Common section


New Discoveries in Xinjiang, the World's Biggest Prison


Workers of 148 Corps in the 1950s.


With survivors of 148 Corps, 2006.

TEACHER SUN AND HER HUSBAND, and other ex-soldiers and ex-prisoners of Shihezi Farm and Prison, interviewed in Shihezi, Xinjiang province, north-west China, the biggest province in China (with various ethnic minorities) which shares long borders with Russia, Mongolia and other ex-USSR countries in Central Asia. From around 1950, the Chinese government transported more than half a million prisoners of war (and later their families) and criminals to Xinjiang, where they set up Xinjiang Military Farm, part of which was Shihezi Farm, a huge prison garrisoned by over 50,000 PLA soldiers. The prisoners built Shihezi, a modern city, out of the desert. No. 148 Corps, one of the military construction corps, helped build the city but they still live in houses made of mud without running water, and more than three hundred families share one public toilet. Teacher Sun was one of the first teachers of the Shihezi Construction Corps. Orphaned at thirteen or fourteen, she graduated from senior school in 1959 and went to Shihezi where she had to do farm work and then build her own classroom. She met her husband, an ex-soldier, there and they had four children.

When I first visited the Tibetan Plateau in 1981, my route took me close to the north-western province of Xinjiang. It was there I first heard a rumour that for thirty years the Chinese government had been building the world's largest prison. According to local hearsay, nearly 200,000 Guomindang prisoners of war and over 300,000 "Reform through Labour" convicts had been moved there from the east. Guarded by 50,000 People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers under the leadership of General Wang Zhen, they were put to reclaiming the Gobi Desert where it met the Taklimakan Desert and the Gurbantunggut Desert.

This plan was said to be Mao Zedong's way of killing five birds with one stone. First, by relocating people who might form part of a counterattack on the mainland for Chiang Kai-shek, it was nipping in the bud the problem of what to do with prisoners of war from the Guomindang Army. Second, as guarding labour reform convicts was taking up a lot of manpower and resources, moving them westwards could relieve pressure on supplies in the densely populated eastern regions. Third, Mao Zedong had already foreseen the inevitability of a rift with Stalin and the Soviet Union, and the Silk Road that led through Xinjiang was a strategically important link between East and Central Asia; troops stationed there to open up the wasteland and garrison the frontier could form a barrier against the Soviet Union. Fourth, many of Xinjiang's forty-seven ethnic groups had always been Muslims, who had never been greatly influenced by the Han Chinese culture or political system. By stationing troops there to open up the wasteland and garrison the frontier, large numbers of Han people could be brought into the local society, where they would inhibit and dilute Muslim inclinations towards independence. Fifth, by accelerating Xinjiang's economic development, the abundant resources of the region could be sent quickly to supply the needs of the interior.

Ever since my first trip, I had been trying to find some confirmation for this rumour. Nobody close to me had heard anything about it, and Han people who came from Xinjiang were equally vague. All they knew was that after 1950 thousands of people had gone there to open up the wasteland and garrison the border; they rarely discussed their family history prior to 1950. Even if they had, it was quite simply impossible for me to get any kind of permission to go reporting in Xinjiang; even friends in the public security system who would normally have helped said: That place is an independent kingdom without a gate! Although I came across Xinjiang Muslims from time to time, they either didn't speak my language or just answered, "I don't know," to all my questions.

Finally, in 2005 I saw a piece of news in the Chinese media:

On 16 October this year, a group of Chinese and foreign journalists took their first steps into the "mysterious" Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps . . . reporting on an exceptional "army unit" on China's western border. This visit was organised by the News Department of the Chinese Foreign Office and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Foreign Affairs Office.

And so I began a new round of investigations into the Xinjiang Construction Corps. Compared to the primitive investigation methods of a decade earlier, everything was now much more accessible; stories to do with Shihezi had begun to appear in some small local newspapers and hand-copied literature and novels that were outside the scope of government control, and people from Shihezi were starting to talk about their past on the Internet. But these were all just personal anecdotes. It still proved impossible for me to find a properly authoritative historical summary. Later I discovered that the "authoritative historical summary" I was searching for didn't exist.

According to the introduction on a Chinese government website:

Xinjiang occupies a sixth of China's area, and is inhabited by forty-seven different ethnic groups. The ancient Silk Route passes through here, and it is an important strategic area rich in energy resources. Historically, its economy was based around agriculture and herding, with factories and mines remaining at the handicraft and workshop level. There was not an inch of railway, and industry was practically zero – the nearest thing was blacksmiths making horseshoes. The peaceful liberation of Xinjiang was completed by 25 September 1949, and later that same year, General Wang Zhen received orders to lead the First Corps of the People's Liberation First Field Army into Xinjiang and reorganise the units involved in uprisings against the Guomindang and the armies of the Three Districts Revolution.*2 Following this, the People's Liberation Army began to open up the wasteland while continuing to guard the border, concentrating their efforts mainly on production, construction, and acceleration of Xinjiang's economic development. In August 1954, before the foundation of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on 1 October 1955, 175,000 of these soldiers were transferred to civilian work by the authority of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Central Military Committee, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps was founded.

The Construction Corps was not an army unit. It was made up of desk workers, manual workers in the factories and peasants who tilled the fields, all of whom received a civil servant's pay, although military titles and structure continued for a long time. The Construction Corps is a unique case: a special social organisation planned and administered at central government level. Inside the areas of cultivation under its jurisdiction, it runs its own internal administration and legal affairs under the dual leadership of the central government and the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is also known as the China Xinjiang Group.

I also discovered that even the material on websites that were regularly checked by the Chinese government contained conflicting information on the size of the Construction Corps and its origins.

After the peaceful liberation of Xinjiang, a large army of 100,000 stationed in Xinjiang and led by General Wang Zhen, and nearly 100,000 members of the Guomindang Insurrection Army under Tao Zhiyue, all found themselves faced with a lack of food supplies. Consequently, opening up the land for cultivation became the main task of these units.

China's leaders determined that the PLA First Corps and Twenty-Second Army Corps stationed in Xinjiang would only retain one infantry division on active duty for purposes of national defence. The vast majority of the soldiers (175,000) were to be collectively transferred to civilian work in Xinjiang to engage in industrial and agricultural production, and to organise the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, with Tao Zhiyue acting as the first Chief of Staff. At a command from Chairman Mao, they took up their guns and their hoes, and embarked on large-scale production.

In October 1954, a total of 100,000 people were collectively transferred to civilian work, and they set up the Construction Corps.

In August 1954, following a directive from Mao Zedong, 105,000 PLA officers and soldiers stationed in Xinjiang were collectively transferred to civilian work, along with over 60,000 family members, all of whom were organised into the Xinjiang Military Area Production and Construction Corps. Their responsibility was to open up the wasteland and garrison the border.

The figures on government websites differed greatly from what I had learned in my enquiries. They mentioned the Second and Sixth Divisions of the First Corps of the Communist Party's First Field Army, the Xinjiang ethnic minority forces and several divisions of the Ninth Corps of the Twenty-Second Army of the Guomindang, but didn't include any prisoners of war or Reform through Labour convicts. Moreover, nothing I could find in any of the historical literature, the material from the local "Xinjiang Construction Corps Museum" that opened on 10 October 2004, or from the handful of retired people who had returned to the east, could provide me with a complete, definitive list of the policymakers who had led and masterminded the transformation of Shihezi from desert to modern city. Apart from the PLA leader Wang Zhen, and the Guomindang Twenty-Second Army Chief of Staff Tao Zhiyue, many different leaders' names appear and disappear, such as Zhang Chonghan, Zhao Xiguang, Wang Genseng and over a hundred others. I know that all these different inclusions and exclusions were the result of different sets of political requirements, and this is one of the thorniest issues in the last hundred years of China's history, as changes in political climate cause those histories that had already changed to "change anew". I think that this "don't talk politics" and "can't say for sure" must be a Chinese speciality. Who would want to be constantly discovering the errors and loopholes in the history they describe?

A few things did become clear as a result of my subsequent investigation. There were explanations relating to the idea that "since the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps was directly responsible for acting as a deterrent against the forces of Xinjiang independence, its existence has always come under attack by international human rights organisations and supporters of Xinjiang independence. It has been called an occupying army, haphazardly organised and internally corrupt." These explanations proved to me that at least some of the rumours I had heard were correct.

