BETWEEN 1966 and 1976, after Chairman Mao exhorted youth to weed out enemies of the revolution, chaos reigned in China. During the violent struggle, there were public denunciations and beatings; temples and monuments were destroyed. The Red Guard rampaged and the madness spread.
Those terrible days, their aftermath, and the deep scar the Cultural Revolution left across the culture have been vividly and memorably depicted in popular and lauded Chinese works — from the mainland and the diaspora alike — such as Yu Hua’s Brothers, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, and Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Common tropes have emerged: cruel punishments, absurdity, a crushing pressure, and the endurance of the human spirit.
The Visiting Suit, Xiaoda Xiao’s powerful memoir of his years at a forced labor camp is written in unflinching, unadorned prose that ably conveys the horrors the author witnessed. (His debut novel, The Cave Man, published in 2009, chronicled the life of a political prisoner after his release.) One night Xiao, while drunk, rips a portrait of Mao to wipe up a spill. At the behest of his neighbor, the 20-year-old turns himself in to local police, who claim to believe Xiao’s story and do not at first charge him with a political crime.
Later on, though, he is yanked out of bed and arrested, and boys throw trash at Xiao and other prisoners in a public square. At the detention house, a boy guard ties Xiao’s fingers to the bars and bashes them with his rifle, ordering him to obey: “What humiliated me was … that the boy’s wrists were only the size of a twelve-year-old … with a childish face, small indifferent eyes…[he] was the success of the revolution.”
Authorities accuse him of “viciously attacking the Great Leader,” a fate no different, he says, from the thousands who have knocked over a bust of Mao, used a scrap of newspaper bearing his portrait in the toilet, or committed one of the innumerable other slip-ups and accidents that have incurred the wrath of authorities. In this way, Xiao reminds us that he speaks for the millions who, silenced, did not have a chance to tell their stories.
At first Xiao feigns insanity while in detention, hoping to be released, but instead he is handcuffed behind his back. He pisses his pants. His arms swell to the size of hams. After realizing that his cellmates, also guilty of seemingly minor transgressions, have confessed to their charges, Xiao acquiesces too.
Proceeding chronologically, the sixteen stories in The Visiting Suit reveal how quickly and completely the author loses his family, his future, his pride, and his privacy; his ambitions are rapidly reduced to basic survival. “What an inmate worried about,” he writes, “was how to keep alive, as if all the rest of our emotions had been buried in a grave.” Xiao survives the Sisyphean task of hauling and pounding stones in a quarry for ten hours a day, and self-condemnation in thought-reform sessions in the evening. Indeed, the stories offer many small yet fascinating details about life in the camps. Prisoners fight over the rice straw used for their bedding, to pile as high as possible, because, Xiao explains, “this was the only place where [one] could dream himself a free man.”
Food is an overriding concern. Xiao envies a lucky rapist, who is selected to work in a kitchen and will never go hungry. A gift from another prisoner’s mother — rice powder and a piece of salty ham — becomes the talk of the prison barracks. After two days of solitary confinement and no food, Xiao tallies up his dreary though greatly missed rations: three pounds of rice, two bowls of cabbage, and two bowls of cabbage soup. Some inmates even crouched in the latrines where they could listen to sounds from the kitchen to try and decipher what the menu would be for the Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year.
Xiao notes the death of friends crushed by rocks, by suicide, in the dispassionate, terse tone of a newspaper brief, which makes their demise all the more poignant; overly heightened language would have cheapened their passing, turned it maudlin. Instead, he writes, “Yuan Bao was buried alive three days later in a landslide in the quarry, along with two others.”
Still, there are glimmers of grace and kindness, and of attempts at hope and individuality. A civilian worker offering to pass along Xiao’s letter to his mother. Prisoners sharing stories. A violin and a book Xiao manages to obtain. Handmade wool caps knitted with the designs of cranes, sparrows, and phoenixes, symbolizing longevity and good fortune. The sight of beautiful women. The letters Xiao writes to help prisoners win their lovers’ affection. A wedding suit — the humanizing attire a prisoner dons each time his wife visits.
Though Xiao introduces many colorful characters, his memoir’s episodic nature may leave some readers wanting more: a sustained narrative and more fully fleshed-out minor characters to invest in.
Upon his release, Xiao feasts at a restaurant not far from the prison. He drifts into pleasant memories of his friends, his girlfriend, his grandfather, of his life before imprisonment, until news of Mao’s death interrupts. The manager informs Xiao that he must leave the premises immediately; all “entertainment” has been banned for two weeks. For many Chinese, and for Xiaoda Xiao, the memory of these tragic times has lasted much longer.