TWO CASES OF SUICIDE IN CHINA
By Wu Fei
Both the police and hospitals have a partial connection to suicide because suicide is related to death and health, but neither social system is concerned with the domestic injustice that often underlies the suicide of the patient whose interview with me remained incomplete.
The students in Gouyi Middle School were horribly frightened by what they saw in May 1998, although many of them enjoyed the fact that classes had been canceled for three days.
The entire campus was filled with a foul odor. A coffin had been sitting between two buildings for several days, and some murky liquid was oozing from it. Beside the coffin, a woman in her forties was screaming in a hoarse voice, "My son, why have you left me so early? How do you want your mother to spend her remaining days? My son, tell me why you died, and I will take revenge for you!" Several strong men were sitting beside this woman.
In an office of the school, a man in his forties was smoking quietly. A female teacher occasionally murmured, "Headmaster, I did not fine him, and I really have no idea why he hung himself." The headmaster said, "Yes, I know you are innocent, but what can we say to his mother?" Unable to respond, the woman was weeping: "They had already buried Haopeng, and who could have expected that they would exhume his body? It is already the third day, and we cannot hold our classes due to this trouble." The headmaster said, "Well, the students are scared by this, and we cannot resume classes until we have solved this problem. Now our only hope is the Bureau of Public Security."
This was one of the first scenes that I encountered on my trip to study suicide in Mengzou County of North China. Haopeng, a middle school student, had been found hanging from a rope in a small storeroom in the middle school on May 1, 1998. I carefully examined his police files, more than 30 pages of documents, including many police interviews. Included in the report were maps of the school and pictures of a small room where the corpse was found, along with detailed pictures of the corpse. The chief aim of these files was to determine whether the boy committed suicide or was murdered. Interviews with his teachers and friends helped the police determine when people saw him last and when he might have committed suicide. Some interviews focused on his teacher's treatment of the students, because the teacher was reputedly quite strict. Sometimes she fined the students for misbehaving. In the interviews the students tried to recollect whether she had fined Haopeng before his death. It was eventually revealed that the boy was fined some money a month before his death, but that he had made no mistakes after that. The teacher had scolded six students the afternoon prior to the holiday of May 1, but Haopeng had not been among them. The files seemed to absolve the teacher as a direct cause of the suicide.
Some people suspected that Haopeng had been murdered, but their suspicion was forcefully refuted by the police findings and the forensic examiner. Judging by the wounds on his neck, Haopeng did die from hanging, and there could not have been anybody else in the small room when he died. Haopeng's parents argued that the school was responsible, even if Haopeng had not been murdered. They said there was a note in his pocket when his corpse was discovered. His parents said that Haopeng must have been complaining about the school in the note, and this was the real reason for his suicide. They claimed that the teachers in Gouyi Middle School destroyed the note immediately to avoid blame or responsibility for Haopeng's death. The policemen searched further for the note and finally found it in a corner of the room. All it contained were some mathematical formulas on it, and it had nothing at all to do with his suicide, according to the police. Haopeng's parents, however, claimed that there had been another note, which had been destroyed.
When Haopeng was found dead, both his parents and the school were thrown into confusion. The official verdict of suicide was submitted by the forensic examiner, whose opinion was respected by all parties involved in the case. As for whether the school played a role in his death, there was no concrete proof to either deny or confirm it. Although his parents eventually agreed that he had committed suicide, they insisted that his death must have been related to the school. But they did not complain too much at that time and sorrowfully buried Haopeng. One of their relatives, however, suggested that they challenge the school: "We cannot dismiss the case so early. We must do something." Hence, they exhumed the coffin and carried it onto the campus, insisting that they would avenge their son. Haopeng's mother sat beside the coffin and screamed every day.
When talking about this event, some policemen said, "Haopeng's mother was not a reasonable woman. People in their village said that she was a difficult person and could not get along with most people. Since she shouted shamelessly, what could we do?" Although many villagers said similar things, there was also another opinion: "Haopeng's death is a mystery. There must be something unjust behind it. In such an unjust society, where can you see something just?"
Haopeng's suicide was a mystery, and nobody could explain it. People seemed to take for granted that Haopeng was mistreated by someone and suffered some injustice. Although nobody was found to be directly responsible for his misfortune, he was a student and had died in the school; hence it was logical for people to think that he was mistreated at the school. The teachers and policemen tried to tell me how unreasonable his parents were, but they had to seriously consider the parents' concerns. Whether Haopeng was murdered by someone in the school or pushed to commit suicide by the school seemed to imply the same thing: he suffered injustice at school. Even people who disliked his parents believed that it must be some injustice that caused his mysterious death. However reluctant they were, the policemen had to ask the school to pay some money to Haopeng's family as formal compensation. Nobody ever imagined that Haopeng might have committed suicide due to a personal problem or even mental disorder. There is not a single word about this in the boy's thirty-page file. Here, suicide is seen only as a matter of injustice.
