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China’s Secret Prison

The following interview was conducted with a Chinese artist who during the late 1960s and early 1970s spent five years in the top-secret prison complex called Qin City, which is here described in detail for the first time. He had been a strong advocate of the Cultural Revolution and had supported extreme leftist policies toward the arts. During factional disputes, however, he was falsely accused of leading a “counterrevolutionary” organization to which many artists were said to belong. He was seized, sent to Qin City without trial or any form of due process, and kept in solitary confinement.

For obvious reasons, both his name and that of his interviewer must be withheld.

—Thomas P. Bernstein and Andrew J. Nathan


Q: Wei Jing-sheng, the political dissident and democratic movement leader, published something about the life in Qin City in his underground magazine before his arrest and trial in October of 1979. Does that report seem accurate to you?

A: Basically, yes, although not complete. Some fiction writers, like Ding Ling, have also mentioned it, although briefly and not by name. The material exposing Liu Shaoqi by China’s ex-Soviet ambassador Liu Xiao was originally stamped as having been written there, but the words were later deleted. In any case, some day people will know about it. Mainly high-ranking and famous people have been prisoners there, like Liu Shaoqi’s wife Wang Guangmei, the Delai Lama’s older brother, the discredited members of the Cultural Revolution Directorate, the great pianist Liu Shikun, and a number of foreigners. I assume that the Gang of Four is being held there now.

Q: Where is Qin City?

A: In northern Changping County, northeast of Peking, near the Xiaotang Mountain Sanatorium. You take the road from Peking for an hour, and there’s a right-hand turn with the sign, “Restricted Area. No Foreigners.” Drive down that road forty minutes between the wheat fields and the double row of white poplars straight to the end, and you’ll see it. It’s very pretty, like a military hospital. There’s no one there but the Kings of Hell and the little ghosts.

Q: How did you know you were in Qin City?

A: At first, I didn’t. They held my head down when they drove me in, a Security Bureau officer on each side. I couldn’t see a thing. When we stopped I saw we were in a big compound. They took me to a preliminary questioning room. There they ordered me to sign the arrest warrant. It was ridiculous, since my arrest was already a fait accompli. I demanded to know what I was accused of and who was prosecuting me, but they wouldn’t answer. I was tempted not to sign so that it would be an arrest under protest, but then I thought, this is an organ of the dictatorship of the people, so why should I be afraid? Someday my innocence would be clear. So I wrote my name. Then they ordered me to strip, and confiscated my clothing. They gave me some cloth shoes and a monkey suit, black outside and white within. There were no pockets, and the drawstring was short, so I couldn’t hang myself with it, I suppose. They shaved my head and commanded me to go with them.

We went out a different door and into a long, gray-walled corridor open to the sun. It was about 5 yards across and many yards long, seemingly ending at the foot of the mountains themselves. We walked about a third of a mile, probably past the residential areas for the prison workers and soldiers and their families. The walls continued, and now there were locked iron doors with an armed sentry standing in front of each one. Over the walls I could see U-shaped buildings about four stories high, one behind each gate. There must have been about twenty different prisons. Finally, a gate was opened to me. I was taken around a smaller building and past the flower and vegetable garden enclosed between the wings of the building. They ushered me inside, locked doors opening and shutting again behind me.

I saw no one but sentries. They put me in a small room and locked the door. After a while, they brought me some bedding and a newspaper. When I saw it was an old one, I asked to exchange it. The sentry said sharply, “Whatever day we give you, that’s the day you read.” Later, someone came to tell me the rules: “This is an organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat under the leadership of Chairman Mao. There is to be no shouting. There is to be no writing on the walls. There is to be no speaking to anyone, including the sentries. It is especially forbidden to tell anyone your name.” Then the man was gone, and the door locked behind him.

It didn’t open again for over a year. I didn’t know where I was, how long I was supposed to be there. Sometimes, on a windy day, I heard a faint loudspeaker saying, “China-Vietnam People’s Commune,” so I guessed it was nearby. Then one day I asked to be given something to read. The warden refused. I insisted that I be allowed to read the works of Marx, Lenin, and Chairman Mao. They still said no. I said, “You think I’m a bad man, don’t you?” They said, “Of course you’re a bad man. Why else would you be here?” I said, “If I’m a bad man, I should have a chance to reform myself.” So eventually I got my books. And on each of them was stamped, “Qin City Library.”

Q: Could you tell me something more about your physical environment?

A: Well, I gradually figured out there were about forty prisoners on each floor, all of them in solitary confinement. They’d have no trouble keeping more than a thousand prisoners there, when you consider the number of buildings identical to mine.

