BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Lian Xi (Basic Books £25)
On the outskirts of Suzhou, near Shanghai, there’s a tomb in a cemetery that has a surveillance camera trained on it, keeping a perpetual eye on visitors.
Once a year, on the anniversary of the deceased, plain-clothes policemen arrive to block access to the tomb and to rough up any persistent pilgrims.
It’s the tomb of a remarkable woman called Lin Zhao, who was shot by firing squad at the age of 35 in 1968, at the height of the Mao regime.
‘In death even more than in life,’ writes the author of this important biography, ‘Lin Zhao has become a nemesis of the Communist state.’
A letter of protest that Lin wrote from her prison cell to the editor of the People’s Daily newspaper, never sent and long-suppressed, appeared on the internet in China in 2004.
Author Lian Xi shares the torture Lin Zhao (pictured) experienced during her protest against the Mao regime before her death at age 35 in a new biography
It caused a sensation and became a manifesto for dissent in China today.
So this is still an incendiary and live story and some of it can’t yet be told. All Lin’s interrogation records, documenting the hours and hours of questioning, probably conducted under torture, are still filed away as part of the ‘criminal evidence’ in her case.
But Lin was an inveterate protester and letter-writer and, astonishingly, the letters she wrote to her mother from prison, though they were confiscated at the time and not sent, were saved and eventually returned to the family.
Those letters were written not in ink, but in blood. As a punishment for her refusal to comply with the rules of the brutal Shanghai Municipal Prison, where she was incarcerated for being an ‘impatient counter-revolutionary’, Lin was deprived of ink. That was not going to stop her.
She had grasped the evils and depravities of Mao’s regime and refused to keep silent. In her freezing cell, she pricked her thumbs, dripped the blood into a small plastic spoon and wrote to her mother with a bamboo pick, a hair clip or the plastic handle of her toothbrush sharpened against the concrete floor, sometimes on a strip of bedsheet, rather than paper.
‘Alas, Mama, they have communised China into a country of beggars.’ ‘When the morning light of freedom shines upon the vast land of this country, we shall pour out our hearts to each other.’
That yearned-for moment of reunion never came.
To make us appreciate Lin’s bravery, Lian Xi, who has pieced together her life story, reminds us just how rare it was in Mao’s regime for anyone to dare to speak out. Lin was ‘the rare one who stood upright in an era when the entire country prostrated themselves’.
Lin was partly furious with herself as during the fifties she had loved Communism to the extent that she referred to Chairman Mao (pictured) as ‘Dear Father’
It was so much easier to keep quiet and go along with it all — and so much safer for the rest of the family.
There was a Chinese scholar in the prison, a once-renowned Yale Shakespeare expert, who submitted to copying and learning by heart reams and reams of Mao’s Little Red Book, in order to earn remission points. Lin refused to do any such thing. When we’re most angry, it’s often because we’re angry with ourselves — and, reading between the lines, it’s clear that Lin’s fury was directed partly at herself. As a student in the early Fifties, she had fallen head-over-heels in love with Communism — to such an extent that she referred to Chairman Mao as ‘Dear Father’ and reported her own father to the Government for illegally listening to an American radio programme.
‘A revolution is not a dinner party,’ Chairman Mao declared. ‘It is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.’
Landlords were made to wear tall paper hats and paraded through the streets, denounced by jeering crowds.
Lin, at first, thought this a necessary stage towards the birth of a fairer society.
Mao encouraged students to voice their feelings about the regime as a ploy to identify ‘Rightists’ (Pictured: A democracy demonstration in front of Mao’s portrait)
Then Mao pulled a really dirty trick. He announced a movement with the slogan: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom.’ Students were encouraged to voice their feelings about the less nice aspects of his regime, which many did, including Lin.
It turned out to be a ploy to ‘enforce the snakes out of their lairs’. All who had dared to voice protests were labelled ‘Rightists’. Many were sent off to exile for years of ‘redemption through labour’ in the frozen north.
Lin managed to evade that exile; but her brief, passionate love affair with a student called Gan Cui was brutally cut off when he was banished to work on a construction battalion seven days’ journey away — an exile that would last for 20 years. The two never saw each other again.
Lin was arrested in 1960 for her contribution to an underground magazine, in which she’d written a poem calling Mao’s regime ‘the Fascist rule of a centralised state’ and ridiculing his Great Leap Forward as ‘a Great Leap Backward’.
On hearing of his daughter’s arrest, Lin’s father committed suicide by taking rat poison. ‘His darkest fear about where Lin Zhao’s adolescent pursuit of communism might lead her was realised.’
Lin predicted an escalation of violence brought on by Mao’s (pictured) 1966 exhortation to remove old customs
A simple and efficient method of torture was used as a matter of course in Chinese prisons: handcuffs, and not one pair but two, the upper and lower arms cuffed together behind the back. At one point, after causing trouble, Lin was put into double handcuffs for six-and-a-half months.
With no public trial or defence lawyer, she was sentenced to 20 years. Cajoled and tortured to confess, she refused.
Most other inmates were soon begging for a chance to confess, so as to have an easier life. Not Lin, even though she was ill with recurring and worsening TB.
Out of handcuffs, she took five months to compose a long letter to the People’s Daily. ‘Mao must be the first to bear responsibility for the tragedy of our land swarming with famished refugees and the corpses of the starved filling up the valleys,’ she wrote.
BLOOD LETTERS by Lian Xi (Basic Books £25)
She predicted the course of the regime’s escalating orgy of violence brought on by Mao’s 1966 exhortation to smash ‘the four olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting class’.
She kept the prison guards in a state of perpetual exasperation with her shouting, her ranting and her refusal to comply.
Her cheerful spirit was never crushed: she sketched her favourite Disney characters (Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse) on a flattened toothpaste tube using a small nail. From October 1967, she was writing one blood-inked protest per day to the prison authorities.
The Military Control Committee authorised the death sentence, pronouncing her ‘truly a diehard, unrepentant counter-revolutionary’.
Her Christian faith kept her going, to the end. ‘Let me turn over all my pains, hopes and dreams to my Lord,’ she wrote.
Forced to wear a ‘monkey king cap’ — a rubber hood placed over her face with slits for the eyes — she was taken out to the prison’s execution ground and shot.
The next morning, officials arrived at her mother’s door to deliver the news — and to demand a 5-cent ‘bullet fee’, as her daughter had ‘wasted a people’s bullet’. Mao’s officials knew just how to inflict the highest degree of pain on bereaved families of the condemned.
They, though, are now forgotten, while Lin Zhao is remembered; revered for her refusal to be silent in the face of Mao’s inhumane regime. This book is a worthy tribute to her.