Spectres & Souls
In 1949, in one of his first acts as the mayor of a ‘liberated Beijing’, PLA General Nie Rongzhen (聶榮臻, 1899-1992) approved the establishment of two new territorial ‘exclaves’ of the city. These exclaves (called in Chinese 飛地 fēidì, literally ‘territory that is a flight away [and surrounded by an area under a separate administrative authority])’, unlike enclaves, were swathes of land that, although still under the jurisdiction of the city, were located in far-flung locales. They were established according to the guidance of the team of experts from the Soviet Union, a huge cadre of men and women who, from 1948 to 1961, played a key role in the design and administration of the first people’s republic in Asia.
The exclave at Shuanghe 雙河 shuānghé , literally ‘twin rivers’, was 1060 kilometres to the north of Beijing in Heilongjiang province and took its name from the fact that two rivers described its perimeter. Qinghe 清河, literally ‘clear river’, however, was a mere 150 km from the capital. It was a 115 square kilometre zone of exurban desolation located in a vast mosquito-infested marsh carved out of the territory of Tianjin. Unlike Shuanghe, the name Qinghe was not a reference to a nearby river. Rather, the name of the new Qinghe State Farm 清河農場, was inspired by a line that those who laboured in the bog had a second chance; they could now ‘have their souls cleansed by clear waters’ 清清河水滌蕩靈魂. Through forced labour they might even be deemed worthy of eventually taking up a role in the new society, or 重新做人 chóngxīn zuò rén, as the clichéd expression of the Public Security Bureau that ran both territories put it.
Just as the consolidation of Maoist rule of the Chinese Communist Party at Yan’an in the early 1940s had involved the remolding of the souls of Party members — a process that, when necessary, also entailed imprisonment, forced labour, torture and, in some cases death — so the founding of the Chinese People’s Republic under the Party involved the creation of a nationwide network of detention centers, prisons and labour camps. The defeated bourgeoisie, represented by the Nationalist Party and sympathisers with America, along with social misfits, malcontents and recalcitrants, were part of an old, dying world, one that was destined to disappear. Why not, as Mao argued more than once, give them a helping hand?
Anyone familiar with life in Beijing in the years following Mao’s death in 1976 will have learned about Qinghe, for former members of the condemned now swelled the ranks of the city’s intellectual and cultural world. Famous former inmates of Qinghe State Farm include the writer Cong Weixi 從維熙, the translator Wu Ningkun 巫宁坤 and Harry Wu 吳弘達, the laogai activist.
I met my first Qinghe returnee in 1977, and others over the years that followed. But then there were all those who had only recently emerged from Beijing prisons, exile in far west Xinjiang or the Great Northern Wilderness, not to mention the cadre schools and disparate labour farms. Their numbers were crowded by others who had been subjected to ‘mass dictatorship’ — 24/7 surveillance, abuse and deprivation — in situ. I can still see the gaunt faces, haunted eyes and wasted bodies of many of those ‘lost souls’. The cadences of voices that had become hesitant during the decades of shrill politics are audible to me still. Some were what the poet Ai Qing self-deprecatingly refereed to as ‘living fossils’ 活化石 (see ‘An Afternoon in Beijing, September 1978’), others were little better than wraiths. Then there were those who threw themselves into the same kind of ugly politics that had led to perdition in the first place. It was in their revivified passions that I detected a troubled future quite early on.
In February 2021, Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, a prominent Beijing publisher, cultural activist and an outspoken supporter of Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, formerly of Tsinghua University, was given a three-year jail sentence for ‘illicit business operations’. She is serving time in a women’s penitentiary located in Qinghe, which remains under the jurisdiction of the powerful Public Security Bureau of Beijing.
(For a list of the metropolitan and provincial exclaves, or ‘pales of control’, 飛地 of the People’s Republic of China, see here.)
On 1 July 2021, the day marking the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party as Xi Jinping celebrates with improvident ebullience, in China Heritage we chose a more sombre commemoration. The following is part of ‘Over One Hundred Years’, a series of chapters in China Heritage Annual 2021: Spectres & Souls.
This unconventional way of marking the centenary of the Communists is because, for all of the vaunted material achievements of the party-state in recent decades, the cost in human lives, possibility, hope, aspiration and ideals since the founding of China’s new state in 1949 is incalculable.
In 1931, as yet another generation of young people were being persecuted, some jailed and even executed by an authoritarian government, Lu Xun wrote the poetic lines:
I can but stand by, looking on as friends become new ghosts,
I seek an angry poem from among the swords.
