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About the Author
Erling Hoh is a journalist and translator of Swedish and Chinese descent. He lives in Sweden.
An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, David Shih narrated the History Channel documentary China's First Emperor and the Discovery Networks series Royal Inquest. His many television and film credits include roles in The Path, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, All My Children, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Saving Face.
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No Wall Too High
One Man's Daring Escape from Mao's Darkest Prison
By Xu Hongci, Erling Hoh
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2008 Sukh Oyunbileg, Oyunbileg Anjir, Oyunbileg Buyant, Oyunbileg Esenya
All rights reserved.
The French Will Protect Us
In 1931, Japan annexed the vast region abutting the Korean Peninsula known as Manchuria — the first step in its avowed historical mission to liberate China from Western imperialism, establish itself as the hegemon of Asia, and monopolize the continent's natural resources. The following year, thirty-three days of pitched battles between Japanese and Chinese forces in the streets of Shanghai left 14,000 Chinese and 3,000 Japanese dead. In the summer of 1937, the hostilities escalated into full-scale war as Japan launched a massive invasion of the Chinese heartland. The first major battle stood in Shanghai, where the Chinese generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, deployed his best-trained troops to repel the aggressors. From mid-August to late November, fierce fighting raged in the city and its environs, before Chiang, having lost some 190,000 men, ordered a retreat. The Japanese army marched on the capital, Nanjing, and for the next eight years China was engulfed in one of the most lethal conflicts of World War II, with a death toll of up to 18 million people.
I was born in Shanghai on September 10, 1933. My parents had two daughters, but both of them had died hastily of disease during the Japanese attack on the city the previous year. So I became their oldest child.
My grandfather passed away when my father, Xu Yunsun, was five years old. After that, Grandmother and Father lived with her older brother, Wu Cuiwu, an able man who worked as an agent for a Swedish trading firm. In time, he started mines and factories and belonged to China's first generation of industrialists. Wu Cuiwu adopted Father as his own son, gave him a solid education at a college of commerce, and helped him find a good-paying job.
An orphan raised under another family's roof, Father grew into a timid man. In our family, it was Mother, Wang Yamei, the pampered, headstrong daughter of a capitalist, who made the important decisions. Although she attended the Eliza Yates Memorial School for Girls, she never adopted Catholicism, which was just one example of her independent character. She ruled the family with an iron hand.
Having suffered dearly during the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1932, my parents moved the family to the city's French Concession. Father worked in the Customs Tax Bureau, earning five hundred silver dollars a month, a high salary, and with the addition of Mother's money we were comfortable.
My parents dreamed of maintaining this middle-class life forever, but the war intervened. In the winter of 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese army entered the Western concessions in Shanghai and took control of the customs office. Father lost his job. Because my parents had an active social life and needed to keep up appearances, the loss of Father's salary put great pressure on our family. We were unable to make ends meet.
Finally, to get away from their bourgeois acquaintances, my parents made the difficult decision to move to Kunshan, then a small town thirty-five miles west of Shanghai, where we moved in with my maternal grandmother. Grandfather had once owned a lot of real estate in Kunshan, but having discovered the encumbrances of landownership, he had sold all of it except for some ten ITLμITL on the western side of Kunshan, with eight single-story houses and two fishponds.
Unable to abide her husband's young concubine, Grandmother lived in one of these houses together with relatives from her huge clan. She was a generous, meek woman, and we got along well.
It took some time for me to get used to life in Kunshan. In Shanghai, we had lived in a Western-style villa. Now we lived in a simple house, without even a bathroom. There was also a charm and serenity to Kunshan in those days. The fertile countryside around our house was dotted with rivers and lakes — the typical Jiangnan landscape. To the north stood the beautiful Ma'an Mountain. In the east, a small river connected to Bai Lake. On the western side, rice paddies mingled with groves of mulberry trees, and south of us were the Puji Hospital and General Bu's Temple. All of that is gone now, replaced by asphalt roads and endless rows of concrete apartment blocks.
