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In China’s Gulag

Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons

by Pu Ning
Grove, 228 pp., $21.00

Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag

by Harry Wu, by Carolyn Wakeman
Wiley/a Robert L. Bernstein book, 290 pp., $22.95

Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

by Ma Bo, translated by Howard Goldblatt
Viking, 371 pp., $24.95

Grass Soup

by Zhang Xianliang, translated by Martha Avery
Godine, 247 pp., $21.95

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship between life in the Soviet penal colonies and the near impossibility of creating prose literature about those same camps. As Solzhenitsyn puts it,

Verses can be read, lips close to ear; they can be remembered, and they or the memory of them can be communicated. But prose cannot be passed on before its time. It is harder for it to survive. It is too bulky, too rigid, too bound up with paper, to pass through the vicissitudes of the Archipelago. Who in camp could make up his mind to write?

Of most of those who may have tried to create such literature, we now can have no record: “No one will ever tell us about the notebooks hurriedly burned before departures on prisoner transports, or of the completed fragments and big schemes carried in heads and cast together with those heads into frozen mass graves.”

The tragedy of this loss is all the deeper to Solzhenitsyn because the millions of Russian intellectuals thrown into the camps had an experience denied to most of their ilk across human history: consigned to live and die in the camps, they lost the patronizing pity that usually separated intellectuals from the poor and the dispossessed and the guilt they felt at not sharing that plight. Forced to be serfs themselves, they at last could understand the serfs, and were truly ready, Solzhenitsyn wrote, to undertake a fundamental examination of the human condition. But it was precisely at this moment that the intellectual

had no pencil, no paper, no time, no supple fingers. Now the jailers kept shaking out his things and looking into the entrance and exit of his alimentary canal, and the security officers kept looking into his eyes.

So the “bearers of the merged experience perished” and “thus it was that an unprecedented philosophy and literature were buried under the iron crust of the Archipelago.”

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was Solzhenitsyn’s own triumphant assertion of the writer’s ability to capture in prose the reality of life in the gulag, by distilling and reordering his experiences. Now in China, too, writers are starting to penetrate that “iron crust” by recalling in detail what happened to them in the labor and internment camps of their own gulag. The authors of four such books, which have just appeared in English translations, have each adopted a different strategy for preserving and sharing their memories: Han Wei-tien, a former Kuomintang army officer who spent twenty-four years in Communist camps before being repatriated to Taiwan, compiled “a sort of journal” after his release in order to preserve his experiences. Acknowledging that he had “no talent for writing and wouldn’t presume to try,” he consigned his manuscript to the novelist Pu Ning in Taipei. Pu Ning, the author of the cycle of novels “Wu ming shu,” Book Without a Title, had also lived on the mainland until 1982 and done time in Communist jails. As Pu Ning revised or rewrote Han’s words, the two talked often by telephone and also saw each other regularly.

Harry Wu, originally trained as a geologist in China, spent nineteen years in camps as a “rightist,” and several years after that as a semi-confined laborer still subject to prison discipline. After his release he tried to use the entries in his journal in drafting a memoir, and he dictated other memories in either English (which he knew well) or Chinese to a variety of friends. In 1992 he gave the various fragments to Carolyn Wakeman at Berkeley, who had previously written To the Storm: The Odyssey of a Revolutionary Chinese Woman, recounting the sufferings of the repeatedly persecuted scholar Yue Daiyun. During several months of interviews with Harry Wu Ms. Wakeman slowly gave shape to his jumbled recollections, tidied up some inconsistencies, and asked him about what she calls “the welter of less memorable experiences and relationships that reveal motivation and character.”*

Ma Bo, a Red Guard condemned as a counterrevolutionary in 1970 for defaming Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and sentenced to eight years hard labor in Inner Mongolia, was the son of the novelist Mo Yan. From the first, he seems to have kept a running diary, parts of which he preserved by burying them under a pile of rocks in the state farm. In 1975, as prison conditions improved, he began to write during the night: “Except for the time spent working, eating in the mess hall, and going to the toilet, I wrote. No visiting, no bull sessions; I didn’t even wash my clothes.” Sitting on an upturned bucket, using the beaten-earth sleeping platform as a desk, Ma wrote until “light-headed and breathless,” as he puts it, without “worry about the creative process. I just wrote what happened, letting the story tell itself.” He kept the manuscript wrapped in oiled paper and took it with him when he left the steppe in 1976, his sentence suspended.

