To Survive is Victory: One Man’s Struggle to Forge a New China 1918-1980

By Ping Lin

The story of one remarkable and man and his family who remains committed to the ideals of the original revolution despite decades of persecution, torture and imprisonment.


A special prisoner 

By mid-winter of 1933 the Nationalists and Communists had broken their treaty and were back to fighting each other again. 

One day Father was summoned to Governor Li’s office for an emergency meeting. Governor Li was pacing up and down. He immediately confided in Father about how worried he was as to how he could best protect YunYang town, because he had been informed that the Communist Red Army Fourth Section had fought their way into Sichuan like an army of red ants. They had already occupied the north of Sichuan and were continuing to take other areas. The head of the Warlords, Liu Xiang, had already launched two hundred thousand troops to fight the Red Army coming into his eastern region of Sichuan. The order had been sent to all local Governors that their own forces needed to be prepared for a defensive fight.

Governor Li had decided to set up a special ‘Defence Headquarters’ and he wanted Father to help him with this task. Even those people who hated Father knew that he was the right man for the job.  Governor Li wanted to appoint Father as the Chief Commander presiding over five other military officers, who had all worked for Father in the past.

Father was a Nationalist at that time, but during his time in the Military Academy he had been very impressed by two of his lecturers, Zhude and Chenyi, who were Communists. Since then he had made quite a few friends who were also Communists and he thought highly of them too. At this stage then, he was uncomfortable to be sent to fight against the Communists and he firmly refused the proffered position. He told the Governor that even General Chiang Kai-Shek’s eight million troops had failed to conquer them, so who was he and what could he do against them?

One of Father’s friends, ZhaoWei, who was already a committed Communist, came to see him with the proposition that Father should accept the new post. He said to him:

“You should have a clear understanding about this. This fight against the Red Army is really a power struggle between Chiang Kai-shek and the Warlords and your duty, as you’ve been told it, is to defend YunYang town. What would happen if you found that you were not able to sustain a defence? You would have to run - you would have to withdraw your troops. How and when to withdraw would be crucial and we could tell you this nearer the time. Think about it, if you don’t go to the frontline then someone else will and they may not have the citizens’ best interests at heart and might leave them to suffer. You should take this post and we will be here to help you”.

Father listened and ruminated on it and finally decided to accept the position. He went to see Governor Li to lay out before him his suggestions and plans:

“The Communist Red Army is a well-trained and tough army. Against them our small County Force would be defeated just as easily as dashing eggs on stone, so what we need to do is quickly increase our numbers with a Volunteer Army. I will start recruitment and I may also be able to arrange some local contribution of guns and ammunition to bolster what the government need to provide. Most importantly you will have to cover the military expenses. I know that you are normally obliged to pay a tax of 30,000 Yuan to Liu Xiang, but you, as the local Governor, could tell him that you need this money to organize the Defence Force.”

Governor Li was thrilled about Father’s suggestions, as he had been getting increasingly distressed and anxious about how to deal with the situation and he kept on saying:

“Good idea, excellent. I knew you were right man for this job - the older the ginger, the spicier it is, eh!  I will do whatever you say. You appoint the Captain of the Volunteer Army and gather the forces together, and you will be the Chief Commander who takes care of everything.”

The Defence Army Headquarters was swiftly set-up in Narrow Gate, a smaller town near YunYang. Soon they had gathered together about eight hundred young men from the region to form the Volunteer Army.

Father concentrated his efforts on the new force and often had meetings with ZhaoWei to hear his reports, but Father didn’t know that there was secret planning going on behind his back. ZhaoWei and his Committee were plotting to take Father’s defence troops to join forces with the Red Army and then to overthrow the Nationalist’s control of YunYang. They managed to keep their real intentions secret from Father. They also knew that the newly recruited volunteers were, in the main, sympathetic to the Communists and would gladly go along with their plan. The Red Army leaders, however, suddenly changed their minds and left Sichuan and went north. With the Red Army gone, life went on as before for the time being. However, the Sichuan underground Communists didn’t want to give up what they had so carefully planned and prepared for. They decided to carry out their own independent uprising to ‘liberate’ YunYang and the neighbouring region. 