(Unbeknownst to Lu Xun, who was based in Shanghai, only a few months earlier the Communist forces in the revolutionary Soviet bases of Jiangxi province to the south had, under Mao Zedong’s leadership, massacred dozens (some reports say hundreds, others thousands) of Party loyalist who were accused of a conspiring with the enemy. Although, decades later, Mao would remark that ‘painful errors’ had made during what is known as the Futian Incident 富天事件, he never accepted culpability. The massacre remained a Party secret until 1980, when Hu Yaobang ordered an investigation into what was one of the ugliest moments in the Party’s early history. I learned about it in the early 1980s as Chinese historian friends and journalists were working to uncover some of the more unpalatable episodes in the Party’s history. The investigation was closed down following Hu’s ouster in early 1987 and, although a formal report was eventually submitted to the Party leaders, this dark chapter was shunted out of view in the wake of the Beijing Massacre of 4 June 1989, and the mutiny, along with its victims, ended up as yet another unacknowledged, unaccounted and un-repented incident in the bloated encyclopædia of the Party’s parallel history.)
The title of my book New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, edited with Linda Jaivin, was inspired by Lu Xun’s lines. The book chronicled another generation of young Chinese who were persecuted, some jailed and hundreds shot down in the streets of Beijing following the mass rebellion of 1989. Over the years, Chinese men and women of conscience have, like Lu Xun, continuously sought angry poems among the swords and they do so even as the vault of heaven over the vast expanse of China reverberates with voices chanting in a deafening chorus:
All Hail the Magnificent, Glorious and Infallible Communist Party of China!
(In keeping with the dual theme of this chapter of ‘Over One Hundred Years’, I admit that, after enduring the highlights of ‘The Grand March of History’ 偉大征程, the Communist Party’s historical-lacuna-laden, self-congratulatory song-and-dance extravaganza, broadcast on 29 June 2021, I yearned for something of a ‘palate cleanser’. Yet again, I returned to the succour offered only by ‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany’, a notorious scene in Mel Brooks’s 1967 film The Producers. I would add in a note of gleeful appreciation that, at the time of the film’s release, the critic Stanley Kaufmann dismissed it saying it ‘doesn’t even rise to the level of tastelessness.’)
What comes to mind instead of all the red noise in Beijing, however, is a couplet from another famous poem, one that I learned in the months leading up to Mao’s demise in September 1976:
In my grief I hear demons shriek;
I weep while wolves and jackals laugh.
Thus, while others may join in the choreographed celebrations of the Communist Party’s century, they participate in heartfelt and carefully curated blindness that is bolstered by a multi-billion dollar industry exclusively devoted to the Party’s self-congratulatory educational, PR and thought-moulding enterprise, one that grinds ever forward, every minute of every day. Here, in China Heritage, however, we chose a different mode of remembrance, one that is both personal and transhistorical. It also reaches beyond China and, in so doing, engages with another past to reflect on the occluded significance of the present.
Our commemoration was inspired by news that, in the lead up to 1 July 2021, ‘No News From Auschwitz’, a famous 1958 report written by The New York Times correspondent in Poland A.M. Rosenthal —《奧斯維辛沒有什麼新聞》 in Chinese — was circulating in Beijing.
In November 1959, Abe Rosenthal was expelled by the Polish government for what they called his ‘problem reporting’, although he won a Pulitzer Prize for it in May 1960. The Times published his Auschwitz report under the title ‘No News From Auschwitz’ in 1958, reprinted it in 1961 during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, again in 1985 and, in June 2021, the newspaper published a poem by Sonia Sanchez inspired by the report, which was introduced by Reginald Dwayne Betts.
(Wary of the at times gloomy piety of the following, I would also direct readers to Jack Shafer’s obituary for Rosenthal, published in Slate on 11 May 2006: ‘A.M. Rosenthal (1922-2006) Ugly genius.’.)
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
1 July 2021
A Note to the Reader:
This chapter in ‘Over a Hundred Years’ consists of an Introduction (see above); a list of Links for further reading; a Dedication; a five-part Memoir cum Meditation prefaced by a Quotation from Tony Judt; an Epitaph in both poetry and prose; a Reprint of A.M. Rosenthal’s 1958 report from Auschwitz; and, a Poem by Sonia Sanchez, with an Introductory Note by Reginald Dwayne Betts.
