21 August 2005

How Little Hou Created the Walking Telegraph Code

Day after day we racked our brains, but still couldn't find an adequate transmission method [to communicate remotely between prison compounds in Korea]. Little Hou was truly a smart fellow and engrossed in the code work most of the time. When he was eating or taking a break, he would mention to us one possibility and another, but none of them would work. Then one morning he hit on a brilliant idea, namely to simplify the Morse code as much as possible, to the degree of letting one dot or one dash stand for a numeral. This would not only speed up the transmission, but also reduce confusion. Based on this conception, he and Mushu created the Walking Telegraphic Method: the sender of the message would stand behind the window of the war criminal's cell [= the isolated cell in which Commissar Pei, the leader of the Chinese POWs, was held]. If he walked to the left side, it meant a dot; if he walked to the right, it denoted a dash; if he hunkered down below the window, that indicated the beginning of a new group of numerals. One dot meant 1, one dot plus one dash--2, two dots plus one dash--3, two dots--4, three dots--5, three dashes--6, two dashes plus one dot--7, one dash plus one dot--8, two dashes--9, and one dash--0. As a rule, every four numerals represented a word [probably = Chinese character]. After the receiver jotted down the numerals, he passed it on to the code man, who could decipher them with the aid of the codebook Little Hou was making. In reverse order to our cell, the war criminal's room had a window facing Compound 6, so they could send and receive messages from within the room. This method would definitely resolve the problem of transmission. How excited we were! We wanted to shout for joy, but we didn't dare. We only lifted Little Hou on our shoulders and walked a few rounds in the cell. Then he returned to working on the code.

When the lead in the pencil was worn down, Mushu would bite the tip sharp. As the main worker, Little Hou didn't get enough sleep, his eyes bloodshot. We worried about him, but couldn't do much to help. Without a dictionary, we couldn't remember all the essential words, but we managed to come up with over eight hundred common characters. This wasn't bad. The code shouldn't be too elaborate; otherwise it would be difficult to master. So we aimed at fewer than one thousand characters. Whenever an often-used word came to mind, we would tell Little Hou. The penciled pages looked complicated and incomprehensible to me, but Little Hou could trace what he had done to avoid repetition.

Finally a booklet--loose sheets of toilet paper bound by a shoelace--was completed, which listed all the codes and gave instructions about the Walking Telegraphic Method. We put a title on the cover: The Pei Code.
War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 224-225

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