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Zhang: The Case Of Interesting Return

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On April 11, 1994, a man living in Lüchong Village, China sent his child off to school for the day and when the child was returning home from school they saw a floating object in a pond that seemed to be a person. The child hurried over to the village chief to report the discovery who accompanied the child to the pond and they observed the object for a while before eventually concluding that it was certainly a dead body prompting the involvement of the police.


The police utilizing help from the local villagers managed to retrieve the corpse and bring it to dry land to start their examinations. The body was decomposed and the face was rather swollen but police could still tell that the body belonged to a woman. They inquired the villagers if they knew the woman but they said they had never seen her before and that she wasn’t a local as nobody in the village was reported missing. The police also examined the clothing of the woman but they gave no clues as to her identity. The investigation was short-handed over to The Jingshan County Public Security Bureau.

The Public Security Bureau dispatched investigators to the scene but discovered no physical evidence at the scene which could clarify the woman’s death. The woman was 155 cm tall and she was wearing a yellow wool vest, a black-bottomed safflower shirt, a bra, black bodybuilding pants, black leggings, blue shorts, eggplant-colored warm shoes, and red and black socks. An autopsy observed that she had sustained 6 wounds to the back of her head and that her skull had been wrecked with the coroner ruling that it was highly unlikely that the wounds were from an accidental fall and instead ruled them as blunt force injuries although he was incapable to assume whether the reason of death was head injuries or if she had drowned. Further examinations ruled that the deceased was around 30 years old and founded on her clothing and the condition of her corpse she had been dead for 2 months. Another clue though was that after examining her sexual organs she concluded that the woman had previously given birth sometime before death.

One issue nonetheless confused the police. The pond the body was discovered was rather small and although located on the side of a mountain the pond was still a high trafficked area where many of the villagers went fishing so if the woman had been dead for two months she should’ve been discovered much sooner and although putrefaction could cause a corpse to float to the surface it generally wouldn’t happen in such a quick amount of time and since the pond is encircled by land on all sides it would be unthinkable for it to have drifted into the pond from elsewhere but the body did indeed come from somewhere else. Since the body could not have drifted into the pond that means that somebody had to put it there but the question now being put to the police was why the criminal waited 2 months after she had perished to dispose of her in the pond. The case was determined to be a murder.


Due to the low murder rate in the region, the case was made a priority and a task force was set up to bring the case to a conclusion. The priority was to recognize the corpse so they sent out a notice to Yanmenkou Township and its nearby villages asking residents who had a woman go missing to come forward and this would produce a lead soon after. As a woman came forward to report her daughter Zhang Zaiyu as missing, the police later inquired them to come to recognize the body with Zhang’s mum and her oldest brother show up at where her body was being held.

Pic: China Daily

The police asked them to describe Zhang and they stated that the date of her disappearance was January 20, 1994, she was 29 years old, 155 cm tall, she was neither fat nor thin, had a round face, short hair, and a slightly upturned nose. The mother also added that her daughter was fashionable and her ears and eyes were pierced. Furthermore, Zhang had also had a lateral incision operation due to dystocia when she gave birth. Sources range on the police’s conduct afterward with some stating that Zhang’s family never actually saw the corpse and recognized her based on the police describing it to them while others state that they pressured them into recognizing the body as Zhang. From what I can tell this is what happened.

Zhang’s mum tearfully but wordlessly recognized the body as her daughter while her brother was reluctant and said that the body looked like his sister but that he couldn’t be certain and that the clothes she was wearing didn’t appear to belong to Zhang. The police urged him to rethink but he refused and asked if there was another way to recognize the body. The police mentioned cranial image overlap or DNA testing but there were no locals capable of doing it and specialists from Beijing would need to be called in to do it the cost was extensive and 20,000 yuan would be necessary. The police also stated that they would not pay for it and if the family liked to go this route they’d need to fund the tests on their own to which Zhang’s brother stated that they didn’t have that money and were already struggling. As for Zhang’s mum, she had stopped moaning and conceded just like her son that the clothes did not belong to Zhang. The police nonetheless dismissed this by stating that the person was recognized not the clothes and that Zhang’s mum did recognize the body as her’s and that clothes could also be changed. The police also tracked down Tang Xiaoqing one of Zhang’s co-workers who also recognized the body as Zhang.