‘Over One Hundred Years’:
- Liang Hongda 梁宏達, et al, ‘5.16 — Sorry, Not Sorry’, China Heritage, 16 May 2021
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, et al, ‘In Memoriam — 4 June 2021’, China Heritage, 4 June 2021
- G. Barmé, ‘Beijing Days, Beijing Nights, May 1989’, China Heritage, 4 June 2021
- Isaiah Berlin, et al, ‘Xi Jinping’s China & Stalin’s Artificial Dialectic’, China Heritage, 10 June 2021
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Apple Daily, “The Four Noes” & the End of Chinese Media Independence’, China Heritage, 24 June 2021
- The Editor, ‘Mourning’, China Heritage, 30 June 2017
- The Editor, ‘Cutting a Deal with China’, China Heritage, 20 July 2017
This chapter in ‘Over One Hundred Years’ is dedicated to the men and women who were and have been condemned to China’s labour farms, prisons and places of exile — be they in the Great North Wilderness, Xinjiang, far-flung provinces, or even the more prosaic locales of the Banbuqiao and Qincheng prisons in Beijing. As noted in the above, I met and came to know a few of their number following Mao’s death; many became friends and guides as I strained to make sense for myself of a place and civilisation that had enthralled me from my teens and in which I lived and studied from my twentieth year. Although long departed now, they are in my thoughts still; welcome specters who visit in my dreams, sweet tenacious souls haunting my wakeful hours.
Necessity & Inevitability
In his study and summation of Leszek Kołakowski’s monumental work, Main Currents of Marxism, Tony Judt identifies the abiding attraction of that political philosophy: its ‘blend of Promethean Romantic illusion and uncompromising historical determinism’. Marxism thus, in that account,
…offered an explanation of how the world works… . It proposed a way in which the world ought to work… . And it announced incontrovertible grounds for believing that things will work that way in the future, thanks to a set of assertions about historical necessity… . This combination of economic description, moral prescription, and political prediction proved intensely seductive—and serviceable.
— Tony Judt, ‘Goodbye to All That? Leszek Kołakowski and the Marxist Legacy’, in
Reappraisals, Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, p.133
On 4 June 2021, the ‘Over One Hundred Years’ series of chapters in China Heritage Annual 2021: Spectres & Souls featured a prose-poem by Xu Zhangrun on ‘Wall of Ice’ 封凍之牆, a sculpture cum art performance created in late January 2020 by Ai Song 艾松, a Beijing-based artist. It was a work built in the mode of ‘land art’; Ai’s site-specific installation was made from material drawn from the immediate environment in combination with sculptures fashioned by the artist. It was built to be undone.
Pellucid slabs of ice were hewn from a frozen river and layered to construct a storied prison for the incarceration of effigies sculpted from barbed wire, the artist’s preferred medium. The images included men and women of conscience, both living and dead. Among their number were martyrs like Zhang Zhixin 張志新, the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波, the renowned reformist Bao Tong 鮑彤, The Tiananmen Mothers, the novelist Yang Xianhui 楊顯惠, as well as other writers, academics and many others persecuted by Communist Party fiat. Nine of Ai Song’s original one-hundred sculptures were censored by the authorities. As a result the ‘wall of one hundred’ contained only ninety-one images.
The Wall of Ice stood for twenty-four hours following which Ai Song dismantled the edifice, releasing thereby the prisoner-avatars whom he had confined therein. Xu Zhangrun’s commemoration of the Wall of Ice offered permanence to that evanescent memorial by means of the written word, arguably the most hallowed tradition of Chinese culture. Here, as the Communist Party celebrates itself, we recall the words of Xu Zhangrun’s celebration of Ai Song’s artwork:
The Wall of Ice is a gargantuan mill stone, one that grinds ever on, clearing a path for carriages destined for camps crammed with slave laborers. The dusty remains on the grinding mill steady a harp that sings an incantation to the end of days; everywhere chests swell in tremulous response. Give back the terror to those who have created it; sculpt the remains of the dead into a chalice in which an ice beam glints. A skull holds that cup aloft, it overflows with a violent outrage carried on a boreal wind, twisting, turning into the jagged shapes of a heavenly flame, shooting out, scorching the snow-bound plains of wanton acts and through the wastelands in which defeat is buried. Consume all of their lies in the flames, burn to a cinder that bloated muzzle, crepitate also ‘tous les silences de la terre‘.
[Note: These last words are a line from ‘Cantilène pour un joueur de flûte aveugle‘ by Marguerite Yourcenar.]
Demolish this frore barrier. Tonight humanity is struck dumb, but wait, see that slender shaft of morning light pinpointing the glacial river? Blood-waves well up to form a tidal response. The surge crests into a ragged range of snow caps, every mountain peak suffused by a fiery glow. Spring holds promise yet, the wayfarer ventures on, to nurture and nourish a future.
— from Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, et al, ‘In Memoriam — 4 June 2021’,
China Heritage, 4 June 2021
Under a Blazing Sun
It is nearly five years since, in December 2016, I presented a speech titled ‘Learning to Live with Xi Dada’s China’ at an academic gathering in Melbourne. At the end of that speech, I launched China Heritage.
