26 August 09 | Chad W. Post

Earlier in the month we posted a piece by Chinese translator—and amazingly nice guy—Wen Huang about Xianhui Yang’s collection of “stories” Woman from Shanghai. And no, those aren’t unnecessary quotes—these pieces are based on real-life events, with added fictional/literary aspects in order to skirt censorship issues. Which only makes the book more disturbing and calls to mind Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl.

I’m hoping to have a review of this up in the next couple weeks (although I keep promising reviews and not delivering, so we’ll see . . .), but in the meantime, it’s great to see the New York Times covering this in such a solid way:

Xianhui Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp,” a newly translated collection of firsthand accounts that the publisher calls “fact-based fiction,” 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 “Woman From Shanghai” help us understand, these are memories that the Chinese state still works hard to suppress.

Mr. Yang’s stories, which he painstakingly collected over a three-year period a decade ago, are those of people branded by the Chinese state as “rightists” in the late 1950s and sent to Jiabiangou, a notorious camp for “re-education through labor” 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. [. . .]

Readers of Mr. Yang’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.

And Howard French even mentions Wen in his review, praising him for all he’s done to bring this book—along with The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu—to the attention of English readers.

Speaking of Wen, I believe he’s writing a few things for Publishing Perspectives about China. Should be really interesting.


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