The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison
Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage

By Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu

Reviewed by Maghiel van Crevel
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2006)

Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu.               The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage              . Berkeley: University of Calfornia Press, 2004. 260pp. US$              55.00. ISBN: 0-8248-2763-5 (cloth); US$ 21.95. ISBN: 0-520-24402-8 (paper)

Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu. The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage
. Berkeley: University of Calfornia Press, 2004. 260pp. US$
55.00. ISBN: 0-8248-2763-5 (cloth); US$ 21.95. ISBN: 0-520-24402-8 (paper)

Li Jiulian was a senior high school student in Jiangxi Province. In 1969, her perplexity at high-level political infighting during the Cultural Revolution led to her imprisonment as an “active counterrevolutionary.” If the cases of countless other people have gone undocumented, there is sufficient publicly available information on human rights in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and specifically on its prisons and prison camps, to justify the fear that many of Li’s fellow inmates would have fared little better than she. In her case, there is a detailed account of the cruel treatment she suffered at the hands of guards, prison cadres and those higher up in the chain of command. Throughout her ordeal, she refused to confess to what she presumably did not think was a crime. Following the downfall of Lin Biao, she was eventually released from the camp in 1972, but her political “tail” as an ex-inmate made her a social outcast. She continued to speak her mind and fought her original sentence up to the national level, to no avail. Her refusal to show contrition landed her back in prison in 1975. She went on one of the longest known prison hunger strikes, even though these were known to elicit violent responses by the authorities. In 1977, Li was executed at a time when government policy stresses the need “to kill proven vicious criminals, to pacify the people’s anger.” She was quietly exonerated in 1979. Many years later, Hu Ping’s perseverance in finding editors who dared publish his research finally publicized her case.

Hu Ping is among a good two dozen authors whose “prison writings” Philip Williams and Yenna Wu review in The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage . This book is many things in one. First, it is an analytical, state-of-the-field portrayal of a far-flung, “thriving concentration camp system” (2) maintained by a major world power that is unique in having taken such institutions into the twenty-first century. Second, Williams and Wu adopt a rewarding perspective by mining fiction and reportage for their portrayal of Chinese prison camps, complementing differently mediated research by scholars such as Harry Wu, and James Seymour and Richard Anderson, to name but three well-known authors publishing in English. Third, The Great Wall of Confinement is one of those books whose objectifying, academic approach never detracts from the certainty that they raise fundamental questions of morality.

Williams and Wu drive home the gravity of their subject matter in their first few pages, by validating the notion of concentration camps as applicable to prison camps in the PRC. They proceed to lay out the basics on the PRC system of “remolding through labor” (laodong gaizao, which has made its way into other languages than Chinese as laogai ), and “reeducation through labor” (laodong jiaoyang). While offering international comparisons on concentration camps and conscription societies, they point out that remolding through labor and reeducation through labor bear the imprint of traditional Chinese culture, as well as the Soviet-Stalinist example, with Maoist determination to control inmates’ subjective experience of the world as a salient difference with Soviet prison camps. In comparison to Chinese precedents, whether ancient, late-imperial or early-Republican, the notion of “remolding” people becomes notably instrumental in nature in the Mao era. Previously, the verb gaizao ‘remold’ mostly took inanimates as its direct object. This could mean either that its scope was now extended to animates, which makes sense in the light of a Maoist vision of human beings as malleable material; or, that inmates had the status of inanimates—if it helps us remember, the alphabetic coincidence is worth it—and human beings were dehumanized; or, both.

Another early point that resurfaces throughout The Great Wall of Confinement is Williams and Wu’s interrogation of Michel Foucault’s work on the prison. Joining forces with earlier criticasters of Foucault, they take issue with him so thoroughly that it is almost surprising that their title alludes to his notion of the “great confinement.” Crudely summarized, they hold that Foucault’s “speculative and rhetorical” (53n86) theorizing generates totalizing visions of absolute uniformity in prison regimes, and leaves insufficient room for the complexity and the ambivalences of (Chinese) prison life on the ground. As for the literary-theoretical framework for their analysis of prison writings, Williams and Wu see prison writings not as simplistic reflections or mirrorings of reality, but stress that “both mimetic and symbolic representation remain key functions of most testimony and literature,” and that the impossibility of duplicating or replacing reality does not make “prison camp narratives . . . mimetically insignificant, for intersubjective agreement among sources does lead to a degree of objectivity” (15).

