Mr Shi at No. 19

Labyrinths of Memory

I met Mr Li one smoggy Beijing summer’s evening, outside a streetside noodle shop at the end of my hutong, in the city’s maze of narrow alleyways. I was eating a bowl of biangbiang noodles – a flat wide kind whose name is written with a fifty-eight-stroke character that is onomatopoeic for the slapping biang! sound they make when whacked against a kitchen counter to stretch them out. Mr Li appeared from nowhere, staring at me as I slurped self-consciously from my broth. His body was stooped and wiry, with grey hair poking out from underneath a RUDY 2008 baseball cap: presumably a made-in-China left behind from Rudy Giuliani’s misjudged presidential run (though Mr Li had never heard of him). He struck up a conversation as if he thirsted for human contact, spurred by curiosity about where I was from. ‘England is a great country!’ he flattered me when I told him. ‘The first country to have democracy!’

Mr Li grew up with the Chinese revolution. Born in Beijing in 1940, his family suffered unspeakably in the war with Japan, and his father fought for the Nationalists in the civil war that followed. Ten years after the Communists won, at the age of nineteen, Mr Li was sentenced to reform-by-labour in the freezing north for a ‘bad political attitude’. Trundled from camp to camp, he was only released in 1979 when the political winds had shifted. One afternoon, in the cramped flat where he has lived ever since, he showed me his most prized possession: a single page, yellow with time, which he keeps in a clear plastic folder locked in a drawer. His rehabilitation letter, making official the restitution of his rights in a few lines typed by a secretary. ‘That was after I gave them thirty years of my life,’ he told me, ‘and all they gave me was this letter.’

His home was tucked deep in an alley behind a vegetable market, as if to hide its secrets behind waist-high piles of cabbage. Mr Li’s bookshelf was stuffed with banned history and politics books: one title was Death Diaries of the Cultural Revolution. He told me his wife had divorced him, that he’d had a stroke some years back and his son didn’t take care of him anymore. But he would always return to the labour camps, to the cold and the damp. ‘They treated us like pigs,’ he said. During interrogation, they forced him to take the ‘aeroplane’ position – bent at a right-angle at the waist, arms straight back behind him – with his head held up against a heater while the guards twisted his fingers back, breaking them. ‘Mao Zedong is a murderous devil,’ he whispered.

China is a minefield of stories like this, lying around us like unexploded bombs. Most remain undisturbed, but every so often you tread on one and it goes off, reminding you of the depth of unreckoned memory that this country holds. They lie thick in Beijing’s hutongs, where residents have often lived for decades in single-storey homes packed together under a single address. Further out are high-rises for new or relocated arrivals, where the city is thin at the edges, as a pancake is spread on the skillet. But in the inner city, Beijingers like Mr Li have been here long enough to witness all the quicksilver shifts of this protean beast. And for foreigners who are passing through, we are just flies on the beast’s back, witness to a hurtling present as the past recedes ever further behind into lost memory.


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