* * *
Together with friends, Father started a secondhand plank and beam business on a plot of vacant land by our house. They would buy old wooden houses in the countryside, dismantle them, and transport the lumber back to Kunshan, where it was either sold or used to make coffins. I often went to the coffin workshop to play with the tools and learned a bit of carpentry.
The income from this business was limited. Mother, who had always lived well, couldn't tolerate our newfound poverty and hectored Father to seek an official position again. By then, the Japanese invaders had set up a puppet government headed by Wang Jingwei. So if you wanted to serve in the government, you had to become a Japanese collaborator.
One of Mother's old classmates was married to Fang Huanru, a northerner who had joined the Communist Party in the early 1920s. In 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek launched his campaign against the Communists in Shanghai, Fang Huanru had fled to the Soviet Union, only to be classified as a Trotskyite during Stalin's purges in the 1930s. Forced to flee again, he had returned to China, thrown himself into the arms of the Kuomintang (KMT), and been assigned to underground work against the Japanese in Shanghai. There, he was ferreted out by Wang Jingwei's agents and had become a Japanese turncoat to save his skin.
In January 1944, the Japanese established Huaihai Province with Xuzhou as its capital and Hao Pengju as the puppet governor. Fang Huanru was given a job as chief of the puppet administration. He and his wife often played mah-jongg with my parents, and Fang Huanru encouraged Father to come with him to Xuzhou.
Mother supported the idea. Around that time, a pest in the hatchery that Father had started with a friend killed all the chickens, leaving Father bankrupt. Desperate, he had no alternative but to accept Fang Huanru's offer and was assigned as director of logistics in Su County, where he supplied the Eighth Route Army and apparently made some money. Although he resigned after only one year, this black mark haunted him the rest of his life and was the seed of his destruction.
Father's attitude toward the Japanese torments me. I was young and didn't understand what was going on. But if I had been an adult, I'm sure we would have had a fight. The Japanese invasion affected me deeply and, to a certain extent, determined my future path.
My first memories are of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. In 1937, when I was four years old, we were living in the French Concession on Pushi Road. I remember my paternal grandmother holding me as we watched fires rage during the Japanese attack on Zhabei and the Southern Market. The fierce flames streaked toward the sky, and the air filled with thick black smoke and ear-shattering gunfire and explosions. People stood on the street watching this horrific scene for a long time, their faces dark with terror and anger.
"The Japanese will pay for their evildoing," Grandmother said to me.
"Will they burn down our house too?" I asked her, terrified.
"No, this is the French Concession. They don't dare to come here."
"Because France is a strong country, like Japan. The French will protect us."
* * *
The war against Japan grew protracted. It wasn't until we moved to Kunshan that I actually encountered Japanese soldiers and tasted the bitterness of belonging to a subjugated people. On my way to school, I had to pass a Japanese garrison with soldiers standing guard by the main gate. According to the Japanese rules, every person had to stop before the soldiers, stand at attention, remove his hat, and bow. Anybody showing the slightest sign of disrespect in his posture or expression was punished immediately.
Every day, I passed that sentry post four times, bowing to the Japanese soldiers on each occasion. If I wanted to go into town, I had to bow at several other sentry posts. During those four years, I bowed to the Japanese devils thousands of times. Although I never saw the Japanese soldiers kill anybody with my own eyes, I heard countless stories of how they looted, burned, raped, and killed.
In fifth grade, I was forced to study Japanese. The teacher was a Japanese officer in the propaganda section by the name of Kobayashi. He was conscientious, but not a single student wanted to learn Japanese. Our scornful attitude infuriated him. Once, he caught me whispering to another student and ordered us to stand in front of the class. Suddenly he grabbed our hair and banged our heads together as hard as he could three times, almost knocking us unconscious. The results of his instruction were nil: although I studied the language for three years, I never learned to speak one full sentence of Japanese.