In the ‘Promising Dawns’ section of my remarks, I observed that:
It’s nearly twenty years since I started work on a second major collaboration with my film maker friends at the Long Bow Group in Boston, Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon. We decided that, after our 1995 film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, we would try to make a ‘prequel’ to our account of 1989; it would be a film about the Cultural Revolution. As the project developed we devised a title that resonated both with the nationalistic as well as the socialist messages of the Cultural Revolution. We called our film Morning Sun or, in Chinese, 八九點鐘的太陽.
The expression ‘the sun at eight or nine in the morning’ is taken from a famous speech made by Mao Zedong on the occasion of his 1957 trip to Moscow to attend celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the world’s first socialist country. On 17 November that year, when meeting with Chinese students and trainees in the Soviet capital, Mao said:
‘The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigour and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.’
[I particularly favoured this title as it resonated with a chilling song in one of my favourite films from the early 1970s, ‘Cabaret’. I saw it with my German-Jewish grandmother, or Omi (a contraction of the word ‘Grossmutter’), Johanna Barmé, at the Metro Cinema in Kings Cross, Sydney shortly after it was released in September 1972, and before long — much to Omi’s bewilderment — I went to study in Maoist China. The song ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ is a rousing Nazi anthem sung by a blond-haired and blue-eyed Nazi youth in a bucolic beer garden. It features the line: ‘The morning will come when the world is mine.’]
— from ‘Cutting a Deal with China’
China Heritage, 20 July 2017
Today of all days, we would note that Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the Politburo of the Communist Party, as well as countless cadres throughout China, are indeed the ‘morning sun’ about which Mao had spoken. Tempered by the Cultural Revolution and nurtured by the Reform Era, the nation now is in their heliotropic thrall. It is for this reason that, as we mark a particularly significant date in China’s Communist calendar, we are reprinting a report written in early 1958, not long after Mao made his fateful remarks in Moscow in November 1957. As A.M. Rosenthal observes, ‘at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm’.
From die Hitlerzeit to High Maoism
In 1970, around the age of sixteen, I had became interested in part of our family history; I learned some German and got to discussing the past with my grandmother. My interest was in part piqued by our high-school modern history course which required that we read an anthology of documents and newspaper articles about Germany from WWI to Kristallnacht in 1938. In parallel, my interest in China and the Cultural Revolution, which had been sparked some years earlier by a high-school classmate, grew in intensity along with my fascination with modern history. My grandmother, an energetic reader of history and novels about the past, began sharing details of their life during what she always referred to as die Hitlerzeit.
For his part my uncle Hans, an accountant and a political conservative who also took an interest in my studies, was both dismissive of my sympathies for the Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic and positively disturbed by my interest in Rosa Luxemburg. He shared in no uncertain terms his views about her and her most famous quotation, which he thought particularly pernicious:
Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden.
(Freedom is always freedom for the one who thinks differently.)
Of course, I was also a product of a Zeitgeist and, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rebellion was in the air. Moreover, I could tell that in my youthful superciliousness my uncle detected the animating spirit of my mother, Roma Barmé (née McNab), a feisty presence whose forbears came from Scotland, one that was by this stage in our shared history rejected by the stolid burghers of my father and his side of the family.
Omi and I continued our discussions; we went to the movies together; and, she reminisced.
In the weeks after we saw The Garden of the Finzi-Continis together in mid 1972, Omi described to me how gradual the changes were to their comfortable lives in Cologne following the election of the Nazis in 1933. Even before increasingly restrictive and punitive laws were introduced that circumscribed the lives of Jews, there were a myriad of more subtle, ambient changes that affected every outing, every shopping expedition and all aspect of social life. Some ‘Aryan’ friends remained steadfast regardless — indeed, they helped ferry the family out of Germany before it was too late, but only after my grandfather’s release from a Lager had been purchased with a considerable ransom. She also told me about my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother: he had read Mein Kampf soon after it had been published and, upon issuing a warning to the larger family, moved his immediate tribe to London in 1933.
I was struck by how incremental, thorough and remorseless was the process my grandmother described. I’d only recently learned the word ‘totalitarian’ and, having been brought up in the leafy middle-class comfort of Double Bay in Sydney, it described an impossibly faraway world.
(It was not until I read Victor Klemperer’s diaries many years later that I could appreciate more thoroughly the quotidian horror of what unfolded from 1933 — the daily humiliations, the creeping officiousness, the policing of every aspect of life and the remorseless workings of the Nazi state as it attempted to strip all humanity from its racial enemy. Yet, as my grandmother also taught me, there were also unforgettable gestures of solidarity, sympathy and human warmth. See Victor Klemperer, I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933–41, London, 1998.)
