Skip to content

The Law of Maximum Torment



The following extract is from The Cowshed, published in English this month by New York Review Books. The translator is Zha Jianying. The “cowshed” itself was a makeshift prison for intellectuals who were labeled class enemies during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Finally, when the cowshed was ready, the words “Down with all cow devils!” were painted in large white characters on a south-facing wall as a finishing touch. The slogan was more terrifying than a hundred lectures by students wielding spears. Each character was taller than a person, and I privately noted that the brush calligraphy was some of the best I had ever seen. Indeed, writing big-character posters gave our students a chance to practice their calligraphy, beating people up allowed them to build their muscles, giving speeches in struggle sessions made them better liars, and getting into fights made them bolder. No effort expended during the Cultural Revolution was entirely wasted.

Lu Xun was right when he said that China is a country of the written word. Centuries ago, during the Han dynasty, people wrote sayings like “Ill dreams at night, safe in daylight” over their doorways to guard against bad luck triggered by a nightmare. Proverbs like this are everywhere in China. Ghosts are said to fear certain sayings, such as “Stones from Mount Tai ward off evil.” Socialist China likewise has not evolved beyond the power of the written word. We plaster the slogan “Serve the people!” everywhere, as if merely saying so means that the people have already been served. Similarly, the words “Down with all cow devils!” above our heads proved that we cow devils had already been struggled against and defeated. This was a simple, elegant, and eminently Chinese solution.

From then on, we inmates lived in the shadow of those words.

We were about to be herded into the prison we had built with our own hands. As the novelist Hu Feng said, “There is life to be lived everywhere”—even in the cowshed. But finding a way to talk about living life in the cowshed is not so easy. I finally decided on the technique, much beloved by Chinese historians, of coming up with a theory as an organizing principle for my story. My theory has no basis in the academic literature, and it wouldn’t stand up to professional scrutiny. It is based purely on fieldwork, but I am nonetheless convinced of its truth.

No one was asserting the rule of law at that stage, and yet our very own Red Guards had managed to draw up rules resembling actual laws that earned their victims’ grudging respect.

I propose the Law of Maximum Torment: that everything the Red Guards did, no matter where their loyalties lay or what Party line they were defending, was calculated to inflict maximum pain on their victims. Regardless of whether they were raiding intellectuals’ houses or reforming them through labor, their chief aim was to inflict pain. At the outset, they were limited to primitive methods they had learned from historical novels about feudal society. Even cavemen must have known how to slap and kick their victims. But the Red Guards were bright students, and they were good at swapping tips and learning from each other. They soon invented more sophisticated methods of tormenting their victims. Just as military technology develops quickly during wartime, torture techniques developed quickly during the Cultural Revolution. When one campus invented a new technique, it often spread like lightning across the country; the Red Guards at Peking University, for instance, could have patented the practice of hanging wooden boards around their victims’ necks. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards nationwide collaborated to design a methodology of torture so comprehensive that it ought to be preserved for future use. So much for my theory—an account of how it was put into practice in the cowshed follows.

As Confucius said, “Everything must have its proper name, or else speech isn’t in accordance with the nature of things.” To begin with, the revolutionaries would have to decide what the cowshed’s inmates were called. We had been called “blackguards” or “turtles,” but those were mere insults. Officially we were called “counterrevolutionaries,” but for some reason that didn’t catch on. None of the other names lasted very long, so even after the cowshed had been built, there was no consensus on our official designation. When we first moved in, there was a notice in each building titled “Rules for Persons Undergoing Reform Through Labor.” The tone was severe and the rules were detailed. The elegant handwriting suggested that the writer was a man of letters. No one was asserting the rule of law at that stage, and yet our very own Red Guards had managed to draw up rules resembling actual laws that earned their victims’ grudging respect.

But they had made one mistake. The “Rules for Persons Undergoing Reform Through Labor” disappeared from the walls within a couple of days, to be replaced by “Rules for Reform-Through-Labor Convicts.” Much better! Now that we had been informed of our status as convicts, we would accept our legal position and resign ourselves to living in terror with no hope of ever being rehabilitated. I wrote this little ditty:

The prison has been built;
A name has been found.
The convicts know their guilt;
All’s right, peace abounds.

The Buildings

The blackguards lived in three badly built buildings that were intended to be temporary structures, little sturdier than bamboo stands. When there weren’t enough empty classrooms, we used to hold classes in these buildings. But now that classes had been suspended for two years while students all over China made revolution, the buildings had been abandoned. They were damp, musty, cobwebby places, full of rats, lizards, caterpillars, cockroaches, scorpions, and various other creatures; in short, they were unfit shelters for human beings. Then again, as convicts, not human beings, we had no right to expect much more than a roof over our heads.

