“If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain,” John Steinbeck confessed in a posthumously published journal. When Xianhui Yang embarked on a journey in 1997 to interview, over the course of five years, nearly 100 former “rightists” from the Mao era, he shared Steinbeck’s faith and modesty.
Set against one of the darkest and least known tragedies in China’s modern history, Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai” is a collection of 13 stories based on his interviews with the survivors of Jiabiangou, a forced-labor camp in China’s northwestern desert. The incarcerated, most of them scholars or senior government officials, were condemned for various reasons: dissenting views with the party, confrontation against party officials or simply nonproletarian family backgrounds. Between 1957 and 1960, they endured hard labor, humiliation, torture and starvation. Out of the nearly 3,000 inmates, only a few hundred outlived the camp.
Starvation and death permeate the stories. To survive, the prisoners ate weeds, rats, worms, tree bark and countless other inedibles, including a lethal “gluey soup” that blocked the intestine. In “Manure Collectors,” Chen and his teammates devour peas found inside piles of horse dung. The desperate conditions even triggered cannibalism. Death became an everyday experience.
“Most people died quietly, in their sleep, without a single moan or any sign of struggle,” Yang writes.
Death, however, didn’t extinguish the yearning for love and dignity. The protagonist in “The Love Story of Li Xiangnian” escapes with the sole intention of seeing his girlfriend. “Jia Nong” describes a group of female detainees’ pampering of a child born in the camp. When Chen, in “Manure Collectors,” buries a dead newborn for a dispirited mother, he builds a little tomb, because “deep down, he felt strongly that this had been a life, a person.”
The title story, easily the most emotional account in the collection, depicts a wife’s love for her convicted husband. The Shanghainese woman travels across half the country only to be told that her husband has recently died from starvation and was buried hastily without a tombstone in the desert. She stubbornly looks for his corpse, eating and drinking nearly nothing for days. When she finally locates his body, it resembles a mummy, with the flesh hacked off.
Determined to bring her husband home, she has the remains cremated. The image of her carrying his charred bones with her to the train is haunting: the chilly desert wind blowing, her green scarf fluttering, she almost disappears beneath the huge bundle.
Born in 1946, Yang worked at various jobs on a military-style collective farm for 16 years before dedicating himself to writing. When it was first published in China in 2000, Yang’s collection had to be disguised as fiction to evade censorship. But this didn’t prevent it from becoming an instant sensation, shocking the nation with its astounding frankness about a history little known to the public and still systematically suppressed by the government. It was hailed as China’s “Gulag Archipelago.” Although it is debatable if Yang’s book equals Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s in magnitude and historical significance, it undoubtedly established Yang as a prominent writer in China.
Solzhenitsyn dedicates his book on the Soviet force labor camp system to “all those who did not live to tell it.” Yang dedicates his collection to “those who now lie under the vast desert sand.” Told in stark, spare yet deeply compelling prose, infused with unsentimental compassion, “Woman From Shanghai” stands out amid the voluminous literature and testimonies about the persecution in Mao’s labor camps. It exposes torture and dehumanization, but is also a powerful rumination on hope, love and humanity.