Ma Jian

Having grown up in China’s Cultural Revolution, I know what an uncivil society is. It is fear, deprivation, distrust, frenzied violence. It is children betraying parents, students attacking teachers, the smashing of beautiful relics of the past, the burning of precious books. It is official lies and propaganda permeating every aspect of life, hanging so heavily in the air that it becomes hard to breathe. It is the look of blank devotion to the mighty leader on the faces of a brainwashed crowd, or the fanatic rage of rival factions tearing each other apart in street brawls.

As a boy of thirteen, this savagery and terror was normal daily life. Had you told me our society was uncivilised, I would have called you a deluded reactionary. Individualism and privacy are bourgeois concepts, we were taught, and we, as cogs in Mao’s revolutionary machine, were fortunate to inhabit the most civilised nation on earth, devoting our famished lives to the lofty cause of liberating the oppressed proletariat of the west.

Then, one day, on my way home from a public denunciation session, I saw an old man dragging a cart of condemned books that had been thrown out from a library. ‘Where are you taking those feudal relics, old man?’ I barked. ‘To the tip’, he said. But I knew he was lying. I could sense somehow that he valued these books and was taking them home to keep safe. From the top of the pile, I pulled a copy of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. I flicked through the pages and saw an illustration of a distinguished-looking man in a smart suit talking to a beautiful woman in a long white dress in a shady forest grove. With a jolt, I experienced an intimation of what a civilised society could be: a place of gentleness, decorum, privacy, love. I took the book home, read it from cover to cover, and knew that from then on my life would take a different path.

In Chinese, the literal meaning of the word civilised (‘wenming’) is ‘enlightened by the word’. It expresses the belief that the written word, culture, language and its free expression, are what lifts humans from savagery. When I eventually became a writer and my first book was condemned by the Chinese government, I escaped to Hong Kong and sought refuge in what I still consider to be the hallmark of a civilised society: an independent bookshop. It was owned by a friend, who for months let me live and sleep between the bookshelves, nourishing myself on words and ideas that had been erased from mainland China.

Civilised societies give citizens the private space in which to think freely, so they can understand themselves better and discover the values that bind them to others. They let individuals become their authentic selves. China is now rich, but the Communist Party still rules with barbaric despotism, crushing civil rights. Now under its grip, Hong Kong is no longer a place of refuge for free thinkers, but one from which they flee. All the independent bookshops have closed. I now live in exile in London. It is not a utopia: there is too much poverty, official deception and corruption. But if I slip off a ladder, as I did recently, I will be whisked to hospital, and looked after for days, free of charge. At independent bookshops I can order any book I like. In my garden shed, I can write all day with no fear of thought police knocking on my door. And I can wander out into the crowds and see expressions that mirror mine: not ones blank with terror or contorted with rage, just natural human expressions, some happy, some sad, expressions of citizens living at peace with themselves and with their fellow man. This to me is what a civil society is. It is a precious state in which human lives can best flourish, protected by democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law. It is also a fragile state, open to constant abuse, and wherever it exists it needs to be both cherished and safeguarded.

Ma Jian – Writer

(translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew)