[Photo Gallery:] the old Licun Chinese Prison

A literal stone’s throw from the south wall of the Rockcity Mall (伟东) in Qingdao’s Licun (青岛李村) sits the last remnants of the old Licun Chinese Prison (李村华人监狱). It’s surrounded by construction fences, but you can get in through the loosely chained construction site gate on the north side.

The walls inside and out are covered in barely legible Mao Era slogans, which, along with its history, make this a fascinating stop for urban explorers. But unless the authorities have plans to turn it into a museum, I doubt it will be standing for much longer. Along with the Binhe Lu Christian Church (滨河路基督教堂) and, until recently, Licunji (李村集,the canal bed market), this prison represents the last wisps of tangible history in a fast-developing district.

According to Baidu, German imperialists built the Licun Chinese Prison in 1897 (they had a separate prison on Changzhou Lu 常州路 for foreigners). Around 1939 it underwent major restoration. In 1941 during the Japanese occupation there was a famous prison break, commemorated with a photo. After Liberation most of the original structure was torn down and rebuilt.
In 1954, criminals were given three months of winter thought reform training in the “3 Destroys, 3 Erects”:

“Destroy reactionary thinking, erect socialism thinking;
Destroy exploitative notions, erect the glory of labour;
Destroy old bad habits, erect new morals.”

That slogan and many others are still visible on the prison walls — I’ve translated all the legible ones in the photo captions below (with much help from my Weixin pengyous). (The most recent writing I found was a posted notice from January 2007 listing sanitation duties.)

These photos were taken on December 12 and 14, 2016. Click a thumbnail to get started!

I found two other photo collections: one from August 2013, and one from April 2016.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun Chinese propaganda posters!

“Weird Al” Yankovic is promoting his latest album Mandatory Fun with two Chinese propaganda poster spoofs. One poster has Chinese. To find out what it says, mouseover the Chinese characters here or scroll down:


“I’m not wearing underwear”
wǒ méiyǒu chuān nèikù

And here’s the other one:

Click the images for the original source.

Chinese propaganda poster jackpot!

The International Institute of Social History has a collection of Chinese propaganda posters with translations and explanations in three categories:
1. Early years (1949-1965);
2. Cultural Revolution (1966-1976);
3. Modernization (1977-1997).

“Elect Good People to Do Good Things”

“Mao’s Great Famine” and China’s moral landscape

The recent tragic death of a toddler who was run over twice while eighteen passersby ignored her (all caught on camera) has scandalized China and provoked disturbing questions about the moral state of Chinese society. I suspect a significant part (though not all) of the answer to those questions is found in the legacy of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), which is brutally catalogued in the 2010 book Mao’s Great Famine. (Other, deeper cultural factors are explored here.)

Of the 45 million abnormal deaths during the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), one to three million were suicides and 2.5 million people died from beatings/torture. Most of the rest starved to death, though many were murdered outright, worked to death or deliberately starved. That was Mainland China, 1958-1962. It’s been called “one of the most deadly mass killings in human history” [pp.x-xi], and eventually led to the Cultural Revolution.

The stats above are the findings of Dutch historian Dr. Frank Dikötter in Mao’s Great Famine: the History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which claims more accurate statistics compiled from archive sources not previously available, and connects the dysfunction and decisions of the central government with their end results at the village and family level. Dikötter also connects the dots between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution at the political level and at street level, showing how the Cultural Revolution was rooted politically and historically in the Great Leap Forward, and that when it comes to the violence and abuse of the Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution actually invented very little. He pins the blame for the disaster on Mao and the central government and demonstrates how government policies greatly exacerbated so-called natural disasters like flooding (on which the excess deaths from the time period are officially blamed).

That all interests me, but what interests me even more is the experience of that generation of Chinese at a personal, family and village level, and how that might relate to the present. Particularly the impact the Great Leap Forward must have had on relationships and moral standards at the time, during the Cultural Revolution, and down to today. While this isn’t the focus of Dikötter’s book, in several instances Dikötter discusses the impact of forced collectivisation, the Party’s culture of violence, and mass starvation on relationships and morality.

