Episode 7: Lost And Found In Translation | Crooked Media
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February 17, 2024
Dissident At The Doorstep
Episode 7: Lost And Found In Translation

In This Episode

With a new position at the Catholic University of America and funding from a rightwing think tank, Guangcheng takes on a new challenge: strengthening his English. We examine why this became such a top priority for Guangcheng and his patrons, what it means to traverse borders and negotiate between languages, and how Guangcheng’s political beliefs are translated by different audiences in a country that elected Donald Trump.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

[news clip]: We come together tonight to imagine a future, determined by the shining light of our hopes and values and faith—

 

Yangyang Cheng: It was August 26th, 2020. I had barely left my studio apartment in Chicago for over six months. That evening, I tuned in to the Republican National Convention as it was live streamed on YouTube. Since moving to the US in 2009, I had watched all the national conventions of both political parties. To me, observing the raucous convention floor was witnessing democracy in action. However, I considered skipping them this time. It was months into a global pandemic. Trump had been president for three and a half years. Both the political landscape and our daily lives had become unrecognizable. But in the end, I decided to watch them. I guess I felt nostalgic. And more importantly, I realized the stakes. After November, this country might no longer be a democracy. This thought crossed my mind like lightning for a moment. I found it hard to breathe. I felt obligated to keep watch. I must bear witness, I told myself. Then, on the third night of the Republican National Convention, an unexpected speaker took the stage. 

 

Chen Guangcheng: Greetings. My name is Chen Guangcheng. Standing up to tyranny is not easy. I know. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: In a polished, nearly three minute address, Guangcheng called the Chinese Communist Party an enemy of humanity and praised President Trump for leading the fight against this evil regime. 

 

Chen Guangcheng: Standing up to fight unfairness isn’t easy. I know so that President Trump, but he has shown  the courage to wage that fight. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng’s right wing politics did not really surprise me, but hearing him rally for a man who has caused so much harm to women, immigrants and people of color all of which I am still felt like a betrayal on social media, reactions to Guangcheng speech were understandably mixed, but one detail caught my attention. Many from the overseas Chinese community were fixated not so much on what Guangcheng said, but on how he said it. One Twitter user said hearing Guangcheng enunciate the syllables was so excruciating they wished they could read the speech for him. Others defended Guangcheng, saying that he spoke well under the circumstances and his accent did not impede comprehension. The comments felt personal. In my own journey to a foreign tongue, which I’m using to speak to you now. I’ve also received a lot of unsolicited feedback about my English. I reflect on the feedback often as I reckoned with my relationships with the two languages I speak, the countries they represent, and my place in them. To speak and speak freely, to speak and be heard. These are such humble goals. But as Guangcheng story and that of my own illuminate. They can also be the most difficult tasks. Things slip in translation even within the same language. Two people can prescribe different meanings to the exact same word. I’m Yangyang Cheng.

 

Colin Jones: And I’m Colin Jones, and this is episode seven of Dissident at the Doorstep. [music plays] Since Guangcheng first stepped off the plane in his new home in the US. His English ability, or lack thereof, has been a recurring concern for his American benefactors. Mattie Bekink set up English classes for Guangcheng and his wife, Weijing shortly after their arrival. But that language training got buried in a flurry of other lessons and activities. Besides, during Guangcheng’s year at NYU. There were always fluent Chinese speakers like Mattie, Jerry Cohen, or other Chinese students who are around to talk to or help with translation. By the time Guangcheng left NYU, his English ability was still very limited. Guangcheng understood the restraints it placed on his daily life, as well as on his work. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] If you want to fit into American society. If you do not improve your English, you can barely take a single step. When I was in China, I did not even have English text books at school, even though we had English classes. They were just symbolic, to be honest. The teacher who taught English barely knew English himself. Just like the old Chinese saying goes, if the teacher is not very bright, the disciples are destined to be clumsy. But at that time, I had a clear feeling that if I wanted to have a better future, if I wanted to advance to a higher level, not knowing English would definitely be a fatal constraint. 

 

Colin Jones: The language barrier Guangcheng faced is a familiar predicament for Chinese dissidents in exile, cut off from China and dropped into societies where they do not speak the common tongue, these activists are often effectively silenced. When Guangcheng first arrived at the Witherspoon Institute, teaching them English became a top priority. Unlike Jerry and Mattie, Robert, George and Bill Saunders cannot speak Chinese. Bill made note of this fact the first night we met, when our producer, Maria, pulled him aside for a quick interview at the event celebrating the 10th anniversary of Guangcheng’s arrival in the US. 

