In Maoist China, a political prisoner feels his way through a Kafkaesque tableau of rumors, betrayal, interrogation, and execution.
When I was twenty years old, and a college student, I defaced a portrait of Chairman Mao. For this act, and without a trial, I was declared a political prisoner and sent to a forced labor prison on Taihu Lake, where I served in a labor reform brigade in a stone quarry for seven years: five years in the labor prison and two years as an ex-prisoner laborer. The tales in this book, transformed by memory, imagination, and time, are based on my experiences in this camp, and are not, I believe, unlike experiences suffered by millions of others who did not live to tell their tales.
Photo via “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/kalevkevad/4035332666//
One night Li Minchu had a strange dream in which he saw the Great Leader and Nixon negotiating at a long table in The People’s Conference Hall. With his oversized brush, Chairman Mao signed an amnesty agreement for the political prisoners. Li Minchu only told his dream to Chen Sougen and Bi Fuyan, the two political prisoners of Group 5, not expecting that it would spread all over the labor reform units of the province and would cause such a great resonance among the political prisoners that even the officers didn’t know what to do. At length, the Labor Reform Bureau of Jiangsu Province officially refuted the amnesty rumor.
That evening, Officer Gu, a tall, handsome young man from the province, showed up in the barracks. Despite his good looks, the atmosphere became heavy as soon as he arrived. It was no laughing matter that a cadre from the province had come to our barracks, and the big hall went dead silent. The two hundred fifty prisoners sat on the cement floor, their eyes fearfully fixed on Officer Gu, whose manner was different than the other officers’, even though they were all wearing the same grayish spring and autumn uniforms in Chairman Mao’s style. We noticed that Gu didn’t take cigarettes offered by the local officers as they passed them around customarily, nor did he hand them his silver cigarette case, which he placed, to separate it from his folder lying open before him, on the upper right corner of the table. He looked solemn, and yet he talked to Li Minchu, who was ordered to stand in front of him, as politely as he did with his subordinates.
“One night I had this peculiar dream about our Great Leader meeting with the American President Nixon in the People’s Conference Hall ” Li Minchu said.
“Did you have any plan, or motive, before you dreamed the scene?” Officer Gu asked.
“I didn’t,” Li Minchu answered quickly. He looked at Officer Gu, who lit a cigarette and encouraged him to continue with a nod.
“I remembered that evening I went to the newspaper wall, and I saw on the front page of the People’s Daily a picture of Chairman Mao shaking hands with the American president. I then joined a crowd of inmates talking about Nixon’s big nose. I guess that’s why I had such a strange dream that night.”
The more Li Minchu spoke, the less anxious he looked. And the atmosphere lightened, too, those in the front row relaxing, everyone relieved that Li had an opportunity to explain everything directly to the officer at the top.
“So it is true that you are the inventor of the rumor?” Officer Gu asked, taking out another cigarette from his silver case, which he didn’t smoke, but played with thoughtfully in his thin, effeminate fingers instead.
“Not me, but my dream, sir,” Li Minchu said.
Officer Gu smiled. He turned right and left, asking the local officers if they had anything to add. When they said they didn’t, he closed his folder, and declared that the meeting was over.
It seemed that the storm had passed, because the officer from the province hadn’t announced any sentence against Li Minchu as was anticipated. The next afternoon Li Minchu’s wife visited him in the reform office. When he returned, he looked like a totally different person. As though waking up from a nightmare, he stretched himself, yawned deeply, and even hummed a melody as he did when he was in the newcomers’ company.
“Do you remember I was about to hang myself in the newcomers’ barracks when my wife came to visit?” he asked me.
I said I did. I also told him that I remembered the morning when we gathered in the corner of the cement yard of the newcomers’ barracks, and watched him eating the roasted soybeans.
“Yes, I remember that, too,” he said, and in a whisper he promised to give me some roasted soybeans later on in the evening.
When I first came to the group he had tried to avoid talking to me as if I were an informer. Now, when I was sent to collect his treasonous words, he followed me everywhere.
But that night I was summoned to the reform office, where Chief Chen and Officer Gu were sitting side by side at a desk smoking cigarettes. For some reason Chief Chen abandoned his usual rude manner and treated me nicely. He even offered me a seat. He said: “I know Li Minchu likes to chat with you. He must have a lot to say because he’s been quiet for such a long time. I want you to report directly to me everything he says.”
“It’s a secret just between you and us. I heard that you made a serious mistake in the past. This is a good opportunity for you to atone for your sinful thoughts, so don’t pass it up,” Officer Gu added.
I nodded. They let me go.
