You can't truly know a nation until you've been inside its prisons.
—Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei
Artillery Alley, Beijing, August 2000
I'm lying on a bamboo mat on the concrete prison floor. My torn T-shirt is tied around my eyes to block the bare ceiling bulb that burns day and night. Sweat drenches my shirt from summer temperatures that soar above 100 degrees. The cell is six-by-eight feet, windowless, with a food slot in the iron door.
The humidity is suffocating.
I roll my head from side to side, desperate to get some rest. The drone from the light blends with the buzz of mosquitoes in my ears. I'm too tired to slap the insects away. My skin is covered in a rash of bites.
I untie the blindfold and put the T-shirt back on. Blinking to adjust my eyes to the glare, I glimpse faded Chinese characters carved into the plaster walls. Most are just names, probably of the poor souls locked in here before me. One inscription reads:
Wo zhen caodan [I'm really fucked].
Yes I am, I think and can't help smiling.
Then my smile fades and despair returns.
I'm locked in this cell and no one, not my family or friends, knows where I am. I have no idea how long I'll be held here. I'm so numb and exhausted I can't even cry.
To ease my fear and calm myself I do qi gong, a traditional deep breathing exercise I learned from my martial arts teacher. I inhale deeply through my nose then exhale through my mouth, over and over. I feel
the internal energy—qi—flow down the front of my body and up my back in a continuous cycle. My heart rate slows and anxiety eases. The mosquitoes are still distracting, but the noise grows fainter until I'm only conscious of the rhythm of my breath.
"Yi, er, san, si. . . . One, two, three, four. . . ."
The sound of the door bolt startles me. I must have finally fallen asleep. The door flap swings up and I see the familiar black boots of the prison guard.
"Matong [shit bucket]," the officer barks.
I crawl over and push the red plastic bucket through the hole. It contains nothing but water as I've refused to eat for the four weeks I've been locked up here. I hear the officer empty it. Then he kicks it back
inside, splashing drops of urine on me. Before the slot closes I glimpse pale red light in the hallway, marking the start of another day. Then the slot slams shut.
I can't take much more of this. I'm prepared to do something desperate, but there's not even a piece of metal or shard of broken glass in here to cut myself with. Could I strangle myself with my own bare hands or smash my head against the wall?
I close my eyes and replay scenes from the prison films I've been obsessed with since childhood: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Papillon, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now_. I imagine my heroes William Holden, Steve McQueen, Robert De Niro, and Martin Sheen patiently enduring prison waiting for an opportunity to escape. But there's no escape from this hellhole. They never let me out of this cage unshackled.