 

Maria Byrne: Would you have a moment to speak to us. 

 

Bill Saunders: Say again? 

 

Maria Byrne: Would you have a moment to speak to us. 

 

Bill Saunders: Not if you need Chinese? 

 

Maria Byrne: Oh. [laughs]

 

Bill Saunders: I don’t speak Chinese. 

 

Maria Byrne: No, we don’t need Chinese. Yeah. 

 

Colin Jones: Actually, when Guangcheng and Bill first started working together at Catholic University, they could hardly understand each other. 

 

Bill Saunders: When I met him four years ago, his English was very, very rudimentary. Just little bits and pieces. I mean, I had a hard time. I couldn’t have even just had this kind of discussion with him. 

 

Colin Jones: The Witherspoon Institute. Found a professional English teacher for Guangcheng. The instructor was based in Kansas and conducted lessons over Skype. When Bill arrived at Catholic, he also took it upon himself to teach Guangcheng English. He and Guangcheng talk at length every week over the phone or in person without a translator. 

 

Bill Saunders: I don’t know that much about learning languages, but it must kind of speed up. And he’s kind of gotten over hurdles where he seems to be going more quickly. 

 

Colin Jones: Is there do you have to make special accommodations because of his blindness? I mean there’s not a textbook or—

 

Bill Saunders: Yeah. No. Well, the only textbook he has is me. 

 

Colin Jones: It has been years since Bill and Guangcheng have been doing this. And he basically can’t overstate how important these English lessons are in their relationship. 

 

Bill Saunders: His English is so much better. We work very hard on his English, his English. Get it into English. In English, spoke English. In English. Speaks English, but he’s English, we speak in English. Improving his English. We can speak English more than English comes up. His English is better than hers. 

 

Colin Jones: For Bill, the goal is not just to talk with Guangcheng, but for Guangcheng to talk directly to the American people. 

 

Bill Saunders: He has such a strong, important story, and so we want to get it into English so Americans can understand him. Because he gets it in Chinese a lot, you know, through Voice of Asia or different programs. But we wanted to get it out in English. So we’ve been working really hard to do it, and he’s gotten pretty good. 

 

Colin Jones: Along the way. It was clear to me that all this time spent working on Guangcheng’s English has also brought Bill and Guangcheng quite close. When Guangcheng spoke that night at his ten year anniversary, Bill stood next to him the whole time and the way they interacted physically with Bill, helping Guangcheng to and from the podium and casually offering an arm for assistance, I could see real familiarity. 

 

Bill Saunders: Well, he’s it’s hard not to like him. He’s just got a wonderful personality. It’s interesting combination because he has the most iron will, you know, and determination of anybody I’ve ever met. There’s no way like you could get him to say something that he doesn’t believe, or something that he doesn’t think is true. He’s just I mean, he would rather die, but you combine that with he’s got a nice sense of humor and, you know, he he loves life. He’s not a, you know, kind of a sourpuss. It’s hard for people not to like him. And the more he can speak English some more, his personality comes out and the more people do like him. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: The people Bill has in mind. Of course, those who do not know Chinese like Bill himself. That Bill does not speak Chinese led to a tense moment. During our first interview with Guangcheng. Bill insisted on being present and he sat at the end of the table while Guangcheng, Colin and I conversed in Mandarin. About an hour into the interview, Bill interrupted us to ask how much more time we would be. 

 

Colin Jones: In 15 minutes probably. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: So I asked Guangcheng what his availability was in case Bill wanted to leave early. 

 

Bill Saunders: Don’t talk to him in Chinese if it has—

 

Yangyang Cheng: Don’t talk to him in Chinese when this has something to do with me, Bill said. I understand the wish to know what others are saying about you, but Guangcheng schedule did not have to concern Bill. At least that’s how I thought at the time. I saw Bill’s presence at the interview as a form of tacit control, and as a fellow Chinese person, I felt protective over Guangcheng. Speaking in Chinese, a language Bill does not know. To me, was also a way to reclaim the space. Bill’s comment felt like an intrusion. When I went through the interviews Colin and Ali conducted with Guangcheng’s white American colleagues, I heard echoes of the same comments Guangcheng had received from the overseas Chinese community after his RNC speech. Concerns about his English proficiency and in particular, his accent. Robert George of the Witherspoon Institute and Princeton University had this to say. 

