THE FIFTH MAN IN THE OVERCOAT
The political relaxation of the late 1970s allowed the return to Chinese society of victims not only of the Cultural Revolution but of the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign as well. Intellectuals and former officials who had been in labor camps for as long as twenty years were reassigned to their original work units. Many literary works describe these “exonerations,” but few penetrate beyond the happy appearances to explore the complexities that were inevitably involved. True to form, Liu Binyan stubbornly insists on penetrating, and in this thinly fictionalized account, refuses to whitewash what he finds.—ED.
Since the beginning of 1979, several hundred thousand people have come out into the sunshine from under the political shadows that have covered them for more than twenty years. Jin Daqing was one of these. But on his way out, he got caught in the shadowy twilight zone halfway between.
One day in March, this forty-five-year-old man, who wore a threadbare army surplus overcoat, walked up to a newly constructed office building beside the river. This building housed the newspaper on which he had worked for many years. As he noted the contrast between this elegant, eight-story building and the old one they had used twenty-three years ago, he smiled inwardly. It was a bitter smile. “The newspaper itself is still that one little sheet,” he reflected. “But look how big the building has grown! The staff will be much bigger, too, of course . . .” His more than twenty years of abnormal life had turned his whole manner of thinking and feeling inward. His face wore a permanent expression of apathy.
He didn’t seriously consider that walking across that threshold a few seconds later would mark a new start in his life, or rather the resumption of his life where it had been interrupted more than twenty years earlier. He seemed, rather than nervous, to be absorbed in his own thoughts. This attitude led directly to his first mistake.
He knew that, of the twenty-seven persons who had left the newspaper office in 1957, he was the only one who was being allowed to return to work here. This was because, having been stripped of official status, he could be accepted for work only back at his former job. He was puzzled that the other twenty-three people who survived were not also allowed to return to their jobs. In terms of professional ability, political credentials, health, and experience, nearly all of them were qualified to do newspaper work. Some in fact had been middle-level administrators when they left. The things that puzzled him were many indeed.
He was near-sighted, and this, added to his habitual absorption in his own thoughts—which came from too many years in a place where it was unnecessary to greet other human beings—caused him not to notice the man walking toward him in the dimly lit corridor. This man, smiling broadly, had extended his hand long before he had drawn near and seemed not to take offense at Jin Daqing’s social blunder. Jin did not recognize the man until he had been ushered inside the office of the political affairs department. There he saw Ho Qixiong, someone who had appeared countless times in his reflections on the past.1
“Welcome back! Our old comrade-in-arms returns to the battlefront of the news industry!” Ho Qixiong’s sallow face was all smiles, and his voice was full of warm feeling. At the same time, he never stopped scrutinizing Jin Daqing, who was seated at the opposite side of his desk.
Everything about the two men contrasted sharply. Ho Qixiong, who was short and small, wore a brand-new dark gray woollen suit. His face beamed. Jin Daqing—tall, strong, and serious—had by this time taken off his overcoat to reveal a plain cotton uniform that was faded blue in color and onto which patches had been sewn by the clumsy hand of a man. Ho Qixiong sat with his elbows on his desk, his fingers interlaced. He twirled his thumbs constantly as he spoke. Jin Daqing looked at Ho’s hands, which were sallow and very soft. “He’s never done physical labor,” Jin silently observed. “I wonder if he’s ever felt hunger pangs . . . probably hasn’t.”
At that moment Ho Qixiong was saying that, thanks to the Party Central Committee, under the leadership of Comrade Hua Guofeng, it appeared after initial reinvestigation that most of those on the newspaper staff who had been wrongly labeled “rightists” in 1957 could now be exonerated.2 But we must be patient, as each person’s case must be reverified and reconsidered on an item-by-item basis. And we may need to observe a nationwide quota policy. “Besides, we must of course review every individual’s behavior over the last twenty years, mustn’t we?” Jin Daqing glanced at Ho Qixiong. The weight of this last sentence was clear, even without reinforcement by the cold glitter of Ho’s little eyes and the slant of his mouth. Who would do the “review” of everybody’s “behavior” over the last twenty years? Ho Qixiong himself. Only the past twenty years and nothing else? Not likely. One’s behavior now and in the future mattered more than the past. The crucial factor was how well one got along with Ho Qixiong.
