On June 4, 1989, having heard that the Tiananmen demonstrations had been lethally crushed, Kang Zhengguo, a professor of literature at a university in Shaanxi province, pinned a piece of paper to his chest displaying the words “AIM YOUR GUNS HERE.” Then he joined with his students who were marching to protest the killings that had taken place in Beijing the night before. This open defiance of the Party and its most senior leaders was typical of Kang. “I am incapable of saying what people want to hear,” he writes in his unique and sensitively written account of what it was like to grow up in Communist China from its beginnings in 1949 when he was five. “In fact I regard it as my personal mission to speak the opposite…. Opposition is the motive force in the search for truth.”

Kang now teaches Chinese language and literature at Yale. Others have written memoirs of suffering under the Communists but he is one of the few who have neither uttered nor implied the words “I love China.” Nor has he, as Princeton’s Perry Link says in his introduction, been affected by the tendencies evident in so many other accounts, among them “self-censorship, supplicatory attitude, bizarre modernism, or other deflections of vision.”

Indeed, Kang’s entire life recalls what I had always taken to be one of the saddest works in Chinese literature, Bai Hua’s play Unrequited Love. Beginning in 1981, Bai Hua, an army writer, came under years of sustained attack, led by Deng Xiaoping, for writing about a Chinese intellectual, recently returned from the United States, who criticizes the Chinese leadership for violently clearing Tiananmen Square in April 1976. Demonstrators there, mourning the death of Zhou Enlai in January of that year, had condemned the still all-powerful Gang of Four and, by implication, Mao himself. On the run, Bai Hua’s character confesses that his life has been one of “unrequited love, of one-sided affection.” His daughter says, “Father, you love your country…. But Father, does your country love you?”

Kang’s plight is darker. One of his lifelong wishes, he writes, was to “leave China for a land—any land—where I would be free of the Communist Party, its personnel cadres, and the Security Bureau.” This is not surprising. Even as a teenager, Kang was warned that he was, in his words, a maverick, that he was “behaving badly.” “‘Behaving,'” he points out, in one of his observations of the details of Communist control, “meant putting on a deliberate show of allegiance to the authorities. When the teachers and school leadership evaluated your ‘behavior,’ they were referring to your politics, and you had to play the game right if you wanted a rating of ‘well behaved.'”

Kang’s bad behavior was made worse by the fact that he came from a “Bad Class Background,” with a devout Buddhist grandfather and university-educated parents. His father was a drunk, a habit acquired while trying to avoid antagonizing the authorities, and his mother was severe and obsessive. Neither parent showed him any affection and his eccentric habits caused them so much anxiety that they wanted him to live elsewhere, first with his grandfather and later, after he acquired a new identity as a peasant, with a peasant wife. He eventually did marry a poor peasant woman whose own father had endured years of vilification as a “counterrevolutionary.” Even when they moved to New Haven, when Kang was fifty, she constantly criticized him for what she saw as his foolish and useless defiance of China’s dictatorship.

From his late childhood Kang read widely, bought books, kept a diary, and collected objects associated with traditional scholarship—ink stones, brush washers, jade objects. This was seen as a flagrant display of “bad behavior.” The books and diaries haunted Kang’s years in China as he periodically hid them, burned them, or denied he had them. In fact, the security services always knew the truth.

His grandfather’s gardener and odd-job man told him that the famine that caused at least 30 million Chinese to die between 1959 and 1961 was the result of crude policy mistakes. So serious was the hunger, even in the relatively unscathed city of Xi’an where the Kangs lived, that people tested themselves for edema by pressing on their foreheads or calves with a finger each morning “to see whether an indentation remained.” This finger test, he recalls, “became a widespread form of greeting.” Kang’s teachers instructed their students, in accord with Party doctrine, that the famine, which they only reluctantly acknowledged, arose from bad weather and Soviet economic pressures. Kang realized that his teachers were deceiving their students. In the fifth grade he wrote a poem about a trusty emaciated ox that dropped dead of hunger.

In 1963, when Kang was applying to the local university, his father warned him to choose science, not humanities. His father loved drinking and reading the classics, and he composed poems in the traditional style. But he argued that “literature was the most dangerous career I could possibly choose in China”; what was acceptable today could become heretical or reactionary the next day. “He was not alone in his convictions; his mind-set was widespread among intellectuals in those days.” Nonetheless, Kang chose the humanities, which he says was also the choice of the worst teachers and students. Soon he was the object of political snooping, informing, and threats. After he recited the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in a dormitory he was accused of harboring suicidal intentions. Fellow students avoided him. He was reminded that his posting of a student newspaper on a wall without prior approval was illegal, although the paper itself was harmless. Eventually he was ordered to write a confession. His principal crimes, up to then, were dating, writing “hedonistic” love poetry to a girl, and drinking wine with her on the campus. These acts alone, he was warned, could result in expulsion.


