Ex-cons writing about prison life


The American TV show Prison Break caught fire with Chinese viewers last year and gained huge audiences both online and in bootleg DVD versions.

A Chinese knock-off of the series is reportedly in the works. Prison of the Far East (远东第一监狱) has as one of its script writers an author named Zhang Chunlei (see this article, below).

In 2003, drawing on his own prison experience, Zhang began posting a serialized novel to online forums. The novel Four Walls (四面墙), released in print last year using the pen name Gemenr, follows a white-collar criminal from a local holding tank to the Tianjin municipal detention center, and then to the prison where he is sentenced to reform through labor for three years.

The author notes in the preface that he eventually decided to frame his memoir around the character - a nice little picture of a man enclosed in four walls that means "prisoner." Whether or not the walls are physical objects, he writes, everyone is enclosed in a prison.

In an interview with Southern Weekly, Zhang discussed the history of prison writing and where his own work fits into that history:

Do prisons distort human nature?

an interview with Zhang Chunlei by Zhang Jian / SW

The vast majority of prison writing describes the unjustly accused or the defiant, so justice is naturally a theme at the forefront. In prison literature by admitted criminals, however, thematic options are limited to guilt and atonement.

There is a criminal in Four Walls named Shu He who is a Christian. In a letter to his daughter, he writes, "Your father is an extremely unqualified believer." His moral self-condemnation is in the face of what he calls God.

Zhang Chunlei said that that letter was real; he copied it into the book from the original. Shu He is perhaps a bit different from the simple Christian of myth. He pursues the things of worldly life, but when he commits a crime he turns to God. The first time, he is caught by Tianjin's Section 17 for taking kickbacks. He fakes a mental illness, successfully. Later, he looks into criminal psychology and reads over one hundred psychological examinations. He imitates the blank stare of a mental patient like an actor practicing an impression and makes it his specialty. The second time, for financial fraud, he again tries fakery but doesn't pull it off and gets a life sentence. He thinks that as with a masters in economics, even if he gets parole in a few decades, he'll have less than a high-school level of economics; he can't keep up with society, so he'd rather die. On the one hand he wants to bust out by faking that he's crazy, but on the other he upsets the court and hopes for a death sentence. His personality has fractured.


The greatest function of a prison

Reporter [SW]: You have said that an American read Four Walls and then talked for a long time on a long-distance call. What was that about?
Zhang Chunlei: A Chinese-American, the niece of an old author from Tianjin. She said that she was frightened after reading Four Walls; the criminals were like stinkbugs...the also said that under American Law, prison guards and prisoners are not permitted to have any significant physical contact. If they push an prisoner, then there only need to be two witnesses to strip him of his uniform. She said that the difference between being in prison and not being in prison was that in prison, you cannot go to Las Vegas, you can't enjoy the sun outside.

The Guantanamo prison - why did Bush set that up outside the country? Because in the country, the law restrain him and he could not use torture or forced confessions.

SW: Think about this question: should the severity of a prison be linked to the degree of development in society?
Zhang: I think that the greatest function of a prison is to remove a person's freedom of movement. Throughout the world there is no prison that people yearn for. Even American prisons at least take away your freedom of movement, and prevent you from going to Las Vegas. In Four Walls, the first feeling of many readers is that they absolutely must not commit a crime. An elementary school teacher from Sichuan came to Tianjin to find me; he wanted to take revenge on someone who had wronged him. After reading Four Walls, he felt a chill down his spine: "Do I have the ability to live within those walls?" After thinking it over, he felt that it wasn't worth it.

SW: At the beginning of the 20th Century, in The Cop and the Anthem by American writer O. Henry, the protagonist Bill forsakes freedom in order to survive.
Zhang: Maybe that's a special case, because he felt that outside there wasn't enough food to fill his stomach and he had no way to enjoy freedom's pleasures. Everyone will evaluate the costs; he felt that the cost of continuing his life of hardship on the outside was higher than the cost of losing his freedom on the inside.

SW: Has there been any appraisal of Four Walls from the literary world?
Zhang: To date there's been nothing in writing; perhaps the subject matter is a bit too sensitive. But online, there are several dozen lengthy discussions by readers which, together with shorter commentaries, have far surpassed the length of the novel itself.

In 2004, Chen Weijun, director of A Hard Life is Better Than a Good Death said that he wanted to film the most brutal segment, about "Xiao Xiangxiang," as a documentary. At first I was very interested, but later he said that there was no way for the film to be shown on the mainland; it could only go to overseas festivals. So I refused.

