Before the Tiananmen Square massacre, I was a rebel poet, volatile and impulsive, who liked picking fights and telling tall tales. I’d won more than 20 state literary prizes, and I figured that one day I would earn international fame in the literary world. But all my poems earned me was a stint in jail. That dreamy poet’s look was flayed from my face. Then I was released. It felt as though my world had been turned upside down and I’d been abandoned.
The massacre of thousands of students on June 4, 1989, was a turning point. Before June 4, being patriotic was in fashion, and everyone loved China. After June 4, everyone loved the renminbi. As a penniless former labor-camp inmate, I could tell people despised me. I got home and saw my wife, my parents, siblings, and old friends for the first time since jail. Upon seeing me again, my family seemed impassive, and there were none of the emotional scenes you read about in books. Born more than half a year after I was jailed, my daughter was now 3. She was scared of my shaved head and began to cry. Then she hid behind the door and whimpered, spitting at me.
Men in prison are all, by definition, single. Many of my fellow inmates hadn’t seen a woman in years or decades. Everyone talked about sex all the time, even the political prisoners with their supposedly lofty ideals. It was our default subject of conversation. The only difference between ordinary criminals and politicals was that when the former steamed up the cell with one of their group masturbation sessions, the political prisoners had to either pretend they didn’t notice a thing or slip away quietly. I once shared a bunk bed with a man who was in for human trafficking. Whenever the prisoners got a special treat at dinner, he would jerk off that night. Sometimes he made the whole bed shudder, and I would rap on the iron bed frame in protest. The man on the lower bunk would yell up to me without missing a beat: “Hey, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!”
I scoffed then, but upon my release, I realized that I had indeed lost it. That part of the longed-for reunion with my wife was underwhelming—in fact, it was over before it had even really started. She picked herself up and said, “I wasn’t really in the mood, but I figured we’d have to since you were home.”
The blank look on my face hid my inner turmoil. I quickly got dressed. Three months later, after a violent argument, we got divorced. I was distraught. Life beyond prison had turned out to be a living hell. What was I to do with my insatiable sex drive, sexual dysfunction, and politically suspect past? The world had moved on and left me behind. My former friends would answer the phone the first time I called, but they never answered a second time. Even those who were generous enough to treat me to dinner when we met would then vanish.
My wife had edited the entertainment weekly published by a Chengdu nightclub. She was afraid that my shaved inmate’s head was too conspicuous, so she bought a wig and forced me to wear it. I once went to the club to pick her up because it was late and I was worried about her getting home safe. As soon as I entered the club, I ran into its co-managers. One was fat and the other was skinny, and they were both drunk. They were also old friends who used to be poets. Together we’d run an underground poetry zine that poked fun at the Party. They were both even more patriotic than I was, and during the 1989 student protests, they had recited their anticorruption poems publicly on campus. The night of June 4 found them on Tianfu Square in Chengdu, bringing food and water to the students tussling with military police, and ferrying the injured to hospital.