A call for forgiveness resonates in China 20 years on

By Lin Gu

Yao kneels down in front of the victim’s family ( picture Sanqin Metropolitan News)

The stabbing of migrant worker and mother Zhang Miao by music student Yao Jiaxin enraged people across China. An overwhelming majority of public opinion demanded the death penalty. On the eve of the court verdict, one of the country’s best known writers for children set up an online public poll. Of the 51,069 respondents, 97 percent voted for Yao’s death.

When the death sentence was announced on April 22, the Xi’an Conservatory of Music where Yao was a piano major, announced their “staunch support” of the verdict. Local grocery stores publicized sales to mark the occasion.  When Yao’s appeal failed one month later, people lit firecrackers to celebrate in front of the court.

Some of Yao’s classmates, however, refused to sit on their hands and watch Yao die. They wrote petitions to the local judge, describing the Yao they knew, and asking for clemency on grounds of Yao’s voluntary confession.

Very soon Yao’s college mates discovered that there was a price to pay for speaking out. Gao Xiaosong, the pop musician who was also a judge on China’s Got Talent, declared in his blog China’s music industry would start to boycott graduates from the Xi’an Conservatory of Music. “Even if Yao survived,” Gao wrote, “…he would surely be hit to death on the street; if he still survived, people would stab him to death.”

An American perspective

The violence of this response and others brought back memories of what I witnessed being in the US following the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007, the worst campus killing in modern US history.

a Virginia Tech student grieves at the impromptu memorial on the Drillfield (Roanoke Times)

Within hours of the massacre, a group of students laid down thirty two memorial stones representing the victims. Controversially, a  thirty third  – in memory of the killer  Seung-Hui Cho appeared before dawn on April 18. Katelynn Johnson, a senior sociology major at Virginia Tech, was the one to place the stone.

“My family did not raise me to do what is popular,” said Johnson in her open letter. “They raised me to do what is morally right. We did not lose only 32 students and faculty members that day; we lost 33 lives.” Johnson feared a backlash, but among more than 100 emails she received, all but one supported and thanked her, including those who lost their beloved ones in the massacre.

A poem addressed to the killer best explained the mixed feelings: “Even though you took innocent lives … even though my eyes are tired of crying. … Even though my campus, my home, will never be the same … I forgive you. And I love you.”

I was then a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, and was part of that painful yet significant healing process. I remember talking to a good friend and housemate from Michigan. We encouraged each other to be brave enough to greet and embrace loners around us.

Yet four years later in China my own country, what followed Yao’s killing was nothing like healing and reconciliation, but hatred, rampant hatred towards Yao, and between ourselves.

An important letter

This stunning contrast constitutes a significant parallel to what happened twenty years ago in 1991, when another young man caused trauma for both China and America. Lu Gang, a Chinese PhD student at University of Iowa, killed four professors and one fellow Chinese student, paralyzing another student for life before committing suicide. While it took piano student Yao “three seconds” in his own words, to decide to end his victim’s life, Lu carefully planned the serial killing for months, a final solution to his frustration and hatred.

Among Lu’s victims was professor T. Anne Cleary, Iowa’s then associate vice president. She was born in Shanghai, the daughter of a missionary father, a fact that explained her love, in particular, for students from China.

At the university funeral on Nov 4, 1991, two days following the killing, Cleary’s three brothers read out a letter addressed to the family of killer Lu Gang back in Beijing. “Anne deeply believed in love and forgiveness” the brothers concluded. “We write this letter to you when you are sad, because we would like to share your sorrow and we wish that you would pray with us for love for one another.”

The letter triggered profound responses from Chinese readers.

“The letter has triumphed over evil and death, as a showcase of the nobility and tolerance of human nature. It also reveals the most precious aspect of education: education of love, human nature and tolerance, what we need most now,” wrote Guan Renjian, a journalist from Taiwan, in an article widely circulated at  the time and referred to both in 2007 and this year in the hot debate surrounding the Yao murder case.

In a post  at Tianya.cn, one of China’s most popular cyber discussion forums, a surfer named “seaside at dawn” called those who want Yao to die “blood-loving watchers”. The post quotes the Cleary letter as well as the message of reconciliation left in front of the tombstone of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer. Seaside-at-dawn  concludes that “only a society choosing tolerance and forgiveness deserves to be tolerated and forgiven. A group of violent and blood-loving people will always face the cycle of blood and violence. When you are applauding for the ringing of the bell for the others, it also tolls for you.”

Prof. Pan Zhichang, a famous media and culture commentator at Nanjing University, has referenced the Cleary letter “countless times” according to his full length article on the subject.  “I always consider this letter to be the most moving I have ever read,” says Pan, “and one which could not have been written by a Chinese,” he adds, arguing that China doesn’t share a culture of forgiveness in the western sense.

The love and tolerance in the Cleary letter can be attributed to Christianity which, some might argue, many Chinese find hard to appreciate since they were ordered from childhood to embrace atheism and denied the chance to know any of the great religions.

But I do not completely agree with Pan’s assessment. One of Buddhism’s fundamental beliefs is that every life is equal and deserves unconditional love and forgiveness. And Buddhist philosophy has been integrated into Chinese culture for thousands of years.

A Chinese letter

In the week leading up to the final confirmation of Yao’s death penalty, five  professors from the Xi’an Conservatory wrote an open letter calling for mercy for Yao and, more widely, for social tolerance.

Yao Jiaxin on trial

“In the nationwide yelling to kill this young man, Yao’s trial has transcended the individual case to become a social phenomenon. Therefore in a higher sense, what we want to save is not just Yao Jiaxin’s young life, but furthermore a heart of peace and tolerance for our society, a path of mercy and forgiveness for our nation.”

This open letter didn’t enjoy the same treatment as the one by the Cleary brothers. Such were the threats aimed at these professors that to this day only one of them has revealed his name.