Distributed May 25, 2003
News Service Contact: Mark Nickel
The 2003 Baccalaureate Address
Xu Wenli – “My Journey to Brown: A Personal Odyssey”
Xu Wenli, who spent 16 years in Chinese prison for his pro-democracy activities, delivered the 2003 Baccalaureate Address at Brown University. He spoke to graduating seniors at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 25, 2003, in the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America. The translation of his address, presented to the audience by his daughrer Xu Jin, follows here. [Return to release 02-136]
Today, with everything that has happened, I feel much younger.
Respected President Ruth Simmons,
I am deeply moved that I have been invited to speak today at the Baccalaureate service of Brown University’s 235th Commencement.
Today is also a special day for me personally, as it makes me think of where I was in China 10 years ago on May 25, 1993. It was on that day that I was released from prison, and it was the first time that I was allowed to walk out of the large prison gates where I had been incarcerated for 12 years of a 15-year sentence.
In 1998, I was again arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison, and, after being locked up for four years, I was again released on December 24, 2002. Following my second release, however, I not only left jail, but also was forced to leave China. I subsequently arrived in America.
I am delighted to find myself in Providence, this beautiful city; on its eastern hilltop is the home of the beautiful Brown University. From this hilltop, Brown University year after year encourages outstanding students to stand tall and to look far beyond the hilltop they have called home.
This weekend, dedicated to celebrating your graduation, marks only the beginning of a life-long process of growth.
China’s eminent sage, Confucius, described his own process of development by saying, “From 15, my heart-and-mind was set upon learning; from 30, I took my stance; from 40, I was no longer doubtful; from 50, I realized the propensities of heaven and fate; from 60, my ear was attuned; from 70, I could give my heart-and-mind free rein without overstepping the boundaries.”
Confucius lived 2,000 years ago, during China’s Warring States period when violence and chaos were common. But he felt a strong sense of responsibility toward society. So, despite the surrounding unrest, he painstakingly pursued his own ideals. Confucius did not promote or praise the virtues of authoritarian rule. Instead, he promoted an ethical system that made room for compassion, benevolence and moral virtue. Eventually, Confucius became widely known for the value and wisdom of his teachings. While he lived, he attracted more than 3,000 pupils and 72 disciples. His ideas were the foundation for China’s traditional educational system. His influence spread beyond China, and today Confucianism continues to be a powerful social, moral and political philosophy.
Youth is a defining time in life. It is a period of self-discovery and decision-making which greatly influences the path your life will follow. If the path you choose is to lead you to be a person of great accomplishment, the journey must begin very early with great ambition. To accomplish something important, you must serve and help shape the society in which you live.
No matter what your aspiration, it must be your own choice, what you love to do. And while the path you choose may be difficult, so long as what you do fills you with passion and inspiration, the happiness you find will make the sacrifices and suffering worthwhile.
When I was young, China lacked a university like Brown. There were no institutions that offered the freedom and liberal choices that Brown can afford its students. I graduated from high school with high grades and good test scores. But I could not bring myself to attend the kind of college that existed in China. I could not enter an institution based on a narrow ideology. After making that choice, I realized that the road I had chosen was full of hardship and struggle. I began to study at a different university, the university of society. I studied society, relationships, human behavior, and of course government, drawing lessons from the interactions between people and institutions. It was then that I began to work for the causes of freedom, democracy and human rights in China.
My family paid a huge price so I could put my knowledge to work and become an influential activist. While I was in prison my wife and my daughter had to keep our family together, at least in spirit. Together we stood strong; we withstood the enormous pressure of the Chinese political system.
I spent 16 of the last 22 years in prison because I was a man who believed in the cause of Chinese democracy, a man who felt he had a responsibility to fight for his rights, for his family’s rights, for his fellow citizens’ rights. During that time, my daughter grew up and graduated from both college and graduate school. I was unable to attend either of her graduation ceremonies or celebrate her accomplishments.
