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Home » Human Rights & Civil Rights » Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin

Always Parting: My Life with Liu Xianbin

—- Dedicated to Wives of Dissidents

By Chen Mingxian, published: March 29, 2015

 

Chen Mingxian in 2013, volunteer to help children in the mountains.

Chen Mingxian in 2013, volunteer to help children in the mountains.

Editor’s note: Among Chinese dissidents and activists, this essay by Chen Mingxian (陈明先), a high school Chinese teacher in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁) and wife of Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌), has become a classic. Since reading it a couple of years ago, I have kept remembering it, and some of the imageries seem to have preeminently lodged in my mind. Few writings do that to you. Last fall, I finally had it translated but have not had a chance to edit it for posting until now. For some time, I have also wanted to interview a group of wives of Chinese political prisoners, but that desire has kept being pushed back because there is always something more urgent to do. Such is the lot of this community of extraordinary women: quietly they shoulder the emotional and material toll exacted on them by the absence of their husbands, caring for the old and raising the young, but they are no priority on anyone’s agenda. Liu Xianbin was a student in Renmin University (中国人民大学) in 1989, his participation in the Tiananmen Movement landed him in Qincheng Prison where he served 2 and half years.  He was again sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1999 for “subverting the state power” and released in November, 2008, on reduced prison term. In June, 2010, he was arrested again and, in March, 2011, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power.” The article was written shortly after Liu Xianbin was arrested in June, 2010. 

 

I.

Several years ago when Xianbin was still serving his sentence at Sichuan Province’s No. 3 prison (in Dazhu county), Ouyang Yi (欧阳懿), a friend who had been campaigning tirelessly on Xianbin’s behalf, was constantly admonishing me to write something about the two of us. I thought there was nothing much to write. My meeting Xianbin was uncomplicated, not nearly as romantic as one might imagine. In November of 1993, I was teaching at Suining High School (遂宁中学), and Xianbin had just been released from Qincheng Prison (秦城监狱) in Beijing and was helping to watch his sister-in-law’s storefront. I would often go over to chat with his sister-in-law, and this is how Xianbin and I came to know each other.

And what did we talk about? I can no longer recollect. Although we both bore witness to the events of 1989, I was still full of curiosity about his experience that year. He was a man who had emerged from such suffering with energy and optimism intact. What more could he not endure? I thought. I felt so warmly toward him. He was unemployed and his household registration was with a village on the outskirts of the city, but at the time I was already coming to see that work unit and household registration were going to be largely irrelevant in the future. As long as he could support himself, I felt that I could support myself and our children.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Mingxian in May 1994.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Mingxian in May 1994.

Xianbin and I began dating in March of 1994. He had already left Suining by then, and he was shuttling between Suining and Chengdu peddling a kind of drink called Mango Tea. I have never cared very much about money, but seeing his unflagging hustle did please me.

In about May, Xianbin said that he would go to Beijing. Before his departure, we took a long stroll through Suining’s old, shabby streets. Xianbin feared that I would be lonely and suggested purchasing a black and white television, but I refused. He then suggested buying me a gold necklace, and again I was unwilling. Then we thought of going to sit for a photograph as a memento. We inquired at a number of photo parlors, but no one was willing to accommodate us. In the end, Xianbin and I spent an extravagant thirty-five yuans [about $4-$5 at the time] on a set of four black and white wedding portraits.

During the summer vacation my older brother’s family went to Beijing for sightseeing, bringing with him my letter and some clothing for Xianbin. They returned with a letter from Xianbin and a “Time Flows Swiftly as Water” cassette tape. In his letter he wrote how he sat alone in the park in dusk and how the distant strains of a piano reduced him to homesickness and tears.

On the 13th of September, we registered our marriage. Because Xianbin was in a rush to leave again, we didn’t have time to take a formal photograph and so we glued one of the black and white wedding portraits onto our marriage certificate. Xianbin took one with him to Beijing, and I kept the other three with me in Suining. Perhaps the separation was too painful to bear, Xianbin also had some plans for me to go to Beijing to look for job, but nothing came of them.

At the urging of Xianbin’s mother, we held a simple wedding ceremony on January 28, 1995. Xianbin’s dramatic turn from a student at Renmin University (人民大学) to convicted prisoner had been difficult for his mother to bear, and at last here was an occasion at which she could hold her head high. She said that throughout the wedding she had felt like singing. My own poor mother wept. She had learned Xianbin’s entire story only the night before the wedding. She had asked, helplessly, “how much farm land does Liu Xianbin own?”

