Surviving Somehow


Though not long, Er Tai Gao’s In Search of My Homeland is a substantial contribution to the literature about prison camps in China, a body of work still small compared to that about the Nazi and Soviet camps. In early 1957, during the short-lived “Hundred Flowers” movement of intellectual liberalization, the author, then a brash twenty-two-year-old artist, published “On Beauty,” an essay severely critical of the orthodox Marxist-Maoist idea that art should be judged by purely objective standards. In the severe repression that followed the movement, Gao was sentenced to Jiabiangou, a labor camp in the harsh northwest. He arrived shortly before Mao Zedong’s Great Famine killed tens of millions of people. Within a few years, Jiabiangou was closed, after most of its inmates had perished. Gao was lucky: the party needed painters to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic in 1959, and he obliged his overlords by producing the required propagandistic art. After release in 1962, his training helped him find a position at an institute at Dunhuang on the old Silk Road, where the desert climate has helped preserve an extraordinary array of paintings, sculptures, and other cultural relics spanning the millenium from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries. His luck, however, did not hold. Within a few years, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, old Mao’s last gasp, was tearing the country apart. Gao’s institute, made up of a small collection of scholars, could not resist the turmoil, and he found himself, along with many of his fellows, being sent off to yet another camp.


In Search of My Homeland, which is part of a much larger work, is not a conventional memoir. It lacks any chronological structure, and the details of Gao’s personal life are sparse. Rather, the book is a series of sketches of camp life. Some of Gao’s fellow prisoners are courageous, maintaining their fundamental decency amid inhuman conditions; some are opportunistic, seeking to save themselves at the expense of others. All of them are engaged in an often unsuccessful battle for survival. Indeed, during the Cultural Revolution, the line dividing the camps from ordinary life became blurred. Like many others, Gao found himself bewildered by the ever-changing political and ideological currents swirling about him. Loyalty to the Great Leader was, of course, a constant, but factionalism made it difficult to distinguish between the various groups of self-styled revolutionaries, each proclaiming itself more Maoist than the next.


As appalling as the physical violence were the ways in which the institute’s men and women, scholarly colleagues for years but now desperate to save themselves, set about denouncing one another as counter-revolutionary villains. “Overnight those gentle, reserved people turned into fierce beasts,” writes Gao. One of the victims was Chang Shouhong, the scholar who had headed the Dunhuang institute since pre-Communist days, and who had taken on Gao after his release. Chang was imprisoned and mercilessly beaten, but his story had a happy ending. A few years later, Han Suyin, the Sino-Belgian writer and propagandist of Mao’s China, asked to meet him. Released and prettied up for his foreign visitor, Chang suddenly found himself something of a celebrity.


Though In Search doesn’t carry the story this far, it’s worth noting that in 1989—the year of the Tiananmen demonstrations—Gao was arrested yet again. This time, however, he managed to escape with his wife to Hong Kong, and made his way to the United States, where he now lives.


The crackdowns continue today, and have recently become more severe. On Christmas Day 2009, a leading dissident, Liu Xiaobo—a professor in Beijing, and visiting scholar at Columbia University, among other places—was sentenced to eleven years in a labor camp. His crime was signing “Charter ’08,” which petitioned for the expansion of freedom in his country. Yet the reasons for such harshness have changed. When Gao was arrested in 1957, communism represented for China’s leadership the inevitable march of history, and it was not only futile but immoral and illegal to try to impede its progress. Now, however, the old faith is in decline and true believers are few. Perhaps that makes it all the more important for the guardians of orthodoxy to shore up their outdated structures of authority. Heresy hunting becomes inevitable under such conditions, and brave individuals like Liu suffer today, just as Gao did decades earlier.


Published in the 2010-03-12 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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