Unit 731

8 Mar

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
–Edward Said

Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China: a gritty metropolis.  Ice-crusted neighborhoods with baozi steamers billowing in doorways skirt expanding building projects.  Faces pass pinched and creased by time and Siberian winds.

Nowadays, the city’s main claim to fame is its International Ice and Snow Festival.  Someone once told me that part of the Chinese Zeitgeist is a taste for goofy, child-like fun.  The Ice and Snow Festival surely fits that bill.  Picture a Disneyland of glowing ice cubes, inhabited by dancing bears, bunnies, and the inevitable students posing for photos.

For those who favor museums over goofy fun, there’s Unit 731 Museum.  If you wish to visit, I recommend brushing up on the history.  Factories of Death by Sheldon Harris is an account of the Japanese Kwangtung Army’s biological and chemical warfare program in China from 1937 to the surrender of the Japanese in 1942.  A documentary can be found here.

Unit 731, also known as the “Epidemic and Water Purification Unit”, was a biological and chemical experimentation center for the Kwangtung Army situated in a suburb of Harbin called Ping Fang.  At the time, occupied Harbin was the northern industrial hub of “Manchukuo”, as the Japanese designated the northeastern region of China known as Dongbei.

In Ping Fang, in the heart of winter, a low pall fed by columns of coal smoke looms over battered factory buildings.  At the squat guardhouse, show your passport to enter free.  Before you, at the end of a wide, brick lane, extend the wings of an administration building: rusty-ashen and black-windowed.  As you approach, the aging bricks seem to exude a muted sense of brutality.

Within the administration building, exhibits are restrained.  Objects unearthed from the rubble sequestered behind glass.  Gas masks, test tubes, spent shells, and viscera hooks.  In the memorial hall, slate plaques bearing victims names line two, long walls.

The placards will inform you that Chinese victims at 731 were dubbed “logs” by the Japanese, a reference to the Unit’s official cover as a lumber mill.  Russian prisoners and later Allied prisoners were added to the Chinese, also to be injected or otherwise exposed to cholera, anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, among other diseases.  As infections advanced, prisoners were selected for live vivisections that degeneration rates might be monitored.  In other experiments, the effectiveness of explosives was tested on victims staked out around detonation points.  Others were frozen, and limbs were sawn off in a macabre exercise in data-mining.

It was within Unit 731 that Japanese technicians developed a means of dispersing bubonic-plague-ridden fleas over a populace.  Subsequently, ceramic shells full of infected fleas were dropped around nearby Chinese villages.  Later, personnel arrived masked and gloved to perform autopsies on the dead and dying.

Besides Unit 731, lesser known units were imbedded in cities across China.  Notably, Unit 100, called the Warhorse Disease Prevention Shop, was established just south of Changchun.  Unit 100 was largely occupied with researching diseases and chemicals for destroying crops and animals, but human prisoners were also used.

In Nong An, a group of Japanese doctors established a clinic at Beiguan school, ostensibly to combat the plague, which had “cropped up” in Changchun suburbs.  Entire neighborhoods were called out for inspection, and each individual running a fever was taken.  Locals joked morbidly that anybody ushered through the front door of Beiguan School exited the rear a corpse.  In order to avoid being picked up, inhabitants attempted to reduce temperatures with potato slices under the armpits, while women applied heavy, pallor-disguising makeup.

Virtually none who worked within the walls of 731 or other centers saw justice.  A deal was made, and the American military came into possession of 731 documentation.

You might ask what value lies in dredging up such detestable history.  I would argue that the value of reminders like 731 is that they stand as antidotes against the self-congratulatory, paternalistic, but ultimately violent mindset at the root of imperialism.  Periodically, the publishing of Japanese textbooks reduces the Kwangtung Army’s incomprehensible ravages in China to a footnote.  The Chinese, understandably, become infuriated that an entire generation of Japanese may grow up completely ignorant of that historical context.  The bliss of ignorance is an opiate the modern world can scarcely afford, given the price paid for war and imperialism over the last century.