[C]oercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. [p.x]

Mao… extend[ed] the military structure of the Party to all of society… Every aspect of society was organized along military lines… in a continuous revolution. These were not merely martial terms rhetorically deployed to heighten group cohesion. All the leaders were military men attuned to the rigours of warfare. They had spent twenty years fighting a guerrilla war in extreme conditions of deprivation… They glorified violence in which the end justified the means. In 1962, havng lost millions of people in his province, Li Jingquan compared the Great Leap Forward to the Long March, in which only one in ten had made it to the end: “We are not weak, we are stronger, we have kept the backbone.”
The brute force with which the country had been conquered was now unleashed upon the economy — regardless of casualty figures… The country became a giant boot camp in which ordinary people no longer had a say in the tasks they were commanded to carry out… They had to follow orders, failing which they risked punishment. Whatever checks existed on violence — religion, law, community, family — were simply swept away. [pp.298-9]

In a moral universe in which means justified the ends, many would be prepared to become the Chairman’s willing instruments, casting aside every idea about right and wrong to achieve the ends he envisaged. [pp.102-3]

Despite the vision of social order the regime projected at home and abroad… So destructive was radical collectivization that that at every level the population tried to circumvent, undermine or exploit the master plan, secretly giving full scope to the profit motive that the Party tried to eliminate. As famine spread, the very survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state… [T]hese phenomena were not so much the grit that stopped the machinery as the oil that prevented the system from coming to a complete standstill… Obfuscation was the communist way of life. People lied to survive… [p.xiv]

Collectivization forced everybody, at one point or another, to make grim moral compromises. Routine degradations thus went hand in hand with mass destruction. [p.xv]

Life in the countryside has always been tough in China, and strict observance of traditional notions of filial piety would simply have been beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest households before the communist takeover… But in most cases, before 1949, [the elderly] could count on a measure of care and dignity: their mere survival demanded respect.

Yet by the time of the Cultural Revolution a completely different set of values seemed to dominate, as young students tortured their teachers and Red Guards attacked elderly people. When did the moral universe turn upside down? While the Party was steeped in a culture of violence… the real watershed was the Great Leap Forward… [T]he people’s communes left children without their mothers, women without their husbands, and the elderly without relatives: these three family bonds were destroyed as the state was substituted for the family. As if this were not bad enough, collectivisation was followed by the agony of famine. As hunger stalked an already distressed social landscape, family cohesion unraveled further; starvation tested every tie to the limit. [p.263]

If that was the relational and moral world of your grandparents, which was reinforced again less than a decade later in the Cultural Revolution, wouldn’t you expect a society where injured toddlers are left to die in the road (to reference only one of a long list of examples)? Previously on this blog I’ve pointed out aspects of China’s pre-Liberation cultural heritage that encourage or at least enable the shocking, apparently amoral state of contemporary Chinese society. And I think that’s valid. But I also think it’s crucial to highlight the legacy of the Great Leap Forward in tearing apart the social and moral fabric of Chinese society (not to mention the decades of civil war and foreign invasion before that). With that as the immediate social and moral inheritance of today’s generations, and given the enabling cultural heritage, the stark mutual disregard for the basic welfare of fellow human beings, while not excusable, is certainly more understandable. Just reading this book, with its endless, gruesome train of anecdotes, is enough to kill off a small piece of your humanity — but what if you’d actually lived through it?

My parents were born in the mid-50s. That means they would have been young children during the Great Leap Forward and possibly old enough to remember some things. But Chinese who are now in their 60s and 70s certainly remember. It’s incredible to imagine that the old guys on the corner who introduced me to báijiǔ 白酒 and tried to teach me Chinese chess 象棋 lived through this, at least as children. Mainlanders’ general relationship to the state and its resources and the obvious lack of general participation in ‘civil society’ makes so much more sense after glimpsing what the grandparents experienced.

