The story of Freezing Point

Li Datong
11 September 2006

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage" to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the finalists for the 2006 award. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 30 September.

The short list:

  • Li Datong (China): The Story of "Freezing Point" (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2006)

To read extracts from last year's list, click here.


* * *

Extract from The Story of "Freezing Point" (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2005)

Translated from Chinese by Ben Carrdus


Chapter 2: Beijing's last night-soil troughs


The thaw

In the middle of 1994, China Youth Daily started preparing to enlarge the paper. The 'weekly' format was seen as an effective way to present the news (a format later copied from us by numerous other papers), and there was almost no opposition whatsoever to adding another weekly supplement.

After much discussion we decided to add another three weeklies. A technical problem then cropped up: after the 'carve-up' there would be a couple of pages of articles left over at the end of the week with nowhere to go, and the paper had no idea what to do with them.

China's social and political atmosphere had already started to ease by then, and calls from within the paper for me to be reinstated as editor were growing by the day. Apparently, the paper's leaders started to take these calls seriously.

It was already autumn. One day, Zhou Zhichun, the deputy editor-in-chief, came into my office, and said, "We can give you two pages every week, okay?"

I couldn't help but release a long, drawn-out breath. Was this finally the thaw? After five years!

"What shall I publish?"

"Some ... specialised something or other ..." he said hesitantly.

I was speeding through some numbers in my head: two pages a week, 52 weeks in a year, which meant I had to find 104 pages of specialised reports!

"Are you crazy? That's 104 pages! What, you think I have eight brains or something?" I cried. I had every reason for being so panic-stricken. Going by the paper's practices throughout the 1980s, if a section managed to produce three or four specialised reports in a year it was with a deep sense of achievement.

The deputy editor-in-chief was of course well aware of this. He was silent for a moment, obviously realising that the arrangement was far from realistic. "I think you should just publish what you want to publish," he said finally.

And so I started going over everything in my mind: should I do it or not? How would I do it?

Of course, I should do it, I thought. I'd been idle for five years even though I'd done a lot of reading and thought a great deal about the news industry and written a few papers for the industry's internal consumption - which went on to have some effect. But I still had that awful feeling of having nothing to do. The problem was that I was facing an abyss never before seen in the industry - 104 pages of specialised reports a year! Furthermore, every single article had to be around 8000 characters, and what topics could possibly hold a reader's attention for as long as that?

There was no obvious or easy answer available...


A pretty young woman said, "I'm going to write about night-soil troughs!"

In the blink of an eye, it was October. Each of the new special supplements were in a noisy clamour of preparation, but I was still unsure about the direction ours was going to take and even what we were going to publish.

One evening I was sitting at home browsing the newspapers when a two-inch photograph in the Beijing Evening News caught my attention - only because I couldn't clearly see what was happening in the photograph.

It was the silhouette of someone carrying something on their back through a narrow lane ...

What was this? I peered a little closer to read the caption: "There are seven night-soil troughs left in Beijing. The trough porters are all former educated youths."

I don't know why, but these few words made my heart pound for a moment. I looked more closely at the image, and sure enough, there was the trough taking up about two thirds of the image with half of the porter's head visible behind one edge of the trough.

In an instant I knew what to write about.

As far as my generation is concerned, a night-soil trough doesn't imply filth and smells; more than anything it's actually a political totem. In the 1950s and 1960s in Beijing there was a porter called Shi Chuanxiang who used to be one of China's brightest political stars. He had been received by all of the top state and party leaders including Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai and his photograph had appeared on the front page of every newspaper. It didn't matter in those days whether you were the mayor of the city or an international sports star, there was still great glory to be had in carrying a night-soil trough with Shi Chuanxiang. The more spattered with shit and piss your head and body became, the more your 'revolutionary thinking' was proven ... But 30 years of changes and the original stigma has returned to night-soil troughs; this kind of work is regarded as the lowest of the low, and would soon pass into history with the development of the city's infrastructure.

