A Life of Nuclear Proportions

Title: Dreaming Back to 221. Images: Sepia and White Photos: Top: Men peering over metal pointed equipment. Bottom: Seven people dressed in white coats, hats and face masks each working with hands inside machines that look like modern clothes dryers.This time, it was an earth-shattering bang. The glass window behind me shattered to the ground. I felt the whole building shake and my body grew wobbly. I quickly rushed to the front door, pulled down the switch at the lab…”

-Forbidden Youth by Shijie Wei

The soul-stirring scenes depicted in Forbidden Youth, a memoir by nuclear weapons researcher Shijie Wei, replayed over and over in his mind for years. To many, his experience at the forefront of China’s nuclear testing program remained unknown and deeply mysterious. As a scientist from 1964 to 1990, Shijie Wei first wrote about his 26-year career in a short story he published on China’s Tianya website. In 2009, he serialized his account and rapidly gained a following of avid readers. So popular were his stories on Tianya’s website that their hit rate soared into the millions. Eventually, they would be published as Forbidden Youth, which was adapted for television in 2012 in the hit series Qinghai Flower on China’s CCTV8.


In 1964, Shijie Wei graduated from the Physics Department of Theoretical Physics at Shandong University. Since he and only one other classmate passed the government background check, both were recommended for a “mysterious” job. But few details were disclosed to the young scientists, only that they needed to go faraway to Qinghai Province.

Xining City, located in Haiyan County within Qinghai Province, is the base for the 221 gold and silver nuclear research facilities, commonly known as the “Nine Courtyard.” So secret is the location that it’s impossible to find its coordinates. But, as far as the eye can see, the compound is surrounded by fortifications, power grids, sentry posts, and guards with guns and gleaming bayonets.

After the first three months of security training, Shijie Wei was assigned to work with the Socialist Education Production Team, a move he describes as similar to going “down to the countryside.” Here, he met his good friends Jiang and Lin. They were in the same group of colleagues who entered 221 with him. Lin and Shijie Wei began going on dates to Qinghai Lake, where they shared a few “bottles of water” as a keepsake of their love, which seemed fashionable at the time.

Wei and Lin talked about marriage: “At the time, I didn’t have a house at the factory, so I lived in an old shed near the jobsite” said Shijie Wei. “We did some simple remodeling, installing a door and bed. There was nothing comfortable about it other than having a sufficient amount of electricity. We temporarily considered it our marital home. One day, Lin told me to look after our home, and then left on a business trip to Beijing. Who knew that this would be the last time I would see her.”

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In Beijing, Lin conducted neutron source experiments. Shijie Wei explains: “The experiment involved compressing as much nuclear material as possible and then injecting it into the nucleus. But neutron sources are highly unstable.” Tragically, Lin had an accident during one of the experiments and was badly injured. The medical treatment she received failed and she died.

Back at the base, life went on for Shijie Wei. He became a basic grassroots technician and his work number was 218 Factory Second Branch. He was primarily in charge of researching explosive materials. “Nuclear weapons are divided into two parts: the middle contains the nuclear material, and the outside is comprised of explosive materials; it is your standard high energy explosive testing,” he says. “I was the one who set the parameters for testing the thermophysical explosives: coefficient of expansion, thermal conductivity, specific heat, etc.”

The benefits a nuclear researcher received were not bad. Shijie Wei earned a monthly salary of 120 yuan (nearly $20) for the county position he held at that time. But the risks were extremely high. One of Shijie Wei’s co-workers, number 229, who worked very close to him, had an explosion. All the windows near the factory shattered and four workers were blown to pieces. The slightest mistake can cause a fatal accident at any given moment.

