BEIJING -- During Wei Jingsheng's years in prison, he often played a dangerous game.
Despite his untold suffering, his long stretches of solitary confinement and his hunger strikes, and even when his teeth fell out and his head ached, Wei regularly wrote to China's senior leaders to tease and ridicule them.
In a humorous and deeply impertinent manner, he challenged China's leaders to live by their words. He invoked his rights under China's constitution, like free speech. He suggested that elections be conducted, rather than faked.
Quoting Communist Party classics, Wei, ever full of subtle suggestions and tart political observation, identified and made fun of the defects in authoritarian rule. It was like asking for more punishment.
"His tragedy did not simply befall him," wrote Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of Chinese studies at Columbia University, in the preface to a collection of Wei's letters published this year. "He created and shaped it."
Wei seems a relentlessly active man, even when incarcerated, as he was for 18 years. In his letters, the record of his time in prison, he stubbornly but politely turned down the urgings of his brother, Wei Xiaotao, and other family members to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, like ordinary people. But Wei was not ordinary.
"Wei Jingsheng (pronounced WAY JING-SHUHNG) is a natural-born hero," said Liu Qing, a longtime friend and fellow activist. "The desire and impulse to accomplish great things burn in his veins."
Wei was born to a pair of mid-level Communist Party officials in 1950 and was well-schooled as a child in Beijing. He grew up believing fervently in communism and the flawless leadership of Mao Tse-tung.
While Wei was in high school, however, an era of political fanaticism called the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. Most schools were closed. Wei became a Red Guard and traveled the country, trying to "foment revolution."
Unlike many people of his generation who later complained that their lives were ruined by lost years of education, Wei maintained that he learned far more from the upheaval than he ever would have in school.
"I still feel that whatever the turmoil may have cost my generation in formal schooling, we made up for it in experience," Wei wrote in his short autobiography. "Those chaotic years forced people to abandon the superstitions and prejudice that had dominated their minds for so long and made them begin to scrutinize their own attitudes and beliefs. People started looking at the world objectively -- something that had been impossible under ordinary circumstances."
As Wei was re-evaluating his own attitudes, and trying to see the world objectively, his travels brought him face-to-face with the reality of China, a nation dominated by poverty. The more he saw, the more Wei began to think that the Communist Party was a greater force in creating poverty than in alleviating it.
In his autobiography, Wei described a pivotal memory from his TTC youth that came on a train ride where, as the train pulled into one station, hordes of children begging for food approached.
Wei was shocked to see teen-age girls in rags, and some with no clothing at all, but covered only with mud and soot. Ignoring objections from fellow passengers, who argued that beggars must be class enemies or their children, Wei insisted on handing his biscuits out the window to the children.
"As I distributed them to the outstretched hands, I noticed that passengers at other windows were now briskly passing out all kinds of food to the beggars as well," Wei wrote, discovering the power of setting an example.
But it took years before he had a chance to try to put that into action.
After serving three years in the People's Liberation Army, and as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo, Wei joined the crowds of young people around Beijing's Democracy Wall, which for a few months in 1979 became a vibrant forum for political discussion.
Wei seemed to ignite a flame when he posted a long essay called "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy."
Arguing that China would never be able to fully modernize without political as well as economic reform, Wei used language that was so simple and direct that it inspired countless posters. Then, like a handful of other activists, Wei started a magazine, Explorations, hoping to reach a larger audience.
China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, allowed the Democracy Wall to flourish for several months to voice discontent with China's authoritarian system of government, but once it had helped him edge aside rivals for power, he ordered it closed down.
In March 1979, as rumors swept the dissident crowd that a crackdown might be coming, Wei was characteristically defiant, writing a wall poster that accused Deng by name of being a dictator, an action that many believe earned him the personal enmity of Deng. Arrested within weeks, Wei was sentenced later that year to 15 years in prison.