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Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp

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On Sale: August 04, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37835-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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In Woman from Shanghai, Xianhui Yang, one of China’s most celebrated and controversial writers, gives us a work of fact-based fiction that reveals firsthand—and for the first time in English—what life was like in one of Mao’s most notorious labor camps.

Between 1957 and 1960, nearly three thousand Chinese citizens were labeled “Rightists” by the Communist Part and banished to Jianiangou in China’s northwestern desert region of Gansu to undergo “reeducation” through hard labor. These exiles men and women were subjected to horrific conditions, and by 1961 the camp was closed because of the stench of death: of the rougly three thousand inmates, only about five hundred survived.

In 1997, Xianhui Yang traveled to Gansu and spent the next five years interviewing more than one hundred survivors of the camp. In Woman from Shanghai he presents thirteen of their stories, which have been crafted into fiction in order to evade Chinese censorship but which lose none of their fierce power. These are tales of ordinary people facing extraordinary tribulations, time and again securing their humanity against those who were intent on taking it away.

Xianhui Yang gives us a remarkable synthesis of journalism and fiction—a timely, important and uncommonly moving book.


Arriving at Jiabiangou
Qi Yaoquan was born in Dunhuang County, Gansu Province. In the fall of 1949, when Communist troops overtook the nearby city of Jiuquan, Qi was in his final year at Hexi Middle School. Inspired by the Communist plans to build a new China, he quit school and volunteered to join the Communist army. The Military Control Committee did not recruit him. In those days, the newly established government needed educated cadres, so the committee sent him to study for three months at a cadre training school and then assigned him a job as youth coordinator at Linze County. In early 1952, Qi became the general secretary of the Shahe Township Communist Youth League. In the same year, he was admitted to the Communist Party. Qi was a tall, handsome young man. An avid reader, he loved literature and was well versed in Marxist theory. He received several more promotions over the next few years, until in 1957 he was named the secretary of the Jinta County Communist Youth League.
At the beginning of August 1957, Qi Yaoquan received a short letter from the Jinta County Communist Party Committee, asking him to return to the county immediately for a conference. The request came as a surprise to Qi, who had been visiting an agricultural cooperative in the middle of the Badan Jilin Desert with a three-man work team since early July. This was his second trip to the region. The government had launched the collectivization movement a year earlier, and the county had dispatched a large number of soldiers to different villages before the summer harvest. Their job was to urge peasants to fulfill the government grain quotas. Since the grain quotas were high and burdensome to meet, the work teams felt pressured to stay longer in the villages. Qi’s team wasn’t scheduled to return until late September or early October, after the peasants had dried and ground the wheat.
Upon his return, Qi learned that the county was about to mobilize the masses to start a campaign that Chairman Mao called the rectification movement. Citizens were urged to criticize the Party and thereby help officials improve the quality of their work.
Qi followed current events closely. He knew that Chairman Mao’s new campaign, summed up in the slogan “Let one hundred flowers bloom and one hundred schools of thought contend,” had already kicked off in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but he had heard two divergent opinions about it. The official party newspaper, People’s Daily, carried numerous articles advising people to air their opinions. Yet Qi also read an editorial asserting that some people had used the rectification campaign as a way to attack and sabotage the Party. The Party was fighting back against its critics with great vehemence.
In Jinta County the rectification campaign kickoff meeting took place in the newly completed Baoshui Auditorium. All local officials, schoolteachers, artists, and writers attended. Lu Weigong, the county Party secretary, delivered the opening mobilization speech. Then all the participants broke into groups so that they could speak their minds and offer criticisms of the Party.
The reaction to the campaign was one of silence and indifference. For two days, nobody in Qi’s group spoke up.
On the third day, Lu joined Qi’s group. He further emphasized the significance of the campaign and encouraged everyone to speak their mind freely. Lu even said that when a Communist Party member refused to stand up and criticize the Party, it meant the person lacked strong principles. Silence indicated lack of patriotism.
Qi considered himself a red-diaper baby and a true revolutionary by nature. It had never even occurred to him to criticize the Party. But on the other hand, Qi had always admired and respected Lu.
Lu came from Qingyang County, a bastion of Communism in the early days of the revolution. He had grown up in an illustrious family of scholars and had left home at an early age and joined the Communist movement. During the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists, he was appointed the Party secretary of Qingyang County. After the Communist takeover, he was appointed chief of staff at the Gansu governor’s office. In September 1956, he came to Jinta County as part of his training. During his stay there, he shared the county Party secretary’s position with Qin Gaoyang, another revolutionary veteran, who came from northern Shaanxi Province.
