Letter from Beijing — Part Two

Wuhan Hubei National Security Office

 

[Editor’s Note: Chapter One of this book, Back From The Dead: A Landmark Ruling of Wrongful Conviction in China, can be found here. Generously shared in these pages by the author, it is the true story of China’s parallel to the O.J. Simpson murder case, which occurred around the same time. Here is Chapter Two.]

 

The Dangers of a Happy Marriage

Zhang Aiqing had been a bright and studious country girl. In high school she loved to read novels, particularly foreign detective stories. She always said that love stories were too slow, and that you could work out the endings at a glance. She also liked to watch the news and chat to her neighbours about national affairs. She had a calm and reflective nature: when the farm work was done she liked to sit with her next-door neighbour under a big tree outside her house, where she would repair shoes and embroider. Sometimes she would break off from this and just gaze at the white clouds above the mountain forests.

She didn’t go to university. At the time, in the early 1980s, it was unusual enough for a village girl to finish high school; instead she started work at the Yanmenkou machinery factory. She had three elder brothers, and she loved to ride to the market with her sisters-in-law. Even if she didn’t buy anything there, she was still happy. There was nothing particularly special about her appearance but she had a graceful, delicate air. Compared to most of the other farm girls, she loved fashion: she was the first one in the village to wear flared trousers and high-heeled shoes. Once, she brought back a pair of high heels, made of plastic, from the county capital. Her mother forbade her from wearing them and hid them away. But Aiqing managed to find them, put them on immediately and walked down the village street with her head high and her chest out.

Aiqing gradually got to know a boy from Hechang Village named She Xianglin. He was a year younger than her, and ambitious – strong, smart and skilled in wushu. They fell in love, and even though Xianglin’s family were poor, Aiqing decided to accept his marriage proposal. She thought that, being two intelligent people, they could live well and make ends meet. And, sure enough, they weren’t rich but they were happy.

Xianglin wasn’t satisfied with farm work and was always thinking of ways to escape the village. He left the family behind to find work as a casual labourer in the south, and then turned his hand to trading in the north. But after their daughter was born he went to neighbouring Madian Village to work as a security officer for the local neighbourhood association. It seemed to be a more stable way of getting by.

Aiqing worked hard to be a good wife and mother. With Xianglin working and living in Madian, Aiqing took her daughter to live in the factory dormitory in Yanmenkou. She worked nights and took care of her daughter during the day, sleeping no more than four hours each day and hardly ever complained to Xianglin. She was good with her hands, and made a vest for her daughter out of old clothes, with embroidered flowers and glass pearls. Everywhere she went, its craftsmanship was appreciated.

Xianglin was something of a male chauvinist. He didn’t speak much, but he liked socialising and drinking with friends. Sometimes, when he felt the situation was more formal, he would bring Aiqing along. She was a good conversationalist, at ease in company. Once, she accompanied Xianglin when he took his bosses to dinner. To the admiration of everyone present, she drank thirteen cups of wine. She said she just didn’t want her husband to lose face.

She was always good to him. One summer, Xianglin had such a high fever he couldn’t stand up. They had no money for medicine so Aiqing massaged him for four or five days until he recovered.

As far as anyone could see, they had a happy marriage.

Eventually, though, the relationship ran into trouble. The problems were mostly about money. As a patrolman working both the day and night shifts, Xianglin earned over 100 yuan a month [Note 4], but would spend it all within the month. When Aiqing questioned him, he would say that he spent it on inviting people to dinner and to deal with problems. And not only did Xianglin spend his entire salary, he also began to spend the thousands of yuan he and Aiqing had saved over many years. Aiqing questioned him about this, they argued and Xianglin hit her. Although he appeared quiet, honest and straightforward he actually held back a fiery temper. Aiqing, on the other hand, was a tolerant person, and when they argued it was always she who would concede, not wanting to hurt the marriage.

As time went on, the differences between them became more pronounced. Aiqing was realistic about life, whether it was about
love or work. She just wanted to do things properly, and well, from start to finish. But Xianglin was never content. It was as if every morning he awoke with a new fantasy about a different life. To have this kind of husband began to fill Aiqing with disquiet, even fear.

In 1991, Xianglin began an affair with a woman in Madian Village whom he had once helped when he was on patrol. She was single and, given that Xianglin was away from home, they would sometimes spend the night together. When Aiqing found out, she was devastated. She had worked so hard to preserve her marriage with Xianglin. Once the initial shock was over, she didn’t confront him. Instead she sought out this woman and spent some time with her, chatting and playing cards so they could have a heart-to-heart conversation. When Xianglin heard about this, he was moved, and for the first time since they were first married, he talked openly with Aiqing, explaining to her how guilty he felt.

Aiqing always wanted to seem strong and save face. She hated to complain and didn’t like to vent her feelings. It meant that her anger and frustration were always locked inside. In 1993, the factory met with some financial trouble, and it looked as if Aiqing would be laid off. With all the personal and financial pressure weighing down on her, Aiqing lost her spirit. Sometimes she would feel anxious for no reason; she became forgetful, and often fought with Xianglin. Once, she said to her mother that she felt as if she were going to die. Her health deteriorated to the point where she became completely dependent on Xianglin.

In 1994, not long after New Year’s Day, Aiqing disappeared. Her family suspected that Xianglin had murdered her, even though he claimed she had left in a rage after a quarrel. Mrs Zhang went to Aiqing’s house, and though she didn’t find any evidence, she noticed that all of Aiqing’s warm jackets were still there. It was midwinter, so surely she would have taken a jacket with her when she left? Xianglin stated again that she had simply walked out, and said he expected her back after a few days. But Aiqing did not return, nor had she sent any letters. Unwilling to wait any longer than she had already, Mrs Zhang gathered her family together and went to the public security bureau to report her daughter missing. She had a strong sense that Aiqing had been murdered by Xianglin.

NOTE

4 The average per capita national income in 1990 was US$350, equivalent to 139 yuan per month, though this figure does not reflect the income disparity between urban coastal regions and rural areas.

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