Mourning the Deceased on Tomb-Sweeping Day:
On Xie Yihui’s1 new documentary film,
Juvenile Laborers Confined in Dabao2
February 28, 2013
[English translation by Human Rights in China]
I watched your film with great emotion. Below are some notes I wrote on and off while watching it this morning. Of course, I’ve done some revising and rearranging. Every minute I was watching the film, I wanted to salute you and the old gentleman who helped you find the Reeducation-Through-Labor camp survivors. I also wanted to salute all those who worked with you at every level on this historical inquiry. It’s your extraordinary efforts that have made this shocking and painful episode in China’s history known to the world.
The film starts with an investigation by Zeng Boyan, once a Sichuan Daily newspaper reporter. After being labeled a Rightist during the late 1950s Anti-Rightist Movement, Zeng was ordered to serve RTL on Shaping Farm in E’bian County, Sichuan Province. At that time, he witnessed several hundred children serving RTL in a nearby ravine. He later learned that 4,000 to 5,000 minors were forcibly interned in a place called Dabao, a subdivision of the Shaping Farm, 35 kilometers from the Shaping Farm headquarters. The film begins with a narration from Zeng’s book The Chronicle of Kids in the Pit: “At that time, I was absolutely horrified.”
By tracing the investigator’s footsteps, we see how this tragedy began. In the 1950s, several thousand children were interned here as the result of China’s adopting the Soviet Union’s practice of reforming wayward children. These children—ages ten to 17—were incarcerated for various reasons, but most weren’t criminals. Many committed small trespasses, were the products of parental neglect, or their parents believed that RTL would provide an opportunity for their children to learn how to work. Others were there because public security organs needed to fill quotas for catching criminals. These children were subjected to inhuman persecution at the Dabao camp, and many died there without anyone knowing.
The horrors we know about the RTL system mostly come from the experiences of adults. But this film reveals the origins of this system. It was established by the State Council during the height of the Anti-Rightist rectification campaign in 1957, when many politically labeled Rightists were sent to RTL camps. But the scope was expanded to include other so-called bad elements. The RTL system that targeted minors was characterized particularly by confusion and illegality because it blurred the distinction between crime and non-crime. It seems that in an effort to reeducate neglected children, it also obscured the line between welfare and punishment. But from the recollections of those involved, the system, from its inception, emphasized crime and punishment. Even when children were on the verge of starving to death and their parents begged to have them released, they were unable to get their children back because the authorities said they were criminals and had not been sufficiently reformed.
The leaders of the People’s Republic of China believed that the social environment must be pure: there must not be homeless children or any minor offenses such as petty theft by juveniles. For this reason, under the mantel of Reeducation-Through-Labor, forcible detention was initiated against the poor and those who lacked resources. In terms of food and shelter, the children who were tricked and snatched into RTL camps lived in conditions not much different from those in Nazi concentration camps. Although there were no crematoriums, the Great Famine of the late 1950s-early 1960s made these children suffer a fate worse than incineration: protracted starvation.
In watching scene after scene of recollections, I felt deeply that this documentary is of extraordinary significance in historical revelation. I think that from now on this documentary will be required viewing by people researching the so-called history of the international communist movement, China’s late 1950s Anti-Rightist Movement, and the Great Famine, and by those discussing the theory and practice of totalitarianism. The historical evidence it presents is not only important but also unparalleled. No documentary similar to this has been made before.
If it were not for this documentary, the tragedy of these children would have passed into oblivion. Historical documentaries like this are like rescue efforts that cannot be postponed. Many old people from Sichuan Province have produced a great number of written records because they have this sense of historical consciousness. Several years ago, Zeng Boyan wrote an article titled “The 1958 Plunder of Youth,” which was included in the unofficial publication The Plunder of 1958 edited by Wang Jianjun. I recall the brief mention of the tragedy that occurred in Dabao. Zeng Boyan’s investigation and his collaboration with the documentary filmmakers complement each other and make both more powerful. Before your documentary, no one had conducted audio or video interviews. This documentary has filled a void. It has not only historical significance, but also—in a time when some people are still uncertain about whether the RTL system should be abolished—powerful practical significance.