As he waited for a response from Jin Daqing, Ho Qixiong kept weighing the case in his own mind: once this man is “exonerated,” his Party membership will be restored, along with his gradefourteen administrative rating—one grade higher than my own. With his years of seniority, plus his writing skill, he’ll get an editorship at least. Ho Qixiong, of course, hadn’t spent all these years doing nothing. He had built up a network of connections in every conceivable direction. The only trouble was that he just didn’t have it with the pen. Besides, Ho wondered, who knows how this man will treat me? After so much bad blood between us, how generous can I expect him to be? He knew he faced an acute dilemma. It behooved him to be as friendly toward Jin as possible in order to nullify any antagonism Jin might bear him; on the other hand, he mustn’t be too soft. He must make Jin understand that his fate still rested mostly in his, Ho Qixiong’s, hands. Ho was also aware that Jin Daqing was no pushover. It was his own stiffnecked resistance in 1957 that got him stripped of office and sent way out to the sticks. Thus Ho Qixiong felt a need both to bury the hatchet and to prolong the burying process as much as possible. Judging from the general drift of national policy and from the respect that Jin Daqing commanded within the newspaper office, it was obvious that once Jin was exonerated he would be promoted. Ten to one he would go higher than Ho himself.
The topic shifted to Jin Daqing’s work assignment. “I can be patient,” Jin said. “I just want to get back to work, some regular nitty-gritty work, something like handling the letters in the public relations department.” This took Ho Qixiong by surprise. He examined Jin’s countenance for some sign of whether Jin was sincere or merely pretending modesty in expectation of a better offer. But Jin remained stony-faced, his skin tanned and leathery—a condition, thought Ho, that probably came from the ravages of so many years of wind and rain. (There was no way Ho could know that the social environment had been much more damaging than wind and rain.) A thought suddenly occurred to Ho: this guy has wised up. In the public relations department you don’t have to write anything—it’s a lot safer!
“We can handle that.” Ho Qixiong’s hands, which had been resting on the desk all along, now pressed together and knocked lightly on the glass-covered desk top. A happy thought warmed his heart: the public relations department was well removed from the center of things. Advancement would be much slower there.
Looking at Ho Qixiong’s unusually small eyes, a thought occurred to Jin Daqing: some people’s eyes are several times larger than Ho’s. Could the amount perceived by the eyes be proportional to their size? Immediately he found this idea too frivolous. But no sooner had he dismissed it than another leaden thought began to weigh on his mind. In 1957, this man was the one who had handed out the “rightist” labels. Now the same man is in charge of the “exonerations”!
So actually there was nothing strange in that weirdly absurd situation everyone was talking about the other day: the leader of a memorial service for a man who had been “persecuted to death” turned out to be the very person who had done the persecuting. Again and again Jin Daqing’s large hands clutched the overcoat that lay across his lap. As he recalled all the well-meaning and fine comrades who one by one had fallen, he became aware of the tears that welled in his eyes.
Ho Qixiong noted the surge of emotion in Jin Daqing and made an inference: now he’s going to bring up the salary question. Hmmm? Too shy to talk about it? Is he waiting for me to bring it up? Well and good: this will be a fine chance to show sympathy, show kindness, and also show him who’s boss. Ho proceeded to remove his set smile, and—gazing at the cigarette he was turning in four fingers of two hands—slowly began to explain.
“The Party Committee knows you’ve had it rough all these years.” Glancing at Jin Daqing he continued, “Times are hard, very hard. And back pay is impossible, quite impossible. Yet ... we are old comrades, and just out of personal affection, if nothing else, I can’t ignore your need. I still have a bit of clout around here . . . there ought to be some way we can make things up to you a bit. . .” Once again he glanced at Jin Daqing, who continued to show no reaction.
“Me? My own losses?” Jin Daqing’s thoughts had been running in an entirely different direction. Using both hands he had slowly, steadily, been rolling up the worn-out old overcoat that lay in his lap. Finally it was tight as a knot. Then, still clutching the taut overcoat in his ten stubby fingers, Jin saw the faces of four people once again flash before his mind’s eye. He was the fifth person to wear this overcoat . . .
At this point, if he followed the forms, he was supposed to say how grateful he was to the Party; how thankful for the concern of the local Party Committee; how the punishment he had received many years ago was at least partly deserved, and he himself hardly blameless; how he still today must strive diligently to reform his thoughts. He was also supposed to say something like this: Back in that year you, Comrade Ho Qixiong, selflessly and courageously stood up to defend the interests of the Party. Your denunciations and counterattacks all sprang from your love for the Party and for the socialist cause. Your denunciations of me at that time were just like your pardon of me today: both were entirely necessary, entirely correct. Who can say I’ve been thoroughly reformed, even today? I must beg you to give me more help and guidance in the future . . .