I am more concerned with what real meaning these things of mine can have in my everyday environment - for example, using it to test society's tolerance for sensitive topics, rather than taking it overseas for use by other people. How can other people help us?

Today, although half was cut out when it was published on the mainland, I am still happier than if the full version was published overseas.

SW: What were the real circumstances behind Xiao Xiangxiang?
Zhang: A sixteen-year-old kid, still whining to his parents, had no money to go online, so he stole a bag off a train and was jailed for it. Later, he committed suicide when he could no longer endure various torments from the other prisoners. He despaired in the face of all kinds of rapists and murderers. A few prisoners tormented him in particular - they wrapped him up a blanket and took turns beating him. When he couldn't take it anymore, he reported it to the guard. This is a major taboo in a detention center - like the rules of the underworld; it's called an "intelligence report." When the guards saw it, they transferred him. But just like in society, when you move from one place to another, news travels with you; just like "all officials protect each other", the prisoners in the other section continued to torment him, and more severely....

I did not lay eyes on him myself, but I came across some prisoners who had beaten him and they told me about it.

Prison literature

SW: In your personal opinion, is there anything unique about Four Walls among so-called prison literature?
Zhang: The earliest prison writing is probably The Book of Changes; Wenwang produced The Book of Changes while in prison. In the Tang Dynasty, Luo Bingwang's "No one believes in my uprightness; who will air my grievance?" from Singing the Praises of the Cicada in Prison express his noble sentiments.

Later, Fang Bao's Jottings in Prison is a relatively true-to-life document.

After 1949, there first were the "Red Classics" as exemplified by Red Rock, whose positive and negative archetypes - saints if not devils - are purely heroic texts.

Prison literature after the reform and opening up was mostly made up of reflections and complaints about wrongful imprisonment, with Ji Xianlin, Cong Weixi, and Zhang Xianliang as prime examples. This was intellectual writing that brought together two keywords: "complaint" and "reflection."

In my view, the non-fiction book Jiabiangou Chronicles by the Tianjin writer Yang Xianhui is probably the pinnacle of that stage of prison writing. I feel that its contribution lies in the fact that it transforms the endless individual complaints and reflections into a group concern. Set in the penal farms of Gansu with the "three years of natural disasters" as background, it poignantly depicts the misery of the laboring prisoners. It is documentary literature with precise reporting. Jiabiangou Chronicles is a summation of the "scars school" of prison literature. Authors no longer had need to recall and express the persecution they themselves suffered; no matter how badly you were treated, you couldn't compare to those people who starved to death.

Now we can talk about my Four Walls. It has no moral high ground; it carries no political or moral tone. It simply shows attention toward a normal criminal from the viewpoint of a normal laboring prisoner. The people involved are the only ones with the right to engage in self-reflection; no one else has the right to think things over for them. So I could only be a pair of eyes, I could only record the actions and dialogue of the prisoners around me. I only hope that the reader can find something between the lines of the actions and dialogue; I have not written a word of evaluation or explanation.

SW: You have said that the term "four walls" is a vehicle for metaphor: "a metaphoric object that neither I nor anyone else can overcome." What is this object?
Zhang: On the stage there are no walls, but the actors can knock on doors and open windows. It is concealed. In the epigraph, I wrote that even if your body is free, your mind may not necessarily escape confinement. Outside the prison walls, formless "four walls" are all about you: ethical standards, legal controls, the rules and regulations of the office...and all kinds of hidden, unwritten rules are all being used on us. You can't see them, but you can't escape them.

Many people have told me that when they are reading the book, they think of their own past and present, "That prison strongman is just like the manager that always bullies me! Those weak prisoners who are beaten and betrayed are just like me when I was a weak kid!"

Inside and outside the walls is essentially the same, only inside the walls society is condensed and stripped bare. I am not alluding to China but rather to any place that people live in.

A distortion, or true nature?

SW: Full of tender feelings when first entering the prison, as time goes on, a person becomes cold and ruthless. Is this a distortion of human nature, or is it nearer to a person's true nature?
Zhang: Prison is condensed, space is narrow and time is transitory, and people are concentrated together. It does not allow you space to consider - after one or two days, you must make a choice whether to fight it or go along with it. It's not like society, where both space and time are expansive and people can vacillate during the process of adapting to their environment.

When I first entered, my morality was confused. I was not a hero, I was a person, and by nature I sought benefit and avoided harm. I recorded myself in this way in order to find out what face I would find on a person in an extreme situation.

