Zhang Xianliang

In 1961 the Chinese poet, Zhang Xianliang, decided to escape from the conditions of starvation in the work camp to which he was sent for publishing ‘counter-revolutionary’ poems. He soon ran out of the few morsels he had taken with him and on his fourth day he badly needed some water and approached a peasant’s hut.

Famine had spread across China, largely as a result of Chairman Mao’s disruption of the agrarian economy at the time of the so-called Great Leap Forward. In all 30 million people were to die over a three-year period.

Zhang saw that there were two people, an old man and his wife, lying beside the fireplace inside the hut. They couldn’t move. He knew that they were fading fast. Zhang spoke and said that he was just looking for some water and that he would then go. The old peasant slowly raised his eyelids to look at him, then used his chin to indicate the earthern hearth.

Zhang noticed that the fire had gone out but that an iron pot on the stove still seemed to hold some boiled water. He took up a bowl and lifted the cover to reach in and scoop some water.

“There was indeed hot water inside, but inside the water was something else. A dead baby. I threw down the lid, spun around and left. The only part I saw clearly was a little hand, but that was enough.”

Zhang gave himself up and went back to the labour camp where the ratio of death – one third of the inmates – was actually less than among the general population.

Zhang Xianliang’s story of camp life is told in his book, ‘My Bodhi Tree’, which was first published in English in 1996, and is the sequel to ‘Grass Soup’. Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, achieved enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree and Zhang considers his time in Chinese labour reform camps as his bodhi tree.

I first came upon Zhang’s name in April 1992 in a ‘Guardian’ interview and was fascinated by a statement he made about each of our relationships with the society we live in. He said: “Every thinking person has a choice of three different relationships with the society and politics of his or her country: to participate, to flee, or to transcend.”

Transcend could mean to ignore one’s own conditions – be they social democratic, communist or fascist – and reject any personal responsibility for the conditions under which others live. In other words, look after Number One. However, I took ‘transcend’ to mean a different form of participation: to make an artistic contribution that involved being a part of people’s everyday struggle within society for material security but also offering cultural and philosophical explanations or suggestions about ‘the meaning of life’.

Zhang was born into a middle-class family in 1936. His first poems were published when he was just thirteen. In 1952 his father was arrested and accused of spying. He died in a Maoist prison. But, still, Zhang considered himself a communist. He wrote about the bizarre and twisted system of the labour reform camp, “a camp in a communist country that had incarcerated as enemies of communism people who, in fact, yearned for a true communist system.”

He was imprisoned five times for a total of 22 years. He describes the lunacy behind Mao’s dictatorship, the paranoia, the fact that the whole country went mad, “prostrating themselves in unprecedented madness of worship at the feet of someone who was not unprecedentedly great.”

He writes about the absurdity of endless ‘struggle and criticism’ sessions in the camp, where prisoners would criticise each other and then publicly accept the criticism, no matter how untruthful. Although “formally rehabilitated” in 1979 he was jailed again for three years in August 1993 and his wife and daughter were persecuted. Apparently, he had been preparing to commemorate the Chinese army crackdown that crushed the 1989 Tiananmen protest. He was released in 1996 and today is one of China’s greatest living writers.

‘My Bodhi Tree’ is made up of self-censored entries in his small jail diary but he fills in everything that the original left unsaid. Hunger and death stalked his world.

In order to cling to life prisoners ate grass, leaves, vegetable roots, rats, toads, insects and lice. He writes that the prisoners knew from the amount of lice on a comrade’s body whether he was dying, because lice will not stay on a body whose blood is turning cold.

“When one wasn’t busy doing other things, one picked out lice. As soon as you got one the practice was to pop it in your mouth. Chewing on lice and lice eggs is rather like crunching sesame seeds – both are tasty and make a crispy sound.
“All things considered, lice are a kind of meat, rich in protein. When one’s hunger is intolerable, stuffing lice in the mouth can relieve the craving for food.”

Many of his novels are about imprisonment and the effects of imprisonment on the psyche. He writes about a prisoner who died, Wang Sanyu, with whom he used to discuss literature. As the dying man is being taken out to the hospital Zhang quotes from a Russian book they discussed, ‘How Steel is Refined’ [where ‘steel’ is the mind of a young man].

Despite all his suffering under communism Zhang holds up the sentiments behind the quote as something still very worthy:

“The most precious thing a person has is life. Life is something we get to experience only once. In remembering the past, one shouldn’t regret the wasted years, in thinking of the present one shouldn’t feel bitter at the pervasive mediocrity. It is enough to be able to say in the end that one’s entire life and strength were devoted to the most glorious enterprise on earth: the struggle to liberate all of mankind.”