Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China

Opposition is the movement of the Dao
反者道之動

—Laozi

Kang cover 2

Among the literature on China under Maoism and since, one of the most perceptive and disturbing accounts that I have read is

  • Kang Zhengguo, Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China (2007).

Peppered with evocative allusions to classical Chinese literature, in Susan Wilf’s translation it makes a compelling read. One can find more shocking accounts of the Maoist era: while Kang was only formally incarcerated from 1965 to 1971, many others spent over twenty years in the labour-camp system, or never returned from exile at all. But it is precisely the routine, banal nature of his “descent into hell” that is so revealing. Sadly, it’s just as relevant today.

In his Introduction, Perry Link comments “this may be the best account of daily life in Communist China that I have ever read”.

Hundreds of writers of both fiction and nonfiction have given accounts of “the people” (aka “the masses”) during China’s Mao years, but nearly all use an ideological lens that flattens the perspective and homogenises the background, indeed starches the clothing, tidies the town square, recolours the sky, and, most important, tells you what to think about a social problem in terms that are usually oversimplified and often grossly false. This account, in contrast, is clear-eyed.

One might consider feature films like The blue kite.

Link surveys “modernist” literature since the 1980s, “post-traumatic symptoms” of the Maoist era. Despite impressive dissenting voices such as Zhang Xianliang, he misses a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Primo Levi.

Never inclined to submit to authority, Kang “trundles through life”, ignoring boundaries. He details the mechanics of the Maoist control system, to which most people learned to adapt instinctively in the interests of self-preservation (as in the Soviet Union).

While Kang made token efforts in this direction, he was not alone in being worn down by the system. He finds that “the only way out is down”, leading him “from college to brick factory to labour camp to prison and finally into rural exile”. With guilt by association, people feared that the political leprosy would spread to them—creating the illusion of unanimous support for the Party.

Link finds Kang’s writing “free of self-censorship, supplicatory attitude, bizarre modernism, or other deflections of vision […] and the kind of distortion that, in some writers, grows out of conscious rebellion against such deflection.” He notes the power of official language, again internalised in daily life. Kang’s writing seems to make the Party shrink, despite its enduring power, belying the notion that “Party and people are one”.

Early years
Born in Xi’an in 1944, Kang’s earliest memories are of taking refuge with his Nanny at her parents’ village home in the early summer of 1949, as refugees streamed in all directions, alarmed that the “bumpkin army” was to arrive.

Kang 7

He recalls the fanfare of the early days of Liberation. His grandfather, a devout lay Buddhist, had been involved in radical politics in his youth; but by the 1920s, from his base of the idyllic Silent Garden, he devoted himself to Buddhism—leading local charities, relief work, collecting donations to repair dilapidated temples, and printing scriptures. Even after the Communist land reform, though now classified as a landlord, he remained active, shielded by a renowned living Buddha from Qinghai, and was given a salaried post as Buddhist representative on the Municipal Consultative Committee, taking part in meetings with some alacrity.

Kang 425

Kang recalls the frenzy of the Great Leap Forward. But he relished the classical literature that he found in his grandfather’s library. At school, with his independent bookish tastes, he began to acquire a dubious political reputation.

Kang 28

Though the cities were always protected from the worst hardship, by 1960 food shortages were common in Xi’an. As refugees begged on the streets, Kang’s grandfather took in a peasant from the Henan countryside. Kang began to see through the boastful state propaganda.

With a certain economic relaxation following the chaos of the Leap, free markets reappeared; Kang recalls the bustling market at the Baxian gong Daoist temple. Foreign films were in vogue too.

Under his grandfather’s influence he began keeping a diary, whose personal reflections he contrasted with the empty show of Lei Feng’s posturings.

Kang’s father was a senior engineer, whose alcoholism gave rise to family tensions. He tried to dissuade his son from bookish pursuits; whereas science was a rather safe subject, the humanities were considered risky (cf. Vesna Goldsworthy in Yugoslavia). But Kang persisted. By 1963, still at school, he was falling under suspicion. Despite gaining admission to Shaanxi Normal University, as the political climate deteriorated, he felt alienated by the mediocrity and conformity of the teaching.

The professors who were old enough to have suffered during the Anthi-rightist campaign carried their prudence to the point of idiocy, while the younger ones merely trumpeted the literary policies of the day.

Kang was cajoled into writing the first of many self-criticisms.

Kang 71In March 1965, seeing no way out, he took the No.15 bus to enter “the gates of hell”, becoming a “resettled worker” at the No.2 Brickyard in Xi’an. His romantic illusions about finding Robin Hood types were soon dispelled. Though they were allowed to take occasional breaks in town, it was effectively a labour camp.