Meanwhile, I had, since March 1972, been studying Classical and Modern Chinese at The Australian National University in Canberra. Originally, I was only interested in the classical language as an adjunct to my major in Sanskrit and Indian history and thought, however, the classes given by our Modern Chinese lecturer soon so enthralled me that, over the next two years, that language and its classical and literary origins became my true passion. The lecturer was Pierre Ryckmans, later best known by his pen-name, Simon Leys. (See ‘Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng 甲乙丙丁: Beginning Chinese with Pierre Ryckmans’, The China Story, 30 November 2015.)
So, when I announced that I been awarded a scholarship to study in the People’s Republic of China in mid 1974, my grandmother was taken aback, to say the least. Despite her encouragement of my language studies, when it came to actually going to live in the People’s Republic of China, her response was visceral: it had been so hard for us to escape the Nazis and build a life here, she said, why in Heaven’s name would you choose to live in a country run by people who are little better than the Nazis?
For his part, Pierre Ryckmans, although encouraging of my venture, had similarly strong views about the totalitarian canker:
‘This philosophy is, of course, not unique to Maoism: it is inherent in all totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, Stalin’s as well as Hitler’s. The point is not that for Maoists the distinction between “Marxist truth” and “bourgeois lie” while for Nazis it was between “German truth” and “Jewish lies” (actually, does not the bourgeoisie play in Maoist China the role assigned to the Jew in Hitler’s Germany?); but that on both sides there is a common will to deny that there might be an objective truth, independent of the party’s instructions and the orders of the leader, a truth in the light of which those instructions and orders might be submitted to critical examination.’
— Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows
Paris: 1974, New York: 1977, p.131
Despite all of that, the history classes at school, my teenage reading about China and Tibet (another fascination that I pursued by studying Sanskrit and Tibetan, along with Chinese, at university), and regardless of the loving life lessons shared with me by my grandmother, I went to the People’s Republic in October 1974. I was absorbed in classical Chinese thought and literature as well as enthusiastic to learn more about the thrilling iconoclasm of Mao’s China. I was also, it goes without saying, engaging in a stereotypical act of rebellion, against both my upbringing in conservative Australia and the confining expectations of my father’s family.
Long-forgotten details of some of these old conversations gradually came back to me in later years when older friends in China shared with me their own memories of the gradual creep of Party policies in the early 1950s, the transformation of language in the overwhelming barrage of propaganda, constant media hyperbole, the endless stream of new instructions and important directives, the continuation of a civil war through a slew of political campaigns — the brutal extermination of counter-revolutionaries and their ilk; the denunciation of ideologically unhealthy films and works of literature; a years-long thought reform process; the reorganisation of higher education along Soviet lines; the incessant drum-beat of anti-Americanism and hysteria about the defeated Nationalist Party and their covert network of wreckers and infiltrators; the Three and Five Anti movements that turned a rectification campaign against corruption within the Party into a wholesale attack on China’s already fragile civil society. And, above all, the betrayal of the ‘Joint Programme’ 共同綱領, the hard-won basis for a political consensus as part of which the country’s independent democratic political activists, business people and ‘patriotic capitalists’, as well as large numbers of intellectuals and urban elites had been promised that there would be no sudden Soviet-style collectivisation of the economy and everyday life for decades to come. That particular betrayal came in late 1953, when Mao and Liu Shaoqi launched the ‘socialist transformation’ movement by unleashing the country’s revolutionary enthusiasm so that China could outpace the Soviet Union, the world vanguard of socialism, that seemed to be faltering as a result of Stalin’s death earlier that year. When, after twenty-five years of murderous ideological dirigisme, the Communists undertook fitful economic reforms they initially did little more than revive policies that they had betrayed from 1953.
For me, then, it was not entirely surprising that, in the late 1970s, China’s state media started referring to the Cultural Revolution era itself as a ‘ten-year holocaust’ 十年浩劫 shínián hàojié, literally ‘a decade-long all-consuming conflagration’, or vast calamity. (劫 jié, from the Sanskrit term kalpa कल्प, is an age or aeon at the end of which everything is consumed in fire before a new cycle of rebirth and growth can begin). Of course, the original, ongoing ‘holocaust’ underwritten by the 1950s was not included in the new definition of the late-Mao era.
After I saw Claude Landzman’s film Shoah, a nine-hour-long documentary, in 1985, I discovered that the Chinese translation of the film’s title was also Hàojié 浩劫. By then my grandmother was in her nineties and, sadly, we could no longer go to the movies together. Nevertheless, right up to the time of her death in 1987 she maintained a keen interest not only in my early years in China, but about the friends I had met from 1976, survivors of the ‘Chinese holocaust’.
