the reflexively repressive nature of the present Chinese regime that first took away her husband, then took away her rights, and finally turned her into the very figure those same authorities needed to point a finger at and call a threat.

Alas, the regime stumbled badly during this last reactionary spasm. It still has not figured out just exactly what it can claim that Liu Xia did wrong or said wrong or why she should be so confined. The regime cannot present any reasons for its actions because there really is nothing that Liu Xia has done or said that is wrong in any conceivable manner.

Of course, I do have a suggestion for them. Pull the guards from her door and let Liu Xia go free. Immediately.

I came to know Liu Xia through a long-thought interest in her husband Liu Xiaobo. That interest goes back to 2005 when I first traveled to China and then returned in 2006 seeking business opportunities for the financial institution that employed me at that time.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

I initially traveled there despite very reluctant feelings about visiting non-democratic, authoritarian countries. Yet, like many Western financial types and other business people who were trying to arrange trades or sales or promotions in or with China at that time, I rationalized my actions by thinking that any transactions that resulted — in and of themselves — would help alleviate the known human rights problems in China.

It was as if we all believed that by simply trading something in or with China, we were not actually assisting the Communist Party to crush some of the nation’s brightest lights. As if we could make all of that mildly unpleasant nastiness disappear through handshakes at the negotiating tables or toasts at the closings. In short, if we just pretended that the situation was normal, or at least, that it would become normal.

And then, it simply didn’t happen.

In December 2008, the Chinese authorities decided to arrest Liu Xiaobo and put him on trial for his work in developing, distributing, and asking for signatures to a document titled Charter 08. This Chinese corollary to the Czech version (Charter ’77) was by no means an incitement to subvert anyone’s power, much less the power of the Chinese state. It was an attempt to open the matter of China’s governance to a free and fair debate among Chinese citizens. Specifically, Charter 08 demands amendments to China’s constitution, separation of powers, and an independent and fair legal system. What it does not require is that its demands be backed by force. Still, few would have predicted the fierceness of the Chinese state’s response to this manifesto. And few of the Western business people I knew would have thought themselves complicit in that response.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

The American philosopher and boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  For all of us who thought things were improving in China either because of our business dealings or because of the Olympics in Beijing that year or because of any calming platitudes offered up to us in the state-run media, the arrest of Liu Xiaobo was the absolute end of any such plan. For me, it was indeed a punch in the face.

I began to make inquiries. I began to ask questions about Liu Xiaobo. What was he doing, or what had he actually done or written? Who were his friends? Who did he represent or oppose? I could not fathom why he had been detained for sponsoring Charter 08 or posting comments on the internet, mostly outside of mainland China. I asked and looked into who else had been detained or taken away. Or tortured. Or killed. How many of them? Why? Where were they?

I am a very distant descendant of the Lemberg Ghetto, a fortunate grandson of those who were spared its liquidation and managed to avoid those trains to Belzec and Janowska. As the cases in China became more numerous and the dissidents’ names took hold in my mind, I felt compelled after years — no, decades — of disengagement from both politics and — God help me — idealism, to try to do something. Or at least I decided I would try to do one good thing. I would try to help this Liu Xiaobo and, more specifically, try to obtain his release from prison.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

My hubris astounds me upon reflection. I was as naïve in this new moral undertaking as I had been in my former oblivious attempt to work with existing conditions in China. With the degree in cynicism I had awarded myself shortly before or after graduating from college, I wobbled at first, having not had much recent practice with a moral conscience. But at least my intentions were aligned with my work this time.

I looked for some avenue through which I might provide financial support to Liu Xiaobo and his legal defense in court. Then I discovered my efforts, noble to me as they were, had already come too late. On December 25, 2009, Christmas Day, while the West and its free press were closed for the holiday, the Beijing municipal court handed down an 11-year sentence based on the noxious fiction that Liu Xiaobo’s universal rights to free expression — rights China itself expressly recognizes internationally — somehow did not exist for him domestically. Precisely how that might be the case is a mystery to anyone who has read China’s diplomatic history or national constitution.

PEN American Center logoI left my office the following day, mid-day, and joined a demonstration on the steps of the New York City Public Library sponsored by PEN American Center, the parent organization to the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), the same organization which Liu Xiaobo once led in Beijing. Edward Albee was condemning the jail sentence. E. L. Doctorow read from Charter 08. Other speeches were made and remarks given to the attendant press.

“What do you write?”

“I don’t write — I’m not a writer . . . I’m in finance.”

The snow came down intermittently in flakes and then disappeared. Several of us left the library, grabbed a taxi and walked over to lodge a formal letter of protest about Liu Xiaobo’s arrest and punishment directly with the Chinese Mission to the United Nations.