Then there was another piece of information connected with the women in the corps. From 1950 onwards, nine thousand girls from Shandong, eight thousand from Hunan, a thousand Henan peasant girls, and thousands of women from other places in the interior were brought to Xinjiang so that new generations of pioneers could continue to open up the wasteland. Were these yet more women who had been "married off by the revolution"? When I decided to focus my report for China Witness on Shihezi, capital of the Xinjiang Construction Corps' Eighth Agricultural Division, I did not expect that this would be a reporting experience in which joy and sorrow were intermingled.

Shihezi city is located in the middle of northern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains in northern Xinjiang, at the southern edge of the Dzungaria Basin and on the Lanzhou–Xinjiang Railway. Originally a part of Shawan county, Shihezi is situated on the "Silk Route", and shares its unique western customs and culture. First established in 1950, and officially designated a city in 1976, it is the earliest of the Construction Corps cities. It is managed by the Eighth Agricultural Division of the Fourteenth Division of the Xinjiang Construction Corps, whose Divisional Headquarters is located here. Shihezi city holds the United Nations International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment. Her location was chosen by soldiers, and she was planned and built by soldiers; her miraculous achievement, "the people advances, the sand retreats", has won her worldwide renown; she is a successful "model military border" for China, and she is known throughout the world by the name "Pearl of the Gobi" for her beautiful surroundings and unique, resplendent culture.

– from China's People Daily

After several months, we finally found somebody willing to help our "study and investigation" group enter this city where "swords were forged into ploughshares", and I started to believe that I had found the key to Shihezi. However, just four days before we were due to get underway, with our team all packed and ready, I received two emails from Shihezi:

18 July My teacher has finally returned my call. He says that vigilance in the Old Cadres' Home is running extremely high; even the residents' relatives become wary when foreign issues are mentioned. It is strictly forbidden to give out their phone number. They are afraid of getting dragged in if there are any problems. I can understand why; this is just the way things are in our China.

My teacher has told me that any interviews with them must be arranged through the Shihezi United Front Office, the office in charge of non-Communist political parties, but if you come in August to compile materials they can help you with that. This is a really disappointing result after a week's hard labour! But sometimes the final result of a thing is always the opposite of what we wish for.

I sincerely wish that everything goes smoothly!

My other "inside agent" sent an email that read like official correspondence, quite unlike his usual style:

I welcome your visit, and I also support the students' investigation into history. However, as Shihezi has only just opened up to the outside world, the interviewees will require a "government-level letter of introduction" before they can take part in the interviewing process. I would not go so far as to say that there will be no opportunities among acquaintances and passers-by, but I am afraid that they would not dare to get involved, or they may dare to help but be unable to do so, having no idea of what to say. I respectfully ask you to reconsider carefully before you begin your journey.

Although I had been prepared for something of this sort, I still felt a great pressure. First, the buses, trains, boats, planes and accommodation had already been booked, and most of the travel tickets had been issued; second, I felt that I was fighting against time as it snatched from my grasp these elderly people who were trying to speak out, struggling against China's long history of fear-induced inertia. Not wanting to lose a vital opportunity to report on this part of China's history, I determined to rush headlong into danger. Even if nobody could tell me anything, we would still be able to get a feeling for that city that was built up from the desert. Not all dramas take place onstage; you can also see them by the roadside.

On 5 August 2006 at dusk, we arrived at Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Our friend Yi was waiting to welcome us. He was moved by our persistence and determination, and he told us that after much effort he had managed to get hold of the first teacher in the Shihezi Construction Corps, who was also the first person to set up a school there. In addition, he was going to make another attempt with a group of old people he knew who had spent nearly fifty years opening up the land for cultivation. In an instant we had gone from "utter destitution" to a treasure trove.

Mr Yi had arranged a meeting room in our hotel for interviews the next morning. Thirty minutes past the appointed time, the first interviewee had still not arrived, and we were starting to feel uneasy. I had experienced this countless times in the past because of "Chinese flexibility" – last-minute changes of plan due to "illness, traffic jams or urgent family business".

But this time I was wrong: Teacher Sun hurried into the room, sweat breaking out all over her forehead, accompanied by her very tall husband. She said: "You've been waiting for ages, I'm so sorry." The couple then declared that they were reluctant to be interviewed and had only come so as not to disappoint her student. I took more than ten minutes to explain why we were looking for Chinese witnesses, that this was a charitable cultural activity to help our future understand our past history and to let the world know about Chinese people's national pride. Clearly they were impressed by our words, and finally outgoing, confident Teacher Sun sat down in front of me. "I like to deal with people who say what they mean, I like working with people who have a smile on their faces. After your affecting words, I can't let you come all this way in vain! In any case I haven't done anything to be ashamed of, I've got no reason to worry about ghosts coming to knock on my door. Let's talk, then – just don't look down on me for not talking well."

To this day, the media in China bases its reporting on "principles", with facts coming a poor second. Interviewees are often "led" to follow the central ideology of the Party, and to express "personal views defined by principles". Therefore, at the start of an interview, many people will tell you that you must not take it amiss if they can't express things properly. Nobody stops to wonder: how can the media define a personal standpoint as good or bad? Perhaps over a thousand years cultural restraint has already become an integral part of the way Chinese people express political ideas.

Due to the shared understanding between us, my interviewees felt much more comfortable with a fellow Chinese than they would have been with the same questions coming from a foreign face. For many people, as soon as somebody opens the gates of their hearts a great river of stories flows out; no bank can hold them back, and no dyke can block their way. Teacher Sun was one of those.


XINRAN: Teacher Sun, you're a successful teacher, you've raised generations of students, many of whom have gone on to great things. Would you also describe yourself as a mother who can communicate with her own children?

SUN: That's not the same thing.

XINRAN: Why not?

SUN: Our children wouldn't understand, they think we were too foolish, living only for others. Things were different in our day, nobody would think of scheming just to get some advantage for one's family. If you only thought of your own children, people would look down on you, and we all need self-respect, don't we?

XINRAN: So what differences are there between your attitude to life and that of your parents?

SUN: They died when I was very young, I didn't know them. At that time life was very hard for every family. Actually, I was one of the lucky ones, I even went to school.

XINRAN: Where did your good luck come from?

SUN: When my parents passed away I was in the first year of middle school, only thirteen or fourteen, and I was the eldest of four children, with three younger brothers. My grandfather was seventy. He said, "I can take care of the house, but I can't look after you. Best if you take a break from school, stay at home to look after your brothers, try a bit of hard work, do the cooking." When I heard this I cried, saying that I wanted to go to school. My grandfather said, "We're all too old or too young in this family, we've got no income, we're just living off that little bit of money from the government, how can you go to school?" So I cried the whole day: I want to go to school. In due course the school got wind of this, and two of the school leaders came to my house, they said to my grandfather: "Her marks are very good. It'd be such a shame if she dropped out of school. The school can give her five yuan a month to support her studies, four yuan to buy food coupons, one yuan for a notebook and pencil, and we'll write off her school fees." And that was how I managed to keep on with my studies. At the end of middle school, when I was preparing for the exams, my teacher tried to persuade me to apply to the teacher-training school: "There are no school fees, the state will support you for three years, and afterwards you can teach." I said I wanted to take the exam for senior school, because senior school was the only way to university. I'd always been very competitive, ever since I was small. I thought: Let's see what happens. I'll get in through my own ability; whether I can study there is another matter. And in the end I got in. One of my uncles said angrily: "You really don't know your limits, do you? Even children with a father and mother can't go to senior school, and you want to go?" I said: "If children with fathers and mothers can't go to senior school it's because they're not up to it. I have no father and no mother, but I am up to it. Anyway, whether I go or I don't, it won't be with your money, so what's it to you?" After I started at senior school I applied for help with studies, and because of my family circumstances, I got an eleven-yuan bursary a month. In those days the state could give me a grant, and I treasured it. To this day I'm still very frugal in my daily life. My son's wife complains about me, saying I shouldn't wear cheap ten-yuan clothes any more, or shoes from roadside stalls that only cost a bit over ten. But I've always been very careful. When I came to work in Xinjiang, I cried when I got my first wages; if I'd had that thirty-two yuan at home, I wouldn't have had to worry about school fees for a whole term.

XINRAN: Did you graduate from senior school?

SUN: Yes, I graduated from the Number One Senior School in Wendeng city, Shandong province, in 1959. But then there was no grant for university. The state hardly funded anyone to go to university, just a few children of revolutionary martyrs. An old classmate of mine had come to Xinjiang before me – in the three years of natural disasters, she had to quit school halfway, she didn't even have anything to eat, she ate grass roots and tree bark every day. So she came to Xinjiang without finishing school. At that time Shihezi One Eight Cotton Weaving Factory was recruiting workers, so she got a job. Later on when I left school, she sent a letter asking if I was planning to take the university entrance exams. I replied, I had no income, I had no plans to sit the exams. She said, then come here. I said, all right, I have no family anyway. Volunteering to support the borders sounds pretty good, very revolutionary, so I came of my own free will to support the border regions.