 

Robert George: I remember early on, one of the items of discussion is how do we find the best language tutoring for him? And also how do we find accent reduction work? Often those are two separate things. There’s the language learning and then there’s the accent reduction. But obviously that was not a substantive issue having to do with human rights. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Each time I listen to this tape, I feel the sting of the phrase accent reduction. What is it that must be reduced? Whittled away. Preferably erased. Robert told us the term came from the English tutor Witherspoon hired to help Guangcheng, and that the tutor specialized in, quote, “accent reduction.” In an email, Robert wrote, quote, “I took it to mean work Guangcheng was doing to make sure more people could understand what he was saying. If it means something else or something in addition to that, I’m not aware of it.” End quote. I speak English with an accent and it took me a long time to make peace with it. I started learning English in fourth grade. The following year, I lived briefly in San Diego, where my father was a visiting scientist at UCSD. He later told me that my report card at the end of the spring semester read very limited English. My parents and I moved back to China that summer, and I started middle school a few months later. My father went to sleep one night and never woke up. I was ten years old. He left behind a small stack of cassette tapes. He had been using them to learn English released by commercial publishers in China. The tapes were labeled the most famous speeches in English language in the long weeks and months ahead. I listened to them every day until words emerged out of sounds and carried meaning. 

 

[clip of FDR]: First of all, let me assert my firm belief. 

 

[clip of JFK]: And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you as what— 

 

[clip of MLK JR]:  One day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and—

 

Yangyang Cheng: These iconic words, uttered in the darkest hours of the past century, became an incantation during a most difficult time in my youth. Not long after, I noticed that I would dream in English. It’s odd. I was nowhere near fluent. I think my subconscious clung to the alien letters because my mother does not speak them through English. My adolescent self found a fugitive space safe from my mother’s searing wrath. I did not know at the time that English also offered more space for political expression in China against state censorship, but my adopted tongue was already my first language of freedom. At age 12, I took part in my first English public speaking competition. It was the only extracurricular activity my mother allowed. She wanted her introverted daughter to grasp some social skills. She also wished for me to gain fluency in a language she herself never had the chance to learn. For the next few years, speaking English on stage to a live audience and a panel of judges was a regular part of my life. [clip from competition] From the judges and parents of other contestants. I started getting feedback that had little to do with my ability to express myself in English. I needed better clothes. My style was too masculine. My voice was to shrill and time and again I was told that my English did not sound authentic. I must shake off my accent if I wanted to win at the national level. There were summer camps that promise to give you, quote, “An authentic American accent in 7 to 10 days,” but the price tag was prohibitive for my family. Besides, I had no idea what an authentic American accent meant in a speeches I had memorized by heart. President Kennedy and Doctor King, both authentically American, sounded very different. The last time I took part in an English speaking competition was in the fall of 2006, as a college sophomore. The university assigned an American teacher to tutor the two of us who advanced to the regional final. One evening, the other contestant asked our tutor a question. If you close your eyes, and hear me speak. Can you tell that I grew up in China? The white woman hesitated. Well, a bit, she said, but only a bit. The disappointment on my schoolmates face is etched into my memory, alongside the peculiar way he prefaced the question. If you close your eyes, it’s only years later. After I had moved to the U.S., that I realized why this phrase bothered me. The accent is a proxy for race when English is coded with whiteness. Guangcheng is not white and can never be white. But his Chinese ness packaged and tamed to the tastes of predominantly white audiences like those at the RNC convention hall or human rights galas, also serves a crucial function. His ethnicity offers a token of authenticity to his views on China, further validated by his dissident status. Bill said he wants Guangcheng to speak English so that he can get his personality and message across to Americans. When I ask Guangcheng about what he wants to communicate to Americans, he said his mission is to defend human rights. He learns about abuses taking place in China through social media channels, and tries to raise awareness to an American audience. In his words, he wants to alert the Americans to the evils of the Chinese regime and to stop the policies of appeasement. On this front, his goal and Bill’s are aligned. Why is Guangcheng speaking? Who is he speaking to? All of us on this podcast have been wondering these questions of purpose and audience since the beginning of our project. In telling Guangcheng story. We’re also engaging in an act of translation and mediation. How do we make sure we are doing the topic justice? That’s coming up after the break. At the beginning of our first interview, I explained to Guangcheng that we would talk in Chinese, but the final program would be in English. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] No problem, no problem. It’s actually better to promote this story in English. It’s quite nice to let more Westerners know about this. Actually, I feel Westerners. Oh, well, how should I put this? It’s too much to talk about now anyway. No problem at all. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Just as Guangcheng held his tongue about whatever observation he was going to make about Westerners telling this story in English comes with complications. We wanted Guangcheng to speak in Mandarin as his most natural self, where he is unburdened by the need for translation so we could hear fully his thoughts and ideas. But inevitable tradeoff is that we had to lose part of Guangcheng’s voice. Literally. We had to cut off his recordings and replace him with someone else. The audio journalist, Richard Yeh. 

