Here is an excerpt:
Communism is not love. Communism is a
hammer, which we use to crush the enemy.
hammer, which we use to crush the enemy.
– Chairman Zedong Mao –
Time magazine, September 13, 1963
“Number 494! Number 495!” called Officer Zhang, standing in the middle of Xuhui District Police Station. “Pack your things! Today I permit you to see each other!”
Wenli Chen, Prisoner Number 495, packed his few possessions – underwear, comforter, towel, toothbrush, a pinch of soap and a white-enameled cup with a blue lip – into his barely used, 1950s canvas traveling bag. He stood inside his cell, waiting.
It was January 25, 1969.
“Go! Go! Go!” ordered Officer Zhang, after he unlocked the cell door.
Chen hurried outdoors, toward a large, olive-green Black Maria, with two doors in the back. The wagon resembled a World War II ambulance. He stepped inside and saw his best friend, Jijia “Joseph” Wu, Prisoner Number 494, who was thin, sort of short and wore eyeglasses that gave him the appearance of an owl.
Once the doors shut, the wagon sped off, with siren blaring.
“They’re coming!” yelled a boy on the road, among a group of youths who ran after the Black Maria.
At Jiao Tong University, Chen, Wu and several others were ushered into the auditorium. With their arms cuffed behind their backs, they formed a line up on the stage and faced an audience. Chen saw his tiny, gray-haired mother in the crowd.
A soldier stood behind Chen and pushed his shoulders down in a bow formation while pulling his hands up. Behind the soldier, a military representative read out the sentences in a shrill voice, with hits of staccato.
Chen heard his name called.
“Active counterrevolutionary criminal Wenli Chen, male, age 28, birthplace Zhongshan, Guangdong province, of bourgeois family background, student, unemployed, residence Number 354 Xinhua Road.”
“Active counterrevolutionary criminal Wenli Chen, from a bourgeois family, has had reactionary thinking ever since the Liberation. He has hated Socialism deep to his bones ever since the Liberation. Since 1956, he has used a radio receiver to listen to the stations of the enemies. He has scattered rumors everywhere, drumming up support and waving the flag and screaming and shouting for imperialism, revisionism and reactionaries. Since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution he has … actively recruited counter-revolutionary members and organized a current counterrevolutionary group. Criminal Chen has attacked the Socialist system furiously, attacked Zedong Mao Thought, that of infinite brightness, attacked and slandered our Great Leader Chairman Mao and the Proletarian Headquarters headed by Chairman Mao and Vice Chairman Biao Lin, as deputy. Criminal Chen’s crimes were serious. After the case had been uncovered, Criminal Chen set up a conspiracy of silence with the other criminals, compelling them not to confess their crimes. The criminals were investigated, and their crimes were confirmed…
“According to the law, Criminal Wenli Chen is sentenced to 15 years in prison.”
Minutes later, the shrill voice paused, and the hearing concluded. No lawyers. No judge. No court.
“All prisoners will be escorted to the prison now!” the military representative announced.
A muscular, post-military Chen climbed into the back of the olive-green Black Maria police wagon and sat on the floor next to Wu, his friend accused of being a member of Chen’s “counterrevolutionary group.” For a fleeting second the two made eye contact, and then Chen glanced out the front windshield.
Comrade Wang caught him. She was the head of investigations for Xuhui District’s Hunan Road Neighborhood Association.
“This one is real bad!” Wang screamed as she pushed Chen’s head down and jerked up his hands, cuffed behind his back. She screeched, “He’s still looking outside!”
Wang’s comrade, sitting on the bench, said to Chen, “Fifteen years is very heavy. In Tilanqiao, if you are good and willing to transform, we will reduce your sentence. If you are bad, we will increase your sentence.”
After a short ride, the wagon slowed down at a guarded entrance, almost stopped and Chen stole another peek. Mounted on the side of the front gate was a white sign with black, Chinese characters for shanghai city prison, commonly known as Tilanqiao for the surrounding area where the massive institution stood, at 147 Zhangyang Road.
Slowly, the wagon drove through one gate, then another and rolled to a stop inside the prison. The doors in the back opened, and the prisoners jumped down. Escorted into the reception building, where handcuffs were removed, Chen looked at his freed hands, swollen and red. One by one, the men were fingerprinted.
Chen gazed outside and saw Comrade Wang. A faint smile tugged at his lips, while he looked at her.
“You are real bad! Our investigation is not finished yet. We will add to your sentence!” she screamed, stomping the ground.
A prison guard in the front said loudly to Comrade Wang, “There is nothing for you to do. You can go now.” To Chen, he added, “Don’t worry about them. They are crazy.”