XINRAN: How did you come?

SUN: By bus and train. I travelled for over a week. I could have arrived a few days earlier, but I took a bus to Yantai, where my godmother lived, and she refused point-blank to let me go any further; her whole family were clutching at my hands, they wouldn't let me go. They said: "You're a twenty-year-old girl, they speak Xinjiang language where you're going and you won't understand, they write Muslim characters and you won't be able to read them. If you go you'll just bring down suffering on your own head." Aiya, it wasn't an easy decision for me either – I spent two days in Yantai struggling – but in the end I said, no, I still want to go, I can't stay here. They said, "You can find work in Yantai, that's just as good, take your time, you're a senior-school graduate, you can find work here. Get a temporary job, you'll get used to it." But I remembered that just before I set off from Wendeng a fortune-teller had told me I would travel far and fly high. I couldn't stay there, I had to go.

XINRAN: Can you still remember what the trains were like then? What did you eat on them? Were there many people? Were the trains like they are now?

SUN: Back then trains weren't as well equipped as they are now. They were all very old and shabby, there was a lot of noise, and they rocked about a lot. You got a real feeling of "tiredness" from them. Every time the train stopped, we thought, "It'll never get started again!" There were only a few trains a week, but they fairly packed us in. At that time a ticket from Yantai to Xinjiang was seventy yuan. I bought my ticket with borrowed money and boarded the train. I was frightened then, it was my first time away from home in my whole life. In those days you had to have a travel permit to go anywhere, and I hadn't got one. I was terrified. An old man from Shaanxi sitting next to me asked: "Girl, where are you going?" I said I was going to Shihezi in Xinjiang. He said, "Have you got a permit?" I said no, and I was scared to death. He said: "No need to be scared, when they come round to check, just keep quiet." When the inspectors came round, he said, "This is my daughter, I'm taking her home with me." Before he got off the train he asked a soldier in the next seat to look after me – at that time we all believed that soldiers were good people. And that was how I came to Xinjiang. By the time I arrived, I'd long since eaten all the rations I'd brought with me.

As soon as I came to Urumqi, I went straight to the Shihezi Cotton Factory. My classmate took me all the way through the factory, from where the raw cotton came in to where the cloth was checked at the end. She was in the cloth-checking workshop. "Aiya," I said, "I can't do it, not with all those machines banging and roaring away!" When I left the factory I wanted to throw up, so I didn't work there. Her friends said, "If your job search doesn't work out, find yourself a husband." I said, "No way, I've come to Xinjiang to find work, not a husband! I've come to realise my ambition."

Before I found a job, I spent a few days sponging off my classmate. I must have been a real nuisance. Those were the famine years; food was in short supply and everyone had a fixed monthly food ration, so I had to cadge a bit here and a bit there. I thought I was causing my classmate far too much trouble. Luckily one day I met some people from back home who said, "The best place in the Xinjiang Construction Corps is the Mosuowan Number Two Farm in the Eighth Agricultural Division. It's a breadbasket, and our place is the best in the whole corps. Why don't you come with us?" I didn't know what sort of place it was, or what they did there, but I went along with them anyway. When I got there, I went to the labour resource office for a job. The supervisor took one look at me and said, "How old are you?" I said, "Twenty-five." He said, "You're a school-leaver, aren't you?" I was small and thin in those days – I only weighed forty kilos. I said, "Yes, I've just left school." He said, "Go back, you can't cope here, all our work is hard labour in the fields. The Production and Construction Corps is mainly production, and that means field work. In summer it's thirty or forty degrees centigrade; in winter it's thirty or forty degrees below. You won't be able to keep up." I said, "It doesn't matter, it'll toughen me up. There are plenty of people my age in your corps too – whatever other people can do I can do! Wait and see if I'm really not up to it, at least." He couldn't talk me out of it, so he let me stay. I said, "What work unit are you going to send me to?" He said, "Where do you want to go?" I said, "A friend from Shandong mentioned a duty supervision unit. There are a fair few young people there, and a lot of intellectuals." He said, "All right then, I'll put you in the duty supervision unit." At that time there was only one kindergarten in the whole corps. When the head of this kindergarten heard that a lively high-school graduate who liked dancing had come from Shandong, she wanted me as a teacher, and I agreed. But as anyone who's worked in the Construction Corps knows, everybody had to do a year's probation. You couldn't start your specialised job until after a trial year of labour.

I worked in the big fields. Really, farm work is just incredibly tough. I even had to work in the fields in winter. And what did we have to eat when we came home in the evening? Wowotou, those steamed corn buns, nothing but wowotou. At that time less than 20 per cent was flour or rice – the rest was coarse grains. We used to take a few wowotou to eat in the field. They'd be frozen solid, like ice lollies, and we ate them just as they were. We didn't go home at midday. In the winter I carried sand, I carted fertiliser. I've done everything. Picking cotton, too. The night before my first day picking cotton I was too excited to sleep. I came to the field, and the others taught me how to do it. After a while I could pick forty kilos of cotton in a single day. At that time I was one of the most capable workers in the company – everyone said that I'd make it through the trial period.


I couldn't detect any sense of hardship in Teacher Sun's narrative. This is a mark of the fortitude of that generation of Chinese; they regard "the things I've done" and "what others said about me" as far more important than "eating in the wind and sleeping in the dew". Their lives are lived on the spiritual level.


SUN: There were a lot of intellectuals in that place, relatively speaking, but I was the only girl who'd finished senior school. Four or five of the men were senior-school graduates, but none of them had been allowed to go on to university because of their class backgrounds, and that was why they had come here to make their way in the world. They were kind to me. They used to sneak rice or steamed buns into the big basket I carried on my back when picking cotton, so that I could snatch a bite to eat while I was changing baskets. I never asked who'd left them. Nothing about those people was straightforward. Nobody dared to get too friendly with anybody else. At that time it was tough, to be sure, and tense too, but the days went by very quickly. We used to go to the fields before dawn, eat our midday meal in the fields, and sometimes supper too. Then once it was too dark to see or pick cotton, we went to the maize fields for stalks. You could cut a good bundle of stems from a few rows of maize, and we carried them on our backs over all the fields we'd broken in for cultivation and back to the road, to be taken to the cow or sheep pens as fodder, or sometimes to the kitchen for cooking fuel. Freshly cut maize stems were very heavy. I really was dead on my feet, sometimes I used to weep from exhaustion. It was true hard labour.

XINRAN: Did you all have the same routines and bear the same heavy burdens, with no difference between men and women?

SUN: Oh yes, we all did the same work! Nearly everyone who came to Xinjiang in search of a future had a bad family background. It seemed that out of all the people around me, I was the only educated youth from a good class background.

XINRAN: So were you able to do a bit less than people from bad family backgrounds?

SUN: I didn't think in that way – we were all people. Besides, do you have any control over your family background? How is making children bear the sins of their parents any different from that old feudal punishment, the one where the whole family was punished for the crimes of one of its members? Aiya, I didn't say this out loud, though I thought it. If people said I worked well, that was good enough for me. I did that job for a year, and they made me a Five-Good Worker and a Progressive Student of Mao Zedong Thought. Because I'd been educated, I was given the job of keeping a record of all the work points in Shihezi [XXX]Regiment. When all the other comrades were fast asleep I had to go to the office to record everything the people in our squad had done – a dozen or more – and then report it to the central Company Work-Point Recorder. I was an Excellent Work-Point Recorder, as well as a Five-Good Worker and a Progressive Student of Mao Zedong Thought.

I was never afraid of hard work, no matter how tough it was. I didn't build roads, dig canals, or break open farmland, but I'm a witness to the history of education in the Construction and Production Corps. In 1963 when we first built a school, there were very few children – only a handful of old comrades who had married after 1956 had school-age children; before that everyone was breaking open the wilderness. There were no houses or anywhere to sleep, who had the time or energy to get married or have children? Even if they had children back home, bringing them to the Gobi was out of the question – there was nothing here for them. Three work units joined together to set up a school, with just the one class. We had to make the schoolhouse ourselves, too. The Regimental Office assigned two comrades and me to make our own sod bricks and build a classroom from sod bricks and mud. Thick wooden sticks with grass stems tied on and topped off with mud went to make up the roof. We made piles of sod bricks, half a metre high, thirty centimetres wide and fifty long, laid sunflower or sesame stalks on top and smeared them with mud. Those were the school desks. The teacher's podium was made in the same way, and we didn't have a teacher's office at all. When there was a Chinese class, out would come the Chinese textbook. I was the teacher. The next class was sums, the children took out their maths textbooks, and I was still the teacher, then it was time for singing and it was me teaching again. After a while they would go out for exercise, and it was still me. I lived in the workers' dormitory, which was just the same: a big building, the beds piles of sod bricks with sesame stalks on top. I'd just turned twenty-six.

