Excerpted from The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life (Two Dollar Radio, November 2010)
Author’s Note: When I was 20 years old, and a college student, I defaced a portrait of Chairman Mao. For this act, and without a trial, I was declared a political prisoner and sent to a forced labor prison in Taihu Lake, where I served in a labor reform brigade—in this instance, a stone quarry—for seven years: five years in the labor prison and two years as an ex-prisoner laborer. The tales in this book, transformed by memory, imagination, and time, are based on my experiences in this camp, and are not, I believe, unlike experiences suffered by millions of others who did not live to tell their tales.
The first Spring Festival of my prison term was coming.
All the handcarts had been locked in the warehouse. The quarry was silent, and there were no flatboats moored under the loading docks. Through the big iron gate of our barracks, we saw civilians threading by with shopping bags and baskets in their hands, and children playing with fireworks in front of the reform office. We didn’t have to go to the quarry in the afternoon. Instead, we were ordered to shave our heads, and were then brought to the prison bath house. Not the one in our company but the big bath house near the headquarters, a special treatment for prisoners because this bath house was opened only to prison cadres on ordinary days. Before we were brought there, there had been three batches of people who had already washed themselves in the baths, the first of which were the prison cadres and their families, the women inmates, the ex-prisoner laborers, and then it was our turn. When we got there, however, the water in the bath pool had turned the color of mud. When we were brought back, it was already four in the afternoon.
Prisoners had been talking about the Spring Festival since autumn. Information about the food had spread through the barracks, and quarrels about the reliability of the information could be heard everywhere until the night before, when several prisoners known as “nervous inmates” made out a menu. Instead of sleeping in their bunkbeds, the nervous inmates had crouched for two nights on the excrement ditches in the lavatory where they could hear sounds from the big kitchen. Analyzing the different sounds as well as the smells coming through the high paneless window, they attempted to decipher the menu. They had done the same the year before and had correctly identified four of the five dishes served for the Spring Festival. As soon as the nervous inmates declared the menu, prisoners ceased bickering and focused their attention on the concert for the Lunar New Year’s Day.
Li Weimin, whose shackles had been unlocked several days before, was going to sing on the platform of the labor reform center, which was located in front of the headquarters. Since he had worn a pair of 14-pound foot shackles for almost half a year, he had not yet gotten rid of what we called “air chain,” and walked as though still bound, with his legs moving slowly to the side. Nevertheless he was in high spirits, and had already given two rehearsals in the big room of the barracks. At first, he sang four songs: two Chinese folk songs and two songs from Carmen. The authorities emphasized that the foreign songs were not allowed for the concert, so he was limited to just the two folk songs.
Li Weimin was singing again in the great room, looking quite different from when he wore his heavy chains. He was wearing a red sweater, a pair of gray wool pants, and had shaped his beard in what he called the style of romantic composers. Zhu Hen, the crippled doorkeeper, was sitting on a bed behind Li Weimin and accompanied him on guitar. He played with his eyes shut and jiggled all the while. Li Weimin paused several times. He stopped again and shook his head before he turned around to look at his partner.
“Slow down, slow down,” he said.
Zhu Hen was the only handicapped inmate in our barracks. Sitting on a bench behind the iron gate, he was always quiet. I had never heard him speak to anyone. His eyes always looked remote as though he were deep in thought. He was handsome except for his legs, which were shaped like an X. Prisoners called him the “Cripple Monster” behind his back, because everyone in the barracks knew his story, although no one could poke fun at him.
Zhu Hen had no friends in the barracks and was always sitting quietly behind the gate. The prisoners simply ignored him. If you asked him something about his past, he would say, “You’d better mind your own business.”
Since the day before Festival Eve, however, he had become another person. He took his guitar from the storage room and practiced for hours in the cement yard.
I was surprised to hear Zhu Hen suggest that we drink tea and talk, because he had never spoken to me.
“I have already invited Li Weimin and Kua Baoking. We may talk till tomorrow morning,” he said.
Kua Baoking and Li Weimin were already there when I came to Zhu Hen’s bunkbed, which was located in a dark corner of the big room. Instead of using a black sheet like the ones we had on our beds, he made his bed with a white sheet that looked as clean as in a hotel. He had set a piece of white cardboard between his bed and his neighbor’s as though being separated from the rest of the barracks.
“Sit down, please,” Zhu Hen moved to let me sit beside him. Sitting there, his upper half looked strong, though in front of him his cross-legged pants looked as if there was nothing inside them. His guitar had been placed beside his pillow, leaning against the wall. There were four cups of tea on a tray placed in the center of the bed.
“Naturally, I stop whenever the accompanist goes too fast,” Li Weimin said, sipping his tea.
“No more music, please. Prisoners just like to see your performance, they don’t listen,” Kua Baoking said.
The light was dim. I sat on the edge of Zhu Hen’s bed, gazing at my teacup in front of me, and wondered how to ask Zhu Hen some personal questions.
