GRASS SOUP by Zhang Xianliang
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GRASS SOUP

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A haunting prison diary that depicts the epic sorrow and unmitigated human suffering that took place in the ""re-education"" camps of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Ten years after his release, novelist and poet Zhang reconstructs his 22-year ""rehabilitation"" in Chinese labor camps by referring to a skeletal journal that he kept at the time. Days and weeks are collapsed into single words or short, neutral sentences in order to avoid the wrath of the censors -- and the firing squad. He describes a life punctuated by extreme physical labor, up to 18 hours a day spent carrying his own weight in mud bricks or tending rice plants in brackish water that produced painful and extremely itchy inflammation of the legs. Rations, sufficient at first, were later cut to a few grains of rice and scoops of ""grass soup"" -- a liquid created by boiling the greens weeded out of the crop fields. Literally tens of millions died during the drought of 1960-62, and Zhang discusses survival tactics such as stealing vegetables and eating boiled rats and toads for extra nutrition. One man killed himself during a visit from his wife after devouring the food that she had brought, perhaps, Zhang speculates, to avoid becoming a ""hungry ghost,"" the worst of the spirits of the Chinese underworld. The most horrifying aspect of the camps was the practice of ""self-surveillance."" The inmates were so conditioned to report themselves and others for ""anti-revolutionary"" words and actions that high walls and prison guards were unnecessary. Rather than planning escape attempts, most of the energy of the ""intellectual"" prisoners was spent defaming other inmates. The police state had achieved its highest goal -- each citizen had begun to police the next. An extraordinary glimpse into one of the darkest periods of human history.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
ISBN: 1567920306
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Godine