XINRAN: Could you bear so much all by yourself?

SUN: At that time there was nothing I couldn't bear. Teaching wasn't difficult. The hardest part was going to the roadside every morning to collect the pupils, especially when it rained in summer or snowed in winter. People could get blown away or buried by wind or snow in the Gobi Desert, sometimes. If it snowed or rained too heavily, I used to take the children halfway home, and then their parents would take over. Winter was the worst. I had to go to the schoolhouse before daybreak to light the stove for the students – that was an earth stove built like a kang, you know, with a flue going through it from the stove. The pupils could sit on it while they had their lessons, but not me. I had to keep moving about and checking up on the children, who were all learning different things. When I got tired I sat on an earth stool, with my two long plaits underneath my bottom.

XINRAN: You used your own hair as padding to keep out the cold?

SUN: That's right. I used to have really long plaits, but one day when I was marking homework I forgot to hold my plaits out of the way while I was stoking up the fire. A swish of my plaits, and whoosh – one of them caught fire. Oh, I cried my heart out for a whole day. Another thing that caused me problems was films. It wasn't easy to put on a film in those days – we used to go a very long time between films, and on a film day none of the students wanted to go home. They said: "Teacher, we want to see the film." "Stay and watch it then," I'd say, so they did. They used to bring their own food supplies for lunch, not very much, so I usually had a bit of my own food put by for their supper when there was a film. It was different in those days, not like now, when you can find out where there's a film with just a telephone call, and you don't need to bring food because there are restaurants everywhere. At that time we were eking out a living in the Gobi Desert.

XINRAN: You must have been all by yourself then. Weren't you scared?

SUN: How could I not be scared? But in fact there was proper social order back then. There were no bad people. It's my belief that nobody had the energy to do anything bad – we were all half dead of exhaustion.

XINRAN: So when did you get other teachers for your school?

SUN: They didn't send us another teacher until the third year. Her husband was in the Security Office. He was in charge of the Reform through Labour teams, and he was away from home a lot.

XINRAN: Didn't you say that the social order was good, that there weren't any bad people?

SUN: I said there weren't any bad people in society, but there were lots and lots of Reform through Labour convicts! It was like all the Reform through Labour convicts in the whole country had been sent to Xinjiang. We were assigned a low little house near the school. There was a partition down the middle; she lived on one side, me on the other. It was much better after she came and there were two of us. I'd take PE while she took singing, and then we could swap for a while, or sometimes two classes would have PE or singing together. We taught that way right up to 1979. Before that it was mostly old comrades coming to open farms and things. Later on there started to be more new people, and more and more children. I began teaching middle school in 1984. I took two classes for Chinese, and I did that till 1994, when there was a shake-up in professional education under orders from the central government. Then the school set up a vocational senior high school, and I was transferred there.

XINRAN: You really are a witness to the history of education in the Shihezi Construction Corps!

SUN: Mmm, I watched the children grow up, I watched the school develop from nothing in the Gobi Desert! Still, conditions were much better when I was teaching in the senior school. We even lived in specially built teachers' flats. Two big rooms, only two bedrooms. There was a communal toilet and water room for washing, and the kitchens were cook-stoves built up outside your front door.

XINRAN: And this was in 1994?

SUN: At that time a teacher's wages were only thirty-nine yuan a month.

XINRAN: How much were your wages in 1962?

SUN: Same as all the other teachers: thirty-two yuan wages in the trial period. After a year when you were made permanent you got thirty-six yuan and twelve fen, and after another year when you got on the teachers' pay scale it was thirty-nine, right up to 1995. They didn't give me a pay rise for nearly thirty years. I started work in '62 and got married in '67. And I had four children. But it was the same for everyone back then – nobody thought it was hard. I had to supervise self-study in the classroom every day as well – I couldn't look after my own children. Evening self-study finished at eleven, and then I had to see the boarders safely to bed. I couldn't go home until lights out.

XINRAN: You really didn't think it was hard? Later I want to know your secret. Four children, and overtime on top of that!

SUN: Yes, four children! Coming home every day in the evening, making clothes by lamplight . . . I made everything myself, I didn't buy shoes, and the children's clothes were old clothes cut down to size. My elder daughter grew fast, so I added a strip to the bottom of her trousers. The next year she'd grown again, and I added another strip. The bottoms of her trousers were like stairs – I'd added three extensions! When she couldn't wear them they were passed on to the next one. I made clothes and shoes for the children every day after work, it felt like I never went to sleep before three o'clock. Anyway, I had a lot of children, I brought it on myself.

XINRAN: You were so eager to excel in your work – why did you have so many children?

SUN: That was eagerness to excel too; whoever had the most was the best. I didn't know that much then, just that I wanted to be better than everybody else!

XINRAN: So you didn't want to lag behind, even in childbearing! But you show no sign of being worn down by the drudgery of four children.

SUN: That's the kind of person I am – I always want to be the best. My work never fell behind, no matter how many children I had or how exhausting the housework was, right up to when I retired in 1995. Just then the Workers' Medical University was opening a branch college. They were running two clinical classes for level-one administrators and directors of rural hospitals aged over thirty-five. These people were the mainstays of village and county hospitals, but because their generation had been sent down to the countryside as school-leavers, they'd missed out on the chance to get a university qualification. It was impossible for them to get promotion, and their pay and conditions were very bad, so as a special consideration, this group were given a chance to do a one-year course leading to a college degree. At that time the college principal was asking around for teachers, and he came to Shihezi. He said he wanted teachers with the best work ethic, who could manage students, so he set his sights on me, begged me. I couldn't hold out against that, so I said I'd sign a year's contract, and at the end of that time both sides could decide. You see if I'm up to it, and I'll see whether I can get used to the job. In the end I worked until 1998. I only stopped when I got a stomach illness.

XINRAN: Could you never slow down a bit? From 1962, when you were twenty-five, to 1998, did you ever slow down?

SUN: I think that after a year of farm work in the corps, no matter how tough things got, it was still a much easier life than that, bending over the yellow earth all day, down to the fields before daybreak and not coming back until dark. To be honest, the year I spent toughening myself up in the corps gave me my work ethic for thirty years of teaching. It made me unusually serious and responsible, so no matter what class I was given, the leaders didn't have to worry. It's all because I have experienced true toil, like the peasants. When I was teaching, no matter how hard or tiring it was, even if I couldn't go home for twenty-four hours at a stretch, you're still inside. Talking to children and teaching schoolchildren doesn't take a lot of strength, does it?

XINRAN: Now can you tell me your secret? And also, how did you meet your husband?

SUN: You ask him, see what he says.

XINRAN: I want to hear what you say. I'm a woman – it's easier for me to listen to a woman telling her stories than a man.

SUN: Really? I sometimes think that way too.

XINRAN: And let's be practical, don't give me all that stuff about "comrades cherishing the same hopes and ideals".

SUN: You're really funny! I'll talk if you want to listen. In any case we're old, we don't mind being laughed at. My husband came straight to Xinjiang when he left his old army unit in Nanjing. A whole group of demobilised soldiers were sent over together. He wasn't due to be demobbed, but when he heard that group was going to be sent to Xinjiang on leaving the army, well, he didn't know what it was like in Xinjiang, but he put in a request to go. His arrival coincided with a big army skills competition, and his military skills had been exceptionally good in the army. He used to be in a colour guard that put on displays for visiting senior officers. At the end of that competition he was selected as best in his category. When General He Long came here from the central government they even let him have a photograph taken with him.

XINRAN: Do you still have that photograph?

SUN: No, in the Cultural Revolution they said all sorts of things about He Long. We were afraid, so we threw it away. In 1967 the armed guard units sent him to the school to give military and political training. He visited all the middle and primary schools in turn, and just then he happened to be responsible for primary schools. He was staying in the school office, and that was how we got to know each other.

XINRAN: When did you first take a fancy to him?

SUN: He was doing drill exercises, you know? I often saw him on the training ground. I was still quite young. I thought he was really handsome, so quick-witted and capable, I thought the way he went through his moves was just wonderful.

