A Past Written In Blood
In the New China, the Story of a Defiant Poet's Last Words Can Finally Be Told

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 3, 2008


On the afternoon he lost his last steady job, Hu Jie bicycled aimlessly through the smog and traffic of Nanjing, brooding over the mystery of his abrupt dismissal. It was a sweltering afternoon, and dark clouds threatened a downpour. But Hu kept pedaling, his mind racing, returning again and again to the same question: Had the authorities discovered his obsession with the dead woman?

He was a lean, imposing man, with broad shoulders and intense eyes, and he looked younger than his 41 years. For much of his life, he had served in the Chinese air force, as a fighter jet mechanic, then as an officer, and there was still something of the soldier in the way he walked and talked. But he had a bohemian quality, too, and the beard covering his square jaw hinted at his life after the military, when he moved into an artists' ghetto and began filming documentaries.

Later, Hu took a job as a cameraman for Xinhua, the government's official news agency. But he continued working on his documentaries, films he knew the censors would never release, exploring subjects the agency routinely ignored -- the poverty in the countryside, the hard lives of coal miners, the status of rural women.

If Hu's bosses knew what he was doing, they didn't seem to mind. Then, in the summer of 1999, they suddenly fired him without explanation. As he bicycled home, Hu wondered if his latest project had cost him his job -- if his research into a forgotten corner of China's past had alarmed the communist government more than any of his films on the present.

For nearly a month, he had been trying to learn about Lin Zhao, an obscure poet who grew up not far from Nanjing and attended Peking University in the 1950s. A friend told him that of all the students at the school, Lin was the only one who refused to write a political confession during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Mao Zedong's 1957 purge of Communist Party critics. Her intransigence was rewarded with a prison term, and then a death sentence at the age of 36. But she left behind a secret legacy: She had continued writing in prison, using her own blood as ink.

Hu was stunned. He had never heard a story like Lin's, never imagined that anything like it could happen in China. He began looking into her story and was quickly drawn in. It was as if he had stumbled upon a mystery waiting to be unraveled. Why had she been executed? What did she do? And what happened to her prison writings? Soon Hu found himself thinking about the dead woman at all hours, at work, during meals, as he lay in bed trying to sleep.

Hu suspected the Ministry of State Security was behind his firing, and if the secret police was involved, anything was possible, even arrest and imprisonment. The thought made him nervous, and angry. China had come so far and changed so much in his lifetime that it seemed ridiculous. He just wanted to make a documentary about something that happened long ago, and now he was unemployed and worried about going to jail.

Hu knew the safe thing to do was to abandon his research. Still, he could not shake a feeling that he was meant to uncover what happened to Lin and record it for the future. "I just kept thinking about her story, and how it might be lost forever," Hu recalled. By the time he got off his bicycle, he had made up his mind.

The Shadowed Past

There was little in Hu's background to suggest he would press ahead with the Lin Zhao project, much less devote the next five years of his life to it. He had no formal training in history, or journalism, or even filmmaking. Like most Chinese of his generation, his schooling had been haphazard, disrupted by Mao's final and most destructive political movement, the Cultural Revolution.

What little Hu did pick up about his country's recent history was limited to the rosy version of events promulgated by the party in schoolbooks and the state media. It was history scrubbed clean, an elaborate fiction designed to sustain the party's rule. But after Mao's death in 1976, the party's control over history weakened. In the 1980s, a wave of free thinking swept the country, and prohibited material -- literature, films, music -- suddenly became available. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the party clamped down again. But it could no longer dominate the popular consciousness as it once did. Too much had happened. Too much had changed. Too many people refused to forget.

Until he heard the story about Lin, Hu had never given much thought to his country's recent history. But he knew that what he had been taught was incomplete, that there were gaps and blank spots, facts that had been hidden and people who had been erased. He knew just enough to make him curious.

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.

But for every person who rebuffed him, there were others who opened up. They had been through so much, and they had bottled up their feelings for so long, that when they began talking about Lin, they would talk to Hu for hours without interruption.

One of the people Hu befriended was a retired librarian in Beijing named Gan Cui. He was an unassuming man in his late 60s, with thinning white hair and a smoker's stained teeth. After the Anti-Rightist Campaign, he and Lin had been assigned to work together in a library. After the party forbade them to date, a romance blossomed.

"The more they tried to prevent us from dating, with her personality and my personality, the more we dated, just to show them," Gan explained to Hu.