I heard Zhu Hen say, “I hate having people talking about me behind my back.” He halted. His voice trembled. “I think it’s time to tell my story.”
“Don’t be so serious. We’re just killing time,” Kua Baoking said. He might have thought about asking Zhu Hen the same question I had been contemplating.
Zhu Hen breathed deeply and started: “It’s been almost a year and a half. She’d never said she loved me, even when I made the decision to die with her. Her name was Cao Mei. A beautiful name, isn’t it?”
He paused to take another deep breath.
“I had loved her secretly for many years, but I’d never given her a sign until her parents committed suicide in the summer of 1967. As principal of our school, her father had been criticized every day by the Red Guards before he killed himself. The Red Guards occupied their house, using it as their headquarters. One afternoon she was about to hang herself on a big tree in the schoolyard as I passed by. I called people to stop her. Then I brought her to my home. I promised her that she would have a good future, and I showed her my legs which I had never shown to anybody before and said, ‘Look at them, but even so I still want to live. How could you think of finishing your life?’ Since she had lost her parents, my parents let her stay in our house until she was assigned to a remote farm. We kept writing to each other for half a year. Then she stopped writing. One night she suddenly appeared at my door. Wearing torn clothes and with tousled hair, she looked like a fugitive. In fact, she did escape from the soldiers’ farm. She would have killed herself on the way had she not had me as her friend. She muttered she had believed in what I had told her, to live with hope. But then she was raped by the commissioner of her division. ‘If I had killed myself before I went to that farm, I wouldn’t have been destroyed so shamefully,’ she murmured. I knew she had already made her mind up and no one could pull her back. All I could do was go with her. So we shared a bottle of sleeping pills. Before that she said that I could have her. But I said I just wanted to kiss her. So we kissed until we both lost consciousness. I killed her as soon as I awoke. She was so beautiful while she slept. I’ll never forget her expression. There was no fear, no pain in her face. She slept like an angel.”
Zhu Hen paused for a while and then went on: “But after I finished her off I was scared and shook her body. Her eyes were closed. A stream of blood was pouring from her throat.”
After a long silence, Kua Baoking said, “Let’s get rid of these sad memories.”
He looked at Li Weimin and said, “You might as well talk about your music.”
Plucking his guitar, Zhu Hen started humming:
“I feel your eyes looking into my heart
As I take you in my arms…”
His fingers trembled as he plucked the strings.
Haunted by the scene Zhu Hen had described, I could hardly get any sleep that night. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw a beautiful girl lying on a bed, a stream of blood pouring from her throat.
As I got up the next morning, I heard Li Weimin and Zhu Hen rehearsing outside in the cement yard. Walking out of the barracks, I found almost all the prisoners gathered in the yard. It was windless. The sun was shining on the newspaper wall in the corner of the yard. Li Weimin was singing with his left hand on his chest, his right hand waving in the air, and his voice sounded better than it had the day before. Zhu Hen was sitting on a bench beside Li Weimin. He wagged his head frequently while playing his guitar.
I met Kua Baoking when I walked to the corner of the yard, where he was sitting on a bench playing chess with Chou Zhude, a former psychiatrist. Kua Baoking wanted me to sit and join them. I said I didn’t know how to play chess.
“We are talking about Zhu Hen,” Kua Baoking said.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Nothing. But did you notice the difference in him last night?”
“I’ve known his story for a long time. I always thought he was a coward, a jealous murderer. According to our former psychiatrist,” Kua Boaking remarked, “the handicapped often feel violent toward the healthy and the beautiful.”
“But obviously he loved that girl and it was she who wanted to die,” I said.
“I wouldn’t kill my girlfriend if she begged me to do so,” Kua Baoking declared.
“Well,” Chou said, “you’re not our subject. And you both neglect the most important elements in the case, which is the difference between his two actions. Unlike the girl, who had come with an intention to commit suicide, he didn’t start thinking of dying with her until they shared the sleeping pills. He was able to do so because at that moment the girl was alive. But what did he feel when he awoke and found the girl lying in a state of unconsciousness? He was not thinking clearly because he had taken so many sleeping pills.”
Chou paused for a while, and continued: “He picked up a knife and cut the girl’s throat in great haste, as though he were afraid she would wake up and change her mind. That he couldn’t stand.”
“You don’t mean that he killed her for pleasure?” Kua Baoking asked.
“I have to say yes,” Chou said.
“No wonder he said he’d never forget her expression. He said she had been sleeping soundly, no fear, no pain in her face,” Kua Baoking said.
At that moment Li Weimin finished his last rehearsal for the concert in the afternoon, and the crowd dispersed. Rising from the bench, I went to the newspaper wall where Li Weimin and Zhu Hen were working on some difficult parts of the songs. They hadn’t noticed me. Li Weimin was waving both his hands like a conductor while Zhu Hen was shaking his head violently, trying to follow the rhythm of the tenor’s hands.
