Skip to main content

Return to the Great Northern Wilderness (重返“北大荒”)


He Jiahong is a professor of law and novelist. His series of novels featuring the lawyer Hong Jun tackle unsolved crimes, the righting of injustices, rape, murder and corruption. Set in a rapidly modernising 1990s China, the books draw on He Jiahong's time in the Great Northern Wilderness during the Cultural Revolution. The first two books in the series have been published in English by Penguin China.


After many years away, I am finally returning to that part of north-east China known as the Great Northern Wilderness. As I stand between the two tall, familiar mud buildings, the Great Barracks and the Great Mess, I feel a rare excitement. But it is shaded with anxiety and unease.

The old company commander seems happy to see me. He calls his company of young people together to listen to me give a talk in the Great Barracks. This is unexpected, but I have given many lectures during my years in education so I am never troubled by nerves. I stand by the door of the barracks building and tell them of my life in the company, of the struggles and triumphs of those years. I watch the young people who are sitting on heated kang beds that line the room. As I grow more animated, their strange faces remain stony. I find it hard to stifle my alarm and, flustered, struggle to find the right words. I start to gibber. When I finally finish speaking there is a smattering of applause. The commander seems unhappy too: he barely speaks to me before leaving. I am so used to enthusiastic acclaim from my audiences that I don’t know what to make of this cold reception.

Disheartened, I leave the barracks and wander aimlessly along the muddy paths. Before I know it, the sky has turned dark. Hungry, I head for the Great Mess to buy something to eat, but I have no mess tin and the staff will not lend me a bowl and chopsticks. Everyone stares at me coldly. Their smiles seem to mock me. I have to escape.

I go looking for the commander but he is nowhere to be found. The faint yellow light from the windows of the mud buildings makes me realise how lonely and wild this mountain is. A shiver runs up my spine. I stumble towards the dark-tiled building where I had once lived and push open the door. In the dim light I can make out that the two kang beds are covered with sleeping people. The spot I had once slept in is free, but there is no bedding. I ask my roommates if I can sleep here, and where I might find bedding. They are lying on their stomachs, wrapped in their bedrolls, and look at me without speaking, a strange smile on their faces. Embarrassed, I have no choice but to lie down fully clothed on the cold, hard kang, and suffer until dawn.

This was a dream. More precisely, it was a recurring dream I had. Although the details differed each time, the basic content and tone were the same. I don’t know why I had this dream so often, nor did I know how to interpret it psychologically or psychoanalytically, but it had indeed long been a part of my life – something I could neither end nor forget.

It had been nearly thirty years since I left the Great Northern Wilderness. I had always wanted to go back but had never had the chance. As time passed and I grew older, the desire to return grew stronger and I found myself in this same dreamworld more and more often. Eventually I really did return to the Great Northern Wilderness. This time, it was no dream.


On the morning of 10th June, 2005, straight after giving a lecture at Heilongjiang University’s law school, I left Harbin on a “trip of remembrance” with a few university lecturers. We drove through many towns – Anda, Mingshui, Baiquan, Kedong, Bei’an – before reaching the famous dormant volcano range of Wudalianchi at four o’clock in the afternoon. After we checked in to our hotel, a female guide drove us to see Old Black, the most well-known volcano in the whole range. We passed the meandering Stone River and the magnificent Stone Lake then abandoned the car and continued on foot, climbing to the peak of Old Black. I was filled with both terror and joy. Terror at the majesty of nature: the summit and the gigantic, awe-inspiring crater at my feet. And joy at its beauty: the blue skies, the towering volcanoes spread across open countryside and the interconnected lakes.

The farm where I had once been an educated youth, sent to the countryside to help “build an army” of revolutionaries, was not far away, but during all my years here I had only heard talk of the five lakes of Wudalianchi, and had never been able to visit them. Tourism was an incredibly decadent concept in those years of the Cultural Revolution when, as our generation like to say, our “passion first burned bright then died away”.

Back in Wudalianchi after dark, the town’s streets were still lively and it was not until after midnight that the noise dwindled to just the occasional bark of a dog. I lay on my bed, physically exhausted but unable to sleep. The events of thirty years ago replayed in my mind like a film.

