A Past Written In Blood

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

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 3, 2008; Page C01


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.

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