At the beginning of November 1934 they set up the ‘YunYang Uprising Headquarters’ and in January 1935 started an armed revolt in the region. However, their plans were leaked and also there was lack of co-operation within their group. Warlord LiuXiang’s force clamped down on them and in a very short space of time the revolt was completely quashed. Hundreds of people were arrested or killed and the rest of them fled, including ZhaoWei and his Committee. Father was advised to leave too, but he said no:

“I am a man who has never gambled, never used a brothel or smoked opium.  I am not corrupt – I have never bribed anyone or embezzlement anything. I have never murdered anyone. In my whole life I haven’t done anything which weighs on my conscience, so what would I be hiding from and why should I flee?”

“But they say that you know those Communists so well.”

“That’s where they are wrong - the Communists didn’t trust me or take me into their confidence. It’s too bad really as, in my opinion, they were over-enthusiastic and without experience. More importantly, they didn’t have anyone who understands military strategy and had no real Commander.  This is what is called ‘a scholar’s rebellion’: theory on paper - it never succeeds.”

Soon after the uprising, Warlord Liuxiang set up a ‘Special Committee for Clearing Out Communists’ and their main function was to arrest and execute Communists, radicals, anyone who had joined the uprising and anyone who was even slightly suspected of having a connection with it. Their slogan was: ‘Better to mistakenly kill a hundred rather than let one go’. This Special Committee said that they had received some letters disclosing that Father was either a Communist, or a radical suspected of being a Communist.  Furthermore, he was accused of being the one behind the curtain pulling the strings.   This was enough reason for them to arrest Father and send him to prison. It was a big scandal in the city that Father had been put in jail. Those who hated him, though, were in high spirits and said:

“This should teach Lunatic Lin a few lessons.”

Others, however, felt it was an injustice. Lots of people, including students and teachers, wrote to the government to protest saying that Father was a good man. Many people sent food and other daily necessities to Father in prison.

Often people say: ‘it never rains but it pours’. Around this time Second Uncle arrested a criminal, who was not only a pimp, but who was also notorious for violence and theft. In order to get revenge on Second Uncle he collected and disclosed information about how Second Uncle was embezzling government money to support his opium addiction. Second Uncle was then swiftly sacked from his job. In normal circumstances, as Chief of Police, Second Uncle would easily have been able to get Father out of jail within a couple of days, but this time there was nothing he could do to help. He told Father that the only person who could help him now was their brother-in-law, LuoHan Tang. Father told him that the only thing that LuoHan Tang would give him was a string of insults. This proved to be the case when I accompanied Second Uncle to talk to him. He immediately became angry and said:

“When has my young brother-in-law ever considered me – he is a lunatic and dares to provoke anyone and everyone. He opposes me in everything and constantly embarrasses me in public. This time he has stirred up a fire only to burn himself with it – well, let him taste life in jail for a while – he deserves it.”

Second Uncle had to prevent me from leaping at LuoHan Tang in my own anger before we left.

Father only stayed in one of the cells of the main prison for ten days before he was moved to a wing especially for political prisoners. This gave him certain privileges and much better conditions and I could visit whenever I liked. But what he saw and experienced in the main cells deeply shocked him. Each cell was vastly over-crowded. There were two or three wooden spittoons in each cell, which doubled up for use by everyone as slop buckets. Each morning someone had the unenviable task of carrying these spittoons, overflowing with urine, to the latrine pit at the back of the prison compound to empty them. The cell walls were thick with dirt and smeared with traces of blood from the remains of all of the bedbugs and mosquitoes which had been swatted against them. The prisoners smoked the cheapest tobacco, the smell of which, mixed with the stench of lack of sanitation, was enough to suffocate you and make you retch. Prisoners were never given the opportunity to wash themselves nor have their hair cut. With their long, filthy, matted hair they resembled those ghoulish figures portrayed on opera stages. The red lumps resulting from the bites of the bedbugs, mosquitoes and lice quickly became infected and suppurating when scratched with long, dirty fingernails. Some of the prisoners were so bad that you could not see a patch of clear skin on their bodies and there was no medical treatment for them at all. The whole night long there was a continuous sound of moaning, groaning, sighing and shouting from those in the throes of a nightmare. It was a living-hell. Worst of all, the Prison Director regularly embezzled some of their food supplies. The amount of food was already inadequate, of very poor quality and there were only two meals a day. Breakfast consisted of extremely thin rice porridge made with mouldy and gritty rice accompanied by half-rotten pickled vegetables. The extreme heat of summer made the already horrible environment much worse with infectious diseases often killing five or six people each month. One year cholera wiped out more than half of the prisoners.  