But he didn’t say a word of it. He appeared to be distracted, and as he took his leave, merely rolled his eyes in Ho Qixiong’s direction and weakly shook Ho’s hand. He was depressed: four people! They all should have survived, as he did, to see this day—even if they had died the next. . . But I alone survived. Why me? Why? There were so many others better than me! . . .
There was another person—a person he did not need consciously to think about at that moment, or any other moment, because every drop of blood that coursed through his veins was in constant mourning for her. This was his wife. After keeping him company through twenty-three long, dark years, that uncommon woman had died a few days ago after a long illness . . .
Ho Qixiong interpreted Jin’s sombre attitude quite incorrectly. Extinguishing his freshly lit cigarette in the ashtray, Ho mashed it fiercely and hardened his heart. “OK,” he thought, “you want to fight, we’ll fight. Just wait and see! ...”
The public relations department, which in the fifties had been called the readers’ correspondence department, was an auxiliary branch of the newspaper’s editorial department. In the past, when the paper’s mission had been to propagandize the ideas and goals that had been handed down from above, this department had had practically no function whatsoever. All of the many letters sent in by readers would just pile up in a corner or be handed over to some other office. (As often as not, the letters would end up in the hands of the very people they were complaining about.)
Jin Daqing threw himself wholeheartedly into his work with the readers’ letters. One day a familiar name caught his attention: Jiang Zhenfang. He remembered a small, delicate young woman—perhaps a bit too kindhearted—who in the second year of her marriage had seen her husband labeled a “rightist.” She had refused to save herself by divorcing him or, as the political slogan expressed it, “drawing a clear line.” The letter now before him was from her younger sister. It asked for exoneration from a charge that made jin jump in disbelief when he read it: “Whore. Bad element.”
At first he imagined the worst. Had heavy economic burdens crushed her? Or, under so many pressures, had she abandoned herself in a fit of depression when her husband died? But after consulting the newspaper’s personnel files, Jin began to doubt this line of reasoning. The other principal in this case of illicit relations was a notorious hatchet man at the newspaper, known popularly as “Fat Hands Dong.” He was a Party member and had recently been promoted to chief of the automobile pool. Why had he chosen to confess his affair, without anyone informing on him, and without any pressure to confess? And why, after explaining everything, did he go around bragging as if this were something to be proud of? On top of all this, several of his witnesses seemed dubious.
It is perhaps normal that a case of “relations between the sexes” should arouse some interest. But why such a tumultuous uproar? Jiang Zhenfang had been paraded through the streets countless times, with a string of worn-out shoes, signifying adultery, hung around her neck.3 Her own students cursed her, spat on her, beat her, smashed her windows, abused her children. This doubtlessly was all part of her being the wife of a rightist whom she refused to divorce. But even so it seemed like gross overkill.
In the end this woman went insane and entered an asylum. Her children had to be adopted by her younger sister.
One night when Fat Hands Dong was on duty at the automobile pool, Jin Daqing went to see him. Even before he knew why Jin had come, Dong was busy rattling off his “exploits” a mile a minute. Jin listened to him in silence, all the while gazing at Dong’s ceaselessly gesticulating right hand.
“That palm isn’t so big after all,” mused Jin. “Amazing that it’s been used to slap more than two hundred and forty people . . .”
Dong’s account of things was so filled with crude language that he was hard to listen to, but some of the unspoken assumptions of his narrative were worth attending to. He repeatedly stressed details, as if afraid that people would not believe his confession. Two points he stressed in particular were that Jiang Zhenfang had a dark mole on her right breast and a scar from an operation on her abdomen. These two points of information were what he had been spreading around for several years, and were what everyone considered to be the ironclad proof of Jiang Zhenfang’s guilt.
Jin Daqing could not devote all his energies to this one case. In the daytime he would read and reply to incoming letters, as well as receive official visitors to the newspaper. At night his ninety-five square feet of living space was usually packed with visitors. Most of these were people who had repeatedly appealed to the provincial authorities, or even the national authorities, for redress of various grievances. Most of their appeals had already been approved—some even by the provincial Party secretary himself—with orders that local authorities resolve the problems as soon as possible. But all this was to no avail. The last recourse was to descend upon Jin Daqing. With him there was no limit on time, as there was with the officials. He always listened attentively and tried to help each one find a way to solve his problem. Sometimes he even took care of their room and board. Where else could they find this kind of treatment?