There were frequent guerrilla attacks around Kunshan, and the Japanese controlled the town with an iron grip, often knocking on people's doors in the middle of the night to check resident permits. Japanese soldiers would fish in our pond, swaggering off with the biggest carp without paying a single penny. Once, they accused my younger brother of scaring away the fish by talking too loudly and gave him a savage beating. We hated them from the bottom of our hearts.
Father followed the war closely, subscribed to a newspaper, and often studied the current situation on a map. I studied with him, learning how to read newspapers and maps at an early age. Sometimes I would listen intently as he and his friends discussed national affairs and the war until late at night. A boundless world opened itself before my mind. I wanted to grow up quickly and join the war against the Japanese devils. Inner images of bloody battlefields made me boil with indignation. In fifth grade, I wrote a long essay, saying I wanted to enlist in the army and serve my country. This frightened my teacher Duan Ruiying, who warned me not to write such sharp papers again. Our nation's tragedy awakened my political consciousness at a young age, and service to my people and my country became the guiding principle of my life.
When I was almost twelve, the Japanese capitulated. We celebrated the victory and looked forward to a bright future. People lined the streets to welcome the returning "National Army." Fervent young people joined the KMT's youth organization. Tens of thousands of Japanese POWs passed through our town. The U.S. Army visited Kunshan. People shouted, "Jiang Zhuxi wan sui!" "Long live Generalissimo Chiang!" But I also became aware of the struggle between the KMT and the Communists and was confused by the letter written by Zhu De, commander of the Eighth Route Army, to Chiang Kai-shek. I had never realized China still had so many problems left to solve.
In secondary school, I never paid attention to my classes but read historical novels in secret under the table, until it became an addiction, absorbing me to the point where I forgot to eat and sleep. I must have read almost all the famous historical novels of China. Perhaps this is why I consider almost every problem from a historical perspective, trying to pinpoint its origins and foresee its future development. This, in turn, has made it impossible for me to simply drift with the tide and accept reality without questioning and made me a restless man, never at peace.
A person's disposition is basically inherited. Because I am a typical choleric, my traits are energy, poor self-control, straightforwardness, enthusiasm, irritability, courage, and resolve. As such, I am completely different from Father, who was introverted and cowardly, and similar to Mother, who was also quick-tempered and irascible. But Mother and I had differences too. Spoiled with love and attention from her earliest days, Mother was a conceited, domineering person who didn't know how to respect other people, especially within her own family. As for others, she only respected those who had more money and power than herself. Scoldings, beatings, and quarrels were daily occurrences in our family.
My paternal grandmother had a good influence on me. She was a traditional Chinese woman who loved her grandchildren and worked for us tirelessly. I have always tried to emulate her kindness, industry, loyalty, patience, simplicity, tolerance, and other qualities. In our family, there were two invisible fronts, and from beginning to end I stood on Grandmother's side.
Our house was frequented by all kinds of people: capitalists, landlords, politicians, officials, detectives, gangsters, and riffraff, who drank, gambled, whored, smoked opium, blackmailed, and speculated. I always looked at them with disdain. Every night, there would be a mah-jongg game in our house, but I never watched, and to this day I can't play the game.
The years in Kunshan brought me in close contact with the reality of people from all walks of life and gave me a better understanding of the working class. Living among peasants, I could see how hard they had to work simply to maintain the most basic standard of living. They considered my parents to be educated people, were respectful, and treated us well. I had great sympathy for them, especially seeing their helplessness when faced with diseases such as snail fever and tuberculosis, which killed many people. I always prayed for them, wishing they could have a better life.
I remember in particular the hunchback Hong Sheng, a skillful carpenter who could turn old pieces of wood into beautiful coffins. He never haggled and quibbled but kept his head down and worked diligently. Influenced by him, I fiddled about with the tools and learned to appreciate the meaning of work. I also met bricklayers, blacksmiths, fishermen, and other laborers and observed their toil firsthand. In this way, I got to know more about life than I would have in Shanghai.
