A short story by Bei Ling, translated by Scott Savitt
It’s afternoon. I’m being transported in a military jeep. On the road I ask the undercover officer: “Where am I being taken?”
“To a hotel,” the plainclothes officer scoffs.
The jeep is speeding down a newly paved freeway in Beijing’s faceless western outskirts.
The jeep slows down and enters a compound surrounded by a towering wall. An electric fence lines the top of the wall, and armed soldiers man the guard towers.
Next to the iron gate is a sign that says: Qinghe Prison.
I feel like an explosion has gone off in my head.
I am escorted into the detention center’s office. As soon as I get inside, a prison guard snatches my glasses.
Without my glasses I am half-blind. I start to protest, but the guard kicks me and shouts: “Squat down and get your hands behind your head!”
I dodge the brunt of his blow, and start to say: “Please don’t hit me….” when he kicks me again, this time much harder, sending me staggering into the corner of the room.
The plainclothesman that escorted me here says with a laugh: “Did you really think you were going to a hotel? You might be alive when you arrive here, but there is no guarantee that you won’t leave a corpse!”
Feeling dizzy and unable to see more than blurry shapes, I hear the prison guard say: “You are charged with the crime of illegally publishing and distributing a counterrevolutionary magazine. You will be detained here pending your prosecution.”
I’m still wearing the tank top and short pants I was arrested in. In addition to my glasses, they’ve also taken my shoes. Barefoot and squinting, I struggle to see my surroundings as I’m led into an interrogation room. The room is dimly lit, and standing before me is a 6’ 3” tall officer. The cop dragging me refers to him as “Big Zhang.” Big Zhang tells me to sit. When he sees me hesitate, he says: “You can relax. I never beat prisoners because I am too strong and could really hurt someone. The guy who just hit you is new here and trying to show off. It’s like this for everyone, that’s why they call it a prison.”
He fills out paperwork while continuing to talk to me. “From now on you can refer to me as ‘superintendent.’ I have already seen your case file. Your crime is serious, you should be concerned.” While he is talking, the phone rings. Big Zhang picks up the phone and says: “You miss me, you dirty cunt. Wait until I see you tonight.” He says this while continuing to look at me, trying to make me feel embarrassed. He sees this, and says: “Is this your first time in prison? After you’ve been here for awhile, you’ll get used to dirty talk. I’m sending you to Block Eight, Cell One. It’s a tough crowd. You’re a coddled college boy, it’ll do you good to get a taste of some bitter medicine.”
Then he hands me a piece of paper with the prison regulations printed on it and tells me to memorize them. “Block Eight Cell One prisoner Huang Beiling requests to return to his cell.” “Block Eight Cell One prisoner Huang Beiling requests medical attention.” That’s the type of bureaucratic language it contains. Then Big Zhang leads me down a long corridor lined with cells. We finally stop in front of a small cubicle with ‘Block 8 Cell 1’ written on it. He inserts a key, the iron bolt clicks and the door opens. The room is packed with a cluster of men who shout, “The Superintendent is Great!” I can feel dozens of pairs of eyes sizing me up. A prisoner of medium height comes to the door and whispers to Superintendent Zhang. I hear the officer say: “This is a new prisoner. I’m putting him here. You’ll have to squeeze to make room. Help him get settled. The authorities are concerned, his case is special, don’t hurt him, don’t cut his long hair, after midnight you can let him sleep.” This prisoner is looking at me and nodding his head saying “Yes, I understand.” This is how I enter Block Eight Cell One.
The door slams shut behind me. I am in shock. A tall, thin inmate looks at my flowing long hair and says: “Fucking incredible! He wears his hair like a woman!” At this moment, the inmate who was talking with the superintendent says in a ruthless voice: “No one is to touch him! Anybody lays a finger on him and you will have to answer to me!”
I feel grateful. This man is not tall, he is in his mid-30s, and has a scrawny physique and a thin face. Although he is not physically intimidating, when he talks he exhibits absolute authority. He is obviously the boss of this cell. He shouts again: “Kid, get him sorted out.” A slender teenaged boy comes over and says: “Come with me.” He takes me to the back of the cell where the toilet is and says in a shrill tone: “Take off your shorts and underwear!” I hesitantly take off my shorts and underwear, and stand stark naked.