At first we slept on bamboo mats covering the dank brick floors. The thin layer of hay beneath the mats was no use against the dampness. By day the buildings were full of flies; by night they were full of mosquitoes. We were covered from head to toe with insect bites. Eventually we were given planks on which to lay our mats and rags drenched with pesticide to guard against mosquitoes. We were grateful for these humanitarian measures.

No one seemed to know why our numbers had increased—there were far more of us here than there had been in Taiping Village. But Very Important Prisoners such as Lu Ping were not to be seen in the cowshed and must have been imprisoned elsewhere. Some of the new prisoners I had seen at struggle sessions, but others, new targets of the progressing “class struggle,” I had never seen before. New faces continued to join us throughout our stay, and the cowshed family grew steadily.

The Daily Routine 

Officially, the constitution of the cowshed was the “Rules for Reform-Through-Labor Convicts,” but it was liberally supplemented with unwritten laws. Without a legislative body such as the Council of Convicts, our overseers could speak laws into being unhindered by democratic formalities; their every word was accepted as truth.

Regulated thus by laws both written and unwritten, life in the cowshed was orderly. Waking any earlier or later than the regulation time of 6 a.m. was prohibited. At the clanging of a bell, we got dressed and jogged around the yard. The guards barked their orders from the center of the yard, which they must have considered a position of safety since they rarely carried spears during the morning jog.

Why did the Red Guards institute a daily exercise regimen? Inmates of the cowshed didn’t lack exercise; our lives as laogai convicts consisted of nothing but hard labor, and we weren’t even permitted to read for pleasure. The verdicts on our cases were irreversible, and death would have been too good for us, so there was no need to keep fit. No, the morning jog was motivated by the Law of Maximum Torment, the principle that everything in the cowshed had to be organized to inflict maximum pain on its inmates. Its sole purpose was to ensure that we had worn ourselves out before even beginning the day’s labor.

After our jog, we washed ourselves at the taps in the yard before trudging to the cafeteria for breakfast, staring at the ground the whole way. There were more than a hundred of us, and not one dared to risk a kick or blow to the back by breaching the unwritten rule against looking up. At the cafeteria, we could only buy steamed cornmeal buns or pickles, luxuries such as scallion pancakes being forbidden to convicts. In any case, our allowance was sixteen yuan and fifty cents, with another twelve yuan and fifty cents for dependents—we were barely scraping by, and even if we had been allowed other types of food, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them.

A few of the innovations were pioneered by former students. Not all of them may have been academically gifted, but as their former teacher, I must give them top marks for their management of the camp.

The cafeteria had tables and chairs, but they were meant for human beings, not for us. Inmates ate outside, squatting under the trees or on the steps. At meals, we eyed the meat dishes hungrily while chewing on our cucumbers or boiled vegetables, a diet that left us without a drop of oil in our stomachs after a day of hard labor. We barely had enough ration coupons to buy cornmeal buns. I had gone hungry during the war in Germany and during the three years of famine around 1960, but this experience differed fundamentally from the others: In the cowshed, starving was augmented by physical exertion and the constant threat of a beating; by comparison, those earlier times of starvation seemed like bliss.

We returned to the cowshed after breakfast, waiting like oxen to be given our tasks for the day. None of the university’s janitors and workers did any labor; they had all become overseers or guards. When there was a dirty or tiring job to be done, they could simply come to the cowshed and request manpower, just as the leader of a village production team might request a team of oxen. When all the jobs had been assigned, the workers would relax and give orders from the sidelines, looking smug.

Before beginning the day’s labor, every convict had to copy the Mao saying of the day from a blackboard that hung from a branch. The sayings were often quite long. But it was crucial to learn them by heart, because no matter where you were working and what you were doing, a guard could order you to recite the saying for the day at any time. Get one word wrong, and you risked being slapped in the face, at the very least. If you were called to the office, you would cry “Reporting!” and stand there stiffly, staring at the floor. When a guard recited the first phrase of any quotation from Chairman Mao, that would be your cue to complete the sentence unless you wanted a beating. One old physics professor’s brain seemed to have become sluggish with age. Stuffed to the brim with mathematical formulae, it had no room for anything else—not even the Great Leader’s words. As a result, I often saw his cheeks swollen, his eyes puffy with bruises.