These juvenile RTL inmates were all unknown people. This is one of the documentary’s most valuable discoveries: new and numerous witnesses of the history of RTL. By presenting them on screen, the documentary provides much needed audio-visual evidence about which people had no prior knowledge. What is particularly rare is that among the interviewees are those who participated in the administration of juvenile RTL facilities. They were also Rightists, some were section heads, and others were doctors. People who played different roles provide different narrative perspectives, allowing a multifaceted understanding of the experiences of the juveniles at RTL camps.
Why do we need concrete experiences? Why are these testimonies so important? I believe that totalitarian societies use a concept to control people’s thinking. This concept, in theoretical terms, is called “the right to have one’s say.” It mystifies power and the language used by those who wield power to maintain their rule, and relies on despotic violence to perpetuate itself. All discourse and views that do not accord with this narrative are demonized and banned as taboo. Those who express such views (for example, the Rightists), and those who don’t conform to the image of an ideal society, become social outcasts and are forced into an invisible hell.
These outcasts, as portrayed in this film, were not Rightists. They were just children who did not embody utopian ideals. This documentary salvages the experiences of the children from this underclass. We hear them tell how they were arbitrarily sent to RTL, and how confusing the concept of RTL was. In essence, what happened was no different from the past practice of the Liang Mountain Yi ethnic minorities kidnapping Han Chinese youth and enslaving them.
The former inmates describe the work setting, how they lived through the Great Famine years, what they ate (how they couldn’t swallow the radish porridge even though they were extremely hungry), how they slept (200-300 small children all sleeping in a work shed), their daily life, their manual labor, and how they survived. The interviews also address how the RTL authorities supervised these thousands of minors. The former inmates talk about being lied to and threatened (with corporal punishment). In some cases, food was allocated based on the amount of work done, resulting in some RTL teams eating better than others.
In these recollections, we see the important psychological experience of a totalitarian society. This is one of the most valuable contributions of this documentary. This kind of psychological experience isn’t usually easy to see, and it highlights the depth of the interviews.
The former juvenile inmates describe their indifference to death because they faced it too frequently. As many as 12 children died in a single day. One child was put into a pile of corpses, but was woken by rain the next day. When this child crawled back to the camp, he was mistaken for a ghost and almost killed—one guard lifted his pistol and another lifted his club. Some children left wills such as this one: Please bury me on a hillside facing the sun because I’m afraid of cold. A work team head talked about the “smell of death.” The events depicted in these accounts are almost outside of human bounds, and give the audience a sense of suffocating oppression.
The film’s interviews are so probing and solid, without any exaggeration. Some of these children who starved to death during the Great Famine died from eating poisonous wild mushrooms, others from eating poisonous bamboo shoots… Some children, after growing boils on their bodies, were reported by doctors to have contracted “subcutaneous lung fluke disease” after eating raw crabs or earthworms and finally became either disabled or died. Doctors from those years said that they were only allowed to report the cause of death as multi-organ function failure, or by disease, and never edema from malnutrition. One doctor who reported truthfully was immediately packed off to prison.
Your new film strikes at its viewers mercilessly, pelting them with these concrete experiences. Although it’s hard to bear, I can’t help saying that these experiences are the starting point of our imperative to end authoritarianism today. That is to say, our society urgently needs these experiences, to constitute a forum about the documentary, or a civilian court, to put the past on trial. To try historical crimes, there must be witnesses, and the witnesses must present evidence. All of this evidence constitutes a kind of new knowledge, and, in this sense, knowledge is power. And this documentary is filled with the knowledge of the evils of the RTL system. The film offers not a concept or a stance, but experiences that come with the price of lives, and it is the concretization of emotional suffering. This kind of knowledge possesses irresistible cognitive strength. In the face of the knowledge of such concrete evidence, any idea of the legitimacy of the RTL system goes up in smoke.
