:: Article

Naming the Dead: Wang Bing’s Dead Souls

By Daniel Fraser.

Dead Souls

Wang Bing, Dead Souls


Pu Yiye | Zhao Bingkun | Zhao Tiemin
Xu Ziashan | Deng Lizi | Zhang Weizuo
Li Jionguo | Zhang Weirong | Zhao Tinqi
Yang Yanggu | Gu Hiumin | Pei Zifeng | Xing De
Han | Zhou Zinian | Qi Baiwen | Yu Ruxian | Cai Yuanrui
Wong Xinwen | Guo Guifong

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
– David Eagleman, Sum

Names by their very nature are the words that remain closest to us. They are the lingual sounds by which we are identified, forming an essential part of who we are. At the same time, they are all-too-easily forgotten, hard to recall from the sea of faces that make up the great number of people we meet, always frustrating us, lying unreachable or else “on the tip of our tongue”. Wang Bing’s new film, Dead Souls, is a work pervaded by names. Names of the living, names of the dead, names forgotten and names remembered.1 Names are a site of struggle in the film, a struggle through which Dead Souls continually brings to the fore vital questions of memory and forgetting, of testimony and erasure, that arise in the history of trauma, and the practice of history in the record of that trauma.

The film has at its centre the Anti-Rightist Campaign launched by the Communist Party of China in 1957, which resulted in a great number of supposed ‘Rightists’ being sent to re-education camps.2 Those interviewed in Bing’s film are all associated with the camps in Mingshui and Jiabinggou, at the fringes of the Gobi Desert in the Gansu province of northwest China. Some 3,200 teachers, professors, tax clerks, Party members and secretaries were sent there, only a few hundred survived. The rest were driven into the depths of starvation and cold and eventually perished. It is material that Bing has dealt with before, in both Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007) and his narrative film The Ditch (2010), but not on such a scale – Dead Souls goes far beyond these previous works in bringing this dark chapter to light. Or rather, by illuminating the edges of their darkness, the film throws the unintelligibility and vastness of these horrifying events into sharp relief.

The great proportion of the film’s 495 minutes comprises interviews conducted with elderly survivors of the camps (and in one case, the widow of one who died), with occasional interjections from their family members and loved ones. The events related, largely covering a period of internment from 1958 until rehabilitation in 1961, are horrifying in the extreme, with descriptions of impossible working conditions, failed crops, malnutrition, constipation, swelling, anal bleeding, and freezing weather conditions, underwritten by an all-consuming hunger and threat of starvation ready to engulf them at any moment. Once the Party cut food provision to the camps, rations were as low as 200g of coarse cereals per day for some of the interned. Many starved, some committed suicide, others died of exhaustion. Death was ever-present, the terror taken to the point of banality. “There was nothing extraordinary about death,” one survivor recounts, and another: “death was just a blown out lamp.” Visitors, usually the wives of those interned, often came to find their husbands gone, being informed of their death but having no opportunity to see the remains. The coffins for the dead were initially made of wooden planks, then straw, but eventually the dead were merely tied up in their blankets, loaded onto a cart and deposited with the countless others in the anonymous expanse of the Gobi.

Evidenced by this, the film is, in many ways, a difficult one to write about. It is impossible to choose moments that are “powerful” or “harrowing”, “moving” or “hard to watch”. In fact, the overwhelming expression of the arbitrary nature of life and death the film exposes – inscribed and re-inscribed by the administrative processes of the Party, the ludicrous charges and personal enmities that lead to the deportations, and the aleatory encounters and endless chain of accidental factors that separated those who survived from those who did not – leaves the very concept of “choice” completely at a loss; metaphor, comparison, and figurative language feel inadequate, offensive. The horror of this reality exceeds such categories, in many ways the best course of action would appear to be that of silence.

