BEIJING - As Liu Xiaobo, China's most famous political prisoner, lay dying under police guard, he struggled to finish what was probably his last written work. It was not a political statement, but a sometimes playful, sometimes darkly cryptic, tribute to his wife, Liu Xia, an artist and poet who endured house arrest while he served an 11-year prison sentence. "Love as intense as ice, love as remote as blackness," reads one of the handwritten notes Mr. Liu wrote in a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang before he died of liver cancer on Thursday.
"My praise is perhaps an unforgivable poison," he wrote in the brief and sometimes fragmentary tribute to his wife and her art. Mr. Liu's notes were for the preface of an unpublished collection of his wife's photographs provisionally titled "Accompanying Liu Xiaobo." His notes and the photo collection were shared by a Chinese editor who was a friend of the couple and who had helped compile the book.
The editor said Mr. Liu made contact late last month and that people close to Mr. Liu later passed on pictures of his notes from the hospital. The editor asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of repercussions. Mr. Liu will remain best known as an obdurate dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in prison. He was sentenced in 2009, the year after he helped issue a petition calling for democratic change that led to his arrest.
But his last known writing shows how Mr. Liu, whose fame began in the 1980s when he was a quarrelsome literary academic, remained an artistic soul who drew inspiration from Ms. Liu and feared for her future. She has lived under constant police watch since Mr. Liu received the Nobel Peace Prize. Ms. Liu's book may include a few poems that speak of the couple's bond, and of the isolation and anguish she endured while Mr.
Liu was imprisoned, said the editor, who is seeking a foreign publisher. Her black-and-white photographs include many images of dolls with pained expressions in nightmarish settings. Some of the images have been exhibited before. One shows a doll locked in a birdcage, holding a flickering candle. Another shows a doll whose arms and legs are tied with strips of cloth.
In one poem dedicated to Mr. Liu, which was shared by the editor, Ms. Liu wrote:
I know sooner or later the day will come
When you'll leave me
And walk alone down the road of darkness.
Many other people have voiced concern for Ms. Liu since the government revealed that Mr. Liu had advanced liver cancer late last month, a point at which a cure was nearly impossible. Friends and supporters said they feared that Chinese security forces could force Ms. Liu back into house arrest, although she has not been accused of any crime. Ms. Liu has found her isolation hard to take. In a rare interview in 2012, when reporters with The Associated Press managed to evade guards outside her apartment in Beijing, she said, "Kafka could not have written anything more absurd." Now Ms. Liu will not have even the consolation of visiting her husband once a month and hoping for his release. "That's what we're worried about.
Now he's gone, we're all worried that Liu Xia will face serious difficulties and struggle to cope," said Wu Yangwei, a writer who uses the pen name Ye Du and was a friend of the couple. "If she stays in China, the house arrest and surveillance won't let up for several years at least," Mr. Wu said. "She needs to go somewhere free so that she can preserve her health, otherwise the consequences could be unthinkable." The United States, the European Union and other Western governments voiced the same fears, as did the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In tributes to Mr. Liu, they all urged Beijing to end the unofficial detention of Ms. Liu, and to allow her to leave China if she wants. "There's an incredible sense of urgency about how best to help her," said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch.
"Every single government I've talked to in the last week has been very focused on how to try to help her. We are sick with worry about the prospect of her just going right back into house arrest." At a briefing on Friday, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, bristled at the international criticism that followed Mr. Liu's death and brushed aside repeated questions about whether Ms. Liu would be allowed to leave the country. He said, as Beijing officials often do, that such matters were part of China's internal affairs. Mr. Geng also called Mr. Liu's Nobel Prize a "blasphemy."
"His words and deeds go against the principles and purposes of the peace prize," Mr. Geng said. But Mr. Liu's handwritten preface also reflected his passion for art, literature and ideas, a side of him that became obscured in the focus on his political activism and his Nobel Prize. "Appreciation has become my destiny in life, perhaps it's the instinct of a polar bear enjoying hibernation in the vast snows," he wrote in the tribute to his wife and her art.
Mr. Liu shot to official notoriety in 1989, when he sided with the student protesters who occupied Tiananmen Square to demand political liberalization. He was arrested days after the armed crackdown of June 3-4, when he and three friends helped avoid bloodshed on the square itself by negotiating with soldiers to let protesters leave peacefully. He served 21 months in detention. But before that turning point, Mr. Liu was already known as a combative and original literary thinker. His dying comments on his wife's work show how that artistic background stayed with him, and underline the bond formed with Ms. Liu through poems they wrote for each other.
"Liu Xia's photographs and Liu Xiaobo's poems struggle with shared demons," Perry Link, a professor of Chinese at the University of California, Riverside, wrote in his introduction for the unpublished selection of Ms. Liu's work, which he agreed to share. "The two artists look, feel and worry side by side." Mr. Liu and Ms. Liu met in the 1980s, when they belonged to a broad circle of writers, artists and academics embracing the new freedom and ideas opened up by economic reform and a measure of political relaxation. Ms. Liu abandoned a job in the financial bureaucracy to write poetry and make art. Mr. Liu completed a doctorate in literature but bridled at convention and censorship.
Later, after their first marriages had broken up and Mr. Liu emerged from prison, they became close. They married in 1996 while he was serving a sentence in a labor camp for his political advocacy. "I lived as a convict's wife. During this period of intense loneliness and desperation I began taking black-and-white photographs," Ms. Liu wrote in a dedication at the front of the book. "I am so grateful to my family for their inexhaustible love during the difficult times."
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