(The debate over how the Cultural Revolution decade was to be described began soon after it was officially declared to be over. The debate continues to this day. Our series, ‘Over One Hundred Years’, opened with Liang Hongda’s spirited rejection of Xi Jinping’s formulation that the cumulative horrors of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were merely part and parcel of ‘torturous experimentations’ on the righteous path to realising socialism in China. — See Liang Hongda 梁宏達, et al, ‘5.16 — Sorry, Not Sorry’, China Heritage, 16 May 2021.
(In 2006, there had even been an open clash in the media when it was suggested that the expression ‘ten-year holocaust’ 十年浩劫 shínián hàojié be replaced by the more anodyne ‘decade of errors’ 十年失誤 shínián shīwù. See 李喬, ‘文革：用”十年失誤”代替”十年浩劫”很不妥當——析一個錯誤的提法 ‘, 《人民日報》2006年9月11日; now independently archived since the original text has been deleted.)
As it turned out, our film Morning Sun premièred at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2003. During my time in the city I visited the Jüdisches Museum Berlin. When I saw the copperplate handwriting of letters and diaries from the camps and pictures of men and women who had been ‘terminated’ in Nazi Vernichtungslager, in particular those of Sephardic Jews, I simply wept. The oppressive, heaving, tearful sorrow continued long after I had left the museum, memories from old stories, familial as well as Chinese, the years of working on documentary films about repression and state-engineered mass murder, the fear of an unfinished twentieth century and a lurking dread about the future were overwhelming; a suffocating foreboding always only ever a thought and a breath away. Today, I break too when I read ‘No News from Auschwitz’, just as Sonia Sanchez’s extraordinary poem and the words of Reginald Dwayne Betts move me — old griefs stirred by renewed despair.
In saying all of this I am, to an extent, also describing my own cryptomnesia — a lifelong process of recalling and weaving together both my own scattered memories and, through them, stories heard in my youth, be it in Australia, China or Hong Kong. These have all taken on a new vitality since a long illness (cancer) catapulted my life in a new direction. However, long before then, I had already had occasion to comment on the totalitarian bonds between the regimes of modern, industrial-scale mass murder in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Mao’s China.
In 2005, I was awarded a major government research fellowship to pursue a project titled ‘Beijing as Spectacle’. In June 2007, I was invited to present the opening address at the biennial conference of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia, held in Brisbane. In my remarks, titled ‘Beijing Reoriented, an Olympic Undertaking’, I noted, with tongue only partly in cheek, the fortuitous connection between Zhang Yimou and Adolf Hitler, as well as the consanguineal shade of Albert Speer père et fils.
The Zhang Yimou and Hitler overlapping was twofold. Both had made designs for Puccini’s opera Turandot (Zhang Yimou’s production was successfully staged at the Ancestral Temple in the Forbidden City in 1998; while Hitler never got further than drawing a stage design for the opera during his fascist-to-be-as-a-young-artist phase of his life) and both had their Olympics (Zhang Yimou designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics; while Hitler had officiated at the event in 1936, when the first large contingent of Chinese athletes had participated in the games.) The overall design and pageantry of Hitler’s Olympics was the handiwork of Albert Speer, in-house architect of der Reichskanzler.
However, the Berlin-Beijing nexus offered further gems for, in the lead-up to 2008, the Chinese authorities had consulted Albert Speer Jr., Albert’s son, who drew up a plan to re-orient the capital. Eventually, his vision found partial realisation in the re-articulation of the ancient north-south access of the city, one that now starts with a reconstructed pint-sized Yongding Gate in the south and reaches a watery full stop at the Dragon Lake north of the main Olympic venue. This design for ‘Super Beijing’, as it was mockingly dubbed, featured dramatically in the ‘Footsteps of History’ 歷史的足跡 fireworks display designed by the pyro-artist Cai Guo Qiang that was ignited along the city’s spine on 8 August 2008 (see my ‘China’s Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008‘, China Quarterly, 197, March 2009).
As I observed in my remarks in June 2007, although Speer Sr’s grandiose plans for Germania, envisioned as the world capital following an inevitable Nazi victory in WWII, were never realised, perhaps their animating megalomania finally found an expression in what I called the ‘vestiges of the Speer-family vision’. It was a vision that also brought to fruition the forty-year long war of attrition suffered by the old city of Beijing that had been launched by the Communists in 1948 (See both Dai Qing, ‘1948: How Peaceful was the Liberation of Beiping?’, September 2007; and, ‘Beijing Reoriented, an Olympic Undertaking’ in 21st Century China: Views from Australia, Mary Farquhar, ed., 2009, p.24.)