After viewing the museum, you may walk the footpath encircling snow-muffled craters remaining from the Japanese attempt to eradicate every trace of what had been done here.  Perhaps 100 meters away, battered incinerator stacks project from a disfigured wall.  Flanked by snaking trees, the administration building, too solid to demolish easily, stretches out before you.  Between you and the administration building, a pillar of rubble juts from the snow, an austere memorial to the innocents.  A sentinel standing guard against “The Dark Ages of the Mind” that would have the ghosts of tragedies past returning to shake man from his self-imposed stupor.

Book Review – Angels, Delirium, Liberty by Finley J. MacDonald

4 Aug

Book Review – Angels, Delirium, Liberty by Finley J. MacDonald.

Cart Pullers, and Poem Offering by Haizi

17 Jun

Cart Pullers

Hearts dried bundles swinging from thongs below caved chests, the pushers of carts drag temples of cardboard, plains of apples, stub-armed, pink cadavers of hogs.  Motors hammer.  Old men and women pad like moon creatures on just-lit earth.  Everything is wheeled, pushed into place, staggered , borne, uplifted–on these carts that tilt at the edges of streets, barfing swill and rubbish from black chutes.  Everything.  Dented winter oranges.  Cabbages like heads piled and pawed after a massacre.  Silver, frozen, broken fish.  Cart pullers are now pushing past tenements joined at the seams, caked like mules that have fallen and cannot rise, windows full of ghosts and echoes.  Between smudged and blackened men and boys firing sparks at the skeletons of dinosaurs, performing open-thorax surgery on motorcycles, assembling tiger cages, battering rams, space ships.  On these streets that curl like sidewinder trails.  Passing warped tires, dead bicycles, nests of kindling, doors of sticks and stapled cloth, pairs of lonely boots on littered mounds of snow, and boy waiters who come out to smoke, grinning and strutting like red cardinals.

  Poem Offering

Haizi, translated by Finley J. MacDonald

Night falls.


Rejoins fire ten-thousand years past.

He is again at the white flame.

Fire returns to fire,

Night to night,

Eternity to eternity.

From earth, the evening rises

To cover the sky.



来自秘密传递的火  他又是在白白的燃烧

火回到火  黑夜回到黑夜  永恒回到永恒

黑夜从大地上升起  遮住了天空

July is Not Far

7 Jun

Haizi, the poet, the village intellectual, the eternally lonely king, killed himself on March 26, 1989 laying himself down on a train track at Shanghaiguan.  At his side was a copy of the bible, the tales of Jospeph Conrad, Kon Tiki, and Walden Pond.  He was 25. 

Hiazi’s Mother and cousin

After visiting his tomb, I took a boat up the river for Hangzhou.  I lounged a while in the air-conditioned cabin.  Crops and houses slid behind the heads of women who had lost their looks agog over a pudgy, hand-fed boy.  I went out on deck.  The river was slate-green and vast.  Like a relentless bull, the boat drove up the river.  Vibrating under my feet, it roared past paddles flashing, hillsides terraced with puzzles of corn, peanuts, and rice, and fishermen and nets staked-out under houses on pillars: four stories tall, with washed sheets and roofs rough as ash bark.  Grape vines spilled and flounced in petite vineyards, and rounded hedges of tea followed curves of hills.

I bought a beer and wandered to the front of the boat.  I stood alone between the two constant fountains, in the crisp hiss of cut water, in the open mouthed roar of the engine, with the wind coming on straight.   Like one hundred skipping swallows of gold, the sun was racing on the water.  We plowed past fishing boats and left them rocking.