In autumn 1965, as the Socialist Education and Four Cleanups campaigns intensified, he learned that his ever-devout grandfather, then in his mid-eighties, had been subjected to a struggle session at the Wofo si temple. His house was ransacked, and his land confiscated.

Kang summarises his grandfather’s fortunes since Liberation:

Kang 90I don’t think that Grandfather was aware of the extent to which the temples had been politicised or to which the Party’s promise of religious freedom was pretence. There was a reason why he had been granted prestigious positions in the Buddhist Association and the Municipal Political Consultative Committee, along with a monthly subsidy of 100 yuan. As a prominent Buddhist spokesman for official policies he has an unwitting figurehead for the Party’s United Front policy of the political assimilation of non-party members. In the comparatively relaxed climate of the past few years he had fallen for a host of false promises. Imagining that he could promote Buddhism as he had before the Communists, he had continued to advocate religious reform. Unfortunately his proposals—to hold gatherings to celebrate Buddhism, for example, and to require temples to enforce religious discipline—had aroused the ire of both the Party and the monastic community. Maybe even at the bitter end he still failed to understand that his religious zeal exceeded the limits tolerated by the authorities, who saw the latest political campaign as an opportunity to attack him.

After living peacefully under Communism for sixteen years, Grandfather was getting a taste of the Party’s sinister tactic of turning people against one another. He was bewildered by the virulence of the attacks on him by monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists, who had always treated him with respect but now seemed even crueller than the cadres in charge. He never realised that the Party agents within the monastic community had been informing on him all along and that the Party had been keeping a dossier on him, lying in wait as he incriminated himself.

Though Kang started to appeal against his own verdict, he was left without options.

In my post on the ritual life of Xi’an I cited his account of a mass struggle session that he witnessed at the town of Weiqu.

The Cultural Revolution, and labour camp
In 1966 he witnessed the further desecration of the Wofo si temple, and the humiliation of its abbot, who soon hanged himself after severe beatings from the Red Guards. Kang pre-emptively sold off the most dangerous of his book collection. His youngest sister, barred from the Red Guards because of the “black” status of her family, went on a rampage against the “four olds” in the house, before the Red Guards completed the job. Kang’s grandparents were evicted, moving into a cramped flat.

For a moment the mood of rebellion against state authorities gave him misguided hope. He sneaked off on the train to Beijing in an attempt to lodge an appeal. Returning to Xi’an, he tried his luck at the university, also in the turmoil of rebellion, but soon realised he was vulnerable there too.

In 1967, amidst armed struggle between factions, Kang’s fate worsened yet again. Apart from classical Chinese literature, his literary tastes had long extended to foreign novels. Among a few volumes still surviving from his collection at home, he explored Russian fiction. In what he himself describes as a moment of madness, he sent off a letter to the Moscow University Library to request a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

While he waited, his fellow-inmate the racketeer Pimple Ma, a Muslim, took him under his wing. Even now, as Link observes, the period “brought him more, not less, access to ‘bourgeois’ pleasures like reading non-Communist books, smoking cigarettes, and chatting with friends”. As some of the plundered spoils from the Four Olds circulated, he got hold of an unexpurgated copy of The golden lotus, and some old Russian records. He joined in the unlikely revival of dance parties, dabbling in romance.

Kang’s grandparents had been given permission to return to Silent Garden, now in ruins, but both died soon after. In September 1968 Kang was arrested. During a stay in prison the charge against him was still unclear. Eventually, sentenced to three years at the Malan Farms labour camp complex in Xunyi county further north, it transpires that his major crime was having written to Moscow for a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

Even now he cherished a dream that the camp would be full of idealist “anti-rightists”; on arriving he found that most of the inmates were juvenile delinquents. Now he had to get used to the “Sisyphean labours” of the regime.

Rural exile and village life
Released in 1971, Kang made his way back to his parents’ home in Xi’an. His status still vulnerable, he had to lie low. Though the extreme violence of the first three years of the Cultural Revolution had died down, the system of residence permits and ration tickets was oppressive, and Kang remained a burden on his family.

His father was now out of trouble himself. Though angry at the way Kang had brought calamity on the family, he had been going to great lengths to negotiate a transfer for him to a rural commune in Chang’an county just south of the city. With obstacles to settling his status still in the way, they tried to marry him off to a peasant woman, but by 1972 they found a childless old pauper to adopt him, in a deal that involved building him a modest new home to replace his old hovel. His adopted father was to be responsible for finding him a wife, and he was to support him in his old age and take care of his funeral.