Chen, officially Tilanqiao Prisoner Number 6641, waited in a large room with many others, including his best friend.
“We’re capsized in a shallow ditch,” Wu, with tears in his eyes, whispered to Chen.
“Everything depends on God,” Chen said.
Just then another door opened, and a guard ordered the group of men, two by two, into the prison yard, where more guards stood.
“How many years?” a guard asked each one.
“Fifteen years,” said Chen, when it was his turn.
“Go! Go! Go!” the guard directed him toward Cellblock Number 3, where he and his friend, Wu, were separated.
Escorted into the five-story block building and up the stairs to the second floor, Chen heard shouting.
“Where are you coming from?” yelled a prisoner, from somewhere inside the bowels of the cellblock.
“New sentencing!” answered another prisoner, somewhere.
“You are not allowed to yell!” yelled one of the guards.
Chen walked down a corridor, lighted by dim, overhead bulbs dotting the ceiling every 10 to 15 feet. To one side, the outer wall with windows. To the other side, a row of dark cells. Escorted to the end, finally, around 4 p.m., he found himself at Cell Number 45.
Calmly, Chen entered the tiny cell, approximately 4.5 feet by 7.5 feet, made even smaller with a raised wooden floor recessed into the cement room to permit the inward swing of the iron-bar door. He sat down between two of his three cellmates.
To his right, next to the eight iron bars, sat Zhenhua Jin. Around 30, he was a Chinese doctor of acupuncture, a type of doctor that was also a fortune teller, an astrologer of sorts. He was in Tilanqiao, because he knew Mao’s birth date and checked the fortune of the chairman. Unfortunately, someone reported him to authorities, and he was arrested and sentenced.
Across from the acupuncturist sat Zhifang Xu, snug between the grille gate and the neiwu, the neat stack of inmates’ belongings. An old man, in his late 50s or early 60s, he had complained that the rations he received from the People’s Government were not sufficient, which meant that he was not happy with the Communists, which meant that he attacked Socialism, which meant that he was a counterrevolutionary.
To Chen’s left sat Wenbin Qing, around 50, who insisted on sitting in the corner, across from the bucket used for human waste. Before the Communists seized power on October 1, 1949, he had been a top-of-the-line Grade-8 Worker for a factory, where he had joined his co-workers, underground Communists who had agitated for more money. After the takeover, Qing was falsely accused of joining a pseudo People’s Liberation Army.
Chen’s first few months in Tilanqiao were dull and routine, even the day when his entire second floor moved up to the fifth floor. Most of the time, inmates sat in study groups, the daily brainwashing sessions. But occasionally, the daily boredom was alleviated during yard time, when the men were ordered to the basketball courts, bald patches of cement with sparse wisps of weeds. Between two cellblocks, they usually walked around and around the circumference of the yard, but sometimes they watched performing teams of prisoners.
Many artists found themselves behind bars, after the Communists rounded up and arrested them during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the regime’s attempt to rid China of the Four Olds – old culture, old customs, old habits and old ideas. Those arrested included dancers from the Shanghai Ballet Institute and musicians from the Shanghai Brass Orchestra, the Shanghai Choir and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
Because they produced nothing for the State, musicians and artists were classified as bad elements, one of the Nine Categories of Enemies: landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, rightists, traitors, spies, capitalist roaders and intellectuals, which was the Stinking Ninth. Not classified as criminals, the entertainers had been processed through the administrative system under the military administration, and most had been sentenced to labor-reeducation farms or factories. Only labor-transformation cases were classified as criminal and processed through the People’s courts.
Inside the prison walls of Tilanqiao, the entertainers marched and sang revolutionary songs, as they held up their “Quotations from Chairman Zedong Mao,” a pocket-sized book with a red plastic jacket slipped over plain cardboard covers.
A few times, Chen saw Haishen Lu perform. A famous singer in the Shanghai Choir, he was tall and thin and sang like an Irish tenor, with a rich tone and a vibrato that hinted of classical training. For the inmates, Lu performed the “Usuli Boat Song.” Normally, its stirring notes and lines celebrated the beauty of a simple life upon the Usuli River, but during the Cultural Revolution the lyrics had been perverted with political propaganda.
Tilanqiao inmates had their own in-house prison ballad, “Song of the Tilanqiao Prisoner,” which they would secretly sing among themselves:
One enters the prison, scared and trembling;
Two by two, in line;
Three meals, every meal is not enough;
Four seasons, without a jacket;
Six relatives, you cannot rely upon;
Seven and a half feet is the size of the kennel;
Eight iron bars, each one strong and firm;
In the end, why am I here?
Really, I don’t know why!