In the preface, I write that the so-called truth and justice outside the walls, the ethical rules of family, friendship, and love, once inside the walls, had to undergo a process of breaking down and rebuilding. You will find that the concepts you are familiar with will be stealthily exchanged, or else lose their meaning entirely. So the model of someone inside the walls gives us food for thought; no system outside the wall is inevitable, innate, or eternal. They rely on the human world for their existence, and when the human world changes, they must adapt or else be reduced to empty shells.

SW: Then is it a distortion or closer to true nature?
Zhang: I believe that it is closer to true nature. You could say that in Four Walls, only a small portion is a distortion, while the rest, though distorted in appearance, is closer to the origin of human nature. This origin is not "good" or "evil" as traditionally understood, but rather the word "self" - selfishness is the root of human nature.

SW: After going from the detention center to the prison, you dropped in position. Your rationale for this choice was that if you could not be a tiger, then you could be the fox running behind the tiger.
Zhang: My case, to use my own words, was pretty nice - it wasn't shameful. But if it were rape, then no one would respect you, and you'd definitely have no standing - just as if in society, your family background was no good.

I gave gifts to the tank bosses and to the guards, and after doing this I didn't have too much trouble - I led a "middle-class life." Actually, I saw through the rules, and I could have been a tiger, but being a tiger would have given me too much moral stress.

SW: In prison, could you rely on those condemned prisoners who knew that they were not long for this world?
Zhang: Inside common prisoners is only one simple, serious thing: hope to regain their freedom. Without this things are too difficult. There was a guy called "Dumb Post" who was only sentenced to a few years. But the other prisoners tormented him until he broke down, with a clear motive: use the blood of Dumb Post to move the guards to relax their work burden. Dump Post later jumped off a building. He didn't die but was sent to the hospital, and after a few months he returned to prison and continued working. Afterward, the prisoners' workload was a little lighter.

Self-injury occurs in basically every prison; people use iron bars to break their own legs. To use the government's language, this is anti-reformation and can result in a longer sentence. Some prisoners are simply shameless and injure themselves to get out of work. Some injure themselves after a mental breakdown.

Of course, all people possess human nature, and even murderers have human nature - they won't kill everyone they meet unless they are abnormal murdering crazies. Staying together with them, I had one feeling that was very deep: facing death, they did not express any sort of abundant emotion; I never saw any despair or regret. Only the day that they were to be shot, I'd hear them turning over in their beds for the entire night, but whatever they were feeling no one will ever know. I passed twice and saw them wearing shackles that clattered as they went by like a tsunami.

Along with the interview, SW ran an article about Zhang's own prison experience. Translated below is an excerpt:

I confess my crime...

by Zhang Jian / SW

The plan has been in place for a long time. Tonight, they have one last step to take: break out. Zhang Nan's hands clutch a piece of paper which the dozen prisoners close in on like wolves sniffing prey. On that paper is the secret map of the tunnels they'll use to escape....

This was one possible scene for the TV series Prison of the Far East due to start shooting 10 March. "Possible," because the script was still in revisions. Prison of the Far East is set in Shanghai's Tilanqiao Prison in the 1920s, and the protagonist Zhang Nan has many identities: concession policeman, underground party member, outlaw...through the power of his positions, he releases a group of communists and intentionally exposes himself. His goal is simple: enter the prison and rescue Liu Peisheng, member of the Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the CPC.

The plot hits critical point after critical point....there is no lack of similar details in this story and the currently popular American TV show Prison Break, to the point that practically every report about Prison of the Far East has mentioned Prison Break. Prison Break tells of the escape of a wrongfully imprisoned American, and first shook American before seizing the world.

Last year, Zhang Chunlei, who became popular because of his prison-themed novel Four Walls, took a call from director Yan Yutong inviting him to help with script-writing. "Huayi Brothers of Hong Kong had invested; what director A Bao had produced was covered in traces of Prison Break, and the legendary tone was too strong. But even though it was red-themed, done in that way, it wouldn't pass on the mainland where the "main theme" and "three anti-vulgarities" restricted access. So the switched directors and changed the script, and now there aren't many traces of Prison Break," Zhang Chunlei said.

Zhang Chunlei is very familiar with the prison environs - murderers, rapists, and embezzlers all mixed together; bureaucrats, teachers, and farmers in one stew. "Fuck" was at the head of every utterance, and the bullying of the weak by the strong was on the plate every meal.

Zhang Chunlei, who comes from Tianjin, spent an eighteen month sentence in prison after the year 2000 for harboring a fugitive. Afterward, under the pseudonym Gemenr, he recorded his experience as the novel Four Walls.