Speaking of experience, people are of course not completely ignorant of the Great Famine. Accounts of the human disaster of the Great Famine include Yang Jisheng’s Mubei [which has been translated into English as Tombstone], and Dongfu’s account of the Sichuan Province famine, Green Wheat Seedlings and Yellow Canola Flowers. But we must see this with our own eyes. That is, we must come face-to-face with those who lived this history. This is the strength of documentary films: allowing us to see those who have firsthand experiences and hear their stories.
From the testimonies in the documentary, one can see that those who lived this history personally all have unforgettable memories. I feel that although collecting such material is difficult, the work is rendered less difficult because everyone involved has a bellyful to say. The problem is that, in a country as big as China, how many people are documenting these historical experiences? Last year, an editor of a famous newspaper even denied that anyone had starved to death during the Great Famine. And many of today’s urban youth don’t care or know about a tragedy in China that claimed the lives of more than ten times the number of people killed in the Holocaust. That we can see and hear the stories of those who lived the history is due to your arduous journey and diligent documentary work. When I was watching the film on my computer today, every minute I felt tremendous respect and gratitude.
Another difficulty of making historical documentaries is recreating the setting of the time. You successfully surmounted this obstacle as well. On the one hand, you present in the film photographs of people from that time and their personal files, which include official RTL notices from half a century ago. What invaluable material! Each person’s dossier includes the reason for his or her RTL sentence. This kind of detailed evidence is appropriate and powerful. From this, one can see the perfect harmony between the interviewer and interviewees. It would have been difficult to acquire such material without mutual trust and cooperation. Also, you bring the audience back to the old RTL camp, showing us the broken down buildings and dormitories on the hilltop, and the walls with the slogans from the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s still visible on them. You let us see those desolate mountains, the deep ravines, and the disorderly woods.
The footage used for the narration and transition mainly includes the daily scenes in today’s Dabao and its surrounding villages and townships in the Sichuan Province cities of Chongqing and Chengdu. The meandering alleys, the unfamiliar-looking impoverished common people (with inexpressive eyes, the silent majority), the village kids, and the mountain vegetation in which they dug for wild vegetables. These tableaus, on the one hand, arouse a kind of sympathy—those in RTL were only teenagers. On the other hand, they prompt a kind of connection. There is in fact little difference between the past and the present in the countryside. Other than having enough basic food and clothing by and large, what have people gained in terms of their rights?
What is unusual is that you integrated historical controversies into the documentary. The old gentleman Zeng Boyan, the film’s writer, is dedicated. He carries the responsibility of history on his back: “I want to preserve this so later generations will know it. As long as I draw breath I will keep working and keep climbing.” You and he made the arduous journey together, buying tickets, being bumped and jolted on public buses. I can imagine the kind of difficulty you endured with indomitable will. But even when you found those who had lived this history, in small mountain villages, in the vicinity of RTL facilities, even at mah-jongg tables, not everyone could really appreciate the full significance of such inquiries. Those who were involved raised this kind of question: “You say that the government was wrong, of course the government was wrong!” But there were quite a few juveniles who were sent to the camps by their parents! The storytellers had no response to this. And viewers can’t help but ask: How did human nature get so twisted, and why?
Halfway through your documentary, you reveal the argument between two people involved at the time: Why, in the end, should these events be remembered? One survivor of the camps, now an old man, said that the past shouldn’t be mentioned. But Mr. Zeng Boyan said: “Their aim is to erase the past! And you’re helping them! What has this history turned into, happiness? Can one just tell these kids a few made-up stories and be done with the whole thing?” “But telling made-up stories is normal,” another insists. Mr. Zeng Boyan retorted emotionally: “Normal— how is it normal?”