When the Kid is done, he turns to the Boss and says: “Boss, this guy looks clean.” The Kid then hands me a piece of soap, and says “Wash yourself all over, make sure and scrub your dick, balls and ass really hard!” I do as he says and wash my body all over. The Kid fills a bucket with water and splashes it over me. The water is so cold it makes me stagger. He does this several more times. “Keep washing. There are more than 20 guys in here, if any of us gets a sexually transmitted disease, you’re a goner!”
There are altogether 14 cell blocks in Qinghe Prison. Each cell block has 12 units, known as hao, or cell. Each hao holds, on average, 30 or so people, at some times as many as 40. The total number of prisoners is around 5,000. The rectangular cell, with one toilet hole, has a total area of no more than 20 square meters. It has cement walls and a high cement ceiling 15 feet from the floor with a rectangular vertical skylight, through which sunlight never shines straight down, but only slants onto the top of the wall. Through this vertical skylight, one can see only a very small patch of the sky, at which I have looked up countless times.
A long and narrow aisle is flanked by the wall on one side, and on the other, plastic beds about half a foot off the floor. At the end of the cell is an area of 50 square feet of cement floor with water drains; above this floor there is a square sink with a cold water faucet. At the innermost end is a squatting-style toilet hole without any enclosure for privacy. Eating, drinking, shitting, pissing and sleeping are all conducted in this one room.
The prison runs on a military schedule. Wake up is at 6:30 am. The thin cotton military sleeping mats and blankets must be immediately folded up neatly and stored against the wall. Two meals are served, one at 10:30 am the other at 4:30 pm. The fare never changes, two steamed buns with cabbage or celery and some fatty pieces of meat. Because it is much too salty, I rinse my food with water before being able to stomach it.
The 10-hour days consist of compulsory “reflection” on one’s crimes. The cell turns into a “sitting room.” Both knees are held together with your arms around them, back straight, sitting on the ground, looking at the prison regulations on the wall, reciting them and “reflecting on one’s crime.”
During the month of August our cell seldom had less than 20 inmates, often more. Other than the cell boss and a few of his accomplices, no one had a place to lie flat and sleep. We had to squeeze in like sardines, heads and feet entangled, sleeping on our side. If you got up to piss at night, you often would not have a place when you came back, and would have no choice but to try to doze sitting up.
Because it’s so hot and so overcrowded, every night several inmates are assigned to sleep in shifts, spelling each other every two hours, to fan the cell boss and his buddies. On my first night I have to wave the fan the whole night. On the second night I join the rotating shift of fan wavers, sleeping two hours then fanning for two hours. If there is no room on the narrow platform, you have to sleep on the concrete floor.
It’s mid-summer and the temperature is more than 100 degrees, in our cell some people faint from the heat. All the bedding is soaked with sweat, and there is often no opportunity to dry it out. The whole cell is full of the odor of stink and rot from mold. If one prisoner has lice, the whole cell will soon have them.
The prison superintendent silently consents to the hierarchy in the cell and sanctions beatings and all kinds of verbal violence and other humiliations.
The worst treated are new inmates charged with rape or soliciting prostitutes. They immediately endure violent beatings. I watch in silence, and eventually become accustomed to it.
Mounted on the wall by the door of the cell is a color television. The other inmates tell me that this is the result of a former prisoner who immigrated to America and got rich, and wanted to show his appreciation to the prison by donating a color television set for every cell. Every evening from 6:30-8 p.m. is the prison’s “entertainment time.” All inmates must sit on the floor with legs crossed, hands resting on knees, and maintain a ramrod straight posture and watch the Central China Television government propaganda evening news. Then we watch another hour and a half of soap operas or historical costume dramas.
The cell Boss keeps an eye on everyone, and if someone is not sitting up perfectly straight or a hand is out of place he will immediately shout: “Posture!” Every cell also has a surveillance camera so the centrally located guards can monitor all the occupants. If anything is out of order in the cell a guard will come over and inform the cell boss or take discipline enforcement into his own hands. The only place the surveillance camera cannot see is directly beneath it. This is where the cell boss takes inmates if they are to be “punished.” Because the soap opera plots are so mindless, this ritual is like a kind of torture for me. I close my eyes a little, I still have to keep up the pretense of watching, and sit in meditation, praying and repenting. Every night during this time my mind flashes back like a high-speed rewind over the past events of my life, reexamining the events that led me to end up in this cell. ∎