Calligraphy by Li Honglin, on display in the Fund Library

“No Forbidden Areas for Reading Books”

Li Honglin (1925-2016) gifts Fung Library with his calligraphy

The Fairbank Center is grateful to the generous donation of calligraphy by Li Honglin, which is currently on display in the Fung Library. Li Honglin was an influential intellectual and former senior official who played an instrumental role in China’s reforms and opening up. He died on June 1, 2016 at the age of 91, just a few weeks after painting and donating this calligraphy. Below is an account of his life, contributed to by Librarian Nancy Hearst:

Li, born in war-torn China in 1925, joined the Communist revolution as a youth and served as a political theorist for the Chinese government in the 1950s. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Li and his family were sent to the countryside to do farm work and manual labor.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Li was reinstated and held several key positions, including Director of the Communist Party History Department of the National History Museum, Deputy Head of the Theory Bureau of the Propaganda Department, and President of the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences. He was a visiting scholar and Henry Luce Fellow at Princeton University in 1986.

In the late 1970s, China began to open up and began to implement economic reforms. However, people were still afraid of deviating from Mao’s ultra-revolutionary political ideology.

In order to break free from the nationwide psychological cage of the Communist ideology, Li wrote series of articles to liberalize people’s minds and to establish a theoretical foundation to legitimize the market-oriented economic reforms.

Li argued that we should not blindly worship any political figure, including Mao, nor should we hastily accept any theory without verifying the facts. Li called for eliminating all restrictions on reading books, thus greatly broadening access to information. His actions highlighted the importance of the people’s choices and their agency in seeking knowledge.

In a seminal article, “The Leader and the People,” he argued that state leaders must be loyal to the people—not the other way around, as was commonly believed. Due to his direct efforts, hundreds of prisoners of conscience were released and rehabilitated. Li leaves a rich intellectual legacy that still influences Chinese political thought, especially during this age when society and information are intimately linked and China is at a crossroads to embark on further changes.

English translation of the calligraphy

No Forbidden Areas for Reading Books 

In reading books, there should be no forbidden areas” was the title of my article for the founding issue of Dushu magazine in 1979. Actually, it was the product of my work with some old friends. My original title was “eliminate the forbidden areas in reading books.” Then Mr. Fan Yong, Chen Hanbo, and Chen Yuan discussed it and believed that the title “there are no forbidden areas for reading books” was stronger and more succinct. Once published, the article caused a big storm. “Can children read Jin Ping Mei [the famous pornographic novel]?” was one of the strongest criticisms. But readers of Dushu longed for freedom to read and loved the title. Decades later, the debate rages on and forbidden areas in reading continue to exist. 

This is fundamentally about freedom of expression. People must be able to freely think, write, and publish in order to read freely. Today, we are still fighting for freedom of expression, the golden standard and the driving force behind social liberalization.

March 2016, Beijing, Tongzhou, Ciqu, Fudongyuan by Li Honglin, upon the kind request of Fairbank Center Librarian Ms. Nancy Hearst