What objections could I possibly have at this point? I had given my parents so many headaches over the years that nothing could probably offend them anymore. And if they could accept this situation, why couldn’t I? Right then it occurred to me that it might be a good thing to change my name. Settling down in the countryside with a brand-new class status would be better than sponging off my parents. Even if my life was tough from now on, my family would be spared any further suffering on my account. Changing my name seemed like a small price to pay. […]

Very few people understood my past, and nobody paid it much attention. Once I had my new name, it was as if I had been reincarnated in Team No.4 with a completely clean slate. Nobody seemed to care that I was a reactionary or to show any curiosity about my expulsion from college and incarceration in the labour camps. Neither did anyone seem to think it was important that I’d been to college and was highly literate.

Indeed, he soon learned that villagers were quite used to complex kinship relations:

Production Team No.4 was so poverty-stricken that many of the men could not afford traditional marriages. The village was full of blended families and there were plenty of other adopted children besides me. Some of the older bachelors had scraped together enough money late in life to marry widows with children. Shiquan, for example, had acquired a couple of stepsons in this way. Shili, our village carpenter, had married the widow of a criminal landlord element, adaopting her daughter and two sons. Our accountant, Rangdao, who lived next door to me, had been adopted from a relative’s family. And Yinzui was actually the grandnephew of his adoptive father, who had taken him in because he was afraid that his own son, Dinghan, was not reliable enough to support him in his old age. Dinghan had been away in the labour camps at the time and had returned unmarried. Recently, however, he had found a woman from Gansu who had run away from her husband, and she had a son and a daughter. Given these haphazard family arrangements, you had to be careful about whom you called a bastard.

Despite his experience of manual labour, Kang (or Li Chunlai, as he was now) found himself a “substandard peasant”. He observes village life astutely as a cultural outsider. People remained acutely aware of private property; petty jealousies abounded. Still unable to migrate to the cities, they envied urban dwellers.

With an interlude on a dam construction project, as restrictions on enterprise grew more lax, he began making pocket money with electrical repairs and clock-mending, setting off on foot around the nearby villages, making occasional trips for parts into Xi’an—already an alien place to him. Getting hold of an old transistor radio and some textbooks, he began teaching himself English. He was still under surveillance.

Kang 300

After his father died in 1974, he came under growing pressure to find a bride. Introduced to Xiuqin, a woman from Shang-Luo prefecture, they married in Xi’an in 1975 and he took her on her first ever bike-ride to begin married life in his village.

Xiuqin’s story, told by Kang with characteristic frankness, also illustrates the times. Her father came from an impeccable revolutionary background, becoming a respected township cadre. But misreading the mood after the Great Leap Forward, he took part in a plot to distribute grain to the starving peasants, and was sentenced to labour camp as a counterrevolutionary. Xiuqin’s mother now faced great hardships in bringing up the children. They were further persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. Her father was released in 1969, but soon subjected to a series of struggle sessions. Xiuqin was desperate to find a husband as a way out of her suffering. After several false starts, she was introduced to Kang Zhengguo.

None too impressed by her new husband’s living quarters, on a trip back home she learned that her father was in ever deeper trouble. After enduring further ordeals from the vindictive cadres, she eventually got permission to leave. In Kang’s adopted village she learned how the peasants resented them. She gave birth to a daughter and then a son. While Kang was often absent, she worked hard.

The death of Chairman Mao in 1976 seemed to offer them hope of gaining urban residence in Xi’an. Kang’s adoptive father also soon died; while the villagers grudgingly considered their funeral arrangements suitable, they always resented the couple inheriting his house, and sought opportunities to wheedle money out of them. Meanwhile Xiuqin’s father, still being tormented, died too.

But now, as society was thawing, their life was improving. By 1978 Kang resumed his studies of English, on hold since 1974 when he learned he was still under surveillance. Beginning to get teaching jobs, he set his sights on returning to Xi’an. And his petitions to be rehabilitated were successful, his reputation finally cleared. In 1979 he was appointed to Shaanxi Normal University, from which he had been expelled some fifteen years earlier.

As he notes, that should be the end of the story, enabling him to enjoy the placid, uneventful life of a tenured scholar of literature.

The reform era, and emigration
If Kang’s successive degradations under Maoism are disturbing, so is his story since the reforms.

Observing three former friends now blowing with the new wind, he comments:

The course of action that these three friends had chosen was also open to me. I could have swallowed my pride and obsequiously accepted favours from the Party, becoming a docile professor with my nose buried in my books. This would have been a happy ending to my tale.

