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Martin-Liao, Tienchi (English)

Tienchi Martin-Liao

Tienchi Martin-Liao

An Artist Couple’s Diary

by Tienchi Martin-Liao, President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC)

Two extraordinary persons – he is a literary critic, writer and human rights activist and she a painter, poet and photographer – are bound together by a common destination. He fights fiercely with his words against a repressive regime that stifles political and artistic freedom, and she bravely struggles with the consequences of his incarceration.

In these allegorical photos presented here, we see an artistic rendition of the daily lives of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Laureate and his wife Liu Xia inside a big prison called China. The photos are set inside tall walls, behind sturdy iron bars, on gigantic cliff rocks, amid ominous men in shadows and in the middle of desolate wilderness. The subjects that populate the photos are not humans, but dolls, which hide nervously behind and among piles of books, perched alone on the edge of a steep cliff, locked inside a cage or squelched by a merciless hand. These lifeless toys become alive, sharing with the outside world the stories of dismay, pain, solitude, defiance and resilience.

Ironically, the photos, taken by Liu Xia years before, offered a prescient glimpse of her present life. Her husband has been imprisoned by the Chinese authorities since December 2008 for the fourth time, serving an eleven-year sentence on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” His incarceration led to Liu Xia’s house arrest, a more torturous form of punishment. At this very time, Liu Xia is living under 24-hour surveillance by the public security police – a group of faceless men lurking around her apartment like shadows. While her husband might have the companionship of fellow inmates, Liu Xia is alone, her contacts with the outside world – with her friends or relatives or the media – being completely cut off.

To Liu Xia, police threats and imprisonment are nothing new. In 1996, she married Liu Xiaobo and their wedding took place inside a labor camp, where the groom was to be held for three years on charges of “disturbing social order.” Over the years, as her husband was in and out of jail, Liu Xia had faced indefatigably the constant police harassment and loneliness. There is no doubt that the living circumstances cast a strong influence over her photographic works. There is a popular Chinese saying, “The loss for the state is a win for the poet.” The agony and sorrow the couple has endured have shaped their writings, making them exceptional artists of our time.

It has been more than 60 years since China has been subjected to the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. More than 40 million Chinese have lost their lives, not because of war or natural catastrophe, but due to political persecution, which continues today. The Party silences dissent, restricts freedom of the press and prohibits free expression. Those who dare speak out against the Party have ended up in jail, like Liu Xiaobo.

Fortunately, the development of the internet has, to a certain degree, broken the Party’s control over the free flow of information and enabled many dissidents to promote the messages of democracy and freedom online. Liu Xiaobo’s writings, all of which have been banned in China, and Liu Xia’s photos, which remain unpublished and unexhibited there, are now accessible on the internet and have received overwhelmingly favorable responses from the many mainland Chinese who have managed to access them via overseas websites.

We hope more political changes come to China soon. Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo’s writings and artistic works, scheduled to be on display in Europe, North America and parts of Asia, could become the harbinger of spring and warm the cold and harshness of mainland China, where the couple now lives separately, in their prisons.

Born in Nanjing, China, Tienchi Martin-Liao has devoted her life to advocating for democracy and human rights in China. She is a Senior Research Analyst and Editor-in-Chief at the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) in Washington, DC, a non-profit that exposes prison labor camps and other human right abuses in China.  Prior to joining LRF she was head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. Ms. Martin has authored and translated books on Chinese cultural and social subjects, and frequently appears in the US and international media as an expert on Chinese human rights issues. She is also a member of the International PEN, a world association of writers, and current President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC).

(This essay was written especially for the catalogue of the 2012 Hong Kong showing of the exhibition “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” at the City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Text copyright © 2012 by Tienchi Martin-Liao. All rights reserved.)

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