Anecdotes from the Pen

Daily Life

After our morning jog, we washed ourselves at the taps in the yard before trudging along to the canteen for breakfast, staring at the ground the whole way. We numbered more than a hundred, but not one of us dared breach the unwritten rule against holding our heads up, thereby inviting a well-aimed kick or heavy blow to the back. At the canteen, we could only buy steamed buns or pickled vegetables, since convicts were prohibited from buying luxuries such as scallion pancakes. In any case, the living allowance for a convict was 16 yuan, with another 12 and a half yuan for dependents. Even if we had been allowed pancakes, how could I have afforded them? Would we have survived?

There were, of course, tables and chairs in the restaurant, but those were for human beings, not for us. We “dined” outside under the trees, on the steps, or squatting on the ground. At lunch and dinner, we could only stare at the cooked meat while chewing on our own salted cucumbers or boiled vegetables, a diet that left us without a drop of oil in our stomachs after a day of hard labor. We would have to get by on steamed buns, but how could we get our hands on the necessary food coupons? I had starved during the war in Germany and during the three years of famine around 1960, but this third time differed fundamentally from the last two: in the camp, starvation was augmented by physical exertion and the constant threat of a beating, in comparison to which, starving in Germany seemed an unattainable bliss.

Before beginning the day’s labor, every convict had to copy the day’s saying by Chairman Mao from a blackboard hung on a branch. The quotations were often rather long. But no matter where you were working and what you were doing, it was crucial that you learn this passage by heart. At anytime, a guard could order you to recite it. Get one word wrong, and you would risk a stinging blow to the head, or worse. One old physics professor’s brain, decrepit with age and stuffed to the brim with mathematical formulas, had no room for anything else—not even the allegedly limitless power of Maoism. I often saw his face disfigured, his eyes puffy with bruises

So we crammed our brains with Mao Zedong thought while we worked, our physical and mental capacities alike stretched to the breaking point. I had many different assignments, of which one of the longest was to the Northern Materials Factory. Our task was to transport fire-resistant bricks from inside the factory to a stockpile next to the pond. The bricks had to be stacked with extreme caution: they were heavy enough to crush a man to death if they collapsed on him.

I was later transferred from the materials factory to a job transporting coal in the student dormitories. In the summer, truckers considered their job done once they had unloaded the coal and dumped it on the ground. Our mission was to gather the scattered coal into baskets, and heap it up so it would take up less space. It was dirty, exhausting work. We clambered up the heap repeatedly, two old men hauling a basket of coal that could weigh up to 130 pounds. In strong wind, our faces and clothes would be coated in a film of coal dust.

I was once assigned, along with another professor, to help a plumber fix the underground piping outside the east wall of Block 35 in the dormitories. The plumber did everything himself, leaving us to occasionally pass him his hammers or carry sacks of sand. He never smiled or said a word, but nor did he hector us, a reprieve for which I was unspeakably grateful. In later years, when I saw him riding through campus on his bike, I would find my eyes following his silhouette as it receded from sight.


The Evening Assembly

Each evening, after dinner, all the convicts would assemble in the small yard between two rows of blocks. A new speaker lectured us every day, a leader of the school commune, or someone higher ranking in the hierarchy. The content of the lecture also varied, since its aim was not strictly to expound. There weren’t that many principles to be expounded anyway, and the speakers would have found themselves going over old material. No, the assembly was an exercise in the science of torment. The speaker spent each assembly seizing, so to speak, on convicts’ pigtails: each of us had a head covered with “pigtails,” which were weaknesses of all kinds, and if you had none, they could easily be planted. There were two kinds of pigtails: minor incidents that had happened during the day’s labor, and “errors” in the written thought reports that we submitted each day. All of us proceeded with extreme caution when working, not because we had assimilated the correct doctrines regarding the value of labor, but because we were terrified of being beaten. But there is no escaping enforced guilt, so someone was bound to be unlucky. If the guards had it in for you, they could always find fault with your thought report.

No matter how we masticated our words, or with what care we framed our expressions, in China, this empire of the written word, of petty officialdom, what could be easier than finding fault with a few words? History is full of such examples. The Qing dynasty emperor Yongzheng once had a court advisor executed because he reversed the phrase zhao qian xi ti for novelty, instead writing xi ti zhao qian. The two expressions are equally laudatory, but the reversal aroused the emperor’s wrath—so off with his head! Our overseers were far more astute than the emperors of old: they were well aware that they found fault with our written reports only in order to choose their victim. That unlucky convict would be persecuted during the evening assembly.

The convicts usually assembled in the yard, which was too small to hold more than four rows of men. One detail of the roll call that followed has been imprinted on my mind’s eye. An old professor of modern languages, who had returned to China from overseas, had been sentenced on some pretext to be “reformed.” Bedridden and dying, he lived in a room next to the yard in which convicts assembled. When his name was called, he would cry “Present!” from his wooden bed. His voice—weak, forlorn, desolate—would bring tears to my eyes, and shivers to my soul.

The rest of us stood waiting, hearts thumping. Sometimes the guards laid hands on a man just as the speaker was barking his name out, before he had even had the time to present himself. Using a common tactic of struggle sessions, they would twist his arms behind his back and grip his shoulders, kicking and punching him as they marched him out of the line. The sound of blows echoed in the yard. If they were in a cruel mood, the guards might force the convict to the floor and kick him viciously, another trick from their repertoire of torture methods.

This was a sight that could only be seen during the Cultural Revolution. We Chinese love our superlatives. We delight in disputing claims to being the best or biggest, but there is no room for argument here. The assembly was easily Peking University’s most popular attraction, attracting crowds on the scale of the tourist hordes at Buckingham Palace. As I stood there silently each day, hoping fervently that my name would not be called, I could just make out the faint shadows of onlookers crowding against the fence in the undergrowth. In the dim electric light, it was impossible to tell how many had come to admire the spectacle, but the crowd must have been at least several rows deep. Whereas the guard at Buckingham Palace has changed regularly for centuries, the evening assemblies at Peking University lasted only for several months, which is a pity—they could easily have given tourism a boost.

It is also a pity that our inquisitive friends did not have the patience to linger until midnight, when they would have seen a far more sinister sight, one to which even inmates were not usually privy. One night, as I made my way towards the outhouse, I noticed several shadows under the trees in the yard, standing straight with both arms lifted as though they were embracing something. In fact, they were embracing thin air—and I could not tell how long they had stood there. I showed no emotion. But I reflected that this new trick must be like doing the airplane, and that I myself wouldn’t last five minutes in that position. I did not know how long my fellow inmates would be compelled to stand there, and as all inmates knew, it would be unwise to say anything, or even to make the slightest sound. I slunk back to my room, and dreamt of men hugging emptiness.