Instead, soon falling foul of the Spiritual Pollution campaign of 1983, he was dismissed from the university. While teaching at Jiaotong University, though initially wary of the 1989 protest movement, partly out of concern for his family, he was soon swept up in it. Though he avoided arrest, he now became subject to further surveillance.

His career opportunities were still limited. However, his thesis A study of Chinese poetry on women and by women had somehow come to the attention of a Chinese scholar at Yale, who now wrote to him. Sending off his reply, he thought of the only other letter he had ever sent to a foreign country in 1967. Invited to a conference at Yale, he had to surmount a series of obstacles in order to attend. Once in the USA, realising the challenges of surviving there as an immigrant, his dreams of remaining soon evaporated, and he meekly returned to China—where people were surprised to see him.

Still, he had made such a good impression that in 1994 he was offered a job as a Chinese-language instructor at Yale, and after further bureaucratic hurdles, he took refuge there with his wife and children.

This might make a second happy ending. But after several peaceful years teaching at Yale, in 2000 he planned a return visit to China, to attend an academic conference in Nanjing, as well as to visit his mother in Xi’an and relocate the family graves.

His visit coincided with the anniversary of the 1989 demonstrations, always a tense time; anyway, the Public Security Bureau was already back on his case. Indeed, from the kind of titles that his wife wisely tried to stop him taking for his old friends in China (Havel, Beijing spring, Pu Ning’s Red in tooth and claw, and so on) he had clearly been keeping a keen eye on “dissident” literature.

Attending the conference on “Gender issues in Ming and Qing literature”, his observations strike a chord:

I felt like a country bumpkin in such lavish surroundings. I had never seen such ostentation at American scholastic conferences. In China, the booming economy had stimulated a surge in conspicuous consumption. With China’s entry into the age of globalisation, the Chinese now sought to conform to international standards or even to outdo the foreigners at their own game. The results often struck me as excessive.

Meeting up with old friends from the 1989 protests, he finds them too absorbed in their nouveau-riche lifestyle to dwell on the past. Sensibly postponing his return to Xi’an until after the 4th June anniversary, in an attempt to avoid potential charges of troublemaking he took a trip to Lhasa with his brother (himself now vaunting the superiority of Chinese life over the American dream); this may not seem very well thought out, but it passed off without incident. Still, en route to Lhasa they had met up with the dissident Liao Yiwu in a Chengdu teahouse—again, hardly a prudent decision.

Kang reflects on his own innate contrariness:

Even if I had wanted to become a businessman like my brother, I would never have succeeded. Moreover, I believed that dissenting voices were essential forces of progress. The regime’s vaunting of “stability” showed that its vested interest still obstructed any social change that might undermine the power structure. Despite people’s insistence that things had improved, I could see that Chinese citizens were deprived of many of the same basic rights they had lacked under Mao.

Soon after returning to Xi’an he was arrested yet again. As the extent of the surveillance becomes clear, with his green card seeming ever more flimsy, his interrogators tried to get him to inform on his “subversive” friends in China.

Letters had always been my downfall. I had a lifetime of firsthand experience with the censorship of the Chinese postal system. My misake had been to imagine that the the dictatorship had relaxed its grip in the post-Mao era when in fact it was as restrictive as ever, and its spy apparatus was now streamlined by the latest technology. Like a spider in its web in a dark corner of the room, the Security Bureau was always lying in wait for its prey.

As the American authorities attempted to intercede on his behalf, Kang was cajoled into writing yet another “confession”. Despite injunctions to get out while he could, he still proceeded with the reinterment of his elders. Returning to his adoptive village, he finds it much changed, the environment ruined by the money-making schemes of the 1980s. Few of his old friends and adversaries there had fared well. He boarded the flight back to America with relief.

Scrapping the liability of his Chinese passport, he now gained American citizenship. In his tranquil family home in the New Haven suburbs he thought of Silent Garden. His wife and children thrived.

At first he remained silent about his recent ordeal in China, avoiding the press. But after a year he found the pact of silence unbearable.

This latter part of Kang’s story might seem like a minor footnote, but re-reading it as the surveillance state becomes ever more intrusive, it takes on added significance. Now, long after the apparent demise of Maoism, we can read about such intimidation daily.

While no-one could be entirely naïve in such an environment, Kang Zhengguo’s attempts to gain some respite by playing the Party’s gruesome game had always been outwitted.

On my explorations in around Xi’an from 1986 in search of traditional culture, I had no idea of all this troubled recent history, and no-one was in a hurry to educate me. This book should be high on the reading lists of people undertaking any kind of fieldwork in China.

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