“I hope to be remembered as a writer who speaks the truth”
Below is a guest post from Wen Huang, whose translation of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker is now available in paperback, and whose translation of Xianhui Yan’s Woman from Shanghai releases
on Thomas Pynchon day today. We’re planning on reviewing this in the next week or so—sounds fascinating.
Today, Pantheon released Chinese writer Xianhui Yang’s non-fiction book Woman from Shanghai, which is about Jiabiangou, the name of a forced labor camp, a Chinese gulag tucked away in the desert region of China’s northwestern province of Gansu.
Fifty years ago, over 3,000 intellectuals and former government officials were herded to Jiabiangou in military trucks and forced to undertake what the Communist Party called “reeducation through hard labor.” They were known as “Rightists” because they had expressed dissenting views of Chairman Mao’s policies or offended Party officials.
Between 1957 and 1960, the Rightists worked long hours under the supervision of prison guards, cultivating farmland, growing crops and raising horses and sheep in the harsh desert conditions. In the evenings, they studied Chairman Mao’s writings and wrote self-confessions. Since Jiabiangou was covered with barren salt marshes and desert. Crops could only grow in some small patches of oasis. There was no way for the camp, originally built as a prison to hold 40 to 50 convicted criminals, to support the 3,000 new arrivals. The government refused to supply the political prisoners with any food subsidies.
Starting in the fall of 1960, food supplies began to dwindle and massive deaths from starvation occurred. Rightists combed the oasis of grassland for food, from leaves, tree barks, worms and rats to the flesh from their dead fellow inmates. Since survivors were too emaciated to bury the dead, bodies lay exposed and scattered outside on the sand dunes.
The tragedy at Jiabiangou caught the attention of senior Party officials in Beijing in December of 1960. The central government dispatched a task force to investigate the situation at Jiabiangou. Realizing the Gansu provincial government had gone overboard in its purges, the senior leadership soon issued an amnesty. By the time the government trucks arrived at Jiabiangou to move the Rightists out of the death camp at the beginning of 1961, there were only 500 some survivors . . .
The Gansu-born writer Xianhui Yang first heard of Jiabiangou in 1965 when he worked at a military-style collective farm near the Gobi Desert. In the 1990s, emboldened by the relaxed political climate in China, he decided to investigate the tragedy at Jiabiangou. He journeyed back to China’s far flung northwest and spent three years interviewing over 100 survivors. He turned those interviews into a series of short stories. In 2000, Shanghai Literature, an influential literary monthly, carried his first story “The Woman from Shanghai,” which shocked the nation. Spurred on by the strong interest from the public, Shanghai Literature published more stories later that year.
Yang has inherited the docu-literary genre created in the 1980s by Chinese writers who masked the non-fiction nature of their work by adding some literary/fictional elements to skirt censorship. The English version contains thirteen of Xianhui Yang’s stories, which document the Rightists’ daily struggles inside the labor camp. The title story, “Woman from Shanghai” recounts the tale of a woman who travels all the way from Shanghai to visit her husband in Jiabiangou, only to learn that her husband has already died of starvation. His former roommate has devised all sorts of obstacles to stopping her from seeing the body because his flesh had already been eaten by fellow detainees. In “The Potato Feast,” the author tells the story about a group of starving Rightists who are assigned to transport seed potatoes from the city warehouse to Jiabiangou. After they have loaded the truck, they found a big cauldron at the warehouse, stole a huge sack of potatoes, boiled them and then wolfed all down. On their way back, they have suffered the traumatic consequences. One guy died of overeating. “Jia Nong” depicts the life of female detainees at Jiabiangou and how they managed to raise a child born inside the camp. These and the others in this collection reveal in brutal honesty the dehumanized existence that was theirs at Jiabiangou.
These stories have become instant hits. Many survivors, who have remained silent for many years, stepped forward to tell their stories. In 2003, “Woman from Shanghai” and “Escape” won the Chinese Novelists Association’s annual Best Short Stories award.
Yu Jie, a well-known independent critic said Yang’s stories demonstrate the efforts to “defend our memory and preserve our history.” According to Yu, the extent of the distortion and rewriting of contemporary Chinese history is beyond the academic abilities of any historians. The official systematic cover-up, sabotage and elimination of historical materials have made even the most recent history ambiguous, hard to tell which was true and which was false.
Lei Da, a literary critic and executive deputy chair of the Chinese Writer’s Association describes his reaction to Yang’s stories: “I have to admit that my eyes were filled with tears when I finished the story. It’s been a long time since I have read such an emotionally powerful story. With such adorned simplicity, Yang’s works rejects superficiality and demonstrates restraint, very much like the deceptively calm expression of a person whose mind is tortured by chaos. This type of controlled restraint draws the readers to the special magic of his works. His book is a clap of lightening in the dense cloud.”
In a recent interview with the China News Weekly Magazine, Yang said: “I hope to be remembered as a writer who speaks truth. In the past, there weren’t too many Chinese writers who dared to speak the truth. I’m sure they will be more in the future. The path to truth will gradually be cleared.”