II.

I became Xianbin’s bride in a small room at the west end, neighboring the boy’s dormitory, on the ground floor of Jiguang Hall (继光楼) at Suining High School. Our new home was very simple: a portrait of us, twenty-four inch black and white, hung on the wall, and light filtered through the grids of green plastic glued to the expanse of window. Looking out from the window, one could see in the yard a big banyan tree, a small pavilion capped with green tiles, and an ancient bell. The bell had long since been abandoned and almost never rung before. The first morning after our wedding, Xianbin went outside with a hammer to ring the bell, like a child. With school out of session, the campus was quiet, and the simple, wholesome notes of the bell rang out long and travelled far.

Xianbin has mentioned this particular time many times in different settings. I think this must be because that small room and the ringing of the bell were among his loveliest memories; they came to stand for the rare moments in our lives where we have been free of care.

The bell in Suining High School.

The bell in Suining High School.

On the evening of the fourth day of the first lunar month, we returned from a gathering of Xianbin’s former classmates to find the door our small room ajar. All the things in the room were neatly and intact, but one of the two cameras resting on the writing desk had vanished. Xianbin believed that the curious restraint of our burglar could be accounted for with only one explanation: that the object of the theft had been the film rather than any valuables. And so our friend Chen Bin [Chen Wei’s younger brother] lost his camera, and we lost all the photographic record we had of our wedding.

Xianbin had already a sense of foreboding, but it made no effect on his mood. Although I was regretful, we were bereft of any recourse. Yet whenever the photographs were mentioned, I would wistfully imagine that they still lay in some safe corner and that they would return to us one day in the future.

I can’t remember how long Xianbin stayed with me after the wedding. He was always hurrying away and then suddenly returning. When he was gone, my heart would sink into some chasm where there would never be any word of him and my anxiety could find no accommodation. Perhaps our days together were too few in number, so that seeing him return suddenly, even after many years of marriage, would fill me with heart-fluttering shyness.

In the summer of 1995, Xianbin took me to Baoshi Middle School to see his good friend Ouyang Yi. At that time, Ouyang Yi was already a father. Teacher Luo, Ouyang’s wife, and I stayed at home to watch the toddler while Ouyang Yi took Xianbin to the homes of some local villagers to conduct surveys. After returning, Xianbin was full of excitement and wrote for several days.

When the police raided our home for the first time, we had already moved to the third floor on the east end of Jiguang Hall. It was a three-room, wood-lined apartment with a balcony and a simple kitchen and toilet. Though plainly furnished, it was our sweet home and it was there that Xianbin learned to cook.

In March and April of 1996, Xianbin’s sojourns were no longer so unrestricted. News of his returning would reach the police very quickly, and then he would be taken away for questioning. The questioning was often aggressive and threatening. Xianbin did not want to tangle with them and would later avoid coming back to Suining altogether.

Our reunions became ever more difficult. One morning in May, Xianbin’s mother came over telling me that Xianbin had returned, staying in her rental room on Small East Street. I rushed over and, furtively, I entered his mother’s room to see Xianbin sitting on an old bench paring a peach as he waited for me.

Liu Xianbin

Liu Xianbin

That afternoon, Xianbin took me to the park beside Suining First High School for a stroll. The park, sparsely visited, was safer than our home. We sat on a bench holding each other closely until dusk. For dinner, we ate “Feng Dumplings,” and then Xianbin took me to the bank of the Fu River (涪江). The riverbank was strung with garbage and rubble then, and few people would go there to walk about. We held hands as we walked back and forth under the weak lamp light. Xianbin decided to go into the city only after we had exhausted ourselves staying out late into the night. Having crossed many streets and alleys, we finally found, and checked into, a small guesthouse that did not require us to register for the night.

The police had not seen Xianbin for some time, and they must be very anxious. In early June, I received a telegram with news that my father was critically ill, so I hurried to my hometown in Renshou (仁寿). On the road, I noticed that there was a neatly dressed man who had been following me throughout my journey. He followed me from one bus transfer to another, and he would take out a dark object (it may have been a mobile phone) and huddle in a corner communicating something to someone. My intuition told me that they were looking for Xianbin. I later had proof from my sister-in-law, who not long after asked me: “Is there something wrong with Xianbin? Why did the police come here looking for you?”

