“In my cell, which was no bigger than two hundred and twenty square feet for eighteen men, the rulers had created an exact replica of the state bureaucracy outside. The leaders’ powers were clearly delineated. Leaders and cellmates alike carefully observed the rules and moved cautiously within the hierarchy. If someone accidentally strayed from the path, he risked losing everything. Those in power enjoyed unlimited privileges; the hierarchy even governed the usage of toilet paper.”
But as Liao is moved from cell to cell, he also sees how that was tested. “The more leaders you have, the bigger the burden on the rest of the inmates,” one cell leader tells him. Another time, he is transferred into a cell that is a special project where hierarchy is missing altogether. “The new and old are treated equally,” he is told.
From the first time he’s tortured in the detention center (which he compares with the way a woman forced into prostitution might feel on her first night on the job), to the end of his time in prison when he takes flute lessons from the prison’s oldest inmate (“Sima,” a former Buddhist monk who may have been a member of a religious cult), Liao’s strength is in his observation and curiosity about what’s going on around him. And despite his own suffering, he can’t help but keep his eyes open.
Through those eyes we meet Dead Chang, a prisoner on death row for smuggling heroin. He wants to borrow Liao’s atlas so that he can memorize routes across China to haunt after he dies. We also meet “Little,” a 19-year-old on death row for robbing and kidnapping, whom the other inmates treat with tender solicitude after he wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and in tears, ready to commit suicide. “Scholar Yang clutched Little to his bosom, wiping the blood off his forehead. Dark Skin also dragged his shackled feet over to console his friend. ‘My good brother, take it easy,’ said Dark Skin. ‘Our fate is predetermined and you were not meant to live long in this world. Once the gunshot is fired, you won’t feel or know a thing.’ ”