I worried about Li Minchu. They had set up a false impression that his case had already been settled so as to let him tell his long confined thoughts to the inmates he trusted, which they would take as new evidence against him. I dared not tell Li anything, because I was afraid that I would get into trouble if he divulged the secret. But I found it difficult to keep away from him. When I first came to the group he had tried to avoid talking to me as if I were an informer. Now, however, when I was sent to collect his treasonous words, he followed me everywhere. I understood what it meant to have a friend to talk with when one was in a difficult situation. I had experienced such moments myself. But the fact was that my own situation was uncertain.
Finally I dropped a hint that he should pay attention to what he said.
Li Minchu must have gone to ask the chief, because Chief Chen called me to the reform office the next afternoon and threatened to send me to the solitary cell.
“I thought you would seize the opportunity to draw close to us. But you did the opposite. I’ll do you next,” he hollered.
Chief Chen sent Li Minchu to solitary confinement that same day.
Gao called my name one night in the lavatory. He hadn’t spoken to me since I came to the group; as a result I felt awkward running into him in the lavatory. His voice sounded strange. His wrinkled face looked ominous under the dim light of a bulb hanging from the center of the ceilingless roof. He was no longer the man I had known. I believed that he must have forgotten that we had once been as close as brothers. I couldn’t resist wondering whether he was sent by Chief Chen to collect my thoughts. Seeing that I didn’t respond, he called my name again.
“What?” I said.
Without looking at me, Gao said in a subdued voice, “You’d better pay attention to someone around you. Li Minchu wouldn’t have been in such big trouble had he listened to me.”
Gao didn’t say anything else. But what he said made me suspicious of my top bunk neighbor Zhuang, a former policeman in Xuzhou who had come to serve a five-year prison term for raping women inmates. Zhuang especially liked to chat with me, which I thought was quite natural because we were similar in age.
I remembered telling Zhuang that I felt it incomprehensible that they should put Li Minchu into solitary confinement just because of a dream. I had also asked him if he, as a former policeman, could predict how many years they were going to add to Li Minchu’s five-year term. He said he couldn’t. But from then on he always asked me about Li Minchu.
I stopped talking with the former cop after Gao warned me that night. But it proved too late. One afternoon Chief Chen summoned me to the reform office.
“What do you think about Li Minchu? If I remember correctly, you were once in the same cell with him. Am I right?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“So you must have struck up a friendship with him.”
I didn’t say a word.
“I heard that you talked with women inmates about amnesty,” he said.
“Don’t deny it so quickly. We’ll get things clear tonight,” the chief said.
Gao wanted me to follow him to the lavatory as soon as I returned to the barracks.
“Did you tell anyone else what you said to Zhuang?”
“No,” I said.
“Then don’t confess anything, otherwise I can’t help you out,” he said in a whisper.
I also remember you saying that if a man’s dream were to be taken into account, half of the country would be imprisoned.
Chief Chen ordered the group to denounce me that night. As I expected, Zhuang, to whom I had always joked that I couldn’t imagine what he would look like in his police uniform, changed his usual friendly glance into a hostile stare.
“You’ve told me more than once that you’d spoken with the women inmates about amnesty when you were in the construction company,” the Old Cop said, taking out a mini notebook from his pants pocket. He opened it with one hand, and checked the small, closely written characters with the other.
I denied it calmly.
“You must tell the truth,” Gao yelled at me as though he was irritated, but then turned to the crowd and asked if anyone else had ever heard me say anything along those lines. Nobody responded.
The former cop slammed his chest with a palm and swore that he was responsible for everything he said.
“Did you say that?” Gao turned back to me.
I told Gao that I would confess if I had.
“Then tell the group what you’ve said to Zhuang,” Gao ordered.
I realized that it was time to provide a counter-charge against the Old Cop. As an old-timer, I knew that hitting back at an attacker is better than attempting to defend his blows.
“You’ve always told me that you felt it was unfair that Li Minchu went into the little cell just because of a dream,” I said, and looked at the Old Cop. “I also remember you rephrased the government authorities’ statement on the case, saying that if a man’s dream were to be taken into account, half of the country would be imprisoned ”
He looked at Chief Chen as if he didn’t know if he should respond to what I said. The chief gave him an approving nod.
“Yes, I said that,” Zhuang said arrogantly. “It was my strategy for finding out your point of view on the issue. It’s a common strategy for police interrogation.”
“So you think you’re still a policeman, don’t you?” I scoffed.
“Nonsense,” Gao yelled at Zhuang, and turned to order two inmates to pull him from his seat. The two inmates rose, about to grasp Zhuang by his wrists when Chief Chen raised an arm. The chief declared that it was he who had sent Zhuang to collect my counter-revolutionary remarks.
Seeing that he wouldn’t get anything from me, the chief left the group wordlessly. Later on that night Gao told me that the chief would have put me into solitary confinement had I confessed to anything Zhuang charged me with.
“Why on earth should they trap me?” I asked the former veterinarian.