XINRAN: Just that? It's got to be more than that, surely!

SUN [laughs]: Well . . . yes, there's more. I had my own requirements for a husband. First, I'm short, so I wanted a tall man; second, my eyes are small, so I wanted a man with big eyes. He matched my requirements rather well. I'd been introduced to a good few men before him. To be honest, we were all quite particular about class background in those days, I was one of the better ones, so I got a good many introductions, but I turned my nose up at all of them. He had an easy, natural bearing, though; tall, with big eyes, very clean and brisk. Our dormitories were only separated by a road. The office was on this side, and the teachers' dormitory was just over there. He spent several months drilling the pupils, our comrades introduced us, and we got together.

XINRAN: Romantic!

SUN: What about your husband?

XINRAN: When you see him later, tell me how you rate him! Once you started living together, did you quarrel? Did you have fights?

SUN: How could we not quarrel? Not so much in the early years; mostly it was after the children came, when we were so busy. He had a bad temper in those days. He'd see the children eating slowly and lose his temper. He always clears his bowl in five minutes, so he insisted that the children finish their food in five minutes too. He wanted the children to do everything extremely quickly, the way they do in an army skills competition. He said it was to help the children's development.

XINRAN: So, has his temper improved a bit?

SUN: Now it's a little better. The children have all grown up. He says that when he was young he didn't understand, he didn't have much to do with the running of the household. I brought up all the children single-handed really – it was very hard. This is why my health is poor. Now he says he wants to make amends for his misdeeds; he does all the housework, I just read the papers and rest. In the morning, as soon as he gets up, he does some tidying. Then he gets our little grandson dressed, gets his food ready, feeds him, and takes him outside to play. When they come in he makes lunch, we have a nap, he takes the child out to play again, and then he makes supper when he comes back. Now he's experienced it for himself, he understands how tough it was for me bringing up four children.

XINRAN: Do your four children understand you now? Are they proud of you?

SUN: Who knows?! They complain about me all the time: "Being shut up all day in that school has made you stupid. Our family has no money and no connections. Other people used their family connections to do this or that." Actually, I think that people should rely on their own abilities. What, me, no connections? The mature cadre students I saw through college were all over thirty. The lowest were senior doctors or managers of village hospitals. I had an unusually good relationship with the cadre class of 1995. They said, "We were so lucky to meet a teacher like you!" Just before they left, they bought me a notebook and a pen and wrote messages inside for me to remember them by. The older ones said that they were both my students and my friends. The younger ones said: From now on I'll call you Mother.

XINRAN: That's a friendship to cherish all your life.

SUN: Of course. Why do you think I'm never able to slow down?

XINRAN: Do you think it was worth it, this life of yours?

SUN: I often say: there's nobody who has done this before me, and nobody will do it after me. How can I put it? In my life, although I've never been a public figure, I've managed to get one thing out of it: nobody has ever said that I kept the students back. Everybody says that Teacher Sun is extremely strict. Whenever I told the students to be in the classroom, I'd always be there ten minutes beforehand, waiting at the door. It's only the students who are late. I've never been late. In those years many people were like that, our generation, I'm just one of them, a drop in the ocean.

XINRAN: There aren't very many teachers like you. Only a very few women then had such great courage, or such decisiveness, endured such hardship, or did so much. To this day you don't admit defeat, and you are still so sure of yourself. How many people are like that? And another thing, do you agree that all the people of Shihezi – soldiers, teachers, or workers alike – have a responsibility to tell people about this history, to tell our children? Things just like what you said just now: how to make chairs out of clods of earth, how to sit on an earth stool in winter, how to find love in the barren desert, how to bring up children while devoting yourself to your career. But the main thing is that you are aware of your happiness today, you can feel it, and be satisfied with it.

SUN: That's right! I really am extraordinarily content with my present situation, my husband says: I never imagined such a comfortable old age, not even in my dreams. We've come to the big city. We live in a block of flats. I'd never have dreamed it. I'm absolutely content. My husband says that when I dream I wake up smiling. My oldest son has a car. On Sunday when he's at a loose end he says, "Dad, Mum, I'll take us on a drive to the outskirts." When my husband's sitting in the car he's happy inside. You have no idea how happy, he says he'd never even have dreamed of such a thing.


At midday, I invited the two old people to have lunch with us in the hotel, and I used this time to ask them a few questions.


XINRAN: Tell me, which of you was the first to raise the question of courtship? Your wife has told me about how she fell for you as soon as she saw you, before anyone had introduced you. She'll have talked to you about this, I dare say?

SUN'S HUSBAND: No, she hasn't talked about it.

XINRAN: How did it come about that you agreed to marry her?

SUN'S HUSBAND: I don't really know. [He laughs.]

XINRAN: Ooh, getting married without love or feelings, can this be a Chinese man? Tell us about it. Many young Chinese think their parents don't know anything about emotions. They think they just got married as part of a routine process. Was it really like that?

[He doesn't reply.]

XINRAN: How did you arrange your marriage ceremony?

SUN'S HUSBAND: Aiya, life was so hard.

SUN: We didn't have any money when we married. I made everything for my marriage myself, including a set of two quilts. First I had to lug all my things to the school. Then after class I carried everything on my own back to get married, a walk of two kilometres. One of his old comrades had gone back home on a family visit. There was nobody living in his quarters, so the leader said we could use this one room for our honeymoon. There wasn't a stick of furniture. The table they used for meetings became a bed. We covered it with plant stems, plastered them with mud, put in a hot-water bottle, and that was our honeymoon suite! There was a simple meeting hall nearby, and 110 workers came to our wedding. The hall had a mud stage, and we stood on it. The leaders witnessed the marriage, and then we handed out sweets and cigarettes. We bought several kilos of sunflower seeds and several more of sweets, and they docked two months from his salary to pay for them. So after we got married, he had to pay off two months of debt. He was a total pauper, not a penny to his name.

XINRAN: And after the sweets, cigarettes and sunflower seeds?

SUN'S HUSBAND: We all sang a song together.

XINRAN: Can you still remember the song you sang?

SUN'S HUSBAND: "We Come from the Five Lakes and the Four Seas". [He laughs again.]

XINRAN: Oh, I can sing that, too. Have you told these things to your sons and daughters?

SUN'S HUSBAND: No, we haven't.

XINRAN: Why not?

SUN'S HUSBAND: Things were different then.

XINRAN: Were you afraid they'd laugh at you, or afraid they wouldn't understand? I think that sometimes it isn't that the sons and daughters don't understand, it's that the older generation are worried their children won't understand. In fact, once the children reach a certain age, they do understand. Another thing, Teacher Sun said that you didn't take a photograph when you got married.

SUN'S HUSBAND: We don't have any wedding photos, it just wasn't possible to take one when we were first married. Our first family photo wasn't taken until we had our third child, when we could finally afford to take a posed family picture at the door of our ramshackle little house. Afterwards the man who took the picture came under suspicion as a counterrevolutionary because he had a camera, but he managed to escape.

XINRAN: For what reason?

SUN'S HUSBAND: What "reason" could there be in those days? If even a child said a wrong word they'd be made a counter-revolutionary. It was senseless! A camera or a radio could be evidence of being a "secret agent". At that time who could say for sure what had happened? And if anyone did say anything, they would come in for years of torment too! That's why our Chinese scholars and leaders are different from foreigners. The foreigners would never believe "the more knowledge, the more reactionary" like our worker-peasant cadres!


We all laughed, but it was bitter laughter.

I hoped to hear the true history of Shihezi from their voices. I could see that Teacher Sun and her husband were getting along well enough with me that we had built up a mutual trust. I wanted to ask them to teach me about the background to "Shihezi people", which I had never been able to get straight in my mind.


XINRAN: Teacher Sun, what sort of people was this Shihezi Corps made up of?

SUN: The very earliest corps was a group led by General Wang Zhen, an army that came to Shihezi. They were told to garrison and protect the borders, to guard Xinjiang, and to become self-sufficient. They wanted to engage in production, so they didn't have to depend on the state for support.

XINRAN: Protecting Xinjiang in the Gobi Desert? Production in the desert?

SUN: I really haven't thought about it. People in the 1950s didn't discuss their past lives much, we didn't ask too many questions about that. I thought that asking about people's backgrounds was like holding an interrogation; that's Party business, nothing to do with us. I do know that there was a Unit 925 which had a lot of stuff in its background. All the same, I don't know if it was people from the Guomindang, or an army that had been fighting the Guomindang.

XINRAN: How many people were they?

