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A Past Written In Blood

Changing Course

Hu's research proceeded quickly at first. Almost every week, he would track down an acquaintance of Lin's, and slowly the outline of her life emerged.

She was born in 1932, during the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, the eldest child of a prominent family in the canal city of Suzhou. As a teenager, she ran away from home to attend a journalism school run by the Communist Party. Three months later, in October 1949, the Communists declared victory.

In the summer of 1950, Lin traveled the countryside with one of thousands of work teams the party used to redistribute farmland from landlords to the peasants who once toiled for them. It was a violent campaign, with a death toll as high as 2 million, but she had no misgivings about the party's methods. In letters Hu discovered, she described her pride in supervising the execution of one landlord, and the "cruel happiness" she felt when she ordered another placed in a vat of freezing water and listened to him scream. She referred to Mao as "a red star in my heart."

Hu didn't find Lin's devotion unusual. What perplexed him was how such a fervent believer found herself just a decade later in prison and facing execution. Whatever caused the falling-out between her and the party, it happened while she was a student at Peking University, so Hu began looking for her former classmates in Beijing.

Lin had stood out on campus. She was a bit more stylish in the way she dressed, and a bit more daring in her behavior. She liked to drink and dance, and in arguments, she never toned down her comments to conform to some traditional Chinese notion of femininity.

Early on, Hu tracked down one of several men who had courted her. As a student, Zhang Yuanxun worked alongside her as an editor of the campus literary magazine. Now, he was a scholar of Chinese literature, a feisty old man with a thick shock of gray hair.

In 1957, Zhang was at the heart of the Hundred Flowers Movement, a burst of popular criticism of the party that Mao originally encouraged. When the criticism threatened the party's authority, however, Mao changed his mind and launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign to punish those who had spoken out. Zhang was among them, and confessed under pressure. But Lin refused to renounce Zhang and other friends, or to admit any wrongdoing. The party responded by sentencing her to three years of labor.

Across the country, more than a half-million others were shipped to labor camps or exiled to toil in the countryside. Zhang himself was sent to a prison farm south of Beijing, the beginning of a 22-year ordeal. In 1966, though, he managed to visit Lin during a brief reprieve. She was in a prison in Shanghai, stubbornly refusing to confess.

"I hope you will tell people in the future about this suffering," Zhang recalled her saying. Then, he said, she gave him a gift: a tiny sailboat, folded from a cellophane candy wrapper.

Letters From Prison

Hu Jie stared at the small boat in his hand. It was a wisp of a thing. For more than 30 years, Zhang had kept it safe, guarding it like a treasure, and now he was giving it to the filmmaker. Hu accepted it, and said he would look after it. He felt as if he were also accepting Zhang's burden, that he was agreeing to preserve Lin's memory and tell her story.

It was slow and difficult work. One after another, Hu tracked down Lin's classmates only to be told they weren't interested in helping him. Many of them had suffered in Mao's campaigns, and Hu understood their reluctance to talk. It was not that they had forgotten the past. It was that they remembered too well.

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