In January 2006, Four Walls was published, reduced from 700,000 characters to 410,000 characters.

"I tossed my book to my daughter, 'Look, I wrote such a thick book.'" His daughter is still in kindergarten.

In the morning, Zhang Chunlei drives his car, slowly. A car with Wuqing District, Tianjin, detective plates pulls up gradually along the right side. "Used to be that there'd be a big, skinny yellow dog in the window. The dog's gone now," Zhang Chunlei says. This is the place where he first "went inside."

In October, 2000, two months before his wife Zhang Xiumin was to give birth, Zhang Chunlei entered the detention center.
At this time, at the Wuqing District Detention Center, Zhang Chunlei as usual picked up a packet of beans and headed back to his section. A DC guard entered and presented him with an arrest warrant. This meant that he not only could not return home, but that he would also be tried. He "brought down a catastrophe of three years in prison through one act of loyalty": his college friend Yang Dayong (Shi Zhan in Four Walls) was suspected of cheating 5 million RMB. After this, Zhang Chunlei lent him 5000 yuan, and Yang Dayong escaped.

In 1962, Zhang Chunlei's father went to Guyuan County, Ningxia, to teach school. The young Zhang Chunlei went to school in an old temple, and when the temple collapsed, he "took his bookbag and went off to fight as a guerilla. Seventeen years later, his father returned home carrying a cabinet. From this "coffin-like" wardrobe, Zhang Chunlei stole looks at lots of books: Pioneering Work, The Journey, and Keep the Red Flag Flying....

"This not only gave me more avenues than my classmates to understand the truth that 'socialism is good and capitalism is bad,' but it also stirred up in me a desire to write," Zhang Chunlei said.

His writing began to grow in length, and was filled with "great words" - "Oh, my homeland....oh, youth...." And the conclusion of each piece went like this: "Let us be prepared to offer our youth to the communist cause."

In 1987, Zhang Chunlei entered the Tianjin Normal School, and published an essay in Tianjian Youth Daily. "I went through the liberated thinking in the 1980s just like everyone else, and I felt that if I just held on a bit more, the next step would be to become a great writer."

Like countless other youth, Zhang Chunlei's theme was "dainty emotion."

"Love is ageless, deathless; what dies is just generation after generation of lovers and their beloveds," he wrote in A Tale of Love.

At the end of the 1980s, Zhang Chunlei entered a transition. "I felt ashamed of that sentimental writing of mine. I felt that a writer should take up the yoke of justice."

He went to the other side: nothing was pleasing to the eye, everyone was evil-hearted, and contemporary morality was ruined.

"Every day I knit my brows and looked for someone to start a fight with. Look at today's angry youth, and you'll have a good idea of what I was like then," Zhang Chunlei said. He has practiced martial arts since childhood, and at 1.85 meters tall, fighting had been a way of life.

After college graduation, he spent two years as a middle school teacher, but because of "dissatisfaction with the education system," he resigned. Afterward, he ran into financial troubles. He sold steel materials, edited a magazine, passed out advertisements, worked in marketing, did home renovations...."So depressed and panicked that I felt like a monkey after being chased three days and nights by a hunter." His dream of being a writer seemed more distant from him every day, up until the disaster of prison.

"The day I put on the handcuffs I knew that I would write a book about prison in the future." Zhang Chunlei started writing a secret journal that later turned into a record of his observations of the details of his life, his personal relationships, special language. "....Lin and Long discussed future directions for development. Lin wanted to run a company and do business; Long felt that the service industry was more ideal."

The true meaning of this journal entry is this: Long and Lin, two big guys in the prison, were boasting together, reminiscing over their past glories and looking to future development. Lin said that after he got out he would not be hoodlum anymore, but would do legitimate business instead, put pressure on other businesses in his sector. But Long felt that being a hoodlum was great, and he wasn't worried.

Inside the "walls," Zhang Chunlei handled his dream of being a writer; outside the "walls," Zhang Xiumin's tasks were simple: take care of her inlaws, look after her kid, and keep the bookshop in order. She kept things hidden from her parents off in Tangshan and never told them about the changes that had taken place in the family. On the surface, she was holding up excellently. At night, however, she would start to cry. "I was afraid that he'd never be set free, and my spirits collapsed," Zhang Xiumin said. At first, she was moved by Zhang's literary dreams, and "revered him...just like one of his fans today."
On the eve of Valentine's Day, 2003, Zhang Chunlei was set free. A few months later, he began writing a novel using his life in prison as a blueprint, and started publishing it online. At first, the novel was not called Four Walls; it was called Gemenr's Life in Prison.