The 'educated youth' were the millions of urban students who responded to Mao Zedong's call in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution to go to China's poorest and most backward rural areas. At the time, they all thought they were engaged in the most glorious undertaking, and were determined to 'root their lives' in the countryside. But within a mere 10 years the vast majority of these educated youths couldn't stand the privations and poverty of the countryside any longer, and escaped in droves back to the cities.

And so how did these two former 'glories' come together in this way? Why do these men want to do a job seen by everyone as so utterly repellent? I was instantly captivated by the idea of a fate and life inconceivable.

I pestered several male journalists to cover the story, but they were all highly dubious, saying: "What sort of story is this? Is it news?" And their reservations were quite understandable.

It was already November and I still hadn't found a journalist willing to write about the night-soil troughs, and I was starting to lose patience ...

One day, Wang Weiqun came into my office. She's a pretty journalist with a beautiful voice and fantastic figure who wears only designer clothes and has beautiful hair; she even wears wigs to give herself a change of style now and again. We usually just called her 'young lady', although this particular 'pretty little woman' had an advanced degree in the philosophy of science. She is also an extremely good journalist who has written several outstanding articles.

"So what do you think of the ideas I gave you? Have you chosen one yet?" she asked.

"Err ... how should I put this ..." I didn't want to annoy her and was looking for an excuse.

"Have you found anyone to do your night-soil trough piece yet?" she suddenly asked.

"No," I answered, somewhat despondently.

"I'll do it!" she said.

"Is ..." I stared at her, thinking maybe she was joking. The reason I'd wanted one of the male journalists to take this story on was because I'd assumed some of the interviews would be difficult to conduct, not to mention the problems of the stench. I wasn't sure I could send a woman out on such a potentially unpleasant assignment.

Wang Weiqun was clever. She could tell I hadn't looked through her story ideas but seeing her so keen to take on the night-soil story helped me make up my mind.

I waited until I was sure she wasn't pulling my leg before I allowed myself to feel a sense of relief.

But this was going to be quite an extraordinary assignment which would need a lot of detailed eye-witness observation, it would mean following the men through the processes of their work and going into all of their homes to observe their lives, to talk with their wives and children while never making them think there was a distance between them and the journalist, that the journalist was honest...

"I know, I know, don't worry," she said calmly.

Two days later, when Wang Weiqun appeared in my office again, I was stunned. She was no longer wearing her usual Italian fur designer winter coat but had changed instead into a tattered old yellowing cotton jacket, completely altering her appearance and demeanour.

"Why are you dressed like that?!"

"It's pretty much what the trough porters wear," she said.

"Where on earth did you manage find it?" I could help laughing as I looked at her.

"I borrowed it! Grim, isn't it?" She was laughing too.

If she dared to wear that jacket, that was proof enough that she was going to throw herself into the assignment, and that was half of the battle won right there!

Wang Weiqun herself later said that she wouldn't forget the assignment for as long as she lived.

A freshly-cleaned van pulled up by the side of the road and several men unloaded a night-soil trough, wide at the top and narrowing towards the bottom, standing about a metre high. The trough's four wooden sides were tightly bound with steel bands making it tough and durable. No one in the area appeared surprised to see these men as they each lifted a trough onto their back and disappeared into the buildings along narrow lanes.

The cover had frozen onto the septic tank, and Foreman Fan had to hit it with a rock for a while before eventually resorting to prising it off with a metal rod. There was a layer of hard black lumps on the cover which were broken up with the rod before being scooped up in a shovel and thrown into the trough. The porter knelt down with a carrying strap across his shoulder, and stood up by strenuously straightening his right leg, the trough on his back. The shovel-handle was a little long, and unavoidably not all of the night-soil was tossed straight into the trough. The men were flecked from head to toe in yellow and black spatterings, while even less unavoidable were their shoes. I asked him why he wasn't wearing a mask. He said they did at first, then started doing without. If you didn't wear a mask you'd breathe in all sorts of bad air, but if you wore a mask you couldn't breathe at all.

