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Confessions of death camp cannibals

  • Source: Global Times
  • [00:12 November 02 2009]
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We lived through such ugly times and that's something that should never be forgotten. ---Yang Xianhui, the author

By Peng Yining

Some 2,500 people perished in a Gansu Province labor camp named Jiabiangou between 1957 and 1960 – mostly of starvation – Yang Xianhui says.

About 500 survived, by cannibalism. They foraged for undigested potato chunks in human excrement or worked their way through the internal organs of corpses. Most dead bodies proved so skeletal as to be inedible.

The long white-haired writer lights a cigarette, sits and begins to discuss the shocking fact-based contents of Jiabiangou Stories. The novel about a Chinese labor camp was published in China in 2003 and is newly translated into English.

When writing the gruesome details, Yang says he often paused and burst into tears.

The theme of his work is Gansu, he says. He was born and lived there for 16 years. Although he has now lived in Tianjin for more than 20 years, he still has a hint of Gansu in his accent and he still likes to wash down lunch and supper with a little cup of "white spirits".

Yang traveled frequently to the northwest desert region of China between 1997 and 1999 to try to interview more than 100 survivors of the forced labor camp.

Labeled as "rightists", 3,000 were sent to Jiabiangou in 1957 to suffer "re-education" through hard labor.

"Labor camps and the anti-rightist movement were a violation of human rights, but officials at the time didn't see it that way," Yang tells the Global Times. "They thought the anti-rightist campaign was correct and expanded it."

"Actually," he says, exhaling his cigarette, "it was a sin."

Jiabiangou Stories was published as Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp in the US in August. It "might be called the Gulag Archipelago of China", wrote Howard W. French in a New York Times review, referring to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's acclaimed international bestseller on the Soviet Union's own forced labor and concentration camp system.

"I wrote this book for China, not for foreign countries," Yang says. He cannot read English or even recognize the letters of the alphabet.

"I meant to criticize the labor camp system. It should be changed."

During three years' investigation into Jiabiangou, the Tianjin-based writer spent one third of his time in Gansu finding and interviewing survivors.

Among the more than 100 he found, most were civil servants or elementary and secondary schoolteachers. Fewer than 20 chose to talk about their memories of Jiabiangou.

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