Another set of files brought me to the home of another grieving family in Shouzhen village in the winter of 1999. Although it was only several days before the Spring Festival, nobody in this family was happy. An old man was even reluctant to post red couplets or the decorative character of fu (good luck) on the front door, which he did every year before the lunar New Year. Instead, he was thinking about how much paper money he should burn for Zhuilu, his granddaughter, on New Year's Eve. He burnt paper money every New Year's Eve, but he had never thought about burning it for his granddaughter, who was more than fifty years younger than he. He was also thinking about his son, who had died twenty years before. He had raised Zhuilu because her father had died early and her mother had remarried. Thinking about Zhuilu's parents and her unfortunate marriage, the old man, moreover, cursed Zhuilu's husband, "Zhuilu would not have committed suicide if she had not married him. Perhaps it would not have happened if I had not let Zhuilu return to his home. Why did I let her leave?" While he was regretting his action, his wife came back and told her husband, "I heard that the result of the experiment has come out, and the pills were found not poisonous." "Really?" the old man was astonished, "Then Zhuilu was not killed by the pills?" "Well," the old woman said, "I think you should go to the Bureau of Public Security to ask." "Right," the old man said, "We cannot let that lousy beast off the hook. I will go to the Bureau of Public Security."
In the police records, I read several letters the old man had written to the Bureau of Public Security, in which he insisted that his granddaughter did not commit suicide, but was murdered by her husband. He argued that her husband had mistreated Zhuilu for a long time, that he had said several times he would kill her. The man often visited prostitutes, and Zhuilu was very sad. When she came to visit her grandfather shortly before her death, the old man persuaded her to divorce her husband. She had almost decided to leave her husband when he forcibly took her from her grandfather's home. Therefore, according to the old man, his granddaughter was definitely murdered by her husband.
In addition to the old man's letters to the police, I read some descriptions of Zhuilu's death written by the police. On the night of her death, her husband and his friends were playing mahjong in their house; Zhuilu was quite sad, according to her husband. She visited her husband's sister and then returned home. Her husband followed her into their bedroom. Seeing a bottle in her hand, he realized that she must have taken some pills. "Did you take sleeping pills?" "Yes," she allegedly answered. Her husband became distraught, and along with his friends carried her to a nearby hospital, where the doctors pumped her stomach. They found that she had ingested some unknown pills. The doctors did not know how to treat such a case and suggested that Zhuilu's husband go to a bigger hospital. When they arrived at that hospital, Zhuilu was already dead.
Both the police and her relatives assumed that Zhuilu committed suicide by taking pills that had poisoned her, and she was soon buried. The doctors sent the pills to a laboratory for analysis. Nobody expressed skepticism until the analysis came back one month later, proving that the pills were not poisonous. Since Zhuilu had been buried for some time, it was not possible to perform an autopsy. Hence her death became a mystery. When Zhuilu's grandparents got the news, they sued her husband for murder. The police investigations tell us that the husband had no opportunity to kill his wife, as there were many people around that night. It was possible that the woman took some other poison, but this could not be proven. The old man wrote the police the first letter when the investigation came to a standstill. The policemen said that Zhuilu's relatives were too upset to accept the police's conclusion, but it was also possible that they simply wanted some money from her husband.
The policemen showed great sympathy for Zhuilu and her grandfather. They thought that Zhuilu's husband was responsible for her misfortune, but they did not have enough proof to punish him. Perhaps even the old man himself knew that his grandson-in-law had little chance to murder Zhuilu, but he wanted to avenge her by punishing her husband.
When I read the old man's letters, I found that all the evidence he had marshaled was insufficient to prove that her husband had killed Zhuilu. Rather, it seemed to prove the opposite: namely, that Zhuilu had suffered for a long time and had ample personal reason to commit suicide. The old man complained that her husband had often beaten and cursed her; he did not take care of her and had even openly threatened to kill Zhuilu. Although he said this, it did not appear to be a serious threat. Despite the old man's complaint, Zhuilu did not seem to have been murdered.
Although injustice is implied in both cases, these cases contain some important contrasts. While Haopeng's parents had no concrete proof that Haopeng had suffered injustice in the school, the police had to consider their protest seriously. Although Zhuilu's grandfather was sure that Zhuilu's husband had mistreated her, there was no way for the police to avenge Zhuilu. In Haopeng's case, no matter whether Haopeng was murdered or committed suicide, the school would be punished; but in Zhuilu's case, her husband would not be punished if she had committed suicide.