After each porter had carried 10 or so troughs, the first truck was fully loaded and the driver, Ma Shichuan, went to unload the night-soil. Foreman Fan then took me to see the communal toilets in a large shared courtyard nearby. I'd already prepared myself to have to hold my breath but even so, I could scarcely believe that in this thriving modern city of Beijing there should be such a primitive toilet as this. There was only a shallow trench in the floor which was overflowing with turds and there was all manner of indescribable substances beyond the edges of the trench. The four walls were so porous the wind barely noticed they were there. Foreman Fan and his crew had to come here once every week to clean up, otherwise life would be impossible for the dozens of people in the courtyard's ten-or-so homes.

When they saw us enter the courtyard, the residents immediately called in their children and shut the doors tightly behind them.

Each trough weighed about fifty to sixty kilos, and each person had to carry several dozen troughs each day. As they carried out trough after trough I followed closely behind on each of their trips to observe how they placed the trough onto a platform and then pumped a handle attached to the platform which made the trough rise. Once it had risen to a certain height, it was pushed forward and the night-soil emptied into the truck with a loud slosh. One of the men told me to stand a little further away or I might get splashed.

"It can splash out?"

"Of course it can! I'm always getting covered in it."

I sidled back a few steps and turned round to see that our truck had stopped outside a high-class beauty salon with pictures of stunningly beautiful people in the windows. The price-list read: "Skin-care treatment, 200 yuan; Eyebrow trimming, 140 yuan; Eyebrow shaping, 160 yuan."

"How much do you get for carrying a truck-load of night-soil?" I asked Foreman Fan.

"We're not paid by the truck, we just get a cheque each month - the money's the same no matter how many trucks we do. It's a bit better now than it used to be - all in, we get five or six hundred yuan. If you're willing to get right down into some of the bigger cesspits you can up that by about 15%. But what's 15% of the flat rate? Not many people want it that much."

I just couldn't believe my ears. Five or six hundred yuan? There are fat cats in Beijing who spend more than that on a single meal.

One evening, one of the night-soil porters came to the newspaper offices out of the blue for a chat with Wang Weiqun. We were about to finish work and so several of us invited him for a meal. We went to a restaurant where we regularly go and ordered a table-full of food. All of us who just sit in the office all day tucked into the food while we had to persuade this labouring man as hard as we could to eat. Two or three hours later when it was time to leave, we paid the bill and got ready to go, when to our astonishment as he looked at all of the food left behind on the table, said: "Could you let me take some of this home? My child hasn't eaten any meat for over a week."

This was the reality of their lives. All those years ago they had gone up to the far north east as 'educated youths' to try and help out in the impoverished countryside. It came out over the course of the assignment that in the mid-1980s, all of the farms that were established by the quasi-military "Construction Corps" up in Heilongjiang Province were disbanded and then taken over under a system of individual responsibility. There was a huge expanse of fertile land and the new family-run farms made a good living. They all married and had children and rightly considered themselves to be quite successful.

And so why had they come back to Beijing? Their reason was incredible: "There was no one to pay us a wage"! They hadn't wanted to be individual entrepreneurs all of their lives, and they felt insecure without the 'protection' of the state. Such an outlook on work in the China of the mid-1990s was outmoded and passé. They thought that if they went back to Beijing, no matter what they did they'd always have a salary coming in.

But the state did not 'protect' these 'educated youths' with their lack of education, their lack of factory skills and with all their children in tow, even if they themselves were once children in Beijing. Even their own families had no way of taking them back in. Their brothers and sisters had all grown up and had families of their own and with residential space in Beijing being so scarce, there was no way anyone could suddenly make room for a whole family. Their dream of 'earning a salary' was shattered when they got back to Beijing, and they lived in rented and dilapidated homes, making what living they could by taking occasional jobs here and there. As with all of Beijing's educated youth who returned to the city, they were the city's abandoned children.

Beijing's environmental bureau was hiring people at the time and even the peasants who came from the countryside to Beijing didn't want to be night-soil porters. Recruitment was even targeted at the old educated youth. "Your wives and children's residence permits will only be arranged if you do this work."

And so the old educated youth had little choice but to uncomplainingly accept the work. "But, at the end of the day we're getting a salary!"