My childhood passed under the shadow of the war against Japan. Seeing the weakness of my country, I wanted it to become strong and powerful. In my own family, I personally experienced the injustice and darkness of the old society. Our conflicts filled me with grief and doubts. The war taught me politics and geography and gave me an understanding of history. By the age of twelve, my head was full of clashing thoughts and feelings and countless unanswered questions.CHAPTER 2
A Heart Is Always Red
With Japan's capitulation on August 15, 1945, the Chinese people looked forward to peace for the first time in decades. But after a brief lull, the uneasy alliance between the KMT and the Communists unraveled, and the conflict escalated rapidly into outright civil war. Inept, corrupt, and demoralized, the KMT buckled under the Communist onslaught, and following a string of victories in Manchuria, Communist troops entered Beijing in January 1949. Shanghai fell in May that year. On October 1, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China, and on December 10, Chiang Kai-shek fled from the last KMT stronghold in southwestern China to the island of Taiwan.
In 1946, the KMT government took over the Kunshan Middle School and, thinking we had all been Japanese collaborators, conducted a screening. I didn't really understand the purpose of this and simply filled in the forms.
The KMT's paratrooper unit was stationed in Kunshan. Some of the younger soldiers came to our school to play basketball and flirt with the girls. I made friends with a second lieutenant by the name of Tan Fangzhong. He came from Guang'an County in Sichuan Province, had joined the army at the age of fourteen, and had fought in the Burma War. Only eighteen years old, he was open-minded and outspoken and seemed experienced.
He often took me to his camp, where he talked about military affairs, told war stories, and taught me how to shoot. Once, the gun went off by accident, and I almost killed him. We became inseparable, and because the paratroopers were educated and well mannered, my parents didn't object to our friendship. Fangzhong wasn't interested in politics, but he was worried about the intensifying civil war and had a premonition he would soon be sent into action.
In the fall of 1946, he was dispatched to the front. On the eve of his departure, Father held a farewell dinner for him. We couldn't bear to part. Later, he wrote to me, saying he was fighting against the Communists in the northern part of Jiangsu Province. Then, in the fall of 1948, he suddenly showed up in Kunshan to visit me. He told me that Long Ming, another paratrooper whom I knew well, had been killed in battle by a bullet to his head. His friend Gu Guochun had lost all his teeth from a bullet, and he himself had been injured. He said he was giving up his lieutenant rank, leaving the army, and going home to till the fields. I never heard from him again.
Fangzhong's grim stories from the battlefield forced me to reconsider the country's future, as well as my own. The victory against Japan had inspired us all. Everybody had thought there would be peace so we would be able to focus on rebuilding our country.
Excerpted from No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci, Erling Hoh. Copyright © 2008 Sukh Oyunbileg, Oyunbileg Anjir, Oyunbileg Buyant, Oyunbileg Esenya. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map: Xu Hongci's Escape Routes x
How This Book Came to Be xiii
1 The French Will Protect Us (1933-1945) 3
2 A Heart Is Always Red (1945-1949) 12
3 In Cold Blood (1950-1951) 20
4 I Saw the Chairman (1952-1953) 29
5 Khrushchev's Secret Speech (1954-1956) 37
6 Not of This World (1956) 50
7 A Breath of Fresh Air (1957) 61
8 Rip Him to Pieces (July 1957-April 1958) 77
9 The Forgotten Archipelago (April-December 1958) 87
10 Escape (December 1958-February 1959) 98
11 On the Brink of Freedom (February-April 1959) 108
12 Fiddlehead Congee (1959-1960) 119
13 Angel of Death (1960-1961) 139
14 How to Bore a Blast Hole (1963-1965) 156
15 No Way Home (1965-1966) 170
16 The Price of Truth (1966) 181
17 Hell's Gate (1966-1968) 190
18 Inferno (1968-1969) 203
19 The Art of War (1969-1972) 215
20 Endgame (August 6-September 10, 1972) 243
Final Thoughts 287
Appendix 1 A Foul Wind in the Department of Medicine 289
Appendix 2 A Rightist Pawn Attacks the Party 295