Xianbin returned home upon the start of the America’s Cup in 1996, a weary bird returning to roost. The security police sought him out immediately upon hearing of his return. Xianbin’s old homeroom teacher from high school, now the school’s vice principal, knocked on our door, accompanied by a large entourage of police officers. The meeting of the teacher and the student was more than a little strained and awkward. Soon Xianbin was taken by Wang Yanwen (王延文), the brutish head of the domestic security branch of the local public security bureau, while the others stayed behind to turn our home inside out.

The police ransacked my bed!

The police scattered my clothing!

The police opened my diary!

The police was reading what I had written!

They had unscrupulously violated my privacy. It was as if I was stripped of all my clothes and thrown on the street for the first time in my life. Never in my life had I felt so humiliated. My entire body shook with rage and nervousness. Hidden against my chest was an address book Xianbin had passed to me, and I feigned calm while pacing the balcony.

The next day, Xianbin returned safely, and by then I had burned six heavy volumes of diary recording fourteen years of girlish youth and dreams.

III.

At the end of May of 1997, shortly before our child was born, Xianbin put his travels in abeyance and returned home to stay. Seeing my heavy belly and struggling steps, he was secretly worried. One day, I went out to take a stroll on the street and, stopping at his sister-in-law’s storefront, began chatting so happily I forgot about returning home. He didn’t know what had happened and became as anxious as an ant on a hot pan.

Happy Familly portrait.

Happy Familly portrait.

On the morning of June 13, our child was born by caesarian section, and Xianbin could not contain his happiness. Every day, he busied himself washing clothes, making meals and looking after the baby. But before our child was a month old, he told me, “I have to take a trip, I will have my mother come over to help you.”

Xianbin left me some money for living expenses and left, seemingly without a care in the world. I didn’t know where he had gone, nor did I need to know, it seemed. But when he return again that autumn, he had tuberculosis flare-up. He was constantly coughing blood and had to be admitted to the hospital. I shuttled back and forth between home, the market, and the hospital with our child and a very heavy heart.

Xianbin had been very strong and capable, but falling ill made him vulnerable like a child in need of love and attention. I did everything I could, borrowing from family and friends to pay for his medical expenses and nutrition. After some time, I was too ashamed of approaching others for money and so, in exchange for a pittance, I sold the gold ring that Xianbin’s mother had given me. I will always remember the ache in my heart the day I paid my discreet visit to the tiny gold shop, thinking, “My love, I have nothing else left to save you!”

That was the second time Xianbin had tuberculosis. His mother was overwhelmed with anxiety, thinking of every possible means and trying out every folk remedy to drive the disease away. After hearing that there was a kind of herbal bath for treating the illness, Xianbin’s mother carried a large steel wok from Renli village (仁里场) several kilometers away to heat the medicinal water at our home. She kept giving us money out of her own scant living allowance. And in such a manner we struggled through those days.

The police also came to the hospital to see Xianbin, although I didn’t know whether they were visiting for other reasons. By the spring of 1998, Xianbin’s illness was in remission and he was well enough to recover at home. In April, we moved to a house near the school’s main gate. The house was in disrepair, but it was spacious enough to accommodate three rooms. This way, Xianbin’s father was able to live with us, looking after us for up to twelve years.

At that time, Xianbin’s father was 70 years old. He was still nimble, pushing our child everywhere in a bamboo stroller with Xianbin accompanying them. They would often take our child to the Northern Sichuan College of Education. The campus had a large garden with flowers in bloom year-round. When I was done teaching, I would often run over to look for them under the bobbing branches of the sweet-smelling tea olive tree where we gathered as a family. Having been there many times, those glorious golden tea olive blossoms, the tamarisk and the wisteria, fixed themselves in our hearts. After being released from jail, Xianbin more than once mentioned to our daughter that he had taken her to see the blossoms and birds call, but how could a thirteen-year-old girl recollect these tender memories of being with her father when she was too little to remember?

Xianbin’s health had not fully recovered, but he was nonetheless restless. As soon as the summer had passed, he traveled to Chengdu. Not long afterward, he had taken his bedsheets, his comforter, and other basic articles with him, as if he were planning to stay indefinitely. Our daughter was so young and in need of love, I redoubled my efforts trying to make up for the absence of her father’s affection and to ensure a happy childhood for her.