Haopeng's parents eventually received some money from the school and removed the coffin from the campus, but Zhuilu's case ended up without a definite conclusion. Why did Haopeng's family succeed with their tenuous argument, but Zhuilu's family could not punish a man who obviously was the source of her grievance? In order to understand the difference, we should inquire deeper into the concepts about suicide in the local society.
I interviewed an expert in forensic medicine, and he showed me the records of unnatural deaths in Mengzou between 1995 and 2001. Among them were more than forty cases of suicide, which I assume to be less than the actual number during this period. "Well," he said, "we cannot record all the cases of suicide. We record only when someone reports a case. For instance, if an unknown corpse is found, if there is a debate about the actual cause of death, or if there is any other factor related to the law, we will investigate and record. We have no responsibility to record or investigate suicide, because it is not a legal affair. In a word, we are only responsible for deciding whether a case is suicide or homicide. We would continue to investigate only if a case turns out to be murder or if there is a disagreement about the findings. If it is a case of suicide and there is no debate about it, we will stop." "Do you have the statistics on suicide?" I asked. "No. How can we have that? We know the number of households and the population of every village. We also know the number of deaths and births each year, but we do not worry too much about the causes of death. How can we know how many people commit suicide every year?"
The forensic medicine expert made a distinction between homicide and suicide, but Haopeng's case indicates that sometimes suicide is regarded as very similar to homicide. The different endings to the stories of Haopeng and Zhuilu imply different views of injustice in the local society. One might suffer injustice when committing suicide, or if one is murdered, but the injustice of homicide is not always the same as the injustice of suicide. If Haopeng was forced into suicide by an injustice that he suffered at school, then in a sense he was killed by the school. In this case, the injustice of homicide is the same as the injustice of suicide. In contrast, although Zhuilu allegedly suffered injustice at home, it was more likely that she had committed suicide. The injustice described in the old man's letters was strong enough to induce her to commit suicide, but had no bearing on whether her husband wanted to kill her or not. Here the injustice of suicide is different from the injustice of homicide. I would define the two types of injustice as "public injustice" and "domestic injustice." Homicide and suicide that occur in the public spheres are considered public injustice, while suicide that occurs in domestic domains is considered domestic injustice. When homicide is committed by a family member, domestic injustice might be transformed into an issue of public injustice; I will explain this in more detail in chapter ten.
In China, the police are officially known as gong an ju, or the Bureau of Public Security. The police are responsible for public injustice, not for domestic injustice. They could treat Haopeng's case because it involved public injustice and threatened public security. Zhuilu suffered serious injustice, but it had nothing to do with public injustice, and the police were not responsible for bringing anyone to justice. In order to further understand this problem, I examined records and interviewed medical staff in the emergency room in the county hospital.
The records of the emergency room are more systematic than that in the police files. In the record from 2000, there are 499 cases of hospitalization, including 114 cases of suicides and attempted suicides. In other words, in that year 25% of all hospitalizations were suicide cases. In the records from the first six months of 2001, 357 people were hospitalized; among them were 65 cases of suicides and attempted suicide. Of all these cases, however, only four cases were successful suicides. A doctor told me why most of their cases are attempted suicide cases: If a person has not been too seriously injured, or if someone is too seriously injured to be healed, he or she is not sent to the hospital. When a hopeless suicide case comes to the hospital, and the doctors do not do anything for the patient, the hospital does not record it. The hospital records only suicide patients who have stayed for a period of time in the hospital. When a patient who has attempted suicide is admitted to the hospital, it is not likely that he or she will die. "Our medicine is not that bad," said the doctor, "most patients do not die in our hospital."
I could not find any data concerning the causes for suicide in their records. "We don't care about that. Our responsibility is to cure and save them. It is not our business to investigate why people commit suicide." "So you never ask about the cause when a patient comes?" "Sometimes we also chat with them, but in most cases, we only care about their physical conditions."
Like the police, the hospital is a public entity. Although each institution does not concern itself with justice, its duty is to defend people from unexpected danger. The police are responsible for defending people against crimes, and the hospital, diseases. These two public units are supposed to secure basic safety and health for people, but are not responsible for their domestic affairs or personal happiness.
The doctors permitted me to interview some patients. In the white uniform of a doctor, I went to interview a woman who was around thirty years old. At that time, her husband and her mother were at her bedside. The doctor told her that my interview was a part of the treatment.
Dushu / Beijing
Published there 06/07/07
on corpus 23.9.2007