Activities such as this could not escape notice for very long, how ever. Not only had Jin’s “exoneration” not yet come through, but even if it had, a so-called exonerated rightist still had to be tested and observed. Even if he rejoined the Party he would be viewed as a borderline member, half in and half out, who could be kicked all the way out at any time. That’s what some people meant by “letting the masses be judge of the labels.”
When the first draft of Jin’s “exoneration” document had been completed and was waiting only to be approved, it contained some favorable comments: “Some of Comrade Jin Daqing’s suggestions in the fifties were worthy of adoption; the motives behind his suggestions were also benign,” etc. But as luck would have it, the winds of orthodoxy were blowing hard this April,4 calling into question the very basis of any and all “exoneration.” The political department, moreover, had discovered that Jin’s room was becoming a “rendezvous for malcontents.” Hence all the favorable comments in Jin’s document were expunged and replaced by sentences like: “He may be reformable, but this is not to say he has not committed mistakes, some of which were severe,” etc. His exoneration was shelved.
Jin Daqing made an appointment to go with Jiang Jinfang to see her sister in the insane asylum. He knew that one could not rely on information supplied by a mentally disturbed person. But he had to go just the same. Every night for weeks the image of his close friend Gu Tiancheng, who had died in his arms, kept appearing in his mind. He remembered what Gu’s dying words had been.
This Gu Tiancheng, fives years his junior, had been a mildmannered and timid person. How could he ever have been labeled a rightist? The question still preyed on Jin’s mind. He knew only that Gu had been accused in 1958 during the “supplementary” phase of the Anti-Rightist campaign, and therefore his offense must have been minor. But he seemed from that time on to be stricken with paranoia. He seldom said anything in public. When he had to come out with even a single word, he would peer fearfully in every direction lest he bring more trouble upon himself.
He worked hard and conscientiously at the labor camp, but was naturally clumsy and often injured himself. When this happened he was fearful of being criticized for the injury, so he just endured the pain and pretended all was well. But his bed was right next to Jin Daqing’s, and there were some things he couldn’t hide from Jin. Once when he was stealing a glance at a photograph of his wife and children and suddenly discovered that Jin was looking at him, Gu laughed pathetically and buried his face in his bed quilt. Jin could hear his sighing beneath the quilt and could only heave a long sigh himself. Jin Daqing did not care for this kind of temperament but had to sympathize with Gu, and pity him.
Gu Tiancheng would occasionally ask him, very cautiously, “How long do you think it’ll be before we’re sent home?”
Who could say? But Jin Daqing could not bear to disappoint Gu, so he had to lie, saying things like, “I’d say pretty soon now,” or “I don’t see why they wouldn’t send us home for a family reunion at Spring Festival.” Gu was only too ready to believe such lies. When Jin Daqing saw Gu’s face light up at his comforting words, he was upset to the verge of tears.
Autumn harvest at the camp took a long time. Even after it had turned bitterly cold, they had not finished gathering all the crops from the fields. Gu Tiancheng was approaching his third winter at camp, and his life had already become extremely difficult. During a rest period one afternoon he passed away. He was wearing that old army overcoat that had been passed on to him by the third person, and his hands clutched a steamed bun that had frozen hard as a rock. Jin Daqing embraced him and tried to warm him with his body and his breath. After what seemed like ages Gu barely opened his eyes, and called out his wife’s name . . .
The person walking slowly toward him, supported by a nurse, looked more like a shadow than a human being. Could this be the beloved wife for whom Gu Tiancheng had longed day and night? A shiver ran down Jin Daqing’s spine as he looked into the eyes of this walking shadow. They were nothing but two empty hollows, two dry wells. Jiang Zhenfang simply sat down and stared blankly, first at her younger sister, then at Jin Daqing. The sister took her hand and wept. The tears fell upon that same hand. Staring at the yellowed parchment of her face, Jin realized that the only traces of life still left on it were those two black hollows that had once radiated love and borne joy and fulfillment. He could not help recalling Gu Tiancheng and the photograph that Gu had treasured as his own life. “If only the departed knew . . .,” as they say. No! It was better that Gu Tiancheng had never known. The only question was, should Jin now show to her the picture of Gu that he had kept?
Jiang Zhenfang turned around and looked at him coldly and suspiciously. When she did so, her younger sister leaned forward and spoke directly into her ear, pronouncing each syllable with great care: “He—was—with—Gu—Tian—cheng, he—was—with—Gu ...”
Jin Daqing could see the patient’s expression soften, and decided to hand over his enlarged photo of Gu.