In December, Xianbin returned jubilant, bringing with him a fax machine. The fax machine needed to be connected to a phone before it could be used. And so we came to have a telephone installed in our home with the number 0825-2248222.

Xianbin could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the fax machine and stayed at home busying himself with it all day long. Meanwhile, the atmosphere around us became even more tense than usual: Officer Wang became ever more short-tempered, the searches of our home became more and more frequent, the duration of each police summon stretched longer and longer, often detaining Xianbin for 48 hours.

Later, a police car was parked outside our building day and night, and we could hear its noise from the third floor. With his movements monitored, Xianbin stayed at home without any way of printing out the essays he had written to transmit through the fax machine.

One day, I went out to buy groceries. Xianbin gave a draft of an article to me and I found a small shop and printed it, taking it home in the cloth bag I used for groceries. As Xianbin’s writing continued to be disseminated, the security police became suspicious and began to follow me. They confiscated the printing and copying machines belonging to the owner of the small print shop. I was taken to the public security bureau where I was interrogated for the first time.

Xianbin was infuriated by the constant harassment from the police and took our daughter with him to the Suining Public Security Bureau to protest. On December 19, at the Bureau’s main entrance, Xianbin refused to be interrogated, a flustered and frustrated Wang Yanwen (王延文) ordered several police officers to drag him away, tearing sleeves of his shirt. By January of 1999, the atmosphere seemed to have eased some and so Xianbin left Suining once more.

At the start of the winter vacation, Xianbin’s father returned to their hometown of Renli and busied himself in preparations for the Chinese New Year. My daughter and I had just each other for company, and we looked forward to Xianbin’s return. Although we had installed a phone in the house, Xianbin was very cautious and it had yet to ring for his wife and daughter. Two days before the New Year’s Day, Ouyang Yi told me that something had happened to Xianbin and he was being held at a detention center in Beijing. My heart, uneasy for days on end, finally sank.

My daughter and I rang in a desolate New Year’s Day in 1999. But I did not know then that that day’s void was just cracking open and that it would remain agape until 2008.

陈明先_刘贤斌怀抱女儿IV.

On June 13, 1999, when our daughter turned two, we had taken a family portrait. This is the only photograph of all three of us together that we have had. A few days later on the 20th, after our dry-daughter’s birthday dinner, Xianbin took another photograph with her in his arms. Who would have thought that this would be the only proof that he had ever held her close in his arms?

On July 7, the police burst through our front door and threw our simple home into disarray. Our daughter was still young and so was not very frightened. As he was being taken away, Xianbin held her tightly, just as he used to hold me each time before he left, as if we were parting forever (He was always saying goodbye, each time it felt to me as if it was for the last time). On August 6, Xianbin was sentenced to 13 years in prison and 3 years of “deprivation of political rights” for “subverting state power.” On September 3, he was sent to the Sichuan Province Number Three Prison in Dazhu County.

Dazhu was a small town in the east of Sichuan. I had never been there before. But over the endless stretch of the next ten years, my daughter and I squeezed onto trains and buses and bounced over rough roads time and time again. The road was treacherous and the bus trip full of dangers, I would clutch my daughter close, as if we were hurrying to make an appointment with death.

To distract ourselves from anxiety, my daughter and I would gaze at the mountains, the trees, the white mist rising from the slopes. My unease would subside only after the bus passed the foot of the Nine Dragon Mountain (九龙山) with its thick covering of hemp vines. In that isolated mountain town, we stayed in cheap lodgings charging 8-yuan a night and ate the simplest meals, and the three of us — my daughter, Xianbin’s mother, and I – each depending on one another.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei went to Suining  High School together.

Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei went to Suining High School together.

My first impression of jail was formed in the summer of 1995. Our good friend Chen Wei [1] was transferred from Beijing to Sichuan’s No. 1 prison in Gaoping District of at Nanchong City (南充). Xianbin and I went to visit him. In a long room like a cafeteria, Xianbin and Chen Wei smoked and chatted while clasping hands across a long and white-tiled counter. From then, I thought that all Chinese prisons allowed inmates and their loved ones to hold hands and talk to one another.

But meeting with Xianbin was not so simple. Only after passing through two gates and completing a long series of procedures were we allowed to meet in a room, under the watchful eyes of wardens. I realized then how childish and naive it was to think that Xianbin and our daughter could celebrate the Chinese New Year together in prison while he was serving his sentence.

