Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, by Kang Zhengguo. W.W. Norton & Co, 2007, 443 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

For Kang Zhengguo it all started when he began keeping a diary. In Maoist China, with no place for privacy, even an innocent record of daily life could be an incriminating document.

Zhengguo’s minor transgression was enough to set in motion a series of accusations that would quickly establish him as a reactionary member of the land-owning classes. We follow the author’s ordeals in these “confessions” as he is marched off from college to a brick factory, labor camp, prison, rural exile and, finally, overseas exile.

Zhengguo’s description of his collision with the new forces driving into mayhem is all the more forceful for having experienced aspects of a more civilized China in the form of his grandfather’s scholar garden, the ancient walls of his birthplace, Xian, and a home library of literary classics like “Journey to the West” and “The Water Margin.” These classics were augmented with titles obtained in those used bookstores that were still allowed to operate. With schools becoming more like correctional institutions, Zhengguo devised his own study curriculum, a small library of books he would have to conceal for the time when there would be no books.

These were the days when the masses were subjected to state-manufactured fairy tales — extraordinary propaganda claims extolling the achievements of the revolution. Zhengguo writes of school wall murals in the 1960s, describing agricultural and industrial production in the heroic doggerel of the times: “There were pictures of cornstalks tall enough to scrape the clouds, mountains of cotton, elephantine pigs, and hens that laid ostrich-size eggs.”

In the early days of the Cultural Revolution, passing by his grandfather’s local temple, Zhengguo witnesses students vandalizing the main hall with paint and hammers: “They had broken off the limbs of the giant gilt statues of the Three Buddhas of the Western paradise, exposing their innards of pottery stuffed with straw.”

There was worse to come as the abbot of the temple is beaten while watching aghast as sutras were flung onto a raging bonfire. Unable to bear the despoiling, the author learns that, later that night, the abbot hangs himself.

In the days before and after the Cultural Revolution, the most trivial action could provide the excuse for detention, arrest and years of forced labor. The author recounts how, during a struggle session an inoffensive, middle-aged administrator had aimlessly poked holes in a newspaper with a pin. When he left for the WC, a cleaner fished out the paper from a bin and found that the holes had penetrated a photo of Chairman Mao on the reverse side. The man, now charged with being an active counterrevolutionary accused of a “vicious attack on the Great Leader” is tortured, then sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Had the nation really gone insane? Or was there more to the massive number of arrests than simply professed ideology? Ancient Chinese emperors had used corvee labor to build palaces, roads and canals. In claiming to be iconoclasts, the Communists had adopted identical practices of unpaid conscript labor to get large infrastructure projects completed.

Even minor cadres, far from being zealous defenders of the revolution, were not beyond self-serving acts of corruption and fraudulence, exploiting a system of connections and back-scratching, or simply appropriating goods and materials that caught their eye: furniture from a requisitioned house, timber from a nearby tree line. Little wonder that, in a climate of wanton self-interest, minor officials would be spiteful, peasants money-grabbing and neighbors covetous.

The once infallible may have fallen but, according to the author, have been replaced by a new breed of officials who view their positions as equally unassailable. The message of the book may be that less has changed in China than the media, fixated on economics, would have us believe.

Kang Zhengguo now lives with his family in America, where he teaches language and literature at Yale University. That would appear to be the end of the story. Memory, however, needs to be periodically vented and articulated if it is to remain alive.

Zhengguo, a writer at heart, knows that the more diabolical the ordeal, the better the story.

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