‘Right! Left! At ease!” There were 40 of us in the room, all women, wearing blue pyjamas. It was a nondescript rectangular classroom. A big metal shutter, perforated with tiny holes that let the light in, hid the outside world from us. Eleven hours a day, the world was reduced to this room. Our slippers squeaked on linoleum. Two Han soldiers relentlessly kept time as we marched up and down the room. This was called “physical education”. In reality, it was tantamount to military training.
Our exhausted bodies moved through the space in unison, back and forth, side to side, corner to corner. When the soldier bellowed “At ease!” in Mandarin, our regiment of prisoners froze. He ordered us to remain still. This could last half an hour, or just as often a whole hour, or even more. When it did, our legs began to prickle all over with pins and needles. Our bodies, still warm and restless, struggled not to sway in the moist heat. We could smell our own foul breath. We were panting like cattle. Sometimes, one or another of us would faint. If she didn’t come round, a guard would yank her to her feet and slap her awake. If she collapsed again, he would drag her out of the room, and we’d never see her again. Ever. At first, this shocked me, but now I was used to it. You can get used to anything, even horror.