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What should American readers make of this memoir by a Chinese human rights activist and dissident? Jiang recounts the experience of his four years, beginning in 1999, in a Beijing prison, where he was sent for inviting people to light candles to honor the Tiananmen Square massacre victims. As one might expect, it is a horror story. The misery of death row, fights among prisoners, the use of electric prods, and beatings with fists and clubs are only a few of the travails he endured there. But what is Jiang communicating to his readers in the United States aside from a record of brutality? As he explains what it means to be a dissident in the face of enormous power, readers may be reminded of recent Occupy Wall Street protests and view their relative freedom of expression from a new perspective. VERDICT This book will prove significant to anyone interested in China, its prodemocracy movement, and its criminal justice system, as well as anyone curious about the story Jiang has to tell. (Library Journal)
Jiang Qisheng is a Chinese political dissident. He was first jailed for 18 months because of his involvement in the Tiananmen student prodemocracy movement in 1989. Then in 1999, he was given a four-year sentence for his appeal for open commemoration of the movement at its tenth anniversary. My Life in Prison is a detailed account of his second imprisonment, during which Jiang had to live with criminal offenders such as murderers, robbers, and drug dealers. The description of his life in jail reveals frequent humiliation and beatings of inmates by guards, dreadful living conditions, fights and quarrels between inmates, and exhausting manual work that all inmates had to do. Despite the sufferings in jail, Jiang gained understanding and respect for his pursuit of democracy from other inmates and even from some guards. In addition to his exposure of the brutal prison conditions, Jiang describes his thoughts on various issues such as the development of democracy in China, national and international political affairs, and his arguments with some inmates on different religious and political beliefs. This book provides firsthand information on Chinese dissidents and their pursuit of political reforms. Summing Up: Recommended. (CHOICE)
Jailed from 1999 until 2003 for the publication of an essay celebrating and memorializing the 'Souls of the Heroes' of Tiananmen Square on its 10th anniversary, human rights activist Jiang details his grueling incarceration in this engrossing memoir. In brief but vivid chapters, Jiang recounts his time in Beijing's relatively comfortable Detention Center, where he awaited trial, spending his days working out with soda bottles and mastering Chinese chess. His reputation as 'Political Prisoner' earned him the respect and unexpected camaraderie of many fellow inmates, but those friendships would be short-lived. After his trial, Jiang was relocated to spend the remaining two years of his sentence in the deplorable conditions of the Transfer Center, where he endured 'Guinness Record Levels of Suffering.' Of the many daily hardships, Jiang—an intellectual through and through—remarks several times on the lack of reading materials (aside from the numerous 'violent and bloody martial arts novels' provided in every cell at the Detention Center) and his joy at being reunited with his beloved subscription to The World of English. In addition to the gripping account of an individual's triumph in a hostile environment, Jiang's story is rife with relevant commentary on the state of Chinese rule: 'It seems as though in China it is becoming more and more difficult to keep the populace in ignorance . . . not only in society in general, but also in the Detention Center.' (Publishers Weekly)
Activist and writer Jiang was among the leaders of the student pro-democracy movement in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. At the 10-year anniversary of that protest, he was facing a four-year sentence for writing a commemoration of the historic protest. Thus began the ordeal of a pretense of a trial and a brutal imprisonment as a slave laborer, suffering along with the most impoverished and ignored of China’s population. Jiang chronicles the randomness of violence, cruelty, and simple kindness as men from every level of China’s highly stratified society, imprisoned for everything from horrific crimes to simple offenses to political resistance, are thrown together to survive years of suffering and humiliation. They are each tested to the core as they adjust to the prison culture and develop survival tactics that sometimes lend themselves to alliances and at other times to fighting among themselves. Jiang offers stories of interactions with other prisoners, small joys, and great suffering as well as his own inner struggle to maintain an equilibrium that would help him survive astonishing absurdity and cruelty. (Booklist)
Chronological, detailed, and methodical, My Life in Prison: Memoirs of a Chinese Political Dissident, by Jiang Qisheng, fulfills its author’s purpose as historical record. His plea for human rights, particularly free speech, also includes observations on the dehumanizing effects of incarceration for prisoners and guards alike. For his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement, doctoral student Jiang Qisheng had his studies interrupted by an eighteen-month jail sentence, after which he was no longer employable as a teacher. Earlier, during the Cultural Revolution, he had been 'sent down' to work among peasants for ten years. Later, in 1999, for an essay he wrote called 'Light a Million Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Heroes of June 4th,' he was arrested and eventually sentenced to four years in prison. The official charge was 'incitement of subversion of state power,' but from the beginning Jiang maintained that his arrest and sentence were illegal and amounted to, in his terms, a 'literary inquisition.' Following his arrest on May 18, 1999, Jiang was held in the Beijing Detention Center for nearly two years, awaiting sentencing. . . . My Life in Prison has little to say about the third facility, but the first two are described in detail, the writer making very clear that his fifty-three days in the Transfer Center (along with the first week in Beijing Number Two Prison) were the worst of the entire four years. Born in 1948, Jiang is old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, and his reflections are deepened by that historical perspective. He contrasts his own persecution with the torture and deaths of martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of freedom. 'Teacher Jiang' received respect from guards and inmates that would have been unthinkable decades earlier, steadfastly refusing to put his hands on top of his head and cast his eyes to the ground and never joining group chants of guilt and repentance. When claiming that those who have been legally deprived of freedom should not be treated to further humiliation and abuse, his concern goes beyond political prisoners to general prison reform. When human dignity is set aside, he observes, violence results. One wonders what he would make of American prison life. (Foreword Reviews)
Now, with a new generation of leaders having recently come to power, Jiang Qisheng’s book is a sober reminder of the limits of political reform in China. (The China Journal)
This is a unique, plainly written, meticulously detailed, convincing, and painful account of principled heroism. Readers will ask themselves what they would do—repeatedly—under the uncivilized and illegal circumstances that still disfigure the People’s Republic of China. (Jonathan Mirsky China Rights Forum)
About the Author
Jiang Qisheng was born in 1948. After ten years of hard agricultural labor during the Cultural Revolution, he obtained a master’s degree in aerodynamics, which led to a university teaching post and work toward a PhD. However, for his involvement in the Tiananmen student prodemocracy movement, he was jailed for 18 months. Denied employment on release, he became a freelance writer. In 1999 he was given a longer sentence, which is the subject of this book. With Nobel prizewinner Liu Xiaobo, Jiang was one of the drafters of Charter 08 and remains an outspoken writer on civil liberties and human rights in China.