Survivors’ Stories From China

Howard French reviews a new book,Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp, which compiles the first-person stories of survivors of China’s most notorious re-education camp, Jiabiangou:

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.

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. Yang’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 Mao’s much revered successor, Deng Xiaoping, credited today with putting the country on the path of economic liberalization.

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