FF’s Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The life of a writer can be comically unpredictable. Erling Hoh, the translator credited on the cover of No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison by Xu Hongci, writes in an introductory section entitled How This Book Came To Be about searching for” ideas for a novel that involved a breakout from a Chinese labor camp” when he came upon a book entitled Chongchu laogaiying, the true story of Xu Hongci (1933 – 2008), a prisoner of Mao’s labor camps for fourteen years who orchestrated a most brilliant escape. He also mentions asking himself: “If there is a real-life story, why write a novel?” Indeed, a writer looking to write fiction need not be restricted to that desire alone.
Born in Shangai the year after the attack of the Japanese on the city, Hongci’s head was filled with thoughts, feelings, and questions that needed answering. The war had thought him all about politics, geography, and history. On August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered and the Chinese people finally had hopes of peace. But a civil war was looming. In 1946, Hongci would become a believer in the KMT government, but because of changed thinking, he would eventually become a member of the Communist Party. By 1957, Hongci’s views were different. He would be branded a Rightist, lies would be published about him, and he would be sent to a labor camp. Four times, Hongci would find himself confined and each time he would find some way to escape.
It didn’t take long for me to view the young Hongci as someone who would grow up to live a curious and atypical life. In Hongci’s formative years, there’s not much to show that there lurked a future escape artist in him. The only thing that was clear was that he was extremely intelligent, had an inviting personality, and had a head full of ideas. His hunger for devouring history books at a young age was the beginning of a much more active political spirit. Through his eyes and thoughts, one can picture several of China’s youth viewing Chairman Mao Zedong as a hero at first.
Chairman Mao’s iron grip on the country during his reign is felt with each of the dictator’s moves that Hongci reveals. The author makes you understand the severity of it all completely. People could be imprisoned for saying or doing something really trivial. An aura of paranoia and fear resonates off the pages, making readers connect with the author on a deep psychological level and truly understand what herculean challenges students like him had to face in the Mao years. Like many others, Hongci was a believer in the Communist Party and his zeal for being a part of it all was crystal. “At the end of the performance, we stood up, clapped our hands, and shouted until Mao had left the venue through a side door.”
In August, 1954, Hongci became a transferred cadre student of the Shangai No. 1 Medical College. He was a student that others looked up to because he was excellent as one and was knowledgeable in politics. It is in 1958 – two years after the author would read of the secret speech by Khrushchev and finally see the similarity between his once upon a time hero Mao and Russia’s Stalin – when things would take a turn for the worse. “We had all known it was just a matter of time before the Communist Party dealt with us Rightists in earnest, but nobody knew exactly what was planned.”
Hongci isn’t one to muddy his thoughts on anything; he stays true to revealing horrible things that he has seen people do before and during his time in the labor camps. But things are not always dark and woeful. “In this harsh environment, the smallest kindness and politeness from anybody in authority was a comfort and made me feel a little bit safer.” Wang Jinru, a leading prison guard of a labor camp, offers Hongci a malice-free smile at one point after advising him to work hard. The labor camps weren’t exactly wonderful places to be. Life was unpredictable, disease was common, and good men could die quickly.
For Hongci, a man who, as someone who was a medical student and thus a useful prisoner, freedom would be elusive around the time of his fourth imprisonment. His sentence would end, but instead of freedom, he would become a postsentence detainee. Eventually, the time comes for Hongci to make plans for an escape once again. This is the final escape. With everything that happened throughout the book and every horrible thing that the author has seen up until that point, readers will be more than eager to find out how he manages to escape this one last time. Unlike the author’s plans for his first three escapes, which isn’t really focused on, this fourth is more fully probed as readers get to see it being executed step by step while the anticipation within them just keeps on growing.
In one chapter I experienced some difficulty with keeping track of years because Hongci would sometimes go back and forth between them; when an author does something like that the information can only succeed in confusing me. Those first few chapters were a bit difficult for me to get through, but that was only because I didn’t know much about the subject matter. For readers more familiar with the Mao part of Chinese history, getting and comprehending all of the information the author interjects into his story should be much easier.
I loved the writing and the overall structuring of this book. Hoh did an excellent job at translating Hongci’s story. It is an eye-opening one. One that shows that even the worst conditions can be survived by a strong mind and, in contrast, that even the strongest individual can break. Recommending this book to anyone comes easily to me. It is a true story which explores an important part of Chinese history that I believe everyone should read.
Free paperback copy received from Penguin Random House SA in exchange for a review. Click here to view the book on their site.
|Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
Date Published: January 17, 2017
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
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