Book Review: 'Woman from Shanghai' by Xianhui Yang

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Sunday, August 23, 2009


By Xianhui Yang

Pantheon. 302 pp. $24.95

It didn't take much to get dumped in Jiabiangou. The forced labor camp, operating in northwest China from 1957-60, imprisoned dissidents of all kinds. Some ended up there merely for having a family member who had owned a business or served in the Nationalist government.

But though it was easy to end up there, it was nearly impossible to get out. In "Woman from Shanghai," Xianhui Yang describes in wrenching detail the squalid conditions and widespread starvation that only 600 of the 3,000 prisoners were able to survive. Even some who lived to see their convictions reversed were forced to become paid employees of the labor camp.

Yang spent three years traveling around northwest China, interviewing more than 100 Jiabiangou survivors. His book is composed of 13 short chapters, each focusing on one prisoner. The stories have been partly fictionalized -- the book was published as fiction in China -- to escape government censorship. But these tales remain intense and heartbreaking. One suspected rightist was betrayed by his own mother and sister, who gave him up to the Communist Party to be sent to Jiabiangou to ensure their own safety. Every prisoner described unbearable malnourishment, and some resorted to stealing or even eating human and animal waste to survive. "Hunger had warped their brains," writes Yang. "When they woke up each morning, all they could think about was food."

Despite these horrors, there are stories of selflessness and fortitude. When a pregnant woman, Li Huaizhu, arrived at Jiabiangou, fellow female prisoners banded together to help. During her pregnancy, the women made sure Li got the easiest workload. And though all of them were starving, they stole grain and gave it to Li so that she could breastfeed. Once the baby was born, "He was Li Huaizhu's boy, but also ours," recalled one of her roommates. "Li's child brought sunshine to our unheated bunkhouse and to our lonely life at Jiabiangou. He lifted our miserable, lonely spirits."

-- Sarah Halzack

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