“Chief Chen is in charge of the investigation of Li Minchu’s dream. Because of that he’s got the chance to communicate directly with the labor reform bureau of the province. And that’s a big opportunity to help his career,” Gao remarked.
I thanked Gao for his help, although I disliked how he behaved himself in public. I was so exhausted I hadn’t even bothered taking off my clothes when I went to bed. All I thought was that I would be able to sleep peacefully after wrangling with the Old Cop for hours on end.
The chief warned him that if he was heard yelling ‘amnesty’ again in his dream, he would be sent to solitary confinement right away.
At that moment, Wu Dedon, a former elementary school teacher known as Mad Dog, a grubby little man in his early thirties who was serving a seven-year prison term for making counter-revolutionary speeches, created a scene. Wu Dedon got his nickname because he would let out barks when he fought with other inmates, although he was always found lying under his opponents. He liked to fight when he was awake, and had an extraordinary habit of uttering broken sentences loudly when he was not. He alarmed the group with a horrifying scream and then: “Amnesty Don’t you know I can hold up my head now Don’t try to tell me that shit again, I’ve had enough.” He didn’t say anything else. But what he said proved sufficient to gather our group for an emergency meeting. Wu Dedon was forced to stand in the center of the room.
“What did you dream just now?” asked Chief Chen, who had hurried in at the news in his pink pajamas.
“I’ve forgotten everything,” Mad Dog replied angrily with his eyes shut. As soon as a heavy blow was laid on his shaved scalp, however, he let out a groan and opened his eyes, and then repeated his answer submissively.
“But they all heard you say, ‘Amnesty.’ Can you explain why you uttered this word in your dream?” roared the chief. Rising from the empty bunk upon which he sat, with a white enamel ashtray on one side and a mug of tea on the other, he started pacing to and fro. His arms folded over his chest so that his pajamas looked like a towel in which he had wrapped himself. His bare feet were in a pair of yellowish slippers decorated with roses on top. But he looked as pertinacious as ever.
“Sir, I really don’t remember what I dreamed,” Mad Dog murmured in a trembling voice.
“I give you five minutes to recollect,” Chief Chen said, and continued to pace.
It was when the chief could hardly keep his blood-shot eyes halfway open, and couldn’t resist yawning so that it was simply impossible for him to maintain his usually serious and thoughtful appearance for ten seconds, that he compromised by ordering Wu Dedon to write down whatever he had dreamed and read it aloud to the group at the next session.
What Wu Dedon wrote was like this: He dreamed that one morning he was walking on the street of his hometown, when he came across a former colleague who had seduced his girlfriend. Immediately, he realized that a fistfight over their old grudge was inevitable. Strangely enough, at that point his ex-girlfriend showed up. She asked him how he managed to come home when he was supposed to be in the labor reform prison performing forced labor. And he cried, “Amnesty!”
Because of his convincing story, Chief Chen allowed him to sit down. But the chief warned him that if he was heard yelling ‘amnesty’ again in his dream, he would be sent to solitary confinement right away.
Wu Dedon frowned. Before bedtime, however, he was found wearing such a big smile that his little eyes became two curved lines and his eyebrows spread sideways. I was puzzled. I didn’t understand why he looked so happy when he should worry about the uncertainty of his future—he knew better than anyone else that it was not funny to be sent to the solitary cell, for he had just been released from it. To my astonishment, he put an aluminum spoon into his mouth before he went to bed. He stopped muttering intelligible words that night. Instead, I heard him crunching the metal spoon in his dream, making sharp squeaks that aroused goosepimples. To put up with him, I had to plug my ears with toilet paper.
Two days before New Year’s Day 1973, we went to the annual show trial. Li Minchu and a prisoner from Division 5 were going to be executed. Although some inmates from our barracks had predicted that Li Minchu would soon become the subject of the Ultimate Revolutionary Humanity, when Chief Chen released the news that we would go to Li Minchu’s death penalty the crowd was in a tumult.
“I thought he would get ten years at the most for his bad dream,” one voice shouted.
“I never expected he’d be finished like this,” another voice said.
“Shut up,” Chief Chen roared, and then warned us at the top of his lungs that if anyone dared say a word during the trial, the armed guards would shoot them on sight. All the faces became rigid and sad except for the Old Cop’s, which looked vigorous, and as satisfied as if he were going to a wedding banquet. His good mood could no doubt be attributed to the fact that Chief Chen had informed the group the night before that he had been considering having Zhuang fill Zu Shaojun’s position as the number one prisoner of the barracks when Zu Shaojun finished his twelve-year term the coming spring.
I found Li Minchu had changed into another man, as if he no longer cared about his fate.