When Father had been the Regiment Commander of YunYang County Force he had been responsible for sending many people to jail, but he had never been aware that conditions for the prisoners were so appalling. What Father could not bring himself to face most of all was the fact that many prisoners’ cases were still to be decided and they would ultimately be found not guilty, but they still had to endure these terrible conditions. Even those who were guilty and convicted, however, were still human beings and deserved better treatment. Father told me that he was unable to sleep for days on end with wondering whether he could do something to help. Then one day he asked me to deliver a letter straight into the hands of the Governor’s Secretary. Before I left he read it to me. Firstly Father accurately reported the conditions in the jail and then went on to say: 

“You all know as well as I do what kind of person I am. I am not worried about my own future here – the truth about my case will come to light soon enough. Right now I am worrying about the other prisoners, because they are in such terrible condition and living in the worst surroundings I have ever seen. There are people here whose cases haven’t been decided yet and, if the conditions do not change, they may die before judgement is made on them. You, the Yamen (the name for the government officers in feudal China), are the officers whose responsibility it is to look after the people as if you were their parents. I am pleading with you now: show some kindness, do something good for once, let them survive and give them a chance to start a new life.” 

Then Father made a few practical suggestions as to how to clean the dirty surroundings and change the bad habits of both the prisoners and the jailers. He outlined a plan of how the prison could be run and made largely self-sufficient by relying on the prisoners’ own efforts. He also pointed out that he didn’t think that there could be any objection to such a system and that it would only be beneficial for everyone.

At the end of the letter Father put a couple of quotations from the works of General Chiang Kai-shek and mentioned that “The New Life Movement” was still in operation. He said that some time before he had been responsible for the Movement in Yunyang and, seeing how no-one had told him that he had been sacked from that job, he felt that it was still his duty and he was still willing to carry on with the work of the Movement inside the prison.

There ensued an unprecedented programme, put into action under Father’s leadership, entitled “Prisoner Self-Save”. The name of ‘Lunatic Lin’ was spread even further field.

The Prison Director, who had occupied his position for three years, had never entered the main prison cells, not even once. Now he had to follow the Governor’s order to allow Father some authority within the prison, but at the same time keep a close eye on him too, and so he had no choice but to venture into the cells himself to give the mobilization order. He stood on a long bench to make himself seen and heard by the two hundred or more prisoners:

“You all need to listen to Commander Lin. Do what he says.” Then he quickly covered his mouth and nose and ran out.

Father stepped to the front and said:

“I am no longer the Commander, but one of you, a prisoner. All I want to say is: please don’t write yourselves off by thinking that your situation is hopeless and so act recklessly. Anyone who has not been given a death sentence still has hope of walking out of here alive. What I will lead you in doing is to make changes to your personal habits, improve your living environment and transform the sanitary conditions. You all need to stay healthy to be able to reunite with your families. When each of you gets out of here, try to be a good person for the rest of your life - don’t commit any further crimes.”

To encourage the prisoners’ own driving force, Father left it up to them to select a few leaders from amongst themselves and to persuade their own families to contribute some buckets and carrying poles. Then he selected ten young, well-behaved, strong prisoners to go down to the river to fetch water. Father went with them and they all, including Father, wore prison uniform and were accompanied by four prison guards. At first the Prison Director said no to Father going as well, but Father smiled at him and said:  “I think I am the person who can control them best.”

The Prison Director was anxious in case things should go wrong, but when he thought about it he realized that Father was unlikely to run away and even the Governor had given orders to let him do what he wanted. So he agreed and Father went with them. Never before had the local people seen a team of prisoners walk across the street carrying buckets and, full of curiosity, they followed their every step. In the end, a job, which should have taken less than an hour, took half a day to finish. Next day the Prison Director decided that the team should leave at the crack of dawn to go down to the river and so they managed to collect enough water before there were people on the street to hinder them. They found the largest woks they could to boil the water in and, once boiled, poured it all over the bamboo bed-boards to seek out those well-fed bedbugs hiding in the crevices. Then they burned the straw mattresses. The bedbugs inside them, which were as big as ladybirds, exploded like firecrackers in the flames. They threw boiling water all over the uneven surfaces of the walls and floor dislodging even more bedbugs. The water flowed out of the cell into the yard like a stream carrying the bloated corpses of the bedbugs with it. It was such a horrible scene that I shudder at its memory even today. 