But here a problem presents itself immediately: silence, forgetting, erasure, is the course of action practiced in the extreme by the Chinese government, a literal bulldozing of history in the effort to destroy a deeply uncomfortable element of its past. The struggle for naming, for recognition of the human suffering undergone by both survivors and the dead, is done in the face of governmental denial and destruction, in the face of the unspeakable horror and incomprehensible scope of the crimes perpetrated by the Maoist Party in its distorted, authoritarian “communist” vision, in the face of the disintegration of the body, and the disappearance of memory that comes with it. At the same time, the failure of testimony, of words to approach the horrors inflicted on the bodies which are left to speak, and the great silence left by those who cannot, reasserts itself in, and as part of, this struggle to communicate.

So, to remain silent is impossible, but to speak is to admit to failure. This contradictory truth lies at the heart of human experience and our relation to language, and so often trauma is the mechanism by which this truth is revealed. Names, the act of naming, form part of this question. The question of how this process of naming and recalling of names fits with the wider questions of testimony and silence in Dead Souls is vital for understanding how to approach these events, of what it means to create an archive of such atrocious human actions. Testimony, silence: the two are in continual contestation throughout Dead Souls and its understanding of the film as archive.


On a basic conceptual level an archive itself always engages in the play of memory and forgetting, of record and silence. The formation of an archive, by definition, the creation of that which is archived, entails the forgetting of that which is not. The construction of the archive then is always undertaken between two great annihilative forces, two abyssal chasms of meaninglessness: the silence of absolute forgetting and the endless babbling speech of totality, a kind of Babylonian library where the archive loses its meaning in the surfeit of material rather than its lack. The archive is necessarily incomplete; it is constructed in and around an absence. It would be wrong then to align the great length of Bing’s project with any kind of direction toward completeness or seeking to approach a “full understanding”. Its running time is testament to no sense of fulfilment, quite the opposite.3 Dead Souls is a deliberately fragmentary work, one which continually interrogates the question of fragmentation both as a problem for the creation of an archive and as a method through which film might offer resistance to the dominant political narratives and their annihilating forces of erasure.

There is a moment in the first part of the film when, looking among the ruins of the camps, a group of survivors find a fragment of stone on which a prisoner daubed their name in red paint. The group try to decipher the three characters, cleaning the stone with water, but only manage a partial recovery: Cui…Guo. One character, the one in the middle, has been completely destroyed. The episode acts as a motif for the film as a whole, emphasising the incomplete character of any kind of record, and the great number of missing names which may never emerge from the dust.

One of the strangest elements of this section of the film is not the attempt to recover, even the name, of one of their fellow detainees but the excitement that the mystery of the name itself provokes in both the viewer and the survivors on screen examining the rubble. This excitement presents in its most elemental form, the danger and lure of narration, of giving voice to the unspeakable, as well as the annihilative consequence of choosing to remain quiet. Naturally, the latter is the easiest to identify. The stone was a fragment of rock, lying in an unknown and barren plain, those who found it are among the few people on earth who could bring meaning to the small red marks pasted on its surface: possibly the only identifying information left of a human life destroyed in the most uncompromising fashion. The wish to uncover the name, to bring this lost name back, in the face of what tried to silence it is a powerful impulse indeed. However, the danger of course is that by bringing the man’s name to light, by telling the story of the stone, brings with it this very issue of excitement. This is the double-edged lure of narrative, the unseemly power of plot.  The stone humanises, contains, events, renders intelligible what cannot and should not be, it reduces the catastrophe to a problem of language, to the presence of a mystery to be solved, of a puzzle to be overcome.  The tension reprises itself throughout Dead Souls and serves to remind the viewer that however many stories are told, however much testimony gathered, the existence of these camps lies in a void beyond comprehension. It cannot be contained by storytelling.

