Excerpt from AN UNBELIEVABLE LIFE: 29 YEARS IN LAOGAI
A SCREECHING WHISTLE PIERCED Matthew’s sleep. He cracked open his eyes. Still dark, the sun had not yet risen.
Guards in heavy boots stomped down the cellblock corridor, banging their truncheons against the bars, as they hollered, “Come out!”
Prompted by the whistle and commands, Matthew and his four cellmates scrambled up from the prison’s pink terrazzo floor, where they had slept squeezed together, as tight as quintuplets in the womb.
Without the modern luxury of heat, he exhaled little clouds of steam into the frigid air. Without a clock, he had no idea what time it was. Without a calendar, he had no idea of the day or the month. Sometime in Lent 1956, perhaps.
A few days before, the floor’s worker prisoner had handed out bundles of black cotton: a rough-woven jacket and a pair of pants.
Thick cotton means cold. We’re going to the north, Matthew thought at the time.
As the shouting and banging continued, he wadded up and stuffed into his canvas bags the prisoner jacket, pants, violet-colored silk quilt, Mary’s altered pants, two shirts, underwear, socks and dwindling stack of toilet paper.
With the sound of chaos echoing in the prison block, the cell’s small-group leader gave to Matthew his food ration for the trip: five long, thin loaves of rod bread with a hard crust, like French baguettes.
Five loaves? Does this mean five days of travel?
He straightened, hoisted his bags atop his boney shoulders, stood beside the other men and listened to the turning of the key in the locks approaching from the far end of the corridor, coming closer. When the guard stood before the cell, he slid the skeleton key in the lock and turned it three times.
“Everybody out!” he yelled, as the gate banged open.
In the mass commotion, Matthew rushed out, briefly stood at attention then, upon command, joined nine others to form a small group of 10.
“Go! Go! Go!” yelled the guards.
The whole line surged forward in a controlled frenzy, throwing shadows from the dim bulbs screwed into sockets along the third-floor ceiling, which gave off the faintest glow in the pre-dawn hours.
The fast-paced line shuffled through a small gate, down two flights of stairs to the ground floor, out a big gate and into the dark prison yard, where World War II-era Chinese-manufactured buses waited.
Without hesitation, he rushed up the steps, found a seat, sat down and wrapped his arms around his bags. With his feet still, his heart and mind continued to race.
His travel companions – thieves, rapists, murderers – finished boarding, and the line of buses revved up and rolled forward, patrolled by an escort of police cars and motorcycles along the city streets, headed for the Shanghai North Railway Station, known as the Old North Railway Station, on Boundary Road (former name of East Tianmu Road), in the Chapei (old form of Zhabei) District.
But the procession didn’t stop at the station. It stopped in a rail yard, about half a mile from the station’s passenger platforms. Still dark, the bus drivers pulled up to the waiting train and aimed the headlights toward the line of livestock cars, with the mouths of the doors gaping wide open.
The bus doors unfastened with a whoosh.
“Go! Go! Go!” yelled the guards.
Caught in an energy that streamed out and formed a line that raced forward, toward the cars that extended so far, Matthew could see neither the locomotive in the front nor the caboose in the back. With the constant shouting of “Go! Go!” in his ears, he drew back his two bags, swung them forward and tossed them up and into one of the cars filling up with men.
Ramps, reserved only for livestock, had not been put up for the inmates, so he wrapped his fingers around the lip of the doorframe and pulled himself up with ease. A dank smell of animal manure and urine-soaked planks hit him. He caught his breath, and his empty stomach twisted and tightened.
An old man struggled at the doorway, not able to manage by himself. Matthew grabbed his wrists and hoisted him up.
A bare floor without straw. In the middle, a solitary, wooden, empty barrel, into which the men were to relieve themselves. He stepped over to the side, out of the beam of headlights, dropped his duffel and travel bags and sat on top. Dozens of other men filled the railcar. Those without bags sat on the fetid planks.
In minutes, the huge wooden door slid on its track and slammed shut, blocking out the light. With an unmistakable clicking of metal on metal, he heard the guards lock his only exit, as other doors slid closed, up and down the line.
Everyone sat in silence. Holding onto his five loaves, he heard the soft sound of a few of the hungry and impatient men biting into the flaky crust and chewing their bits of rod bread.
With a jolt and a slapping of metal couplers between cars, the train jerked and then jerked again as the locomotive in front rolled forward, gasped then slowly and steadily gathered speed.
Early-morning sunrays soon filtered through the cracks in the car’s wooden panels that let in a little fresh air, but the permeated stench from waste remained trapped inside. As the hours and days passed, the foul air switched from animals to humans when the contents of the wooden barrel, shared by the men, sloshed onto the floor and splashed those sitting nearby. Eventually abandoned, the men opted to urinate out small holes that dotted the side of the car.
“Where are we now?” occasionally someone asked, above the rhythm of the wheels rolling along the rails.
No one knew.
A slow journey with many delays, eventually the rhythmic to-and-fro rocking of the car ceased, and the wheels below finally stopped their endless turning. A long wait ensued.
Why so quiet?
Matthew strained to hear. Nothing. Minutes passed. Voices, muffled outside the railcar. Then one loud pound against the door startled him. Another and another. Unable to open the door, guards used a sledgehammer to chip away the frozen urine that had sealed the great sliding door closed.
With a heave and a grunt, the guards finally slammed open the panel.
Blinded, Matthew blinked back the whiteness reflecting the glow of the sun. White snow, everywhere white, everywhere snow, topped with a cloudless sky of blue. No wind. Just a cold, dead silence on such a beautiful and sunny day.
Again, the train stopped between stations, to keep prisoners isolated from local residents. All inmates hopped out, from the first car to the last. Matthew sank up to his thighs in a snowdrift, and the men stepped into their line automatically, with their heads down. Looking up, forbidden.
Dressed in police uniforms unfit for the freezing weather, the Tilanchiao guards quickly re-boarded the train for the long ride back to Shanghai after handing over the inmates to local prison guards. Prepared for the cold, they dressed in double-thick boots, thick black cotton coats and pants worn by the common people. On their heads, huge hats of black dog fur.
Two-by-two, the inmates slogged. As the line snaked forward, Matthew cautiously peeked ahead and peeked behind, trying to see, trying to get some idea of where he was. All he saw, snow and an endless line of men in front of him and an endless line of men in back of him, a filthy black line trudging through pure white.
Plowing through the fresh snow, he soon tired from having the additional burden of carrying on his back the two canvas bags. Along the way, on the side of the trail, he noticed that other men ahead of him had already dropped by the wayside their suitcases and bundles, which remained buckled or tied. No one else wanted the burdens either.
Beside him walked a young man, very poor with nothing to carry. While on the train from Shanghai, he had slipped into his new cotton clothes.
“Can you carry one of my bags?” Matthew asked.
Happily, he grabbed one, and they plunged forward through the drifts, occasionally whispering to each other. The young man shared that he was 18 years old, from the countryside and had no family.
Miles and hours later, exhausted, starved, filthy, damp, shivering, they stopped sometime in the afternoon. Ice-cold winter winds greeted the prisoners when they arrived at their destination: Fularchi (old form of Fularji) Prison Brick Factory, a forced-labor prison in Heilungchiang (old form of Heilongjiang), the province of the Black Dragon River, just one frozen breath away from Siberia.
The redbrick wall stood as high as two men, maybe three men. Stationed at towers on top of the wall stood People’s Liberation Army soldiers, wearing uniforms, each with a single star blazing from the center of their dog-fur hats.
Above the doors, at the iron-gate entrance to the prison, flapped a large character banner, buffeted by the Soviet wind. In Chinese characters, one of the most popular Party phrases repeated by the atheistic Chinese Communists and displayed everywhere: LABOR CREATED THE WORLD.
No, that’s wrong. God created the world, Matthew thought.
Materialists, Communists promote the ideology that the human body consists only of the natural without any supernatural.
Centuries earlier, Saint Thomas Aquinas (122?-74, Order of Friars Preachers), philosopher, theologian, Roman Catholic priest, renowned as the Angelic Doctor for his elevated thinking, argued for the non-material, supernatural soul’s animation of the body, in his work “Summa Theologica,” Question 75:
“To seek the nature of the soul, we must premise that the soul is defined as the first principle of life in those things which live: for we call living things animate, and those things which have no life, inanimate,” he wrote.
“Now, though a body may be a principle of life, as the heart is a principle of life in an animal, yet nothing corporeal can be the first principle of life. For it is clear that to be a principle of life, or to be a living thing, does not belong to a body as such; since, if that were the case, every body would be a living thing, or a principle of life.”
Communists scoff at Catholics, calling them the old-fashioned man stuck in the old-fashioned world. They boast that their thinking is progressive, that Communism is a progression from Capitalism toward Socialism, toward a Socialist earthly Utopia, in which Communism destroys the old world for the new world, destroys the old man for the new man.
Atheists propagate the ideology that the God of the believers does not exist and is merely a superstitious delusion that could never have created man, because man, from his labor, created himself.
“Labor created the world” was taken from Friedrich Engels’ unfinished work, “Dialectics of Nature,” in which he attempted to apply Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism to science. More specifically, Engels applied it to the theory of evolution, in “Chapter 9: The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man.”
“Labor is the source of all wealth, the economists assert. It is this next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is also infinitely more than this. It is the primary basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.”
Materialists reason that the ape evolved into man, because the ape labored. The Communist’s atheist worldview is the degradation of man, the demoralization of man to exploit man, just like a slave, just like an animal. It is easier to subjugate a creature that evolved from animals. For in Communism, all things – including people – exist for the State, belong to the State, produce for the State.
Matthew had never accepted the Communist ideology that man descended from apes.
Man, the intellectual soul, is a creature, a created being descended from God, the Creator, First Cause, Principle from No Principle, Subsistent Act of Existing Itself, Mover Unmoved, Divine Will, First Intellectual Being, Infinite Intelligibility, Cause of Goodness, Primal Truth, Supreme Essence, He Is Who Is.
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth…and God created man to his own image,” he thought.
INTO THE BELLY OF the prison, Matthew trudged.
For the first time, he saw the hardened faces of Fularchi inmates. Eyes, vacant. Mouths, expressionless. Skin, dimpled and rough like the rind of a dried-out Mandarin orange, hanging from a branch long past harvest.
Startled by their appearance, he stared at the physical effects of hard labor, bad weather and constant hunger.
On that teeth-chattering, bone-rattling cold, crisp winter day, he moved along with the herd, hundreds of new arrivals, into the prison’s big yard, trodden bare earth with tufts of frozen mud.
The sky had already faded from a robin’s egg blue to a congee gray by the time he sat down. His prison-issued sneakers, hailed as liberation shoes, made of thin canvas tops and rubber bottoms, did nothing to keep his feet warm. He opened up one of his bags, reached in and pulled out one of his two well-made, thick-cotton, button-down white shirts and handed it to the young man as a gift.
Happy with such a well-tailored shirt, the young man smiled, examining the quality, which he had never seen before in the countryside.
Guards, standing on platforms, held rosters and started calling names, in the long process of culling the men, separating the inmates into their different groups.
“You! Go there!” a guard yelled at the young man from the countryside, who quickly put on his new shirt as he disappeared into the crowd. Matthew never saw him again.
“You! Go there!” a guard ordered Matthew, pointing to a silent group of shabbily dressed men huddled together in the dusk.
When he joined the group, the leader turned around and guided the newcomers toward a one-story, dormitory brick structure. Its face nosed up against the rear end of the building that stretched in front of it, where a row of holes – natural toilets – had already been dug by the elderly inmates assigned to light duty.
Into the dark, dank room saturated with the smell of smoke, he entered. Prisoners, 50-or-so old-timers, quietly sat, hunched atop their assigned spots on the two long community beds, about hip high, which stretched along the two main walls from one end of the dormitory to the other.
“This, yours,” said the small-group leader, pointing to a narrow section.
From his shoulders, Matthew removed the canvas bags and placed all of his belongings onto his bit of the boards shared by many men, sleeping side by side, with only enough space a few inches wider than their shoulders. He sat down, removed his wet, cold liberation shoes and tucked them under the bed.
Without electricity, someone propped up the end of a limp string draped over the side of a broken bowl and lit the makeshift wick floating in a small pool of oil. The men climbed onto the bed, sat cross-legged in a circle around the lamp and listened as the small-group leader went through the list of rules.
“Listen to the whistle. Go to sleep. Listen to the whistle. Get up. Each one gets the food in turn. Tomorrow,” he said, pointing to two new inmates, “you two go to the kitchen before you wash your face, and get the food. The next day, you two,” the small-group leader pointed to two other inmates, “go to the kitchen. You must be fast.”
Even though the room had two wood-burning stoves, the fire did little to warm anyone. Looking around the dimly lit room, Matthew saw in the shadows that a layer of ice coated the inside of the brick wall. The window, with double-pane glass, was coated in a sheet of ice, as thick as the width of a man’s palm.
When the night whistle sounded through the prison, someone snuffed out the flame, and all lay down. Matthew kept on his filthy, damp clothes and rolled up in his violet quilt, squeezed between two other inmates. Exhausted, he soon fell asleep.
At the blast of the morning whistle, he jumped out of bed.
For breakfast, the two previously designated inmates in his small group rushed from the dormitory for the kitchen. In their hands, they clasped their washbasins, about the size of pie tins, used for washing their faces and hair.
Minutes later, they returned with the basins holding coarse bread made from ground corn. The rest of the 10-man group waited, sitting cross-legged in the shadows on the bed in a semi-circle, with their dishes and mugs already placed in front. Each hoped for a large, maybe the largest, portion and stared to see who received the most as the bread was doled out.
For many days, Matthew had eaten only five loaves of rod bread. Starving, he grabbed his handful and took big bites, filling his mouth, swallowing the chunks and bits as he rose with the others and headed to labor.
After quickly splashing water on his face, he walked toward the door and reached for the handle.
“Watch out!” someone yelled at him.
Startled, he pulled back his hand just before his wet flesh froze onto the metal door handle.
“Fast! Fast! Fast!” someone ordered, as he walked to the tool shed to request two baskets and a shoulder pole, used to carry the frozen earth dug up by other inmates.
Hoisted onto his right shoulder, the pole had one basket dangling in front and one in back. Rushing back to his big group, he joined the line that headed out to the clay pits. From behind, a rhythmic ting, ching, ting, ching rang out. Keeping his head down, he saw four men in fetters linked together at the ankles. Last to go to labor, the chain gang walked slowly, as their chains rattled ting, ching with each synchronized step forward.
At the pit, he stood and waited as inmates heaved into his baskets clumps of clay that weighed all together more than 100 pounds. Tottering under the weight, pulling him first one way and then the other way, he could barely walk more than a step while carrying a full load. Shuffling, stumbling forward, by then the bread he had eaten for breakfast started to cause his stomach to severely bloat and sent sharp pains through his gut. He bent over in agony.
“You! Only 35 pounds, for now!” the guard ordered.
With difficulty, back and forth he carried the heavy, swinging load from the field to the brickworks, where he dumped the frozen clods of earth onto an ever-rising pile.
All day, inmates dug up the earth for the brick making that would begin when the weather turned warm enough for the three different work groups: one to prepare the brick material, one to slap the brick mud into the brick molds and one to stack the bricks inside one of the four huge kilns.
For the first few days, the pain from the pole digging into his shoulder ached and throbbed. But each night, he rubbed his fingers on the sore spot, where he felt a callus swell in size. The fifth day, his shoulder no longer hurt, and over the next couple of months, as the bump on his shoulder formed as hard as a rock, he worked his way up to 125 pounds.
While carrying earth in his two baskets, one day he heard a man screaming in the distance. Across the field, he saw a figure collapse on the ground, refusing or unable to continue his work.
“You! And you!” a guard pointed and called two inmates, who carried their own shoulder poles.
As he carried his load, Matthew secretly watched as the two men dropped their baskets and walked over to the inmate sprawled on the ground. The two stood over the recalcitrant prisoner, on either side of him. One grabbed him under the left arm; the other grabbed him under the right arm. They lifted him up. His knees buckled. He screamed. He fought. He flailed his arms.
“Up!” the men yelled.
The struggle continued. He screamed, yelled and twisted his body, as they compelled him to stand and placed the pole back on his shoulder.
“Go! Go!” the prisoners yelled at him, as they walked on either side of him, forcing him along.
After several steps, the balker stood and stepped forward on his own. The other two returned to their own baskets of earth and resumed their own labor. It was a warning to all: Everyone must work. Fularchi was a prison of forced labor. For those who refused to work, they were forced. For Communists, proponents of forced will, free will does not exist.
Warnings and threats remained constant.
“Understand, you are being warned that your bad attitude needs to change. Labor is bad. Thought is bad,” a guard warned Matthew.
One hellish day slogged into the next and the next, filled with pain, as death and disease raced through the prison. After the shrill of a morning whistle, Matthew roused himself and looked over to the man next to him. He hadn’t moved.
“Get up. Time to get up,” he said.
The man didn’t answer, so he reached over to give him a little prod and touched his shoulder. Cold. Stiff. The man, in his 40s, dead. Surrounded by men, he died completely alone.
Then there were those who could not face another day in Fularchi. One prisoner jumped to his death in front of a truck. In the slave-labor prison for only a couple of weeks, he found life unbearable and chose suicide to escape the pain.
Forbidden by Communists, suicide, like escape, was considered a crime against Socialism, viewed as a counterrevolutionary act of resistance against reeducation and reform.
Sick and weak from eating less and laboring more, Matthew received permission from his team leader to visit the camp doctor, also a prisoner, who sent him to have some blood drawn for tests.
Walking over to the laboratory, he pushed open the door.
“Oh, Matthew! You?”
It was Ming-Chung Shen (old form of Mingzhong Shen), a fellow seminarian also arrested on September 8, 1955. Because his father was a doctor, labor-camp cadres reasoned that he knew medicine and assigned him to work in the lab.
“How are you?” asked Ming-Chung, who, with a round face, looked like Matthew’s brother Joseph.
“I’m very weak. My health is not very good, so the doctor wanted me to come. Labor is too heavy for me.”
“For me, labor is not too heavy,” Ming-Chung said. “But evening study is terrible, because we all have to admit our crimes and criticize ourselves and find the root of our crime, which is to say something against our conscience.”
“For me, study is no problem. The prisoners aren’t educated, and they always talk about labor, never ideology,” Matthew said.
Monday through Saturday, inmates endured two hours of mental labor, brainwashing study sessions in their 10-man small groups, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. During the winter, when the days were shorter and prisoners could not work long hours, the sessions frequently lasted several hours.
On Sunday evenings, each Big Team, which generally consisted of more than 150 prisoners, met for Week Reflection Group, a contentious meeting in which they criticized themselves and others.
Ming-Chung removed the needle from Matthew’s arm and placed the vial of blood in a tray.
And then the confreres said their goodbyes.
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THERESA MARIE MOREAU is an award-winning reporter who covers Catholicism and Communism.