The patient took the picture and studied it from top to bottom. All of a sudden a heart-rending cry of anguish shook Jin Daqing to the depths of his being. With wide eyes fixed on him and both hands outstretched, Jiang Zhenfang shouted at the top of her voice, “I want him! I want him! Give him back to me! ...” Jin Daqing retreated across the room as Jiang Jinfang came forward to restrain her sister. Some nurses rushed over as well. Pushing the patient back and holding her up at the same time, they took her away.
As they walked back from the hospital, both Jin Daqing and Jiang Jinfang were so upset that neither spoke for a long time. When they reached Jiang’s house, Jin stopped and said to her: “You must try to recall your sister’s habits . . . Did she go to a public bathhouse? Could anyone, male or female, have ever seen her body? . . . Also try to find out if she ever wrote anything during her lucid intervals.”
He seemed to detect in Jiang Jinfang’s eyes an element of bewilderment and fear. Then, as they shook hands to say good-bye, he looked at her solemnly: “This whole thing may get messy, and you and I may get dragged into it. But times are better now, don’t forget. Besides, you can rest assured that I will take the responsibility—all of it. But it’ll still take some courage from you, of course.” As he began to leave, he turned back to drive his point home. “Remember,” he said, “This isn’t just for your sister. There are so many others like her!”
Jiang Zhenfang’s mournful cry echoed in Jin Daqing’s ears for a long time. It rang as an urgent appeal as well as a wordless accusation. It also seemed to pose a mammoth question: Why?
He had long felt the injustice done to women in China. When a man was purged there always had to be some evidence, at least. And regardless of whether this evidence was true or false, the most it could bring would be political downfall. Furthermore, if the truth came out some day, a man could still look foward to a comeback. But women were different. All you needed was some rumor to spread, based on straws in the wind, or on plainly nothing at all, that Ms. Comrade So-and-so was you-know-what with you-know-whom, and that was curtains for the woman. At best, there would be a big brouhaha on the rumor mill; at worst, conjugal strife and divorce. It could even mean public scorn for life. Try to explain? How could you begin? Even if you could prove your innocence, the rumors had the case on record differently. Your reputation was shot. Would you be able to go explain yourself in person to each and every individual who knew you?
Jin felt there had to be a connection between the cruel fate of Gu Tiancheng and that of his wife, Jiang Zhenfang. Gu himself had said that in 1957 he never uttered or wrote so much as one politically incorrect word. Yet the so-called Party leadership decided that he was an anti-Party anti-socialist right-wing element. At first he had resisted this charge, but later he saw that resistance was futile. He and his wife wept for two nights before he signed a confession. This signing also came about as a result of persuasion by the “leadership,” who advised that a perfunctory admission of guilt would allow the matter to blow over. How could he have known that he would still have to bear the “rightist” label, still have to be banished, still have to . . .
Jin Daqing sent Jiang Jinfang to the Bureau of Education to request, in her capacity as family of the deceased, a record of the official verdict on Gu Tiancheng that had been delivered in 1957. He was shocked to discover that no such verdict had ever existed, still less been approved by any level of district or municipal authority. This meant that Gu Tiancheng had never been a “rightist” at all! Heaven only knows whether fate has ever treated any person, or any family, as flippantly as this. The man at the Bureau of Education was impeccably polite as he informed Jiang Jinfang that, because Gu had never been a “rightist,” therefore he could not be “exonerated.” Jiang Jinfang protested, detailing the tragedy of this couple over more than twenty years . . . But the man only threw his hands in the air in helplessness. “What do you want us to do? You shouldn’t have come here. You should have gone to . . . ah . . .” Indeed. Whom to ask? Where to appeal?
Yet Jiang Jinfang’s visit to the Education Bureau was not a total loss. Out of sympathy, the people there went to Gu Tiancheng’s file and found for her the incomplete record of a meeting that contained the sole piece of evidence against Gu Tiancheng. When he saw this Jin Daqing was beside himself with rage. The messy handwriting was barely legible. But there was no doubt about it: Gu Tiancheng’s fate had been sealed by the convener of the meeting, Ho Qixiong. Ho had been schoolmaster and Party secretary of the high school where Gu Tiancheng and Jiang Zhenfang were teaching. The record read as follows:
Schoolmaster Ho: You may have done nothing wrong, but we still can look at what you say. If you don’t say anything we can consider your thoughts. And how do we know your thoughts, if you don’t say anything? This can be judged from outward appearances. In all these meetings we have held since 1956, you have said less than anyone. And with a background like yours, you almost have to have certain dissatisfactions with the Party and with socialism. How could we expect you to be pure? You can’t possibly be. Yet you keep quiet, you won’t come clean.