 

Richard Yeh: I mean, there’s so much nuances in the way really everyone speaks. But Chen is an especially dynamic speaker, I think. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: This is Richard speaking as himself at the end of our last recording session with him, we talked a bit about enacting someone else’s words. 

 

Richard Yeh: I looked him up on YouTube. I watched a few of his videos, mostly in English, actually. At the same time, I was trying to not project what he might be thinking, who he think he might be talking to, but really just focus on the tape itself. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Richard grew up in Taiwan before emigrating to the US in his teens. Mandarin is his first language. For all of Guangcheng’s interview tapes that we used in the show, Richard and I edited the translations together. We worked from a transcript and then we listened to the original recording in many instances. Hearing Guangcheng’s voice prompt us to tweak the English translation to capture not just the literal text, but also emotions behind it. Sometimes Richard and I disagreed, a reminder of how personal language is. Once we struggle to describe the bouquet of leaves that Guangcheng father made for him, the one he kept throughout his time in prison. The name of the tree in Chinese is fatong, a hybrid between an oriental plain tree and a sycamore. I do not think the tree needs a translation, but in the end we used both words the Chinese name fatong and the name of his American relative, the sycamore. The name of a tree is a small detail, but it is indicative of a bigger question how much a minoritized speaker needs to make themself legible to a majority audience. For Richard, life is a series of translations. 

 

Richard Yeh: In my head, I’m constantly code switching between Mandarin, my native tongue, and English, which I picked up as a ten year old. I do translate myself a lot, and I often in daily conversation, struggle to find the most fitting words I want to say in each language, depending on my audience. Sometimes it’s a better way to say it that comes to me after the fact and I say, oh damn it, I have to remember that for next, the next time this comes up. I know exactly what to say. As a New Yorker, I don’t feel like I have to perfect my English. I also don’t feel like my I have to apologize for my less than perfect Mandarin. I’m quite happy with the way I have a, you know, I have a foot in both worlds there. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Richard and I are from different generations and grew up in different linguistic environments. When we were translating Guangcheng from Chinese into English, we were also translating our own experiences and our relationships with both languages into our interpretations of Guangcheng, translation, like migration is never simply about changing places. It’s a process of coping with loss and reinventing the self marked by memories from the native land. This is what I have hoped to achieve in translating Guangcheng. Now the translation is not just a destination. It also preserves the journey that is in English, but conveys a distinct Chinese voice. But each journey is personal, where the most personal remains untranslatable. 

 

Colin Jones: After the break where Guangcheng’s journey took him next. One of the small ironies of Guangcheng’s endorsement of Trump was that the person and the version of the Republican Party. He threw his support behind, was not what some of his early conservative backers would have hoped for. In the spring of 2016. Robert George issued a public statement calling on fellow Catholics and all men and women of goodwill to reject Trump. In that statement, Robert called Trump manifestly unfit to be president and wrote that a Trump administration promised only the further degradation of our politics and our culture. So we asked Robert how he felt seeing Guangcheng at the 2020 RNC. 

 

Robert George: Oh, I don’t have any problem with people disagreeing about with me about politics. I mean, gosh, I teach at Princeton University. And I’m a conservative. You can imagine I have to spend a lot of time with people who disagree with me about. 

 

Alison Klayman: Were you surprised to see him on that stage? 

 

Robert George: No, he thinks for himself. 