Responding to my speech, a senior academic who had been invited to offer a vote of thanks for the speech — a chap with a German-Jewish lineage of his own — pointedly prevaricated over what presumably right-thinking people would justly regard as tasteless and inapposite comparisons. Despite the fact I had long been inured to the displeasure of my self-appointed betters, let me assure readers of China Heritage that I was not indulging in some ad hominem reductio ad Hitlerum argument, nor had my decades-long engagement with China finally ended up in the cul-de-sac of Godwin’s Law.
So, as the Communist rulers in Beijing celebrate their from-victory-to-victory odyssey on 1 July 2021, I choose to reiterate my understanding of overlapping histories, replicant personality types, dark proclivities and unspeakable propensities that I touched on in the remarks I made in 2007. Caveat lector.
Of course, at the time that I presented my inapposite observation, I was fully aware of the fact that 2007-2008 were regarded by many as something akin to ‘salad days’ — a moment when the purposeful purblind scholars of China and their equivalents in politics, business and just about every field imaginable, chose to follow the myrmidons of neoliberalism. For them longterm, multi-faceted involvement with the People’s Republic not only enabled the world to engage with, cash in and value add to bi- and multi-lateral connections with the People’s Republic, it was also part of an unacknowledged rejigged ‘civilising mission’ that would domesticate China on the international scene and help bring about substantive further reform. As readers of China Heritage know all too well, from at least March 1980, this was never my Anschauung nor my motivation.
There Is No News From Auschwitz
Here we offer a double epitaph to the reprint of A.M. Rosenthal’s 1958 report from Poland. The first is a poem by Tang Qi (唐祈, 1920-1990), completed in 1958, just around the time that Rosenthal wrote his essay. It is set in the Great Northern Wilderness 北大荒, long a place of exile for undesirables. The other is from In Paradise, a novel by Peter Matthiessen set in Oswiecim, the Polish town where Konzentrationslager Auschwitz was located.
In juxtaposing these two works, one in poetry, the other in prose, we are not suggesting some crude equivalency between profoundly different holocausts. These two histories nonetheless were both born in the crucible of modernity and enabled by the bureaucratic efficiencies of industrial scale incrimination, incarceration and elimination. Rather, I am attempting to reflect on my own memories, relating to friends, family, history, ideology and barbarism. I also suggesting that the mechanisms underlying one holocaust have ground on tirelessly: its camps never closed; its murderous rationale never disavowed; its inexorable self-justifications impervious still. Its tenebrous shadows cast a pall wherever one looks, evident to any who would choose to see.
Dawn in the Great Northern Wilderness 黎明
Tang Qi 唐祈
Dawn, and our train will soon arrive;
The deathly silence of prison cars arrests all noise.
All but the fearful, restless clanking of the wheels…
From the window, glimpsed in the dark night,
Black snowflakes flutter over the wilderness.
On the vast plain the white snow
Is tramped into a muddy trail,
A long chain of footprints，
Still, desolate, cold.
Prisons for countless wronged souls.
The suffering is great, very great,
But there are no sighs, no groans.
Theirs is the fate
Of convicts in a primeval forest.
Axes and saws to cut the year-rings of life.
O, the endless ploughing in the fields!
Ploughshare to crush their shining youth.
Blue light of dawn
Pure while snow
Will bear witness for them:
The suffering was great, very great,
But there were no sighs, no groans.
A long chain
Marches into the desolate, deserted snow.
— from Geremie Barmé & John Minford, eds,
Seeds of Fire: Chinese voices of Conscience
2nd ed., New York, 1988, pp.68-69
By midafternoon soft snow is falling, muffling four voices that rise from the cardinal points around the circle, north, south, east, and west,intoning names from registration lists obtained by Rainer from museum archives in Berlin–long lists that represent but tiny fractions of that fraction of new prisoners who survived, however briefly, the first selections on this platform and were tattooed with small blue numbers. The impeccable lists include city and country of origin, arrival date, and date of death, not infrequently on that same day or the next.
Column after column, page after page, of the more common family names ascend softly from the circle of still figures to be borne away on gusts of wind-whirled snow. Schwartz, Herschel; Schwartz, Isaac A.; Schwartz, Isaac D.; Schwartz, Isidor–Who? Isidor? You too? The voices are all but inaudible as befits snuffed-out identities that exist only on lists, with no more reality than forgotten faces in old photo albums–Who’s this bald guy in the back? Stray faces of no more significance than wind fragments of these names of long ago, of no more substance than this snowflake poised one moment on his pen before dissolving into voids beyond all Knowing.
― from, 2014, pp. 87-88
Fourteen years ago Konzentrationslager Auschwitz was a place of unutterable horror. Now nothing happens there, nothing at all — except in the mind and heart of the visitor.
— A. M. Rosenthal, The New York Times Magazine,
31 August 1958
The most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon and on the grass near the gates children played.
