Nixon's Nose


In Maoist China, a political prisoner feels his way through a Kafkaesque tableau of rumors, betrayal, interrogation, and execution.

When I was twenty years old, and a college student, I defaced a portrait of Chairman Mao. For this act, and without a trial, I was declared a political prisoner and sent to a forced labor prison on Taihu Lake, where I served in a labor reform brigade in a stone quarry for seven years: five years in the labor prison and two years as an ex-prisoner laborer. The tales in this book, transformed by memory, imagination, and time, are based on my experiences in this camp, and are not, I believe, unlike experiences suffered by millions of others who did not live to tell their tales.

~ Xiaoda Xiao

One night Li Minchu had a strange dream in which he saw the Great Leader and Nixon negotiating at a long table in The People’s Conference Hall. With his oversized brush, Chairman Mao signed an amnesty agreement for the political prisoners. Li Minchu only told his dream to Chen Sougen and Bi Fuyan, the two political prisoners of Group 5, not expecting that it would spread all over the labor reform units of the province and would cause such a great resonance among the political prisoners that even the officers didn’t know what to do. At length, the Labor Reform Bureau of Jiangsu Province officially refuted the amnesty rumor.

That evening, Officer Gu, a tall, handsome young man from the province, showed up in the barracks. Despite his good looks, the atmosphere became heavy as soon as he arrived. It was no laughing matter that a cadre from the province had come to our barracks, and the big hall went dead silent. The two hundred fifty prisoners sat on the cement floor, their eyes fearfully fixed on Officer Gu, whose manner was different than the other officers’, even though they were all wearing the same grayish spring and autumn uniforms in Chairman Mao’s style. We noticed that Gu didn’t take cigarettes offered by the local officers as they passed them around customarily, nor did he hand them his silver cigarette case, which he placed, to separate it from his folder lying open before him, on the upper right corner of the table. He looked solemn, and yet he talked to Li Minchu, who was ordered to stand in front of him, as politely as he did with his subordinates.

“One night I had this peculiar dream about our Great Leader meeting with the American President Nixon in the People’s Conference Hall…” Li Minchu said.

“Did you have any plan, or motive, before you dreamed the scene?” Officer Gu asked.

“I didn’t,” Li Minchu answered quickly. He looked at Officer Gu, who lit a cigarette and encouraged him to continue with a nod.

“I remembered that evening I went to the newspaper wall, and I saw on the front page of the People’s Daily a picture of Chairman Mao shaking hands with the American president. I then joined a crowd of inmates talking about Nixon’s big nose. I guess that’s why I had such a strange dream that night.”

The more Li Minchu spoke, the less anxious he looked. And the atmosphere lightened, too, those in the front row relaxing, everyone relieved that Li had an opportunity to explain everything directly to the officer at the top.

“So it is true that you are the inventor of the rumor?” Officer Gu asked, taking out another cigarette from his silver case, which he didn’t smoke, but played with thoughtfully in his thin, effeminate fingers instead.

“Not me, but my dream, sir,” Li Minchu said.

Officer Gu smiled. He turned right and left, asking the local officers if they had anything to add. When they said they didn’t, he closed his folder, and declared that the meeting was over.

It seemed that the storm had passed, because the officer from the province hadn’t announced any sentence against Li Minchu as was anticipated. The next afternoon Li Minchu’s wife visited him in the reform office. When he returned, he looked like a totally different person. As though waking up from a nightmare, he stretched himself, yawned deeply, and even hummed a melody as he did when he was in the newcomers’ company.

“Do you remember I was about to hang myself in the newcomers’ barracks when my wife came to visit?” he asked me.

I said I did. I also told him that I remembered the morning when we gathered in the corner of the cement yard of the newcomers’ barracks, and watched him eating the roasted soybeans.

“Yes, I remember that, too,” he said, and in a whisper he promised to give me some roasted soybeans later on in the evening.

But that night I was summoned to the reform office, where Chief Chen and Officer Gu were sitting side by side at a desk smoking cigarettes. For some reason Chief Chen abandoned his usual rude manner and treated me nicely. He even offered me a seat. He said: “I know Li Minchu likes to chat with you. He must have a lot to say because he’s been quiet for such a long time. I want you to report directly to me everything he says.”

“It’s a secret just between you and us. I heard that you made a serious mistake in the past. This is a good opportunity for you to atone for your sinful thoughts, so don’t pass it up,” Officer Gu added.

I nodded. They let me go.

I worried about Li Minchu. They had set up a false impression that his case had already been settled so as to let him tell his long confined thoughts to the inmates he trusted, which they would take as new evidence against him. I dared not tell Li anything, because I was afraid that I would get into trouble if he divulged the secret. But I found it difficult to keep away from him. When I first came to the group he had tried to avoid talking to me as if I were an informer. Now, however, when I was sent to collect his treasonous words, he followed me everywhere. I understood what it meant to have a friend to talk with when one was in a difficult situation. I had experienced such moments myself. But the fact was that my own situation was uncertain.

Finally I dropped a hint that he should pay attention to what he said.

Li Minchu must have gone to ask the chief, because Chief Chen called me to the reform office the next afternoon and threatened to send me to the solitary cell.

“I thought you would seize the opportunity to draw close to us. But you did the opposite. I’ll do you next,” he hollered.

Chief Chen sent Li Minchu to solitary confinement that same day.

Gao called my name one night in the lavatory. He hadn’t spoken to me since I came to the group; as a result I felt awkward running into him in the lavatory. His voice sounded strange. His wrinkled face looked ominous under the dim light of a bulb hanging from the center of the ceilingless roof. He was no longer the man I had known. I believed that he must have forgotten that we had once been as close as brothers. I couldn’t resist wondering whether he was sent by Chief Chen to collect my thoughts. Seeing that I didn’t respond, he called my name again.

“What?” I said.

Without looking at me, Gao said in a subdued voice, “You’d better pay attention to someone around you. Li Minchu wouldn’t have been in such big trouble had he listened to me.”

Gao didn’t say anything else. But what he said made me suspicious of my top bunk neighbor Zhuang, a former policeman in Xuzhou who had come to serve a five-year prison term for raping women inmates. Zhuang especially liked to chat with me, which I thought was quite natural because we were similar in age.

I remembered telling Zhuang that I felt it incomprehensible that they should put Li Minchu into solitary confinement just because of a dream. I had also asked him if he, as a former policeman, could predict how many years they were going to add to Li Minchu’s five-year term. He said he couldn’t. But from then on he always asked me about Li Minchu.

I stopped talking with the former cop after Gao warned me that night. But it proved too late. One afternoon Chief Chen summoned me to the reform office.

“What do you think about Li Minchu? If I remember correctly, you were once in the same cell with him. Am I right?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“So you must have struck up a friendship with him.”

I didn’t say a word.

“I heard that you talked with women inmates about amnesty,” he said.

“I didn’t.”

“Don’t deny it so quickly. We’ll get things clear tonight,” the chief said.

Gao wanted me to follow him to the lavatory as soon as I returned to the barracks.

“Did you tell anyone else what you said to Zhuang?”

“No,” I said.

“Then don’t confess anything, otherwise I can’t help you out,” he said in a whisper.

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