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Zou Jingzhi: 九栋 (Ninth Building)

The narrator starts by telling us that he seems detached from his past life – when I looked at myself, I saw a stranger. He carries around a compilation of shadows, leaving one behind everywhere I go. He returns to the eponymous Ninth Building where he grew up. It has been knocked down and replaced by a bigger building, also called the Ninth Building. He began writing this story in 1996 after the old building was demolished. As we shall see, his childhood was not a normal childhood. The book starts in 1966 in the middle of he Cultural Revolution.

We open when he and his friends – all teenage boys – plan to form their own Red Guard unit. This is not playing Cowboys and Indians or the like as boys were wont to do. These Red Guard units of children are active in rooting out enemies of the Revolution and these enemies may well include their close relatives, parents and siblings included.

However the first thing they have to do is get Red Guard armbands made, whch they do. However, though they may be Red Guards, they are still boys and not averse to avoid paying the bus fare. The woman who sells them the armbands has a piece of white cloth across her chest which proclaims Bourgeois traitor Liu Liyuan. Other people have similar labels in them, declaring them to be class traitors.

However, it get worse, when the stepmother of one of the boys kills herself, leaving a bloody mess and no-one will remove the body so he has to do it. Another boy has both his parents taken away as spies, leaving him and his younger sister to fend for themselves. It seems his parents had visited the Soviet Union and had had contact with Russians.

So the new Red Guard unit is out spying on neighbours and reporting deviant behaviour. But they are still boys. They fire catapults at hens but also take an interest in animals, looking after a baby sparrow and even having pet lizards. When the weather improves they enjoy a spring outing. But when an old granny is being abused they will join in. I’ve already seen five dead people, it isn’t anything to get excited about comments one of them, when a dead body is found in the neighbourhood.

But Zou is a teenage boy and that also means an interest in the opposite sex. He meets someone at school and, though they get on well together, her father committed an error and the family is shunted off to the wilds.

Zou’s family also has its problems, His father is deemed a reactionary and has to wear an appropriate hat and is imprisoned in a cowshed. Zou himself is subject to re-education through poverty and sent to the Great Northern Waste which is essentially a labour camp, though seemingly much less strict than the Soviet ones, not least because several of the prisoners, including Zou, are able to sneak out and go home. They also earn limited amount of money, often used for gambling. However, one of the key activities is how to fake a fever to get off work and go to the hospital ward.

He spends eight years working away and we learn of the trials and tribulations this brings. It is hard work and no fun at all. The diet is decidedly uninteresting. Intimate contact with the opposite sex (there are many women there as well) is forbidden though, of course, that does not stop it happening. There is the risk of injury or illness and, as happened in his previous existence, premature death is more or less taken for granted.

There are essentially three ways out. The first is being transferred, either to some other unit or going back to study. These options are very limited but do happen. The second is illness or injury, real or fake. Obviously, a certain amount of effort is put into faking injury and illness. The third escape route is, of course, death and we see this, both because of injury and illness.

Zou does get out eventually and back to Beijing, where he worked hard to attain a life of mundane stability before becoming a successful writer.

This account is interesting as it is so far removed from the experiences of most Westerners. It is not the first book I have read about the Cultural Revolution and what happened to its victims but this one is worthwhile as it gives a very personal account and shows what it was like for the ordinary people, particularly those with a hint of education and bourgeois background. There is no mention of Mao or Oher Chinese officials. Zou is focussed on his own experiences and he does not question the rights and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution. Everything, from hard work, arbitrary punishment and death, is taken for granted.

For us, perhaps equally surprising is that, as boys, Zou and his friends behave the way we would expect boys to behave – misbehaving, a fondness for animals, gangs, swapping things and, later, girls – while at the same time hunting down class enemies, turning in their parents and being regularly confronted with brutality and death and taking it all in their stride. Zou tells his story well, neither blaming nor criticising, just recounting what must have been a horrible life.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Law Press
First English translation in 2022 by Honford Star
Translated by Jeremy Tiang