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  • The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage
  • Richard King (bio)
Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu. The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004. xi, 248 pp. Paperback $21.95, ISBN 520-22779-4.

The isolated imprisonment of political dissidents envisaged by Aldous Huxley in his dystopian fantasy Brave New World was, for all the terror it inspired, something of a genteel retreat for liberal intellectuals:

[H]is punishment is really a reward. He's being sent to an island. That's to say, he's being sent to a place where he'll meet the most interesting set of people to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren't satisfied with orthodoxy, who've got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who's any one.1

This passage was written in 1932, early in what Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu refer to as the "century of concentration camps" (p. 1), before Stalin, Hitler, and Mao applied their own particular genius to the confinement of those they regarded as a threat to their regimes.

If there is an equivalent of Huxley's islands in recent Chinese history, it is perhaps the May Seventh Cadre Schools of the Cultural Revolution, to which academics, artists, authors, and other representatives of the then-despised intellectual class were consigned to bide their time to allow the revolutionary proletariat to exercise dictatorship without hindrance. While it may be true that the Chinese camps housed the unorthodox and the independent-minded, Williams and Wu venture into colder, harsher, more remote, and more secretive territory here than authors like Huxley (or his student George Orwell) could have imagined: the vast network of labor camps in China's border regions that have been used to imprison political prisoners and common criminals throughout the history of the People's Republic. Faced with the paucity of official documentation on the prison-camp system, Williams and Wu incorporate a variety of literary materials, including the memoirs of former inmates (published in China and the West), reportage and journalistic accounts, fiction by former inmates, and other fiction by those without personal experience of the camps. The authors acknowledge the risks inherent in using memoir and fiction to build a historical account: "each of the narratives analyzed in this study has been generated by a fallible human consciousness that necessarily filters reality during the processes of thought and representation" (p.15; italics in the original). They might have added that writers of fiction and memoir necessarily reorder, embellish, and invent in their quest for stories that will command attention and manipulate emotion. Williams and Wu argue, however, [End Page 270] that "intersubjective agreement among sources does lead to a degree of objectivity, though certainly not to an absolute objectivity" (ibid.). Their reading of the texts they have chosen is judicious throughout.

The authors review Western theorizing on confinement (perhaps allowing more space than is really needed to discount Foucault's Discipline and Punish as an authority in this context), but they demonstrate that the prison-camp system that developed in twentieth-century China was largely constructed upon foundations laid at home: "The system rests upon ancient cultural assumptions that forced labor and exile are normal parts of the state's criminal justice system, which has strictly defined the individual's 'duty to obey authority,' but not the limit of that authority" (pp. 28-29). In keeping with this respect for tradition, it would appear, jailhouse tortures and malpractices employed in Imperial China and portrayed by the late Qing author Li Baojia in his novel Living Hell are still used by the prison guards of the socialist state. Illustrations from Li Baojia's novel are reproduced here, a century later, to demonstrate current practice.

From the time of the Jiangxi Soviet, the Communist Party's first chance at regional governance, Mao and those around him dispensed with any constraints on...


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pp. 270-273
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