If the explosion is random, then it’s inevitable that radiation exists. Nuclear radiation originates from uranium 235, which is the core element of all nuclear weapons. At the time, the station’s response to an explosion was to send staff members a large number of photographic plates, plus sugar and tea. The photographic plates needed to be worn on the body every day and then taken off to be washed after work. If a photographic plate turned black, then that meant it had been exposed to radiation. It was a boorish idea, of course, to think that serving tea with sugar was any way to comfort people. “Even if the photographic plates turned black, they were still not a good solution,” asserts Shijie Wei. “At the most, the health department would do a checkup, but the risky experiments continued.”

Since Shijie Wei did research on explosive materials, he also had to bear the threat of exposure to harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetone. “At that time, the only protective measure we had in place was to wear surgical masks. During the Cultural Revolution (19661976), it was wrong to overly emphasize personal protection, and we didn’t feel any discomfort about it at that time.” But, after a few years, the effects of repeated exposure to nuclear radiation began to show its harmful effects. Many of Shijie Wei’s colleagues were suffering from liver cancer and crystallinity appeared on the retinas of their eyes.

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After the Cultural Revolution began, the nuclear research factory’s Deputy Ministers, Dongcheng Zhao and the Deputy Commander, Siling Fu, took control of China’s military. Angered by this decision, a large public riot ensued. According to Shijie Wei, “Out of more than 10,000 rioters, 50 committed suicide, 300 were wounded, and 3,000 were locked up.” When the nuclear scientist tried to help one of the protestors, he was labeled a “killer.” Of the eight people who volunteered to help during the riot, six could not withstand the torture and confessed to false charges. The remaining two were Shijie Wei and his friend Jiang. Shijie Wei was sentenced to one year and two months in prison.

Sepia and White Photo of gas masks, identification cards, signs and chines typewriter. Bottom: Photo of Shijie Wei, his wife and adult children seated in their home.26 YEARS COMPILED INTO ONE BOOK

In 1973, Shijie Wei married Weiying Chen in Mianyang, Sichuan, and had daughter, Haiyan Wei, and son, Gang Wei. During their time in Sichuan, Shijie Wei was assigned to the position of Project Group Leader for the Nine Courtyard Third Primary Institution and became a committee member for the Nine Homes Third Primary Academy.

On one occasion, Shijie Wei participated in a highly classified meeting of top-level scientists. The research content involved the future development of China’s nuclear weapons program. Shijie Wei, representing the Third Primary Institution, wrote a report about the meeting. Participants included scientists Ganchang Wang, Jiaxian Wang, Nengkuan Chen and the founding fathers of “Two Bombs, and One Satellite,” which marked the explosion of China’s first atomic bomb.

This period of Shijie Wei’s life he considers his happiest and most relaxing. The degree of secrecy at Nine Courtyard had loosened up a little, and the environment was less repressive. After work, he spent his evenings writing Forbidden Youth and completed many other popular science books.

In 1985, Nine Courtyard’s name was changed to the Chinese Engineering Physics Research Institute. Due to their reputable publications, the institute’s party secretary, Yingjie Li, transferred Shijie Wei to the propaganda department, serving as the editor in chief of the newspaper, Twilight. During this period Shijie Wei read a great quantity of documents and interviewed many relevant personnel.

It was the accumulation of his experiences during this period that influenced his decision to write Forbidden Youth. Some readers commented that, “Initially, it was the word ‘nuclear’ that attracted us, but the more we thought about it, the more we felt like what we were analyzing was not ‘nuclear,’ but the sentiment and history of the era.” The book describes the complexity of Shijie Wei’s encounters in love and life, as well as recounts in vivid, incisive detail his years of trials and tribulations.

“The book is basically a true self-portrait with a little added artistic touch,” he says, adding, “I actually did just three things with my life: nuclear research, write Forbidden Youth, and take care of my family.

Someone once asked Shijie Wei, “After writing Forbidden Youth and reflecting on the impact radiation had on your family’s health, was it all worth it?” Shijie Wei laughed and said, “Actually, there is no question of it being worthwhile or not, but from the government’s angle, I would say it was worth it. On a personal level, I would say there were no enemies to fight, but, still, I got injured.”