Nowhere is this more evident that in the testimonies themselves. There can be no doubt that the accounts presented by each of the interviewees are deeply disturbing and horrifying. What is also striking about the testimonies is both their repetitiousness and their frequent disruption by inaccuracies and memory lapses: names and dates that are unable to be recalled. These frequent repetitions and moments of aphasia, the gaps in the story, demonstrate the resistance of these atrocities to the act of articulation itself. Bing’s decision to focus entirely on a single set of camps, where those interned suffered many of the same hardships and the same losses, forces us as viewers to re-contend with the same material presented by another voice. Descriptions of the same hurried rituals for burying bodies, the same frozen conditions, the same widows searching in vain for bodies lost on the open plains, recur to such an extent that their impact is deadened. The deadening of impact, of our (as viewers) diminished emotive response to hearing about the camps, becomes a troubling question about how to deal with hearing, with listening to such testimony at all. We become implicated, trying to ascertain certain facts, trying to uncover the extent of the horror as rumours of inmates resorting to cannibalism start to surface. One feels intrigue rising from this, the word spoken, the hushed voices, wishing to learn more, to have it confirmed by other sources. What can follow but self-disgust: the horror of having been taken in, led on by barbaric curiosity?

Wang Bing

The presence of forgetting is equally disturbing. Beyond the evident biological factors of the age and frailty of those giving the testimony, the missing pieces, lapses and mistakes in the accounts they provide serve to underline the incompleteness, the inadequacy, of testimony itself. However, this inadequacy also forms part of its greatest strength. The names, places dates, though forgotten, are still present as forgotten. The name indicates itself through its lack. In doing so, in having been forgotten, the name as missing becomes one with all those whose names cannot be found. The absent individual becomes the presence of all those who are absent.  The forgotten name is a hesitation of language, a silence that calls up the silence of those who no longer have the chance to speak.  When one of the witnesses does alight on a name, finds the thing once thought lost, it brings an excitement with it, the lost object returned, the closing of a gap. The name returns and the memory of the individual comes back, held in place by the uttering of their name. However, the return always comes too late, both for the dead, who cannot hear and cannot speak, and for the one who speaks, in whose hesitation the great gulf of silence, of the silenced, opens up, present in the missing word. The hollow opened by this gesture is rendered explicit in one testimony, where the witness struggles to recall a particular detail then gives up, saying:

“I don’t remember… in novels everything is told in great detail but it was hard and we were hungry.”

And subsequently:

“It wasn’t easy, but what’s the point of telling you all that?”

The presence of this missing word is the material trace of meaninglessness that threatens to engulf each attempt to speak. It is a remnant of the senseless that marks the horror of trying to make sense. The recognition of this futility, of the threat posed by seeking to articulate and interpret these events, is part of what makes Dead Souls not only one of Bing’s most incredible achievements to date but one of the most important documentary films of recent years.

Futility, courses like a current though the testimony of the survivors and the events of their lives both during and following the events of the camps.  It comes to the surface in the ludicrous nature of the supposed crimes, the accidental and often arbitrary factors that determined who survived and most obviously in the ever-presence of death. Furthermore, throughout the film we are repeatedly reminded that the practice of testimony is not only what allows the creation of Bing’s archive, but also the very thing which caused so many to be sent to the camps in the first place. During the mid-1950s the Party invited criticism from its members under the guise of “openness”, allowing citizens to express their opinions of the regime in what came to be known as the Hundred Flowers Movement. Following which many were declared to be Rightists and sent for re-education. Often these remarks are as innocuous as, “sometimes the Party is a bit too distant from the masses”, as one witness relates with spectacular understatement. It was an environment in which “every single word was immediately politicised”, and the fear of speaking up, of any utterance at all, shadowed every decision, and yet what was said mattered little, often being nothing more than an excuse. The contradictory power and powerlessness of speech is not only a tool of resistance but also an integral part of the discourse of the Party.