The clarity and cogency of the introduction are borne out in the chapters that follow. Chapter 1, “The Cultural Foundations of China’s Prison Camp System,” notes that China has a history of institutionalized forced labor, by both civilian conscripts and prisoners, in times of war and peace alike. Also, ever since the Han dynasty, Chinese rulers have punished criminals by sending them into (internal) exile, and often limited their mobility to return long beyond the time of their sentence. This has happened to many ex-inmates of PRC prison camps since the 1950s who were forced to accept job placement in the vicinity of the camp (liuchang jiuye), although this particular component of the prison enterprise has been on the decrease in recent decades. Thus, there are “ancient cultural assumptions that forced labor and exile were normal parts of the state’s criminal justice system.” Moreover, this system has “strictly defined the individual’s ‘duty to obey authority,’ but not the limits of that authority” (28-29). In the final years of the Qing dynasty, the legal code of 1910 outlawed the state’s time-honored use of torture to induce confession and signaled a shift away from exile and penal labor. Williams and Wu submit that even if subsequent, Republican-era Guomindang legal practice was seriously flawed, it helped lay the groundwork for the democratic system that would emerge in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.

By contrast, chapter 2, “The Development of the Chinese Communist Prison Camp,” recounts how starting in the days of the Jiangxi Soviet, Mao Zedong cum suis rejected legal codes with any measure of independence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They replaced them with decrees and policy statements whose implementation often hinged on the rhetoric of vilification, specifically the designation as “counterrevolutionary” of political opponents—and often led back to the torture, exile and penal labor that the late-Qing code had attempted to abolish. Legal policies were adjusted to political needs, rather than the other way around. The combined ideological and pragmatic thrust of this strategy is reflected in what the authors identify as the dual mission of Communist prison camps. First, the camps were to guide (alleged) criminals to “make themselves anew,” and later to “remold themselves.” Second, they were to force them to engage in production, to defray government expenditures on prison maintenance. On the latter point, Williams and Wu hold that both laogaiapologists and its outspoken critics have tended to overestimate the economic significance of prison enterprises, citing Jean-Luc Domenach’s observation that the PRC prison system was not organized along the lines of economic rationality, but originally “conceived for political objectives and on a military model” (42). In the early 1950s, perhaps 90% of a total number of four to six million inmates were political prisoners, as opposed to common criminals; in the 1990s, the relative numbers were the other way around, and the absolute number of camp inmates, although difficult to verify, was thought to be at two million. Once population growth is factored in, this would roughly mean proportionally four times fewer inmates than half a century earlier, and forty times fewer of them held for reasons to do with, say, sociopolitical ideology. Then again, something to the tune of two hundred thousand political prisoners is still a staggering figure.

Having sketched an overview of the prison camp system, Williams and Wu move on to what one might call the circumstances in the camps and the individual inmate’s ordeal, in chapters 3 and 4 respectively. It is also in this part of the book that they start making frequent reference to a variety of prison writings to sustain the narrative. These texts range from more or less straightforward documentation and journalism to reportage and emphatically fictionalized accounts in novels and short stories. Williams and Wu are aware that all the texts they discuss have been “generated by a fallible human consciousness that necessarily filters reality during the processes of thought and representation” (14). They convincingly argue against letting such awareness discredit the referential function of prison writings altogether – and of other literatures of testimony, such as those on the Turkish government’s 1915 genocide of the Armenian minority, and Holocaust literature.

Chapter 3, “The PRC Prison Camp (I): From Arrest to Forced Labor,” first considers how arrest typically involves a show of force to overwhelm the arrestee—as visible on the book’s cover—and subsequent secrecy vis-à-vis their surroundings (e.g., refusal to disclose the nature of the charges, the arrestee’s location following removal from their homes and so on). Thus starts a depressing journey through circumstances in the camps, which range from the callous and humiliating to the inhuman and downright unlivable. Williams and Wu dwell on detention centers, where people can be held for renewable terms of up to three years each, without any legal procedure or idea about the foreseen length of their imprisonment. Their situation can be so unbearable that detainees consciously break the rules or commit crimes, in order to expedite their definitive sentencing and transport to a regular labor camp. Detention centers are also the place where the pressure to confess is perhaps the greatest, including intense violence and threats of imminent execution. Other topics in chapter 3 are the often counter-productive effect of protestations of innocence; socialization and forced labor in the prison camp, both leading the authors to lock horns with Foucault again; barracks life and sanitation; and vermin and disease. On the latter topic, Williams and Wu cite reports of camp cadres enlisting the aid of mosquitoes by stripping an inmate naked and leaving him tied to a tree in a marshy area, and intentionally exposing their victims to inmates who suffer from contagious diseases. This is how famous labor activist Han Dongfang contracted tuberculosis. Hunger and sexuality, finally, are two topics in this chapter that are likely better known to scholars and other readers of literature without a special interest in human rights issues or prison camps, since they are central to Zhang Xianliang’s 1985 novelHalf of Man is Woman (Nanren de yiban shi nüren). Williams and Wu cite Zhang’s 1995 laogai memoir My Bodhi Tree (Wode puti shu) as suggesting that food deprivation is the most efficient way for the state to force its citizens into submission to its authority.