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In China, Shijie Wei is highly respected and admired not only for his contributions to science, but also for his steadfast devotion to his family and his positive attitude. In 2013, on a popular microblog about a festival honoring Father’s Day, a fan wrote:

“A 72 year old man, after 20 years of taking care of three sick family members and never once abandoning them, has published dozens of popular science books, given 300 plus lectures to audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and has constantly put out positive energy. When facing life’s struggles, his laugh can light up the whole universe. Is he Iron Man? God? Regardless, he is a person who cannot be defeated or daunted. This festival belongs to him, our suffering, big spirited father!”

Now long past retirement age and more than 70 years old, Shijie Wei’s challenges extend into his personal life. His son, Gang Wei, was diagnosed with a developmental disability in fourth or fifth grade. Today, at age 40, he has the intelligence of a six or seven year old.

Although Gang Wei lives in a house not far from his father, he is able to independently take care of his basic needs. “He visits everyday and asks for two yuan of pocket money to purchase White Fur Girl CDs. He likes to watch old films like Tunnel Warfare. Gang Wei also likes to listen to the radio and crank up the volume to a very high level. When the neighbors pull the plug, he cries out,” says Shijie Wei, who often has to go to his son’s dwelling place to handle disputes with the neighbors.

Shijie Wei’s daughter, Haiyan Wei, attended college, which made Shijie Wei proud. But in 2000, his daughter began suffering from abnormal symptoms, including complications with eating and sleeping, as well as delusions about persecution. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and requires medication every day.

Shijie Wei cares for his daughter on a daily basis. If Haiyan Wei wanted to eat bananas, he would hurry out to buy them for her. The first thing he does when he wakes up every morning is put her medicine on the table, with the “morning, noon, and evening” labels written on top of each lid. To the side, there would be a small amount of sugar. Sometimes the retired scientist must face some pretty awkward moments: helping his daughter take a bath or purchasing sanitary pads for her. “If it was any other 70 year old man helping his daughter change sanitary pads, he might break down,” said Shijie Wei’s assistant, colleague and good friend Yueling Wang. “Old man Wei has had to endure bitterness all his life, but he has never said that he suffered.”

In addition to his daughter, Shijie Wei’s wife, Weiying Chen, was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. His wife would sometimes be stable, but other times her illness would take over. It recently became so severe that she won’t even see Shijie Wei. “My wife is still at the hospital recuperating because she is afraid of someone harming her. When I go to see her, she won’t even agree to talk to me one-on-one. She will pull me into the hall where there are people. She will give the doctors money and tell them to take her back.”

His wife even attempted suicide. She once slit her wrist and nearly cut her arteries. Later, she developed diabetes. One time, while Shijie Wei was helping his wife comb her hair, with a clear mind, she said, “Husband, thank you for all your efforts all these years.” After hearing these words, Shijie Wei shed uncontrollable tears, feeling both bittersweet and sad.

Once some old friends suggested he give up and look for a caretaker for his family and remarry. But Shijie Wei’s response was adamant: “I have never thought of giving up, for fear that they would suffer abuse. As long as I am still alive no matter how much time I have left, I will take good care of them.”

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The retired scientist has already figured out how to take care of his children when he passes away: “Find a group of family and friends and organize a ‘monitoring committee’ as a go-to service. This would make me very satisfied.”

But even in the face of personal hardship, Shijie Wei’s days remain rich and meaningful. Aside from writing books, he volunteers to give science lectures to college students in his spare time. Sometimes he also participates in charity events. It is not unusual to see a bright smile on Shijie Wei’s face. On the microblog, Weibo, he defines himself as a “Misfortunate Old Man,” but this description, he insists, is merely banter. “I don’t really feel misfortunate. I have had fortunate moments in my life, such as publishing several books, which I believe to be very good.”

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities /Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine

Read more articles from the Jennifer Esposito Issue.

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