Qi admired Lu because Lu was well educated and capable, modest and reliable. He spoke and wrote eloquently. On arriving in Jinta County, he visited ordinary people and listened to their problems and complaints. Based on what he heard, he helped to overturn several unpopular laws, and thereby improved the public image of the county leaders, who had been widely considered arrogant and rude. As a result, Lu earned the support of the local peasants and officials.
Lu, in turn, appreciated Qi’s talents and capabilities. At the beginning of the year, the county Party committee assigned Qi to draft a report on the progress of agricultural collectivization in the county. Lu stayed up all night and completed a thirty-two-page draft. The next morning, he shared the draft with members of the committee at an expanded leadership meeting. Lu showered Qi with praises and approved his report without any changes.
On another occasion, Lu attended a night class on Communist theories that Qi taught on a part-time basis to county government officials. Afterward, Lu was heard telling several officials how impressed he was: “He is not only a good writer, but also quite an expert on Marxism. In my opinion, no other county official can surpass Qi in the area of Communist theory.”
Later on, Lu had proposed promoting Qi to the job of deputy county chief. An official secretly passed the word to Qi: the promotion request had been granted by the provincial Party committee. Lu would announce the decision after the county wrapped up the rectification campaign.
Qi’s respect for Lu and the news about his promotion prompted him to take action. The second day after Lu visited his group, he stood up and said, “I want to offer some suggestions for our county Party secretary Qin. First, as one of the most senior leaders in Jinta County, Qin should watch his public behavior and keep his personal life clean and discreet. At the moment, there is a coming saying that’s popular among ordinary folks here: ‘When Secretary Qin comes down to town, all the chicks’ are called upon. You send him a married woman, he also lusts after a young virgin.’ People don’t just make up these ditties for no reason.”
Qi spoke in a serious tone. Even so, his remarks aroused some murmuring among his group. Some people couldn’t hold their laughter and had to cover their mouths.
Qi continued: “Comrades, please take this seriously. I’m bringing this up because I don’t think it’s merely a matter of personal lifestyle. Secretary Qin is a Communist official. To the people in Jinta, he represents our Party. I understand that he joined the revolution at an early age. What was his motivation then? It was to overthrow the old regime. Now that the old regime is gone, we Communists are in power. As an official in this new government, he engages in affairs with women—sometimes even two at the same time. What’s the difference between him and the scoundrels from the old regime? As a matter of fact, we seldom heard such scandals about the county chief in the Nationalist era.
“My second criticism is about the county’s overzealous approach to implementing the mandatory state grain-purchasing policy. I visited Shuangcheng village in the first half of this year. Many of the peasants I met looked feeble and pale. When I asked if they were suffering from any disease, they attributed their bad health to hunger. Apparently, the government had gone overboard the previous year in forcing peasants to fulfill their quotas. Peasants ended up without any food for themselves. Since government subsidies didn’t arrive on time, many families had to subsist on wild grass. I hope the county leadership can keep ordinary people’s interests in mind and come up with a reasonable quota to alleviate the situation.”
Once Qi started speaking, he found it difficult to stop. Before he was done, he had listed seven complaints against the county leadership. After the meeting, he wrote down his seven complaints with a paintbrush on poster boards and pasted them on the walls of the county government office complex. As he did so, he remembered one more: A county official in charge of welfare took money from a relief fund earmarked for the needy and gave it to Secretary Qin every month in the form of a subsidy. In return, Secretary Qin promoted the official. Qi wrote about his complaint on a poster under the headline, THE VICE CHAIR REDIRECTS MONEY FROM THE RELIEF FUND TO ADVANCE HIS CAREER. Qi also criticized the county’s misguided efforts to plant trees in the desert.
Qi went even further. He wrote an open letter to the County Party Committee and handed a copy to Lu Weigong. In the letter, he made ten proposals, including: improve the unified state grain-purchasing system to ensure that peasants have enough to live on; remove incompetent officials from the Legal Department; give greater attention to collective leadership and the repudiation of dictatorship.
With Qi taking the lead, others began to follow suit and write their complaints on posters. The campaign finally took off. It was only two weeks, however, before Qi and the other activists began to lose their enthusiasm. Little by little, they noticed that something unusual was happening. Following a complaint meeting, the county would assign an official to seal the meeting minutes. When a speaker wanted to check if his words were recorded accurately, he wouldn’t be allowed any access to the minutes. Qi also saw several strangers in the office complex every day. They seemed to copy down the writing from every complaint poster.
People grew scared and stopped their criticisms. Some even tore down their own posters.
Qi heard that the strangers had been sent by Secretary Qin. One afternoon, Qi pulled down all the posters he had written and burned them. Even so, he felt uneasy. He could sense that something ominous was moving toward him. He showed up at Lu’s office and said, “Secretary Lu, please give me back my open letter.” Lu told him that he had already passed it on to Secretary Qin.
Startled by what he heard, Qi raised his voice: “Why on earth did you hand my letter to Secretary Qin?” Lu answered back: “Did I do anything wrong? Wasn’t it supposed to be an open letter to the County Party Committee?” Realizing that he shouldn’t lose his temper in front of Lu, Qi immediately corrected himself: “If you have already given it to him, that’s fine. I’m just a little worried lately. The situation doesn’t seem right. I sense that something bad is going to happen.”

