Escape From Shanghai

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An ordinary bookseller trapped in China's Cultural Revolution begins a nightmarish journey of cat-and-mouse against the secret police.

Submitted: December 04, 2013

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 04, 2013




 Escape from Shanghai

To the patriots of China, who still wait for us in prison.

To the expatriates of China, who had to begin again.

To Ai Weiwei & Chen Gungcheng.


I did not have time for this.

I tapped my foot as I watched the young man browse through my bookstore, pretending to read state pamphlets and fabricated history books. It was nearly dark. The day that I long awaited was here, the most dangerous, heart-rending day of my life, but I was struck here with a boy who had no place better to waste his time and money.

I must be careful, I reminded myself. Who knows who the boy is? Perhaps a spy. Too young to be PSB. But looked just like a Red Guard – young, smart enough to think, too stupid to think for himself. The kind of boy who orphaned himself by denouncing his parents. I imagined him wearing a red bandanna, beating me with a broomstick. Yes, he was a Red Guard.

They would not leave me alone since my wife defected to America. The PSB had burned all my Russian books because Russia was out of fashion. And they updated my history books with their updated history. They’ll be back next year to update it again and demand to know why I didn't have any Russian books.

But I didn't let it bother me. I didn't lose any money since I didn't earn any money. I just distributed books so that if the PSB asks, I’m a book distributor. I could hardly read. I was seven when the Revolution happened. Besides, I didn't plan on being here next year.

If this horrible boy would just get out of my shop. I ground my teeth as he read a leaflet an oral hygiene. I was running out of time.

“Do you need help with something?”

He looked up, and came over furtively, as if he had been waiting for me to speak. “Do-Do you have Plato’s Republic?.”

“No. We don't have anyone’s republic.” The word felt dangerous and dirty to say.

“Do-Do you know what a ‘Bible’ is?”

I knew. My schoolteacher had once shown me one. I told my father and my father beat me and denounced my teacher.

“I don’t have any Bibles.”

“Do you know what a Bible is?”

I sensed a trap. I could not be careless when I was so close to escape.

“Go away before I call for the PSB!”

That did it. He turned pale and ran as if I had scalded him. I hurried to lock the door before anyone else wandered in.

If that boy was not a Red Guard, I thought, it was amazing that he had lived to be eighteen or however old he was. Everyone was so afraid here – l had to get out.

I went upstairs to prepare.


August 15th, they told me. That’s the day we will come for you. I had not dared to mark the spot on my calendar for fear that my house would be raided again, but I started at the tiny square above my stove for three months while I forced down mouthfuls of overcooked rice.

It was almost time. The fingers of night were already stretched long over the city, and the sun had disappeared behind the red-brick hutongs. I had to time it precisely; dark enough to be unseen, not too late to be suspicious. My heart hammered helplessly in my chest while I waited. The rest of my body was strangely frozen.




Escape from Shanghai


Go to the meeting place one hour after dark. If you are late, we will assume you are dead. If they catch one, they will catch us all._

All of Shanghai was bathed in a relentless grey light. Coal dust swirled thick and volumous in the streets. It seeped into our eyes, our mouths, our coats, and never came out. From birth to death. Every breath had a bitter taste. It was as if the cremated spirits of our ancestors were lying caked upon our doorsteps.

My house was empty – Wait. I couldn't really call it a house. It was just two rooms divided by a tattered yellow curtain, embedded in a hutong with dozens of others like it. But it was empty now and even the curtain was gone. A member of the Guomingdan had snuck in every day for the past week to smuggle out a piece of furniture. Never the same person twice. Nobody must know I was leaving.

I was carrying my new life in bits and pieces on my body. The most expensive thing I owned was a plastic wristwatch. I had eighty-one renmenbi stuffed into my left sock. My identification papers were in my shirt pocket and my false papers were in a secret pocket sewn into the waistband of my trousers. A Green Card, they called it. My new name was Henry Liu.

No, I told them. Liu was my first name. My family name was Xiao. Oh well, they shrugged. There must have been a typing error. It doesn’t really matter. As long as you have the Green Card to get on the boat.  

