Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 1: Prologue

by Xujun Eberlein

In the summer of 1987, my future husband, Bob, cycled across China -- I think he was the first American who did that -- as he came to meet me in Chongqing. As a yet-to-be-betrothed daughter, I lived with my parents, because an unmarried person was ineligible for an apartment. My parents, who had both been underground Communists in the late 1940s and active protesters against America in the post-WWII years, were shocked to see an American with a bike on his shoulder walking through the door of our 4th floor apartment. At the time, either a bike or a foreigner was a rare sight in Chongqing the inland mountain city. Across China, Westerners had only recently -- and guardedly -- been allowed to travel about, provided that they did not break the country's often invisible rules or court its untainted women.

My parents, temporarily held back by their traditional hospitality for guests (I told them Bob was my teacher at graduate school), tolerated Bob the American visitor for one day. The second day, my father could no longer bear his discomfort and ordered Bob to depart. Before laying down the law, he suggested Bob visit SACO - 中美合作所 (Zhong-Mei hezuosuo), on Gele Mountain in the western part of Chonqging.

"What is SACO?" Bob asked. I was very surprised. Having never set foot outside China, I thought every American knew the name SACO ("Sino-American Cooperative Organization"), just as every Chinese knew the name "Zhong-Mei hezuosuo."

I told Bob what I had known since elementary school: SACO was an American-operated concentration camp that tortured and killed underground Communists in the 1940s. It had two prisons, one called Refuse Pit, another Bai Mansion. The name of SACO's American co-director was Milton Miles, a US Navy official, and its Chinese director was Dai Li, the head of the Nationalist secret services (called euphemistically the Military Statistics Bureau, or "Juntong"). Dai Li was known to my parents and their Communist comrades as "China's Himmler."

Bob, largely apolitical, was hardly interested. If anything, he dismissed the notion of an "American-run concentration camp" as a myth. MIT-educated, he had done some reading on Sino-American history before traveling to China in early 1987, but had never heard of such a thing.

Though I had no desire to have Bob visit the SACO site, and was unhappy about my father's intent to instill guilt in an American, Bob's dismissal put me in a mood to argue. "This one is real," I said. I had seen, in the SACO museum, handcuffs marked "Made in USA," and pictures of the dead bodies wearing them. My statement was not ideologically based (in fact, I had gotten into political trouble for my dissident thoughts and writing in the early 1980s), but history is history, or so I thought. Bob barely shrugged, unconvinced yet with no desire to argue.

In retrospect, Bob was the first person I know to counter the mainland Chinese notion of SACO's history, albeit intuitively (and with an American bias). He did later speculate that, if there were actually such a graphic concentration camp in China operated by Americans, the ubiquitous US journalists wouldn't have foregone a Pulitzer-winning opportunity to expose it, ergo SACO would already have been public knowledge in the US.

But things are not always that straightforward.


This much was well known in China: on November 27, 1949, at the cusp of regime change, a massacre took place at Chongqing's Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion, two prisons in walking distance of one another. Over 200 people were slaughtered that day. At Bai Mansion, the executions were carried out in batches, still not quite finished by the evening, at which point the remaining twenty prisoners, with the help of a sympathetic guard, fled. In Refuse Pit, the jailers cut down over 140 prisoners with submachine guns, poured gasoline on the bodies, and burned them, but a handful escaped in the fire and chaos. Days later, on the hill next to the massacre sites, a pit was found full of bodies bound with handcuffs made in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.BaiMansion.JPG

The burial pit, like the two prisons, was on the grounds of SACO's headquarters. SACO ("Sino-American Cooperative Organization") was founded in 1943, during WWII, under an agreement co-signed by President Roosevelt and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. (Only after moving to the US did I learn that the stated purpose in the agreement was to fight the two countries' "common enemy," i.e., Japan.)

Left: Bai Mansion (Baigongguan) prison

The majority of the prisoners were Chongqing's underground Communists. One of the escaped, Luo Guangbing, was an acquaintance of my parents. Twelve years after the massacre, in 1961, Luo and a co-author published the hugely successful novel Red Crag, eulogizing the Communists' heroic struggles in the Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion prisons. Most of the characters in the novel are based on real people. In fact, the authors had first published a smaller nonfiction book titled (in translation) Live Eternally in Raging Flames before adapting and expanding it to a novel.

Right: Refuse Pit (Zhazidong) prison

In the years that followed, a long-lasting Red Crag fever swept all of New China. In the 1960s and '70s the novel was far more effective than any textbook for educating school children in both "revolutionary heroism" and anti-Americanism. It was the very first novel I ever read, when I was in the 2nd grade. Every Chinese I know from my age, to those ten years younger, has read it, and some are still fond of it today. The novel has lots of graphic torture scenes, and the shadow of a high-ranking American adviser representing SACO was often behind the torturers. But, with an upbeat heroic theme and sensational plot of underground struggles, I have to say the story was gripping to a young mind. I savored it then; only in retrospect do I realize how sentimental and propagandizing its language was.

Movies, operas and plays alike were adapted from the novel, and earned abundant tears from their audiences. Diary books bound with the novel's cover image became the most popular kind in Chongqing. From 1963 to the early 1970s, all the diary books my mother and an older sister used showed the novel's cover -- a tall pine standing against the wind on a red-colored cliff. (You can actually find this image on A writer friend told me there is an English translation of Red Crag, but I have never read it.)

In my childhood, a poem in the novel recited by a hero rejecting the torturers' request for a confession moved me deeply. I still remember the lines (my translation):

Heavy shackles clang below my feet; no matter
Leather whips swing against my face; no matter
In your confession I will take no part
Even with bloody bayonet piercing my heart

The poem had also appeared in the earlier nonfiction book. We were told that the poem was the work of the martyr Chen Ran. Two decades later, in the 1980s, the truth surfaced that it was composed by the novel's authors "according to the martyr's thoughts." Chen Ran was a real person, but the poem isn't his. Nonetheless, as late as 2002, the poem continued to appear in textbooks and poetry anthologies under the name "martyr Chen Ran," as noted by He Shu, a Chongqing-based historian.

The novel played a critical role in the heroism culture of the Mao era. Its romanticized heroism had a huge and decisive impact on the young people who grew up with New China. I wouldn't be surprised if, during the warfare between Red Guard factions in 1967-68 that killed thousands in Chongqing alone, the young men and women valiantly charging into the battlefields regarded themselves like those heroes in Red Crag, looking upon death as homecoming for their lofty belief. Fortunately I was too young at the time; otherwise I might well have been one of the factional fighters. We are all products of our time, and we only have hindsight.

(To be continued tomorrow here.)

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China, and Inside-out China, a cultural criticism blog. She also writes reviews of China-themed books, for example this one.