SUN: I'm not really sure. After them came volunteers to assist the frontier. They were all from poor areas like Henan and Gansu, and after that again it was young people assisting the frontier. In 1964 a group of young people came from Shanghai, and another in 1965 or 1966 from Hunan. Another year they came from Tianjin. One of the teachers where I used to work was one of those city youths who came to assist the frontier.

XINRAN: What proportion of people in the corps have gone back home now, and how many have stayed on?

SUN: The majority of the assist-the-borders youths have gone back. Some stayed, but not that many. Then you have the people who came to join the army, from Hunan and Shandong, one group in '52 and another in '54, women soldiers who came to Xinjiang in the name of joining the army.

XINRAN: Why do you say they came "in the name of joining the army"?

SUN: They came to join the army, with drums beating and gongs banging and red rosettes round their necks. To be frank, most of them were recruited to solve the "personal problems" of the army officers here in Xinjiang.

XINRAN: To be wives? Roughly how many?

SUN: I don't have a definite figure, but this was an open secret. Everybody in the corps knew, and they didn't think it was a bad thing either. People spoke very highly of them sometimes: "Even in marriage, their one thought was to help the Party and the motherland. Now that's what I call self-sacrifice and courage!"


When I first heard this reply, I thought that Teacher Sun and her husband did not want to discuss the backgrounds of the people in the corps in public, so I brought the conversation to a close. But after several days of interviews, I became aware that there were no proper records for this part of history, because the old people we met with in the 148 Corps could not say anything for sure either.

Teacher Sun gave me what I had been hoping for in my Shihezi reporting trip, but the old people from the 148 Corps we met through Mr Yi exceeded my wildest expectations.

The following day, on our way to the 148 Corps, I visited the Army Wasteland Reclamation Museum. Its 3,000-square-metre exhibition hall contained more than three hundred photographs, all of which moved me greatly, for they were of people living, fighting and struggling in utter poverty. Old people, children and women were treated alike. There might be biological differences, but everyone's lives were the same: days and nights under the sun, stars and moon, with constant sandstorms all year round. Although no figures were given for the number of deaths, we could sense how feeble the "great good luck" of those "lucky survivors" actually was. As we stood at the exit to the exhibition, we found it hard to believe that the modern buildings all around us had been barren wasteland in the fifties.

In the visitors' book I wrote: Thank you: you have given us the China we know today, we owe you a debt of gratitude as deep as that which we owe to our parents.

My husband Toby left a message as well: Every Westerner who comes here and sees with their own eyes what the Chinese achieved out of nothing in the 1950s, transforming the desert into the modern city of today, will ask themselves: Is there anything that the Chinese cannot do?

After we left the museum, I showed Mr Yi a copy of one of the photographs from the museum, and told him how much I wished I could find the people in it. They were breaking open the virgin soil, moving sand and stones in a sandstorm, but they were talking and laughing. And there was a child by their side, moving sand and stones in a metal washbasin, who also had a very excited expression. I believe that anyone who could smile in the middle of such desperate poverty must be a survivor.

He glanced at the photograph and smiled: Let me give it a go, let's try our luck.

We drove into the residential area of 148 Corps and suddenly I felt that I had walked into that old photograph. I was introduced to two of the old people, and it was immediately clear that they were two of the people in that selfsame photograph! Good heavens! That Mr Yi must be a prophet – or perhaps a wizard. He turned to me and said that without the smiles of history, there would be no self-belief or self-respect. We all knew that the people in that photograph might have been under orders to smile, but nobody came out and said it because we all wanted that time to be real, and because that was the impression that these old people wanted to leave of the days of their youth.

The two old people were husband and wife. Their home was a world away from the skyscrapers and tall buildings of the city, just one house in a row of one-room houses, with mud and earth walls and a roof of straw and wood.

The 320 families in the village shared a single communal water cistern and one public toilet with five squatting spaces each for men and women. Before and after the reporting, I made two journeys to "experience" that toilet, outside which long queues formed every morning. I had barely stepped onto the road to the toilet, before a cloud of flies circled around me, and inside the toilet every inch of the floor was covered in a layer of wriggling white maggots. You had to crush countless maggots to get your feet onto the two "squatting places": planks balanced over a big pit. My eyes were smarting so badly from the noxious fumes drifting out of the pit that I could not keep them open. I thought I might tumble in at any moment, and would have to claw my way out, with a million maggots for company.

We were led into the old couple's house, where we found them preparing us a welcoming meal. Clearly Mr Yi had done a good deal of prior preparation. This is a custom in many Chinese villages, which serves both to welcome guests and to get the measure of them at the same time. When you sit down to a good meal, they watch to see if you take big mouthfuls of the coarse grains and salted vegetables and gulp down the local moonshine before they can be sure whether they should trust you. So I hinted to my group that they should follow their hosts' example. Apart from the hordes of flies competing with us for the food, this was a sumptuous peasant banquet. There were dishes of all sizes, seven or eight in all, including chicken, pork, tofu and vegetables, as well as steamed twisted rolls, rice and a big basin of egg-and-tomato soup.

This was no time to think of dieting. Restraint was not the road to the old people's trust and cooperation. Before too long, two more old people dropped by for a visit. This is another custom in the countryside where there is no cultural life: old people will go to a neighbour's after supper for a smoke and a chat, not returning home to sleep till after dark.

While all this eating and drinking was going on, I started to chat idly with the old people about a few family matters. Afterwards, my interviews began, and as the old people's enthusiasm grew, they could not resist joining in with more words of their own.


XINRAN: You said you came in the group of 1956, one of 57,000 who came from Henan. Were you here to assist the border?

148A (a hale and hearty old man of seventy-seven): We all called it "assisting the frontier". Anything that wasn't Reform through Labour or being a soldier was called "coming from the interior to assist the frontier".

XINRAN: Reform through Labour? How many people? Where did they come from?

148B (an elderly 78-year-old whose pipe never left his mouth): Three hundred thousand Reform through Labour convicts. It started about 1951, one lot after another. They seemed to be mostly from Henan and Shandong – well, actually they were from all over. And then there were 15,000 big onions, big onions from Shandong!

XINRAN: Big onions?

148B: Oh, that's Shandong people. [He laughs.] The Shandong Onions came as soldiers, every one of them with a bag of big onions on his back – they're fond of eating big onions.

XINRAN: So how were these people organised?

148A: At that time the name was "Armies of a Hundred Thousand", though that 100,000 was an inflated figure – there were actually only 80,000. So, 80,000 people in one regiment, which was divided into thirteen divisions. Thirteen divisions, 80,000 people, you can work it out. A division could only be so many people. If you worked according to this system, you really couldn't allocate workers properly, so the commissar and the Chief of Staff sent a report to the centre asking for a few hundred thousand more.

XINRAN: Where did these hundreds of thousands of people come from?

148A: Well . . . from Henan, Shandong, and Reform through Labour convicts. Later it was educated youth going down to the countryside from Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuhan. Didn't Chairman Mao have a policy of sending educated youth down to the countryside?

XINRAN: That would be in the Cultural Revolution after 1966, right?

148A: Yes, and we got our next set of Reform through Labour convicts in the Cultural Revolution as well!

XINRAN: How many divisions are there in all now?

148B: It must be fourteen divisions. All told, a third of the population of Xinjiang.


An elder who was holding forth on "leadership skills" told me that if you wanted to survive in Shihezi in the 1950s, you had to remember: Don't obey the sergeant, and don't obey the platoon leader either. Why? It was all hard labour in the fields, and that burns you up. Food rations came in fixed amounts, you couldn't eat your fill. When you're sleeping on the ground without a roof over your head or even a bed, year in, year out, taking care of your health and staying alive is down to your own ability. If you kept yourself in good health, if you didn't work well this year, you could have another go the next. The ones who died just died, and that was the end of them. Who thinks about them now? You absolutely had to keep your health. In a society that didn't know who was who, you had to speak less, and listen less, no good would come of talking, all misfortunes come from the mouth. As a leader, you didn't care who got up each day, who never stood up again.

Listening to him, I realised why I couldn't find out the number of dead there, how many were tried and sentenced to death. We don't know. No one knows – no one in Xinjiang, no one in China.

I had heard that hundreds of thousands of young women had been recruited to go to Shihezi to "carry on the family line" for the soldiers, so that their families could put down roots. But I didn't think that the people who were sitting with us would have "made the grade" to be "allocated a wife". Once again, their marriage history was a new experience for me, and in some cases it gave me a lot of food for thought.

I asked 148C, a man of over eighty who still had a head of black hair, where he found a wife. Was she from his home town or from Shihezi?