As far as the whole of China is concerned, the people's ideology that was so firmly cast in the 1950s and 1960s has already been completely shattered under a deluge of materialism. "There are people everywhere these days - you've seen them - who point at us and say to their children that if they don't study they'll end up lugging crap around," one of the night-soil porters said to Wang Weiqun.

But amazingly, they still manage to maintain a sense of stoicism and pride in their tradition. They may be on a low salary but even when they're offered tips at some of the bigger hotels or when they've finished a particularly arduous job, they actually refuse them. "We're public servants on a salary - we can't take money for ourselves."

With the whole of China ringing to the sound of 'to get rich is glorious' and rampant consumerism on a scale never seen before, they are like a group of monks.

A new era is beginning, even as the old one has not yet passed.

"What's a tough-nut? A tough-nut is someone who can endure anything," says Foreman Fan. "It's someone who can stand proud and straight-backed in front of anyone."

It was early December by the time all of the interviews had been finished. Seeing as there was nothing else to choose from, the 'night-soil trough' piece was going to have to be in the inaugural edition. Whether the supplement was going to make a good impression on the readers or not depended to a large extent on the quality of this piece of work. At the same time, this article was going to have a bearing on the readers' judgement of me personally and my emphasis that material for reports would be drawn from the truth of their every-day lives.

The next morning, the paper was due to be published. The previous night I'd sat alone in the office going over and over the draft. It was perfectly clear that this report was nothing like the kind of news report that the paper had ever published before. It wasn't covering some sort of 'politically progressive comrade' and it didn't even have any typical news value. It was just the raw materials of common people's lives, emotions and fate, all transferred into the pages of a newspaper. I couldn't at that time prove to anyone the significance of doing this. I just knew instinctively that I personally wanted to understand their lives, and with a report such as this I'd be able to continue exploring similar material in the same way. And I never could have guessed people felt the same way as me - that would have been far too much to ask!

As the moment nervously approached when the inaugural edition was due to be published with the 'night-soil porters' piece leading, the fact that we didn't have a title for the supplement became a problem. We even held a long and protracted meeting to discuss what it should be called. Choosing our children's names wasn't as solemn a task as this.

It seemed that practically everything in those days, whether a paper, a television program or radio show was called something along the lines of Focus Point or The Hottest Point as though everything was 500 degrees centigrade. But whenever I finished watching, listening to or reading these reports, I always felt they were decidedly cold and unfocused. It seemed choosing names like these was some sort of blatant self-promotion. Calling a piece Focus Point or The Hottest Point would certainly grab the attention of the audience, but then where would their attention be taken once it had been grabbed?

I was going to have none of that media industry self-adulatory behaviour! Even though the paper had no titles along the lines of Focus this or The Hottest that, I was still dead set against using anything which included 'focus' or 'hottest'.

Around twenty hugely varied suggestions for a name were submitted. But not one of them was thought to be smooth on the ear or had the right connotations we wanted while still being eye-catching enough. We thought and thought and talked and talked but nothing could be decided. There was only one week left until the first edition was due to appear on 3 January, 1995.

One morning, the group manager and editor-in-chief Xu Zhuqing called. "So how's the first edition coming along?"

"It's still being revised," I said.

"Good, good, very good," he said, and then asked, "So what's it going to be called then?"

"It's ... there's not been a final decision yet."

"Well you'd better decide quickly, there's only a few days left!"

"It'll be decided immediately," I replied.

I stood up and paced my office floor. I'd already been tormented to distraction by the process of trying to choose a name, and my head was full of the names we'd rejected and nothing else.

"What's the point of all of these stupid focus point hot point points," I thought miserably. "Bloody things leave me at freezing point!"

Freezing point...

Freezing point?

Freezing Point!

I stood up. I repeated the two words over and over and the more I said them the more I liked them. These two words drew a line between me and the self-adulation of the media world, and signified that we were going to go and cover those stories and people that were always overlooked by the focus point hot point brigade. And furthermore, a name such as this was rare indeed, sure to catch the readers' eyes.

I walked into a colleague's office next door and said, "We're going to be called Freezing Point. What do you think?"