… At 1 o’clock in the morning of 7th October, 1969, we pull into Zhaoguang railway station after more than thirty hours of travel. We push our way noisily through the dimly lit station square, bags on our backs and in our hands, like crowds fleeing calamity. Eventually we are divided up into military trucks. My truck leaves the station, leaves Zhaoguang, and heads into the pitch-black wilderness. The headlights illuminate a small patch of road ahead; each frequent jolt of the vehicle shoots beams of light deep into the night sky. By the light of the stars we can make out the contours of the dark mountains that surround us. If we pass the lights of a house, there is a clamour from the back of the truck. After bumping along the uneven road for around an hour, we finally come to a stop next to two mud buildings. The company commander comes to meet us and tells us we will spend the rest of the night in the storeroom next to the mess hall. There is a *kang bed in the storeroom. The jars by the wall stink of old pickled vegetables. Nineteen of us, boys and girls, squeeze together in this tiny building to spend the first night of our new lives as educated youths. I can clearly hear stifled sobs after the lights are extinguished…*

I finally drifted off to sleep as the sky was turning hazy. When I woke up, a trickle of sunlight had made its way through a gap in the curtains. I looked at my watch: not yet six o’clock. After a quick wash I went downstairs and into the square outside the hotel. It was the day of the Dragon Boat Festival and also of Wudalianchi’s annual Water Festival, so the early morning streets were already bustling with pedestrians and cars. I went round the back of the hotel and stood near a small tree. It was calm here. I gazed at the distant volcanoes. Breathing the clean air in deeply, I took in the scenery around me, but my mind had already flown to my second hometown, the place I had been parted from for twenty eight years. I had offered up eight years of my youth in the Eighteenth Company of the Seventh Regiment, First Division, Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps for the Shenyang Military Region.


After breakfast, we bypassed the city of Bei’an and took a smooth, broad, asphalt highway to Zhaoguang, where Zhaoguang Farm was headquartered. As soon as we drove into town, my heart started to beat more quickly, and I felt a nameless anxiety. I scanned both sides of the road, but not a single home or shop was like the Zhaoguang of my memory. Finally, I recognised the now somewhat rundown old building of the regimental hospital, the familiar train station next to a large chimney, and a few buildings and streets that I thought I had seen before. We paused briefly at the intersection with the “Second Battalion” railroad, where we were joined by comrades from the local law court and Procuratorate, then headed straight for our old Battalion Headquarters.

The roads around here were all made of sand. Because it had recently rained heavily, the surface was covered in deep ruts, and many sections were still muddy. The road brought back strong memories. Back then, I had travelled along this road countless times, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a cart or tractor – occasionally I even drove the tractor myself. We jokingly called these basic tracks our asphalt-lined freeways, though in fact as soon as the wind blew they became a sea of dust and the slightest drop of rain turned them into a mud pit. The landscape surrounding us was also very familiar. Fields stretched out to the horizon; long unbroken stretches of forest covered the land in an enchanting green; buildings dotted the hillsides; and the clear rippling valley pools added vitality to the panorama. It made me realise for the first time how beautiful the Great Northern Wilderness was – especially the distant blue skies with their white clouds. Perhaps this proves the truth of the saying that “distance creates beauty” – distance is not merely a scientific measure but also a psychological one. My life now was far removed from my past life here.

I was still in a reverie as car drew to a halt. A stocky, grey-haired old man was stood next to the lead car of our group, talking to the people inside. He came towards our car and I stared at him. It was Chen Wang, the man who used to drive the tractor years ago. I jumped out of the car and went to greet him. We embraced tightly, both excited. It turned out that one of my hosts here had told Chen Wang that I was coming back, so he had been waiting at the roadside since early that morning. I visited his home (he had long since been transferred from the company to the battalion), then I went to the Battalion Headquarters to meet the current leader. After that Chen Wang and I drove to the last stop of my trip: the Eighteenth Company farm where I had once lived and worked.

The farmland was as large as ever, the road as muddy, the sun-baked buildings and the stick fence had not changed. But the storeroom where we had spent our first night and the Great Canteen where we ate every day no longer existed, and neither did the Model Theatre and Great Hall where we had so often sung and held meetings. The wellhouse where we learned to draw water by pulley had gone. The field where our tractor and our tools were kept had changed beyond all recognition. Only the maintenance room still stood there forlornly. The Great Hall that we had built from stone and tile ourselves to use as a social club had long since been divided into offices. The dark-tiled building used by the educated youths and the small school behind it had both become homes for workers. What had originally been the basketball court was now divided into vegetable plots for each household. However the rows of small poplars we had planted, running along the road by the fields, had grown into large trees, testimony to the sweat and ideals of a generation of educated youths.