Here, the film brilliantly presents the argument between victims of history about remembering and forgetting. It directly poses the question to contemporary viewers: How should we approach historical tragedies? In other words: Do we really have a stance? These arguments give the audience a new perspective: We’re not only watching history, we’re also watching people’s stance toward history. Even more, we have no choice but to take on the question of the people who were involved at the time and ponder: How does the historical experience in fact escape from one’s memory? One reason is that people today have better food and clothing than in the past, which is also the mainstream view today. Another reason is that the people involved feel powerless to reverse the course of history. So, what can we do? We should just forget and bury this frightening and appalling tragedy in amnesia because of powerlessness? Moreover, as Mr. Zeng Boyan revealed, a search of “Sichuan Province’s Shaping Reeducation-Through-Labor camp” on Baidu returned a description of that history that said: “Over these decades, we’ve reformed 65,000 people and rehabilitated them into society.” “But it didn’t say how many thousands of people are buried in those hills.”
You show many scenes of Mr. Zeng Boyan walking. He walks in the gullies of history, picking up from the ground the white bones of those children who were said to have been “reformed.” But what is his work for? He says: for future generations. His dedication, and your even more amazing diligence (in terms of experience, you’re not one of the direct creditors of that historical tragedy; in physical terms, you have long been tortured by illness), demonstrate the morality and aesthetics of contemporary China’s independent historical documentary film—assuming the responsibility of history, going forward without fear, and duty-bound not to turn back. It’s just like what Zeng Boyan said: “Regarding the Dabao camp, human nature and human rights were completely destroyed.” In a society where indifference and apathy pervade, and faced with the souls of thousands of ruined innocent victims, this kind of willpower to defend human nature and human rights is earthshaking and heartrending.
To be honest, it’s too difficult to bear this painful memory. I’ve always wanted to escape from it. How can this be called Reeducation-Through-Labor? This was more like the tragedy of Auschwitz repeated in 1960s China, and the grievous memory of collective extermination.
Nothing can demonstrate the inhumanity of RTL more than the memory of the survivors. In order to survive during the Great Famine, those hungry children stole food in nearby villages, and were violently beaten by the correctional officers. When the old man showed his leg, we can see the scar from violent kicking by the officers. They were beaten by villagers who were trying to protect their grain. When nearby villagers caught those RTL children, they burned them, chopped off their fingers, smeared hot pepper on their genitals, and trapped them under baskets with big rocks on top of them. These children, in an environment of the survival of the fittest, became cruel themselves and tortured each other. When girls denounced each other, they invented the torture of pinpricking breasts and scraping each other’s vaginas with toothbrushes. All this repeatedly reminds me of Auschwitz during the Second World War, but this was crueler than Auschwitz! In an environment where people ate people, the persecuted were themselves totally robbed of their humanity, turned into one another’s executioners.
The myth of RTL being a work-study program is now completely shattered. In 1961, children began being removed from RTL camps. In 1962, the Dabao area operation was shuttered. Those who survived the famine were either carried away on backs or stretchers, or crawled onto stretchers themselves. After recovering physically at RTL factories or farms, they became child laborers. Later, when the authorities sent people to put name markers on the nameless graves, they could not match them, resulting in mistaken identities. When family members came to ask for their children, all they saw was a death tag. They had no way of knowing if the grave contained the lonely soul of the child of another family.
The final scene is quite shocking. In the forest where the wrongfully dead were buried, we see a few old folks hanging white silk ribbons bearing the names of the juvenile RTL inmates on them, while the song of the New Chinese Young Pioneers played in the background.
In the face of such painful history, all words lose their weight.
I hope that you finish the final details soon. I believe that this documentary that has filled a void of history will give rise to discussions for a long time to come. The Chinese authorities still seem to be undecided about whether to abolish the RTL system. Your documentary appearing will be a fatal blow to this anti-humanitarian and inhuman evil.
Written on February 4, 2013, revised on February 28. Sent with pictures as a commemoration before the Tomb-Sweeping Festival.