Most musicians would use their feet to keep count of the rhythm. Zhu Hen couldn’t. His legs were hanging over the bench. He looked stupid when he shook his head. His face had turned as red as a drunkard. As I watched his fingers moving up and down the fingerboard of his guitar, I saw on the wrist of his left hand a clear track of hairless flesh, which was no doubt a sign of what he had done to himself with the same knife he had used to kill the beautiful girl.
Li Weimin, who was apparently not satisfied with Zhu Hen’s work so far, encouraged him from time to time.
“Come on,” Li Weimin said. “We are very close to it.”
After lunch Chief Chai appeared at the big iron gate. Instead of the gray uniform he wore every day, he was wearing a brown jacket and pants. Under the sun his black leather shoes were shining. He clapped his hands and shouted: “All gather here in the yard.”
So the prisoners made four lines and marched toward the square of the headquarters. There were prisoners from other divisions walking parallel to our group. There were also hundreds of prisoners from other companies following us.
There were already four or five companies of prisoners sitting in the square when we arrived. The wooden stage was decorated with red lanterns and two scrolls of couplets hanging on either side of the stage, which read: “Seizing the days and hours to reform ourselves to become new socialist laborers!”
Li Weimin and Zhu Hen had already gone to the back of the platform where they could have their last rehearsal. But Li Weimin returned and asked me to follow him backstage to help Zhu Hen carry his guitar.
The show started with a woman, a former actress from the women’s brigade, who performed a section of the Revolutionary Beijing Opera The Red Light. She looked healthy and attractive, yet I heard prisoners complain that she had used so much makeup they couldn’t see her real face. All the women prisoners looked better than us because they didn’t mine stone in the quarry. Instead, they grew vegetables and fed pigs. It was said that the commanding officer was very fond of the former actress, and that he stopped several times to watch her rehearse. Probably for that reason, her performance didn’t cause a sensation among the audience.
Li Weimin’s two songs, “Blossoming of a Thousand-Year-Old Iron Tree” and “The Little Pole,” were reserved for the end of the concert. The audience broke out in laughter when Li Weimin and Zhu Hen showed up, because Li Weimin walked as if wearing a pair of invisible foot chains and Zhu Hen was handicapped.
Li Weimin paced to and fro on the stage as he sang. At one moment he was singing with a smile, at another he frowned. Before the second song was finished, he halted and tilted his head to the sky. At the same time Zhu Hen stopped his accompaniment. Then, all of a sudden, Li Weimin turned around and nodded to Zhu Hen who, with half-closed eyes, began to play the guitar again with his head shaking like a madman’s. Their last note was drowned out by the prisoners’ applause. They walked forward to the edge of the stage twice. Prisoners burst out laughing again when Zhu Hen imitated Li Weimin, bowing to the audience with his left hand upon his chest.
I was about to leave with Zhu Hen’s guitar when the former actress stopped me backstage. She said she wanted to talk to the artists to see if she could sing two songs with them.
I told her she should get the permission of Chief Chai.
“Let’s go right now,” she said.
Chief Chai was talking proudly with officers from other companies when we came to him. Without thinking, he said, “Go ahead. That would be fabulous.”
The former actress thus told Li Weimin and Zhu Hen to rehearse with her backstage. Zhu Hen followed the woman here and there, and he turned around frequently, telling me to stay by his side, because he might need his guitar at any time.
They did a great job on stage. When they finished, Li Weimin suggested that they practice together next Spring Festival so that they would have more to sing.
“That’s what I’m thinking,” the former actress said. And she said that a year was not long. Had she worked in the quarry, she wouldn’t have said so.
We returned to the barracks at 5 p.m. Now the barracks were silent. Prisoners prepared their leg protectors and repaired their cart-tire sandals. We would go back to the quarry the next morning. No one would talk about the celebration anymore. The atmosphere of the Spring Festival was gone.
Zhu Hen, however, was still shaking his head and humming a song as I met him in the lavatory. Later, when I passed by his bunk, I saw him leaning on the iron frame with his guitar in his arms, his eyes half closed. He moved his fingers slowly up and down the fingerboard without making a sound. And his head still shook in certain rhythms.
Early the next morning, as soon as the bell sounded, someone screamed in the cement yard. Running out, we found Zhu Hen hanging on the back of the newspaper wall. His guitar was placed beside him, leaning against a cement column. Toward his instrument his head fell, his eyes wide open. His left hand was clenched straight down his side, his right arm and hand twisted like a hook toward the guitar, as though he had changed his mind as soon as he hanged himself. He was frozen except for his legs, which were swinging gently in the wind.
When we released the body from the rope I touched his cheek. It was as cold and hard as a piece of stone.
XIAODA XIAO was arrested in 1971 for tearing a poster of Mao and was sentenced to a five-year prison term as a counterrevolutionary. He has published stories based on his prison experience in various magazines, including The Atlantic, DoubleTake, Confrontation, Antaeus, and Guernica. He is the author of the novel, The Cave Man, and the forthcoming memoir-in-stories, The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life (November 2010). He will be appearing at this year's Brooklyn Book Festival on September 12.