TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Carceral Experience, 1957

In this series of entries, Jacob Dreyer investigates the spatial forms of modernity in China, notably that of the Metropolis (e.g., Shanghai) and the Wasteland (e.g., Heilongjiang). In his last piece, he discussed the influence of Manchurian landscapes on radical Japanese thought. Here, he describes the confrontation between Chinese intellectuals and this landscape, notably in 1957, during the first great wave of internal exile.

As has been observed about Russian[1] and Japanese[2] modernisms, Chinese modernism was initiated with a sense of lack: the contact with an Other civilization (e.g., that of the West) more capable of controlling reality, one more materially powerful. If revolution is a rupture with the past, the Chinese revolution constituted a rupture with a relationship to space that flowed through the subjective experience of poetry, and its replacement with an ongoing process of rationalization, mapping, understanding—one often initiated by colonizers, whether the Westerners in the treaty ports, or the Japanese in the North. In other words, a subject trained to interact with an environment on the basis of a tradition of poetry, painting, and landscape architecture, in which the self was holistically internalized into a larger built environment, was forced to confront an environment in the process of transformation: mountains became mines, forests became timber, and of course, humans became factory workers.[3]

Wherever modernization has taken place, there have been those who have resisted it, in poetry, in philosophy, in art. However, China, an axial point in numerous philosophies of modernity, from Hegel to Marx to Takeuchi Yoshimi, has from the start been a particular case. The far East of the Eurasian landmass, and a country in many ways superlative: the biggest population, the longest history. If there were ever a collection of human beings too large to fit through the door to modernity (or, in a discourse previously used in these articles, to be given entry to the interior of the modern), it would be the Chinese. For Takeuchi Yoshimi, China would be the site from which to overcome modernity: a vast human lever, with which the world could be overturned, with which the icy and transparent superficiality of instrumental reason could be shattered.

As discussed in a previous essay, the mentality of the Chinese metropolis—at that time (prior to 1949) indisputably Shanghai—was as closed-minded as any of the other great cities. Even as they flirted with revolution and love affairs (in fact, revolution and matters of the heart were intimately connected[4]), Shanghainese writers such as Mao Dun could not see an exit from the increasingly tight and unfree strictures of the modern. Only rural, “土” people like Mao Zedong, and writers who are today dismissed as propagandists, could summon up the sincerity to look for a way out.[5] After the revolution succeeded, Chinese intellectuals were criticized for their bourgeois mentality—many of them, indeed, agreed that this was a problem—their thoughts separated them from the lives of the people, without any hope of reconciliation, short of the replication of the revolution in the interior psychic space of the minds. What the state asked of these people, to revolutionize and proletarianize their thought, could be considered equivalent to the process happening to the stately mansions of Shanghai at that time, which were being repopulated with coops of peasants swarmed in from the countryside. In 1957, urban neighborhoods in Shanghai and Beijing emptied out, as the old intellectual world defined in opposition to the injustices of the capitalist metropolis, rendered obsolete by the revolution of which the intellectuals were themselves the authors. Following Mao’s phrase of the time, the intellectuals went to the Great Northern Wasteland to transform themselves in what was most profound. The Chinese phrase used at the time to describe this means “to shed ones body and exchange one’s bones.”[6] Out of the death of the old world, a new one is born; for those citizens of an old world, the only option was to wander dazedly through the new.

Destination: Wasteland

Harbin was created as a railway station for resource extraction. It is in this sense, like Shanghai, a modern city because the town’s planning and architecture configure a relationship to nature antagonistic to the natural order. Harbin is a platform from which to change things, not a space in which to coexist or dwell. As discussed, however, Harbin is not like Shanghai, in that the territory that it exists within is desperately cold and, at that time of its founding, filled with wolves and people who were nearly as terrifying as wolves: bandits, savages, the untamed. Local writer Xiao Hong’s novel is a testament to this Harbin, a zone of dizzy fainting, of whiplashes and yelling.[7] If the proximate environment surrounding the Shanghainese is of other people, and the structures of capitalism, the Harbinese are surrounded by the cold, blowing wind and the endless beauty of emptiness—or, as one political criminal described it, “a lovely world which nonetheless threatened death.”[8]

The sardonic, cynical fatalistic attitude of the Shanghainese, who will find a way to survive no matter what happens, is not matched in Harbin; it is in Dongbei that the need to make the world better assumes the anguished passion of existentiality. The Shanghainese can always slink into the lane, cosset his old photographs, and wake up the next morning feeling vaguely ashamed of himself. Dongbei cultivates people, and personalities, who are contemptuous of such greasy compromising. It is perhaps for this reason that Harbin and Heilongjiang province was the destination for bourgeois intellectuals who perceived themselves as needing to be broken, cracked by the encounter with the real, and returned later to existence, healed only after making contact with the true life of the people.

