Red Prison Files

The following essay by Jie Li 李潔 is from A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Der-wei Wang, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017. We are grateful to the author, David Wang and to Belknap Press for permission to reprint this material.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
28 July 2018


Chapters from A New Literary History of Modern China

We are grateful to Belknap Press for permission to reprint four chapters from A New Literary History of Modern China:

See also Silent China & Its Enemies — Watching China Watching (XXX), China Heritage, 13 July 2018.


Note: Where relevant, Chinese characters, texts and links have been added to the original. Minor stylistic modifications in keeping with the in-house style of China Heritage have also been made.

‘Life is finite; freedom beyond all measure. Rather as shattered jade [than unbroken pottery] I offer myself to China.’ Lin Zhao, February 1964



Red Prison Files

Jie Li 李潔


14 July 1965: Lin Zhao writes to the People’s Daily in blood.


In May 1957, in response to Mao Zedong’s (1893-1976) call for pluralistic expression in the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Peking University students posted criticisms of the Party on the university walls and demanded more democracy on campus. Among those students was a journalism student named Lin Zhao (林昭, 1932-1968). Speaking in front of fellow students, she once announced her name as ‘Lin 林, “double tree thirty-six” (36 = 2 X 18, written as 十八, superimposed as 木 or tree) and Zhao 昭, ‘the day 日 the sword 刀 is over the mouth 口.” ’

In 1968, before she reached the age of thirty-six, Lin Zhao was taken from a prison hospital bed and executed as a ‘counterrevolutionary’— her last act as a martyr for free speech. With half a million Chinese intellectuals, Lin Zhao was labeled a ‘rightist’ by the end of 1957, yet unlike most others, she refused to submit to ‘thought reform’ and instead began writing dissident poetry to circulate among her friends. While utopian images of the Great Leap Forward led to and concealed ensuing catastrophes, Lin Zhao joined with a small group of like-minded friends to print an underground journal to expose the famine in the countryside. Unsurprisingly, the authorities seized all mimeographed copies and arrested everyone involved.

While imprisoned in Shanghai from 1960 to 1968, Lin Zhao wrote volumes of diaries, essays, letters, and poetry, documenting her life in prison and reflecting on the trajectory of the Communist Revolution. A 1964 poem commemorates the execution of her maternal uncle by the Nationalists in the White Terror of 1927:

April 12 — a date buried in dust
Who remembers the blood from 37 years ago?
The posterity of the deceased performs sacrificial rites,
Brimful with blood and tears
My uncle — your niece in the red prison weeps for you!
I know you — in the melody of The Internationale,
I learned it from my mother, who learned it from you.
If only you knew, the millions of compatriots for whom you gave your life
Are to this day but fettered prisoners and hungry slaves.


Entitled ‘Family Sacrifice’ 家祭 and written in blood, this poem poignantly melds personal history with national history, telling the tale of an elder generation of idealistic revolutionaries that sacrificed themselves in support of a revolution that later devoured its children. Born five years after her uncle’s martyrdom, Lin Zhao grew up enchanted by his legend as recounted by her mother, also an underground Chinese Communist Party member. As a high school student, Lin Zhao co-founded a club for progressive youths and was blacklisted by the Nationalists for her leftist activism. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she embraced the communist dream of a better, more egalitarian society. She called Mao ‘Father’ in her letters and renounced her biological father, a former Nationalist official condemned as a ‘historical counterrevolutionary’ 歷史反革命 after 1949. It wasn’t until Lin Zhao turned into an opponent of the regime that she reconciled with her father, who committed suicide shortly after her arrest.

On July 14, 1965, Lin Zhao began composing a long letter to the editorial board of the People’s Daily:

On this famous date, the sublime and ardent humanist passion of which continues to strike a chord in the heart of every freedom lover, I — your strange reader — am beginning to write you another letter. If the memory of this tortured, frail, and ailing body has not entirely lost its accuracy, then this must be the anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution… . Of course, I am not writing to you Sirs to discuss history… . Where I am is not a study, not to speak of the fact that for all its vastness China can no longer accommodate a quiet desk, nor tolerate a righteous intellectual!.. . This strange reader… already wrote two letters to you… in blood because I had been illegally deprived of pen and paper.

在這個肇始以來一直以其崇高勇烈的人道激情深深叩動每個愛自由者之心弦的著名的日子里,我——奇怪的讀者又開始起稿給你們寫信,假如這久被折磨的衰弱負病之軀的記憶力還不曾十分喪失了其準確性的話,那末我記得這是法國大革命首義的日子! … 當然,我決不是為了討論歷史才來給先生們寫信的 … 我所在之處既非書齋,更何況今日以中國之大不僅早已放不下一張安靜的書桌,甚至都早已容不得一個正直的書生!… 這個奇怪的讀者 … 曾兩次給你們寫信:信是以自己的鮮血所寫,因為當時我被非法地剝奪了紙筆!