I cracked the beer and thought of Haizi, the ascetic poet.  The poisoned flower in the belly of heaven’s horse.  The injured tiger.  The lover of the eternal, the high, the brilliant.  Who read until his knowledge of Kafka, Van Gogh, Christ, and Yesenin was an immense terrain, like the northlands of China, upon which poems could take root.  Who resisted the current which diminishes and corrupts voiceless writers bearing into unknown hearts of darkness.  Did he have a right to take himself from us? To name himself a “martyr of poetry”?  To live and to die by the rules of an autobiographical cosmos?  As if he were boat itself—and not a passenger upon it?  Perhaps.  But perhaps the vessels that bear us on have meanings, and we will get them; we will get them so long as we stand watchful at the helm of our lives.  New lakes are not far.  Bodies of lovers are not far.  Tea ridges, not far.  The opportunity for coming to believe, not far.


Haizi’s tomb

July is not Far Away


(Translated by Finley J. MacDonald)

For Qinghai Lake–drown my love.

July is not far away.

The birth of sex is not far away.

Love is not far–close under the horse’s nose,

Like the salty lake.

Thus, Qinghai is not far

With its clustered beehives on the river bank.

A rush of tenderness invades me:

In grass: wildflowers blooming.

On Qinghai lake, my loneliness is like heaven’s horse.  (Heaven’s horse is not far).

I am the lovelorn one:

Of all flowers spouting poetry,

I am the only one, in the belly of the horse of heaven, that is poisoned.

(Qinghai Lake, drown my love)

The green stems of wildflowers are not far,

Ancient names in the hospital box are not far.

Other vagabonds, returning to their ancestral home, have been healed. 

I want to go visit them.


Thus death, pulling up mountains and fording waters, is near.

My skeleton hangs as if by a green branch above the water.

At dusk, the vast waters of Qinghai lake extend before my eyes.

May’s life-saving flocks of birds have already flown.

The birds that peck the jewels of my head have already flown.

There remains only the lake, this jeweled


This vast surface at dusk.



Haizi’s books


























Chapter 10 of Serial Novel “The Cage”: Drowning

4 Jun

Every week, by Sunday night here in China–a new episode of an ongoing serial novel called The Cage is posted here.  The first events, which soon go awry, concern the building of an underground cathedral from an abandoned coal mine.  The chapters so far are all right here; you can find the links on the menu under “The Cage”.  If you enjoy an episode, please support me with a subscription, link, re-blog, comment, or recommend the site to friends and family.


“About to get splashed,” says Mouse’s brother.

Along a horizon cut behind angular, brick honey combs that jut over plots of new corn, detonations echo and trail.  Like a building whisper, the rain begins.  Lustrous, threaded streams swell and twine.  Pies of wet clay build around Mouse’s shoes, and his thin, cloth jacket grows damp.  They climb the fence.  Mouse’s bother selects a branch, carves mud off of his shoes, and hands it to Mouse.  As Mouse spears and scrapes, the rain falls harder, cracking and pattering while a madman above whacks away at sheet metal, the sound filling an amphitheater of wood and cropland, hovels, and figures distant and bent.  Above them in darkening sky, oak branches glitter and grope.

Mouse follows his brother through beds of bracken, past steel cadavers tilting into the swamped earth.  The whoosh of the river joins the hiss of rain, and scrub willows raise sections of current, tan and rippling, in their branches.  Mouse’s brother halts under a sapling.  Hands to his hips, he surveys the dented army truck with its nose in rushing, crested wavelets.  A tire comes bobbing. Branches turn in current.

“It’s almost up here.”

“Do you think the water will cover her over?”

“Sure,” says Mouse’s brother, climbing down.  “We’ll build something a lot better this year.  A damn fortress, you and me.”

Following the flagstone steps, Mouse’s brother lays his hand on the frame and thumps it, as if it were a great pet. 

“This old battle horse,” he says.