The coroner after this news examined the body for a second time to match the corpse to Zhang and assumed that she matched the description of Zhang given by her family, the post-mortem interval matched with the date of Zhang’s disappearance, had a similar appearance including upturned nostrils, there was a car to the left labia from an operation after childbirth (although some sources state this wasn’t present on the woman), the length of her hair and the manner of which it was tied matched up, the heights were both the same, Zhang wore earrings before her disappearance and the woman had had her ears pierced, Zhang and the woman had the exact black bodybuilding pants (Since Zhang’s family stated that the clothes did not match Zhang I assume the police lied or mislead the coroner), Zhang did not wear long johns and none were observed on the woman’s body. The coroner nonetheless ended the report by stating that this was a formal and not conclusive investigation and that cause of death, precisely how long she had been dead, and how the body ended up in the pond were still unknown.

The police now thought that they recognized the body they could proceed with the investigation in a meaningful fashion and began interviewing Zhang’s family again her mum stated that ever since she had first gone missing she had always believed that she had been killed and her mum described her background. She was described as a smart and studious woman who had three brothers and a half-sister. After she finished high school she didn’t seek higher education and instead entered the Yanmenkou Machinery Factory to start working and providing for her family.

Later she met a former soldier and a man named She Xianglin (Born March 7, 1966), SHE was described as physically powerful, intelligent, and capable and also had martial arts training although he didn’t have a high school level education. The two would get married on September 18, 1986. SHE nonetheless didn’t want to just stay in their rural village and always wanted to venture outside for better opportunities. He began in 1987 working as a security guard for The Yanmenkou Town Building Materials Factory before eventually leaving the village in July 1990 and going to the Gaoguan Reservoir police station to become a security officer. In he relocated again in January 1993 going to the Madian police station as a security patrol with the two having a daughter somewhere in the meantime.

Due to his job, SHE was hardly in the village and thus rarely with his wife although this is not a fact that Zhang frequently complained about and it looked to many like their marriage was a happy one but of course there was trouble behind the scenes. Most of the problem was centered around their financial situation as SHE during his job on security patrol made 100 yuan a month but he would expend his paycheck every month instead of saving it and one time would spend 1000 yuan that the family had been saving over the years. SHE was also short-tempered and impatient so he and Zhang got into several verbal arguments although Zhang usually backed down once things got really bad to not end the relationship.

In 1991 SHE would end up engaging in an act of infidelity as while he was on the job he met a girl named Chen who he helped out and briefly fell in love. Once Zhang heard of this she took it surprisingly well and met up with Chen and the two had a friendly and understanding chat together SHE after hearing about this was rather moved and felt very guilty expressing this to his wife. He was forgiven and the relationship survived this episode.


Zhang’s mental state would shortly decline as in 1993 the working conditions at the factory she worked at started to heavily worsen and the employees including Zhang started facing layoffs this pressure combined with depression (not sure if it was diagnosed or not) took a toll on her mental state. She at times would suddenly act extremely anxious and inexplicably forget crucial things with the quarrels between her and SHE becoming more frequent. She would also become paranoid and delirious telling her mum that she felt she was about to die and in October 1993 fell unexpectedly ill and needed SHE to care for her.

As mentioned Zhang would unexpectedly go missing on January 20, 1994. According to SHE Zhang had run away in outrage after another argument but Zhang’s family did not believe him and even suspected him of being involved. Zhang’s mum went to SHE’s home and discovered no evidence of foul play she did notice that despite being winter all of Zhang’s coats were still home. SHE stated that he believed Zhang would come back in a few days but after a week her disappearance was reported to the police but it’s unknown what action was taken.