Chapter 4, “The PRC Prison Camp (II): From Struggle Sessions to Release or Death,” offers an account of the individual inmate’s ordeal. It lists a series of horrors, some of which are relatively well known to general audiences outside China, through the work of international human rights organizations and activists. With abundant reference to prison writings, as in the previous chapter, Williams and Wu begin by portraying how inmates’ sense of identity and their capacity for independent moral judgment erode, and how they experience a shrinkage of self that leads to crumbling defense mechanisms, feelings of inferiority and worthlessness, and potentially complete dehumanization. The authors also discuss the psychological warfare waged on individuals during tightly orchestrated “study” and “struggle sessions” demanding intense public contrition on the part of the “criminal,” and aimed at ideological remolding, especially during the Mao era. In her memoirs, Song Shan recalls that, accused of being a counterrevolutionary and refusing to confess, “all seventy-six times she was subjected to a struggle session in front of thousands of people, the format of the event was exactly the same” (115). Chapter 4 inventories widespread, hair-raising torture methods, some with premodern precursors. It also probes the sinister correlation of the medical needs of high-powered and/or well-paying individuals outside the camps, on the one hand, and luxurious death row diets, medically overseen execution procedures and organ harvesting, on the other.

Two typical Williams and Wu subsections are those on the isolation cell and on prison argot. The authors’ meticulous coverage of their primary and secondary material is manifest in the levelheaded observation that to some of the prison writers whose work they have studied, for all the cruelty of the isolation cell and its abuses, the pressures of “normal” interrogation and torture and of overcrowded barracks featuring cadre violence by proxy through “activist” prisoners, have made the isolation cell feel like a place of refuge. As for prison argot, Williams and Wu’s discussion highlights their ambition to lay out the various dimensions of prison camp life, including subcultures such as that apparent in lexical items that constitute a distinct prison lingo, ranging from the grim and tired to the ironic and the humorous. Here, again, they question “[Martin King] Whyte’s almost Foucauldian claim of PRC prisoners’ total dominance by the official prison culture” (118).

If in chapters 3 and 4, Williams and Wu make extensive reference to fiction and reportage, these texts play an ancillary role, as a particular perspective on the PRC prison camps whose cultural foundations and history are reviewed in chapters 1 and 2. This is visible in the subtitle of their project: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage—not, for instance, Contemporary Chinese Fiction and Reportage on Prison Camps. In chapter 5, “Prison Writings,” however, the (literary) texts take center stage, with key sections on the categorization of prison writings, on ex-inmates motivations for writing, and on structural features of “prison wall fiction.” The great majority of PRC prison camp writings have appeared in the post-Mao period, starting with a 1979 short story by Cong Weixi that counts as a literary-historical milestone. Prior to that time, censorship and well-known sanctions for those who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP’s dictatorship ensured that injustice and cruelty as products or indeed endemic traits of prisons and prison camps were off limits in public discourse. While the publication of prison writings is thus a fairly recent phenomenon, many are memoirs that go back to the early decades of the PRC.

Williams and Wu divide prison writings employed in The Great Wall of Confinement into four categories, with fictionality and personal experience of imprisonment as their criteria:





author has personal experience of imprisonment


e.g. Wei Jingsheng, Wei Jingsheng’s Prison Letters (Wei Jingsheng yuzhong shuxin ji)


e.g. Cong Weixi, “Reddish Magnolia Blossoms beneath the Prison Wall” (Daqiang xia de hong yulan)


author has no such experience, or focuses on the experience of others


e.g. Wang Anyi and Zong Fuxian, “Six Days on Maple Ridge: A Record of Interviews at the Baimaoling Reeducation-through-Labor Brigades for Women” (Fengshuling liu ri—Baimaoling nü laojiaodui caifang jishi)


e.g. Bei Dao, “The Homecoming Stranger” (Guilai de mosheng ren)

Chapter 5 functions as a reference text for the above matrix, in that for each category, it recapitulates which authors have featured in Williams and Wu’s research. The authors explain that to them, categories one and three carry special weight:

[S]ome of [the authors] spent as long as two decades in the camps . . . While exceptions exist, the first type, non-fiction, is perhaps the most authentic and authoritative in its firsthand description of prison camp regimens and subcultures. Fiction by former prisoners presents a simulation of prison camp life that encourages readers to imagine how they themselves might react to the quandaries the various protagonists face. Though based to some extent on the authors’ personal experiences and other related events in prison camps, their shaping of the subject matter to fit literary conventions and achieve literary effects can dilute the testimonial or historical value of the work. (157)

First, there is no reason why non -fiction by former prisoners could not equally stimulate, or shock, the reader into empathy. One need only think of Harry Wu’s Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag (1994, with Carolyn Wakeman), or of Wei Jingsheng’s The Courage to Stand Alone (1997, edited and translated by Kristina Torgeson, with essays by Andrew Nathan, Liu Qing, and Sophia Woodman). Second, the historical “reliability” of either fiction or non-fiction—and, in the bigger picture, of memory and representation, especially for texts that are traumatic in one way or another—is more complicated than the above passage suggests. Williams and Wu’s awareness of the fallibility of human consciousness and their convincing appeal to intersubjectivity, cited earlier, do not change that. Third, their categorization raises perennial questions about the boundaries of the text. Where do we draw them? Is the author inside them, or outside? What, if anything, do we need, or want, or hate to know about the author’s life when we assess their writings? In all, however, within the overall set-up of their book—that is, with (literary) texts in the said ancillary role—the authors’ privileging of types one and three is understandable.

Throughout the book, the notion of “prison wall literature” occurs several times (84-85, 155-156, 173). The original is daqiang wenxue, also rendered by Williams and Wu as “‘towering wall literature’ set amidst the imposing walls and guard towers of the prison camps” (Jeffrey Kinkley translates daqiang literally, as “big wall ,” with reference to the American expression “the big house,” in his Chinese Justice, the Fiction: Law and Literature in Modern China [2000]). It is, however, not clear whether—according to domestic convention in the PRC, or to Williams and Wu’s interpretation—”prison wall literature” is roughly synonymous with the variegated “prison writings” discussed in their book, or whether it only applies to type three, above. When they explain their categorization (156), Williams and Wu’s analogy with “wound literature” (shanghen wenxue, aka “scar literature” and “literature of the wounded,” addressing the terror of the Cultural Revolution), suggests that “prison wall literature” should only apply to type three, that is

fiction by former prison inmates. While necessarily imaginative . . . it is often semi-autobiographical or semibiographical in nature, depending on whether the author draws more on personal experience or the recounted recollections of fellow inmates in creating a given literary narrative. (156)

Setting fictionality as a condition for (prison-wall) literary status is a contestable theoretical position, especially in Chinese cultural contexts, both traditional and modern. Note, for instance, the traditional regard for historical authenticity in “high” and hence inherently non-fictional literature—even if this involves notions of history and fictionality that are anything but straightforward—and the modern, non-fictional texts designated as “reportage literature ” (baogao wenxue) and “documentary literature ” (jishi wenxue). If on top of the fictionality of their writings the author must have had personal experience of imprisonment in order for their work to count as (prison wall) literature, that would seem to be an unnecessary limitation of the term’s scope. Then again, a prominent feature of the said Chinese cultural contexts is the emphatic presence of the author’s biography, or, more precisely, the widely assumed justification of biographical readings. But before complicating the matter any further, we should note that, later on in chapter 5 (173ff), “prison wall fiction” appears to be a subset of a “prison wall literature” that might encompass all four text types after all—which would be a sensible use of the terminology. In all, this confusion does not substantially affect Williams and Wu’s analysis, and the inclusive and exclusive positions are both in themselves defensible. This, however, would have required clarification of the authors’ definition of literature.

Williams and Wu cite the following as central among ex-inmates’ motivations for writing:

[….their feeling of being] duty-bound to preserve the memory and succor the relatives of those wronged inmates who died or otherwise disappeared in the camps . . . [the wish] to shed light on the shadowy laogai system, [which is] considerably more poorly understood internationally than either the former Soviet gulag or Hitler’s concentration camps . . . [the wish] to illustrate how educated and law-abiding citizens could easily become snagged and engulfed in the PRC regime’s prison machinery . . . [the wish] to reveal their understanding of what lay below the idealistic veneer of platitudes about remolding and ‘study’ sessions—especially the arbitrariness, callousness and deception that were built into the camp system. (159)

The discussion of ex-inmates’ motivations for writing naturally extends to their thematics: moral issues, sociopolitical and ethical aspects of confinement (rather than the possible religious significance of their suffering), moral issues, the imperative of bearing witness to injustice; the disintegration of families and social networks, physical and mental atrocities experienced in the camps, and so on.

