I haven’t been able to give my dad a present since 1999, when he was wrongfully arrested in China. But when I think of my dad, there are two symbols of our deep bond that I picture: one, an old red sweater of mine, the other, a flower that I hold on to in hopes of giving to him one day soon.
My father’s name is Zhiwen Wang, and he is a prisoner of conscience. In 1999, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his belief in Falun Dafa—a spiritual practice involving meditative exercises and moral teachings centered on the values of truth, compassion, and tolerance. He was one of the first very first to be imprisoned when the Chinese Communist Party began a brutal campaign to “eradicate” Falun Gong.
I was attending university in America at the time, and it was extremely difficult to be so far away while he was suffering in the chaos of the persecution’s initial stages. The world is now all too familiar with the violence inflicted upon Falun Gong as the persecution continues even today, but in 1999, no one knew what was going on. All my news came from snippets on TV and word-of-mouth from my family.
Then one day, watching TV for any news about what was happening back home, I saw something that would change me forever: my father, standing before a judge in a sham trial, wearing a red sweater of mine.
The red sweater was given to me by my mom, but I had left it behind when I came to America to study. Even though I hadn’t intended for him to wear it, knowing that I had somewhat given him a little warmth and comfort in that cold and difficult situation eased the pain I felt.
My dad was sentenced to 16 years in prison for practicing Falun Gong. He is still in jail today. Being without him has been hard, but he continues to inspire and encourage me half a world away. I hope that I can make him proud, and I want him to know that I’ve always had him there with me at special moments in my life. At my wedding we placed a single rose on his chair to symbolize his presence and celebrate his place in my life. I continue to keep that rose safe until the day that I can hand it to him and tell him the story of his daughter growing up.
Sadly, my father’s story is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been sentenced arbitrarily to labor camps and prisons. To this day, reliable sources estimate that fully half of China’s political prisoners are Falun Gong practitioners. Torture is routine, and it is documented that over 3,700 Falun Gong practitioners have been killed as a result of abuse in custody. So many sons and daughters have their own symbols that they hold onto in place of their loved ones.
Not only has the persecution of Falun Gong locked my father away from his loved ones, it has also locked me out of my home country. I cannot return while the persecution lasts. And so I turn to symbols for other members of my family as well. One that always makes me smile is a small pendant of my zodiac sign. I’ve had it since I was child. One day my grandmother came across it when she was babysitting me and without a second thought, she chomped down on it to test if it was real gold. Today, her little teeth marks on that pendant are the closest thing I can have to a physical connection with her.
My grandmother has her own symbols too. Her husband was accused of being a “scholar” or “academic” by his coworkers during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. It sounds so ridiculous today, but those accusations led to my grandma getting coldly told one day to collect his belongings. All that was left was a blood-soaked blanket and his silver glasses.
Silver glasses, a golden pendant, a red sweater, and a dried rose—on the surface it seems they would have little in common, but they are the embodiment of the people we’re connected to by bonds that transcend borders and prison bars. And while these objects can wear, break, and wilt, the memories and spirit behind them will always be cherished.
For now, these symbols, memories, and faith are all that keep my family together. The little gifts that symbolize our love are true treasures, but I would trade them all and so much more for the warm embrace of a loving father once again.
Danielle Wang is the daughter of Zhiwen Wang, a Chinese prisoner of conscience. She currently resides in New York.