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  • Death in Prison
  • Zhang Yihe (bio) and Chen Zeping (bio)
    Translated by Karen Gernant (bio)

Wang Yang died.

This woman, who was about sixty years old, died eight feet and eight inches away from me, with only four people between us. Su Runjia discovered her at dawn, when everyone else was up. Why then was Wang Yang mo tionless under her quilt? Even when Su Runjia called her name again and again, she didn’t stir. Su’s face darkened. “You take a look,” she said to Yi Fengzhu.

“No. You’re the group leader. You look.”

“Do as I said.” Su’s tone was as stern as a guard’s.


“Are you going to or not?” As Su Runjia spoke, she picked up a wooden club from behind the cell door. This was the instrument used to beat the convicts. One was behind each cell door.

Without even taking her shoes off, Yi Fengzhu jumped up on the bed and stomped on Wang Yang’s pillow. Her crotch was right above Wang Yang’s face—an extremely disrespectful thing. The scene disgusted me. Yi Fengzhu bent over and lifted the quilt with one hand and placed her other hand under Wang’s nose. Seconds later she screamed, “Motherfucker! She’s dead!” Then Yi dashed into the yard and ran around wildly, shouting, “Dead! She’s dead!” She acted so crazy that Su Runjia couldn’t control her.

All the inmates were stunned into silence. I went over to Su Runjia and asked, “Why did you ask Yi Fengzhu to touch a dead person?”

Looking away from me, she narrowed her eyes and spoke as if talking to herself: “No way could I touch her. What convicts dread most is dying in prison.”

Spontaneously, everyone poured into the yard, waiting to see what would happen. The older inmates were ashen; some were wiping away tears. I thought, They must be thinking of their own fates. News of the death began spreading like a gale slapping their faces and passing over their heads— blowing against their futures.

A whistle blew, and the squadron assembled hastily. The guard Tang shouted, “Wu Yanlan, step forward! Did you know of Wang Yang’s illness before she died?!” [End Page 109]

Wu Yanlan acted as the prisoners’ doctor. She was even less knowledgeable about medicine than the so-called barefoot doctors in the countryside. She knew only about the most common medicines. This hardly made her an expert, since anyone could read the directions on a box. Nevertheless, Wu Yanlan didn’t have to work in the fields. She could tell the guards who was sick, and who could take a day off to recuperate. And she could also suggest transferring a sick person to the prison clinic in the foothills for treatment. So all the prisoners played up to her. She had been convicted of being a counterrevolutionary. She would be released next year. I didn’t understand why the squadron chief insisted that I learn to slaughter pigs instead of replace Wu Yanlan as a health worker. Didn’t they know that my mother was a skilled doctor?

Wu Yanlan emerged, looking a little nervous. Her slow way of talking masked some of her inner anxiety. “Wang Yang had high blood pressure. She was always sick. You knew that, too, Ms. Tang. I generally gave her medicine to lower her blood pressure and never deviated from that. If she told me she had chest pains, I authorized sick leave. Yesterday, when she complained again of chest pains, I told her to stay in bed and rest. How could I have known that she would die in her sleep?”

My impression was that Wang Yang had never rested much, and would continue to work even while complaining that she didn’t feel well. I wanted to ask Group Leader Su, How sick does a convict have to be before she can rest? But I didn’t. I thought that she, as a leader of the convicts’ group, was unlikely to answer me. I knew that in private, she and Wu Yanlan were on good terms.

Guard Tang listened, without expression. A prisoner’s...