Now Kang asked himself: “What gave the political instructor and the party secretary the right to treat students like criminals awaiting trial? Whom were they referring to when they said that ‘the party’ required something?” Confessions were a Communist device, he believed, unknown in the pre-Communist years. They had become an “exercise in shameless hypocrisy—for everyone in China, including immature students like me, whose time should have been better spent.” Kang was told that his difficulties were the result of “my class origin…. But I had no idea what I was supposed to confess.” Then came demands that he turn over his diaries. Even his family would be held guilty if he refused to give them up. He handed the incriminating pages to a girlfriend. She panicked and burned them. The security officers found the ashes. “She was seriously implicated in my scandal, and she and her parents hated me forever as a result.”

Before long the security agencies had extracted denunciations of Kang from his entire class and eventually he was taken to a lecture hall jammed with officials, teachers, and his second-year classmates. On the wall, someone had written his grandfather’s name and put next to it a poster with the words “CRIMINAL LANDLORD ELEMENT.” Soon the entire hall echoed with shouts such as “Down with Kang Zhengguo’s swaggering!” Although he was terrified, Kang writes,

I was amazed that I, at the tender age of twenty, had done something worthy of such large-scale vituperation…. I wondered why everyone seemed so angry. Was I seeing real hatred, or was it artificial?… Some poor wretch had to play the villain in every campaign, and the role had unluckily fallen to me this time.

He was expelled from the university and handed over to the police; the denunciations in the lecture hall were added to the dossier that is kept on every Chinese, and he was sent home. Now regarded by the authorities as one of the “dregs of society” (a political classification of the time), Kang volunteered to work in a brickyard, where he imagined he might meet “some Robin Hood types.” He discovered quickly that he had “accepted an invitation from hell.”

The work was heavy and he was under constant official surveillance. But Kang was discovering the only way out of college and away from contaminating his family: in Perry Link’s phrase, “the only route out is down,” which for him meant, among much else, leaving home, “volunteering” to make bricks, and a stay in a labor camp. “Watching Kang spiral downward,” writes Link, “the reader is led to muse on the mechanics of social mobility in the other direction. Just what kind of behavior would help one rise within a system like this?” Kang asks a fundamental question about punishment in China: “If labor was so glorious, why did they give all the dirty work to us, the dregs of society, instead of doing it themselves?”

Always looking for time to study, Kang began teaching himself Russian. He longed to read Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, without fully grasping that in the current climate in both China and the Soviet Union they were condemned. “Consciously or subconsciously I was flirting with danger.” In May 1967, no sooner had the People’s Daily accused Dr. Zhivago of being a “counterrevolutionary novel” than Kang “became obsessed with the notion of getting a copy.” In an act of supreme naiveté, he wrote a letter the next day to the Moscow University library asking to borrow the book.

In September 1968 Kang was arrested and taken to Xi’an’s Department Five security prison; the guard who threw him into his cell called him a “counterrevolutionary bastard.” He was interrogated several times, following the usual procedure. Eventually, his interrogator asked Kang what Russian books he had read. Kang immediately confessed to having written the letter to Moscow (of course the book never arrived; the letter probably had been intercepted and the book never would have been sent anyway), and he was sent to a labor camp; his “lenient” sentence was entitled “Decision Regarding the Labor Re-education of the Criminal Reactionary Element Kang Zhengguo.” He was accused of “reactionary thought crimes and scheming to collude with the enemy.” The verdict also referred to his grandfather and father as “criminals,” meaning, Kang notes, that “Father’s and Grandfather’s criminal statuses somehow justified my punishment.” “I was being sentenced,” he writes, “to three years in the labor camps” merely because he had written of his will to resist. He promised himself to “never read another foreign book or study a foreign language again for as long as I live!”


Ten years later, in late December 1978, after the arrival of Deng Xiaoping in power, Kang received a copy of his rehabilitation:

Reexamination of Kang Zhengguo’s case has determined that he was motivated solely by enthusiasm for literature to write a letter to the Moscow University library to borrow a book. His letter contained no evidence of malfeasance, and it was a mistake for the Security Bureau to charge him with reactionary scheming to collude with the enemy, to detain him, and to sentence him to labor reeducation.

