» ART & FREEDOMS: Half a Day with Chinese People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

by Brian Awehali

[This is a continuation of my post, "The Corpse Walker: Liao Yiwu's Notes from China's Underclass" To read my long-form profile of Liao, “Drift to Live,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here.]

Excerpts from “Massacre” (by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wen Huang)

Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice…

Liao Yiwu, 2010. Photo by Brian Awehali

[Earlier this year] we joined Liao and two writer friends he’d shared imprisonment with for tea. Liao was sturdy and bald, his skin ruddy with black rimmed glasses, wore flowing linen pants and navy flip flops which displayed several blackened toenails, and he walked with a limp. I’ll call the other two PB and RG: PB, who said he had eaten much more bitterness in his life than Liao and suffered much more greatly than him, had a typical black bowl cut, glasses, pasty white skin and a shirt tucked into a belt that said “Playboy” on it over the bunny icon. He said that he wrote about his stories of being in prison every day, and that altogether he had been in for seven years. The other one, RG, who said that it was hard to describe what he writes about, had longer hair down to his ears, was pudgy with rimless glasses and wore a plaid shirt. Of the three, RG smiled the most and spoke the least.

We talked about things like Twitter in China. You can say a lot more in 120 Chinese characters than you can in 120 English characters, and Twitter is used for more overtly political purposes in China, to get around the Great Firewall, and less for inane things about where someone’s eating or what someone’s wearing. We also talked about the difficulties of publishing in China. PB had written many stories about his prison experiences, but was resigned to just sharing them with friends and family because he didn’t think he would ever find a publisher; Liao is only published by overseas presses.

At one point Liao said that Chinese view the government as the police. When I asked about Chinese anarchists, Liao replied that all smart Chinese were anarchists (“no government people”) because the government just took their money and land and enforced rules and laws. They were just the police, and didn’t care if the people were hungry or not. I asked about this because I was just then reading Yale Agrarian Studies professor James C. Scott’s excellent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland East Asia, which details how between 80 and 100 million people in East Asia fled the Han Chinese state and took to the hills (“shatter zones”) to be self-determining over the past few centuries. This includes Tibetans, the Wa, the Kachin, the Lahu and a staggering range of other East Asian “hill peoples.” I’m not positive, but given our linguistic challenges, Liao was probably characterizing “smart Chinese” as more anti-authoritarian than anarchist, but was nonetheless making a deeper point about power than can be got at by conceiving of things in terms of so-called “capitalism” or “communism.”

* * *

Liao says that the difference between him and some other Chinese writers is that Liao doesn’t tell his story or write what he thinks. He doesn’t care about that. He says: “I tell your story. I say what you think.” He has conducted hundreds, perhaps thousands of interviews, and compiled countless more stories during his travels around China, only a handful of which appear in The Corpse Walker, which focused on the older generation. He says the next book of his which will be published in the West will focus on the younger generation.

When I asked Liao if he had gone to Yushu, the site of the most recent earthquake in Sichuan, to collect stories, Liao replied that he hadn’t, because it was too far, and because him trying to talk to Tibetans would be no easier than him trying to talk to me. He had heard a story though, of the 10,000 monks who had gone to Yushu to relieve the aid efforts, carrying corpses on their backs out of the rubble. The monks had been asked by Western reporters, who had gone to the quake site looking for outbursts of emotion and tears and photos of grief but found only calm, stoic Tibetans, whether this experience would haunt them for the rest of their life. Liao said that the monks had replied that they would be fine, they were only concerned with the dead and helping them in their 49-day transition to the next world, which they said was going to be difficult because of the conditions surrounding their death and the processing of their bodies after the quake.

After several hours of drinking tea and talking by the river, Liao took us for dinner at a hotpot restaurant. (If you don’t know what hotpot is, think of a boiling cauldron of broth or oil in the center of table and a procession of vegetables and meats to dip and cook in the broth). We didn’t talk much at dinner, in part because my companion and translator was exhausted and busy stuffing her face, but I remember there was another couple present, a poet and his wife, who had ridden their shiny red bikes quite a distance to be present. They didn’t speak much until I asked at dinner if China lived up to its Communist Party-espoused ideals of male-female equality. “Yes,” she piped up. “Definitely.” Two other men poked fun at her, saying that men and women weren’t equal in her household, because she was the boss of her husband.

Conversations resumed after dinner, at Liao’s lofted top floor apartment, purchased, he said, with the money he made from the U.S. publication of his book, The Corpse Walker.

After we settled in, Liao played first the CD of his music, and then got out a Tibetan prayer bowl which he ran a wooden mallet around while he sang, followed by exertions on a harp embedded in a cross section of bamboo, an abacus used as a rhythm maker, a giant harmonica from Germany, and a traditional Chinese bamboo flute known as a xiao. My understanding is that it’s an old instrument used to call the spirits of the dead.

At dinner, Liao had insisted we drink baijiu, a Chinese rice liquor that’s stronger than vodka but slightly less potent than grain alcohol, and several rounds were consumed. Foreigners are often warned against the perils of baijiu, but I surveyed the company I was keeping, noted that I outweighed everyone else present by at least 60 pounds, and dismissed the idea that I could get myself into too much trouble. I wanted to drink and grow looser with these lovely people! Once we moved to Liao’s house, he brought out another, fancier-looking bottle of clear liquor and poured us each a cup. The heat of it spread rapidly, and as we played music and talked as best we could, I felt my inhibitions slipping.

PB grew freer and more enlivened during the evening as he played the harmonica, I kept primitive beat with an abacus, and as Liao sang and played the xiao for hours, the night grew lovelier and freer. I’d have stayed until dawn, but large amounts of baijiu and the sheer exhaustion of hours of bridging English and Chinese finally caught up, and we said our goodbyes and thank-you’s and shambled out, glowing, into the night.

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