 

Colin Jones: I took this exchange as a pretty tidy encapsulation of what has happened to the Republican Party in the wake of Trump. In early 2016, while the presidential election was still underway, Robert certainly wasn’t alone in his announcements of Trump during the primaries. Ted Cruz called Trump a serial philanderer and an amoral, pathological liar before he ultimately gave Trump his endorsement that September. J.D. Vance wrote that Trump debased our entire political culture. Then, in 2022, he basically graveled for Trump’s endorsement in the Ohio Senate race. Robert hasn’t gone this far, although for a time he considered chairing a human rights commission for Trump’s State Department. But he, like many other Republicans, has figured out that while they may detest Trump himself, they need to find a way to accommodate themselves to Trumpism. That is, if they wish to have any influence at all in today’s GOP. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: For Guangcheng, it is different. His support for Trump isn’t just a reluctant compromise. He is drawn to Trump, whose appeal is not uncommon among first generation immigrants from authoritarian countries like China. Trump markets himself as an outside challenger to establish in power the brash billionaire from New York, who has little regard for decorum and does not speak in the polished language of political elites, claims to be a voice for those aggrieved and neglected in the margins. With Trump’s tough rhetoric on China. People like Guangcheng also see him as a powerful ally in their fight against Beijing. 

 

Colin Jones: And in the weeks after the 2020 election, Guangcheng would take his support for Trump up a notch and even further away from Robert and his colleagues at Catholic. After the votes had been tallied and the networks finally announced Joe Biden as the winner, Guangcheng latched on to the idea that a massive fraud had taken place. 

 

[clip of Donald Trump]: There was tremendous cheating here. Boxes were brought in. The mail in vote is a disaster. 

 

Colin Jones: He also shared a video from NewsMax suggesting that the vote had been hacked. 

 

[news clip]: Folks, when it comes to election security and the integrity of the vote, you are being lied to. The biggest lie of all is that somehow our state’s voting systems are not connected to the internet. We hear them say this all the time. 

 

Colin Jones: For airing stories like this. NewsMax is currently subject to a defamation suit by the voting technology company Smartmatic. Guangcheng gave these ideas his personal endorsement in an interview with Vision Times, a Chinese language newspaper based in Australia. In that interview, he spoke about a massive number of illegitimate votes and wondered aloud if the CCP hadn’t been involved in some fashion or another. Through all this, Guangcheng was fixated on the idea that the American press was biased against Trump. In a video he posted on Twitter, he said he first learned about this bias during his acrimonious exit from NYU in 2013. [clip of Guangcheng speaking Mandarin] Here, Guangcheng says that The New York Times favored NYU and the US government in its reporting, even though it knew other information favorable to Guangcheng’s claims. In December 2020, when thousands of Trump supporters descended on Washington, DC for an early Stop the Steal rally, Guangcheng joined them. [clip from rally]

 

Colin Jones: In this video, which he also posted to Twitter, you can see Guangcheng standing in Freedom Plaza surrounded by people waving American flags. In the background, there’s a handmade sign that says do not ever concede. It’s daytime in the video. By the end of that night, four people had been stabbed and eight DC police were injured in clashes with the protesters. About a month later, on January 6th, 2021, Guangcheng joined the crowds once again. [clip of rally] In this video, which I first saw on the day he posted it almost in real time, Guangcheng stands under a gray skies with a much larger crowd, presumably somewhere near the white House. Guangcheng posted this video at 12:16 p.m., so by then, Trump had already taken the stage for a 70 minute address. Trump told the crowd, you will have an illegitimate president. That is what you will have. And we can’t let that happen. By 1:06 p.m., 50 minutes after Guangcheng posted his video, protesters, including members of the Proud Boys and other right wing extremists, had smashed through the first police lines around the Capitol. Things got violent from that point on. In our interview, Guangcheng played down his belief that the election was illegitimate. Instead, he made it sound like he joined the protesters that day. Out of curiosity. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] I wanted to hear what they thought about the issue. I also wanted to compare what I saw at the scene with what the media reported. To understand what the differences were. 

 

Colin Jones: According to Guangcheng, his impression of the protests was mostly orderly and peaceful. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] Of course, I also saw it. When there was some media. I think it was NBC or CNN. I forget what they were holding the video camera outside the Supreme Court. And then a few protesters rushed over with a loudspeaker. They shouted fake news! The media had to dodge them in frustration. This was the more intense scene I saw. In fact, under those circumstances, overall, I felt it was very, very peaceful. People were mostly lining up to give speeches. It was so cold and you were just standing there talking, discussing the issue that the media reports were distorted and certain facts were omitted, and this was unacceptable, and so on. Of course, they also called for people to abandon the fake news media to find out the truth, to demand public information, and so on. Anyway, when I was there, I didn’t think there was any problem at all. 

