BOOK REVIEW / Where careless thought cost lives: 'Grass Soup' - Zhang Xianliang: Secker, 9.99

ZHANG XIANLIANG is one of China's best novelists. Like many gifted Chinese artists and intellectuals, he has spent time behind bars - in Zhang's case, 22 years in prisons and labour camps, for writing a poem which the authorities decided was counter-revolutionary. Grass Soup is based on Zhang's diary of those years, beginning in 1960.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer lunacy of life in China's gulag, especially - but not only - during the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. Zhang describes one educated young prisoner, who had the habit of eating his watery grass soup very slowly. This was pounced on by other intellectuals, eager to curry favour with the camp leaders, as a deliberate insult to the Party. By eating slowly, they said, the man was protesting against the starvation diet. This 'petit bourgeois' way of eating, as though he were in a high-class restaurant, had to be punished.

After the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Mao's scheme to develop the economy through mass mobilisation in the late 1930s, up to 30 million Chinese starved to death, and men in the labour camps began to die like flies. But reporting a death was a delicate linguistic matter. If you made the mistake of saying 'Group Leader, another person has died]', instead of just saying 'So-and-so has died', you could be denounced for 'picking at the dark side of socialism', and 'smearing black' on the authorities. For that you might be punished by being 'photographed'. A 'still photograph' meant being suspended upside down, or tied to a tree and exposed to swarms of insects. An 'action photograph' involved being tied up and hauled along the ground, across ditches and bush. It was also known as 'dragging along the dead dog'.

One of the cushiest jobs in the rural labour camps was cutting grass. It was certainly better than weeding the rice paddies from May to July, for this required standing up to the hips in rotting water ('mud soup'). The red welts that covered the legs as a result itched so badly that it drove men insane. The advantage of cutting grass and weeds was that you could stuff some of it in your mouth. But you had to be careful to wipe your lips all the time, for if the leaders spotted traces of green around your mouth or teeth, you would be branded a 'greens eater' and be 'photographed'.

The worst torture of China's gulag was not physical, however, but mental. Physically, millions outside the camps suffered as much and sometimes even more, especially during the Great Leap Forward. The point of labour reform was not just to torment people physically, but to break their spirit, by punishing them for their very thoughts. Labour reform, ostensibly political and rationalistic, was in fact closer to a religious orthodoxy: anyone wavering from the Marxist-Leninist or Maoist truth, or indeed anyone belonging to the wrong social class, had an attitude problem that needed curing through confession and self-criticism. The party line changed so often and so dramatically that this was no mean feat.

You had to convince the leaders that you sincerely believed in your own culpability and you were only released once you were considered fully reformed. If the system had worked perfectly, and the human spirit had been less resilient, this would have meant that people could only be free once they had literally lost their minds. The system was rationalist in the sense that anybody, regardless of provenance, was deemed capable of being reformed through hard mental and physical work. But it was an insane kind of rationalism, like the watertight logic of schizophrenics. Zhang describes its effect on intellectuals, who, often useless at hard physical tasks, were the most despised prisoners in the labour camps. In the more cerebral work of denunciation and ideological hair-splitting, however, the intellectuals came to the fore and it was the peasants and common criminals who were out of their depth during these sessions. They failed to understand that everything, literally everything, was political.

A peasant named Su Xiaosu was punished for picking up and eating a discarded ear of corn. His excuse for this crime - hunger - was not good enough; what was his thinking behind it? He must have been aiming 'to blacken the name of socialism'. Zhang's comment on the episode reveals the sardonic humour that must have helped him live through the terrible years of his imprisonment: 'Peasants did not understand a socialism that told people to endure famine. They were even less able to understand what socialist slogans had to do with gnawing an ear of corn. They would blink their tiny eyes furiously as they begged for mercy. 'I'll work harder from now on, from now on I'll work much harder . . . ]' '

From outside, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to be locked up in these madhouses where the act of thinking, let alone speaking your thoughts, was dangerous. Zhang's extraordinary account tells us what it was like, in plain, wise, sometimes even humorous prose. It is a terrifying story. To me, the most chilling sentence in the book is this: 'The minute I begin to think seriously about something, my heart starts to pound.' But it is also a glorious story, for Zhang has shown us that the human spirit can prevail, even in hell.