So my family’s name was gone.

I touched the wad of papers in my right sock. My treasure. The letters from my wife. She’s been gone for three months now; her friends in the Guomingdan took her in the middle of the night. She had promised to send for me.

My heart ached with the memory of Mai Ling. She was a wild horse that no rider could tame. By comparison, I was an old plow-ox. It seemed like such a poor match, but the matchmaker had thrown the oracle bones and chosen.

I had a portrait of her. I had saved up the money as a wedding gift. She smiled at me from the silver and charcoal light. She smiled from ten thousand miles away. I could not afford a frame, so I wrapped the photograph in paper and tucked it against my chest.

I looked out the window. It was time to go. It was twilight, nearly full dark. The streets were clear. I walked out of my house for the last time. I closed the door slowly. So empty. A green stain on the carpet where Mai Ling spilled a whole pot of tea last summer. I smiled. Then sadness.

What did I give her? How could she possibly be content with this? No wonder she ran away to find a better life.


When I reached the front of the building, I passed by two neighborhood children playing outside. Bao Bao, a boy of ten, was huddled by the door over his lead soldiers, and his sister, Mei Mei was sitting on the curb.

I stepped carefully over the toy soldiers.

Hey! Mr. Xiao! Where are you going?” cried Bao Bao.

I smiled at him. “I’m going to go buy some dried pork.”

“You still have meat rations left?”

“I saved just a little bit.” I pinched two fingers close together,

Bao Bao frowned. “The market’s closed. It’s late. The market’s closed.”

My pulse began to quicken. “Well then, isn’t it too late for you to be playing in the street? Maybe you should take your sister home before you get a spanking.”

“What? I’m not a little kid!” Bao Boa made a menacing face. “I’m a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army! I’m ready to kill the Imperialists!”


Escape from Shanghai


I looked over at Mei Mei. She was just sitting quietly in a dress sewn from a rice sack. Her chest was stamped: “The People’s Rice”. She had big, doe eyes, and a small, timid mouth. Her large head did not fit on her tiny, undernourished body, and her veins showed bare and blue like the work of a clumsy seamstress. She was wringing a cloth doll nervously between her hands. She emitted a small whimper when she noticed me looking at her.

Mei Mei was a gwai child, meaning docile, properly obedient to authority, as was expected in China. She was also a second child. An illegal child. Her parents would have suffered for it.

“What about you?” Bao Bao eyed me suspiciously. “Are you an Imperialist?”

There was a moment of strained silence, like a joke hanging in the air waiting for laughter. Finally, I said: “You should probably go home before you get into trouble.” and hurried down the street.


It was the revolution. I thought to myself. It was the Cultural Revolution that had made everything insane.

It had started in 1966, when the Party accused the People of having been led astray by false dogmas. Led astray by whom? What false dogmas did we believe? No one knows. But the People were guilty and the Party mercifully began to reform us.

They sent the People to labor camps, because to work is salvation. To starve for the “the People” is salvation. Teachers were sent to the shanwudo, or rural countryside, and peasants were the new teachers.

The Party informed us that we grow more prosperous every year while our bellies shrunk. Not only must you read the slogan – on billboards, on Party pamphlets – or pretend to read it if you could not read; not only must you listen to the slogan – if you had the privilege of a state radio, or in tea shops since people were required to repeat it to make certain their neighbors were informed how prosperous they were – but you must believe it. If you only pretended to believe it, you would slip up. You would frown too much in public or make an unhappy remark about you must mix sawdust with your child’s rice, and you would be caught. You must carry the slogans in your head and love the Party in your heart and if your stomach ached, then it must be in league with the Imperialists.

And everyone feared the Red Guard, mobs of teenagers who ran through the streets with red rags tied to their heads, waving long sticks. “The Party is our parents!” they cry. Their job is to beat the “counter revolutionaries”. An old woman who used to own land. A man with new shoes. “Where did you get those shoes?” they would scream while they beat you. “Have you betrayed us to the Imperialists?”