OK, everybody, just take a look at what the problem is here. This is even worse, even more dangerous, than those who are willing to expose their erroneous ideas, and who are courageous enough to unburden their hearts to the Party. This man is set against the Party in the deepest recesses of his mind. If this isn’t the most dangerous, most vicious form of anti-Party anti-socialist behavior, then what is it?
Reading this record seemed to bring a flash of light to Jin Daqing’s mind, clarifying for him several things he had previously been unable to piece together.
It was now early May. Those political winds which blew counter to the liberal spirit of the Third Party Plenum were at their height.5 No one, probably, was more alert to this shift than people at the newspaper. Editors rushed around to revise plans, rearrange layouts, solicit new manuscripts. Writers tried to recall manuscripts they had already submitted, or—badgered by panic-stricken families—to submit quick recantations of those articles. Readers, on the other hand, were bewildered. They wondered what kind of major upset had suddenly befallen this country of theirs. All the slogans like “Liberate your thought,” “Break down the closed doors,” etc., which only yesterday had been parroted all up and down the hierarchy, had in the twinkling of an eye become flagrant heterodoxy. The remnants of the Gang of Four popped up with new truculence: “What’s this about false charges and wrong verdicts? We are more wrongly accused than anybody! How about some fair treatment for us?”
The political cold wind happened to come at the same time as Jin Daqing’s investigations. He felt doubly chilled all over. He could even smell the poisonous vapors that were brewing inside the editorial department specially for him. Any little thing he might do or say was observed, noted down, and sent in secret to the hands of Ho Qixiong. The number of times he had visited Jiang Jinfang’s house; whom he had received in that ninety-five-square-foot room of his; what he had said there—all of this and more was reported in due course. Every time he thought of this he smiled inwardly: They are on the decline. Covert activity is all that is left to them.
It was common for Jin to encounter unnatural, menacing smiles in the corridors of the editorial department. Sometimes he could hardly restrain himself from stopping people to ask what they were laughing at.
But when lying alone in bed in the dead of night, he again found repose. What did it all matter? The worst that could come of it would be a forced return to his same old life of the past twenty-three years. Now that his wife had gone to rest, he felt even less concerned about this possibility.
When he looked at the worn-out overcoat hanging on the wall— that old overcoat that had borne witness to so many tragedies—he cared even less about himself. He could stand above those brewing troubles that threatened his own safety and simply smile at them. For he was the fifth. He could well have been snuffed out long ago, in which case that yellowed overcoat would have changed hands once again. If he could now work to avert more such disasters, of what consequence was his own fate?
At times like this he would lose himself in reminiscences. He would remember those long winter nights, so cold and lonely, and be filled with complex emotions. Starting with the artist who was first to fall, he recalled their voices and expressions one by one, three men and one woman. When he got to the third, who was a woman comrade named Li Tao, his reminiscing suddenly broke off and his mind shot back to the present. A burst of inspiration had nearly made him sit up in bed. Li Tao had been Ho Qixiong’s wife! That’s right, back in 1957, when Ho had been transferred to the newspaper office, he and Li Tao had shared a correspondent’s post. So how did Li Tao turn out to be a “rightist”? And who could have been her accuser?
There was a regular meeting of the newspaper’s editorial department on May 27. But this meeting was unusual in that everyone was required to attend, even the chronically ill and the retired. The atmosphere could not have been more solemn, and was quite tense as well. Everyone knew something big was going to break.
The deputy secretary of the Party Committee, Mr. Ho Qixiong, was to chair the meeting. You could see in his expression a burning excitement beneath the solemn exterior. Little beads of sweat dotted his sallow brow. The eyes are the most candid part of the human body, and they betrayed his real mood: for him the meeting would be like celebrating a major holiday.
After the customary opening clichés, he got right to the point. He was lecturing in his own words, which is something he rarely did and which shows that on this occasion he was speaking straight from his own true feelings and political attitude.
“. . . it is the same with the exoneration of rightists—we must not overdo it. We have recently seen a certain person who, though still not pardoned, has been sticking his tail in the air like something high and mighty, and again feeding us all that junk from 1957. What does this tell us? It tells us he has not reformed himself, and that we have also carried “the reversal of mistaken verdicts” too far. This person— flaunting both witnesses and material evidence—is attempting to help people reverse their verdicts. And what’s the problem with that? It’s just like 1957, when the rightists attacked the liquidation of counterrevolutionaries that had taken place in the early fifties. They said the liquidation was all a mistake, remember? Now we have just one more case of anti-Party, anti-socialist behavior. People are using the slogan ‘Liberate thought’ to attack the very foundations of the state.”6
The speech stirred up a warm response from the audience. Several people were falling over themselves to express their agreement with Ho Qixiong, and even demanded the immediate launching of a new Anti-Rightist movement.