Perhaps our overseers thought that ordinary methods used to reform criminal elements wouldn’t work on us and decided to try Jesuit catechizing techniques instead. But although memorization is said to be extraordinarily effective as an educational technique, it seemed to have little effect on me. It is more likely that the Maoist catechizing served no rehabilitative purpose and was instead motivated by the Law of Maximum Torment. After all, our overseers themselves didn’t believe in the educational power of Mao’s words. They could barely recite the sayings. When a guard began to recite a quotation from Chairman Mao, I sometimes blundered in my haste to complete it, but the guards rarely noticed. I could get away with a mistake or two, since at least I wasn’t stupid enough to cause trouble for myself by admitting my own errors and making the guards lose face.

While working, we learned the sayings by heart, our physical and mental capacities alike stretched to breaking point.

One of my longest assignments was at the Northern Materials Factory. All the workers there belonged to New Beida and supported the Empress Dowager. They were particularly hostile to me since I was known to be a Jinggangshan man. Our first task was to transport fire-resistant bricks from inside the factory to a stockpile next to the pond. The bricks had to be stacked with extreme caution, since a tower of bricks could crush a man to death if it collapsed. All the inmates knew this and we worked very carefully.

After all the bricks had been moved to the stockpile, we were assigned to pull nails out of old planks. This was light work, and we were even permitted the luxury of sitting on wooden stools as we worked. Next, we were reassigned to shovel construction sand piled outside the factory. I must have spent several weeks in the Northern Materials Factory. I don’t know what tasks the other inmates were given, since not all of them worked there.

I was later transferred from the factory to a job piling up coal in the student dorms. Truckers considered their job done once they had unloaded the coal and dumped it on the ground. Our job was to gather the scattered coal into baskets and pile it into heaps so it would take up less space. It was the height of summer, and this was dirty, exhausting work. We clambered up the heap repeatedly, two old men hauling a basket of coal that could weigh up to 130 pounds. In strong wind, our faces and clothes were coated in a film of coal dust. As professors, we would never have set foot here, but times had changed, and we had to change with them. It was impossible to avoid the grime. My partner was an old Muslim comrade who had risked his life working in the underground Communist Party at Yenching University, which became a part of Peking University. One day, when the overseer’s back was turned, he whispered to me under his breath, “Our fates have been sealed. We’ll live out our lives in labor camps in some remote province.” To the extent that I thought about the future, I probably thought the same.

I was assigned many other tasks, such as weeding or doing repairs, and will refrain from listing them all here. I was part of a large contingent of blackguards that carried rocks and plowed paddy fields on the side of campus near the present site of Shaoyuan Building. On another occasion, I was assigned, along with a professor of Western languages, to help a plumber fix the underground piping outside the east wall of Block 35 dorm. The plumber did all the work himself, occasionally asking us to pass him his hammers or carry sacks of sand. He never smiled or said a word, nor did he shout at us. I was unbelievably grateful for this reprieve. In later years, when I saw him riding through campus on his bike, I often found my eyes following his silhouette as it receded from sight.

The life of a laogai convict consisted chiefly of physical labor. The guards’ gaze was inescapable, both during and after working hours. But because of the unwritten rule that inmates were not to lift their eyes from the ground, an inmate might not realize that he was standing in front of a guard until the latter exercised his right to address you with an insult, as casually as a foreigner might say “hello.” Their command of profanities was so impressive that I was surprised if a guard failed to open his mouth with a curse.

The Evening Assembly

What I am about to describe is the guards’ most ingenious invention. In describing our daily routine, I have already mentioned a few of the innovations pioneered by these former students, although there were a few workers and janitors among them. Not all of them may have been academically gifted students, but as their former teacher, I must give them top marks for their management of the camp. Unfortunately, the curriculum at the university was largely theoretical, and as a professor, I must take some responsibility for this. But the students among our guards demonstrated all kinds of practical skills: They organized, managed, debated, lectured, accused, and made good on every threat to beat up a blackguard. In many ways, we were no match for them.

