Excerpt from For A Song and a Hundred Songs:
A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison
by Liao Yiwu
Translated by Wenguang Huang
Reprinted with permission from New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
From Chapter 20: “The Living Dead,” pages 148-152
The city’s largest detention center, perched at the top of a flight of steep stone stairs and hidden inside the forested hills, revealed itself ominously. At first glance, it looked like an altar. I straightened my back and stood at attention as ordered, but I couldn’t resist turning back to gaze at the setting sun, receding like a tidal wave of light. The sprawling city below shimmered like a gigantic boiling chop-suey pot with the big dome of the Chongqing People’s Hall perched in the middle. “The dome is the launch pad for a flying saucer,” I thought. “I hope aliens will come abduct me.”
The disarming scenery abruptly ended in the big hall, where I was greeted with a full-body search. Two officers on duty idled on a bench near the door, enjoying the cool breeze, while a small group surrounded two chess players in the middle of the hall. A Red Hair patted me down, examining every inch of my shirt and pants in search of hidden contraband. My comforter was slashed open; the cotton inside emptied out and swept into a garbage can. After every one of my belongings was thoroughly checked, the officer ordered me to sign a piece of folded white paper. I complied without knowing what it was. The next day, I learned from an inmate that it was my arrest warrant. More than three months into my incarceration, I was officially arrested. At the detention center, I was told to keep my old identity number, 0-9-9.
With my shaved head and big bushy beard, I looked like a scraggly old man in mourning. It was the beginning of summer but I still wore a winter sweater that my wife had knit for me. She had embroidered it with a pair of the Chinese yin and yang symbols in black-and-white on the upper right chest and on the right elbow. These ancient symbols are supposed to mean the polar opposites in nature: yin is closely associated with night, darkness, and the moon, while yang is associated with day, light, and the sun. In the past three months, I had learned their true meaning — endless dark days without the sun.
The guard shoved me through a wrought iron gate into a rectangular compound in the back. This was the core of the detention center, which held serious offenders waiting for their convictions. The compound was fenced in by thick brick walls thirty feet high. Watchtowers loomed at the compound’s four corners. A gray square building in the middle of the compound looked as if it had been built with a gigantic version of children’s building blocks. The guards called this square box the “warehouse for the living dead.”
“New inventory for Cell 10,” my escort bellowed. Like magic, the thick metal gate to Cell 10 clunked open. A large group of shiny shaved heads greeted me. Two inmates stood naked in a corner, their manacled hands and feet indicating death row status. That was the first time I’d seen a death row inmate at such close range.
I maintained my composure, but seeing them triggered a scene buried deep in my childhood memory. Growing up in a small town in the mid-1960s, executions of criminals were major public events. One day, when I was nine, an execution notice was posted and the whole town turned out to view the proceedings. Thousands swarmed into the stadium where a public trial was supposed to take place. A criminal, hogtied and gagged, was hoisted up over the side of the stage; a cardboard sign with a big X over the word counterrevolutionary hung around his neck.
I joined a group of fearless children and we squirmed our way forward like eels between the adults’ legs, ignoring the risk of being trampled by the crowd. We wanted to crawl to the front to see the condemned enemy and throw rocks and fruit peels at him. People around and above me screamed, “Kill him!” Through a loudspeaker, the judge presided over the trial from a podium; his words struck the crowd like waves of thunder. The enemy’s body was covered with cuts and bruises, his head bleeding and smashed out of shape by rocks. Strangely, the mere spectacle of a man hog-tied and overcome with fear, his limp body propped up by armed police, excited me.
At the end of the trial, a police van arrived, forcing a path through the mob to take the convicted prisoner away for execution. We ran and ran, chasing the police car until it disappeared in the bright sunset. When we stopped, reluctantly, our faces were covered with dust. Danger and proximity to public punishment had eluded us. The actual execution would take place in a rugged mountainous region, along the lower reaches of the river somewhere. After the execution, the body of the deceased was wrapped in straw mats and sent away for cremation. Unlike adults, who avoided the criminal’s family, we children gathered near the ominous house. Itching with curiosity, we snuck up to the doorway to take a peek inside. All of a sudden, a shadow stepped out. We turned around, dashing away until we reached a busy intersection. Then, we took a breath and looked back. Under the hazy streetlights, a tiny shadowy figure of a boy, who looked our age, came out of the doorway and wandered on the sidewalks like a lone ghost. The image of the boy who had lost his father to an execution stuck in my mind for many years.