“I want to say a few words,” came a voice from the back, as a lanky figure slowly unfolded himself into a standing position. The people in the front all peered backward curiously. It was none other than Jin Daqing, the main person under discussion.
“Of more than twenty rightists,” Jin began, “I am the only one who has come back. And I haven’t been exonerated, so it looks like the person we’re talking about here is me. I want to address something very specific. As everyone knows, the high school teacher Jiang Zhenfang was once labeled a ‘bad element.’ Her family appealed, and asked for a reinvestigation. I did my own investigation, and I’d like to tell you what I found. Since our chairman has already raised this question, we must be sure to get to the bottom of it. First I’d like to ask Dong . . . I’m sorry, I can’t remember his full name, everybody calls him Fat Hands Dong ...”
“I object!” Fat Hands leapt to his feet, flailing his famous palms in the air. “This is a personal insult!” The room rocked with laughter.
“I’m sorry, I apologize,” said Jin Daqing very earnestly, not imagining that this comment would only elicit new gales of laughter from the listeners. “I should call you Comrade Dong, and I’d like to ask Comrade Dong . . . no, first I have to explain to everybody why I am asking this question. The original evidence upon which Jiang Zhenfang was labeled a ‘bad element’ was supplied by . . . uh . . . Comrade Dong, and this evidence is what I’d like to ask about. Comrade Dong, you say you had illicit sexual relations with Jiang Zhenfang and cite two pieces of evidence to substantiate your claim. I want to ask you, since you say you have seen a black mole on her breast: just how big was that black mole? And was there one, or more than one?”
Fat Hands Dong was stunned. Struggling to maintain his composure, he tried to lead the discussion back to the agenda. “It seems to me inappropriate to discuss a subject of this nature at a meeting as serious as today’s.”
The crowd buzzed. One voice rose above the hubbub to shout out, “What’s more serious than whether somebody is a ‘bad element’ or whether somebody has been wronged? Answer!”
A sudden hush, as everyone listened in intense curiosity to hear what Fat Hands Dong would say.
The chairman intervened in an attempt to break the siege. “Couldn’t we postpone details such as this until . . .”
“No!” said Jin Daqing with firm bluntness. “You yourself raised this question just a moment ago. It was the question of whether or not I was trying to help bad elements reverse their verdicts. Remember? If we’re going to do that we have to determine whether or not Jiang Zhenfang has indeed been a bad element. Comrade Dong was the primary witness, and the most important one, so of course we must listen to what he has to say.”
He turned to face Fat Hands Dong. “I’ve given you my first question,” he said. “My second question is this: you have said more than once that you’ve seen the scar on Jiang Zhenfang’s abdomen. May we please know whether this scar was horizontal or vertical?”
A dead silence descended on the whole room. Three seconds passed. Five. The audience was growing restive. After approximately fifty seconds Fat Hands Dong finally mustered a reply: “As I recall, there was only one mole. As to its size . . . gee, how can I describe it? . . .” Again laughter from the listeners. Perspiration streamed from Fat Hands’ face. On the question of the scar, he came out with another evasion and again incurred derisive laughter.
Stern and confident, Jin Daqing continued, “Wrong, Fat Hands Dong! You can’t get off that easily. There are two moles on the breast of comrade Jiang Zhenfang. Look! Her sister recently did this sketch.” He held up a piece of paper that showed two moles rather close together. The one on top covered about one square inch. The one below was smaller, about the size of a dime.
“As for that scar,” Jin continued, “if you’d really seen it you’d have no trouble describing it. I respectfully request that the Party Committee look into Fat Hands Dong’s crime of false accusation—and further, ascertain who was behind it . . .”
“Only the Party can decide such things,” a voice interrupted. Then a tall man who had a few days’ growth of beard stood up. This man was an important factional leader, and was currently in charge of a department. So his words had weight. “Today’s meeting was originally a regular meeting of the Party, with nоn-Party members from the masses invited to participate. Recently Party Central has stressed the slogan ‘The inner circle must come before the outer circle.’ We must have no blurring of this borderline. I move that all non-Party people leave the room and all Party members stay behind to continue the meeting.”
