Tang Jianyuan may be a nobody in China's literary world where prestigious authors and critics abound, but to his fellow inmates and wardens, his name is all too familiar.
Tang, 46, has found success as a novelist while serving a 10-year jail term in the Detention House of north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where he has written eight novels over five years.
His works, some of which are based on his personal experiences, have been published recently in a collection entitled Collected Works of China's Prisoner Author Tang Jianyuan, by the Guangming Daily Publishing House based in Beijing.
"I owe my success to the prison officers, who have treated me as human and never hesitated to show me affection and respect," Tang said Wednesday during an interview with Xinhua, "In fact, it was the wardens who encouraged me to take up writing."
Tang had been a reporter, a published poet and later a businessman in his native Hebei province, north China, before he was convicted of fraud in 1998.
Having heard rumors of how some inmates were ill-treated in prison, Tang came down with poor health and depression shortly after he heard the verdict, but soon recovered thanks to the care and attention shown by the prison doctors and wardens.
"For a time I lost my hope and thought death was the only way out," said Tang. "But the wardens all came to me with friendly words and sincere advice."
Tang still remembers very well a warden surnamed Li, who told him to "forget about giving yourself up!"
"He said all prisoners were treated as human, and that I was young and bright enough to mend my way and start a new life," Tang recalled.
The idea of writing novels first occurred to him after six months in jail, Tang said. "I wanted to write down my own experiences for my readerships, including the joy, sorrow and all the lessons I had learned over the years."
Tang said his works were mainly written for teenagers and business people, who needed, more than anyone else, to learn his lesson -- be honest and abide by the law.
However, before he could even start, news came that his wife was suffering from stomach cancer. "I was so disturbed that I thought I had to abandon my plan."
When the prison officers heard of the tragedy, they allowed Tang to pay a visit back to his hometown in the northern Hebei province.
"Tian Congying, director of the detention house, gave me 500 yuan (some US$60) out of his own pocket and told me to buy some nutritious food for my wife," he said.
Shortly after his return, Tang submitted a written application for writing novels in his spare time and soon got the green light.
"He's the first ever to write books in our jail," said Liu Minggui, deputy director of the detention house.
The prison officers arranged a workroom for him, offered him ink and paper and easy access to TV, radio and newspapers so that he would be updated on what was going on in the outside world.
One would hardly imagine Tang's cozy little place was a cell, if not for the bars on the window. The six-square-meter room is furnished with a desk, a chair and a bookshelf stuffed with books and piles of writing papers and has a smell of fragrance thanks to the pots of fresh flowers lined up on its windowsill.
"The wardens have reminded me time and again not to work too hard lest my health would be affected," said Tang, who had a heart attack in 2002, "But each time, their kind words would inject a new vitality that would enable me to work harder still."
Over the past five years, Tang has finished eight novels, eight novelettes and four poetry collections. A film production company under China Central Television has agreed to shoot a 22-episode TV drama based on his film script entitled "A Zigzagging Road to Heaven".
Tang said he attributed his transformation from a prisoner to writer to the "humane treatment" he received in jail. "I would never have made it otherwise," he kept saying.
Thanks to his superb performance, the prison authority decided in March 2003 to cut Tang's term to eight years, which was approved by the Public Security Department of the autonomous region.
Many of Tang's inmates, inspired by his enthusiasm, have given scope to their own talent in varied fields and have been approved by the prison authority as well.
Gao Wenfeng, a painter on a four-year term for larceny, put a number of his paintings on display at the Inner Mongolia Art Gallery in mid November.
Wang Fuyin, with a jail term of seven years for selling counterfeit goods, is the inventor of a patented electric foot warming device designed to help people -- the elderly and sick in particular -- keep fit, in line with a principle held by Chinese herbalists that "a cold always starts from the feet".
"We encourage every inmate to exploit their talent potential and offer them room for improvement," said Liu Minggui, the deputy director.
"By treating the prisoners humanely and showing them love and concern, we are helping them realize that we mean well and are leading them back to normal life," said Director Tian Congying, also an official with the local Public Security Department.
To treat prisoners humanely, respect their rights and encourage them to prepare for their after-jail life is the common practice in prisons nationwide.
In October, a prison in Tianjin municipality allowed an inmate to re-marry his ex-wife behind bars and even helped arrange a wedding for the reunited couple.
Meanwhile, Minister of Justice Zhang Fusen said recently the country was relocating over 700 jails from remote areas to places with better transportation by 2010, so that prisons would become more accessible to social workers and volunteers who wished to help reform criminals, as well as family members who wished to visit the prisoners more often.
(Xinhua News Agency December 4, 2003)