The Arrest and Imprisonment of Geng Yong

I set out below a translation of part of an essay that the Chinese writer Geng Yong (耿庸) wrote for a book of reminiscences of Hu Feng (胡风) entitled ‘Hu Feng and I’.  ‘Hu Feng and I’ was edited by Hu Feng’s daughter Zhang Xiaofeng (张晓风) and published in 1993 by the Ningxia People’s Publishing House.

Geng Yong was a Chinese editor and writer who died in 2008.  He was one of many writers caught up in the 1955 case against Hu Feng’s ‘anti-Revolutionary clique’.  I have discussed that case in more detail in my post below published on 24th August 2022 and entitled ‘Hu Feng: Mid-20th Century Chinese Writer and Editor at the Centre of the ‘Unjust Case Against the Hu Feng Counter-Revolutionary Clique’.

I decided to translate this particular passage from Geng Yong’s essay, because it describes in moving detail the circumstances of his arrest in May 1955 and some of the events that occurred during his 11 year period of imprisonment.  There are many references to Geng Yong’s wife Wang Hao (王皓) in this passage.  She too was imprisoned in 1955 but was released after two years in 1957.  She then became a target of persecution in the ‘anti-Rightist campaign’ of 1957 to 1958 and committed suicide by throwing herself into the Huangpu River in Shanghai.  She and Geng Yong had three young children at the time of their arrest. They were never to meet again after May 1955.

The reference in the excerpt to ‘Shu Wu’s masterpiece’ relates to the publication of personal letters between Hu Feng and Shu Wu (舒芜) (also a Chinese writer) that Shu Wu provided to a journalist from the People’s Daily newspaper.  Those letters were published by the People’s Daily in May 1955 and were regarded as key evidence that Hu Feng and the writers whose work he published were guilty of ‘counter-Revolutionary activities’. 

The excerpt briefly refers to four other writers who were arrested because of their connection with Hu Feng: Zhang Zhongxiao (张中晓), He Manzi (何满子), Jia Zhifang (贾植芳) and Xu Shihua (许史华).  I have written in more detail about Zhang Zhongxiao in my post of 24th August 2022 referred to above.  I will be writing more about the three other writers in future posts on this site.

The excerpt also refers to a person named Wu Qiang (吴强).  He was a leading figure in the Shanghai branches of the China Writers’ Association and the Literary Federation. It appears he was involved in the arrest of Geng Yong as a representative of the Chinese writing establishment in Shanghai.

Excerpt from Geng Yong’s essay entitled ‘The Twists and Turns of Memory’. This is my own rather free translation of the actual Chinese title, which means: ‘The Thicket of Branches and Tendrils of My Memories’/’枝蔓丛丛的回忆’). The excerpt is taken from pages 602 to 606 of the book ‘Hu Feng and I’ (‘我与胡风‘) edited by Hu Feng’s daughter Zhang Zhong Xiao and published in 1993 by the Ningxia People’s Publishing House.

On the morning of 15th May, just as dawn was breaking I was woken up by the noise of several people rushing up the stairs.  Wang Hao had just asked me who was making such a din in the stairs, when I heard Wu Qiang outside my room shouting “Lao Geng, Lao Geng, you’d better get up”.  I asked him what was going on so early in the morning; he said from outside the door that it must be something important if people have come so early [Geng at this point uses a Chinese expression which literally means: “you only go to the main hall of a Buddhist Temple if you have business there”].  In fact he was bringing along four or five police officers dressed in plain clothes to arrest me.  

I got out of bed straightaway and took them all downstairs to the living room. Once we started talking I found that only one of the plain clothes officers was in the room with us.  Wu Qiang pulled out a copy of the newspaper in which Shu Wu’s ‘masterpiece’ had been published, asking me whether I had read it, otherwise he would give it to me so I could read the People’s Daily’s editor’s note that had been published above it [The People’s Daily is a Chinese newspaper controlled by the Party].  He stared at me with half smiling eyes, as if he felt a bit awkward.  He then asked me how and when I met Hu Feng, and urged me to hand over each and every letter that Hu Feng had sent me.  He said “The problems with Hu Feng are very serious, you shouldn’t pretend you are not involved with him”.  