Chinese history has seen intellectuals sent “outside,” ostensibly for punishment/reeducation. However, although difficult, the extension of the offer to confront the void is the prime benefit that any city and the civilization it represents can offer. Would these men really have preferred to sit in the library, checking their watches endlessly? Instead, sent to the Great Northern Wasteland, they spent their time

lumbering in the snow, drilling wells, melting cooking water from ice, and building barracks. The vast wilderness and the undulating mountain ranges of Beidahuang were captivating. . . . [They were] actually waging a war against heaven and earth.[9]

The prison farms to which these men were sent may seem from the outside to have been an error of the system, but they are in fact a central component.[10] The intellectuals, tortured by a sense of their own complicity in the immoral world of the past, often sought out these tortures, which felt liberating.[11] Tellingly, the political convicts were nicknamed “external contradictions,” or “extercons”; the petty criminals, “internal contradictions,” or “intercons.”[12] This is dialectical logic at its most macabre, but the meaning couldn’t be clearer: the petty criminals, the thieves and whores, understood the existential need of the Chinese people for more control over materiality, by violence if need be; they merely expressed this need out of lockstep from the masses. It was the great error of the intellectuals that, no matter what they said, they remained inassimilable to the mass; they remained observers, not actors; they remained external to the mass, their existence a contradiction to the idea that China had experienced a revolution.

Of course, from the perspective of the Communist Party, the prison farms were not really educational salons. The point is almost not about the imprisonment; it was about the work that these prisoners were doing, labor that nobody else would be willing to do in such a forbidding climate. The alienation felt by the prisoners reflected the alienation that the capitalist system creates, a system in which all struggle against all. By working for the common (human) good in destroying the sovereignty of nature over man, they redeemed their humanity. These intellectuals could have, and some did, conceive of themselves as being particles of a collective consciousness transforming nature in the most difficult of conditions—a consciousness to which suffering was, and is, the only passport. Only by deep suffering could the self be cracked, effaced, melted down, and thus, join a collective consciousness of labor, and of pain.

Yes, in the emptiness of wasteland, theorized the intellectuals on train platforms in 1957, one could reconstruct the self, shedding all prejudices and dirtiness of the metropolis and its institutions, its social falsehoods. The idea was appealing to many,[13] if also incredibly naïve. The Great Northern Wasteland, this emptiness—still, cold, clear water, where one can finally see the reflection of the self, provided the chance to plunge in, letting the self float away, so as to experience the yearned-for prospect of losing the self completely.


1. Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism, trans. Charles Rougle (New York and London: Verso, 2011).

2. Kojin Karatani, The Origins of Japanese Literature, trans. Brett de Bary (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993).

3. If this psychic conflict had a name, it would surely be Lu Xun; if it had a diary, it would be named “Wild Grass,” or 野草.

4. Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2010).

5. “Jiang Guangci labeled his ‘new realism’ one of ‘simplicity and sincerity.’ He believed it should provide a ‘way out’ (chulu) of Mao Dun’s no-exit world.” David Der-wei Wang, The Monster that is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth Century China (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004), p. 91.

6. Wang Ning, The Great Northern Wasteland: Political Exiles in the People’s Republic of China, PhD thesis submitted to University of British Columbia, 2005, p. 161,

7. Xiao Hong, Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin, trans. Howard Goldblatt (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1986).

8. Ning, The Great Northern Wasteland, p. 112.

9. Ibid., p. 115, citing Ding Ling’s untranslated Fengxue renjian (The Blizzard World) (Xiamen: Xiamen Daxue Chubanshe, 1987).

10. As elsewhere is explored by Agamben’s scholarship, as in Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998).

11. Ning, The Great Northern Wasteland, p. 77n177. Huang Wu also recalls that the Farm 853 “was a new world, where we felt liberated psychologically, and there was no discrimination from outside anymore.”

12. Ibid., p. 111.

13. Ibid., p. 115. Chen Ming, for example, tried to convince Ding Ling and others to join him in the Great Northern Wasteland.

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