148C: My wife? At home my wife calls me Uncle, d'you know that?

XINRAN: Were you matched as children?

148C: My elder sister said to her: Go with my younger brother.

XINRAN: Were you already here by then?

148C: I came here long before that, she came in the sixties. She's younger than me – when I came out in '56 she was only fifteen years old. Before that I was too poor to get a wife and didn't offer a better prospect than a lot of suffering.

XINRAN: So now she must be a very happy married lady.

148C: Well, we rattle along. I've never given her any cause for worry in my life. All she has to do is eat. [He laughs.]

XINRAN: So what did she do?

148C: She was a worker in the corps, like me. She retired in '86 when she was forty-five. I didn't want her to suffer any more. We had enough to live on. What more do you need?

XINRAN: Are there difficulties today?

148C: That depends on what you call difficulties. If you've had a few years of sleeping on the ground and not getting enough to eat, after that, so long as you can fill your belly and sleep well, you don't think much about difficulties.

XINRAN: Is this why your hair is so black? I really can't believe you're over eighty!

148C: It's fashionable like this now, isn't it? If I don't make myself a bit more easy on the eye, am I being fair to my wife? I've never made her rich, and I couldn't give my children a big official as a father. If I don't think up a few tricks to improve myself, isn't that even more unfair on the whole family, young and old?!


So what were their thoughts on the difference between today's relative affluence and their initial penniless existence?


XINRAN: Just now in the museum we saw the changes in Shihezi, from utter poverty to basic self-sufficiency. So, has there been a very big change in relationships between people from when you first came here to open up the wasteland?

148D: It was just so different. Put it this way, at that time everyone was so tired that there was no time to think about anything except getting a good sleep. Sometimes we were so tired we fell asleep in the middle of eating. I think that in those days more people died of exhaustion than illness!

XINRAN: Did many people die of exhaustion?

148D: That goes without saying. For some it was all over in just a few days. It's not easy to talk about, you can't say for sure.

XINRAN: Then let's not talk about it. Were there any disturbances here during the Cultural Revolution?

148D: Well, it was better than in the old days. By then we'd started to have reserves in the granary; there were storehouses for rice and wheat, and sometimes you had vegetables to dry outside. We hung up meat outside too. Every family had a room; there were no courtyards, and many houses didn't have a door either.

XINRAN: So when did you start to have doors?

148D: Oh, I think my door must have been put in by about '68 or '67. Back in those days, lots of people got married in the pigpen – that's just the way it was. Others got a shed, and they just lived in that shed. There was no door, nothing at all.

XINRAN: Then you must all have been very pure-minded?

148D: Even if they gave you something, you didn't have anywhere to stash it. Where could you put it? All you had was a room – it was impossible to ask for anything more. We even ate from a big communal pot.

XINRAN: Now do you miss those days?

148D: This high-pressure economy we have nowadays puts too much mental pressure on the workers. The old way was better. In those days, you not only didn't need money to have kids, they gave you money. In hospital nobody ever mentioned a deposit or medical fees, and there was no such thing as a loan. If you were ill in hospital, the work unit would send money over, the hospital would give you food and a bed, and you'd go home once you were cured. When the time came for the children to get married, they just went right ahead. You didn't need money for school either; none of my sons and daughters paid any school fees. If you were sick you didn't pay, if you went to school you didn't pay, and you didn't have to shell out for somewhere to live either, or pay for your kids to find a job. When the children reached working age they reported to their parents' work unit, and they were in work. When the time came for them to start thinking about marriage? Fine, go ahead and get married, and we'll give you a room. In those days there was no need to worry about work or food. You can see the way things are today. Getting married is a burden on the head of the family, and don't even talk to me about getting them a house, I can't even afford the clothes and jewellery! I'll tell you this much, when I got married, we had two kilos of Mohe pipe tobacco, less than a kilo of sweets and no cigarettes at all; we put down a quilt for my wife and a quilt for me, two quilts together and that was that.

XINRAN: Were there guests at your marriage?

148D: Yes, there were. The others in my squad said: "It's your wedding day, we've bought you a picture." And that was that.

XINRAN: What was the picture? [At that time it was fashionable to give a propaganda poster as a present.] Was it a portrait of Chairmen Mao or . . . ?

148D: Oh, no. Portraits of Chairman Mao came later; before that it was all New Year pictures for luck, or scenery.

XINRAN: Have you kept that picture?

148D: No, it's been so many years, how could we have kept it? We didn't keep anything. Look how easy it was to live when I got married – we didn't even miss a day to get the marriage certificate or the health certificate. We went to work, we went for our tests – they took a bit of blood for the health certificate – and when we knocked off work in the afternoon we stopped by the laboratory for the results slip. Getting our marriage certificate was the same. I saw it was getting late, so I went to the office. My wife hadn't had a chance to go, so I went by myself. I ran into the political instructor, and he asked what I was doing there. I said getting married, and we had a little chat, and then I just took the certificate away with me. Once I'd got the certificate, the political instructor said: "When are you going to hold the wedding?" I said, "You decide." The political instructor said: "Saturday, then." I said fine, the political instructor organised a ceremony, and that was it. Nobody in my family knew. It was the political instructor who told me to bring my family over. I sent a telegram, and later the political instructor had my family brought over. Aiya, I'm telling you, those days . . . those days are long gone, but we really did have a very carefree life, it's just that there wasn't much money. Public order was really good back then, there were no problems with thieves or robbers. At that time none of the courtyards had a door; if you rode a bike, you could leave it lying there and nobody would touch it. You could hang up meat in a snowfield and again nobody would touch it.

XINRAN: So do you regret coming here?

148D: No, why should I? If I'd stayed in Shangqiu and never come here, I know for a fact that I wouldn't be around today. I don't work any more – they even call it being retired – and the state gives me five or six hundred yuan every month. In my home town, I wouldn't even get ten! It's so poor there that we still get people coming here – fleeing for their lives.


I don't know which of the villagers was passing on the news of our reporting, but once we started our interviews, more and more old people from the village gathered round. They even became talkative, and the space outside the host's inner courtyard filled up with people engaged in heated debate. It seemed like everyone was queuing up to recount their thoughts and experiences. I had not expected this. Why did everybody from the outside world believe that Shihezi people would clam up and refuse to discuss history, when in fact they were like underground magma, held down under pressure, awaiting the chance to come bursting out? Was it because this place had been sealed off for too long? Or was it that the people had been squashed by the weight of history until they were gasping for breath?

Yet another old man squeezed in, adding himself to those already "stacked up" on the small, battered old sofa next to me.


XINRAN: Hello! Do you still have people back home? Are your parents still with us?

148E: My mother and father are both here. We were all sent by the state, the whole family, more than a dozen of us.

XINRAN: You all came? Do you all have houses to live in?

148E: Yes. My older brother has the old broken-down 1960s house now. His six children all live in flats, they're all earning over a thousand a month.

XINRAN: So when was the last time you went back to your home town?

148E: I was last in Shangqiu in '79. I came back in 1980, when they were just starting up the household responsibility system.

XINRAN: Do you think it's better with land allocated to individual households? Or was it better when everybody was all working together?

148E: There was a lot of waste with the collective. You got no bumper harvests. It's like when two families keep a horse; I'm not prepared to fork out for feed, and neither are you, so that horse is bound to be thin. Or like several people living in a house; you don't look after it, so I won't bother either, and then it's bound to leak, isn't it? If you live by yourself, you have to keep it in good nick, don't you?

XINRAN: So was it much better after the land was parcelled out in 1980?

148E: You can get a thousand pounds of wheat out of a mu of land. A thousand pounds a mu, that's pretty impressive. Back home in the 1950s it was eighty or a hundred pounds a mu at most, and that was the best wheat. Now it's a thousand pounds, that's quite something, it's doubled several times over. Now we have good food supplies in the corps production areas, but there's too much pollution mixed in. Too many chemical fertilisers, perfectly healthy people have been destroyed by fertilisers!

XINRAN: So when you were just setting out to cultivate the wilderness there was no fertiliser?

148E: It was all piss and shit! Back then the toilets were always cleaned right out, clean as a whistle. There wasn't even time for maggots to grow!

XINRAN: Chemical fertiliser saves time and strength, and it's cheap. That's why it replaced physical labour and the workers' piss and shit, isn't that right?

148E: Yes, you can save your labour to do a bit of business on the side, and earn a lot more money than you get toiling away in the fields all day. Nowadays kids don't care about the taste of food: these days it's all numbers, people and possessions.

XINRAN: Have you told the stories of those years to your children? Stories of coming here, breaking in the ground and cultivating the desert?