 

Colin Jones: Guangcheng says it was so cold he decided to leave early, adding that it was a pity he never made it near the capital. Still at 2:53 p.m. that day. Long after things had gotten very violent. Guangcheng seems to have been following the events closely enough to retweet a video from a Chinese American man who had broken into the Capitol building. Oh. [clip of video] Two weeks later, Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States. A few months after this Guangcheng took an oath of his own. He became a U.S. citizen. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Included in that oath is the absolute renunciation of, quote, allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty where when used to be a subject or citizen. In other words, to naturalize as a U.S. citizen demands a transference of allegiance. To assume a new American identity. One must abandon the old one. It’s a leap of faith. Not unlike boarding a one way flight out of one’s homeland. But it’s always been tough to interpret Guangcheng’s actions. So during our last interview with Guangcheng, I asked him about this occasion. [clip of Guangcheng speaking Mandarin] Chen said he had forgotten which year it was that he became a naturalized citizen. The pandemic has warped everyone’s sense of time, but I was still surprised by Guangcheng’s understated response. I had in mind the sight of him standing on stage at the RNC, in front of a dazzling row of stars and stripes. How could someone like that forget which year it was? He officially became American. During our interview with Bob Fu in Texas, Bob said if war broke out between the United States and China as a U.S. citizen, he would take one of his AR-15s and fight for the Americans. I wondered what Guangcheng would do in the same situation. Instead of a clear cut answer like Bob’s, Guangcheng gave a long winded response that war is unlikely and the Chinese Communist Party cannot represent the Chinese people. The Chinese government notably does not recognize dual citizenship. I ask Guangcheng what being Chinese means to him now that he’s a U.S. citizen. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] Don’t think this is my definition. It’s just a. 

 

Colin Jones: Fact. No no no no no no. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Now, what word do you use? 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] That you’re trying to define, it is in itself a problem. Why define it? 

 

Yangyang Cheng: Do you still consider yourself Chinese? 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] Then what is your concept of China?

 

Yangyang Cheng: [speaking Mandarin] Exactly. There is no definition. So what is your definition of China? 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] So if you cannot give me a definition I cannot answer your question. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: [speaking Mandarin] But what is your own definition of China? For example, you can define China for yourself and then identify as a Chinese person, right? 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] I think this is a bit strange if we have to say like that, how should we say it? If by Chinese you mean someone from the People’s Republic of China. I actually don’t think it has that kind of authority. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: I felt embarrassed for being pushy and pedantic, for imposing a question that has long troubled me and Guangcheng. I think the difficulty in finding an answer is also due to a lack of vocabulary in English. A multitude of identities is collapsed into a single word Chinese. It can refer to anything from citizenship to ethnicity, from cultural heritage to linguistic belonging. But in the Chinese language there are several words for China. The most commonly used, zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom, contains the character, guo, a nation state. To identify as zhong guo ren a person from China is also to recognize the authority of the ruling government. In our conversations, Guangcheng used another word for China, hua xia. Where recognition of political authority is replaced by unabashed cultural pride. China as hua xia is a glorious ancient civilization spanning over four millennia, originating from the mythical first dynasty xia. Each of these words emphasizes a different source of Chinese ness citizenship, culture, history. They’re all marked by the legacy of empires. To identify as Chinese is to inherit this legacy and to wrestle with its many layers. Ultimately, Guangcheng said, his Chinese ness is a fact that needs no definition. 

 

Richard Yeh: [voice over] I think the fact of the matter is. We lived on that land for decades, right? The culture from that land, all kinds of sentiments and feelings for that land, it runs in the blood, there’s no doubt about it. 

 

Yangyang Cheng: In front of Guangcheng and me. There is a China sized hole that all the words in the world cannot fill. We do not even have the vocabulary to describe its shape. It’s difficult for me to place this image of Guangcheng, who seems so disinterested in defining himself into the fervid crowd on January 6th, or even into the red, white and blue version of himself on the RNC stage, Guangcheng seems more comfortable presenting certain parts of his identity and others. As we get to the end of this story, we want to piece them all together to find out the full picture. That’s next time on Dissident at the Doorstep. Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Alison Klayman Colin Jones and me Yangyang Cheng. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producer is Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by me, Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee