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Xu Hongci - Mao’s victim, freedom’s hero - tells his story in ‘No Wall Too High’

Xu Hongci told the story of his daring escape from China's gulag in "No Wall Too High."
Xu Hongci told the story of his daring escape from China’s gulag in “No Wall Too High.”
(Courtesy of Xu family)

Xu Hongci is a legend in a certain Chinese subculture: The estimated 550,000 people who were accused of being “rightists” in Mao Zedong’s purge of the late 1950s and spent 20 years or more as inmates of China’s gulag archipelago. In that large crowd of unjustly, illegally imprisoned people, Xu is the only person known to have escaped and made a free life in another country. Not surprisingly, his account of how he accomplished that remarkable feat is at the center of “No Wall Too High,” one of the most compelling and moving memoirs to emerge from Communist China, which is now appearing in English for the first time.

The actual escape, which took Xu on a clandestine journey of many thousands of miles, is absolutely heart-stopping, material for a Hollywood thriller. But Xu’s book is more than that. It is the story of a deeply personal, intimate, crushing encounter with history, specifically the tumultuous Chinese history of the second half of the 20th century. It is also a story of remarkable human endurance, of a refusal to be crushed, of the will to be free.

Xu was born in 1933, just as China was being engulfed in the long years of war and civil war that ended in the Chinese Communists coming to power in 1949. He was from a family whose middle-class circumstances were sharply reduced when Japan embarked on its full-scale invasion of China in 1937. When Japan was defeated and civil war loomed between the ruling Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Zedong, Xu, at the tender age of 14, joined the Communist Party. In the early years of Maoist rule, he became a student at the Shanghai No. 1 Medical College. He fell in love. The future looked bright.

But then he fell victim to one of Mao’s more insidiously destructive gestures. In 1956, the Great Helmsman invited the country’s intellectuals to express themselves freely. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” was the operative slogan. Taking the Great Leader at his word, Xu wrote a big character poster (the text of which is in an appendix to his book) raising numerous criticisms, among them China’s “mechanical aping of the Soviet Union.” For his efforts, Xu was declared a rightist and sent off to China’s gulag. Fourteen years and several prisons later, unable to endure the hunger, the psychological and physical torture, the hard labor and the humiliations of incarceration as a “counter-revolutionary,” he made his unlikely, hair-raising escape.

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A deeply personal, intimate, crushing encounter with history, specifically the tumultuous Chinese history of the second half of the 20th century.

Xu’s story has a sort of happy ending. His escape was to Mongolia, where he married and had children. He was able to return to Shanghai permanently in 1984, when, with Mao dead, China “reversed the verdicts” that had been declared against Xu and his fellow “rightists.” He then wrote a 572-page memoir, which was published in Hong Kong in 2008, shortly before his death of kidney cancer at age 74. This English version has been deftly edited and translated by Erling Hoh, a Chinese writer living in Sweden, who has provided helpful notes explaining the historical context for each stage of Xu’s life.

Among the many virtues of the book is the prickly richness of the people that Xu encounters along his tortured itinerary. There are the teenagers in Shanghai who introduced him to left-wing politics in the 1940s. There’s his girlfriend, who, after Xu was declared a rightist, yielded to the intense pressure to denounce him in the public “struggle” sessions he was forced to endure. There are his fellow prisoners, those who, like him, resisted and tried to escape; others who turned into lackeys, toadies and informants — like the one who denounced Xu for placing a stamp with a portrait of Mao on its side. There is a succession of jailers, a rare one here and there who tried, at least a little, to mitigate the harshness of life in China’s gulag, but many more who displayed a kind of sycophantic cruelty trying to impress highups with their revolutionary fervor.

What Xu is describing in most of his book is life under the distorting, dehumanizing political pressure imposed by Maoism, which faced people with a kind of Hobbesian choice: You either played along and sided with the party against those designated as targets for revolutionary wrath or you risked becoming a target yourself. He tells a lot of stories illustrating this, including his own first, unforgettable experience of revolutionary violence when he was 19. He saw crowds whipped into a frenzy against enemies of the people, who were then publicly executed. Xu was nauseated. “But this was revolution,” he told himself, “and if I wanted to be a revolutionary, I would have to toughen up.”

Orwellian absurdity is the leitmotif here. Xu’s original sentence was for six years, but once he’d served that time (during which he tried and failed twice to escape), he was kept in prison as what was euphemistically called a “post-sentence detainee.” Then, during the great Maoist purge known as the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, he was sentenced to an additional 20 years as an “irredeemable reactionary element.” Tortured, beaten with a rifle butt, racked by hunger, paraded through the streets before a howling mob, his hands so swollen he could barely hold a pen, he was nonetheless forced to sign the court’s verdict. It’s hardly a surprise that, when he manages to cross the border into Mongolia, he feels “overjoyed to have escaped once and for all from the grim, merciless clutches of the Communist dictatorship.”

“China’s tragedy,” Xu writes in at one point, “is that it will never allow people to speak the truth.” Things are better in China than they were during the years of Xu’s ordeal, but his own attempt to tell the truth about the Maoist dystopia illustrates the accuracy of his prediction. The party has banned dwelling on the mistakes of the past, which means that “No Wall Too High,” gripping and inspiring as it is, has never been published in mainland China.

Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent for Time magazine and the New York Times. His most recent book is “China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice.”

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'No Wall Too High' by Xu Hongci
‘No Wall Too High’ by Xu Hongci
(Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux )

No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape from Mao’s Darkest Prison

Xu Hongci, edited and translated by Erling Hoh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 336 pp., $27

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