"Freezing Point?!" he said, eyes open wide as he too rolled it around his mouth several times. "It stinks at first, but the more you say it the better it gets."

"That's it then!" Finally, I was certain of the name and I strode purposefully to Xu Zhuqing's office where I knocked on the door. Mr. Xu was sitting inside.

"The name for the supplement has been finalised, Mr. Xu," I said. "It's called Freezing Point".

"Freezing Point? What's that meant to mean?" he asked, looking at me doubtfully.

"It doesn't mean anything. It's like giving a child a name, it's just a tag. What does your daughter's name actually mean, for example?"

Mr. Xu was stumped. "And were there any other choices?" he asked.

"No, no others, just this one."

"You'd usually give me two or three to choose from," said Mr Xu, starting to smile.

"But there really isn't another one! Can you come up with one?"

"Please go away and think about it some more," he said. "I don't know what it is you intend to publish and therefore I don't know where a name should stem from."

As I left Mr. Xu's office I thought to myself: just because you didn't think of it! That's the name and that's that.

And so in the end the supplement was called Freezing Point - zero degrees. In the foreword I wrote: "We want to pay closer attention to those people and events which are still considered unremarkable; closer attention to the lives and thoughts of ordinary people; and to publish more penetrating analyses and judgements than most people will have seen before."


"This is excellent, chief!"

I couldn't sleep all night.

Early the next morning, I rushed to the paper's offices for eight o'clock. As soon as I got through the doors I knew there was something going on.

The technicians in the transmission room and all of the drivers shouted, "This is excellent, chief!" as soon as they saw me.

I wasn't sure what was going on, and asked, "What's excellent?"

"Today's Freezing Point is excellent! A brilliant bit of reading! Where did you manage to find such a spirited group of people to write about?"

I thought then that we were going to be successful. The technicians in transmission and the drivers are all just regular people who never usually have any reason to greet or have anything else to do with the editorial team, and so this was quite exceptional.

At 8:30 am, the telephone on my desk rang. A middle aged woman's voice was heard on the other end of the line. "Are you the editor of Freezing Point?" she asked. I said I was. "Your report today was very good. It's been a long time since I've seen a report like that. Their story was incredibly moving and we really need to see stories like ..." and she started sobbing down the phone.

It was an incredible shock for me to receive this call. When I used to be head of a department at the paper, I'd never once had a direct conversation with a reader. Now it was different. Now the editor's name and telephone number were printed right next to Freezing Point's title, so if a reader had anything they wanted to say they could just call up and get straight through to the editor. I could feel my eyes welling up as I listened to the sincerity in the voice of this reader, and even felt the prickle of tears.

Her call helped me to realise that even though times may change and the quality of life may improve, there are those who feel that the relationships between people are also changing in not such a welcome way, by becoming more utilitarian and callous. In the night-soil porters, they saw a precious morality of yesteryear.

And so the morning was completely taken up with taking calls from readers, around 60 in all, almost all of which were positive. Most unexpected of all was speaking to an airline stewardess at Beijing airport who said that the men reminded her of her elder brothers and that I must give her the men's addresses. "If I don't go and see them, if I don't do something for them, then I don't think I'll be able to forgive myself," she said.

A young person who worked at a hotel wrote in on the day of publication to say: "At first I thought this was going to be another piece about 'the glorious educated youth' and I was a bit put off. But as I read on, my eyes were just streaming with tears and I said to myself, I have to keep this article for ever."

A letter came in much later from an old comrade who had fought in the War of Resistance against Japan and participated in the Revolution, who said: "I had a dream that night after I'd finished reading the report, and I dreamed that I was working with them as night-soil porters ..."

There were also a lot of calls coming in from other media organisations. A lot of them were just asking, "What made you think of doing something like this?"

We'd all thought that the era of newspaper reports causing a hue and cry such as this were well and truly over. We never could have imagined that material with no intrinsic news value reported from a very specialised angle could have created such an incredible stir. The strength of the reaction meant that three days after publication the paper ran a large column of readers' responses - a move which itself hadn't happened for many years.

"So what's the next one going to be about?" colleagues and other people at the paper asked when they saw me.

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