Of course, the most frightening of all were the PSB, the Public Security Bureau. They were the professionals. I was walking home one day when a van pulled up next to me. I closed my eyes. Mai Ling. They knew. They will take me into the shanwudo and shoot me in the back of the head.

I waited, hoping that I would not break into undignified panic when the moment came.

But the two men who jumped out of the van seized a man from across the street “Jiu wo! Jiu wo!” the man shrieked. Save me. Save me. He knew what was coming. The van swallowed the man and drove away. Everyone averted their eyes and kept walking.


I made my way south into the Old City, where the houses were more distinctly Chinese, and the alleyways narrowed until a bicycler could barely scrape his shoulders through. The coal dust was even thicker here, billowing from the cement plants nearby, chasing me around empty street corners in ghostly whirlwinds.

I could still see the grand architecture of the Bund silhouetted in the north, the churches, ambassador’s homes, and hotels the Europeans had built after the British won the Opium War.


Escape from Shanghai


That’s all the Imperialists want, I thought with a laugh. The right to sell us garbage and drugs! And the hotels! A hotel full of people who are not supposed to travel and are somehow rich ever through everyone is equal.

A drunken man sawed a mandolin anonymously in the night, and the instrument moaned the sorrows of all China. My grandmother had taught me to play the mandolin, and I recognized the song. It was a ballad of two lovers, one on Earth, one in Heaven. The woman was so heartbroken that she wept until her tears watered the entire world with rain. Then the Heavens opened, and allowed a bridge of sparrows to reunite her with her lover.

“I left half my heart on Earth, and took half my heart to Heaven… Where she was waiting for me…”

I quickened my place, leaving the musician to feed the PSB. I must harden my heart and be strong. The meeting place was near.

I arrived at Lao Puo’s house. One-story, with cragged brick and dark, dusty windows.

Everyone had known the old woman, listening to her stories and bringing her coal in winter. Until her son was denounced as Guomingdan. Now, boys like Bao Bao threw stones at her whenever she left her house.

Lao Puo had been born in the time of Emperors. She had seen the last Emperor fall, the rise of the Guomingdan Nationalist Party, the civil war, the Japanese devils who bayoneted pregnant women and sprayed poison germs out of airplanes, and finally – Mao, and the Party, and the famine that ate fifty million, and the markets in the shanwudo where parents sold their extra children to butchers.

I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again. Still nothing. I peeked in the window. As black as an inkpot. I thought I saw something move. A cat? I couldn't just stand outside after hours. I cracked open the door-

I heard a skittering noise behind me. I whirled to an empty street. The wind. Long shadows in the Old City. Three millennia of ghosts.

Watch over me, I prayed to my ancestors. Even though it was forbidden, I still burned “ghost money” and left half a rice cake on their graves every year. So watch over me now.

I went in.

“Madam Lao Puo? It’s Mr.Xiao.Is anybody here?

The house was so dark inside. It had a pungent smell like meat gone bad. I saw the silhouette of a kerosene lamp. I moved towards it. There was water on the floor–crunch–and broken glass.

Had they already been here? PSB? My heart drummed.

I patted the area around the lamp. No lighter. I snuck into the kitchen. A square of moonlight fell from the window. A pack of matches on the counter. I struck one eagerly – clang – the sound of metal – and dropped it.

S-S-Say Zai?” Who is there? “It’s me, Mr. Xiao…”

Trembling, I lit another match and dropped it into the lamp’s glass housing. The golden flame whooshed to life. The kitchen floor was littered with spoons and knives, dented pots and smashed plates. Everything to host a feast for her family that never came back. Every drawer had been turned out and the cushions on the chairs had been slit open and disemboweled, revealing white tufts speckled with black cottonseed.

The house had been raided. It was over. They were coming for me. They’ll torture me for the names of the others but I don’t know their names. Maybe there’s still time to get to the docks. Then my name will be Henry Liu. And America. And Mai Ling. Mai Ling…



Escape from Shanghai


I scrambled for the front door – but reeled with horror in the living room. Lao Puo was seated on the couch, her eyes and mouth hanging half open, a bloody hole in her iron-grey hair.