The more Wu Qiang said the less I paid attention to him.  He went on: “Your book ‘Research on ‘The True Story of Ah Q’ is an anti-Party book.  You and other Hu Feng elements regularly meet at your house.  You stood up a meeting of the East China Writers’ Association and attacked Zhang Jin’s criticism of Hu Feng’s idealistic arts and literature thinking, you have distorted and vilified Marxism, you and your Hu Feng colleagues at the New Literature and Art Publishing House have done many bad things.  You have had a role in all of this.  There is no need to mention anything else, these things alone are enough to prove you have actively collaborated with Hu Feng’s anti-Party and counter revolutionary activities, in Shanghai…”. 

I interrupted Wu Qiang at this point and stood up to say: “You cannot arbitrarily say somebody is anti-Party or counter revolutionary!  I am not counter revolutionary, I have never been counter revolutionary…”.  Wu Qiang also got up and interrupted me, saying: “You shouldn’t be speaking with me”, while pointing to the plain clothes officer sitting beside us, “you should speak with him”.  The plain clothes officer stood up then and reached over to give me a piece of paper, saying “You’ve been arrested.  Sign your name here.”  Wu Qiang had left and there was no use talking to the plain clothes officer, so I took the pen he had given me and signed my name in the place he indicated.  I did not read whatever was written on the paper but said I hadn’t yet had a chance to wash my face and brush my teeth.  He let me go upstairs and I saw there was a plain clothes officer in my room, plus another in the next room speaking with Wang Hao’s younger brother Wang Wenzhen. 

After I’d washed and brushed my teeth the plain clothes officer who had followed me into the bathroom picked up a comb from the shelf and gave it to me, saying “give your hair a comb”.  I did what he said.  I wanted to have a word with Wang Hao but I could not find her.  The officer said she was downstairs and said I should go down.  I turned around and went downstairs, where I discovered there was a plain clothes officer in my small study rooting through my desk drawers.  I felt mortified, as if everything was all of a sudden completely abnormal. Although at the same time I realised that for these officers this was a completely normal part of their duties that would bring them credit.  

I caught up with Wang Hao at the door to the kitchen.  She was holding a dish of jianbing [a type of Chinese pancake].  I blurted out to her “They want to arrest me”.  She started crying and I said to her “You mustn’t cry, there’s nothing to worry about, I’ll be back in two days.  Where have the children gone?”  Wang Hao said “The officers asked the childminder to take them out to play.  You’d better eat these pancakes.”  The officers had thought of everything, even getting the children out of the way.  I was lost in thought, but picked up a pancake and turned around to ask the officer “What’s going on, time to go?”.  He really had things all worked out, and asked me to go to the living room and take out of my pockets anything I would not need and leave it behind.  All I had in my pockets were a handkerchief, less than half a pack of cigarettes, half a pack of matches, a few bank notes and a Parker fountain pen.  He put the matches to one side but then changed his mind and gave them back to me, saying “bring them all along, they’ll be useful”.  I did what he said.  

We then went to the back door.  I stood there for a moment and called back to Wang Hao, saying “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be able to come back in two days, you tell the children that as well.”  Wang Hao did her best to calm herself and replied, saying “if you have something to say, say it, but if you haven’t, don’t say anything, it’s best to ‘seek truth from facts’.”  I felt she was about to start crying again and felt awful about it, but with a smile I said “see you again soon”.  I hurriedly turned around and left the house.  I did not want to see the tears blurring her eyes.

But from this point on I was not able to ‘see her again soon’.  I ended up being punished by my own bookish and naïve optimism.  My confident assertion that I would be back within two days was heartlessly turned into an absolute and eternal lie.  However, around four months after I said to Wang Hao “see you again soon”, while I was in a prison cell of a detention house or jail that had no name on the outside, I heard her voice many times reading newspapers.  By that time I had already heard the voices of Zhang Zhongxiao, He Manzi and Xu Shihua.  I also knew from the times they were called out for interrogation that their prison numbers were respectively 1045, 1046 and 1047.  When I was transferred at the end of 1956 to a prison cell across the yard used for drying clothes and bedding, I also heard the voice of Jia Zhifang answering a prison warder’s questions and knew that his number was 1042.  As my number was 1041, I reckoned that I must have been the first among my friends who had been imprisoned here. 