Like a hero-warrior, he launches through the window, into the cab.  Mouse has to hook his elbows on the window socket, bang his knees, and worm his way through.  Inside the drumming shelter, he bounces a couple of times on the blanket folded over seat springs.  The glass dials are smashed, and a clump of growing grass flinches on the hood. In the glove compartment rests a chalky swallow nest.  A toppled tree trails jerking branches in the current below the truck.  Behind the steering wheel, his brother stares beyond the truck’s spattering hood, into the secret, broody magic of wood and water.  On the opposite bank, under a steel undercarriage of sky, cottages are tucked among trees. 

“Think the water could carry away a truck?” says Mouse.

“If it can carry a house, it can carry a truck.”

 The cab smells of soil and mildew.  A gust from the river carries a sour funk.

 “Why does it smell like that?”

“Pig shit.  They are dumping it in the river.”

“I hate pigs.”

“But you like side pork.”

Thin necklaces of rain are strung from the roof of the cab.  Cool drafts wash through the window socket.  From a hollow in the door, Mouse digs out a smooth, rosy chunk of chert and holds it out in the rain.  He brings it in and polishes it with his thumbs.

“Can you catch fish in the rain?”

“With a net, maybe.  They don’t bite in any rain at all.  And high water—forget it.”

“Could we make a net?”

“I tried.  Impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing.  We could buy one, though.  When the berries get ripe, we can pick a lot and sell them.  Going to be a bunch this year.  Pick about a hundred damn pounds; then we’ll have our net.  We’ll catch those biggies snoozing on the bottom.”

“We can sell minnows, too.  And crayfish.”

“It will be a while before we get water clear enough to catch anything.”


Mouse’s teeth are beginning to chatter.

“You cold?”

“A little.”

“You should get home.”

“I wish they would make a bridge here.  We could go across.”

“If there was a bridge, we could go across and so could everybody else.  We wouldn’t have this spot to ourselves.  Anyway, I don’t need one.  I can swim over.”


“Swam way farther than that.  I swam across the lake, and that’s three times this.  Don’t believe it?  That’s it—I’m going.  You take my clothes home.  Meet you back at the house.” 

Mouse looks out across the water.  The trees on the bank are not so far.  His brother could do it.  Mouse?  Beneath the serpents and mouths resides some menace.  At the root of his spine: a wriggle of cowardice.    

Mouse’s brother is slipping out the window. 

“Hope Beckrows are not looking,” he says, and his feet pull out of the cab.

Mouse pushes the stone in his pocket, thrusts his legs out the window, and lets himself slide and drop.  On the bank, above the cliff of rip-rap, his brother pulls off his shirt, steps out of his pants.  He rolls them up and Mouse takes them.  In his underpants, his brother tiptoes down the length of a concrete bridge member, and at the bottom, squats.    Mouse follows partway down the chunk of ancient bridge.  His brother’s outstretched foot tests the current.

“Mama!” he says.  “That’s cold.  Only one way to handle it!” 

He straightens up, grins back at Mouse, and leaps.  Beneath the surface, legs flash, and then his head comes up shaking.  Below his fist, teeth show in a wide-open smile.  Then he is frog-kicking, working his way toward the center.  He is a head and pale, hooking arms above a splash of white.  Mouse climbs back up the bank.  He clambers along the rip-rap, trying to keep up, but the spot is moving downstream too fast. 

As Mouse follows the path through the forest that leads to the bridge, columns of blackbirds chatter in dark oaks and maroon geysers churn in columns of light.  The horizon blinks.  Ducks streak low over the river.  A few white pebbles pop into the path.  Mouse waits it out under a tree.  White balls of ice sail up and roll on the path, and soon, across the whole, steaming width of the river, fountains of white are shooting up.  Then it is over. 

As Mouse crosses the wet plank bridge under glowing, broken clouds, ice nugget upon his tongue, a rainbow has formed; red, purple, and blue, it vaults up from the river, right from the spot where his brother popped up and smiled amid waves. 

Why not support indie fiction and purchase a Kindle version of my novel, Angels Delirium Liberty, at Amazon?  It’s 3.99 per copy.  Only 1.99 for a limited time in multiple digital forms at Smashwords.