Kong Lingping’s Maoist Labor Camp Memoir: What I Saw and Heard at the Photography Studio

Old Photographs 【老照片】 is a very popular series of books published in China since the mid 1940 Chongqing Bombed School1990s (now publishing volume No. 118!) filled with pictures and short accounts   of both family and public lived history from the late 19th century onwards but especially from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In this chapter from Kong Lingping’s “rightist” political prisoner memoir Bloody Chronicles, Kong and two other prisoners are another prisoner to go into the county seat near their prison to collect manure for the fields of the prison farm.  They take advantage of the opportunity to go to the photo studio to have their pictures taken.  Just the sort of photo that might have made it into “Old Photographs” if the censors had been asleep the day the manuscript arrived!

Cover photo from Old Photographs No. 15: a church school in Chongqing hit by Japanese bombing in 1940.

(3) What I Saw and Heard at the Photography Studio

When Xiao Dilang and I were “chosen” to collect manure, I pulled out my “semi-new” Chinese tunic that I saved for special occasions. In prison everyone is the same so we weren’t ashamed to be wearing rags. So that mother would not see my convict’s shaved head, I borrowed Chen Xiaoyu’s cap. Dressed that way, with clothes and cap wrapped up, I hurried to the Farm headquarters motor pool and got into a car.

The car reached its destination at 10 AM. So that we would have enough time to have a photograph taken, Xiao Diliang and I filled the car up in less than an hour. We estimated that it would take the car two hours to return to the farm and then come back again. During that intervale, we would wash our feet, change into our Zhongshan Chinese tunics, and walk to the center of the Yanyuan County seat. This was the first time in a decade that I had been in Yanyuan that I had walked the streets “in freedom”.

Yanyuan only had two big streets crossing each other. It was a cold clear day. We looked for a photo shop but did didn’t pay attention to the city itself.

不多一会,我们就在一家临街小店门口,看到悬挂在街边的照片剧照。走进去,里面坐 着一位中年妇女起身向我们打招呼。问我照的几寸,便吩咐我在一张长木凳子上坐下,没到五 分钟,我的尊容便掇了下来。

开票的是一个老者,他向我询问道:“听你口音,可不是本地人,你们是临时到这儿来出 差的吧?”我含糊应了一句,没有在意他对我们的关注。


– 371 –
异样的眼光盯着我,披在我身上的可是一件全身上下,沾满牛粪的吊巾吊挂“体无完肤”的烂 油渣。

这些年老百姓虽然也穿得破破烂烂,但毕竟还没有烂到这样程度,加上“铠甲”散发出 来的臭气,使那位老者立刻判断出我们的身份。

After a little while we came to the door of a small shop on the street which had a sign on the front “photographs taken”. We walked inside and saw a middle-aged woman beckoning to us. She asked how large a photo we wanted and told me to sit on a stool. I was all tied up and ready for the picture to be taken less than five minutes later.

The man who made up the invoice asked me, “To hear your accent you are not from around here. Did you come here on a business trip?” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t been aware that he was paying attention to us.

When the photograph was ready, I felt cold and so put the “armor” of my jacket on. I was surprised that the old man started looking at me differently and at the streaks of cow manure on my clothing.

In those years, although ordinary people wore rags, their clothing wasn’t in as bad shape as mine was. Moreover, the stink radiating from my “armor” made that old man guess just who I was.

Yanyuan today Google Digital Earth photo

Yanyuan County, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province county seat today.  Google Digital Globe photo.

他当即表示,我所照的像片不能取走。面对这突如其来的变故,我和老肖费了足足半小 时的口舌,我还掏出了母亲给我的信,向他说明我照相的来由,好说歹说最后店主人答应,要 我必须一周内来取像片,不准取走底片。

真想不到“劳改”连自己照像的权利都被剥夺了,更想不到这么一件“铠甲”,竟被当成 了劳改标致惹出麻烦来,也罢,比起“破帽遮颜过闹市”来,我虽不如故人,我就偏偏要穿着 这“万巴衣”游一下盐源街头!

便大摇大摆的敞开破“铠甲”,向前走去。只觉得那上面数十块破棉絮和破布条随风飘摆 动,扑扑作响,衣服上粪便臭味也随风散发,使我一时获得那济公活佛的潇洒感。

He told me that I could not have the photograph that I had taken. With that sudden turn of events, Xiao and I spent half an hour arguing with him. I even showed him the letter that my mother had sent me and explained why I wanted the photographs. After a long while, the shopowner promised to give them to me, but I would have to come back a week later and he wouldn’t give me the negative.

I hadn’t imagined that someone in “reform through labor” didn’t even have the right to his own photograph. I hadn’t even imagined that my “armor” would get me into trouble with the farm. All right, at least that is better than “going shopping in filthy clothing”. Although I wasn’t dressed like a local, I still wanted to wear my “thousand-times patched clothes” and stroll the streets of Yanyuan!

So I strolled along with my ragged “armor suit” open wide walking down the street. I felt those dozen strips of cotton fiber and torn cloth blowing back and forth in the wind, making flapping noises as the manure stink was broadcast by the winds. This made me feel for a time like a Living Buddha come to rescue disaster victims.