As graduation approached in 1959, Gan asked the party for permission to marry Lin. But the request was immediately rejected. The party ordered Gan to report for labor reform in Xinjiang, the desolate province in China's far west. Gan said goodbye to his sweetheart at the city's central train station, and promised to come find her as soon as he could. Then they embraced on the platform and wept.

Gan spent the next 20 years on a military work crew in Xinjiang. When he was allowed to return to Beijing in 1979, he learned Lin had been executed, and he moved on with his life. He married and had a son. But he told Hu that he had loved Lin more than he ever loved his wife.

Hu enjoyed sitting in Gan's apartment and listening to his stories, and he visited him whenever he could. More than a year after their first meeting, Gan revealed a secret: He had a collection of Lin's prison writings, nearly 140,000 words of it.

Hu was dumbstruck. Could it be true? How could the old man have obtained such material, he wondered, and why did he hide it from him for so long? Gan retrieved an old blue Adidas gym bag, and from the bag he pulled out a thick stack of paper, bound with string and packed in brown wrapping paper. There were nearly 500 yellowing pages.

After the Cultural Revolution, a police official had risked punishment and quietly given a bundle of Lin's writing to her sister. Another family member had given them to Gan. The text was in ink, but Lin wrote that she had composed almost all of it in blood first and copied it after prison authorities gave her pen and paper.

Hu read feverishly deep into the night. The document was ostensibly a letter to the People's Daily, the party's official newspaper, but it was unlike any letter he had ever seen. Lin condemned the Anti-Rightist Campaign and accused the party of taking advantage of the idealism of her generation. She wrote of the abuse she suffered in prison, of guards who handcuffed her in painful positions and force-fed her through her nostrils. She described how she wrote in blood after they took away her pen, and how the prison saved her writing to use against her. Occasionally the letter deteriorated into an incoherent rant, but every page was brimming with emotion and defiance.

When Hu finished reading, the winter sun had begun to rise over Beijing. From the window of his sister's apartment, he watched as the first rays of dawn struck the construction cranes scattered across the skyline. He felt invigorated, and proud. "I thought it was extraordinary that a great woman like Lin Zhao once lived in China," he recalled.

A Knock on the Door

Not long after Hu located Lin's writings, a friend called with some disturbing news: An agent of the Ministry of State Security had come around asking questions about him. A while later, other friends reported the state security agents had approached them, too, and Hu began to worry he might be arrested at any moment.

But it was not prison that frightened him most. It was the possibility that he might not be allowed to finish the documentary, that he would never be able to tell Lin Zhao's story. Hu was worried that if he were stopped, all the information he had uncovered would be buried again, maybe forever.

The prospect of arrest drove him to work harder and faster. He felt as if he were racing against the police, trying to finish his film before they completed their investigation and took him away. It was nerve-racking but also energizing, and it spurred him on. Hu began editing and putting together what he had. Gradually, the documentary took shape, and he began showing early versions to small groups of friends and distributing it on videodiscs. He believed he was engaged in a delicate, unspoken negotiation with the authorities. If they arrested him, they would be drawing attention to what remained an unfinished film. But if they didn't arrest him, he could keep adding to the documentary and slowly build a larger audience.

As it happened, the film, "Searching for Lin Zhao's Soul," spread faster than Hu expected. A fine arts museum screened it, and then invitations came from colleges across the country. Soon, it was an underground hit.

Sometimes, when Hu took questions from audiences, a few people would challenge him, accusing him of misinterpreting history. But the response was overwhelmingly positive. Older viewers often crowded around him, thanking him for ensuring their experiences were not forgotten. Younger people also embraced the film, saying it opened their eyes to how much they didn't know about their own country's history.

The state security agents eventually knocked on Hu's door. They said they had come just to talk. One asked why Hu's films always dwelled on the negative, and why he never made any positive films about China. Hu replied that he believed it was a filmmaker's duty to look at society critically, and he noted that state television was already full of "positive" reports. But the agent pressed Hu again: Didn't he think there had been progress since Lin Zhao's era?

Yes, Hu replied. If he had made a film like this during Mao's rule, he would have been shot. If he had done it a decade ago, he might have been arrested. "But now you come to my front door, and we can talk to each other like friends," Hu said. "You have been very lenient with me, and this is progress."

The agent couldn't help but agree.

This article is adapted from "Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China," published this month by Simon & Schuster.

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