Past in the Present
Wang Bing wrote the text below in 2012 as a treatment for the movie Past in the Present (2018). Later, the name was changed into Dead Souls.
The name Jiabiangou (“Pincer Gulch”) refers to a stretch of Gobi Desert located approximately 30 kilometers northwest of Jiuquan (“Wine Springs”), a former garrison town in China’s Gansu Province. Jiabiangou began as a military-run farm on reclaimed desert wasteland, and later became a working farm and penal colony managed by the Jiuquan Bureau of Reform-Through-Labour. During the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign, Jiabiangou was repurposed as a camp for “ideological re-education through labour”: essentially a gulag for those accused of political crimes against the state, although it remained under the administrative authority of Jiuquan Township. Beginning in September 1957, over 3,000 individuals accused of political offenses (and labeled as “rightists” “ultra-rightists” “counterrevolutionaries” “bad elements” or “members of anti-Party cliques”) were transported to Jiabiangou from different parts of Gansu Province and forced to undergo a period of ideological re-education and hard labour.
Three years of backbreaking physical toil, mistreatment, malnutrition, starvation and death followed; by the time Jiabiangou was disbanded in 1960, only 600 of the original 3,000 accused rightists had survived.
The events at Jiabiangou were by no means unique. During the late 1950s, over half a million Chinese citizens were accused of “rightist” political tendencies or ideological transgressions; many were imprisoned in gulags in Gansu and other Chinese provinces, and untold numbers died of starvation, mistreatment and overwork. Jiabiangou is one small but telling microcosm of the ruthless political persecution that occurred during the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Through footage and interviews with over 80 now-elderly survivors of Jiabiangou, this film seeks to lay bare the truth about that period in Chinese history, to show the suffering and aftereffects it inflicted on these accused rightists, and to illustrate the disastrous impact it had on Chinese society as a whole.
In 1957, the Chinese government launched an Anti-Rightist Campaign that included the following populations: urban residents; those working in governmental organizations, factories, universities, colleges, scientific research and cultural institutions; members of non-Communist or Democratic party organizations; and members of various societal and community organizations and associations. The campaign was targeted at those who had voiced criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the first phase of the 1957 Rectification Campaign, a short period sometimes known in the West as the “Hundred Flowers Movement.” Other targets included those who had some past association with the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, whose followers fled to Taiwan in 1949), those who had criticized their bosses or local cadres, those who seemed dissatisfied or disgruntled with the current state of society, and those who had engaged in criminal offenses such as the theft or misuse of state property. Most of the people eventually labeled as “rightists” were well-educated intellectuals working at various levels of government, academia, culture and industry.
Two decades later, between the years of 1978 and 1981, there was a nationwide campaign to pardon most of the accused rightists and restore their political rights, a process known as “reversing the verdict.” Official Chinese government lists included the names of 558,900 accused rightists, but the actual number of pardons issued during this period far outstripped that figure, because many of the accused never had their names submitted to the higher authorities, and thus were not included on the lists. Despite being left out of the official tally, these individuals – whose numbers included many young people, students, workers and citizens targeted at the local or organizational level – were still persecuted and punished as rightists during the 1950s. Today, the overall verdict of the Chinese government is that the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign got out of hand and went too far beyond its intended scope. Nonetheless, neither the CCP nor the Chinese government has completely denounced or negated the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Nine accused rightists died without ever having the verdicts against them overturned.
Using the Present to Speak to the Past
Since I began researching the history of Jiabiangou State Farm in 2004, I have met and interviewed nearly one hundred survivors of Jiabiangou. We have become friends and confidants, and their stories and recollections have been crucial in helping me to understand the three decades that followed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Their words and their lives are a window to our shared history. Over the course of many years and many exchanges, I have come to know and perhaps even understand these elderly survivors of the gulag. Now in their seventies, eighties or nineties, they are considered by some to be eccentric, even odd. Many are in poor or failing health, living in poverty, estranged from their families or socially isolated, distrustful of strangers and psychologically scarred. They escaped the gulag only to return to a life of hardship, and spent decades living as social and political pariahs before they were finally rehabilitated and cleared of outstanding charges. This experience left an indelible mark on their psyches. For anyone who hasn’t lived through it, it is difficult to comprehend the suffering they experienced, perhaps because people today seem to pay such scant attention to history. This lacuna of historical awareness was my motivation for embarking on a long documentary project about the present-day lives of the Jiabiangou survivors. I had already completed two related films – the documentary He Fengming: Portrait of a Chinese Woman and the feature film The Ditch (“Jiabiangou”) – but I felt there was much more to be said about the topic.
This documentary takes as its starting point the present-day lives of the Jiabiangou survivors: their daily routines, their joys and sorrows, their challenges and regrets as they enter into the final years of their lives. Most suffer from the usual illnesses, aches and pains of old age; some have no family to care for them, and find themselves alone and living in poverty. A smaller number, psychologically unbalanced by the traumas of the past, have been abandoned to grim mental hospitals or old-age homes, with no family or friends to visit them.
Of course, there are others who are financially secure and enjoy a better standard of living, who have children and grandchildren to dote on them, and who are living out their final years in happiness and peace. But even these fortunate survivors are sometimes plagued by nightmares, unable to erase the painful memories of the past.
When making a documentary film about events that happened nearly sixty years ago, an oral history format is an easy choice, but I have deliberately chosen not to take this approach. Instead I hope to show, through the lives of the Jiabiangou survivors, how the present speaks to the past.
If we were to focus only on narrating past events, the survivors would become nothing more than talking heads, alienating the audience from the events being described onscreen. Because we exist in a different time frame, we cannot rely solely upon our imaginations to return us to the past, or to bridge the gap between past and present truths. In addition, this is a period in Chinese history that will be unfamiliar to many Chinese and most overseas audiences. For the survivors themselves, the Anti-Rightist Campaign is not just history but part of their lives, an experience they lived through. For those who haven’t lived it, it is a tale from the distant past, an experience far removed from our present reality.
For this film, I am using a small high-definition video camera to record the present-day lives of the elderly Jiabiangou survivors. By shooting as much footage as possible about the rhythm of their daily lives, and about their stories and reminiscences about the time they spent at Jiabiangou, I hope to provide a chronologically complete and comprehensive portrait of these survivors of the gulag, and to communicate the truth of events as they happened, then and now. For me as a director, this film represents the fulfillment of many, many years of cinematic hopes and ideals.