No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci – Review
By Joe Forshaw
The phrase ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ has become a cliché, its gravity and impact diminished. The phrase originated in 1673 when Samuel von Pufendorf wrote ‘More inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature’s causes’.
No Wall Too High is in part a record of one such period of ‘inhumanity’ that ran from 1949, when Mao Tsetung became Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and eventually the ruler of China, through to Mao’s death in 1976. But it is also, more importantly, an account of one man’s struggle to cope with his changing political allegiances during this period.
Xu Hongci was, as a youngster, loyal to the American-backed Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek but subsequently changed his allegiance to the Russian backed Mao Tsetung. Subsequently, after experiencing first hand the evils of Mao’s attempts to subjugate the people of China and bend them to his will, Xu lost faith in the teachings of the Little Red Book and was imprisoned for his counter revolutionary thoughts. Xu, after decades in various prisons, eventually managed to escape from China and begin life anew in Mongolia. This is his story.
It is a haunting account of a man’s struggle to come to terms with life as his most strongly held beliefs unravel and fall apart. It is an account of how propaganda is one of the most potent tools in a politician’s armoury. It’s an account of one man’s courage and determination to stick to his principles in the face of intimidation, imprisonment, torture , humiliation and great danger. It is also an account of a man sticking to his principles, even though it would have been easier to acquiesce and fall in line with the continually changing and deceitful political movements initiated by Mao Tsetung.
Xu Hongci fully deserves our admiration and respect for being the determined, string-willed, honest to the extreme and prodigiously brave person he was. His narrative compels the reader to question what their own response might be under similar circumstances.
The original hand written script by Xu Hongci was translated into English by Erling Hoh, a Swedish-Chinese writer and this double Chinese/Swedish/English translation may account for the end product being a little monotonous at times. The narratives covering the attempted escapes read in parts like a travelogue and the constantly repeated descriptions of the horrors of penal servitude, the work-till-you-drop punishment, the torture humiliation and near death experiences can eventually kindle within the reader a kind of imagination fatigue. But one has to accept that it reads just as it was.
The book is well worth reading, as it not only chronicles Xu Hongci’s remarkable strength of character, resilience, determination and self belief, but also traces the rise and fall of Mao Tsetung. A man who, in contrast to Xu Hongci, was totally intransigent, with no moral compass and who became a sadistic despot.
‘No Wall Too High: One Man’s Extraordinary Escape from Mao’s Infamous Labour Camps’ by Xu Hongci (Rider, £20)