Wei Jingsheng Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Political Education of a Chinese Dissident: Conversation with Wei Jingsheng, Human Rights Activist; 11/18/98 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Welcome, Wei Jingsheng.

Thank you.

What is the most important thing you learned from your father and mother?

The most important thing I learned from my parents is how to conduct myself. Maybe this expression does not exist in English. Chinese are very focused on this "conduct" concept, or what you call "creating oneself," according to Western thought. This is very important. My parents taught me that in order to conduct oneself well, the most important thing is to be responsible toward your friends. If you are not responsible, then you should not make friends. My mother's motto was that the people's interests are more important than anything else. Even if you have great friends, you should not put your friends' interests Wei and his siblings circa 1957: Taotao, Shanshan, Lingling. above the people's or betray people.

Were you a rebellious child?

I wasn't an especially rebellious child, but I can say I gave my parents a lot of trouble at times. Because I had a lot of guts and was always taking risks, I either got hurt or sometimes broke other people's things and caused problems. I always sparked a lot of trouble.

What were the most influential books you read as a young person coming to maturity?

I cannot remember one book in particular that influenced me, but rather many books that influenced me greatly. For example, there were two ancient Chinese books, The Life of General Yue Fei1 and All Men Are Brothers2 that greatly influenced me. Some of the most important foreign books that influenced me were by Gorky, the Russian writer. My favorite book is Tess of the D'Urbervilles by the English author [Thomas Hardy]. The American writers I admire most are Jack London and Mark Twain.

And what about them do you admire most?

I particularly like the tough guys in Jack London's books; I really like those characters. What I like most about Mark Twain is his humor. His humor is really wonderful. I discovered that Mark Twain views the world in a very optimistic, humorous way. So, I really like him as an author.

You use humor in your writing too.

I think I probably learned a lot from Mark Twain, including how he was concerned about the most ordinary people -- bums, vagrants. I'm also that kind of person. I really like getting to know all different kinds of people, from all walks of life.

Where did you learn to write so well?

I don't know.

But from what I've read in translation, you have a remarkable capacity to speak to and for the Chinese people.

If you really want to write well, the most important thing is allowing people to believe you. If you want people to believe you, you have to say things exactly the way you think them. You shouldn't deceive people. This is the only way you can gain people's trust. But, I think the hardest thing in the world is to be able to tell the truth. In China, if you tell the truth, you can go to prison. In America, while you won't necessarily go to prison for telling the truth, you might sometimes lose your job. The situation is just as difficult.

As a Red Guard and a soldier you traveled throughout China. Wei as PLA soldier, Shaanxi Province, 1972 What did you see and what did you learn during that phase of your life?

I think just before that time, I was studying in school and didn't know very much about Chinese society. So when I became a Red Guard and immersed myself in society, I understood a lot more about how common people -- beggars, workers, and farmers -- lived. Starting at that time, I really began to know and understand China.

And you became an observer of the people's experience under communism?

At the time I hadn't really thought about it very deeply. When I was young, I just didn't think the world was as great as everyone imagined. So, I began reading a lot of books and discussing with friends why China is like it is. Slowly, we discovered that the reason was due to the Communist's dictatorship. This was how China became so messed up.

Were you influenced at all by knowledge of rebellion and reform in other countries?

Of course we had all heard about them; however, China's condition is not exactly the same as other countries'. So in order to decide what we were going to do, we basically had to create our ideas and were not influenced by others. Of course, I was very impressed with Vaclav Havel's speeches and activities in Czechoslovakia, and by Solzhenitzen and Sakharov, for example. They gave us great hope and encouragement that communism could be overthrown. A lot of our work gave them encouragement, too. Actually, Eastern Europe's and Russia's reform didn't really start until after China's major change. Interestingly, I discovered that Havel and his supporters were arrested and detained right about the same time I was. Actually, they were arrested just two months after me. And so when the communists began suppressing and detaining these people, they were actually learning from each other.

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1. The "Life of General Yue Fei" (Yue Fei Zhuan) is about a general in ancient China who heroically fought against the Jin invasion (a nomadic ethnic group) from North China. The emperor and other high officials were afraid that Yue would be too powerful and ordered his execution. Out of loyalty to the emperor, General Yue did not protest or rebel, but accepted his fate.
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2. "All Men are Brothers" (Shui Hu Zhuan) tells the story of a group of Chinese peasants who rebelled against the oppression and high taxes imposed by a Song dynasty emperor. The peasants were led by some dissatisfied intellectuals, and eventually the intellectuals surrendered to the emperor. The book was translated into English by Pearl S. Buck in 1933.
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