Given our history, Americans tend to think of political prisoners as those who actively oppose the political policies or government of their country. Yet in totalitarian societies even aesthetics are political, so whether a person is a dissident is in the eye of the beholder. That's what artist Er Tai Gao learned when he published an essay in Mao's China saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In 1956, the Hundred Flowers Campaign encouraged commentary and critiques by Chinese intellectuals and artists. As a result, in February 1957 a magazine published "On Beauty," in which the then 22-year-old Gao explored the aesthetics of beauty, arguing that it is subjective and individual. The essay prompted national debate because the Chinese Communist Party believed beauty is objective and collective. In his memoir In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp, Gao details how that "[o]ne moment of fame turned into twenty years of misfortune."
Gao was labeled a "rightist" and sent for "re-education through labor" in a work camp in the Gobi Desert. Labor camps certainly weren't new. Red China previously saw "reform through labor." But being reformed was better than being re-educated. The former carried a fixed term of imprisonment. Re-education, however, involved errors in thought. Because there's no certainty how long "remolding" those thoughts can take, the length of detention for Gao and others was at the whim of the government and the party.
In Search of My Homeland explores the work and routine of the labor camp, where nearly 90 percent of his fellow inmates died. Gao was among the fortunate. He was released in 1962 and found work with an institute studying the extensive Buddhist artwork in the Dunhuang Magao Caves. While Gao spent his work time researching and painting copies of the murals, freedom of thought returned to his private life.
"I read, and without being aware, began to write again. I wrote about the value of man, his alienation and restitution. I wrote about the pursuit of beauty and human freedom and that beauty is the symbol of freedom. I knew I was playing with fire but I didn't care, because except for playing with fire, I couldn't find a connection to the outside world, to my time, to human history, and I knew I needed that connection[.]"
The fire did eventually burn him. China's continual political campaigns — always carrying singular names like the theory of "two combined into one," the theory of "profits in command" or the theory of thinking in images — culminated in 1966 with the conflagration known as the Cultural Revolution. Gao was among those at the institute "dragged out for 'struggle and criticism.'" He was reassigned as a janitor and laborer at the site and subject to daily criticism sessions. Much of his writing was lost and used against him. As factional strife ebbed and flowed during the Cultural Revolution, much of the institute's staff fell victim at various times. In fact, at one point nearly half were relegated to the detention area.
Gao's hard labor ended in 1972 and by 1978 he was officially rehabilitated. Yet he ran afoul of authorities following the 1989 Tienanmen Square demonstrations. After once again being released, he escaped China, ultimately arriving in the United States as a refugee in 1993.
At times, the chronology of events in In Search of My Homeland is somewhat confusing. That may in part be due to the fact that the English edition is not the entirety of Gao's memoir. It includes only the period from 1956 through approximately the end of the Cultural Revolution. A Taiwanese publisher plans to publish the entirety of the work. Translators Robert Dorsett and David Pollard assist the reader by footnoting and explaining various individuals, events and terms far from common knowledge among those reading the English version. The work also includes "On Beauty," what Gao now calls his "inopportune treatise."
Gao's memoir brings home the impact of the work camps and the Cultural Revolution without losing itself in pain and hopelessness. The work reflects Gao's continuing quest for beauty — beauty from an individual perspective. In that way, In Search of My Homeland helps demonstrate how, more than being politically inopportune, aesthetics can be dangerous to totalitarian states. After all, what Gao was and is writing about is part of the essence of human spirit and freedom, one that struggles against any idea "that an invisible hand, forcibly assigning roles and tasks, represent[s] the sole truth."