China probably executes more people than any other country in the world. A friend of my brother’s who clerked at the municipal court in Chengdu told me that between ten thousand and fifteen thousand people were executed in China in the 1990s. The death sentences were normally carried out fairly fast, within two weeks to three months. With rampant corruption in the court system, it is hard not to question how many of those on death row were wrongly convicted.
The two naked death row inmates that awaited me at Chongqing, one short and plump, the other tall and lanky, were not as mysterious as I had imagined when I was a child. They stood there expressionless, like two wooden sculptures. As I was lost in thought, a loud voice from outside the cell brought me back to reality: “Water is ready for Cell 10.” The two death row inmates clanked their way to a concrete rack to grab their bowls and scooped up water from a sink, pouring it over their heads and bodies. They made a game of it, winking at each other and prancing up and down like two chained monkeys. Others soon joined in, creating chaos. “Hey, stop! Let the newcomer wash first!” a sturdy inmate with pasty skin yelled in a stern voice. He seemed to have appeared from nowhere. The other inmates shrank away from the two “living dead,” as they were called, and waited obediently off to one side. Quickly, I slipped out of my clothes and washed thoroughly.
My undershirt and a small quilted mattress were swept into a corner as garbage. The rest, including my sweater and quilt cover, were pressed by someone into a big metal basin. Then, the sturdy man in charge swaggered to the middle of the yard and shouted through the wall for boiling water to kill any lice and fleas on my body. I stepped into the basin, frantically jumping up and down for nearly ten minutes while two inmates poured hot water over my head. I slipped and fell a couple of times. My misfortune won a round of laughter. When they pulled me up from the floor, I had been turned into a clean, naked monk.
The sturdy man, Wen Zhi, was the chief of our cell. He ordered me to raise both my arms while two other inmates took turns scrutinizing and sniffing every part of my body to make sure that I didn’t stink and that no suspicious bugs lurked hidden in the folds of my skin. After the health inspection, I was allowed to mix with the other sixteen monks, all of whom filed into the inner sanctuary at the end of the break.
The layout inside was straightforward — an electronic wrought iron fence divided the cell into a covered courtyard at the front and a back room for sleeping. The courtyard, no more than five steps long and wide, had a sink and a concrete rack for eating utensils. Inmates could briefly stretch and wash in the yard. The ceiling resembled a gigantic sieve, interwoven with reinforced concrete beams. On sunny days, rays of light shone down on the floor through the holes, square and as big as rice bowls. As the day went by, those squares of sunshine slowly crept up the walls. A smart inmate could calculate the exact time of day, accurate to the minute, simply by checking the positions of these sun squares.
The back room was twice the size of the front yard, with a massive sixteen-foot-long and three-feet-wide concrete bed dominating the space. There was not much room left, except for a three-feet-wide aisle. At the Song Mountain Investigation Center, each cell was equipped with a toilet bucket. Here, however, we had a real toilet — a concrete troughlike urinal and an open squat toilet in a corner. With the over-head sieve at the front courtyard and a big iron-barred window in the back room, lighting and air circulation were well-accounted for. Every part of the cell, of course, was fully exposed to the prying eyes of the guards. They dutifully carried out their twenty-four-hour patrol outside and on the roof, where a sheltered passageway had been built for them.
Inmates received their food from a small opening in the right-hand corner of a sidewall, like an embrasure in a fort. A big round peephole in the cell gate was used to monitor activities around the small opening during meal times. In other words, there was not a single blind spot inside the cell.
“This layout is an import from Czechoslovakia,” the chief bragged.
I had never seen a Czech prison before, but I was familiar with animal cages in zoos, which displayed two or three tigers, lions, or chimpanzees in a fenced-in enclosure in a similar layout. In contrast, seventeen Homo sapiens packed together in such narrow environs was much too intimate.
Many years ago, I read the essay “Notes from the Gallows” written by the Czech journalist Julius Fučik. I recalled a sentence from it that described his cell in a Nazi prison: “Seven steps from the door to the window, seven steps from the window to the door.” The Nazis seemed very generous, providing such a spacious cell for a journalist they had condemned to death. In our cell, seventeen prisoners slept side by side on the big concrete bed. As a newbie, I was told that I should have been given a spot closest to the open toilet. Taking into consideration my “status as an intellectual,” the chief decided to place me in the middle of the bed, between the two living dead. All I could do was bow to the chief for his generosity.