It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter. It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror.
And yet, every day, from all over the world, people come to Brzezinka, quite possibly the most grisly tourist center on earth. They come for a variety of reasons – to see if it could really have been true, to remind themselves not to forget, to pay homage to the dead by the simple act of looking upon their place of suffering.
Brzezinka is a couple of miles from the better-known southern Polish town of Oswiecim. Oswiecim has about 12,000 inhabitants, is situated about 171 miles from Warsaw and lies in a damp, marshy area at the eastern end of the pass called the Moravian Gate. Brzezinka and Oswiecim together formed part of that minutely organized factory of torture and death that the Nazis called Konzentrationslager Auschwitz.
By now, fourteen years after the last batch of prisoners was herded naked into the gas chambers by dogs and guards, the story of Auschwitz has been told a great many times. Some of the inmates have written of those memories of which sane men cannot conceive. Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoss, the superintendent of the camp, before he was executed wrote his detailed memoirs of mass exterminations and the experiments on living bodies. Four million people died here, the Poles say.
And so there is no news to report about Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here.
Brzezinka and Oswiecim are very quiet places now; the screams can no longer be heard. The tourist walks silently, quickly at first to get it over with and then, as his mind peoples the barracks and the chambers and the dungeons and flogging posts, he walks draggingly. The guide does not say much either, because there is nothing much for him to say after he has pointed.
For every visitor, there is one particular bit of horror that he knows he will never forget. For some it is seeing the rebuilt gas chamber at Oswiecim and being told that this is the ”small one.” For others it is the fact that at Brzezinka, in the ruins of the gas chambers and the crematoria the Germans blew up when they retreated, there are daisies growing.
There are visitors who gaze blankly at the gas chambers and the furnaces because their minds simply cannot encompass them, but stand shivering before the great mounds of human hair behind the plate glass window or the piles of babies’ shoes or the brick cells where men sentenced to death by suffocation were walled up.
One visitor opened his mouth in a silent scream simply at the sight of boxes – great stretches of three-tiered wooden boxes in the women’s barracks. They were about six feet wide, about three feet high, and into them from five to ten prisoners were shoved for the night. The guide walks quickly through the barracks. Nothing more to see here.
A brick building where sterilization experiments were carried out on women prisoners. The guide tries the door – it’s locked. The visitor is grateful that he does not have to go in, and then flushes with shame.
A long corridor where rows of faces stare from the walls. Thousands of pictures, the photographs of prisoners. They are all dead now, the men and women who stood before the cameras, and they all knew they were to die.
They all stare blank-faced, but one picture, in the middle of a row, seizes the eye and wrenches the mind. A girl, 22 years old, plumply pretty, blonde. She is smiling gently, as at a sweet, treasured thought. What was the thought that passed through her young mind and is now her memorial on the wall of the dead at Auschwitz?
Into the suffocation dungeons the visitor is taken for a moment and feels himself strangling. Another visitor goes in, stumbles out and crosses herself. There is no place to pray at Auschwitz.
The visitors look pleadingly at each other and say to the guide, ”Enough.”
There is nothing new to report about Auschwitz. It was a sunny day and the trees were green and at the gates the children played.
Poem: ‘There is no news from Auschwitz’
Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts
This poem, from Sonia Sanchez’s new “Collected Poems,” first appeared in “Under a Soprano Sky,” a book I ordered while in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison. The first poetry collection I purchased, the book became all the clichés for me: my life raft, my rope, my talisman, my four-leaf clover. From the history of the MOVE bombing to reminding me of Auschwitz’s horrors, I got it from that “Soprano Sky.” All these years later, I can nearly see myself flipping through these pages in my sleep, astonished and alarmed by what words might do — amazed to find so much of the world I’d thrown away in the lines that were saving me.
“There is no news from Auschwitz”
New York Times article by A.M. Rosenthal, 1958
along that funeral plain
green wipes away old waves
that rolled the eyes
and tangled flowers veil vile kennel dust
bequeathed to dawns.
the years are done.
the earth bent toward canals bears
sterile bowels repenting woven eyes
while bone-filled drifts that scattered blood
yield other births.
death is not there: no special people
trailing alien dens,
or children moving in the rain of ash
life is not there: not even myths that rode
young stallions to a circus tent
and carried torches on a convent wire
beyond the tides.
no other signs that men patrol chained
sheets of sea.
i grieve our empty ships.
there is no news from Auschwitz.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and a lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, ‘‘Felon,’’ explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in The Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Sonia Sanchez is a poet, writer, playwright, professor and activist. She was a leading figure of the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 1970s and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, plays, short stories and children’s books.
— The New York Times, 17 June 2021