The most artful and most disarming explanation of how he came to write a book is that of Zhang Xianliang in his introduction to Grass Soup, an account of the twenty-two years spent in various camps. After a little over two years in prison, Zhang writes, he suddenly decided to keep a diary. Buying a notebook in the camp shop, he wrote the first entry: “1960. 11 July. Capital construction: hauled dirt clods.” Why did he buy the book and begin to write? Zhang claims he is not sure. He remembers being astonished to be sitting there with a pen in his hand. “It may be that I want to write this diary simply because I own a pen,” he reflects later. That entry for July 11, 1960, was as long as he dared to make it. In the camps you could not write what you thought. That would get you killed. You might write what you thought the readers of your diary would want to read; but that was a dangerous game, one that could backfire with a far longer prison sentence if your expressions of guilt were taken literally and a new punishment added to your dossier. So Zhang decided that “Instead, I would think first of the events or thoughts that I must absolutely not write down.” For July 11, that did not leave much. But such care meant that the diary was not destroyed, even after being scrutinized by the authorities in 1970. It was returned to Zhang after his “rehabilitation” in 1980.

On such a skeleton, by drawing on his memory to expand a number of brief notes into separate chapters, he reconstructs his life in hell. The diary entries stop just under two months later, on September 4; many remain one-line notes, but others encompass more information and incident, sometimes taking up a dozen lines. The entry for September 4 runs to eleven lines and is one of the longest. “Troop leader Zheng got angry,” reads the third sentence. The last chapter of his book expands on this sentence, describing the suicide of a fellow prisoner who felt humiliated before his wife and child who were visiting him. And at the end one feels that Zhang has said all he can on the camps. The chapter, to which I will return, is piercing in its economy and its power. Is it accurate? Who can say? Is it true? It feels so, completely. And do we believe in Zhang’s method of using the few words he recorded to arouse memories? Do diaries really survive like that? Where did Zhang find ink, in the gulag? How did he write so neatly in the dark? Can memories be so precisely recaptured? Has Zhang, now a novelist of distinction, written more of a novel than a memoir? It does not seem to me to matter. As Mark Strand puts it:

Men are running across a field,
pens fall from their pockets.
People out walking will pick them up.
It is one of the ways letters are written.

The literary talents of these four writers vary, but the suffering that each of them endured demands our respect. And their cumulative seventy-three years of incarceration, though only a fragment of the millions of years endured by other Chinese during this time, form an indictment of the system that the current regime in China still, despite its vague murmurs of cooperation, shows no signs of opening to inspection from the United Nations or the Red Cross, let alone the various international organizations committed to monitoring human rights abuses.

Similar though all labor camp experiences may be in their broadest outlines, each one carries within its own daily agonies, and occasional small triumphs. Especially during the great famine years between 1959 and 1962, yet also during all the other years in camps, hunger was the guiding motif of the prisoners’ existence. As they struggled for their own survival, they watched countless unknown prisoners, and some who had briefly become their friends, die slowly and mainly silently; sometimes they speeded the process by using their last ounce of strength to commit suicide. None of the four writers admits to supplementing his customary tiny daily ration of chaff and flour dumplings with watery gruel by stealing the regular meals from his fellow prisoners, however great the temptation. But all admit to stealing whatever other food they could from prison plots or peasant fields; and each describes the rapture of finding a sweet potato here, a cucumber there, or—though each had a particular revulsion that he could not overcome—the eating of a rat, a partially rotted rabbit’s leg, wild snails, toads, the flour and water paste issued for gluing struggle posters to the walls, and the little stocks of seeds and grain to be found in a painfully excavated rodent’s nest.

Though they all heard stories of cannibalism elsewhere, none except for Han Wei-tien mentions it in his own camp, or speaks of it except with sad revulsion. But they all describe their fellow inmates’ acts of desperation. Zhang remembers a prisoner called Su desperately gnawing at an ear of raw corn dropped accidentally by a local farmer. As Su gnawed, the guard lashed repeatedly, with a rope whip, at the fingers curled around the precious cob while the prisoner, oblivious to the pain, finished every one of the blood-spattered kernels, then licked his mouth clean of blood and corn. Harry Wu recalls a prisoner charging straight at the communal soup bucket, upsetting it on the earthen floor, and scrabbling on all fours to lick the globs of pork fat from the mud, continuing even when a study leader split open his head with the emptied bucket, so that “bean sauce, blood, and mud [were] smeared across his face.”

  1. *

    On June 16, Mr. Wu, although he is now an American citizen, was arrested by the Chinese authorities as he entered China from Kazakhstan. On July 8, the official Chinese news agency announced that he had been formally arrested and charged with espionage, in Wuhan, thousands of miles from the Kazakhstan border.

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