The meeting room was on the third floor, a small, rectangular space created by bulletproof glass. Every time, Xianbin would come to the glass room from the other end, his face wreathed in smiles, and sit before us. Although we were face to face, we couldn’t feel each other physically, and we had only a half hour to talk through the phone.

On one Chinese New Year, I took a few of our nephews to see their uncle. We got lucky that year, and were given unexpected permission to eat hot pot with him. Xianbin and I sat beside one another for a full hour, and yet, surprisingly, neither one of us dared to reach out and touch the other’s hand.

Another time, when our daughter was seven years old, she joyfully ran into the glass room and hugged Xianbin. She then turned to me and made a face, saying, “Mama, why don’t you give each other a hug too?” Xianbin and I hesitated on either side of the doorway, both casting a glance at the prison warden before stepping forward, husband and wife, for our only embrace in ten years.

Xianbin had always been very reserved, yet his letters were always filled with tenderness. He sent endless lessons, drawings, and stories for our child. But once I realized that he would not be the first to read my letters, my own words became lifeless and formulaic. I would report on everyone’s situation at home and reveal very little of my own feelings — I did not want to let the public security or prison officials revel in my sorrow. But sometimes I did write about my sadness. Yet Xianbin did not seem to register anything. When I told him later that I was always weeping when I wrote to him, he was deeply surprised.

Around 2001, Xianbin wrote to me saying that he had grown plump. I was worried about his condition (he had not fully recovered from his tuberculosis). When I suggested that he make sure that he wasn’t suffering from edema, I also mentioned the Great Famine of the fifties in passing. The next time I visited, the prison official presented my letter to me with an air of great self-importance, criticizing me for saying “a nation of swollen bodies?” in it. “You are a teacher,” he said, “How could you say this?” I stood my ground and began to quarrel with him loudly.

After 2005, my correspondence increasingly became limited to captions of photos. I began the habit of using pictures to communicate with Xianbin. I would send, for instance, a photo of a red dragonfly flitting around the outskirts of the city, our daughter’s flute recital, and family Spring Festival gatherings. I hoped that Xianbin would be able to access some feeling of nature and everyday life from these photographs and so draw closer to us in spirit.

Liu Xianbin drew pictures in jail for his daughter.

Liu Xianbin drew pictures in jail for his daughter.

V.

After Xianbin began serving his sentence, I thought that our lives would become peaceful: He would no longer be drifting around indefinitely without enough clothing or food, and my daughter and I would no longer be constantly scared and traumatized, passing our time helplessly.

Xie Jun (谢军, Huang Xiaomin’s former wife) and Luo Bizhen (罗碧珍, Ouyang Yi’s wife and also a teacher) had told me about how terrified their children had been to witness the public security officers ransacking their homes and then taking away their fathers. I was glad that our daughter was only an infant and did not yet understand fear enough to be harmed by the memory. I savored the peace that fell after the tempest our family had been through, and in the midst of this tranquility even felt some happiness.

Xianbin’s friends would occasionally come to visit. When they left, they would leave behind articles they or others had written about Xianbin. In between the work of looking after our daughter and supporting the two of us, I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate these writings with careful attention.

But before and after June 4th every year, I would still be summoned and escorted, by an ill-tempered police officer named Zheng Dashuang (郑大双), to the school’s security office where I would be interrogated. Sometimes they were hostile and aggressive, other times wheedling. Perhaps it was my refusal to leave or denounce Xianbin that disappointed them. They would threaten to have me demoted to teach at a school in the countryside. But I was actually prepared to return home to farm, and so their threats held no force for me.

On the evening of May 28, 2001 (Xianbin had served nearly two years of his sentence by then), Zheng Dashuang arrived at my home with a large group of officers. They said that Xianbin had committed some illegal act while in prison, and that they needed to search our home to assist in the investigation. The police once again looked through every corner of our home, only uncovering the literary essays of Ouyang Yi and Huo Ge (火戈), and another letter written by Mr. Zhang whose first name I can no longer recall. As if they had seized upon something extremely valuable, they took me to the school’s administrative office and interrogated me until the small hours of the night.

Chen Mingxian and daughter Chen Qiao.

Chen Mingxian and daughter Chen Qiao.

