Title

In China’s Gulag

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?

Jean Vincent/AFP/Getty Images
A poster on a Beijing street in 1966 shows how to deal with a so-called “enemy of the people” during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

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.”

* * *

Each of the four writers talks of sex in camp or recounts dreams they had about it. Han Wei-tien—though the episode is shrouded in vague romantic language by his collaborator Pu Ning—seems to have had a Tibetan woman lover when he worked on the Qinghai road, a project that caused the death of many other laborers; she brought him mutton, too, and even bribed the guards to let them have some liquor at the New Year. Harry Wu, apparently still without sexual experience when jailed, writes of a fellow inmate whose hopeless yearning for his lost fiancée led him first to constant masturbation and then to exhibitionism and a final random sexual propositioning of the other prisoners. This led to his arrest and eventual suicide. For Ma Bo, who had a variety of sexual liaisons during his Red Guard years, isolation in the winter camps brought on a madness of indiscriminate desire. Alone, filthy, goaded by hearing stories of male guards who demanded sexual favors or else raped the female inmates of the camps, he thought of women “so fiercely, I could neither sit nor stand still. I masturbated all the time, sometimes three or four times a day, usually while cuddling up to my sheepskin coat or embracing my pillow.”

Zhang, too, presents himself as a young man of almost complete sexual innocence. The exclamation point he inserted in his diary for the entry on July 30, 1960, was, he tells us, all he needed to recall one of the most thrilling moments of his camp life. He writes, “30 July—Cut hemp on Farm Sixteen! ‘Entertainment Evening.’ ” The entertainment evenings consisted of didactic plays randomly scheduled by the prison commander as a form of diversion and acted and sung by selected prisoners. They were resented and even feared by the other prisoners who had to discuss the political implications of each play as soon as it was over. But the performances broke up the monotony of the convicts’ world.

On the evening of July 30 Zhang was released early, after cutting his quota of hemp, and sent to transcribe a copy of that evening’s play, since he was a good calligrapher. As he finished his work, a woman convict who was to act in that evening’s play came into the room where he was writing. After a few moments’ conversation, she placed a hand on Zhang’s shoulder, brushed her face up close to his, and startlingly, suddenly, showed him her tongue. Zhang fled, he says, and never learned the woman’s name, though he saw her once more that evening, on stage, playing the role of a young girl oppressed by a landlord. Virginal at twenty-three, he had no idea that people used their tongues to make love. When years later a woman “expertly” put her tongue into his mouth for the first time, Zhang was not aroused. Instead, tears filled his eyes as he remembered that female convict and understood at last the promise of her gesture.

The yearning for love, like the ceaseless search for food, always took place for each of these four prisoners under constant surveillance by the prison guards, whose ever-widening circles of authority led at last to the senior camp officers who could on a whim assign a prisoner to punishment cells so cramped and filthy that the bodily pain of being confined in them was almost unendurable. They could also interrogate a prisoner for days or weeks about alleged political crimes until he or she broke down and confessed out of loneliness, desperation, and hunger to whatever was being charged. Sometimes the prisoners were tricked through fear into incriminating people from their past, often because they were told that they had been incriminated by others.

* * *

Ma Bo gives the longest account of such an interrogation and collapse; at times his words recall both the intellectual intensity of Raskolnikov’s discussions with Porfiry in Crime and Punishment and the brutality and subtlety of Rubashov’s interrogation by Gletkin in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. These echoes are not surprising, for there are perhaps only so many ways to break a human will completely. Thus Han Wei-tien, who suggests that he was able to sustain a certain sense of watchfulness and even a kind of independence for over two decades, was reduced by pain and deprivation to a state in which his “soul was…paralyzed.” He lived in a world in which “if I had not died physically, I had at least died mentally,” and in which it seemed natural to attempt suicide. Zhang records how his camp commissar informed the prisoners it was a “counter-revolutionary theory” to believe that men who ate only grass had no energy to work. The result of this crazed but forceful logic was that many of the convicts grew convinced that “it was our own fault that we were dying of starvation.”

Zhang’s deep and abiding contempt for the behavior of the intellectuals under pressure gives his own testimony a bitter tone. Their disintegration, to him, was worse than that of the poor peasants or hardened criminals who for various reasons were imprisoned in the same camps. To Zhang the uneducated criminals maintained a certain shrewd dignity, while the intellectuals were like mice, poking their noses out of their holes and looking around before saying anything, and then retreating if they “saw so much as a shadow.” Zhang writes that intellectuals exceeded even the expectations of their masters in the viciousness of their denunciations.