After learning these details from Zhang’s mum the police had heard all they needed and considered SHE as their main suspect. The police interrogated SHE’s coworkers and according to them, he said after Zhang fell ill ” I want to be rid of Zang Zaiyu” SHE’s behavior during search efforts was also not very encouraging with him spending most of the time drinking heavily and sleeping through the nights fully clothed. Nonetheless, to the police, this unverified circumstantial evidence was more than enough and SHE was apprehended. On April 12 the police in Madian forcibly brought SHE to a hotel and placed him under “residential surveillance” where they told them about how Zhang was dead. SHE was shattered and asked to see her body but the police denied this demand stating that the travel time would be too long and instead interrogated him about her disappearance.

SHE told the police about Zhang’s mental disease and how she had run away from home after an argument. The authorities inquired about the state of their relationship SHE said that it was nice despite the occasional quarrel and rejected any unfaithfulness on his part but after fierce interrogation, he confessed to the police about Chen but stated that he cut off all contact with her. The police did not believe him and bluntly asked him to describe how he murdered Zhang. SHE repeatably refuted murdering Zhang and reiterated how she had run away and kept asking to see Zhang’s body and when the police kept denying this request he started to believe that the body had been misidentified and that Zhang was still alive. SHE was officially placed under arrest and brought to a police station. Meanwhile, the coroner had given an update to his report pointing out that due to diatom substances discovered in the abdomen of the woman she was still alive when she entered the pond (causing the question of how she hadn’t been found before being asked again) meaning that the reason of death was drowning. He also stated that identification could be obtained in a few days.

SHE’s family was queried and they too requested to see Zhang’s body as well since they were family friends but this request was denied. SHE’s mum then asked to see her son and the police rejected this request as well. When the family was questioned they too stated that Zhang had run away and that they had even spotted her twice. The police didn’t look like to listen though and continued their scrutiny but discovered no evidence of foul play inside the house and searched the forest, mountains, and even other villages in case a murder weapon or any other evidence was disposed of but they turned up nothing.

The police then went to Gaoguan to track down and interview Chen having extracted testimony from the residents about their relationship and where to discover Chen. SHE confessed to having sexual relations with SHE and that he had gone over to her during Zhang’s disappearance various times to ask her to marry him something the police considered to be the smoking gun.

SHE was ruthlessly interrogated for 10 days straight before he eventually broke and admitted stating that he didn’t want to be with Zhang anymore due to her mental disorder and that he had murdered her to be with another woman. SHE nonetheless had given four different confessions with the details of all of them being different. The first confession was on April 15 nonetheless the police did not accept this confession particularly since it didn’t include disposing of the corpse and the investigator said this to him “You think we don’t know what you’ve done. Let me tell you, you buried the body in the soil, we can dig the ground up to three feet. You sank the body in the water, we can pump the water dry. Do you understand? Drain the water!” they then demanded that he give a different confession.

On April 17 SHE gave his second confession clarifying how he and his friend Wei Ge beat Zhang to death with stones outside a water pump station and then threw her body into a well. The police were skeptical of this confession too but if Zhang was murdered in the pumping machine room it would clarify how she had been in the pond for 2 months without being discovered so the police looked into this confession. Their investigation assumed that the pumping station could not be the murder scene because the door was locked during the day and during the night some villagers were known for sleeping in there they also ruled Wei innocent so the police demanded he alters his confession again with the investigator telling SHE not to “Make a fool out of himself” and saying “Don’t play dumb! Is there only water in the well? There is no water in the reservoir? Is there no water in the reservoir? The water in the reservoir can also be drained! Do you understand?” the police than resumed.

The police nonetheless would soon get an answer to one of their substantial questions as they returned to the pond to look for physical evidence and they did indeed discover some fishing out a snakeskin bag with four stones and twine rope wrapped around it. Since the official reason for death was drowning the police concluded that he had beat Zhang into unconsciousness before filling the bag with stones, tieing it to Zhang, and pushing her into the pond causing her to sink and drown. This also explained once and for all how the body could be in the pond for two months and not be discovered. The impact of the water flow combined with the body’s buoyancy increasing after decomposition resulted in the rope snapping and the corpse floating back up to the surface. The police informed SHE of this and ordered him to give his third confession with the investigator stating “Don’t be like squeezing toothpaste, say a little at a time.” they then offered leniency in sentencing if he gives a valid confession.