Their greatest invention, however, was the evening assembly, which consisted of the following ritual: After dinner, all the inmates would assemble in the small yard between two rows of blocks. A new speaker gave a lecture, usually a New Beida leader rather than one of the guards. The subject matter varied, since the aim was not strictly to expound on revolutionary principles, of which there weren’t that many anyway—the speakers would soon have found themselves going over old material. Instead, the assembly was an exercise in the science of torment. The speakers spent each assembly seizing, so to speak, on inmates’ pigtails: Each of us had various faults or “pigtails,” and if you had none, they could easily be planted on you. There were two kinds of pigtails: minor incidents that had happened during the day’s labor, and political errors in the written thought reports we submitted each day. All of us were extremely careful when working, not because we had learned the value of labor but because we were terrified of getting a beating—not that there was really any way to avoid one. If the guards had it in for you, they could always pick on your thought report. No matter how carefully you chose your words, the guards would have no trouble finding fault with one thing or another. After all, China has always been an empire of the written word, in which the dangers of verbal expression have a long history. The Qing dynasty emperor Yongzheng once had a general executed because he reversed the phrase “zhao qian xi ti” (“be diligent in the morning and alert at night”), altering the word order to write “xi ti zhao qian” instead. Both expressions are equally laudatory, but the emperor’s wrath had been aroused, so the man was beheaded. Our guards surpassed even the emperors of yore in combing our written reports for excuses to torment us. They always managed to find something, and the unlucky inmate they chose would be persecuted during the evening assembly.

Unfortunately for the city’s tourism industry, unlike the centuries-old changing of the guard, the evening assemblies at Peking University only lasted for several months.

The inmates would form four rows, which was as many as the yard could hold, and the evening always began with a roll call. One detail of the roll call made a lasting impression on me. An elderly professor of Western languages who had returned to China from overseas had been sentenced on some pretext to be “reformed.” Confined to his bed and dying, he lived in a room next to the yard where inmates assembled. When his name was called, he always called out “Present!” from his wooden bed. His wavering voice brought tears to my eyes.

The rest of us stood there with our hearts thumping. Sometimes the guards laid hands on a man just as the speaker was barking his name out, before he had a chance to report to the front of the room. Using a common tactic of struggle sessions, they would twist his arms behind his back and grip his shoulders, kicking and punching him as they marched him out of the line. They might even force the inmate to the floor and kick him viciously or stamp on him. The sound of people being slapped in the face echoed in the nighttime air.

The assembly was a sight peculiar to the Cultural Revolution. We Chinese love our superlatives. We delight in disputing claims to being the best or biggest, but there was no room for argument in the assembly: It was easily Peking University’s most popular attraction, drawing crowds on the scale of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. As I stood there silently each day, hoping fervently that my name would not be called, I could just make out the faint shadows of onlookers crowding against the fence in the undergrowth. Under the dim electric lights, it was impossible to tell how many had come to admire the spectacle, but the crowd must have been at least several rows deep. Unfortunately for the city’s tourism industry, unlike the centuries-old changing of the guard, the evening assemblies at Peking University only lasted for several months.

It is also a pity that our inquisitive friends didn’t have the patience to linger until midnight, when they would have seen a far more sinister sight, one to which even inmates were not usually privy. One night, as I made my way toward the outhouse, I noticed several shadows under the trees in the yard, standing straight with both arms lifted as though they were embracing something. In fact, they were embracing thin air, and who knows how long the shadows had been standing there. I showed no emotion. But I reflected that this new stress position must be like holding the airplane position, and that I myself wouldn’t last five minutes in it. I didn’t know how much longer my fellow inmates would be forced to stand in that way, and as all inmates knew, it would be unwise to say that I had seen anything or make even the slightest sound. I slunk back to my room, and dreamed of men hugging emptiness.

Extraordinary rules

In the blackguard camp, more and more unwritten rules ran parallel to the “Rules for Reform-Through-Labor Convicts.” For instance, we were forbidden from looking up while walking, as well as from crossing our legs.

I may be no legal expert, but I’ve never read of a similar statute in any of the countries in which I’ve lived. Unless they are hunchbacked, people generally look where they are going as they walk—unless they are inmates of Peking University’s cowshed. Did the guards come up with this rule on their own, or did they lift it from a torture manual one of them had inherited? Either way, it was the law, so we obeyed it. At all times and in all places, apart from one’s own cell, looking up was strictly forbidden, especially when speaking to camp guards. Anyone who dared to look up would be slapped in the face or beaten. I always made sure that my gaze rested on the floor, or on a guard’s shoes, since to lift one’s eyes any higher would be too risky. I have distinct memories of the shoes the guards wore but only the blurriest impressions of the faces associated with those shoes. We were naturally permitted to hold our heads up when working, since if you are carrying a basket of coal, you have to look where you are going. Once, I looked up for a fraction of a second as we were lining up to go to lunch, and a guard roared, “Ji Xianlin, don’t try anything funny!” I braced myself for a blow that never came. Never again would I try anything “funny.”

Baffler Newsletter

New email subscribers receive a free copy of our current issue.