But as hard as I tried I could not make out the number of Wang Hao.  Every time I heard her voice I felt my heart shrink and that dragging her into this case was a terrible sin on my part.  As for our three children, they were completely innocent but had suddenly become orphans.  How would they be able to carry on living?

Later on, I stopped hearing the voice that made my heart tremble; my only consolation was the thought that my wife had been released.  In the autumn of 1956, I was grateful to a well-intentioned official who brought me a photograph of her that showed she had not changed apart from her straight hair now being curled.  He also told me she was now working at the Shanghai Cultural Publishing House, and that our eldest son Dongning was a student at an elementary school.  I really appreciated receiving that news from him.  

Some years later, after I had been transferred to the Shanghai No. 1 Detention House, one day this same official suddenly brought Wang Hao’s mother and second older sister to visit me.  For a person like me who had spent almost 11 years in prison, I was very moved to be able to meet close relatives for the first and only time in that whole period of time.  They brought me a package of cookies, plus four books that had been well reviewed in newspapers and that I had asked Wang Hao to buy for me: ‘The Song of Youth’, ‘Tracks in the Snowy Forest’, ‘Red Crag’ and ‘Story of the Red Flag’. [It appears from this reference to Wang Hao that Geng had been able to start corresponding with her at some point during his years in prison].  Wang Hao’s mother and sister also brought with them a copy of the same photo of her that I had been given by the official back in 1956.  

The books had to be approved by the prison management before I could read them.  When an official actually gave me the books there were in fact only two: ‘Tracks in the Snowy Forest’ and ‘Story of the Red Flag’.  I mentioned to him that there were two other books, but he told me quite frankly: “Those two books describe prison fights.  We can’t give them to you, so we’ve sent them back”.  I did not really mind about this, however.

I later happened to be talking with a fellow prisoner who I understood was a former secretary of a Party Branch or General Party Branch.  He had read the two books they would not give me, and said “That is not surprising, how could they let you learn from books how to go about prison fighting?”  I couldn’t help laughing at this.  As it was, I spent a couple of months reading one of them off and on before I managed to finish it.  As for the other book, I could not get through a single page, whether it was the first page or any other page I happened to leaf through.  This was despite the fact I was absolutely desperate to read.  I read the first and third volumes of ‘The Collected Works of Marx and Engels’ over and over I don’t know how many times.  I read a volume of Song poems and a not very good Soviet novel called ‘Courage’ that I had already read before, to the point that pages were coming loose.  I also read every day all the newspapers I could get hold of.  

But it was the photo of Wang Hao that constantly tugged at my heart.  On the day her mother and older sister visited, the first thing her sister said when I went up to them was “Ah Quan [a nickname of Wang Hao] is very busy with work, so she asked mother and me to come to see you”.  How did I did not realise straightaway that this could not be true?  It was clear when we met that they could hardly hold back their tears.  Why did I feel this was just because they were meeting me in a prison with guards looking on, for the first time after we had been parted for a very long time?  I wondered, if Wang Hao had decided to break off her relationship with me, surely her mother and sister would not have come to see me?  In that case the most likely explanation was that she had already died. But I didn’t believe this, didn’t want to believe it, was not willing to believe it, and blamed myself for wishing her dead.  But the feeling that “she had died” was stronger than the thought that “she might have died”.  