The door. The door!

Xiao Liushen!

I froze, hanging onto the doorknob. All the fight bled out of me. Let them shoot me from behind. Let me die without feeling.

“Xiao Liushen. Turn around slowly.”

I turned to face a man bundled in rags, his face as dirty as a coal miner’s. He was pointing a pistol at my chest. He stepped over a puzzle of broken china and a puddle of green tea and red blood.

“You are Xiao – aren’t you?”


He lowered the pistol. An old model, from the war. “You have the papers we gave you?”

“Papers? What papers?”

“The Green Card, idiot! Didn't you bring your Green Card?”

“You – You’re Guomingdan?

“Yes, yes! We have to hurry! The boat leaves in one hour!”

“But -” I gestured feebly at Lao Puo.

“There’s nothing you can do. The PSB got her and they’ll get us too if we don't get moving. Come on!”

I followed him into the surreal light, like a painter’s dream. Like I would wake up alone again, shaking in my cot, the actual date still on the calendar.

We darted like cats, feeling the grit through the thin soles of our canvas shoes, pressing our state-issued grey suits into the shadows. The nameless man led me in a strange route, doubling back and circling around with his gun in hand, craning his neck to watch behind us, as if he knew we were being followed.

Finally, we hid inside a cement drainage ditch to rest. The lights of the dock were only a half-mile away. We could see the fence crowned with barbed wire and the wooden watchtowers, with their struts exposed like a hungry man’s ribs, their canvas openings flapping like mouths. A stir of wind carried in the fresh sea air.

The Nationalist Party man squatted and from out his rags produced a mantou, a sweetbread, and bit into it hungrily. My stomach grumbled. Sugar was hard to come by. Mai Ling used to buy it on the black market. But I was afraid. I was always afraid.

Ni sheng sa ma?” I asked politely in the Shanghai dialect. What is your family name?

“Chin.” He mumbled through the crumbs. “Call me Chin.”

“You are a Nationalist?”

He nodded solemnly.

“Have you ever been to Taiwan?”

The Guomingdan had fled to the island in 1949. The important ones, at least.

Chin shook his head.

“Have you ever been to America?”


Escape from Shang


Chin shook his head.

You want to know why I am a traitor.”

I fumbled for words. Yes, it was true. I wanted to know why people threw away their lives to join the Nationalists. Why did they sew the blue sunburst onto flags that would be certain death if they were ever waved? Why did Mai Ling –

Have you ever been to a labor camp, Xiao?” Chin’s eyes were hard diamonds of coal, his Shanghainese clumsy. “Better kill yourself if they catch you. Dash your head on a rock or cut your neck with a razor.”

I shivered. The ditch stank of human waste and rotten cabbage.

Chin grinned, his teeth small and yellow. “Thirty-six in my work unit when we started planting the rice paddies. Twenty-nine when we finished harvest. Blood flies. Poison snakes. Leeches as big as your foot.” Chin chuckled. The noise was like rocks in his mouth. He held up his right hand, showing me two stumps of fingers, like used candles. “And watch out for the sickle.”

I shuddered, turning away my face.

“You want to know why I betrayed my mother, my father, my country and everyone I ever knew.” His mouth was so close I could smell the sweetness of the mantou on his breath. “Why? Because I was hungry, Xiao. They made me eat off the ground like a dog, so now I’m a dog. I don’t care what the Emperor’s name is, as long as my belly is fat as a flea.”

I felt like I was about to vomit my delicate supper of boiled rice.

Chin patted my shoulder. “Don’t get scared, comrade. I was just telling a little story. Don’t worry, Xiao. I’ll get you on the boat.”

“How?” I felt hollow, but not from hunger. “Are we going to climb the fence?”

Chin scoffed. “You’re an empty-head, Xiao Xiao.”

I scowled. Xiaoxiao meant laughter. Xiao xiao meant “little” Xiao.

“So what will we do?”

“We’ll go through the front gate. I’ll just bribe the guard.”

