The Courage of a "Cow Demon"


A Single Tear: A Family's Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China, by Wu Ningkun, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 367 pages, $21.00

In 1951 a brilliant young Chinese graduate student abandoned a promising academic career in America to answer the call of his homeland. The new Communist regime was urging "patriotic intellectuals" to return from overseas and "serve the socialist motherland." Wu Ningkun arrived in Beijing eager to assume his duties as a professor of English at Yanching University. Six weeks later, the first campaign to reform the thought of intellectuals was launched. In Wu's words, it was "a declaration of war on the mind and integrity of the intelligentsia for the next forty years."

A Single Tear is Wu's account of that war, as it was waged against him and other intellectuals by a Chinese Communist Party bent on establishing its own brave new order. Despite having read Darkness at Noon and 1984, Professor Wu was woefully naive about what was in store for him, so much so that in the beginning he loaned out his copies of Koestler's and Orwell's "reactionary" books to his students to read. "Corrupting the young minds of the New China" became one of the first charges against him.

Wu Ningkun had picked up some other bad habits during his years in the United States, not least the propensity to freely speak his mind. Ordered to attend study sessions on Marxist thought, he called these "an insult to the intelligence of professors." To colleagues, he lamented the lack of freedom of speech. These, too, became the basis for accusations of rightist thinking.

Within two years of his return to China, Wu became a target of a nationwide campaign to ferret out "hidden counterrevolutionaries." His life became a dreary round of denunciations by once-friendly university colleagues and students. Party activists forced him to write endless self-criticisms, threatening him with the "iron fist of the proletariat" unless he confessed to the charge of "spying." Sitting in the center of a roomful of accusers day after day, he realized that Darkness at Noon and 1984 were more than just works of literature. He was living them.

Wu's persecution ended suddenly when several of his fellow ultra-rightists committed suicide (not good for the Party's image as benevolent savior), but it resumed with the onset of the next campaign in 1957. Once again Wu was dragged out and accused of imaginary crimes, only this time he was sentenced to an indefinite period of reform through forced labor. He was sent to a government "farm," really an outpost of the Chinese gulag, near the Siberian border in Heilongjiang province. His release would come, his captors informed him, only after they had judged his thoughts to be "sufficiently reformed."

Once in the camp, however, Wu found that the endless grind of back-breaking labor left little time or energy for thought reform, whatever that was. He came to envy the regular prisoners with fixed sentences, for they toiled in the certainty they would one day be released. He once asked the camp commandant when he would be set free. "When you have thoroughly reformed yourself," came the authoritative reply.

"But how do we know when we are thoroughly reformed?"

"When you are released!"

Wu expected to be there for the rest of his days.

His life almost came to an end two years later, when China spiraled into famine following the failed Great Leap Forward. Keeping prisoners alive was not a priority. Rations were reduced to a bowl or two of boiled turnips a day—a recipe for rapid starvation. Before long, Wu was digging shallow graves for dead friends, convinced that he would soon be lying in his own.

That Wu survived at all is a tribute to his wife, Yikai, who collaborated with him on this memoir. Spouses of those who had fallen into disfavor were urged by Party activists to "draw a clear line of demarcation" between themselves and their partners. As a practical matter this meant divorce, and many thousands abandoned their mates to marry someone more politically correct. But Yikai refused to leave her husband, citing her Catholic convictions against divorce and the Party's stated policy of "curing the sickness and saving the patient." Her intractability infuriated her inquisitors, who decided that she, too, was an enemy of the people.

Still, Yikai would not be deterred from campaigning for her husband's release, visiting official after official to plead for his life. In the summer of 1961, just as the famine was entering its worst period, her persistence paid off. Wu was allowed to go home for medical treatment. He was told that he had been paroled by the camp commandant for reasons of "revolutionary humanitarianism," but it later became clear that Beijing had intervened: It would unnecessarily blacken China's international reputation, the authorities had decided, to have a well-known patriotic intellectual die of starvation in a prison camp.

After he regained his strength, Wu was transferred to Anhui University. Chastened by the narrowness of his escape and hoping to avoid re-arrest, he sought to sit very small. But there was no escaping the vicissitudes of Chinese politics. As soon as the Cultural Revolution erupted in June 1966, he was accused by the newly formed Red Guards of being a "cow demon and snake spirit." He was confined in a "cow shed," as the temporary detention camps for cow demons were called, allowed out only for public criticism sessions at which he was kicked, beaten, and reviled.

In 1968 Mao called for the nation's intellectuals to go into the countryside and be reeducated by the peasants. Yikai was exiled to a tiny hamlet in eastern Anhui. Wu himself, a so-called arch-demon, was taken to village after village by the Red Guards and displayed to crowds of curious peasants, the chief attraction in a traveling sideshow of political freaks.

As the Cultural Revolution began to wind down in 1974, Wu and his wife were finally allowed to return to the city and resume their teaching careers. Five more years passed before Wu was summoned back to Beijing to be formally "rehabilitated." The regime issued an apology for the shameful way he had been treated during the Cultural Revolution, blaming Mao's wife and her radical associates in the party leadership, and removed the rightist label he had worn for over two decades. Wu was promoted to full professor, given a three-bedroom apartment, and allowed to travel abroad. His three children, once denounced as "little cow demons" and forced to change their surnames, were allowed to go abroad to study. Wu and his wife followed in the late '80s and now live in the United States.

A Single Tear is a crystalline microcosm of the vast sea of bitterness that has flooded China in recent decades. As early as 1962, according to official government count, more than half a million of China's best and brightest had been classified as rightists by the paranoid and ever-changing Communist regime. The Cultural Revolution saw virtually the entire intelligentsia of the country humiliated, imprisoned, and banished. Many teachers and writers were killed outright. Others succumbed to private despair and died of self-inflicted wounds. Still others joined in the denunciations of their former colleagues, saving themselves at the cost of their consciences and integrity.

Wu and his wife did not merely survive two decades of brutal persecution—which would have been accomplishment enough—they survived it with body and soul intact. When the pressure to confess grew too great, Wu took refuge in passages of Shakespeare, his wife in remembrances of Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ, and their tormentors could not reach them in the quiet recesses of their minds. When suicide threatened to seem like a release from their suffering, Wu would smilingly quote to his wife Hamlet's great laments: "That this all too solid flesh might melt….That the Everlasting had not fixed His canon against self-slaughter!"

In the words of the author, this memoir was written to address one question: Have I suffered and survived in vain? Anyone who reads this intense and beautifully written book will answer a resounding no. It is a story of love, hope, and deliverance with few parallels in the history of recent dissident literature.

Contributing Editor Steven W. Mosher is director of the Asian Studies Center at the Claremont Institute in California. His latest book. A Mother's Ordeal: Escape from One-Child China, will be published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in May.