Harry Wu was saved, largely by luck, from making false confessions, though this did not prevent him from experiencing the deepest humiliations. He admits that, until his conscience got the better of him, he acted for long periods as a kind of “stoolie” in the camp, eager for the small privileges and lightened workload gained by informing on his fellow prisoners. His first change of heart came after he had helped the guards use police dogs to track down two escaped prisoners, and had been given a bowl of steaming soup and plump dumplings as his reward, the same meal that was also given to the dogs who had done the tracking. “While the two prisoners lay locked in solitary confinement cells,” Wu recalls, “the running dogs and the guard dogs got fed together.”

Yet a little later, after a period of severe hunger, Wu was working once again for the camp authorities, as a squad leader in charge of assigning work details; he even had some say about the crucial matter of distributing food. His low point of shame was reached when he watched a fellow prisoner hide a turnip in the edge of a field, and then stole it during the prisoner’s absence so he could eat it himself. “So ingrained [was] the habit of self-preservation,” writes Wu, “that I felt no guilt about taking whatever I could get for my own.”

* * *

Many of these experiences resemble those of camp and prison inmates elsewhere. If we look for distinctive Chinese characteristics, it is perhaps not surprising to find them most visibly in the accounts of family—or rather of loss of family—that run through these four books. There is a deep contrast here between the Chinese Communist experience and the shared perceptions of family, and family solidarity, that are rooted in Chinese culture from pre-Confucian times, and have been exemplified and reinforced through countless folktales and philosophical texts. Throughout his prison sentence Ma Bo is troubled by the memory of his violent treatment, before he was arrested, of his own mother, the novelist Mo Yan. As a Red Guard who made a virtue of vicious behavior, he trashed her apartment, scribbling revolutionary slogans all over the walls, vilifying her work, smashing her cherished carved and inlaid wardrobe—a memento of more gracious times—and stole her money. His mother treated him coldly after he was imprisoned on charges of anti-Party activities, urging him in a letter to “humbly admit your crimes to the Party and to the people.” Ma replied with fawning letters reminding her that “I’m your own flesh and blood, so I think I deserve some kindness.” She repented of her sternness, and used all her influence with senior figures in the Party to get her son’s sentence reviewed, and eventually revoked.

But few such notes are struck in the other three accounts. When Harry Wu, feeling desperate, wrote home in 1963 requesting that if possible his family send him some dried fish and beans to supplement his starvation diet, his brother replied in a letter:

It is very difficult for us to maintain our own lives. Our stepmother is dead. Our father is a counterrevolutionary rightist. How can you reform yourself when you still want to lead a bourgeois life? We have all drawn a clear line to separate ourselves from you. You must follow Chairman Mao’s teachings and work hard to reform yourself through labor.

When Harry Wu was finally granted a brief home leave to Shanghai eleven years later, the first response of the sister who opened the door was to ask to see his travel permit. His youngest sister, unreassured by his answers, ran at once with his travel documents to the local police station, returning home with a local security officer to question her brother.

As for Han Wei-tien, only at the very end of his account do we learn that he had had a brother and a sister living in China during his twenty-four years in prison. It is clear that they had not tried to help him in any way and that, in view of the dangers to them of associating with a condemned spy and rightist, he had not sought their help. At last his sister, now retired, was allowed to nurse him slowly back to health before he returned to Taiwan in 1978 under a repatriation agreement. Zhang, for nine tenths of his book, never mentions his family at all, save for an occasional diary entry stating that he sent a “letter to Mother.” Then suddenly, in the September 5 diary entry, he writes, “Yesterday evening had a nightmare, dreamed I was hitting Mama with a shoe. On reflection, perhaps my life here is giving her the same kind of torment.” Zhang’s comment on this entry is telling:

I never met a man in the camps at this time who talked about his parents, wife, lover or children in warm, earnest, loving terms—not even the shortest sentence…. I never saw a man bring out a picture of his family. Nobody reminisced, or showed the slightest lingering warmth for relatives. A mention of one’s home, that is one’s real home, was bound to be related to receiving a package of things to eat in the mail. Home was, pure and simple, a source of supply….

Naturally, I was no different. When I wrote my mother letters, they were a sprinkling of words around a long shopping list. If I tried to think of more to write, I would soon return to those things I was in urgent need of. I had been squeezed dry of any tears. In the entries above there are a number of places that say on such and such a day of a month I “wrote Mama a letter.” The contents of those letters were all the same—they were itemized lists of things I needed.

