We speak to the entire world in English, and the world understands. The richness of English helps us to properly address Tai Ji Men’s right to freedom of religion or belief.

by Marco Respinti*

*Conclusions of the seminar “California Land of the Free: A Call to Freedom and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 on October 8, 2023 at the Hilton San Jose, San Jose, California.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on October 2t6h, 2023.

Edward Moran (1829–1901), “Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” (1886). Credits.
Edward Moran (1829–1901), “Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” (1886). Credits.

The English language is a fascinating result of different imports and combinations. Of course, this can be said of all human languages, in different degrees, but it applies to English in a peculiar way.

The first stage of English is called Old English, spoken between the 5th and the 12th centuries in parts of today’s England and Southern Scotland. Old English was Anglo-Saxon, itself a blending of tongues that came to the British Islands with the inhabitants of some territories of present-day Denmark and northern Germany, as well as the ancient historic region of Frisia. It is somewhat common to compare the relation between the Anglo-Saxon language and modern English to the relation between Latin and Romance languages (chiefly Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian), but this is not fully accurate. The habit of dubbing Anglo-Saxon language as “Old English” is partially responsible for that, at least psychologically. However, without a proper philological study, no modern English speaker would understand a single Anglo-Saxon sentence.

As the Anglo-Saxon peoples were invaders of the British Islands from Continental Europe, so were the Normans, who invaded those lands in 1066, bringing along their Gallo-romance language. This import transformed Old English into Middle English, a language spoken until the 16thcentury. The later language, with its developments in spellings and pronunciations, is then called modern English, highly influenced by the invention of the press and the printing of the post-Reformation vernacular Bible. Yet modern English modified again, to an even higher degree than other languages, due to its encounter with new populations and new tongues in the colonial and post-colonial history of Great Britain and later the United Kingdom.

The Vercelli Book (10th century), preserved at the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, Italy, one of the oldest extant manuscripts written in Old English. Credits.
The Vercelli Book (10th century), preserved at the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, Italy, one of the oldest extant manuscripts written in Old English. Credits.

Now, present-day English can be considered an overarching koine composed of many local variants. Yet it serves as lingua franca for all kinds of world exchanges as it did Latin in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. But there are interesting paradoxes. While the English variant that truly serves as lingua franca of the world is American English, or it is based on it, American English is not the official language of the United States of America. Indeed, the United States have no official language sanctioned in any document. English is simply the de facto language of the country.

The value, if any, of this excursus in the history of the English language is its relevance to the Tai Ji Men case.

Latin-based Romance imports that created Middle English never completely substituted Old English. In many cases, it paralleled it. This resulted in enriching the language and multiplying its words. In English there are hundreds of examples of concepts and objects having two words to define them. In the land of the free, California, part of the bigger land of the free that is the United States, whose official language is not English and indeed there is no official language, let us consider the words “liberty” and “freedom.” The first comes from the Latin-based Romance influence that generated Middle English, the second from the Germanic roots of Old English. In Modern English they seem synonyms, but history has loaded them with important distinctions.

“Liberty” indicates a concrete, historical, even material reality; “freedom” indicates a theoretical concept. In fact, the noun “liberty” can be declined as a plural, while “freedom” is normally used in the singular and some even argue that the now common use of the plural form “freedoms” in legal language is not good English.

Advocating for freedom and liberties: Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Advocating for freedom and liberties: Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

Many liberties of Tai Ji Men’s Shifu, or Grand Master, and dizi, or disciples, have been taken away by rogue and corrupt bureaucrats in Taiwan, who accused them of crimes they never committed. The concrete, historical, even material liberties of association, spiritual discipleship, and normal social relations of Tai Ji Men have been curtailed. Tai Ji Men’s concrete, historical, even material liberties to own property and to enjoy an unblemished reputation were denied as well. The concrete, historical, even material liberty of Tai Ji Men to follow its spiritual path and carry out its mission for universal harmony and peace in the world was strongly affected by that injustice. Most chiefly, Tai Ji Men suffered a heavy denial of the concrete, historical, even material liberty of religion or belief. Tai Ji Men case is in fact and remains a spectacular case of violation of freedom of religion or belief.

But this brings us and Tai Ji Men to consider the concept of freedom. Freedom is immaterial and universal, and for this reason untouchable and undeniable. While liberties can be denied and curtailed, freedom cannot. While suffering for the loss of their liberties for more than a quarter of a century, Tai Ji Men dizi could always enjoy their freedom. Freedom lives in their souls and spirits and is not affected by external harassment.

All our enduring efforts in denouncing Tai Ji Men’s suffering aim at reconciling their liberties with their freedom. What we work for is to see the sun rising on the day when the freedom of Tai Ji Men dizi will again be incarnated in their restored liberties and rights to live a fully just and pacified life. And we do it in English, for the entire world to hear.