The drains were blocked too and Father used a drill rod to push through the blockage to let all the water out and he even poured boiling water between the stones of the pavement. This job took two days to complete. Next they moved on to getting rid of the body lice.  

A week was spent boiling the prisoners’ clothes and bedding. Luckily it was in the middle of the hot summer and they didn’t have to worry that they had nothing to wear for a couple of days. They used over a hundred buckets of water for this and the prisoners’ families provided the wood used for boiling the water.  

A more difficult job was to get over two hundred people’s long, matted, filthy hair and beards shaved.   Five of the prisoners who had been barbers volunteered. At first Father was worried about using knives in case things went wrong, so instead they borrowed several pairs of scissors from their families. However, it wasn’t possible to do a close shave with scissors and also it was a very slow process, so Father requested some proper barbers’ tools. Two guards watched over the barbers whilst they worked to help keep order and to speed up the process, but still it took five days to shave all the prisoners. Father looked at the pile of hair mounting up; he wanted to sell it, but no one wanted it because the potential buyers were afraid of transmitting the lice, so Father had no choice but to burn it.

Next was to get their nails cut and to persuade them to wash themselves. This was easier said than done. Almost all of the prisoners didn’t want their nails cut as they said that long fingernails were useful for scratching their itching bodies. To get them to wash themselves was the hardest of all as they literally hadn’t washed for years and a thick, crusty layer of dirt, pus and blood had formed and was stuck firmly all over their skin. In order to clean that outer layer off they needed to soak in warm water until it softened so it could then be peeled off gently. This process caused a lot of pain and it especially hurt those who were badly infected, so most of prisoners refused to have a wash. Father first tried to convince the prisoners to undergo this torture willingly, but his persuasive tongue was useless on this occasion and he was unable to make them see the benefits. Instead he had to resort to ordering them to wash and to help each other to do so. It took about eighteen days for everyone to finish. 

After about one month the transformation of the surroundings and the prisoners themselves was remarkable. The prisoners started to call Father “the Buddha Yeye”. Father was happy to see the achievements, but his plan had barely started yet as he wanted to make the jail into a good example for jails everywhere. He wrote to the Governor and Prison Director setting out his overall plan. The Prison Director, being a witness to the new look of his prison, backed up all Father’s suggestions. 

Father then asked the prisoners’ families to contribute vegetable and flowering plants to start a garden. The Prison Director bought some bricks and let the prisoners construct flowerbeds with them. Among other things, they planted grape vines, wisteria, jasmine, roses and peonies. A long stone bench was provided to complete the useful and restful garden. Some slogans were written on the wall like: ‘give up the vices, return to the virtues’, ‘repent and be saved’, ‘give up bad habits’ and ‘implement a new life’.

Father also suggested that the prisoners needed a doctor to visit them once a week. He further suggested that some of the families would be able to pay for medication, but for those who couldn’t, the Government should fund them. The Governor saw the huge improvement in the prison, so he didn’t hesitate to take Father’s advice. Father found someone to make additional spittoons and arranged for them to be kept clean. He took out a subscription to a newspaper on behalf of the jail too and set up a time in each day for those who could read, to read the news out loud. 

Looking at how the jail changed every day for the better, made Father content and he was proud of the results of everybody’s efforts. Still not finished though, his thoughts turned to finding a way to further improve the prisoners’ diet. This needed money, but for a while Father didn’t have any idea how to find any extra. Then one day he saw a prisoner’s family member bringing in a couple of pairs of straw sandals and his eyes lit up, because here was the solution: the prisoners would start making straw sandals! Not much initial investment was needed, it was easy to learn to do and they would probably sell well. So Father took ten Yuan from his own pocket and sent me out to buy flaxen thread and straw. Very soon sandal production was underway involving all the prisoners except for the sick and disabled. Each day they produced over two hundred pairs and they sold extremely well to large wholesalers and small businesses. Father even redesigned the sandals and his were better looking and more practical than the traditional ones and, more importantly, they sold for more money. As soon as the money started coming in, meat was bought every second day and tobacco, soap and toothpaste were also purchased. Compared with life in the past, life in the present for those prisoners had turned from hell to near heaven.

