LIFE IN EXILE
On the Verge of Death
By this time, more and more inmates had died. I remember what a fellow inmate, Yong-tao Feng, once said to me, “Yu, your days are numbered! I figure you’ve about half a year left.” In those days, one could more or less predict the approach of his death. As a result of prolonged starvation and subsequent malnutrition, the body began to swell from the feet up; when the swelling rose up to the level of the navel, that was about it.
At that time, the thoughts of us “intellectual elements” (university graduates, etc.) were regarded as filth, and we were therefore frequently assigned filthy jobs meant to speed up our reform. There was a period when I was ordered to bury the deceased. Parcels of their belongings were stacked up in the storage for periodic shipment to Shanghai for onward transmission to their families. The parcels were small, containing hardly any wearable clothes. One time my group was ordered to carry the parcels from the storage to a small wooden boat. I thought to myself: it would perhaps be better for the families not to receive them; for how shocking it would be for them to see just a few clothes remaining of their loved ones who were alive and well when they left for reform just a short while ago! Watching the parcels being shipped out, I could not help wondering how my aged mother, as well as my wife and daughters, would react if they were to receive a parcel of my belongings! I was overwhelmed with sadness.
There were numerous examples of how we had passed our fate on to our younger generation. Chico Li’s daughter was clever and pretty, a few years older than my elder daughter. She did well in school and was a “three-good1 student.” However, since Li had been exiled on Labor Reform, this poor girl was immediately ill-treated and bullied by her teacher and schoolmates. Very soon, she suffered from depression and mental disorder with abnormal and dangerous behavior such as cutting holes in her clothes with scissors. Consequently, she had to quit school. Yet, with passing years, her condition did not improve. What then could be done for her? After careful consideration, it was decided that the only thing left to be done was to arrange for her to be married to a Labor Camp inmate, a Fujian native also surnamed Li, and the Labor Camp leader provided them with a very small hut. One could imagine the tragedy that followed.
Thus, I prayed before the Lord, “Lord, if I had no family, no wife and no daughter, it’d be justifiable for me to die here alone because, after all, I was sent to this Labor Camp for Your name’s sake. But it’ll be too pitiful for my two daughters if I died. At the time I left for reform, one was barely two and the other was only five months old. They’d be labeled as “daughters of counter-revolutionary element” for the rest of their lives. Also, my wife, a very kind-hearted woman who’s been working hard in the hospital for many years would, because of me, also suffer for life as a “family member of counter-revolutionary element,” despised and deprived of a decent living.” I then pleaded to the Lord, “Lord, please remember me and don’t let me die here!”
Here, the burial of the deceased was carried out casually. As everyone who buried the dead was hungry and not strong enough to dig a pit deep enough (government standard was 2 meters deep), a coffin was carelessly lowered into the pit and covered with just a thin layer of soil, and its top would be exposed once the rain came down. When coffins were not well nailed, people would come at night to strip off the deceased’s clothes and put them on themselves.
1. “three-good”: all-round development of morality, intelligence and physique.