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Devotion amid despair: the great contemporary love story of Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo

Nobel laureate and poet fallen in love after meet in the 1980 s and have braved mistreatment, detainees and now, his critical illness, together

Not long after Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prisons, he discovered two pieces had faded from his correspondence with his wife. To their consternation and delight, the couple realised the only letters censors had blocked were the love poems that each had penned to the other.

Perhaps authorities feared they were conjuring and would get the inmate too fired up, Liu Xia afterwards joked. But there was nothing funny about the states unrelenting interference in even the most intimate specific areas of “peoples lives” nor about the unchecked violence of their commitment in the face of every obstacle.

Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in May, the Nobel peace laureate is at the centre of a geopolitical tug-of-war with western governments urging China to evidence humanity by letting him travel overseas for therapy and Beijing accusing “the worlds” of intervening in its domestic affairs. Images the first of him since police took him from the couples flat in Beijing over eight years ago prove a skeletal figure.

Friends, nonetheless, say it is a secondary, yet in some ways even more disturbing misfortune that troubles them most: that of the objector writers spouse, the poet Liu Xia.

She has been physically and mentally destroyed, replied Ye Du, a poet who has known her for over a decade.

Liu Xia has never been accused of criminal offences, still less tried or convicted: But when you live with such a person, even if you dont care about politics, politics will care about you, she formerly told the Guardian.

She has been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, to prevent her speaking out about her husband. There is growing concern that unless the couple are allowed to leave the country together her invisible prison will endure long after his death.

In a path Xiaobo selected his life and has been living exactly as he thought he should, replied Jean-Philippe Bja, an academic and friend of 25 times. But for his wife, for his friends, for his family, it is different.

Xiaobo opted his employment. Liu Xia choice Xiaobo. And they have taken retaliation on her, which is absolutely terrible.

Liu Xia was a civil servant and a bud young poet when the couple firstly met in the mid-1 980 s; they were married to other people, but part of a bohemian intellectual circle which are frequently gathered at her residence.

The couple in 2002. Photograph: HANDOUT/ AFP/ Getty Images

Liu Xiaobos biographer, Yu Jie, portrays a brilliant if abrasive young intellectual known, back then, as an inveterate womaniser who discovered period for hanky panky even as mass demoes gripped Beijing in the spring of 1989. His matrimony is broken while he was in prison for his role in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations; hers aimed too. After he rose, they fell deeply in love: I encountered all the charm in “the worlds” in this one girl, he once replied. They are a perfect couple … a spiritual equal, tells Mo Zhixu, an activist and friend.

By embracing the relentlessly outspoken democracy campaigner, Liu Xia was also committing herself to a future of trauma and uncertainty. It was one of the reasons why they chose not to have children: Having a father-god in prison is a cruel thing to make a child go across, she told a pal. They marriage when the author was providing three years in a labour camp, so that she would be allowed to visit him. I want to marry that enemy of the state! she insisted, according to Yu Jies biography.

Yet she told friends: Im not Xiaobos flunky. He exulted in her talents, boasting to friends about her poetry and artwork. Even in happy hours, though, the pressures were constant: He was followed all the time. Sometimes he couldnt get out of his home. When “hes been gone” anywhere they were behind him … It was a really difficult life, mentioned Beja.

Then, at 11 pm on Monday 8 December 2008, Liu Xia heard a loud knocking at their door. A huddle of security interests agents entered, brandishing a warrant straight out of The Experiment: Supposed of the crime of _________, both documents announced.

Three hundred Chinese intellectuals and activists were poised to publish Charter 08, a political manifesto calling for peaceful political reform and crucially the end of one-party rule in China. Liu had not originated it, but co-authored it, collected signatures for it and, articulate pals, volunteered to take the autumn hoping his international reputation would spare him too harsh a punishment.

I knew thered be big trouble, Liu Xia afterward replied; she had tried to dissuade him from participating. I could only do what Id done in the past: patiently wait for tragedy to descend.

On Christmas Day 2009 a date chosen to minimise international media coverage the activist was prison for 11 years for provoking subversion, and sent to a prison in the frigid north-eastern province of Liaoning.

When the Guardian satisfied Liu Xia around that time, she might have extended for a grad student despite her 49 years: a slight figure with a shaven brain and a cigarette between her thumbs. She had a luminous presence; the definition of grace under pressure. Her tranquillity arrived not from religious faith, she supposed, but from all her years of reading and experiencing the lives of others.

At the same time she had an impish smile and wry sense of humour, joking about the couples life together, his love of her cook and even about the moment of his detention. It was easy to see why Liu Xiaobo had toppled into enjoy with this woman.

But in 2010, her jailed husband was awarded the Nobel serenity trophy. Chinas retribution was swift and unflinching: placing Liu Xia under house arrest and cutting off her telephone and internet communications. She was almost completely isolated from “the worlds”, are living in around-the-clock sentry, and allowed only the occasional visit to her mothers, the stores or her husband in prison, ever trailed by police.

Two years later, foreign correspondents managed to penetrated into her apartment briefly: I dont keep track of the working day anymore, the frail-looking poet “ve told them”, trembling uncontrollably and hollering.

I reckon Kafka could not have written anything more laughable and unbelievable than this.

Friends were scared by the transformation of a once effervescent wife: Will you simply be happy if you drive Liu Xia crazy, or drive her to demise? one asked powers in an emotional plea on her behalf.

In 2014 the poet was reported to have suffered a heart attack. Last-place year her father expired; in April this year she lost her mom. She told Ye Du she was taking medication to help her unwind. When Im able to sleep properly it necessitates I dont need to think about or see this world of agony, she said.

And then, in June, the latest hammer punch: the discovery that Liu Xiaobo was terminally ill.

Chinese objector Liu Xiaobo is attended to by his wife Liu Xia in a infirmary in China. Photograph: AP

Being family to a political prisoner is harder than being a political prisoner, the author himself formerly wrote. In a society without conscience run by both governments without limit, its the families of those who fight that sustain the possibility of being separated at a few moments, the surveillance and absence of privacy, the pressure all around you to become indifferent, to forget.

Liu Xia has never seen herself as political; yet she has resisted that pressure. She has been staunch in standing by her husband and in insisting that he has done nothing wrong.

I imagine Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo are writing a great contemporary love story, said Ye Du.

Like many friends, he supposes Liu Xiaobos determination to escape China after a lifetime refusing to abandon his country and his cause is more about rescuing her from mistreatment than the said he hoped that care abroad might help widen his working life. Liu Xia has suffered to the purposes of Liu Xiaobos dream. And now Liu Xiaobo has given up his insistence[ on staying in China] to the purposes of Liu Xia, Ye Du mentioned.

I reckon many people find it hard to understand how they have prevented religion in their love despite being tortured by an authoritarian regiman … They are amazing.

It is a devotion memorialised in the statement Liu Xiaobo prepared for his experiment back in 2009.

Even if I were vanquished into gunpowder, he wrote, dealing with the adore of their own lives, I would still use my ashes to espouse you.

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen

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