His reputation was now clear, the document added, and his dossier “should be cleaned out and its contents destroyed in accordance with the regulations.” He was now authorized to use his original name, which had been changed after his stay in the labor camps so he would have a new identity as a peasant. He was, however, forced to “recompense the state for the expense of imprisoning me.” Before long he was readmitted to a university, where two young women teachers “naively regarded my past disgrace and suffering as a badge of honor.” He also, after fifteen years, resumed writing a diary. He wrote:

Fifteen years of silence, during which I haven’t dared speak, write, or even think. Now it’s time to free myself from fear. I believe that the Chinese people will not permit such horror—when a man cannot even keep a personal diary—to repeat itself.

Twenty years later Kang admits that “this passage strikes me as bookish and naive: unduly optimistic about China and overconfident of my own capacity for poetical defiance…. Eventually, however, I came to understand what a blunder this was.”

Kang recalls that in the labor camp he had, for instance, to master the backbreaking technique of using a shoulder pole to carry two buckets of water up a hill. Tourists see peasants doing this or we can see it in paintings:

After I filled my buckets, I would head for the top. At first the loaded pole did not feel very heavy, but my right shoulder soon started to ache. The discomfort increased until I began to fear that my shoulder joint was going to dislocate or fracture or that I might collapse on the spot…. Carrying water involved a certain degree of skill…. The first technique…was learning to carry the pole on either shoulder.

After much pain, he learned how to change shoulders while carrying the buckets.

Resettling at home after his sentence was up would endanger Kang’s family; but changing one’s residence was, and remains, a huge problem in China. One solution is to become the adopted son of a peasant, and he found a bad-tempered, lazy, unusually poor new “father.” He was “apathetic and irresponsible, the kind of person the villagers called a slug…. Villagers all over China were rife with indifferent peasants like him.” But precisely because he was so poor and “practically the village idiot,” the peasants elected Kang’s adoptive father their association chief. Because his house had no front wall, if he stole “he would have nowhere to hide the loot.”

By 1973, Kang found a new home in a tumbledown house. After a ceremony marking his new status he decided to change his name as well. “Even if my life was tough, from now on, my family would be spared any further suffering on my account. Changing my name seemed like a small price to pay.” With a new residence and a changed name,

it was as if I had been reincarnated…. Nobody seemed to care that I was a reactionary or to show any curiosity about my expulsion from college and incarceration in the labor camps…. Now I was a “new man,” according to the jargon I’d learned in the labor camps.

His future seemed clear:

I was stuck in this village forever, no matter what. As defiant as ever, I intended to do things my own way, regardless of what people said…. While I sincerely respected the old peasants for preserving their high standards, I had no desire to model myself on them…. I was simply not cut out to be a peasant.

His work was of such low quality that he was told to join a team of women:

The women stooped over the wheat and cut their bundles one at a time…. I could not hunch my back for extended periods of time, so I had to squat or kneel on a bundle of wheat as I worked…. The women had left me far behind…. From my vantage point, they were a faraway row of hunched backs in brightly colored shirts, spotted here and there with sweat and dried salt crystals.

During those years Kang discovered that he was under constant police surveillance. His family suggested that his prolonged bachelor life attracted this attention, and it was soon arranged for him to meet a peasant woman to marry. This proved to be Xiuqin, daughter of a very poor peasant with a bad political background. Kang’s real family loved her. His uncle sized her up: “She’s tall and strong and looks like a good worker.” They were married in a “spiritless wedding ceremony.”

The next few years, Kang writes, “passed in a blur,” and the couple produced two children. One night Xiuqin told her husband her life story: “In the manner of an oral historian, I jotted down everything she said that night.” Her father, she told him, had returned home and she faced the stigma of being the daughter of a counterrevolutionary. As Perry Link observes, the shunning of people socially was taken by the Party as proof that people were united in proper thoughts, a “surface appearance of unanimous support for the party.” But Xiuqin remembered her grandmother cursing Mao:

Mao…you old bastard!… You’re such a butcher! It’s your fault that my daughter has to slave a day in the mountains just like a man. You’ve robbed the people of their food and driven so many to their deaths! The world would be a better place without you.

Xiuqin, who wanted to marry for love, could find no man who would dare marry a political undesirable like her. She told Kang, “As I sat there watching you and listening to [the matchmaker], I started to fall in love.” But she was warned about Kang’s background, and told that the police might come and “hustle you away in handcuffs at the slightest excuse.”