During that time, Zhang Xiumin asked her husband, "Isn't remembering painful?" He replied, "It's all happened, why fear memory?"

At first, Zhang Chunlei wanted to reflect on flaws in the prison and in the justice system. But he wrote himself into a dead end: "Can I take on that responsibility? Who am I?"

At the end of 2004, Zhang Xiaobo from the Culture and Art Publishing House saw Gemenr's Life in Prison online; at that time, Zhang Chunlei had only finished half. Things moved about for more than a year, and then Four Walls was published.

"Revolutionaries and the persecuted, that's not me - I'm just common person. I admit my crime; I have no moral high-ground," Zhang Chunlei said. "Why not be a pair of eyes to watch people, watch them reveal, step by step, their human nature."

Zhang Chunlei has one more dream: to move his book shop to the beach. Except, he worries: "Will there be any customers for a bookstore on the beach?"

Four Walls originated as a series of online postings, and like many other popular net-books, it was heavily pirated; the preface to the print version explains:

This novel was originally serialized on Starting Point, Tianya, and Mystic Sword under the penname Gemenr. It was posted as it was written, around six months from start to finish. Before I had finished the manuscript, websites both domestic and international had already begun to repost it, and sharp-eyed bootleggers swarmed about, borrowing the names of several noted mainland publishers to smear the unfinished work into a disastrous state. This left me hurt and embarrassed.

The author goes on to say that it was only during his revisions that he decided to incorporate the "wall" metaphor.


A few other prison writers have appeared recently. Last fall, Southern Metropolis Daily ran an article about Lin Kehua, who spent six years in prison for stealing 100 yuan from a taxi driver; he was granted the status of "prisoner-teacher" after two years, which gave him time to himself every day after his basic chores were complete. He wrote a novel, Where is Heaven (天堂何在) on prison-issued paper during this free time.

Lin's message is the flip-side of Gemenr's: "I've never avoided mention of my prison experience; I've learned to cherish things, to be satisfied - "wherever there are people, there is heaven" says it well."

Lin's book was published in October using the pen name Mu Shuang. According to a review in SMD, the book is less a novel than a confessional-style autobiography, the story of how a criminal discovers a personal moral framework while enduring life in prison.

And the blog "Prison Landscape," written by someone calling himself The Steadfast One (坚守者), contains snippets of things he experienced during his sixteen years in prison. His goal, he says, is to attract attention to the writing system he devised on the inside to hide his notes from the prying eyes of guards.


Where both Gemenr and Li Kehua write about the human experience in prison (and Gemenr maintains that prison is a microcosm of human society taken to extremes), the prison portrayed in "Prison Landscape" is utterly dehumanizing - "This is prison. You're a criminal, not a person!" is the refrain to a number of posts. Here's a recent post titled "Catch phrases used when abusing prisoners":

"Even if you're a block of iron, I'll boil you soft" - used on those prisoners who aren't afraid of beatings or torment. No matter how tough you are, I'll get you to submit all the same.

"Steeping tea in cold water, it gradually gets strong" - there's plenty of time for me to slowly take care of you. You'll gradually come to know how powerful I am.

"What kind of person are you? What kind of place is this?" - a reminder that you're guilty and this is a prison. So, any kind of corporal punishment, abuse, or torment is reasonable and you can only submit to it.

"Can you throw rocks at heaven?" - so what if I beat you, what are you going to do?

"Take a piss on an ash-heap" (Guizhou dialect) - complaining is no use.

"I like beating, I'm willing to beat, beating makes me happy. Looking at you makes me sick. When I see you I want to beat you. If I don't beat you, I don't feel comfortable."

The launch of Bi Shumin's new book Female Psychiatrist (女心理师) was held in a Beijing prison last week. The publisher gave this rationale:

This is nothing unorthodox, because the novel itself deals with psychological problems, and work in counseling and curing has been a major part of what a prison does. So choosing to do this at a prison is to attract attention to the mental health of this special population.

Bi spent three years as a psychological counselor; she assures her former patients that the novel's contents are entirely fictional.

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There are currently 1 Comments for Ex-cons writing about prison life.

Comments on Ex-cons writing about prison life

"Prison of the Far East" is not "运东第一监狱" but "远东第一监狱"
Still a good article. :)

[[EDITOR'S NOTE (JDM): Corrected, thanks.]]

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