THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Voice

During the years 1971 - 1978 I performed forced labor in one of Mao's Prison Labor Reform Camps, on an island in Lake Taihu in China known as West Hill Island. The camp held several thousand prisoners, about half of whom had been charged with counterrevolutionary crimes: for openly criticizing the government and its leader, for listening to foreign radio broadcasts, for spreading political rumors against the central committee of the communist party, for writing anti-communist diaries, and, as in my case, for having accidentally torn a poster of Mao.

I am thrilled that "The Cave Man," my first novel, which is based upon my prison experience in China, will be published this December. It means that my voice, which is both reflective of myself and representative of friends who survived the brutal communist prison camps in China, will be heard.

Under the strict censorship regulations of the current regime in China, the publication of any literary work that shows signs of penetrating in depth, or exposing the reality of prison life since the 1950s, during which years millions of innocent men and women were sent to labor reform camps as "rightists," as counterrevolutionaries, or as treasonous individuals, is forbidden. As a result, it appears to an outsider that nothing significant has ever happened. There were only a few literary works in the early 1980s that touched on these prisons, but they provided information and pictures that turned accusations against the system into praise for the party.

According to the authorities at that time, political prisoners, or counterrevolutionaries as they were then called, were generally considered to possess dangerous thoughts that would bring disorder and cause chaos to an allegedly "normal" society. So they were much more easily targeted as the trouble-makers in the prison camp than were the ordinary criminals - rapists, thieves - who were encouraged to report to the authorities about any problematic speeches given by their fellow political inmates. This had directly caused five prisoners, as I witnessed myself, all of them counterrevolutionaries, to be executed at the open trials during my imprisonment, while the same speeches spoken by an ordinary criminal would be accepted as a common mistake, or simply ignored by the prison cadres. The more education a counterrevolutionary inmate had received before his imprisonment, the more likely it was he would become a candidate for the death penalty. Among the five condemned prisoners, there were three former school teachers, a local opera director, and a former military officer, all of them well-educated.

Now some say that the whole country was mad during the Cultural Revolution. As a survivor of and witness to the brutal violence against innocent people, I disagree; my experience tells me that it was the regime that was mad, and not ordinary people, who wouldn't have harassed their neighbors had they not been encouraged to do so. Ordinary people wouldn't persecute their neighbors, but the authorities would.

One of my fellow inmates, for example, who had been interested in the dubbing of foreign films, and who, since childhood, had always gone to the movies with his elder brother and three other friends, was arrested, and for their mutual interest he was sentenced to a ten-year prison term as a counterrevolutionary. His elder brother and their three friends, as well as one of those friends' mothers, were executed in the spring of 1970 in Nanjing. The mother had hoped that she could be executed side by side with her son, but her last wish was rejected and they were executed separately, although they were killed on the same day. What kind of a regime was this if not mad?

The endless self-condemnation and confessions, which I was forced to perform through innumerable nightly thought-reform sessions as a counterrevolutionary, were unbearable, but they proved fortunate in one regard. These sessions greatly strengthened my ability to pay extra attention to what I had said and done in the past. Thanks to this, I was able to remember many details of what I had gone through in those years on the island. I still recall how angry I was when I read what other writers wrote about their prison experience. So I decided to write my own stories as well as the stories of my fellow inmates.

I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to come to the United States, a country where freedom of speech is honored, and that I have, with the help of my friends, been able to transform my experience into a novel.

The characters in "The Cave Man" are based on real people known as the lucky few who, having survived the sub-human conditions of the prison camps in China, still struggled on the narrow border between life and death, and still felt haunted by nightmares they had gone through in the camps. They had expected, when they stepped past the iron gate, that they would be able to enjoy the remaining days of their lives freely, only to find themselves living in a prison camp larger than the one they had survived.

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