Then we all went home. True, I had lent a hand. But I was now 11 years away from doing the one good thing I had set out for myself. Liu Xiaobo’s lawyers in Beijing were planning an appeal of his sentence.  I redoubled my efforts, both financial and non-financial, writing to just about anyone in a position of importance who might listen and help. I also made multiple attempts to contact Liu Xiaobo’s attorneys and friends to offer support.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Lacking much progress, I came up with a slightly different idea. I purchase artwork from time to time.  I do so based entirely on whether the material in question is meaningful to me. I’ve largely concluded that, whatever my other fine talents may be, I am not very likely to be mentioned as a serious art critic in the same sentence with either Leo Castelli or Clement Greenberg anytime soon. Or for that matter, A. D. Coleman. In evaluating art, I simply try to find what is meaningful.

In Mandarin, the word “interesting” is rooted in the phrase “has meaning.” I knew that both Liu Xiaobo and his wife were writers and poets. But I also knew that Liu Xia was a painter and photographer. And I wondered whether her visual work might be meaningful to me as well. In February 2010 I sent an exploratory letter to Liu Xia offering to purchase some of her photos, sketches, or other artwork.

I understand that there may be a very, very long delay between the time that payment is made and artwork is delivered. I also understand that such work may not be capable of being delivered for many years, if at all.”

In June of that year, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter back, along with a translation from an anonymous friend. In her letter, Xia expressed delight in receiving my note.

“I am the type of person who lives in darkness, although always with a smile on my face. I live on books, because they enrich me with amazing power. In the meantime, painting, photographing, and writing poems release me.”

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

I was encouraged to send more letters and, in August, Xia wrote back to inform me that she would arrange to have some examples of her work sent to me. She had meant to send these photos earlier but had been busy printing photos for exhibitions planned for Prague and Paris later that year. She was very much looking forward to having her work appear in an exhibition.

“I only make black and white photos. And I am still using an old manual camera with film. You may find the dolls in my photos have lives and the silk in my photos have soul.”

Her exhibition plans, like so many others, evaporated during the time between the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo’s sentencing, and her subsequent confinement at home. However, a few months later, a large package from China appeared on my desk at work. Inside it were more than a dozen black and white photographs, two books of Chinese poetry and prose authored by Liu Xiaobo, and color photos of some of Xia’s paintings.

“Xiaobo once wrote in a letter, ‘Wisdom needs to be nourished by love and great wisdom requires infinite love.’ . . . He expresses himself through words, I express myself with art. I hope you and your wife like my work, the fruits of a tree in darkness.”

Xia struggles with darkness in many different ways, a conflict that permeates her life and her art. Xia was battling sleepless nights even before the Chinese government’s restrictions on movement made untroubled sleep that much more remote. Effectively, the Beijing authorities have imposed a form of solitary confinement on Xia that would be considered cruel and unusual punishment anywhere else in the world.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Untitled photograph by Liu Xia from the "Ugly Babies" series, © copyright 1996.

Xia likely knows enough about what is happening inside and outside of China to know that her work — this work — is being seen now by a vast number of people. She is assuredly glad to know that her sacrifices both for her husband and for the twin causes of democracy and human rights in China have not been in vain, that her own artistic creations have not been condemned to oblivion, that they are, instead, shaking the world’s consciousness. Perhaps, one day, this work will translate into more conscientious behavior and real change.

Xia, your husband made sure I failed at cynicism. So, in turn, I am here helping you in my own small way toward well-deserved, critical success. Now you will be recognized for what you already are — an international artist making a meaningful contribution to your field of work. Your exhibitions in capitals around the globe are jammed with your friends and supporters, with the curious and the contentious, with your artistic and political admirers and, yes, some critics as well. They come to see your work because they can feel in these black & white images a soul — your soul — both damning and liberating the circumstances, because they see your forms as both innately Chinese and yet wholly universal, because they know your history is both tragic in its shadows and redeeming in light.

Sleep soundly tonight, dear friend, because what I can write aloud to you this evening is just the echo of what your husband strongly affirms each day from his prison cell in Jinzhou:

“You are so loved.”

— Jim Glanzer

New York City

 April 2012

Jim Glanzer is a director at KeyBanc Capital Markets. His career in finance spans three decades, including positions in banking, sales, trading, and investment management. Columbia University Graduate School of Business, MBA 1986. Stanford University, AB 1982.

(This essay was written especially for this website. Text copyright © 2012 by James Glanzer. All rights reserved.)

Liu Xia statement about support for Liu Xiaobo.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>