“With what?”

“It depends. What do you have with you?”

I hesitated. He had the lean look of an alley dog.

“Eight-one remembi.” I admitted.

“Then with eighty-one remenbi,” he gestured. “And a wristwatch.”

“But… What will I do when I get to America?”

“Don't worry about that. Everyone in America is rich. They will give you money when you land.”

That-That doesn’t seem right…”

“If you want to argue, then you can go by yourself. We don't have time to play around.”

I sullenly surrendered my life savings and my watch. Chin examined it with satisfaction and stuffed it in his pocket. As he rose, something clattered on the ground. I picked it up. It was an amber tiger-stone broach. It had belonged to Lao Puo. There was blood on it.


Escape from Shanghai


“Give me that!” Chin snatched the broach and tried to fit it back into his pocket. It was so full that it had torn at the seam. “Come on, Xiao. Let’s get on the boat.”

Us? You’re going too?”

“Let go!” I cried, heedless of the noise. “Get away from me!”

He snarled and slapped me. “Give me your Green Card!”

I wrenched my arm free and fled, running towards the electric lights of the dock. Chin was right behind me, his grimy fingers clawing at the back of my collar. We sloshed through knee-deep sewage, our legs stirring the water brown with sediment. Giant water beetles hopped out of our way, and watched us with dark, swollen eyes.

Chin caught me and pulled me down. I swallowed a mouthful of muck. I could barely see. A narrow wedge of moonlight was smeared across the sky. Chin’s face was blue and pitiless. A wolf’s face. His hands found my throat.

“Chin! – Ack! Ack! – Wait! Please! – Ack! Ack! – Don't do –“

He pushed me under. His hand were made of nothing except knuckles and callouses. My head filled with fire.

“Just be patient,” I had told Mai Ling. “Things won’t be this bad forever.”

 “No.” she shook her head stubbornly. “Life is so short. What’s the purpose of living if we cannot be free?”

“Just a little bit longer… Please…”

I thrashed like a catfish in the Yellow River. The filth had made us slippery. I pushed away from Chin and scrambled up the side of the ditch on my hands. A gunshot cracked behind me. I flattened myself against the concrete. Chin’s ragged breathing closed in.

I must get away.

I must get away.

But I seemed to be crawling in slow motion.

Chin caught me at the top. He seized my ankles and began to drag me back down. My fingernails broke and left red streaks in the dirt.

Chin chuckled. “Don’t be scared, little Xiao. I was just playing with you. Come back down.”

He lifted my legs until I could see his upside-down smile. And the pistol in his waistband.

“Please. Let me go. Please. The boat is leaving…”

“Your Green Card.”

“No.” Mai Ling, I thought. Mai Ling.

“Give it to me now!”

“I - I can’t.”

Ni Ta ma da! He cursed. He dropped my legs and pulled out his gun. “Where is it?” He tore at my wet clothes. “What is this?” Chin examined the sopping remains of my letters.

A shadow appeared. Chin looked up. Someone’s foot sailed across his face. Chin brandished the gun wildly. The assailant caught his arm and broke it expertly. Chin screamed. There was a flurry of movement. The gun went off.

Chin teetered back towards the edge of the ditch. His face was sweaty and pale. A red spot of blood soaked through his shirt. Then a kick to the stomach toppled him into the chasm.


Escape from Shanghai


I knew I should have run then, but I was strangely frozen. Was this a spirit? Had my prayers been answered?

“Are you Xiao Liushen?”

A woman’s voice. A small, young face. Slim legs standing tiptoe like she knew gongfu. Black hair like a brushstroke in the new summer moon.

“Are you Xiao Liushen?”

“Y-Yes.” I never even thought to lie.

She smiled. “I’ve been looking for you all night.”

“You have?” I stood uncertainly to my feet.

She reached out to touch me. I tensed. She brushed a dirt clod from my suit. “My name is Hwei Shing. I am your contact from the Guomingdan.”

You?- But-” I peeked into the ditch. Chin was laying on his back, a pool of dark blood leaking from his head.

