Woman From Shanghai's stories survey Mao's prison system

Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp

By Xianhui Yang. Translated by Wen Huang. Pantheon, 320 pp, $28.95, hardcover

Branded “Rightists” by China’s Communist Party and sentenced to undergo “reeducation through hard labor”, close to three thousand Chinese citizens were sent to the forced-labour camp Jiabiangou between 1957 and 1960. There, in the country’s arid northwestern Gansu province, these political dissidents were to atone for actual or accused political beliefs, intellectual status, or capitalist family ties.

Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp is Tianjin-based author Xianhui Yang’s first book translated into English and a record of the extremities endured by Mao Zedong’s prisoners at Jiabiangou. Adapted from his acclaimed 2003 collection Farewell to Jiabiangou, the 13 short stories in this work are journalistic writings veiled with fictional elements, to avoid censorship.

Over five years, Yang conducted almost 100 interviews with survivors and their relatives, gathering personal accounts of a tragedy that risks being relegated to the footnotes of history.

In the title story, a doctor’s wife arrives at Jiabiangou, unaware that her husband has starved to death. Her manic search for his remains is complicated by his former roommate, who wants to prevent her from discovering that his corpse has been desecrated by cannibals.

Starvation is an unrelenting presence, and the search for sustenance leads to desperate measures. Prisoners devour raw wheat seeds only to have their taste buds destroyed by insecticide in “The Thief”. A man’s stomach bursts after gorging himself on potatoes in “The Potato Feast”.

Despite the inescapable suffering here, there are moments of humanity. After 19 years, a couple finally consummates their affair in “The Love Story of Li Xiangnian”. “Jia Nong” describes how a group of female Rightists unite in the care of a baby boy.

By 1961, when government trucks arrived to transfer the political prisoners out of Jiabiangou, only five hundred were still alive. For more than 25 years after the camp was shut down, piles of human bones were strewn around the ruins. Decades before the government buried the bones in 1987, it manufactured causes of death for those who had starved.

“I’ve made the effort to open up this black box and share these stories with the public because I want people to know the pain of those who have suffered,” Yang writes. “I want to bring closure to those who now lie under the vast desert sand.”