Recalling the storming of the Bastille, the letter’s opening paragraphs direct the reader’s attention to the special time, location, and medium of its composition, to the physical and mental condition of its author. This is not merely a literary performance composed of floating signifiers in a cozy environment. Instead, each word is bound up in the physical, social, and political reality giving rise to its production and inhibiting its transmission. This is a letter, after all, but can it break free of its own monologue? Lin Zhao believed in Lu Xun’s (1881-1936) dictum that ‘truth written in blood’ cannot be concealed by ‘lies written in ink’ 墨寫的謊說,決掩不住血寫的事實。[《華蓋集續編 · 無花的薔薇之二》— Ed.], but she also believed, more cynically, that her body of writing would automatically be transmitted through the ‘arteries of the police state’ right into the ‘heart’ of the regime, if only to be used as evidence of her ‘guilt’ or ‘insanity’. Thus she was keen to keep a copy of her writings in her dossier, knowing that her family and friends often destroyed her writings in order not to further implicate her or themselves. Moreover, she considered every interrogation an opportunity to co-author her dossier, which she hoped would be passed on to posterity.

Written over five months, the letter would go on for approximately 150,000 characters. Lin Zhao calligraphed the main text in ink, yet spoke of copying over or reproducing from memory what she had written in blood earlier. She also ‘stamped’ the manuscript all over with her own signature in blood, authenticity markers that ironically compounded the illegibility of later black-and-white copies. Mixing various genres, this work of graphomania is at once a letter to the editor, a critical remonstrance, a political treatise, a memoir, a diary, a confession, a testament, and a compendium of poetry. Her feverish style is meandering yet mesmerizing; lucid kernels of impassioned thought are entangled in implausible accounts and incoherent rants that may invite cold, clinical readings as symptoms of delusion or paranoia. Her text addresses the Party newspaper and its readers, Mao and the Communist leadership, prison wardens and court judges, family and friends, God and heaven, the dead and those yet to be born.

Lin Zhao knew well that the true pathos of her prison writings derived less from their content than from their medium: blood. The practice had premodern precedents in imperial memorials and suicide poems, as well as the copying of sutras by Buddhist devotees. In her last visitations, Lin Zhao wore a white handkerchief over her head inscribed with the word ‘injustice’ 冤 in blood, self-consciously referring to Injustice to Dou E 感天動地竇娥冤, a Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) drama by Guan Hanqing (關漢卿, ca. 1224-ca.1300) in which the blood of an unjustly beheaded heroine spurts up to stain a strip of white gauze hanging overhead. In her writings, Lin Zhao invoked the revolutionary poet and heroine Qiu Jin (秋瑾, 1875-1907), as well as Communist martyrs whose blood, she lamented, was shed in vain. Christ was a further source of inspiration, as Lin Zhao had gone to a missionary middle school and converted to Christianity in prison. Beyond all influences, however, Lin Zhao’s blood writing presented her own unique, original response to the Communist Revolution itself. As if anticipating the skepticism of her future readers, she wrote:

Is this not blood? Insidiously exploiting our innocence, childishness, righteousness; exploiting our good and simple hearts; inflaming and harnessing our impassioned spirit. When we became more mature, felt alarmed at the absurdity and cruelty of reality, and began demanding our democratic rights, we came to suffer unprecedented persecution, abuse, and repression. Isn’t this blood?

怎麼不是血呢?! 陰險地利用著我們的天真、幼稚、正直,利用著我們善良單純的心地與熱烈激昂的氣質,予以煽惑,加以驅使。而當我們比較成長了一些開始警覺到現實的荒謬殘酷開始要求著我們應有的民主權利時,就遭到空前未有的慘毒無已的迫害、折磨與鎮壓!怎麼不是血呢?

Blood writing was an indictment, not only of literal bloodshed, but also of the physical and symbolic exploitation of the young. Mao famously said that the Chinese people are like ‘a blank sheet of paper free from any mark’, on which ‘the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the most beautiful pictures can be painted.’ [Original: 中國六億人口的顯著特點是一窮二白,這看起來是壞事,其實是好事。窮則思變,要幹,要革命。一張白紙,沒有負擔,好寫最新最美的文字,好畫最新最美的圖畫。— Ed.] Writing in blood, Lin Zhao responds to Mao, as it were: You write and paint your utopian visions with human flesh and blood, aestheticizing politics and anesthetized to its human costs. During the Great Famine (1958-1961), Lin Zhao’s poetry in blood envisioned a violent uprising by ‘hungry slaves’ against Communist dictatorship, but in prison she asked: Is revolution the best way to achieve freedom, equality, and human rights? She wrote in her 1965 letter:

True, we do not stint sacrifice and do not even flinch from bloodshed, but can [a free life] be established from a pool of blood with a bloodbath? All along the Chinese have shed not too little but too much blood. In the stormy state of the world in the 1960s, even on the profound medieval ruins of China, is there a possibility for political struggle to take on a more civilized form and not resort to bloodshed?