 “A common thief. And a traitor.”

“How did you find me?”

She giggled. “I know it sounds silly, but I prayed to my ancestors.”

“No, that’s not–I don't think–“

 “Come.” she grabbed my hand. “The boat.”

“The boat.” I agreed.


“Look at the tanks, Liushen!” My father lifted me above the heads of the crowd. “That’s the might of the People’s Army!”

“I thought the people were the might of the People’s Army!”

He laughed. “You’re right, Liushen! That was my mistake! You’re so smart, you’re going to be a Party chairman when you grow up!”

“No, father! I want to be a hero like you!”

“I’m not a hero, Liushen. I’m just a regular soldier. You can be a hero by taking care of your mother and grandmother while I’m gone.”

“Yes, general!” I saluted, and watched an armored truck rumble by, its side showing a bright red star and its cargo brimming with older boys.

“Where are they all going?” I asked.

“To a faraway country called Korea. The people there are fighting for their freedom just like we did. We’re going to go help them.”

“Why do you have to go?”

“Because, Liushen, all people deserve to be peaceful and free. The government there was hurting its citizens. People were hungry and scared, but the government didn't care. We’re going to help because China is like Korea’s big brother. Do you understand?”

I shook my head.

He set me down and adjusted his handsome green uniform. “You will understand when you’re older. I’ll be back in a few months.” he said, anticipating my next question. “Don’t grow too much while I’m gone, hao ma?”

Hao!” I said, and went home to make a calendar to await his return.



Escape from Shanghai


Hwei Sing pulled open the chain-link fence like a curtain.

“How did you –?”

“We’ve been waiting for you, Xiao. Everything is prepared.”

As I slipped into the dockyard, the cut ends of the links snagged my arm. I winced.

“Careful!” she breathed in my ear, and slipped in after me, as graceful as a dancer. “This way!”

She led me to a bleak, windowless warehouse that bled pools of rust from its seaward flank. The smell of the ocean was so close. The lonely chime of a buoy. The reek of yesterday’s catch. I could make out the dark shapes of ships like beached whales. Hundreds of them. Which one would carry me to my new home?

“In here.” She opened the side door of the warehouse. It was not locked.

It was as black as a cave inside. Hwie Sheng led me by my hand. Her fingers were strong and insistent. She seemed to know the way. I sweated into her palm.

Then I heard a soft, whiny sound, equally insistent, like an animal in pain.

I froze, pulling Hwei Shing to a halt. I could not find my voice in the darkness, which was suddenly both hot and cold at the same time. Hwei Shing tugged me forward, closer to the noise.

It sounded like a girl crying, I realized. It could not have been Hwei Shing. It was muffled, perhaps by a door. Or a hand.

“Hwei Shing…” I pleaded, my voice choked small by terror.

“This way! Just a little farther!”

Then I heard a tiny squeaking, like someone giggling.

“That noise…” I whispered. I felt sick. My heart was a block of winter ice.

“It’s okay. We are meeting some friends of ours.”

The crying had stopped. Only silence and darkness. My mind painted a picture of its own accord. It was Chin, lying in a pool of blood, his arm and neck bent at wrong angles. She killed him, I thought. She killed a man.

I tried to withdraw my fingers away from her. I did not want her to feel me trembling.

But she held on.

“Please, Xiao. Your wife, Mai Ling, is waiting.”

“You- You know Mai Ling?”

“Mm-hm. I risked my life to smuggle her letters to you.”

I hesitated for a moment. I cannot go back, I decided. I cannot write Mai Ling and tell her I went back.

Hao.” I declared, which means both “okay” and “good”, expressing resolve and agreement.

Hao.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “They’ve been waiting for you. This is the way to freedom.”

A door opened. She guided me through it. Then slid away and pushed it shut behind me. And locked it.

Hwei Shing?”

No response. Just a high--pitched giggling from the far side of the door.

Hwei Shing? Hwei Shing!” It was not until I was beating on the door and crying her name to the darkness did I realize that her name meant “Grey Heart”.