马路渐渐变得干净起来,左手隔马路大约十公尺地方,出现了一排围墙。前面斜放着两 个很宽的玻璃厨窗,厨窗上的玻璃剩下几块残片,那里面贴着许多“文章”。

左面厨窗里,彩色的刊头上贴着:“革命大联合,复课闹革命”十个大字,右面厨窗贴着 “批林批孔、斗私批修”八个醒目大字。

厨窗间夹着宽大约十米的水泥过道,是学校校门。校门右侧墙柱上挂着“盐源中学”四 个大字的木板校牌。

The road gradually became cleaner. On my left, about ten meters from the road, was an enclosing wall. Two broad glass kitchen windows sloped ahead of us. A few panes of glas were left on the window. Many “documents” were pasted on the inside of the window.

The masthead on a red colored periodicial pasted to the left window in big characters “Great revolutionary coalition, go back to class to make revolution”. On the right window was pasted “Criticize Confucius and Mencius, fight selfishness and criticize revisionism” also in big characters.

Between the two windows was a ten meter wide concrete path that was the entrance to a school. The four characters “Yanyuan Middle School” were written on a wooden signboard.

到盐源整整十年,只听说盐源中学是盐源县唯一一所完中,也是这个县的最高学府。虽 经文革血洗,横扫牛鬼蛇神弄得它面目全非,但此时校门很安静,没有碰到一个学生进出。

校门口的屏风墙挡住了我们向内窥探的视线,正好,一个十六岁左右的男孩子,从屏风 右侧闪身出来。我忙向他问道:“你们的学校还在上课么?”他诧异地望着我,摇了摇头,接 着又点了点头,露出一种不知如何回答的神色,便匆匆走进那“屏风”消失了。

我实在想看一下,文革以来学校被红卫兵整治得怎么样了?正想向里面走去,但又自觉 不妥,自己这付尊容,冒冒失失往里撞,倘若被红卫兵拦住,找我的麻烦,我该怎么说?于是 收住了脚步。

In the decade that I had been in Yanyuan, I had heard that the Yanyuan Middle School was only university preparatory middle school in Yanyuan. It was the highest level educational institution in the county. The bloodletting of the Cultural Revolution and the evil forces that had swept over it then had left it in poor condition. The school gate was still. There were no students going in or out.

The screen on the wall gate blocked my view to the school’s interior. Just then a boy of about sixteen years of age came out through the left hand side of the screen. I asked him hurriedly, “Is your school still in session?” He looked at me in astonishment, shook his head, then nodded. With an expression on his face that showed that he didn’t know how to answer than question, he hurried back through the screen and disappeared.

struggle against selfishness criticize revisionism

Cultural Revolution in the classrooms: “Struggle Against Selfishness, Criticize Revisionism”  From Sohu website article “The Chinese People Remember Five Sayings of Chairman Mao”


I really wanted to know, what had the Red Guards done to the schools since the Cultural Revolution began? I wanted to go inside but felt that it was inappropriate. Someone with my appearance suddenly barging in would get into trouble if he were to be caught by the Red Guards. What would I say then? So I didn’t go in.

这些年,六队收纳了一些从文革沙场上扫进来的学生“另类”,从他们口里知道,在学校 里,上了年纪的教师除逃亡在外不知去向的,留在校内低头苟且渡日的“良民”,其状况并不 比五类好。

校园成了革命闯将的习武场,十三四岁的毛孩子,个个都成了老子天下第一,使枪弄棒 的“红小兵”。

In those years, the Sixth Brigade accepted some “other” category students who had been swept from the battlefields of the Cultural Revolution. From them we had learned that in the schools all the older teachers had run away to who knows where or else had stayed in schools with their heads bowed, submitting as “good citizens” to whatever might come. They were treated just as bad as people who fell into the “Five black categories of people”.

The schoolyard became the training ground for revolutionaries. Children of thirteen and fourteen all thought of themselves as the most important person in the world who could shoot and beat people with clubs as “little Red Guards”.


– 372 –

The “documents” pasted on the kitchen windows on both sides of the school gate drew my attention. The handwriting was sloppy and there were many mistaken characters. The document was ungrammatical and incoherent.

好半天我才读出,两个厨窗里虽有“坚决把复课闹革命进行到底”的承诺,但许多“纸” 上写着“打倒×××小爬虫”,留着文革年代的野蛮味。
好在在“文斗”约束下,只保持着口头上的“杀气”,并没有血迹。 我极想去看看那屏风后面在演“什么戏”,便同肖弟良商量道:“你想进去看看吗?”老

我们立即停住了脚步定晴一看,原来是一个年龄比刚才那孩子还要小的孩子。不过,他 身着草绿军装,正站在校门中间叉着腰,双眼雄视着我俩,显得幼稚又野蛮。

我原想以交朋友的心态同这些孩子们谈心的,但看到面前这孩子那威风凛凛的样子,使 我原先已堆在舌尖上的话,倒了一个拐,全部的吞回肚里去了。满不在乎地回答说:“怎么, 不可以参观一下么?同志”。

After a long while, I realized that although on the kitchen window was pasted the admission that “We should be resolute fully implementing return to class to carry on revolution” there were still many “papers” on which were written “Down with the XXX opportunists” which were still written in the savage style of the Cultural Revolution.

