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Survivorsâ€šÃ„Ã´ Stories From China
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By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: August 24, 2009
One of the most curious forms of tourism in recent years has to be that of Chinese who travel to North Korea for the nostalgic gag of visiting a country that abounds in echoes of their past.
WOMAN FROM SHANGHAI
Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp
By Xianhui Yang
Translated by Wen Huang. 302 pages. Pantheon Books. $24.95.
Stories from these travelers typically focus on things like material poverty and a kind of totalitarian kitsch: the proliferation of statues and other symbols of a revered absolute leader, the spartan uniformity of dress, big state-owned stores bereft of goods to sell, broad avenues manned by traffic cops gifted in mechanized gyrations but missing that other basic ingredient of traffic, cars.
I have spoken with many of these Chinese travelers and have always been struck by how seldom their accounts dwell on the stark human costs of a system like North Koreaâ€šÃ„Ã´s, or on the political system that makes such extreme repression and deprivation possible on a national scale.
Xianhui Yangâ€šÃ„Ã´s â€šÃ„ÃºWoman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp,â€šÃ„Ã¹ a newly translated collection of firsthand accounts that the publisher calls â€šÃ„Ãºfact-based fiction,â€šÃ„Ã¹ is about what might be called the Gulag Archipelago of China. Reading it, one begins to appreciate why travelers to North Korea are so reluctant to reflect on human suffering: the reality of North Korea today is too painfully close to a situation endured by the Chinese well within living memory. As the circumstances of the publication of â€šÃ„ÃºWoman From Shanghaiâ€šÃ„Ã¹ help us understand, these are memories that the Chinese state still works hard to suppress.
Mr. Yangâ€šÃ„Ã´s stories, which he painstakingly collected over a three-year period a decade ago, are those of people branded by the Chinese state as â€šÃ„Ãºrightistsâ€šÃ„Ã¹ in the late 1950s and sent to Jiabiangou, a notorious camp for â€šÃ„Ãºre-education through laborâ€šÃ„Ã¹ in the northwestern desert wastelands of Gansu Province. In his introduction the translator, Wen Huang, explains that the camp, which was originally built to hold 40 or 50 criminals, came to hold roughly 3,000 political prisoners between 1957 and 1961. All but 500 of them would perish there, mostly of starvation.
When word of the soaring death toll reached the capital, Beijing began an investigation. In October 1961 the government ordered Jiabiangou closed and then mounted an exhaustive cover-up. After it was shuttered, a doctor who was assigned to the camp spent six months fabricating the medical records of every inmate. In letters to family members, the cause of death was attributed to all manner of illness except starvation, a word that was never mentioned.
Though less well known in the West than two other immense political disasters visited upon the Chinese people by Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, the so-called Anti-Rightist Movement to which the subjects of Mr. Yangâ€šÃ„Ã´s stories fell victim remains difficult to research because of continuing censorship. Chinese historians say this is partly because of the central role in these ideological purges played by Maoâ€šÃ„Ã´s much revered successor, Deng Xiaoping, credited today with putting the country on the path of economic liberalization.
Mr. Yang first encountered stories of Jiabiangouâ€šÃ„Ã´s horrors as a self-described idealistic youth working on a collective farm in the 1960s, and though he was unbelieving at first, they stuck with him. Years later, when he was denied access to archives from this period and when queries to the government on the subject of Jiabiangou went unanswered, his research turned to what he calls Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s human archives: living people and their oral histories.
In this regard, â€šÃ„ÃºWoman From Shanghaiâ€šÃ„Ã¹ represents a remarkable contribution to a growing literature based on personal histories. Mr. Huang, the translator, has played an important role in bringing such work to an English-language audience, having recently translated a work by a giant in this budding field: â€šÃ„ÃºThe Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up,â€šÃ„Ã¹ by the muckraking Sichuan journalist Liao Yiwu.
Readers of Mr. Yangâ€šÃ„Ã´s book should not be put off by the frequent recurrence of common elements in these stories: the exposure to bitter cold; hunger so intense as to cause inmates to eat human flesh; the familiar sequence of symptoms, beginning with edema, that lead down the path to death; the toolbox of common survivor techniques, from toadyism to betrayal, from stealthy theft to making use of the vestiges of privilege, which survived even incarceration in this era of radical egalitarianism. It is through the accumulation and indeed repetition of such things that this utterly convincing portrait of a society driven far off the rails is drawn.
In one story, a man without medical training who is pressed into service as a camp doctor relates his dismay at watching a starving patient die when the one available remedy for the critically ill, glucose injections, fails. â€šÃ„ÃºDonâ€šÃ„Ã´t blame yourself,â€šÃ„Ã¹ a real doctor tells him. â€šÃ„ÃºIt was not your fault. We had brought him back to life twice already. His time had come. Nobody could have saved him.â€šÃ„Ã¹
The stories contain no sugarcoating and are frequently grim in theme, and yet here and there one encounters the stubborn persistence of humanityâ€šÃ„Ã´s best qualities. In the title story, a young woman travels to the labor camp to visit her husband, only to learn from reluctant fellow inmates that he has just died. In the face of threats from the camp authorities, she collects his remains from a shallow grave and carries them home for proper burial.
Most moving of all, perhaps, is â€šÃ„ÃºThe Love Story of Li Xiangnian,â€šÃ„Ã¹ about the persecution of a young man and the persistence of his ardor for his girlfriend. The haggard Li escapes from detention to be reunited with her, only to be arrested again. Their touching reunion many years later, after the woman is married, would not be out of place in a Gabriel Garcâˆšâ‰ a MâˆšÂ°rquez novel.
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