On April 19 his new confession stated that again he and Wei brought Zhang to the valley where they proceeded to whip her to death with stones and sink her corpse into the pond. This confession was too rejected as Wei had already been declared innocent due to being hospitalized during Zhang’s disappearance so they again ordered him to alter his confession to only include the involvement of a single person. And so SHE gave his fourth and final confession on April 20 with this confession mostly being similar to his last but with a few minor differences and altered to reflect him acting alone. This was the one eventually accepted by the police and on April 28 the case was deemed solved and SHE was officially charged with the killing of Zhang Zaiyu.

On May 17 the case was then sent the case to the prosecutor and they were not happy with what they had been given discovering the evidence circumstantial and deeming SHE’s confession unreliable citing how he gave 4 different ones with a reliable confession only being given after the police told him everything. The prosecution rejected to bring the case to trial and told the police to proceed to investigate. The case was resubmitted on August 28

Before the prosecution could reach a ruling the relatives of Zhang began a joint letter amongst the village which was signed by 200 people with the letter saying that SHE was morally deprived, a drunk who picked fights and that he murdered his mentally ill wife so that he could have an affair with his mistress. Zhang’s family and the villagers in turn put pressure on the local government to have SHE punished harshly who then put pressure on the prosecution essentially forcing them to bring the case to trial regardless of the evidence they decided they had sufficient evidence to move forward on September 22 and the trial started on October 7.

At the trial, SHE had retracted his confession and claimed it was extracted by the police. The defense argued that all the evidence was circumstantial with the only credible proof being the retracted confession that SHE alleged was a result of police torture and how he gave 4 differing confessions with the prosecutor picking and choosing the one that worked best with his case rather assuming why he gave different confessions. On October 13 SHE was sentenced to death.

SHE’s mum during this time was investigating of her own as when she was eventually allowed to visit her son she believed his story about Zhang having run away and set out to find her knowing that would prove her innocence. In December 1994 SHE’s mum got a lead as in Yaoling the villagers told her that two months prior a mentally sick woman entered the village and she wouldn’t speak to the villagers or eat and drink with her sleeping at a cemetery. The villagers felt pity for her and gave her clothes and food with one letting her stay in her home for two days before she left with none of the villagers knowing where she went afterward. The villagers described her as very comparable to Zhang and even spoke in the accent of her native village. SHE’s mum had everyone in the village including the chief sign this and returned home with it as proof but nobody accepted it either arguing that it was someone else the villagers had seen or even that she had fabricated the story and signatures.

As for SHE, since he was sentenced to death that means according to Chinese law a higher court must review and approve his sentence and in a rare move, the higher court dismissed the sentence on January 10, 1995, stating that the evidence was too inconclusive pointing out SHE’s inconsistent statements and confessions, How only one confession was selected as the real one despite the four varying ones, A lack of killing weapon as despite SHE claiming to have beaten her with stones said stones were not discovered (they were determined to be different from the ones used to sink her body), the location where Zhang’s clothes were changed and how the prosecution and police never ruled out other suspects or likelihoods. Despite Zhang’s relatives and 220 villagers forming a petition to demand SHE’s swift execution the Hubei Provincial Court held their ground and firmly reiterated that a death penalty case needs “ironclad evidence” they then ordered the prosecution and local courts to hold a retrial.

The prosecution and local courts disagreed with their decision but since they knew the death sentence would be struck down again they just refused to hold a retrial and the case was held in limbo while the prosecutors faced pressure from Zhang’s family to have SHE murdered while SHE’s family were demanding acquittal founded on insufficient evidence and sightings of Zhang still alive. The biggest evidence in favor of SHE’s innocence was the letter signed by another village claiming to have noticed Zhang so the prosecution signed an arrest warrant and the police detained SHE’s mum and brother for 9 months and 40 days respectively due to their constant petitioning for SHE’s release. SHE’s mum perished only a few months after being released. Afterward, the police and prosecutor then went to the other village and demanded that the villagers chance their testimony and when they refused they were arrested for perjury and kept in detainment for three or more months with some fleeing their houses after release.