Escape from Shanghai


I moaned, cold again, so cold. My stomach hurt.

We will not wait for you. I recalled the warning. If you are late, we will assume you are dead. I was so stupid. I failed, Mai Ling, I failed! If they catch one, they will catch us all. I searched the wall desperately for another door, a light switch, anything.

And then I heard sobbing, a girl sobbing somewhere in that room so close I thought I could touch her wet cheeks.

S-S-Say Zai?” I felt like a man must be sitting on my chest.

Jiu Zhiga…” answered a little girl’s voice. Save yourself. “Go home, Mr.Xiao. Jiu Zhiga…”

And then the lights came on. Too bright for sneaking. Blinding electric filaments.

“Mr. Xiao, we have been waiting for you.”

A man in a lime-green state suit leaned towards me, smiling. A Northern-faced man, speaking university Mandarin. A thick-armed man in a sweatshirt waited behind him, sneering with his squashed, Cantonese face.

My insides turned to cabbage soup. I cowered in the door, thinking of the punishments the old Emperors had employed: Strangulation for minor crimes. Beheading for major crimes. And the most vile offenders were sentenced to death by slow slicing. I began to weep.

The Northerner reached out a hand – and patted me on the shoulder. “It’s okay, Mr. Xiao. We do not want to hurt you, comrade.”

“Comrade? You are Guomingdan?

The man laughed. “No. We are PSB.”

Mine was the terror of a man hanging over the edge of a bottomless well.

“You do not need to be afraid. We know you are not a bad person, Xiao. We know you are gwai.

“He is an Imperialist!” Bao Bao exploded from the corner. “I followed him. He said he was going to sell us out for dried pork!”

The Northerner chuckled. The Cantonese did not.

Mei Mei was curled into a ball on the floor. Her red eyes were wide, but saw nothing. Catatonic. She bit her fingers to choke her sobs. Blood ran from the corner of her mouth.

She knew. Just as the man being pulled into the van knew. Just as all of China knew.

“Have a seat, Xiao.” The Northerner gestured to a small folding table with a single chair.

I obeyed.

“We have been watching you, Xiao. We know you are not a threat. But your wife…”

“My wife?”

“Your wife –“ He slapped a stack of letters on the table. Copies. “ –has conspired against the People and committed treason.”

“What--What do you want me to do?”

The agent set a pen and paper in front of me.


“My confessions?” I snatched up the pen. If they would let me confess, then they would let me repent! I would blame as much as possible on Lao Pup and Chin, who were both already dead.




Escape from Shanghai


“No. I want you to write a letter to your wife, and tell her to come back to Shanghai. Tell her that you’ve been hurt in an accident, and you need her to maintain your health.”

“But – I--I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.” He guided my hand firmly to the top of the page. “Now write: Dear Mai Ling –“

“No!” I jumped up.

A meaty fist smashed me back over the chair. As I tried to get up, I was kicked in the ribs. The Cantonese grinned down at me.

“Think about your options, Comrade.” The Northerner squatted next to me while I wheezed. “Your crimes against the People would be forgiven. You could start over with a government job. Extra rations. Maybe even a new wife? Did you like Agent Hwei Shing? But you must show true remorse…”


The Cantonese kicked me again. He was wearing steel-toe boots. He stomped them down on my hand. It crunched like a roach.

I used to be able to play the mandolin, I remembered. My grandmother had taught me. But she had been a landowner. So they took her to the shanwudo. Some invisible boundary moved beneath her and swept away a million people like a broom.

“Xiao, what would your father and mother say if they could see you now?”

“My father died in Korea.”

He had been gone so long that I was sure my calendar was wrong. If only I could make it right, he would come home. Then we received a telegram saying that he was returning as a hero and I was so excited but when they brought him home he wasn’t a father at all anymore but instead a little brass star.

The Cantonese boots found my groin, then my kidney. I vomited and shivered. I was cold.

“Kick him again!” Bao Bao cheered. “Kill the Imperialist!”