148E: How could I tell them? That's ancient history. Nobody listens.

XINRAN: Have you talked?

148E: They don't take it in. You've come and listened so eagerly, but when they listen they get ever so impatient. They don't get to hear anything good, who wants those bitter days now, who wants that hard life? At that time four of us would buy a single steamed bun. We'd break it into four with our hands – break a two-hundred-gram bun into four pieces – and we didn't dare to eat it during the meal breaks either. When it was almost time to go to work we'd each grab a piece, eating as we walked.

XINRAN: So if someone asked you about Chairman Mao, what would you say? Do you think that what Chairman Mao did was good or bad?

148E: Aiya . . . Well . . . Chairman Mao . . . Deng Xiaoping's already made a public statement for you, right? – 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. It's been said already, hasn't it?

XINRAN: What do you think? You've said it yourself, that's what Deng Xiaoping thinks.

148E: What do I think? I think he was OK. I didn't get hurt, so he was all right. But when you look at it from the point of view of the people who did get hurt, when you look at the big picture, the Chairman did do a few bad things towards the end.

XINRAN: At the beginning didn't the people take him to their hearts?

148E: Yes, but towards the end he did some inappropriate things. It's terrifying, really. When the end came, he didn't listen to the truth, he only listened to lies. And the people around him were boasting wildly, telling him any old thing. The policies were good, but when they were carried out at the lower levels they went off.

XINRAN: How are things now? Do you have hope now? Are things a little bit better now?

148E: Aiya, now? Jiang Zemin said it: If you straighten out the Party, the Party may die; but if you don't straighten out the Party, the nation dies. Now everything's fine apart from all those little leaks everywhere, and that's not good, is it? All these leaks in small places, it's terrible. I'm telling you, if we keep on like this, we're finished. It's always been like that, from the Qing dynasty to Sun Yat-sen to Chiang Kai-shek, you know what I'm talking about. Why did the Qing dynasty get that way towards the end? Now people are still saying, aiya, bring back Sun Yat-sen. It wouldn't do any good, Sun Yat-sen would be too old. They say bring back Chairman Mao, but could Chairman Mao come back? And why would we want them back? To sort out the corrupt elements who take the people's money away from them. If we don't do that, well, things start to go wrong with people when they get old – and the same is true of political parties. The cracks are already starting to show, we need to take ruthless measures to put things right.

XINRAN: So how are conditions in the corps now?

148E: The corps . . . well, we can't say much about anything outside the corps. The corps is divided into leaders and workers now, split into superiors and inferiors. They all stick together. When something happens they all present a united front. They protect each other; no matter how weak or useless an official is, he'll always have a government job to do, officials look after their own. In Chairman Mao's time, the corps was a big collective, it didn't belong to just one or two people. What you had, I had, we all had. Nobody could have any more than anyone else, or any less either. Now it's come to a pretty pass; banknotes have blocked out the sky and we common folk can't see what they're thinking up there. In Chairman Mao's day the officials used to come and ask how we were – full of concern, they were – but who comes to take care of us now? Nobody comes, nobody wants to know. We're halfway into our graves already, and when we go our thoughts will be gone too.

XINRAN: Isn't there the Shihezi Museum? We visited there, it was really moving. Future generations will be able to learn about you from that.

148E: Do you believe what it says in those captions? Oh, the photographs are real enough, and the exhibits in the cases, they're real too. But what about the true stories behind their stories? Journalists aren't allowed to look into the things that went on in our corps, not even national-level journalists. What was this corps doing? How many people were they? How did they get here? Who lived and who died? What was going on? You can't say anything for sure about the people who came in 1951, and the ones who came later can't say for sure either. Try if you don't believe me! You teachers and students, you just try asking what those people did before they came to join the corps, and see what you get. Nothing doing!


In Urumqi I met the mother of my friend ZH. ZH's mother was sent to Xinjiang in 1958 when she was just thirteen years old. As she told me her story, it was clear from her voice that words could never express all she felt.

"That day a group of ten of us set off by train, leaving the beautiful mountains and lakes of Hangzhou behind. We arrived in the great, bustling city of Shanghai, where we boarded another train to Xi'an. We were shocked rigid by the bleakness of Xi'an and the poverty and ignorance of the locals. Many of the girls started crying, and some ran off back to the cities in the east. I didn't have the nerve to run away with them, so I got dressed in my army uniform, and became a new recruit. I was only thirteen, I didn't understand anything, it had never occurred to me that anything frightening would happen. From Xi'an I took one of those 'sardine-can' trains they used to transport soldiers in, which took us to Urumqi, changing at every station. Altogether, the journey from Hangzhou to Urumqi took one month and seven days.

"When we saw the Gobi Desert stretching out in front of us, we were all shocked out of our wits. We couldn't imagine how people could survive here. Most of what they ate were milk products, and the toilets were big pits beneath two slabs of wood. There were no streets or roads, and practically no lights, let alone shops. Later on I learned that the suffering and poverty were nothing. The worst part was the physical labour. Everyone who came to Xinjiang had to do a probationary year of labour, and mine was building reservoirs. For a city girl, working every day on the building sites, where I had to dig the ground or carry stones or earth on a shoulder pole, hard physical labour in the blistering heat of the sun . . . I'll never forget it as long as I live. It's also why I will never feel tired or overworked again in my whole life. We built the first Xinjiang Military Hospital in that place, and that was where I met the man who's my husband now. In those days he was the director of the Xinjiang Song and Dance Troupe. He fell ill and ended up on my ward. He liked me a lot, and he took me to visit his two sisters, who had also been sent to work in Xinjiang. But I really couldn't get used to his reserved style of courtship, and I didn't much care for the way he kept combing his hair all the time – it was very unmanly. I didn't dare to make up my mind on my own, so I asked my friends in the hospital, but most of them didn't approve. They said that he couldn't stop fussing with his hair and clothes whenever he came to see me, he was too capitalist, too petty bourgeois, and he was bound to end up a counterrevolutionary. I was very confused, but I still decided to marry him, because he was clean and very polite.

"We got married and had two daughters. Life in Xinjiang was very hard, so I made up my mind to go back home to Hangzhou. I was determined not to bring up two daughters in this cruel place, so I left the army and took my daughters back to Hangzhou on my own, where I got a job as a nurse in a local hospital. My younger daughter was only two then, and the other was nine. Every minute of every day was a struggle, with no help from either set of parents. My husband and I lived apart like this for twenty-three years, with me working and bringing up the children alone, suffering all kinds of hardship to raise my daughters. We could only get together once a year. Often my husband was busy and couldn't come to Hangzhou, so I would have to take the two girls on the long, arduous journey of over three weeks from Hangzhou to Urumqui to see their father.

"After twenty-three years of separation, we were finally able to live together once more, but it didn't take us long to realise we had become incompatible. My husband despised the extravagance and self-indulgence of the interior, and the constant quibbling over trifles. And I was hugely disappointed in the husband I had longed for through all those lonely nights: his crudeness, his constant grousing and shouting, his total intolerance of anybody different. It made me miserable. But we didn't divorce. Both of us thought we should stay together, if only for the sake of our two daughters and our grandchildren.

"My elder daughter has a son called Haohao. He's thirteen now, and he often quarrels with his grandfather. Haohao believes that his grandfather is dragging the dark shadow of history into his life today. He thinks that his grandfather should accept the gifts that modern society has to offer. But his grandfather feels wretched and angry that his grandson has such an affluent lifestyle but understands nothing of the trials and suffering of the older generation, he doesn't know or respect what happened in the past. I don't think this is just a problem for our family, I don't know what it's like for other people."

When ZH's mother finished speaking, her eyes were staring at something far away over the horizon. I guessed that this distant place was somewhere for which she had started to yearn when she was thirteen: the life of a happy young girl, a young woman hotly in love, a tender wife, a mother telling stories in a soft, gentle voice, an old age spent hand in hand, mutual support and comfort . . . These are every woman's dreams, but what has she had of such dreams?

In fact, the family life of ZH's parents, like that of Teacher Sun and her husband, is an exact portrait of hundreds and thousands of Chinese families from the 1950s until today. The very same happiness, anger, grief and sorrow between the generations can be found in so many families, especially the families of the Chinese who turned Xinjiang green, the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of Shihezi.

The Chinese say that the Great Western Region is a land of mystery. Every handful of earth there is heavy with legends, and the people who have been to the region have all been touched with the dust of those legends. Perhaps this is still true, for people who come back from the west find that there is a great gulf between them and the people they left behind, a river of stories separating them from their old home.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!