While in jail SHE wrote various diaries where he elaborated on how the police tortured him beating him to the point where he couldn’t stand or walk and had even lost a part of his finger, only authorized to eat two meals a day, and was forbidden from drinking or sleeping. He also explained how his confessions were coerced one time the police asked him to draw a map of where he disposed of Zhang’s corpse and when he couldn’t do it due to having never been there before the police showed him the area on the map and asked him to draw it and once they did they recorded it as evidence and a part of his confession

On November 23, 1997, SHE’s case was ordered to be given a retrial and on June 15, 1998, he was sentenced to 15-years-imprisonment as opposed to death. SHE appealed this conviction and thus another petition organized by Zhang’s family and the other villagers was formed to pressure the court into dismissing the appeal and they did dismiss it meaning that this judgment was final.

And that would’ve been that not for what happened on March 28, 2005, when a woman entered the village and headed to the home of Zhang’s family after entering everybody looked at her amazed by her simply saying “I’m back” this woman was Zhang Zaiyu still very much alive. Zhang didn’t understand why everyone was so stunned to see her and even reminded her brother about how she wrote a letter to him before. Her brother did receive such a letter but ignored it as a tasteless joke and threw it away without telling anybody. Zhang quickly asked where SHE was and when she found out where he was she wanted to know why he was in jail not knowing that she was considered a killing victim with her husband serving a jail sentence for said murder. Zhang instantly left to report to the police and prosecutor’s office that she was alive and they were all equally surprised but did the relevant tests to substantiate she wasn’t an imposter and when the DNA tests came back they did indeed show that the woman before them was Zhang.

On March 30 the judgment against SHE was quashed and another retrial was ordered with SHE’s acquittal being a forgone conclusion. On April 1 SHE was released on bail pending the retrial with SHE having lost most of his hair while imprisoned. Zhang meanwhile had to be committed to a mental hospital due to psychological stress while reporters swarmed to ask her a barrage of questions about where she had been for those 11 years. Once she was discharged from the hospital she clarified that she really did run away but due to her mental disorder and later amnesia she didn’t know who she was and later remarried to another man in Shandong province and had a son with him. Zhang slowly began remembering bits and pieces of her old life over the years and even her old life but she was hesitant to return home assuming everybody had moved on.

On April 13 SHE was declared not guilty at his retrial with the judge determining and the defense arguing that not only was SHE obviously for very clear reasons not guilty of killing his former wife but also that he was not guilty of murdering the now unidentified woman either with him having zero involvement in her case. After his acquittal, the first thing SHE did was visit the grave of his mum who protested his innocence to her grave. On September 2 SHE rewarded 700,000 yuan in compensation with SHE being satisfied with the yuan and his acquittal. SHE stated that he did not blame Zhang for what happened and instead placed the blame for his plight on judicial corruption.

On May 24, 2005, one of the police officers involved in the preliminary investigation and interrogation of SHE named Pan Yujun committed suicide. From what I can tell Pan facing disciplinary hearings was just an example of any police officer being punished for what happened during this case.

Although SHE holds no ill will against Zhang the two have not spoken much since his exoneration and SHE has no purpose in attempting to remarry stating that she already has a new family now.

The big unanswered question is now who the unidentified dead woman was and who the real murderer was. Sadly this question has not been answered and although there were a re-investigation very few details are known about it. The only lead as to the individuality of the woman was how during the initial investigation a second family had come forward stating that their relative was also missing but they only came forward once the police were already sure about Zhang being the owner of the body so they were ignored and disregarded. It is unknown if the police tracked them down to question them again but recent articles written in the 2020s state that she is still unrecognized.

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