Everywhere in Dead Souls fragments of meaning fight against the great tide of nothingness that surrounds them. This tide finds its topological realisation in two sections which show Bing walking among the flattened plain of dust and mud on the site where the camps used to be. The land looks barren and inhospitable. The only sounds are those of footsteps and the roar of the wind. As we walk with the camera and look with it as it focuses on the ground underfoot we see a vast scattering of human bones. It also manifests itself as a spectral presence inside the living. Not only in the failure of memory, of mis-recalled dates and names, but in the disappearance of those who survived. Across the length of the film, the names of the living become those of the dead as intertitles inform us of the passing of many of Bing’s interviewees. Soon death will have engulfed all those who lived through the events just as it took those who did not. In another telling episode, one man recounts the story of his attempts, assisted by another survivor and periodically by sympathetic council officials, to erect monuments at the camps to honour the dead. Every moment of acquiesce is quickly rescinded, every promise taken back. Each permit to build a simple stele is thwarted from above, everything spoken is a lie. In the end the men are forced to steal a suitcase of assorted bones which they subsequently bury in a cemetery under a mound of anonymous earth. At the funeral of one of the interviewees, the man’s coffin is loaded onto a cart and lead, accompanied by music, up a steep slope of collapsing soil that forces a great number of mourners to heave the cart in unison, feet slipping and stuck in cloying earth, the path to the grave always threatening to disintegrate. In the end, they reach the burial site and, overcome with grief, the man’s son climbs down into the grave. Surviving has only led back down into the grave and yet, by surviving, he earned a name in death, a recognised grave and a place in which to be mourned: something denied all those who perished in the camps.

Dead Souls is a place where language, words, names, ideas, are rendered insufficient in the face of horrific trauma. That those who were sent there were done so under the pretence of finding answers, of gaining the right knowledge, only compounds this fact. Many of the interned set off, not in abject despair, but in hope, in the hope of learning and finding a better path. What they found was a place where nothing could be learned. Language became nothing but fuel. Some, in their desperation, turned to eating their books: “Cooking paper in a jar with water and a little ground wheat,” as one survivor remembers it. In the end, the camp employees helped the prisoners burn books in the lamps: the teachings of Mao and Lenin had no meaning anymore. “No one wanted to read them,” a man states in the most direct terms before uttering with a mischievous smile, “you could say opinion of the Communist Party was on a downward turn.”

The creation of such conditions in which words no longer have any meaning means any attempt to “make sense” of such trauma must be done in recognition of language’s failure, of the incomprehension which underlies the acts themselves. In continually foregrounding the question of the archive, and testimony, as a method of resistance and response throughout, Bing has created one of the most compelling documentary works of recent years. Rather than merely seeking to explain or “tell the story” of Jiabinggou, Dead Souls brings us face to face with the very incomprehensibility of such events. This is not a place for storytelling, for the desire for moving forward. To search for answers in these situations, then, must always be conducted in the understanding that not only are there no adequate answers to be found in such darkness, but that the search itself, the impulse to find, to discover, to know, is as much a part of the mechanisms that allow such hideous events to continue as the deleterious, forgetting attempted by the State machine.

The gathering of testimony, and the naming of the dead, in Dead Souls challenges the official narratives of the re-education camps provided by the government, and challenges their destructive silence. At the same time, by repeatedly opening up the question of testimony and the spaces of forgetting left in the absence of a name, the film recognises the incompleteness of any such naming and the inadequacy of any language in the face of such devastating trauma. Responding to trauma is a necessary resistance. However, the Party’s attempt to expunge the trauma from history entirely is not resisted by healing the trauma through interpretation and understanding. It cannot be. To do so would be to practice another mode of erasure, of closing the gap. Instead, resistance comes through the re-marking of the absence itself, of using testimony to mark the edges and boundaries of the abyss left by these horrific events, bringing elements to light in order for the vast expanse of darkness to be glimpsed, if only for a moment.

1 Those given above are only a handful, taken down during the recent screening at the ICA in London.
2 The official government figure is 558,900 though the actual total is likely to be considerable higher. Source: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/this-grey-zone-wang-bing-discusses-dead-souls
3 In a recent interview when asked a question about whether such a long film allowed him to ‘tell the story he wanted to tell’ Bing responded, not without amusement, that Dead Souls was intended to the be only the first part in a much larger project.


Daniel Fraser

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of BooksGorseAeonMusic and Literature, and Mute among others. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 10th, 2019.