Fortunately because of the limitations of “literary battle” although there were murderous words there were no traces of blood. I wanted to badly to see “what kind of play” was being put on behind the screen. I asked Xiao Diliang “Do you think we should go inside?” Old Xiao looked hesitant, when suddenly a voice came from behind the screen asking “What are you up to?” That voice was clearly aimed at us.

I stopped immediately to take a look. It was a child even younger that the one we had just seen. He has however wearing a green military uniform and standing in the middle of the doorway bending towards us. He stared at us proudly, both young and fierce.

My first thought was to speak with this child in a friendly way but when we saw his arrogant and threatening attitude, I swallowed back all the words that I had first meant to say. In a careless voice I answered, “Well, can we look around? Comrade.”

那小孩居然悖然大怒,挑畔的喊道:“谁是你的同志,我看你们就不是什么好人,该不是 从监狱里逃出来的犯人吧!”

糟糕!我们的衣着成了我们身份的标记,在盐源城里,让这些孩子们都能认出来。我和 老肖会意地相对一视,此刻我再不想象潇洒的济公,萌生对校园怀旧和好奇心了。

但我们今天招惹谁呢?难道就因为我们的形像也犯了王法?使那男孩用这种口气训斥我 们?想到这里,便板起脸,俨然以长辈的口气训斥道:“小朋友,说话要讲礼貌,不要让别人 听到像没有受过家教似的。”

那孩子看我们不但没有被他吓走,反而还教训他,立刻更凶恶地吼道:“你们再不走,我 就喊人了。”看来,这里是进不去了。

争吵声很快把校园里的学生们吸引过来,屏风后面转出来了五六个脑袋,年龄基本上是 十五六岁,一齐用好奇的眼光盯着我们。听得他们窃窃私语议论说:“我敢打赌,他们肯定是 盐源农场的犯人。”

That small child suprisingly got very angry, challenging us saying, “Who is your comrade? You don’t look like good people to me. You look like escaped prison convicts!”

What a predicament! Our clothes told everyone who we were. In Yanyuan city, even these children can tell who we are. Old Xiao and I looked at each other. No longer did we feel like confident people on a relief mission. We lost interest in remembering our school days and all curiousity about the place.

But whom had we offended today? Was it simply our personal appearance that had violated the law of the land? What made that child speak to us in that way? When I thought of that, I made a straight face and admonished him as an elder person, “Child, you should speak politely. Don’t let people think that you weren’t brought up properly.”

The child saw that not only had he not driven me away, but I was admonishing him, he immediately yelled ferociously, “If you don’t leave I will call others.” It seemed like we wouldn’t be able to get in.

Our quarrel quickly attracted a group of students. Five or six heads appeared behind the screen. A group of fifteen and sixteen year olds stared at us curiously. We heard them saying to each other. “I’d bet, I’m sure that they are convicts from the Yanyuan Farm.”

两个女孩子向男孩嘀咕了一阵,回过身便朝我们喊道:“你们赶快走吧?”老肖拉着我的 袖子,暗示着犯不着同这些不懂事的孩子称狠。

面对着这种被人赶出来的尴尬,我的心里很不是滋味,悻悻离开了那校门,老肖向我解 释:“现在这些孩子,我们惹不起,我们的身份不同,本来今天上街又没向队长报告,出了事 还不是由自已负责,何必同这些孩子一般见识。”

学校没看成,反而用阿 Q 精神来安慰自己。一面向着那装牛粪的地方大步走去,任那风 吹破棉甲发出的拍拍的响声,一面心里还在消化今天一天的不愉快,咀嚼在像馆里受到的冷遇, 和在学校门口的闭门羹。

Two girls whispered their suspicions to the boy, then turned around and yelled to us: “Why don’t you hurry up and get out of here?” Old Xiao tugged at my sleeve to hint that we don’t stir up any more trouble with these immature kids.

Disappointed at having been driven away, I left in a bad, resentful mood. Old Xiao explained to me, “We can’t go around provoking these kids. Our status is different from theirs. We already didn’t tell the brigade leader that we would walk the streets. We would bear responsibility if something happened. There is no need to lower ourselves to the level of children.”

We weren’t able to see the school but we comforted ourselves in the spirit of the main character in Lu Xun’s short story Ah Q. We had thought to stroll around confidently in our cow-manure stained clothing. The wind blew on our armor loudly announcing our presence. We had not yet absorbed just how unhappy that day was. We ruminated about the cold reception we got at the photo studio and how we had been denied entrance at the door of the school.


– 373 –
其贫穷,更体会了它精神的极度空虚。如此在中共禁锁下封闭的社会,如何去面对一个文明世 界敞开的大门?

That day felt to me like we were trying to enter a completely unfamiliar society. Our region,  largely populated by ethnic minorities, was not only desperately poor but also a place where one felt an immense moral emptiness. How would a society so tightly locked up by the Chinese Communists face react to a door that had been opened to the civilized world?

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Now retired, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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