This put the listeners in some disarray. Rising to his feet, Ho Qixiong had already opened his mouth to proclaim the adoption of the suggestion to limit the meeting to Party members. But he was silenced as one more sonorous voice rang out: “How can you do that? You summoned these people here. Now, before the meeting’s over, how can you say they don’t belong here? Besides, are these issues purely internal Party matters? ...”
The meeting had stirred up the whole newspaper staff from top to bottom, some two to three hundred people in all. Beginning in early June, the political winds in China once again shifted a bit, and people regained some of their boldness. Someone came forward with important news for Jin Daqing: Li Tao had been labeled a “rightist” in 1958 because of a few letters from Ho Qixiong informing on her. Li Tao had of course been kept in the dark about this. Ho Qixiong had even tried to persuade her to sign a guilty plea, promising that he would not divorce her. But Li Tao had consistently refused to sign. What good would it do?
As soon as the verdict on Li Tao had been handed down, and she was stripped of her Party membership, Ho Qixiong had divorced her. By that time such things were so common as to be taken for granted, and so this event did not arouse anyone’s curiosity. Next Ho Qixiong tried to force Jiang Zhenfang to divorce her husband . . .
The reinvestigation of Jiang Zhenfang’s case could have led to her exoneration and an alleviation of her illness. This hope was dashed when her younger sister Jiang Jinfang had another piece of very bad luck: her husband allowed himself to believe the vicious slander of some anonymous letters and came home quarreling a few times. He suspected her of infidelity, of hanky-panky with Jin Daqing. While Jin Daqing could shrug this off with a laugh, nothing so easy was possible for Jiang Jinfang. For her it was a new catastrophe on the coattails of the last. And there was no way Jin Daqing could try to explain to the husband—it just meant he couldn’t see Jiang Jinfang anymore.
But Jin Daqing did learn a lesson from this. He came to realize that Ho Qixiong was not alone, and hence that he must expand the scope of his observations . . .
We cannot end without an epilogue on Jin Daqing’s “exoneration” question. Ho Qixiong was adamant that the facts of each charge be carefully verified one by one; at the same time the political department, in charge of the investigation, became bitten with wanderlust. In early June two of their number were assigned to “outside investigations,” which brought them first to Beijing, then to Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi, and finally to Anhui via Shanghai. They had a great time at all the famous sights and didn’t get back until mid-September. Jin Daqing, by some stroke of luck, finally did get exonerated—though not without qualification. A long “tail” would always drag behind him.
Meanwhile Ho Qixiong did fine. Since both Li Tao and Gu Tiancheng were posthumously exonerated, and their cases thereby closed, the bloodstains on Ho’s hands were permanently whitewashed. Fat Hands Dong, who had benefited greatly from Ho Qixiong in matters of Party membership, promotion, and housing allocation, insisted that his framing of Jiang Zhenfang had been due solely to a personal grudge and had had nothing to do with anyone else. Hence Ho Qixiong to this day is pure as the driven snow. One hears now that he has even been nominated as a candidate for the Municipal Party Congress. His only worry is whether he can get enough votes, because—according to his highly developed sense of smell—the winds in China, not only in the province but in the whole country, are becoming less and less fragrant.
Originally published in Beijing wenyi, no. 11, 1979.
1. The personal names in this story suggest the characters of the people to whom they are attached. The surname of the central figure, jin , means “Gold,” while his personal name, Daqing, means “Great Clarity” or “Great Justness.” The full name of Ho Qixiong, on the other hand, can be understood literally as “Where’s His Heroism?” (Incidentally, we here use “Ho” to romanize the surname that actually should be “He” according to the pinyin romanization system. This is necessary to avoid confusion with the pronoun “he” at the beginnings of sentences.) The name Gu Tiancheng suggests one who relies on whatever Heaven deals him. The names of the women characters in the story all have positive connotations.
2. In 1957 millions of Chinese were labeled “rightist” in a national campaign in which work units were required by a quota system to identify 5 percent of their personnel as rightists. After 1978 many of these arbitrary labels were finally removed.
3. “Old Shoe” is a euphemism for “adulteress.”
4. The oscillations between tightness and relaxation in Chinese social control had reached a relatively tight point in April 1979.
5. The Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party of China was held in December 1978. It marked the advent of many of Deng Xiaoping’s Western-leaning reforms, including “liberated thought” for writers and artists.
6. Literally, “... to attack the four unmovables,” (1) Party leadership, (2) the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought, and (4) the socialist road.