Mr. Zhang was a Dutch national. As a young man he had been labeled a rightist. Out of sympathy, he had sent us one hundred U.S. dollars and forty Dutch guilders during the spring festival of 2000 as a new year present for our daughter. His letter was written in traditional characters, and his message extremely simple. But the police examined this letter for a long time, as if to unearth something from it. Seeing them treating a brief letter with such seriousness was actually quite amusing. But I had no desire to play audience to their particular brand of theater, and so I told them that I would return home because my daughter needed to be looked after. They took advantage of this weakness of mine, saying, “If you can’t explain yourself clearly you won’t be going home.” But I would never be able to explain things clearly to them! I refused to speak any more. Then they didn’t know what to do next. In the end, they drove me to a place north of the city and shut me away in a room.

The room was on the second floor of the building. There were a few metal-framed bunk beds, much like a student dormitory. It was empty and seemed as if no one had ever stayed in it. It was only by the light of the lamp outside that I saw that the bed in the center had a mattress. I crawled into it and fell asleep in my clothes.

The next morning, I woke to someone crying out “Time to eat!” and saw an elderly man pushing a bowl of rice porridge into the room through a small window. After eating breakfast I looked out through the window and could see the canopy of a large tree with glossy green leaves. The old man came back down the corridor twice, and, perhaps he thought I looked like a trustworthy person, he gave me a magazine to help me kill time.

At five in the afternoon, a plump woman opened the door. In her office, I filled out some personal information. Then, after asking if I had anything to add to the questions they had asked me the day before, she let me go.

Besides Xianbin’s father and my daughter, no one knew that I had been disappeared for twenty-four hours. When I contacted Chen Wei, he told me: “I was just released as well from the drug rehab!” It turned out that we had both been detained in the same place, only he had been held on the first floor. I asked him what he ate for lunch. “Potatoes!” he said. We both laughed uproariously.

Liu Xianbin's daughter Chen Qiao in San Francisco in 2013. California-based Humanitarian China helped Chen Qiao to study in the US. She's high school senior now.

Liu Xianbin’s daughter Chen Qiao in San Francisco in 2013. California-based Humanitarian China helped Chen Qiao to study in the US. She’s high school senior now.

VI.

At the end of 1999, the local public security bureau took out a large billboard on the plaza outside the Northern Sichuan College of Education celebrating their achievements. I heard they included a photograph of Xianbin at his trial. I didn’t go to see.

Word of my husband’s prison sentence slowly spread to the public. My daughter and I became the objects of pity, and I also became a figure that some avoided. At that time, associating with someone with a background like mine was dangerous if you were seeking to advance professionally or financially.

I broke off nearly all contact with my closest friends and relatives in my hometown so that their lives would remain undisturbed. My mother learned of Xianbin’s arrest and incarceration only in 2005 after Xianbin had been in prison for six years.

When Chen Wei was sentenced, his mother’s hair turned white overnight. For fear of subjecting my mother to the same distress, I took her to the garden of the Northern Sichuan College of Education and first gave her the news of Xianbin’s receiving a human rights award and the prize money he had won. Then I told her the actual circumstances of his incarceration and how my situation now were actually quite good. My mother was relieved. Although she was illiterate, she seemed to have understood everything. She looked untouched by age, peaceful and sage. It made me feel that perhaps all my anxiety over the previous years had been completely groundless.

Nonetheless, for many days, my mother hid in the kitchen, weeping. My daughter was not yet eight years old, but she had learned to comfort others. She said, “Grandma, don’t cry. Daddy teaches in the prison, he is doing very well!”

Although my daughter and I would only very rarely receive attention of my family in my hometown, we were still very lucky. On June 1st of 2000, Children’s Day, a retired teacher, also a “rightist” in the 1950s, discreetly came to our front door to give my three-year-old daughter a bag of plums and Wahaha, the sweet yogurt drink. Two of my friends, husband and wife, would often bring their child to our home to play with my daughter. For years they treated us like extended family. A doctor at a clinic on Yanshi Street (盐市街) was so sympathetic to me and my daughter that, every time we visited, she was always very attentive and then would ask for very little or no money. Chen Wei’s mother took her pension out of the stock market and insisted on lending us money to buy the apartment in Baisheng Courtyard. And elderly Mr. Deng Huanwu (邓焕武) came many times all the way from Chongqing to visit us and lent me the money to decorate the interior of the apartment so that we were able to settle into our new home in September of 2002. Although Xianbin could not be with us, our life in Baisheng Courtyard was very simple and happy.