The prison archives absorbed these writings, and on April 29, 1968, Lin Zhao was executed. Two days later, a policeman knocked on her mother’s door to collect five cents for the bullet, an obscene fact later publicized in a 1981 People’s Daily article indicting the Gang of Four, though it remains unclear to this day who had ordered her death sentence. At this point, many victims of the Cultural Revolution were being officially rehabilitated. The relatively relaxed political climate made it possible for a public security officer to smuggle out to her sister a few of Lin Zhao’s manuscripts, among them the long letter to the People’s Daily. Soon afterward, the sister immigrated to the United States, taking the manuscripts with her.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Lin Zhao’s surviving friends and family members published memorial articles about her, later edited into a volume entitled Lin Zhao, No Longer in Oblivion 林昭, 不再被遺忘. Her legend and fragments of her writing came to be known among many university students and intellectuals, but the most powerful resurrection of her memory came with a 2004 documentary film, In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul 尋找林昭的靈魂. The filmmaker, Hu Jie (胡傑, 1958-), worked as a cameraman for Xinhua News Agency when he first heard about Lin Zhao through a friend in 1999. Delving ever deeper into her story, at the cost of his job, he began tracking down many of Lin Zhao’s former friends and relatives, some of whom overcame their distrust and fear to talk about her on camera and to revisit with him the known sites of her life. Some shared with him photographs, documents, and artifacts associated with Lin Zhao, such as a tiny boat she made in prison from a cellophane candy wrapper. Hu even tracked down the box containing her ashes and found a lock of her hair wrapped in Cultural Revolution-era newspapers. He also found a former prison inmate who used to deliver meals to Lin Zhao in her last days and used his description to create a composite drawing of her, as would a forensic artist.

But Hu wanted above all to have Lin Zhao tell her own story. In time, he located a black-and-white photocopy of Lin Zhao’s 1965 letter, which her sister had left with a cousin in China before her departure to the United States. For the film, Hu applied a digital special effect to give the text a reddish-black color against a yellowish background, while his voiceover guides the viewer in deciphering the handwriting. It is thus within this audiovisual frame that most of Lin Zhao’s latter-day audiences would ‘read’ her words. Hu traveled with rough cuts of the film to various Chinese university campuses and listened to audience opinions, making revisions and additions. Like a missionary, he gave out video compact discs of the documentary and allowed, even encouraged, his friends to duplicate them and pass them on. The documentary spread even more rapidly via the Internet, as numerous viewers uploaded and downloaded it faster than censors could take it down. Netizens posted about Lin Zhao in tens of thousands of blogs, and created fan sites as well as poetic, fictional, and musical tributes. Every year around the anniversary of her death, many go to sweep her grave in Suzhou — so many that a few local elderlies made a living selling them incense and flowers. Surveillance cameras later appeared at the site to monitor and intimidate visitors.

Albeit in fragmented quotations, the replication of Lin Zhao’s prison writings in old and new media at once enhanced and diminished the aura of the originals. After refusing Hu’s many requests to interview her, Lin Zhao’s sister condemned the film as illegal and in violation of her copyrights, a perplexing attitude many attributed to the depth of her trauma. Instead of publishing Lin Zhao’s prison writings, she donated the original manuscripts in her possession to Stanford’s Hoover Archives in 2009. They are now accessible only in digital format onsite, and those who wish to read the manuscripts are only permitted to hand-copy quotations. These stipulations create a sacred, forbidding aura surrounding her oeuvre, a synecdoche for myriad case files compiled in a period of unprecedented graphomania among intellectuals and ordinary people pressed or exhorted to write confessions and denunciations. Such ‘dossier literature’ is not defined by form, genre, or even literary merit, but rather by its brush with state power, whose censors were the first and sometimes only readers with a complete overview of a file’s heterogeneous contents. Words in the Mao era had graphic power to judge, sentence, and kill. It was not only ‘the day the sword was over the mouth’, but also the day the pen was a sword. Might this have been a reason for Lin Zhao’s sister to dictate that faithful readers pay pilgrimage to the file and bodily re-enact the act of writing? After all, words written in blood are not merely signs, but relics.



Further Reading (Editor’s Recommendations):