Xiuqin thoroughly understood her husband:

You’re from a rich family, and moving to the countryside was a step down in the world for you…. “I’ll kill myself if I’m still stuck out here in the sticks when I’m forty,” you ranted. You were just letting off steam, without considering how your blathering made me feel.

…You didn’t want to be saddled with children yet, so you bought me some birth control pills in town. I told you I was taking them, but I was fibbing. I had tossed them directly into the trash. I was twenty-three, and I knew that I would miss my chance to fulfill myself as a woman if I let you make all the decisions.

Unfortunately our first child was a daughter…. I had our son…a year later. You wanted me to abort him, but I refused…. I had two children in the space of three years. As the saying goes, “One son and one daughter is heaven on earth.” People stopped bullying me. In fact the other women were dying of jealousy.

When his wife finished, Kang asked her if she had anything else to say, and she added a few sentences about how his marriage saved him from arrest when Mao died in 1976. He records much of what she says to him over the years, all of it honest and much of it well aimed at what she saw, with reason, as his reckless political defiance of the Party in China and later from abroad. He never comments on these harangues.

Despite pinning his “AIM YOUR GUNS HERE” sign on his chest, after he had returned to his university in Shaanxi in 1979, Kang escaped the persecution suffered by many others who had supported the Tiananmen demonstrators. In 1993, at age fifty, he attended a conference at Yale on women in literature—his special subject. This led to an invitation to teach Chinese at Yale, although not as a tenure-track professor. Six years later, in 2000, he returned to a conference in Nanjing, where China’s new vulgarity appalled him:

The water was polluted, and the ancient buildings had been torn down and replaced with mass-produced replicas topped with garish, flashing neon lights. Music blared out from dance halls facing the river.

During his brief return to China Kang was arrested and questioned about sending “counterrevolutionary” materials, among them his own essays and letters, to friends in China.* Kang wondered, “What did such worthless snooping have to do with state security? He [the interrogator] was flaunting this trivia just to make a show of omniscience.” He soon realized that far from relaxing their grip, the security organs were

as restrictive as ever, and [their] spy apparatus was now streamlined by the latest technology. Like a spider in its web in a dark corner of the room, the Security Bureau was always lying in wait for its prey.

Having been warned that he could be detained for six months—during which he would be responsible for paying for room and board—Kang was ordered to write a confession. “‘Can’t you see it’s all just a bunch of Commie bullshit?’ my young guard said. ‘Quit nitpicking and hand in the damned thing, or I won’t be able to take my Sunday off tomorrow.'” Kang wrote it. “China was still a police state, and I was still doomed to writing confessions. China’s petty bureaucrats had stripped me of my humanity one more time.” Perhaps more painful still, most of Kang’s old friends, many of them former critics of the regime, now either avoided him or urged him to fall in step with the Party.

Now fifty-six and back at Yale, Kang

found myself redefining my identity again…. This time my new name was Zhengguo Kang, as it appeared on my American citizenship certificate and passport. As Mencius said, “…Thus the otter drives the fish to the deep; thus the hawk drives birds to the bushes….” Today the repressive Chinese Communist regime is driving millions of Chinese people to seek asylum in the world outside.

His bitterly eloquent wife, Xiuqin, who had just visited China herself and vowed never to return, said:

Well, the police got what they wanted…. They’ve shut you up. You and all your reactionary propaganda! What was the point of wasting so much money on postage? Your silliness cost you a lot of friendships in Xi’an [in China], and now look at you, an outcast in a foreign land!… I think you should simply close the Chinese chapter of your life.

Although he is still homesick, Kang writes that he came around to his wife’s view. Still fundamentally opposed to the Party, he ends his book apparently content with his scholarly work and his children. His daughter doesn’t read what he writes. “Take it easy, Dad…. I even listened to you clearing your throat all the time when you’re writing all those books. What do I need to read them for?”

Kang made another trip to China in June of this year, visiting his son who works in Shanghai. Once more security officers attempted to detain him but he eluded them and, in a dramatic escape, consular officials helped him onto a plane bound for the US. He told me:

I realized how little China had changed. I have more disclosures to make, but they will not be humiliating confessions extracted by the Chinese Communists. Knuckling under only puts one at their mercy. From now on my disclosures will be intended to embarrass them into reform.

Kang’s wife is right, of course. He should give up. The Chinese people are lucky he hasn’t.

This Issue

February 14, 2008