He then gives a frightening account of the absolute disintegration of family solidarity in the world of the gulag by describing what happened when a wife, accompanied by her daughter, brought a package of scarce food to her husband. Ignoring both of them, the convict seized the food and gorged himself, sprawled on the earth, as the other two silently watched him. Sated and withdrawn, still under his wife and child’s watchful gaze, though at some distance from them, he felt so humiliated he slashed his wrists with a sickle and bled to death. By telling us that this happened on September 4, Zhang alerts us to the meaning of the “nightmare” recorded on September 5 as occurring “yesterday evening.” Zhang’s dream of striking his mother with a shoe is thus firmly linked in the reader’s mind to the unknown man’s desperation as he takes the last dignity away from himself, his wife, and his child.

* * *

It is one of the tragedies of writing about tragedy that the weight and texture of the words matter unduly, for suffering needs a measure of grace to be bearable to others. When books are being translated into English from Chinese, the translator’s task thus takes on a kind of moral urgency. By this measure, Han Wei-tien’s account is the least engrossing, and he is the least well-served. The publishers do not even list Han Wei-tien as the book’s author, and Pu Ning receives all the credit, leaving the lingering impression—despite the “chronology” of Han’s experiences at the end of the book—that Pu Ning is writing as novelist more than as amanuensis. If that is so perhaps it accounts for the book’s moments of insincerity and superficiality.

Ma Bo’s story is presented briskly and emotionally, with little attempt to hide the bragging and bullying tone of the author, and his nearly complete absorption with himself. But his character is consistent, and many passages are powerful. Harry Wu’s account is presented calmly by Carolyn Wakeman. It is an understated tale of horrors and degradation, though not without the dignity that comes from a steady and unsparing gaze. Zhang Xianliang’s memoir is finely rendered by Martha Avery, with a delicacy and concentration that makes it a work of literature as well.

It is hard for the outsider to feel he has the right to pass moral judgment on the narrators of such grim events. The book by Han Wei-tien and Pu Ning is the crispest of the four in its indictment of the Communist system that made Han’s long nightmare possible. Ma Bo, as one might expect, is the most grandiose:

I declare here and now that a generation of young people who left for the mountains and the countryside in 1968 to toil on the nation’s farms and pasturelands, all the way to the farthest border regions, left an indelible mark on the history of mankind.

For Zhang Xianliang, there are many messages in the camps, but the central one is about dying and not dying, the thin threads that hold our fluttering lives together; he discusses perceptively how language was affected by the camp experience: “A new set of social circumstances has to produce a new semantic structure.” Thus, according to Zhang, each prisoner who found his bunkmate dead beside him in the morning had to learn never to say “another man has died,” for that would imply a sequence, and perhaps a failure on the Party’s part. Instead you would say “Group Leader, So-and-so has died.”

You had to forget all about the man who had died beside you right away. Next time, when “another” died, you had to think of him as the first. It was necessary to get accustomed to this method of accounting, for no matter how many died in the camps, they were all the only one who died.

But in the end, after all the words, deaths, and suffering, it is Harry Wu who most strongly bears witness by having the courage to go back to the camps where he had endured so much—and lost so much self-respect. After Harry emigrated to America, he wanted to return to take photographs of the labor camps to accompany his factual account. He did this not only to “speak his bitterness,” as the Chinese Communists liked to say in their heyday, but to awaken the conscience of people in Western countries who buy prison-made goods. In doing so they are boosting China’s economy while ignoring the agonies of people who are often imprisoned without trial and for no proven offense. Harry Wu describes how the original impulse to write a book came to him while burying a friend who died in the camp:

The diggers climbed into the ox cart beside me. No one spoke. Before we rounded the guard tower to pass again through the gates of 585, I looked back. My mind noted with a strangely detached curiosity the different heights of the graves, the crude wooden markers, the occasional shreds of clothing. I had felt nothing when they put Chen Ming in the ground, but that last glance at 586 seared itself into my memory.

Suddenly my mind became animated, and I had what seemed almost a revelation. Human life has no value here, I thought bitterly. It has no more importance than a cigarette ash flicked in the wind. But if a person’s life has no value, then the society that shapes that life has no value either. If the people mean no more than dust, then the society is worthless and does not deserve to continue. If the society should not continue, then I should oppose it.

Perhaps many of us could have had that thought at such a moment. But how many of us would have acted upon it years later, when safely out of hell and trying to start our lives anew?


  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.