No Wall Too High
Xu Hongci. Translated by Erling Hoh
What a time to be reading a book such as this! Stories like ‘No wall too high’ are told so that we that we not only know about one mans amazing escape from communist China in the height of the Cultural Revolution but that we also remember the evil that was perpetuated, the chaos that occurs when truth is denied, the consequences of the fervour of the people when they are given free reign to every fear and prejudice they hold, how terror can make us sacrifice our morals and ethics in an effort to survive and that one man can have the power to command a nation at such a terrible cost.
The parallels with the political upheaval in the United States with the election of Donald Trump makes me fear for it’s people (and for ourselves to be frank too). We could all be walking down a similar path where the lessons of the past are discounted or even wilfully unknown.
‘No wall too high’ is the story of Xu Hongci an extraordinary man and once faithful party member who developed an outstanding moral backbone in the face of despotic state persecution from which he ultimately freed himself.
Despite knowing the final outcome from the beginning of the book I found the tension continues to build right to the end. During our journey with Xu Hongci we encounter touch points where moral decision have to be made. Was the author going to do ‘the right thing?’ I wondered too how his family dynamics would be affected and how his relationship with his girlfriend was going to play out under pressure from ‘the system’. In many parts I found myself thinking, ‘yes go’, ‘no stay’, ‘don’t do that’ and holding my breathe during the ‘scary bits’.
The early parts of the book were disconcerting with the author’s apparent lack of identification with some of the atrocities that occurred. It does however seem to be a device that the editor uses to mirror the disassociation experienced by a young person as they grow up, when ideology can excuse behaviour and before the dilemmas of the ‘real world’ are experienced.
While the translated text sometimes uses words that would not be more commonly used in every day English I quickly found it made me more attentive to what was being conveyed.
Many chapters begin giving a short historical context. These sections are very useful for those of us who know little of Chinese recent history. I didn’t check the veracity of this information and wondered how subjective they were, so there’s plenty of scope for me to be educated here.
I’m a great non fiction reader and I’m aware that this genre is rarely referred to as being ‘page turning’ but for me this book was a ‘page turner’. I was particularly interested in the ever changing nature of relationships the author formed during his imprisonment and the lessons he learned about humanity along the way. His manner of dealing with these situation gave considerable insight into his psyche and perhaps that of many Chinese people. At times the fulsome description of his surroundings gave the story real depth and geographical details a sense of journeying.
This book makes me very mindful of a sentiment I recently heard expressed: a healthy society makes sure it doesn’t give factions within it a reason to see a dominant as ‘the enemy’.
There is a warning too. Some scenes are graphic and very disturbing.
About the Author
It took Xu Hongci four attempts before he finally escaped the labour camps. He then travelled the length of China into Mongolia – only to be arrested and sentenced to two years in a Mongolian prison for illegally entering the country. After serving his sentence, Xu Hongci met and married a Mongolian nurse, started a family and, after Mao’s death, returned to China where he died in 2008.
Erling Hoh is a Swedish-Chinese journalist who came across a Chinese copy of Xu Hongci’s memoir in a Hong Kong library. After tracking down Xu Hongci’s Chinese publisher and, eventually, his wife and children, he obtained the original manuscript that contained much richer content than the original Chinese edition.