So I recommend the book, with the suggestion that you become aware of the criticisms noted in the wikipedia entry, and with the warning that the brutality catalogued in its pages — which goes far beyond the sheer numbers or the biological and social nature of famine and starvation to the almost incomprehensible animalistic abuse that became routine — will gnaw on your humanity.

Related stuff:

P.S. – I found these photos by doing a Google image search for 大跃进 (Great Leap Forward) and 超英赶美 (“Surpass Britain, Catch Up with America”). Many propaganda images from the era are explained at ChinesePosters.net here and here. Apparently the only images publicly available are propaganda photos and posters.

P.P.SThe cover photo of the book “incorporates a 1962 image of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong begging for food as they are deported back to China.”

P.P.P.S – A great documentary by the same name (viewable here) does a good job of covering the basics.

Mainlanders and their past; Mainlanders and their selves — from China Witness by Xinran

For me personally, the Mainland’s grandparents and great-grandparents are China’s most interesting generation. As soon as I could string a few sentences together I was trying to get our neighbours to tell us about their stories and experiences. But Xinran, the author of China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation, is Chinese, and this means she can go light-years farther in an interview than I can with my novice Mandarin, mere beginner’s cultural understanding, white face, and 大鼻子

In China Witness she’s interviewed twenty people, all at least in their 70’s, in order to “help our future understand our past.” She had to deal with the expected hurdle of actually getting her interviewees to share their own stories, and this led to some interesting remarks about individual and collective Chinese identities, generational differences, the importance of remembering these particular chapters in China’s modern history and their connection to individual and national dignity, and the real danger of those experiences never being shared. Everything that follows comes from the book’s Introduction.

“This book is a testament to the dignity of modern Chinese lives.
[. . .]
“For Chinese people, it is not easy to speak openly and publicly about what we truly think and feel. And yet this is exactly what I have wanted to record: the emotional responses to the dramatic changes of the last century. I wanted my interviewees to bear witness to Chinese history. Many Chinese would think this a foolish, even a crazy thing to undertake — almost no one in China today believes you can get their men and women to tell the truth. But this madness has taken hold of me, and will not let me go: I cannot believe that Chinese people always take the truth of their lives with them to the grave” [p.1].

“…China’s freedom of speech continues to be hedged with idiotic obstinacy, ignorance, and fear.

“But I can wait no longer. Thanks to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, and the ongoing censorship of the media and control of school textbooks, China’s younger generations are losing with earlier generations’ struggles for national dignity. The individuals who fought for twentieth-century China are mocked and dismissed for their unquestioning loyalty to now outmoded revolutionary ideals. As they search for new values against the uncertainties of the present and the debunking of the past, many young people today refuse to believe that, without the contributions of their grandparents and great-grandparents, the confident, modernising China they now know would not exist” [p.2].

“After almost twenty years of interviews and research as a journalist, I am worried that the truth of China’s modern history — along with our quest for national dignity — will be buried with my parents’ generation” [p.2-3].

“When I said that I would talk to them in person, my interviewees began to get cold feet; even to pull out completely. More and more subjects became out of bounds; some asked not to be filmed, or taped; others asked me if I knew what might happen after the interviews were published. I could tell that they were torn between the yearning to take this opportunity — quite possibly the last of their lives — to speak out, and the anxiety for the possible consequences. Could I get hold of a government permit to speak to them? several people suggested. Or an official “interviewee protection” guarantee? As if the decision to talk about their lives was one for the Communist Party, rather than the individuals themselves, to make.

“All of which only confirmed what I already knew from two decades of working as a journalist in China. . . .the Chinese people have not yet succeeded in escaping the shadow of three millennia of imperial totalitarianism and a twentieth century of chaotic violence and oppression, to speak freely without fear of being punished by the prevailing regime” [p.7].

“For the last hundred years, the Chinese people have been hesitating between affirmation and denial of the self . . . Very few people can understand and define themselves as individuals, because all their descriptive vocabulary has been colonised by unified social and political structures. A person can readily respond to external stimuli — to political injustice, to frustrations at work, to the praise of others — but only rarely succeed in making independent sense of themselves” [p.9].

(You can buy China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation here.)

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