Table of Contents

Preserving Memories of a Forgotten Era by Wen Huang

Arriving at Jiabiangou
Woman from Shanghai
The Train Conductor
Manure Collectors
The Love Story of Li Xiangnian
I Hate the Moon
The Thief
The Army Doctor
The Potato Feast
The Way Station Manager
The Clinic Director
Jia Nong

Translator’s Acknowledgments
Xianhui Yang

About Xianhui Yang

Xianhui Yang - Woman from Shanghai

Photo © Courtesy of the Author

XIANHUI YANG lives in Tianjin, China. Woman from Shanghai is his first book to be translated into English. 

WEN HUANG is a writer and freelance journalist whose articles and translations have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia, the Chicago Tribune, the South China Morning PostThe Christian Science Monitor, and The Paris Review.


“Xianhui Yang’s Woman From Shanghai, a newly translated collection of firsthand accounts that the publisher calls ‘fact-based fiction,’ is about what might be called the Gulag Archipelago of China. . . . Woman From Shanghai represents a remarkable contribution to a growing literature based on personal histories. . . . Readers of Mr. Yang’s book should not be put off by the frequent recurrence of common elements in these stories: the exposure to bitter cold; hunger so intense as to cause inmates to eat human flesh; the familiar sequence of symptoms, beginning with edema, that lead down the path to death; the toolbox of common survivor techniques, from toadyism to betrayal, from stealthy theft to making use of the vestiges of privilege, which survived even incarceration in this era of radical egalitarianism. It is through the accumulation and indeed repetition of such things that this utterly convincing portrait of a society driven far off the rails is drawn. . . . Most moving of all, perhaps, is ‘The Love Story of Li Xiangnian,’ about the persecution of a young man and the persistence of his ardor for his girlfriend. The haggard Li escapes from detention to be reunited with her, only to be arrested again. Their touching reunion many years later, after the woman is married, would not be out of place in a Gabriel García Márquez novel.” —Howard W. French, The New York Times

“In Woman from Shanghai, Xianhui Yang describes in wrenching detail the squalid conditions and widespread starvation that only 600 of the 3,000 prisoners were able to survive. Even some who lived to see their convictions reversed were forced to become paid employees of the labor camp. . . . Despite these horrors, there are stories of selflessness and fortitude.” —Sarah Halzack, The Washington Post

“Told in stark, spare yet deeply compelling prose, infused with unsentimental compassion, Woman From Shanghai stands out amid the voluminous literature and testimonies about the persecution in Mao’s labor camps. It exposes torture and dehumanization, but is also a powerful rumination on hope, love and humanity.” —Fan Wu, San Francisco Chronicle

“With these complex, yet simple stories, Yang uncovers another chapter of China’s hidden history.  More important, he shows how strong the human spirit can be and how hard it is to break.”  —Chicago Sun-Times

“With unadorned simplicity, Yang’s works reject superficiality and demonstrate restraint, very much like the deceptively calm expression of a person whose mind is tortured by chaos. This type of controlled restraint draws the readers to the special magic of his stories.” —Lei Da, Executive Deputy Chair of the Chinese Writers’ Association

“Yang’s stories are the Chinese Gulag Archipelago that emerged from the deep water. Yang and other Chinese writers use their pen as weapons to defend our memory and preserve our history.”—Yu Jie, prominent Chinese critic

  • Woman from Shanghai by Yang Xianhui Translated from the Chinese by Wen Huang
  • August 24, 2010
  • History - China; Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $16.00
  • 9780307390974

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