I then remembered!  On 27th August 1947 (this was said to be the birthday of Confucius), Wang Hao and I were on a steamer bound for Taiwan and we were talking about ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ [a very famous Chinese novel written by Cao Xueqin].  I remembered this because she suddenly said to me as we were talking on the steamer that the character in the novel I liked the most must be Lin Daiyu.  But I did not like Lin Daiyu at all, in fact I did not really like any of the characters in the novel.  She laughed at this as if she didn’t believe me, but then in all seriousness said: “You Sanjie, you don’t like You Sanjie?”  I turned the question around and asked her if she liked You Sanjie.  She said she did, it was You Sanjie’s personality that she liked the best, “because her character was so unyielding and passionate, she was so determined to uphold her human dignity that she preferred to die rather than submit”.  

There was another time that surprised me even more.  We were in Guangzhou just over six months after it had been liberated.  Wang Hao was working at the time as an accountant at the Red Chamber Dance Hall in Liwan Cape that was said to be linked with the police.  She had been introduced to this job by an artist called Dai Yinglang who was the chief editor of the ‘New Business Evening Paper’ (and who was said to carry a pistol on his person).  Dai Yinglang and I invited a fellow called Yan Qingshu to drink tea with us at this dance hall.  He had travelled to Guangzhou from Hong Kong to find accommodation for his family. 

While we were in the tea room, I went to find Wang Hao in her office and the two of us went to check on our child whom we found sleeping soundly in a room at the back. When I went back to the tea room, Dai Yinglang and Yan Qingshu were in the midst of discussing Qing Wen and Shi Xiangyun [both characters in ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’]. Qingshu pulled up a chair for Wang Hao and asked her “You must like Qing Wen and Shi Xiangyun, don’t you?” Wang Hao said before she even sat down “I like You Sanjie.” Despite everyone being shocked into silence, she carried on saying “Cao Xueqin [the author of ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’] was not fair to You Sanjie, or maybe he just did not understood the nature of her personality, to write about her in the way he did. Every time I hear that Jia Baoyu or Lin Daiyu [also characters in ‘Dream’] were opposed to this or that aspect of feudalism, I just think it’s laughable. Their minds were full of feudal thinking, their opposition to feudalism was just a matter of taking one aspect of feudal thinking to oppose another aspect. You Sanjie was not like them. You Sanjie is definitely a weak person, she lacks both the means and the strength to resist the pressures of her surroundings; she can’t even secure the consolation of a loving relationship. The way ahead for her is either to submit and surrender, or to die. She is not prepared to submit or surrender, or to die at the hands of her oppressors, so she decides instead to take her own life. The suicide for love of Katerina in ‘The Storm’ [a play by the 19th century Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky] is a ray of light in a dark kingdom. You Sanjie’s understanding that as a human being she has no alternative but to commit suicide, is a much fiercer attack on feudalism than anything Jia Baoyu or Lin Daiyu say or do.”

Qingshu and Yinglang were both fascinated by what Wang Hao was saying, but I stopped her there.  “Let it be” I said.  “Don’t forget, didn’t You Sanjie also have an air of feudalism about her?”  Qingshu and Yinglang both laughed, Wang Hao too, but she went on to say “Yes, yes, even now some people have an air of feudalism about them.  You have and I have.  But when You Sanjie killed herself, she also killed off the feudal monsters that she carried about with her.”

Thinking back to Wang Hao’s comments about You Sanjie in that tea room in Guangzhou, I sensed that if she really had died it was more than likely the result of suicide.  On 24thMarch 1966, a matter of hours before I was finally released from prison, an official I had never seen before asked me a final question: “Have you been thinking how Wang Hao has been getting on?”  I answered “I’ve been thinking she has either divorced me, or she has died.”  I didn’t have a chance to add “she would never have divorced me, so it’s more likely she has died’ before he cut in and said “Yes, she became alienated from the people and is dead.  Her death is no concern of yours.”  I cut in on him, hearing myself speak as if I was sobbing but not at all unclear, saying “Her death is my concern, whatever you may say, it is absolutely my concern”.

[The expression in the above paragraph, ‘became alienated from the people’ , was an expression often used during the Cultural Revolution in China, to justify the deaths of individuals who died from persecution]    

Michael Ingle –                                                                      

About Michael Ingle

Retired lawyer studying the Chinese language and history of the mid-20th century
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