Williams and Wu highlight structural features of prison wall fiction in case studies of Cong Weixi and Zhang Xianliang, the two most prominent authors of texts that belong to type three, above, which also features Liu Binyan, equally famous for his non-fictional writings. They dwell in considerable detail on mechanisms of interweaving and alternation in such fiction of present and past, and of result or current state (present) and cause (past). This begs the question whether this is really a distinguishing feature of Chinese prison wall fiction—or, the other way around, whether this particular set of texts is perhaps fruitfully viewed as part of a larger body of non-linear narratives past and present, from China and elsewhere: testimonial, traumatic, documentary, imaginative or otherwise. Judging by their command of texts of varying cultural and linguistic provenance, and by the way they mobilize them for contextualization, Williams and Wu’s reflections on Chinese prison wall fiction must doubtless count as a contribution to an internationally oriented discourse that transcends the scope of either Chineseness or fiction.

In their conclusion, Williams and Wu question a one-sided, domestic discourse of Chinese victimization at the hands of foreign powers, and remind the reader that—as is true for most nations—many of modern China’s worst scourges have been largely self-inflicted. It remains complicated, of course, to determine what sort of “self” is the inflictor. At any rate, the authors are less than optimistic about political change—democratization, the rule of law—as an inevitable consequence of economic and social change in recent decades, and observe that while certain aspects of the PRC prison (camp) system may have improved, the current situation is still cause for the gravest concern, hardly allayed by de-ideologization in the Deng-Jiang era. They note “the yawning gap between the high-sounding theory of labor camp manuals for cadres and the actual treatment of PRC prisoners,” and rightly claim that their “critical use of prison memoirs and fiction set in labor camps brings a human face back into discussions that have sometimes gotten bogged down in dry statistics and uncritically received bureaucratic formulations” (193). Crucially, while they do not eschew the occasional cultural generalization in the main text of their book, the conclusion steers clear of any cultural essentialism or unilateral West-to-East moralizing. Williams and Wu hold that “a PRC government sincerely bent on preventing future miscarriages of justice would discard the obscurantist myth of ‘Asian values’ and incorporate a great many of the procedural safeguards and principles of judicial independence that already exist in neighboring powers ranging from New Delhi to Tokyo” (195).

The Great Wall of Confinement is a thoroughly researched, analytically forceful work of clear structure and style. It is suitable for an audience ranging from undergraduate students to senior researchers of various disciplinary orientations, in Chinese Studies and elsewhere (history, political science, sociology, literature). It combines the strengths of regional expertise and multidisciplinary theory, with the depth of local analysis matched by the breadth of global contextualization. In the study of Chinese literature, it has interfaces with scholarship on politics and literature, dissent and literature, violence and literature, reportage and more. A kindred work that immediately comes to mind is Jeffrey Kinkley’s aforesaid monograph. Differences with The Great Wall of Confinement include the fascinating fact that Kinkley’s subject matter—crime / law / justice and literature, with much attention to post-Mao “legal system literature” (fazhi wenxue) or ‘crime fiction’—highlights how the police have been actively involved in the production and promotion of crime fiction in the contemporary PRC. (By analogy, one might wonder whether this also holds for PRC prison authorities, but it appears that they are not involved in the production and promotion of prison writings.) More fundamentally, in the case of law and literature, there is much more of what Kinkley calls “interpenetration” (159) of the twain than for prison camps and writing. Accordingly, Kinkley’s book is about law and about literature throughout, and as such more balanced than Williams and Wu’s. Indeed, as the authors themselves note in the introduction, chapters 1-4 ofThe Great Wall of Confinement , on the one hand, and chapter 5, on the other, are very different things. The realization of the book’s multi-disciplinary ambitions is thus somewhat unbalanced, but still represents added value.

If literature primarily features in a documentary role, even in the most literary chapter, this does not detract from the significance of The Great Wall of Confinement , to specialists of literature as well as to other readers. A perceived lack of tangible social “relevance” is never something to hold against a literary text deserving of that epithet by virtue of its aesthetics (and, to be sure, relevance and aesthetic achievement are not mutually exclusive). Yet, conversely, the referential function of the subject matter of this book—to a reality that is so painfully relevant as to bear no inverted commas—quite simply adds to its importance. As such, in conjunction with its primary aim of shedding light on the Chinese prison camp system, The Great Wall of Confinement is a vindication of the documentary value of literature, as one of the powers of writing.

Maghiel van Crevel
Leiden University