The scene was somehow less terrifying than the first show trial I attended. Since then, I had been prone to perceive the execution with a dialectical viewpoint by comparing the situation of the condemned prisoner with that of myself. I concluded that, although a violent death was horrible, after the firing squad had finished their job, the condemned man wouldn’t have to worry about his stone quota, nor would he need to conduct self-condemnations or receive denouncement from other inmates anymore, whereas I, as a witness of the death penalty, would continue to suffer both in the quarry and in the barracks. Only when I thought this way was I able to overcome the mental trauma that the atrocious scene left behind.
There was another condemned man standing beside Li Minchu on the platform. The other condemned prisoner, who was said to be a former navy captain and as strong as a horse, had been caught while swimming toward the other side of the lake wearing a pair of shackles. He struggled now, and let out a cry, for which he got a mouthful of sand. His face turned purplish. He was shaking madly. By comparison, Li Minchu looked as calm as if he had no idea why he should be standing there on the platform facing his fellow inmates’ frightened stares. Because of his calmness, they didn’t stuff anything into his mouth. But I found Li Minchu had changed into another man, as if he no longer cared about his fate. In my memory, he was timid. When someone threatened to report on his wife’s bringing in a piece of cake inside a hollowed bar of soap, he gave half of it to his cellmates in exchange for keeping the secret; when we were seated on the platform at the detention house to be sentenced he was the only one who cried. But now he was as calm as a man waiting for an award. He kept standing straight even after the other condemned man collapsed on the platform and wet his pants.
Only a few moments before, I hadn’t dared look at him. But now I wished I could stare at him as long as possible. I recalled the days we had been together in the detention house and in the newcomers’ barracks. I doubted if he would regard me as an informer, because he had been sent to the solitary cell right after I warned him.
It occurred to me that the authorities feared those individuals who were wiser than the majority and who could influence the masses with their wisdom. And that was why they wanted to crush with the Ultimate Revolutionary Humanity a nice, innocent man, like Li Minchu, while those who were fond of selling others’ blood in order to save their own, such as the former cop, had nothing to worry about. To survive the labor reform camp, one had to learn to become a faithful dog, like Gao, or an idiot, like Wu Dedon.
Suddenly our eyes met. But Li Minchu no longer recognized me. He looked to be in a sort of trance. No fear, no hate, nor reluctance could be found in his eyes when the general chief announced his death sentence: “Li Minchu, born in 1944 into a family that belonged to the exploiting class ”
They took him and the other condemned man away from the platform. A long silence followed. Then, as expected, from the lakeside came four gunshots, and a flock of birds rustled into the overcast sky.
Li Minchu had once said that his life was like a dream in which everything, such as his job, his marriage, his affair with the stage actress, and even his arrest, seemed to have happened so suddenly that he couldn’t do anything but submit. He had already forgiven his wife for turning him in. He looked forward to reuniting with her
Before we left Chief Chen came. He ordered Gao and me to go with him to the execution ground, where Li Minchu and the other condemned inmate lay with their faces down, their arms still bound behind their back with thick rope. There was blood beside their heads on the beach. Flies had already come to circle them. There were two prisoners from Division 5 to take care of their group’s man. A steamer was waiting nearby, its engine running idly.
When Chief Chen ordered us to wrap Li Minchu’s body with a straw mat, and carry it to the boat, Gao and I looked at each other. Obviously we both hoped the other would hold the head. Finally I decided to do it, after noticing Gao’s hands shaking terribly.
The steamer was sailing toward the crematorium on the other side of the lake. The two corpses were rolled in straw mats and fastened on the deck with ropes. We sat on one side of the cabin, while on the other sat Chief Chen and the officer from Division 5. They passed cigarettes to each other and started to talk. They were discussing Chairman Mao’s new instruction on class struggle, which was: wherever there are masses of people, they are invariably divided into the Left, the Middle, and the Right, and that nobody will be able to change things in the next ten thousand years.
Chief Chen told the other officer that he had already spent several sleepless nights contemplating this particular piece of instruction from Chairman Mao, and already understood the deep meaning in it.
“This is essentially about the new phenomenon of class struggle. It is the universally applicable truth. It indicates that among our cadres in the labor reform center, as among the people everywhere else, there are the Left, the Middle, and the Right,” Chief Chen said.
“How about among the prisoners?” the other officer asked.
“Even among them there are also the Left, the Middle, and the Right,” Chief Chen said.
It was cold and windy outside; the sky was darkened with thick clouds. The water splashed on the deck, whipping the mats that wrapped the two bodies and the four feet that stretched out from them.
Xiaoda Xiao is the author of the novel The Cave Man.
A Lousy Deal: an interview with Wuer Kaixi: On the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the student leader made famous for scolding the premier in his hospital gown discusses life in exile, guilt over the students’ deaths, and how his movement was a mere first step toward greater political freedom in China.
To contact Guernica or Xiaoda Xiao, please write here.
Excerpted from The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life (Two Dollar Radio, November 2010), Copyright 2010 by Xiaoda Xiao.