On the day Liu Xianbin was released in November, 2010.

On the day Liu Xianbin was released in November, 2009. From left to right: Ouyang Yi, Chen Wei, Liu Xianbin, and Zhang Ming. All four were 1989ers, all four have been in prison, and their total prison terms add up to 53 years!

On June 25, 2002, the domestic security police summoned me once again, but in the six years following, it seemed as if the public security officers had forgotten about my existence (although I learned later that they had had me on their radar all the time). They only called me to the school’s administrative office twice. Once, a police officer from Chongqing came to investigate whether Xiao Xuehui (肖雪慧) had brought me American currency. The second time, the Suining police required me not to leave Suining while the Olympics were being held in China. I worked quietly, saving money and running our household; our daughter was healthy and doing really well in school.

On December 5, 2002, Ouyang Yi was taken away by the Chengdu police and was later sentenced to two years in prison for inciting subversion of the state power. His wife, teacher Luo Bingzhen, was heartbroken, and I did not know how to comfort her. In today’s China, all dissidents’ wives are likely to face the same fate. I didn’t know how our tears and sorrow could alter anything.

Compared to the interminable length of Xianbin’s sentence, Ouyang’s two years seemed fleeting. On the afternoon of December 4, 2004, the prison officers escorted Ouyang back to Suining, his hometown while Teacher Luo traveled to Chengdu to greet him. They missed each other. The local police officers had to bring him back into town. At the bridgehead of Heping Road (和平路), Ouyang’s former classmate Kong Jie (孔杰) and I finally met him.

Two years in prison left marks on Ouyang. As his slim body made its way toward us, I was startled to see what Xianbin would look like, in years later, with all the helplessness and desolation in and around him.

In my dreams, Xianbin returned to me in many different ways. In the earlier versions, I would dream of visiting him in prison and helping him to escape. In later dreams, he would come back, smiling, with his bag slung over his shoulder looking bedraggled. Still later, I would dream of hearing news that he was getting an early release but then I wouldn’t be able to find a trace of him. I think my dreams, over the years, had gone from hope to despair, and, in the end, there was neither but a certain elusiveness.

In September of 2008, Xianbin wrote to me telling me the exact date by which he would have finished serving his sentence. But I didn’t experience much joy as one might have imagined. For me and for him, freedom seems such an extravagance. Xianbin had spent ten years apart from me, how much time would we need to close the distance between us? I couldn’t bear to see him being helpless and lonely; could he bear to see me as hardened as alkaline soil?

I remember reading a passage about the wife of a Russian dissident. It says that her face could no longer register joy or sorrow. I think I too will eventually become like her, aged, numb, and expressionless, because it was only for one year, seven months, and twenty-two days from November 6, 2008 to June 28, 2010, that Xianbin and I were reunited. Now he’s gone again, we are once again on the interminable journey of walking toward one other.

———-

Afterword: For reasons of length, I am unable to describe in this essay all the care and help I have received. All that I have lived through over the past 15 years is also the past, present, or future experience of the wives of other dissidents. And so I sincerely dedicate this piece to those women who were, are, or will be the wives of dissidents.

Baisheng Courtyard, July 14 – August 10, 2010.

 

[1] Chen Wei (陈卫), Liu Xianbin’s high school classmate, entered Beijing Industrial College (北京工业学院, now Beijing Institute of Technology) to study physics in 1988. In 1989, he witnessed June 4th movement as a student leader. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced for a year and a half and expelled from college. In 1992 he was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing the Chinese Freedom and Democracy Party (中国自民党). Between 1997 and 2011, he participated in organizing the Sichuan Democratic Party (四川民主党), signed 08 Charter, and was an important coordinator of non-violent rights activism. He was charged with “inciting to subvert state power” in March, 2011.  In December 23 of the same year, he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Among the evidence presented by prosecutors were four articles he authored – “Constitutional Democracy as Medicine for a Diseased System,” “Growth of an Opposition Key to China’s Democracy,” “The Trap of ‘Harmony’ and the Absence of Justice,” and “Thoughts during My Human Rights Day Fast.” 

 

Related:

Chen Wei’s wife waits for his return, July, 2012.

 

(Translated by Sophie J.)

Chinese original


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