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Jail House Rock: Music and Life
In the latter half of 2001, Nanjing Prison took the lead in China in adopting a humanitarian administration for the prisoners, setting up appeals and comment boxes for the warden and thought report letter boxes, establishing supermarkets and permitting inmate couple cohabitation as well as providing time for those who were going to take a social examination, excusing them from laboring re-education. The prison also began a series of lectures called "Music and Life", promoted by Zhan Tianlai, a retired music teacher in his 60s with Nanjing No. 5 Middle School. Over the last four years, Zhan gave lessons in six prisons in Nanjing and taught some 300 prisoners nationwide.

He says, "Music is an angel. I want to pull the fallen out of the demonic waste land with the angel's power."

In the past four years, many people have asked Zhang, "Why do you always go to prisons?" and "Why do you give free lectures to the prisoners?" He answers repeatedly, "Because my son and they are of the same age and I am a teacher." In China, people respectfully call teachers the engineers of the human soul. Zhan maintains that since he is one of these soul engineers, he should be fair to his students, no matter who they are.

At the end of 1999, Nanjing Municipal People's Political Consultative Conference organized a visit to the Longtan Prison and brought many programs.

"Such wonderful programs should be provided for prisoners," the warden suggested, and his request was immediately satisfied with the inmates also watching the program.

In the meantime, Zhan realized that 80 percent of the inmates were young people, amongst which most were teenagers. Recalling that his son had received a fine and complete education and had a bright future, Zhan felt great regret for these kids.

After the show was over, the members paid a visit to the stern discipline team for those who refused to follow orders, beat others, or had injured themselves or tried to escape from the prison.

"Welcome leaders!" The inmates stood there staring blankly and said hello to Zhan and other members. Their low and unclear voices were just like the wolf's howl and really gave Zhan a start. The following "chair exercise" was so awful that Zhan could not stand any longer the inmates' puppet-like expression and mechanical action.

"Will they really benefit from the re-education? After being released, will they make reprisals to society?" Zhan asked. The warden admitted that there were some being detained twice, and a few coming to the prison even for a sixth time.

Later, the warden invited Zhan, who was good at teaching music, to give lessons to the inmates so as to enliven their boring re-education life. He promised to think about it. On January 27, 2000, Zhan, with an accordion on his back, came to the warden and brought his one-year teaching plan of "Music and Life". The warden was very satisfied.

As an outstanding teacher, Zhan spared no pain in working out a teaching plan. Every detail showed his wisdom and care. In his personal teaching theory, he believes "there is no stupid student in the world just a stupid teacher" and "only those who know how to have fun know how to study well".

The first part of Zhan's teaching plan of "Music and Life" was "pluck music flower in the earth village", consisting of 12 lessons: path, mother, hometown, friends, love, life, nature, society, family, destiny, army spirit and national spirit.

Zhan finished the above lessons in one year. Then followed with "enter the garden of Chinese folk music" which included eight sections: history, homesickness, landscape, love, people, labor, origin as well as creation.

This part was spiced up with Zhan's eight lessons of "China's calligraphy appreciation". "Perfecting one's handwriting to foster a good temper, and overcome roughness with tenderness," he explained his thoughts in giving calligraphy lessons to the inmates. He also taught them "Chinese calligraphy and literature" and "calligraphy and painting", hoping to establish a special education field in the prison with his own encyclopedic knowledge. Moreover, he kept pursuing a childlike smile on the face of the inmates with the strength of art because he would never forget the first torturous experience and "wolf howl" he heard in the prison in 1999.

Six prisons in Nanjing accepted Zhan's education method and he went twice to the prisons each month to give lessons. His special education was widely circulated by the in-house publication, "special gardener".

Zhan Tianlai calls the inmates "fallen people", instead of "prisoners". He thinks of himself as a teacher, a friend, and a father to them. He never asks what they did but their age. Many are the same age of his son. He chose some between 16 and 25, who accidentally committed crime, from needy families or were abandoned by their parents but longed for study, to teach and provide help to. Being together, he called them their pet names. When he wrote to them, he called them friends.

On September 24, 2001, Shang Tao, a prisoner with the No. 3 Hebei Prison who loved music wrote a letter to Zhan and said: "After reading the special gardener', I found I have something to say to you: I know little about music theory and I can just play broken strings on my guitar. I wrote ten-odd songs but couldn't compose the melodies. Mr. Zhan, I hope you can teach me and give me some advice because I want to use the music to comfort every lonely and sad soul in the prison." Words followed by two lyrics of his songs, "mother" and "lovesick Milky Way".

Zhan sent the book Introduction to Music to Shang and replied, "Shang Tao, when you get into trouble, I will be a reliable friend thousands of miles away."

Later, Shang wrote to Zhan, "I want to write a series of prison folk songs. Enclosed, please find the lyrics of man's tears', beginning of life', a slave of love' and the power of love'."

After sending tens of letters to communicate with each other, on April 25, 2002, Zhan and his wife came to the prison to pay a visit to Shang. Shang was imprisoned by his mother, so Zhan wanted his wife to use mother love to warm Shang's broken heart. Zhan also brought a tape recorder to record Shang's voice and write down the melodies.

Two days passed and Zhan was going to leave. Shang wrote a song for Zhan named "a rainbow of genuine feelings on earth" in which he wrote, "Although we have never met before, you are so warmhearted to come to me from a distant place only to help realize my dream." He got the creative inspiration of his song at the moment he said goodbye to Zhan. "I've found freedom in prison. Music is my second language as I can swim in the river of Do Re Mi. My parents gave me my life, and you have given me my soul," Shang said.

Zhan rewrote lesson 13 of "Music and Life" according to Shang Tao's story and named it "path, youth and genuine feelings". He sent Shang's lyrics to the inmates of various prisons. After that, prisoners from ten-odd provinces wrote letters to Zhan to study music or ask for advice.

To date, Zhan has received a total of 295 letters from prisoners. His principle is to reply to every one of them. Everyday between 5-6 am, he gets up and writes letters. Besides which, he donates things like books, tapes, instruments, radios, social exam fees as well as kaleidoscopes to the inmates. Answering why kaleidoscopes, Zhan said, "We live in a world with thousands of colorful traps, I give kaleidoscopes to the kids and help them distinguish between good and the evil."

In 2002, Nanjing Prison awarded Zhan Tianlai a certificate of "special-grade supporting and teaching volunteer".

"For the fallen people, this certificate is a late education. For me, it is the beginning of a new life starting at the age of 60," he said, a man spending 40 years on the teaching platform.

(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, July 11, 2003)

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