My room didn’t have rubber walls, but some of them did. The cell was about 15 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 9 feet high, with only a small wooden bed and two damp cotton quilts, one to lie on and one to cover myself with. There was a window of nontransparent green glass that opened upward at the top and in front of it were white-painted iron bars and a screen to keep out mosquitoes. All you could see was a little sky. The ceiling was fitted with two light bulbs, a strong one for daytime, a weak one for night; they wanted to be able to keep an eye on you at all times. These were covered with steel wire to prevent me from electrocuting myself. The door had two layers, the inner one steel and the outer one wooden, and at the bottom was a small hole for food and newspapers. At eye-level was the little window, steel-encased from the outside. There was one sentry for every two or three prisoners, and mine shot back the bar several times an hour to check on me. There was a similar window in the little washroom as well, so you were under observation at all times, even when you were crouched over the floor-level toilet.

Q: So how did you spend your time?

A: Like a machine. Running in place. Reading. Talking to myself. I ran in place six hours a day. I didn’t want to wear out my shoes so I ran barefoot, and I eventually wore quite a deep impression in the dirt floor. After they gave me books to read, I only ran four hours a day. I had to stand up at attention as soon as the wake-up bell sounded, and I wasn’t allowed to sit long during the day. They were afraid I’d get sick. At night I had to sleep on my side facing the door so they could check me. After several years, I felt a painful stiffness all down one side of my body which I have to this day.

In the morning we ate rice porridge, at noon and at night rice or steamed sorghum with fried turnips or cabbage. The warden had given me a little metal bowl and a white plastic spoon, and I was to hold these out in the corridor by reaching through the little hole when I heard the wheels of the food cart. At every mealtime I heard the shouts of other prisoners, “Chairman Mao, I’m still hungry!” But if you ever asked for more you’d be cursed, and next mealtime you might get hot food slopped onto your hand instead of into the bowl.

I got a bar of soap every two months and as much tooth powder as I wanted, but no toothpaste because they were afraid I might eat the tube and kill myself. After the first year, I was allowed to bathe every two weeks, but I had to strip naked in my cell and run to the washroom. Haircuts were in the corridor, and I had a chance to see how the sentries made their rounds.

I was never allowed to go to the library. Instead, they passed me a slip of paper with my number on it and I wrote down what I wanted; of course, Marx, Lenin, and Chairman Mao were the only authors available. If they had what I asked for, they’d slip it through my food hole—what happiness that was! During those five years, I read every single work of Marx, Lenin, and Mao published in China, including Marx’s and Lenin’s memoirs. I learned my lessons well, too. Sometimes someone would come in and demand, “What have you been thinking about?” And I would answer, “I’m ready to serve the Party at any time.” They never paid any attention, though, and just left without comment. Whenever they gave me paper and pencil, I wrote letters of appeal to Chairman Mao about my innocence. They never criticized me for this, but I’m sure they just kept the letters in their offices and never sent them.

Q: How did the prison workers treat you?

A: I had contact with four types of people, Security Bureau officers, military leaders, wardens, and soldiers. They were always rotating the soldiers, so I never recognized any of them, but the wardens were the same. They were very cold, not talkative. I remember once they put a slogan on my wall, “Leniency to Those Who Admit Their Crimes; Severity to Those Who Refuse.” I felt this slogan did not apply in my case, and I took it down and put it under my pillow. A soldier came in immediately and demanded that I hand it over. I refused, and more came in. Four of them started beating and kicking me. When I protested, they said, “Who says we can’t beat a counterrevolutionary?” Later, I asked to speak to the warden. I said, “I’m not a counterrevolutionary.” “If you’re not a counterrevolutionary, who is? Us?” he said. I said, “If you can wait, I can wait. Someday I’ll walk out of here smiling.”

Sometimes late at night I’d hear a cry, “Chairman Mao, so-and-so is a man, not a ghost!” Then there would be a huge kicking at the metal door, a sentry trying to stifle the sound. The women used to pound the door and weep, but they were treated the same way.

I was afraid of losing the ability to speak, so I often talked softly to myself. Once I thought I would go crazy if I couldn’t talk to somebody, so I shouted, “Report!”—the signal for a warden. The sentry said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want to see a warden.” He left, and returned with four Security Bureau officials carrying shackles and handcuffs. They locked them on. I thought they were just trying to scare me, but they didn’t take them off for ten days. It wasn’t until I got sick and the doctor came to look at me that they released me. After that I knew it was useless to struggle with them.

In 1973, they took me to the interrogation room to listen to a document. It was the first and only time. They said, “Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou have issued a new edict: ‘The fascist style of interrogation should be eliminated. From now on, if such things occur, the prisoner must be permitted to appeal.”’

I understood. The relatives of some of the old Central Committee members must have found out what was going on and protested. I said, “Does this apply to what has already happened?” They said, “No. From now on.”