The good news about the changes at the prison spread rapidly and soon reached a number of eminent citizens. The Governor wanted to show off his achievements to further his career, so he called Father and the Prison Director to his office and told them that he wanted to invite some politicians, officials and businessmen to visit the prison. The Prison Director knew he had to prepare well for this visit and as soon as he went back to the jail he ordered another deep clean and more flowers to be planted. He also brought out the stored prison uniforms for everyone to put on for show.

On the day of the visit ten prison guards, smart in uniform, stood to attention on either side of the front gate and welcome banners were flying high. The Prison Director led in the visitors, who looked as if they were expecting the worst as most of them had handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses. As they walked into the yard loud applause broke out from amongst the prisoners who were lined up in front of the cells. Father stepped forward to welcome the wary, but curious, visitors. This was quite embarrassing for many of them because most were familiar with Father, either having been his boss, or in some cases having worked for him and now he was in front of them wearing a prison uniform.    The Prison Director apologized; he had forgotten that Father should have been set apart from the other prisoners.

An elderly, humble-looking gentleman carefully inspected each cell and noted the tidy beds, the white walls, clean floors and the blooming garden. At each revelation he shook his head and muttered to himself:

“Unbelievable!  Incredible!” Finally his eyes stopped on Father and he reached to take hold of his hands and said to him:

“My brother, I’m sorry you have had to put up with all of this. You have suffered, but because of you the prisoners now live in relative ease and comfort. Everyone calls you ‘Lunatic Lin’, but tell me where we can find more crazy people like you! You have changed this place from a dungeon to the prototype of a humane prison system. I shall report to the Governor and tell him that he must review the evidence of your own case and, if he can’t prove anything, then he must let you out immediately.”

True to the old gentleman’s word, he went to see the Governor and demanded that Father’s case should be decided. Indeed there was not enough evidence to prove that Father was a Communist and he was informed he would be released shortly. The news was received in the prison with mixed emotions by all of the inmates. On the one hand they were happy that Father was to gain his freedom, but on the other hand they were so sad that he would no longer be amongst them. The prisoners gathered together some money between them and arranged to buy some meat and fireworks in order to hold a farewell party.  On the night of the party there was much fun and laughter, as well as regret.   Father made a short speech:

“I only did what my conscience told me was right to do, so please don’t thank me. Before I leave you I want to say something to all of you: anyone who is guilty of a crime should admit it, honestly serve your sentence and when you get out, start a new life and become decent men. Those of you who have an unjustified case, you should appeal it. There is one more thing: the achievements of the prison did not come easily, so I hope everyone will help to keep it this way, and take care of each other.”

On the day Father came out prison, much to his surprise, he found many of the prisoners’ families waiting for him at the gate. They draped him with large, red, silk flowers and Father walked out of the prison to the sound of exploding fireworks and people cheering. There was also a sedan chair waiting for him which had been sent by LuoHan Tang with an invitation for Father to rest at his house for a few days. Father accepted.

LuoHan Tang, forcing a smile, greeted Father at the gate of his house and said:

“Welcome home. You have suffered hard days”, and led him inside.

“Don’t think about anything – rest, just rest – when you are fully restored we will talk.”

A room had been prepared for Father. A set of new clothes was laid out on the bed and a hot meal was waiting for him on a table. A barber was sent for to cut his hair and shave him. Father slept deeply until noon the following day.

Father gave serious thought as to his future prospects and realized that there was nothing left for him in YunYang and decided it was time to move on. When he announced his decision to LuoHan Tang, it looked as if a heavy burden had been lifted. Then he presented Father with 150 Yuan to help us make a fresh start. The Governor also gave him 300 Yuan telling him that it was a ‘goodwill gesture’.  

Father and I went back to Grandmother in Yunan, where Father was going to leave me. Once back there, however, I begged them both to be allowed to leave with Father and go wherever and whenever he decided to go.

It was then that I met my half-sister LiuQing for the first time. She had been brought back by the Lin family after her mother, Big Li, died. Father hadn’t seen her since she had been sent away as a small baby. Second Uncle’s wife took in LiuQing and brought her up as her own daughter.

At the end of July 1935 Father and I left to start a new life in WangXian and so began the next phase of my life.

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