The PSB man stepped gently over my vomit and placed the pen and paper on the floor. “The People love you, Xiao. We only want you to stop hurting yourself. Just write what I tell you, and the People will forgive you.”

I was strangely frozen. But a terrible noise was building in my head. As I tried to move, Mai Ling’s portrait tumbled out of my shirt.

He held the pen near my face. “It doesn't have to be so hard. Just love us back, and the rest is easy.”

No!” I lunged and bit into the pen, bit into his fingers. Ink and blood dribbled from my mouth. The Northerner reeled back in fright. I shook my head violently, blind with hot tears. “Mai Ling…Mai Ling…”

Mei Mei whimpered and hid her face behind her doll.

The boot landed on my head.


The gong announced our presence to the people ahead of us. The Parade of Dunces wound slowly through Shanghai. Our feet were already blistered and bleeding; the miles had chewed our shoes to nothing. But still, the Red Guard banged the gong and prodded us forward with their sticks.

The people gathered to the commotion, as if they had been called to feed. They mostly watched in silence, taking in our tall, paper hats and the wooden placards hanging from our necks that declared our crimes. “Traitor”, mine read, the characters burned deep into the wood. The rope was stiff with sweat from the other necks that had worn it before me.

“We are the counter revolutionaries!” We chanted in rhythm to the gong. “We are perverts! We are spies! We are the traitors of the People!”


Escape from Shanghai


The words had long lost meaning. Our throats were parched in the sun. We would have confessed to being space aliens in exchange for rest.

Some of the spectators lifted children to their shoulders, as my father had done for me to watch the tanks a different lifetime ago. A different China ago.

I spotted my old school teacher in line ahead of me. He must have been in his seventies by then. My father had denounced him nearly twenty years ago. Had he been in circulation since? My insides squirmed with guilt. He was ten feet away. I could spit on him, but I could not speak to him.

All of a sudden, he fainted. The people behind him cast fearful glances at the Red Guards, then set their faces and prepared to trample the old man.

I rushed in to pull him to his feet. He looked at me the way a man might look at a god. His placard read: “Preacher of Lies”.

A Red Guard, maybe sixteen, studied me with anger and moved at me. Hurriedly, I spat in my teacher’s face and retreated back to my place.

“Thank you.” he whispered. “God loves you.”


I shivered with cold. The air was thin and dry.

I was blindfolded. My hands were not tied, but I didn’t try to move the blindfold. There were others near me. We didn't speak. They moved us from a train to a bus, then from the bus on foot, holding the shoulder of the person in front. We marched in a single file down a dirt road, obeying the instructions shouted at us.

The smell was different here. No more coal. Once the stink of diesel drove away, we were left with grass and cow droppings and wet dirt. A chicken clucked at our feet. I could feel the sun on the left side of my swollen face. My bare feet had calloused into the leather shoes by now, although they still leaked and bled around the edges.

At last, a voice barked for us to remove our blindfolds.

We were in the shanwudo, me and the other men dressed in rags, some old enough to be my father. Not many young ones; their sons and grandsons were Red Guards.

In the labor camp, prisoners toiled in a hundred miles of terraced hills and blank, stony soil. There were mountains to one side, a flat, brown desert to the other. Soldiers watched prisoners carry baskets of manure across a slow, yellow river that churned as thick as blood. As we watched, a man slipped and was crushed under his load. The others waded around him, turning away their gaunt faces as he drowned. A unit of men dragged a plow in place of an ox.

Ai yo! Ai yo! Ai yo!” They lurched rhythmically forward.

An old man besides me fell to his knees and sobbed, tearing the wisps of his white hair.

I felt nothing. Merely stillness. Like a pitcher emptied out of water.

I am as old as the Earth. Emperors die, but the peasant is immortal.

A bullhorn called for all new prisoners to gather. We scrambled to obey, our feet slipping on the sharp, wet stones, running towards the crack of whips.

There was no other place to go.

We will endure, I thought to myself as we formed ranks under the clear, blue sky. The People will endure. Because someday, we will be free...

© Copyright 2020 Edward Ji. All rights reserved.

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