I have personal regrets, especially when it comes to my family, but I still believe that we must pursue our goals with perseverance and purpose. From my own experience I have two thoughts that I wish to share with you today:
First of all, life is short. You must pursue your goals with the utmost passion. It is true that God can only help those who help themselves. You have one life, and in each stage of your life there should be one or two things worthy of doing. You must devote yourself wholeheartedly to accomplish these goals.
Secondly, enjoy the life you are given. Life may not be fair, and equality for all may not be realized. Yet we are, to a remarkable degree, in control of what is inside us. Don’t let others influence your inner feelings. This is personal freedom. Be fair to yourself. Be happy each day. Being happy one day and worried the next is not as good as experiencing happiness each day.
During my 16 years in jail, I was alone and isolated most of the time. Yet it was then that my own heart and mind were most tranquil. I was even able to appreciate each day spent in prison for what it taught me. Looking back now, I know that had I not been able to enjoy life, even in those most unbearable circumstances, my mind, body and health would have long since given out.
I admire greatly the saying. “May you eat well, laugh much and live long.” These sentiments are important, for it is the simple things in our lives that we must remember and enjoy. I know that many Americans also share these sentiments and I rejoice that my family has been able to come to America where we can freely celebrate life.
It was only six months ago, on Christmas Eve, that my wife and I arrived in the United States. Brown University, President Ruth Simmons, the Watson Institute for International Studies, and the entire faculty embraced me with open arms and welcomed me to this community on the hill. They received me, a political exile, and not only have I found a home and many supporters here, but I have also been given the honor of speaking today, which exceeds anything I could have imagined. Today I stand here, enjoying the dream I dreamed as a youth: to enter a free and open-minded university and to breathe in the clean air of freedom. From here, I am ready to continue my struggle for Chinese freedom, democracy and human rights.
China is a nation with an ancient history and the Chinese are an outstanding people. For centuries my motherland has produced many thinkers and philosophers. Yet for more than 2,000 years, democratic thought has been fettered. In China today, despite the tremendous economic development, freedom, democratic values and basic human rights have not been realized. It is tragic – and it is frustrating – that the changes have been so narrow. Many of the leaders and members of the China Democracy Party are at this time facing long prison sentences. There are also many other prisoners of conscience in Chinese jails, and the SARS disease has spread across the nation. As a political exile, I look at my mother country from a long distance. To see these examples of oppression and misinformation disturbs me and makes me anxious. But I am optimistic. This optimism has come about through my interactions with the people of America, with the people of every democratic nation who have offered their support and help, and especially with the people at Brown who have shown me so much passion and energy. My optimism and hope are derived from the students who continually help and support me and from the organizations and institutions like Brown that support my efforts. You are the people who have given me the ability to fight for the realization of democracy in China.
Like the great Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream, and it is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It is my dream for a brilliant Chinese future. I hope that my motherland can someday become a nation more like America and other democracies, with freedom and liberty, with justice and openness. I dream China will one day reach for democracy and will finally become a democratic society that serves the people, that respects human rights, and that is able to provide freedom and prosperity to every man, woman and child. And since Brown University is my dream university, I hope that here I will be able to work for the realization of my dream for China.
Today is a wonderful and joyful day for the graduating students, for their mothers, fathers and all the relatives who have come to celebrate and join in the many happy ceremonies. I hope everyone can see that the honor and achievement we celebrate is not just the success of the graduating students. The honor of this weekend belongs to the families of these bright young people, to the communities that supported them, and indeed the honor lies with the entire nation. But beyond this celebration at Brown, the accomplishments and achievements of every young adult throughout the world reflect the success and honor of all parents, communities and countries worldwide.
My young friends, I hope for your own integrity, for the honor of your families, and for the respect of your nation, that in the future you will continue to stand taller, look farther and pursue grander ambitions for world peace and for the rights of all people. May you take your passion and knowledge and do great things for this world, and may nothing deter you from supporting the causes you believe to be just.