As soon as the old workers heard that one of the educated youths had come back, they rushed out of their homes. They surrounded me in the yard, pulling at my hands in excitement, telling me simply how much it meant that one of us had come back, and gushing with excitement and pride at having seen me on the television. They showed me around, discussing people and events of the past. It was a real wrench to learn that so many people with whom I had worked back then had died. Then a middle-aged woman came over and asked me if I recognized her. When I couldn’t, everyone laughed and told me she was the daughter of the former canteen team leader, Old Zhang. I had spent two years as Mess Officer, responsible for the canteen work. Eventually, I recognised the little girl from all those years ago and sighed with regret. That’s when it hit me: we had been young people in the prime of life back then, and now we were all over fifty.

Reluctant to say goodbye again so soon, all the old workers from the Eighteenth came back with us to the Battalion Headquarters. I had always believed that the Company and Battalion Headquarters were a long way apart. But in a four-wheel drive Toyota, the distance was nothing. Back at headquarters, we ate a typical north-eastern meal at the restaurant run by Chen Wang’s son. Chen Wang very seldom drank alcohol. He was 65 years old now and still barely touched a drop, but today he was so happy he drank until he was red in the face. During the course of the lavish meal, he would often take my hand to tell me of things that had happened back then, and of more recent events. After the meal, we had to hurry back to Harbin. Chen Wang stood next to the car, his eyes moist, and held my hand. My eyes also brimmed with tears.


After we left Zhaoguang, our car passed through Hailun and Suihua on its way back to Harbin. I felt lighter, as if I had finished writing a paper which had required a lot of care and trouble, or as if I had ended a lecture I had poured my heart and soul into. Although still excited, my thoughts had already been mellowed by fatigue and drowsiness. From the back of the swift four-wheel drive, I glanced occasionally out across the endless countryside, and from time to time let my thoughts roam free. But two characters appeared in my thoughts over and over, eventually coming together to form the word sheng-huo, life.

Life is a journey that each of us can only make once. We cannot choose either our start point or our destination. The only choice we have is over the speed we travel at and the direction we take. And it is this decision which establishes the different paths our lives take. Some people, unaware they have a choice, make their journey blindly; they may have no aspirations but they live without regret. Some voluntarily renounce their right to choose, content instead to go with the flow. Others constantly change their decisions, and as they do so they are left filled with regret. Still others stick to their choices, and in their consistency exchange pain for joy. There are two sides to every journey through life: bright sunlight and stormy rain, happy experiences tempered by suffering, smooth miles and bumpy roads, moments of brilliance and years of tedium. Plain sailing is a fine aspiration; a safe trip is a life journey to be envied.

Life is a river. At the start, a trickling stream that flows with merry leaps through the valley, that reaches curiously to the plants that line the banks. Later, water and energy accumulate and the river grows larger, with tempestuous rapids and surging waves, pouring forwards at speed day in and day out, so it has no time to appreciate the beautiful scenery around it. Later still, as the bank broadens and the terrain eases off, the current slowly loses speed and once more there is time to enjoy the view. But by this point even the most beautiful landscape will fail to make an impression on old eyes. When the river finally melts noiselessly into the sea it leaves no more than the tiniest of sprays. Some rivers in fact run dry before they are even able to join the open sea: one of life’s real tragedies.

And life is a story. A story that starts when a life comes into being. With the passing of years, the story develops and changes right up until the day when life ends. Many people believe that their story is different to everyone else’s, is unique. But all our stories are, mostly, variations on those that came before. Although each protagonist has nothing in common with the next, although the setting each story is different, although everyone seems to interpret plot in their own way, for thousands of years our stories have told the same tale: the process of life. Some people really do have brilliant tales, in contrast to the colourless stories of others. Some have comedies, others tragedies. But a story remains a story. No matter how dull, or amusing, it is invented by someone. It is the greatest joy if one’s story can attract the interest and acclaim of others.

Tagged with: , ,

Related Stories