“Buddhism,” translated by Voltairine de Cleyre (1903)


A few weeks before Voltairine de Cleyre was struck down in the street by the bullets from Herman Helscher’s revolver, she read in one of her French journals the story of a Chinaman who was shot by a Russian soldier in the streets of a Manchurian village.

This story made a profound impression on the young woman’s mind. “That Chinaman was an anarchist and did not know it,” she said to her friends. “His sentiments, his ideas, are mine. I will translate the story for the benefit of my friends.” And she translated, but scarcely had her work been completed before she herself lay In a Philadelphia hospital suffering from three bullet wounds and the officers of the law standing by the side of her cot asking her to Identify the man who had aimed the fatal balls.

“Why, that is my friend,” she replied to their inquiries. “That is Herman Helscher, my former pupil. I did not see him shoot at me. He is my friend.”

This is the story which Miss de Cleyre translated; reprinted as she wrote it in her study and containing traces of her own personal sentiments placed in the mouth of the dying Celestial:

It happened at Kharbin, in Northern Manchuria, in the month of August. The Russians had occupied the city. The frightful events of Blagoveschensk, where in consequence of the false interpretation of an Imperial order, an imbecile general had caused four thousand peaceable Chinese to be drowned, had aroused the ferocious instincts of the Cossack warriors.

“We don’t make war for the sake of politics,” said a Cossack officer to me over there; “we make it from our hearts, for war’s own sake. It is our element.”

One evening one of them was amusing himself by interrogating a Chinese trader, who was selling cucumbers in the street. The Chinaman, who did not understand Russian, did not know how to answer, whereupon the Cossack, exasperated at the other’s not replying to him, discharged bis gun directly into the Chinaman’s belly. The Russian fled precipitately and the poor Chinaman was carried to the military hospital.

This occurrence affected the general disagreeably. With him, indeed, it was a question of gaining over the Chinese by mildness, the government having the intention of annexing the country. Hence he thought to counteract the bad impression which the incident must necessarily have produced on the Chinese by ordering a severe judicial inquiry and punishing the offender in an exemplary manner. The inquiry assumed a highly dramatic character, from the glaring juxtaposition of Chinese morality with European “justice.”

To declare the identity of the murderer, the military judge of inquiry went to the hospital to interrogate the wounded man, who was near his death agony. The interpreter was a Russian. I transcribe as faithfully as possible the Chinese questions and answers.

“Did you see clearly the soldier who shot you?”

“Yes, I saw very clearly, for he was talking to me quite a while before he discharged his gun.”

“In case we should show you a great number of soldiers, would you be able to recognize him among them?”

“Undoubtedly. But I do not wish to denounce him.”

“What! you don’t wish to designate him? Why not?”

The Chinaman, already a wan spectre, opened wide eyes, in which a strange flame seemed to sparkle. He raised himself and extended his hand.

“You, a Russian, mighty and learned, you do not know? You do not understand? I will tell you. Very soon. I am going to die. I know it; I feel it. But I want to die tranquil, at peace with the universe. That is why, before quitting this existence, I wish to forgive him. I do not wish to cause more suffering. We must reason, why cause two to perish if it is possible that I alone should die?”

“But if you do not denounce him, we might make a mistake and cause an innocent man to expiate the crime committed against you.”

“Is it so?” exclaimed the dying man; and by a superhuman effort he sprang up with a gesture of truly majestic grandeur. “You are going to institute a tribunal to accuse, judge, condemn, although I do not want it! O infamy, crime, ferocity. You are going to assassinate, you to whom no one has done any wrong, because something has been done to me? By what right? It is my affair, mine! I have not invoked your power to avenge me. He has killed me. I forgive him. It lies with me. If I do not want it. you have no part to play. I forgive. It is no longer for you to Judge.”

The Russian functionaries stood aghast. Their brains, accustomed to dwelling upon the paltry principles of the Occidental idea of justice, were not prepared to receive such a stroke. There was silence. At last one of them recovered the thread of his disconcerted logic, and insinuated:

“But if we do not punish him, he may again do evil to others”

“No, no,” cried the Chinaman, more and more excited, “you are wrong. If you punish him, he will become exasperated and sin again through ill temper. If I forgive him. he will not again do evil to anyone He will not do it again because he will have been forgiven!”

All the same, the examining judge confronted a certain number of soldiers with the dying Chinese. Among them also was he upon whom, from the beginning, the gravest suspicion had fallen. The Chinaman let them all pass by, repeating simply. “No—no—no—”

At last came the inculpated one. Immediately an intense emotion was reflected in the dolorous features cf the victim. The Chinese looked at him a long time in the midst of a profound silence. After some minutes he asked the judge: “What will they do to him if I denounce him?”

“He will be sentenced to hard labor for life.”

“I will denounce no one. In the first place, I would be in error; it is not he. And, aside from all other considerations, I wish to forgive that I may punish usefully and die tranquil.”

The examining judge, desperate at the turn the affair was taking, said to him, in an insolently official tone: “You must denounce. It is my will. It is your duty. You are rebelling against the action of law and of justice.”

“Be still, and do not speak to me of duty. What my duty is you cannot know; it is my personal affair. If it is your duty to hunt out a guilty man restored to innocence by my forgiveness, that you may wreak upon him a vengeance which does not concern you, that is your affair. I will have nothing to do with such abominations. And I tell you, if among the soldiers you have shown to me, there had been the guilty one, I would still say ‘ No, he was not there.’ and if, in spite of me, you have him whom you believe to be guilty, judged and sentenced, I declare you ten times guilty against him and against me. You will be a criminal. I forgive.”

The Chinaman, who had spoken trembling with emotion and accompanying his supreme words with convulsive gestures, the last before death, fell back and fainted.

“I forgive”—that was his last word. He never recovered consciousness. An hour later he was dead.

Even the hardened souls of the Cossack officers were profoundly moved by the spectacle of this majestic death. Once again the divine thought of Buddha had conquered the blind and sanguinary Themis. Asia, incarnated in the murdered body of the Chinese peasant, humiliated Europe, proud of her culture; and there are four hundred million peasants over there.

I saw the Cossacks weep. The inquiry was abandoned. And never since have we heard of Russian violence in Kharbin. — Philadelphia North American.

Voltairine de Cleyre (translator), “Buddhism,” Fibre and Fabric 36, no. 935 (January 31, 1903): 300.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.