No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison
by Xu Hongci (translated and edited by Erling Hoh)
Sarah Crichton Books

There are no stories more satisfying than those in which the common man suffers injustice and cruelty at the hands of the powerful but perseveres against all odds, clinging to his values until he can claim victory. They’re all the more compelling when true, and never more so than when the story goes public against the wishes of the antagonist.

No Wall Too High measures up on all counts as Xu Hongci, a Chinese medical student and intellectual, tells his story of enduring 14 years’ hard labour, suffering torture and starvation, before escaping to Mongolia.

Swedish journalist and translator Erling Hoh was researching a novel about an escape from a Chinese labour camp when he found an obscure Chinese version of Xu’s story in Hong Kong’s Central Library. Instead of writing a novel, he translated Xu’s heart-wrenching tale.

Escape from the Laogaicame out shortly before Xu’s death, in 2008. It was a transcript of an interview Xu gave to a journalist, Hu Zhanfen.Its publisher, Lee Po, formerly known as Lee Bo, was one of the five booksellers who disappeared in the winter of 2015-16, and were widely believed to have been detained in China. That book might not have found a local publisher in the more fearful atmosphere that has pervaded Hong Kong’s book industry since then.

Xu’s struggle for freedom, both in mind and body, remains relevant in today’s China. In the epilogue, Hoh writes that the original manuscript “was rejected by mainland Chinese pub­lishing houses due to its sensitive nature”. Knowing that Xu’s story is still too explosive for consumption in China greatly enhances this book’s appeal. The story reopens a wound that cuts across China and the personal histories of millions of its citizens, depicting the darkest days of Mao Zedong’s rule, when the Communist Party turned the nation against itself.

Xu was a party member until he fell foul of it for making criticisms of the leadership during the short-lived openness of the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-57. He was sentenced at first to six years in prison, one of 550,000 men and women who were sent to the camps for having spoken out during the campaign – and one of the very few to have escaped.

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“China’s tragedy […] is that it will never allow people to speak the truth. For speaking the truth I have lost my freedom and my future,” Xu writes.

After serving his initial sentence, he was accused of having “opposed our most beloved great leader, Chairman Mao, opposed all of our party’s policies for building and reforming socialism, sung the praises of US imperialism and Soviet revisionism, and mongered fear of nuclear war”, which earned him an additional 20 years of captivity.

Mao’s prison camps, the laogai (an abbreviation of a Putonghua phrase that means “reform through labour”), were modelled on the Soviet gulag. Sometimes Xu was forced to work in a mine, at others on a farm or in a factory. The tools of reformation were back-breaking labour, severe malnutrition, beatings, isolation and public humiliation.

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“In the past, a crime had been something clearly defined: murder, theft, rape, arson, fraud, and so on. We had done none of these. We hadn’t even committed a political crime, such as organising a counter-revolutionary uprising or providing intelligence to foreign organisations.”

Xu’s story bears similarities to Papillon (1969), the auto­biography of Henri Charrière, a convict who spent much of the 1930s and ’40s incarcerated in a penal colony in French Guiana.Xu and Hoh, however, lack the flair displayed by Charrière. This book reads like a lament – a record of the wrongs committed against Xu and the Chinese people. The clumsy accounts of key moments, which should be thrilling, undermine its literary potential. The background and foot­notes added by Hoh, while providing invaluable information, could have been woven into the story in a more elegant way.

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Hoh’s translation includes the maps Xu himself drew in his original manuscript, which Hoh received from Xu’s widow. However, the translation and explanation of those maps is poorly done, rendering them almost meaningless.

In the past, a crime had been something clearly defined: murder, theft, rape, arson, fraud, and so on. We had done none of these
Xu Hongci

Xu is repeatedly shuffled between prisons, and his escapes take him across vast areas of China. While he names the places where his story unfolds, he does little to describe them, making it hard to draw a mental picture of his story.

Because Xu wrote from memory years after the events, it sometimes lacks detail and colour, but he does capture a particu­lar time and aspect of Chinese culture. There is an interesting emphasis on dialects and minorities – a Shanxi dialect, a Hui restaur­ant, a person from the Naxi ethnic group – nuances that have faded over the years.

Some details are horrific, hinting at mental scars that remained. Xu is often shackled for infractions, and he describes the blacksmith riveting the chains to his legs or using a chisel to break them off.

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He returns repeatedly to the topic of food, invariably scarce and unpalatable, such as the fern they are forced to eat: “We boiled it, then chopped it and mixed it with rice to make fiddlehead congee. This removed the raw taste and made it edible, but the fibres were still long and hard to chew. Fiddlehead contains little carbo­hydrates and is basically a stomach filler, like the husks and chaff we had mixed with our rice at White Grass Ridge, with the only difference that it didn’t make defecating quite as painful.”

Xu captures something of the scale of the barbarity with an insight into the fate of Tibetans.

“Behind them were left their puluo felt overcoats, which were made into clothes for the other convicts, and as late as 1970 prisoners in Lijiang were issued overalls made of puluo – a grim indication of the number of Tibetan convicts who succumbed in the laogai.”

Like Papillon, Xu became known for his attempted escapes, but that also made him a dangerous person to befriend, and the distrust he saw in his fellow prisoners’ eyes hurt him deeply. He also displayed the same ingenuity and bravery in his planning as Papillon did, and the passages in which he plots his escapes are some of the most gripping in the book.

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“As I waited for a blackout, my preparations went into high gear. First, I successively bought some 40 pieces of shagao, a traditional Lijiang snack […] and hid the cakes under a double bottom in my toolbox […] Second, I scraped off the convict num­ber painted in white on my leather jacket, then treated the whole jacket several times with black shoe polish […] Third, one piece at a time, I hid these clothes and everything I was going to bring in the metalworking shop. Fourth, I ground a sharp, triangular knife. Fifth, I made a small pocket at the bottom of my trouser leg where I could hide my money. Last but not least, I prepared myself mentally and steeled my resolve.”

Xu made three unsuccessful escape attempts before succeeding in 1972. He broke out of a prison near the Myanmar border, travelled across China for a last, furtive meeting with his mother, in Shanghai, then fled north into Mongolia. He was finally able to return home only after Mao’s death.

No Wall Too High is an inspiring story of the strength of the human spirit in the face of greed and cruelty. Knowing that Xu died a free man is some consolation, but it is an ineffective salve for the unease that comes with knowing that similar abuses are still practised in China.