Sad songs from Chinese prisoner become part of country's oral heritage

July 07, 1992|By Nicholas D. Kristof | Nicholas D. Kristof,New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- His songs record the anguish of prison life, the loneliness in the cells, and Zhang Jingsheng need not worry about running out of material for his lyrics.

Zhang, a 37-year-old political prisoner whose songs have spread throughout the nation, is about to begin the fourth year of a 13-year sentence for "counterrevolutionary" offenses. He is not due to be released until 2002.

Prison songs are a distinct genre in China, a bit like country-and-western music in the United States. They predate the Communist takeover of 1949 and the Chinese sing them -- alone or with friends -- to relieve loneliness or melancholy.

Zhang composed most of his songs while he was serving an earlier prison sentence in the 1980s, for editing a pro-democracy journal. His fellow prisoners memorized the songs and when they were transferred to other prisons they taught them to inmates in those places. Gradually the melodies spread throughout the prison system in much of China.

After being released the convicts carried the songs into the broader society. Gradually Zhang's songs spread, like rumors, from person to person, becoming folk songs and winning a place China's oral heritage.

While Zhang's songs are not nearly so moving in translation as in the original, the gloom and sentimentality come through even in English:

It's not that I want to leave you, dear Mom,

But we're fated to take different paths.

Vicious fate keeps us apart.

I don't know when we can be together.

Bitter tears wash me as I pace to and fro.

The sun shines outside but my heart is icy.

Darkness looms up before me.

I'm stuck here inside the prison.

A few years ago, when controls were looser, some recording companies distributed cassettes of prison songs. At least one cassette of Zhang's songs -- sung by other people -- was released in 1988 in western China, and a similar cassette of songs by an actor and convicted rapist named Chi HD attracted great popularity.

"The prison songs are great when you're feeling depressed," said a former political prisoner who learned them when she was behind bars a few years ago. "Sometimes when I'm together with friends, we all get to gether and sing them. Lots of folks know them, not just ex-convicts."

Zhang (whose name is pronounced JAHNG Jing Shung) is not nearly as well known as his songs. An ordinary factory worker in the south central Chinese city of Changsha, he became involved in the Democracy Spring movement in late 1978. After a crackdown in 1981, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

It was in those years that Zhang developed his knack for songwriting. One of his best-known tunes, "Song of Changqiao Prison," records his mood in those days:

I'm a young man tossed into prison,

But dearest, oh dearest, don't grieve for me.

Society's just that way nowadays,

Nothing but pain, trouble and anguish.

Here I stand in my little cell, with a ball of rice and a bowl of soup.

That's all there is to life here: feelings that sear, and tears and remorse.

After his release in 1985, Zhang lived quietly for a few years. But during the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement, he gave several riveting speeches about the need for change.

Tang Boqiao, a student leader in Changsha who was later imprisoned and eventually fled to the United States, said that Zhang was never an organizer of the movement and avoided taking part in activities like blocking traffic. Nevertheless, Zhang, because of his background, was one of the first to be arrested, on May 28, 1989.

"While serving a previous prison sentence, the accused composed a large number of songs about prison life, the content which was extremely reactionary," the prosecution charged, according to a recent report by Asia Watch, the New York-based human rights organization.

In December 1989, Zhang was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Asia Watch suggests in a recent report that the local authorities in Hunan province intended to sentence him to three years, but that Beijing ordered that an example be made of him.

"His counterrevolutionary bluster was extremely arrogant," the Hunan Daily News declared after Zhang's sentencing. "As Zhang was a counterrevolutionary recidivist, he was sentenced severely to a long prison term, in accordance with the law."

Zhang is now serving his time in the Hunan No. 1 Prison in the town of Yuanjiang. It is unclear if he is still writing songs, or singing them. While guards disapprove of inmates singing loudly, ex-prisoners say that it is common to sing in the evening when guards are out of earshot.

Little more is known of Zhang's present situation. The Hunan Province Foreign Affairs Office said it had no information on him. Since an interview is impossible, the only clues to his mind set come from his songs:

I said a tearful goodbye to my folks,

as I was shut inside the gruesome jail.

An iron lock on the cell door clangs shut,

and armed cops pace outside the door.

An electric bulb lights the cell,

the small room where I live my life.

A high wall cuts me off from the world.

Where's freedom?

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