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
-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 Chinas
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 Chinas Tianya website.
In 2009, he serialized his account and rapidly gained a following
of avid readers. So popular were his stories on Tianyas 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 Chinas CCTV8.
Top-Secret, High-Risk Work
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 its 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 desribes 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 didnt
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.
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
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
Weis 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 its inevitable that radiation
exists. Nuclear radiation originates from uranium 235, which is the
core element of all nuclear weapons. At the time, the stations
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
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
(1966-1976), it was wrong to overly emphasize personal protection,
and we didnt 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 Weis
colleagues were suffering from liver cancer and crystallinity appeared
on the retinas of their eyes.
After the Cultural Revolution began, the nuclear research factorys
Deputy Ministers, Dongcheng Zhao and the Deputy Commander, Siling
Fu, took control of Chinas 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.
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 Chinas 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 Chinas first atomic bomb.
This period of Shijie Weis 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 Courtyards name was changed to the Chinese Engineering
Physics Research Institute. Due to their reputable publications, the
institutes 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
Weis 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 familys 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 governments
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.
An Optimistic, Devoted Father
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 Fathers 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 lifes 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 Weis
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 sons dwelling place
to handle disputes with the neighbors.
Shijie Weis 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 Weis
assistant, colleague and good friend Yueling Wang. Old man Wei
has had to endure bitterness all his life, but he has never said that
In addition to his daughter, Shijie Weis 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 wont 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 wont 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 Weis 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.
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 Weis 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 Weis face. On the microblog, Weibo, he
defines himself as a Misfortunate Old Man, but this description,
he insists, is merely banter. I dont really feel misfortunate.
I have had fortunate moments in my life, such as publishing several
books, which I believe to be very good..
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