Who is Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize? He is a courageous dissident and a visionary activist for human rights in China. He is a reactionary "crazy man" and an "enemy of the people" of that same nation. Or, the former academic is a fiery critic and poetry lover, a writer of intimate love poems to his wife.
Who Liu Xiaobo is depends, in short, on who you ask. As well, much depends on what people, especially inside China, have been told about the wiry, bespectacled 54-year-old.
But here is something everyone can agree on: China's first Nobel laureate spent yesterday not at the glittering Nobel ceremony in Oslo, Norway, but in a cell shared by five prisoners in a prison in remote Liaoning Province, with another nine years to serve.
On learning of the Oslo committee's decision to award Liu the prize in October, many Chinese admitted they had never heard of their apparently famous peacemaker. That may be true, but it was not for lack of trying by the fearless and outspoken Beijinger.
Liu's current incarceration is his fourth term in prison in a career notable for risk-taking, and a life shaped by the two great defining events of China's six-decade long incarnation as the People's Republic: the Cultural Revolution, and the 1989 Democracy Movement.
Born in December 1955 in the northeastern industrial city of Changchun, Liu had the bad luck to come of age during the elderly Mao Zedong's cynical mass social experiment. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution cost the youngster a chance to complete his education in the normal time frame. He spent his teenage years working on farms and for a construction company.
In 1976, Liu was admitted to study Chinese literature at Jilin University. Already 21, he was a brilliant student, and soon progressed to graduate studies at Beijing Normal University. By the time he completed his PhD in 1988, he held a teaching position at the school and had co-authored a best-selling book of social criticism. Two more books followed, including a comprehensive review of western philosophy.
The younger Liu had a reputation as a sharp critic of contemporary Chinese culture, driven and headstrong. But those who knew him then did not note any particular passion for politics. China in the late 1980s was a country where, after decades of endless shrill ideological politics, it was finally OK to be preoccupied with other matters. While abroad, however, Liu did publish articles that would later be used against him.
The student movement that sprung up in April 1989 changed Liu Xiaobo forever. He was working as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York when students first began protesting in Beijing. Though he had a place at the prestigious school for the autumn, he rushed home to be part of the widening social movement against corruption, and in favour of democracy, in the Chinese capital.
Almost immediately, Liu joined the protesters on Tiananmen Square, living amongst them for two weeks and acting, by most accounts, as a moderating influence. He orchestrated a hunger strike with three other older, well-known figures. Though his success at persuading students to leave the square on the night of June 3 may have saved hundreds of lives, his high-profile cost him.
Arrested shortly after the massacre, Liu was branded one of the "black hands" behind the demonstrations. On June 24, while he sat in Qincheng Prison, the prestigious Beijing Daily published a lengthy piece blaming him for the "turmoil and rebellion".
"Liu Xiaobo has been known as 'Crazy Man', 'Crazy Dog', and 'Black Horse'," the article proclaimed. "Since 1986, he has gained publicity by disapproving of everything in China."
The Beijing Daily quoted examples of Liu's disapproval, including his calls for the replacement of one-party rule with multiple parties, and the introduction of "diversified ideas and freedom of thought" in political life. Those same ideas would resurface two decades later in Charter 08. The authorities soon dropped Liu as a "black hand", but not before he languished for 20 months in Qincheng. He was released only after signing a "letter of repentance". On emerging in January 1991, he was 36 and his once stellar academic career was in ruins.
Regardless, Liu was soon calling publicly for the release of those jailed after the protests. For his outspokenness, he spent six more months behind bars in 1995, followed by a three-year term of "re-education through labour" for disturbing the social order.
It was during his third incarceration that Liu's personal life was changed forever. Liu Xia, a pretty, bright Beijing artist whom he had known socially since the 1980s, married him while he was still in the camp. Liu Xia was soon speaking out on human rights.
On his release in late 1999, the couple settled into the fraught domesticity of many Chinese activists. Under constant surveillance, their phones tapped and computers hacked, the Lius got used to friends being blocked from visiting by police. His prison writings were confiscated and never returned. During sensitive periods he was placed under temporary house arrest.
Undaunted, in 2004 Liu published an essay criticising the use of the charge of "subversion" to intimidate journalists and activists. He also served as president of the Independent Chinese PEN centre, drawing a salary subsidised by the US National Endowment for Democracy. This detail, as much as his actual public stances, has allowed the government to caricature him as a puppet of foreign influences, and as unpatriotic.
Finally, in December, 2008, Liu Xiaobo co-drafted Charter 08, a manifesto released on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The charter, which called for greater freedom of expression and real elections, soon had 300 signatories, mostly scholars. (10,000 more Chinese from all walks of life have signed it since.) Two days after its release, Liu was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. Charged once more with "inciting subversion of state power", he had to wait a year to be tried. The proceedings, held on December 23, 2009, lasted three hours, and the defence was not allowed to present evidence.
Authorities had seemingly had enough. Liu was sentenced to 11 years and eventually transferred to Liaoning Province, well away from his wife, and international scrutiny. "For an intellectual thirsty for freedom in a dictatorial country," he wrote in an essay smuggled out of his cell, "prison is the very first threshold. Now I have stepped over the threshold, and freedom is near."
Rumours persist that he has refused an offer of release in exchange for a signed confession. According to Liu Xia, who was allowed a rare visit with her husband after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, he dedicated the award to those who died on Tiananmen Square back in 1989. He also wept at the news out of Oslo.
Clearly, Liu Xiaobo possesses the right stuff to be a Chinese dissident: courage, stubbornness, and a refusal to forget, or to succumb to despair. But if this very tough-minded man wept before his wife, it might also have been in sorrow over being apart from his cherished companion, and best friend.
Liu Xia, who has shaved her own head in sympathy with his prisoner's cut, told reporters: "If he can persevere in the face of this ordeal, so can I." Assuming he serves his full term, he will be 64 when he is released in December 2019. She will be 59. The couple have no children.
During an earlier incarceration, Liu Xiaobo composed almost daily love poems to Liu Xia. Though many were confiscated, others survived, and are now being translated and circulated around the globe. They reveal a sensitive, vulnerable side to the activist.
"Beloved my wife," Liu wrote in 1999, "in this dust-weary world of/so much depravity/why do you/ choose me alone to endure."
Whatever else comes from the 2010 Nobel laureate's newest term in prison - freedom of expression and a multi-party system are no closer now in his homeland than 20 years ago - hundreds more love poems seem likely to flow from Liu's passionate pen. China's most famous dissident is also one of its most ardent and faithful lovers.
* The National