In fact, things did get somewhat better. From then on I was allowed to get outside into the air once a day. I heard it was because the doctors said everyone’s health was dangerously poor.

Q: Can you tell me about going outside?

A: You remember I said there was a smaller building just inside the gate? It was divided into twenty or thirty rooms, all of them open to the sky. Inside, it was like looking at the clouds from inside a well, except for the fact that there was a kind of long road on top between the rooms, where two armed sentries stood and looked down at you.

I remember the first time I was allowed out, during my second year. I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to be the only one. It wasn’t until much later that I realized they had it timed exactly, and as each prisoner rounded a corner, another one was released. That way they could clear a lot of us within a short time without ever letting us set eyes on each other. Perhaps that was the virtue of the U-shaped prison. Of course, you could shout out, “I am so-and-so, I am innocent,” but you only brought trouble for yourself.

The time limit for being “put in the wind” was an hour. At first, it was once a month, then three times a month, and finally every day. Once I caught a little sparrow. I was mad with happiness! The sentry stamped his foot and spit to make me look at him, but I just cradled my little sparrow against my chest.

Q: If it was so hard to see a little sparrow, did you ever see anyone or go anywhere aside from the people and places you mentioned?

A: The clinic was like an ordinary clinic, but I wasn’t permitted to speak to the doctors and nurses. Once I did see another prisoner. It was pure chance. I was going out for my “airing” and a sentry let me round the corner before the man in front of me had disappeared. I saw black clothes and a shaved head like my own. He looked back and saw me, too. I thought about that contact for days. Another time, there was some kind of mix-up on the same path, and I was shoved into another man’s cell to let somebody pass. It was exactly like mine, but the walls were padded with rubber.

Q: Did you ever do any physical labor?

A: Never. They just left me in there as if to die. But I think there may have been some who did, judging by the footsteps outside my cell and the intervals at which they occurred. I hope that someday their stories will be told as well.

Q: Were you ever interrogated?

A: At first, I longed to be interrogated, because I thought that way I would be cleared. But later, I learned to dread it. It was always at least three days at a stretch, with thirty or forty military officers or Security Bureau officials shooting questions at me. As soon as I came in, they ordered me to read the quotation from Chairman Mao on the wall: “You must reveal everything, as if overturning a bamboo container. All you have to do is speak honestly, and you will get work and freedom.” I have never seen this quotation anywhere else but in Qin City; perhaps it is a restricted one. After I had read it, they had me sit on a heavy ceramic stool, and they asked their questions. I always answered, “I am ready to serve the Party at any time,” no matter what they asked. They thought I was crazy. They always tried to get me to admit I was a counterrevolutionary: “If you confess, you can return to the Revolutionary ranks; if you don’t, you will be a counterrevolutionary forever.” I always insisted on my innocence, but they refused to discuss the question.

Eventually, they gave up on me and there were no interrogations at all. I lost the most basic of human rights: the right to interact with others. For the sake of power struggles within the Party, they were willing to let me die quietly.

Q: How did you finally get out?

A: One day I noticed that fewer doors seemed to be opening when it was time to go out into the air. And my position in the outdoor rooms seemed to have moved considerably closer to the front. I guessed a lot of people had been released. After a while, my newspaper was up-to-date; there were fewer people to share it with me. Then the door finally opened. “What is it?” I asked. “We want to talk with you.” They led me into the interrogation room. “Please sit down.” Please sit down! I could hardly believe my ears. “Today we have an important announcement. Afterward, we’ll talk. How has your health been recently?” “I’m ready to serve the Party at any time,” I answered. They read, “‘Our great leader Chairman Mao personally releases you.’ That’s all.” “What document? I want to see the document,” I demanded. “There’s no need to ask that. We’ve communicated it to you.” “I want to know what crime I committed,” I said. “No crime. You’re a comrade.” “Comrade?” “Now we are comrades. We release you, and that’s that.” “Then why did you lock me up?” I asked. “The Central Committee investigated you. But that’s all past now.”

So they concluded the meeting that way. Never said what the crime was, and never said they would clear my name. They simply took me back to my cell and locked me up again. First they called me “comrade”…and then they locked me up.

The next day they issued me a new pair of pants and a jacket, and told me I wasn’t allowed to take anything from the jail. Still, I brought my cloth shoes, a souvenir of five years of absurdity. As I left the building, a number of high-ranking military officers were being released at the same time, muttering, “We didn’t do our work well enough. It was only right.” It seemed as if they had all gone insane. As the wardens, sentries, Security Bureau officials, and nurses stood on both sides of the road to see us off, I turned back to look one more time at the place I had spent my best time and strength. Then I climbed into the car waiting to take me back to human life. I was a ghost made flesh again; I wondered if everyone would be afraid of me.

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