In July 2011, three months after this profile was written, Liao Yiwu slipped across the Vietnamese border and got to Berlin, Germany. Interviewed shortly upon arriving he said:
“I’m excited about political developments in China, and looking forward to a Jasmine Revolution. I am quite sure that Hu Jintao may be a refugee some day, but not Liao Yiwu.”
Read more about that here.
interview and photo by Brian Awehali
Q:You’ve been sentenced to four years in prison, right?
A: Yes… I’m now locked up with over twenty counterrevolutionaries who were involved in the June 4 student movement. All of them are just ordinary folks: teachers, college students, workers, migrant workers, a deputy county village chief, a tax collector, a journalist, and some unemployed youngsters…Everyone is so kind, not only to one another, but also to animals.
Let me tell you a story. One morning, a pigeon suddenly fell from the sky to the ground… its wings and legs were broken. This small accident glued all the inmates together and kept us busy for quite some time. We took turns caring for that little pigeon. One guy made a cast out of a bamboo shoot and attached it to the pigeon’s leg. Another inmate stole some antibiotic ointment and cotton swabs from the prison clinic to treat its wounds…During the next few days, we dug up worms, and saved rice, beans, and corn from our ration to feed the bird…After two weeks, the pigeon was fully recovered. It became restless and was ready to say goodbye.
[We] had an idea: Why don’t we use this pigeon to send a message to the outside world? Everyone thought it was a great idea. We found a pen and a piece of paper [and wrote a] message: “We are twenty-three political prisoners. We are in jail because of our involvement in the June 4 student movement. We aim to overthrow the totalitarian system and bring democracy to China. That’s our aspiration. We hope people outside don’t forget about us and about our fight for democracy.”We tied the paper to the leg of the pigeon and held a farewell ceremony in the courtyard. We named the pigeon our “messenger for democracy” and released it.
The pigeon circled above our heads and then up to the sky. A few minutes later, for some unknown reason, the bird came back, circled around, and flew in the direction of the correctional officers’ dorm building…”
The story above, first told to Chinese people’s historian Liao Yiwu in 1993, by a former bank official and fellow prison inmate who was not initially sympathetic to the student movement, ends with the revelation that the pigeon was a pet of one of the prison officers who, believing the bird dead, was amazed when it returned after two weeks, healthy and bearing on its leg the prisoner’s handwritten appeal to the outside world. Reprisals ensued.
When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a Chinese official, speaking to a visiting US official sometime in 2010, says, in somewhat condescending fashion, “We are very impressed with the gains your country has made in its short 200-year history,” to which the US official replies, “Yes, we are very impressed with the gains of your 60-year-old country as well.”
There are, after all, people, and then there are states. There’s the massive 5,000-year-old “culture” of China, made up of many different peoples, incorporated and renegade, spread over every conceivable terrain and holding as many or more distinct and idiosyncratic beliefs and practices as they hold in common, and then there’s “China,” the totalitarian state and its fractious apparatus. Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the latter declared a roughly thirty year war on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of the former: temples, libraries, museums and universities were razed; millions of intellectuals, professors, specialized workers, landowners, landlords and other “liberal bourgeois elements” were imprisoned or murdered. Thirty million people—the number almost defies comprehension—starved to death after the government outlawed private farms and forced farmers in the country to send unreasonable quotas of their harvest to the cities to feed urban workers during the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly transform China into an industrial power. Compounding the stark material realities of life under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, family members and neighbors were turned murderously against each other in series of state-directed ideological campaigns and “purges,” and official records and memories not echoing the government’s line were destroyed.
Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was born in 1958, almost ten years after the founding of the PRC, and his often principally embattled life and many volumes of work both cast extraordinary light on the traumatic and complex collision between the Chinese people and their modern state. He’s been imprisoned and tortured for writing and distributing his poetry, and though his work has received significant international attention and acclaim, it’s also completely banned in China.
“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several of Liao’s writer friends, at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”
In his first book to be published in English, The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up, twenty-seven people are interviewed, including a migrant worker, a bathroom attendant, a mortician, a cannibal, a street musician, a former Communist Party official, an unrepentant sex trafficker, a leper, a professional mourner and more than a few insightful lunatics. All recount, sometimes with startling candor, the dramatic ways they have been affected by changes in China. Many of the people interviewed are critical of the government, but the greater aim of most of the interviews, often artfully assembled from many different sessions over a period of weeks or months, is to explore a less obvious, deeper depiction of complicated human beings navigating often insane circumstance.
I’d read The Corpse Walker and several biographical sketches of Liao’s life before coming to China, and shortly after we met, I commented admiringly that he clearly wasn’t supposed to be here, speaking freely with me, in 2010. He was, I suggested, supposed to have starved to death during famine in 1960, or become an illiterate peasant after his parents were jailed for political reasons and he became a “wandering child,” denied the ability to attend school. Or perhaps he was supposed to lose his mind when he was imprisoned and tortured by the government for four years, from 1990 to 1994, after he published and distributed a poem dedicated to the pro-democracy protesters killed in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
“Westerners look at my background and see it as quite strange,” Liao says. “But it was the common experience of a great many Chinese. Compared to the millions who died in the famine, I’m really a lucky guy. After the famine came the Cultural Revolution [and my parents' imprisonment], but you know what happened?” Liao says, laughing. “I didn’t have to memorize Mao’s Little Red Book! I didn’t have all that brainwashing. So in some senses, I was more fortunate than you may think.”
The Little Red Book, a collection of quotes and speeches by Mao Zedong, was once required reading for every citizen; 5-6.5 billion copies of it were printed, making it the most printed book of the 20th-century.
“I became an adult during the period of Deng Xiaopeng, when the reforms started in 1978, and the atmosphere became freer. I was able to learn about [banned] western music and literature, I read poetry, enjoyed the Beatles, wrote, and my poetry became famous. But then at the end of the ’80s, I wrote my poem, ‘Massacre,’ dedicated to those who were killed at Tiananmen, for which I was sent to jail. It’s true that I suffered greatly in jail, tried to commit suicide twice, and suffered torture and almost went crazy. But I didn’t go crazy. For all of my suffering in jail, there were many people who went to jail and never got out. There were many people who died there.”
As Liao says all this, he appears relaxed and bright, and he speaks almost as much with his hands as with his mouth. He is stocky, with shaved head and alert eyes behind rimless glasses. He wears baggy earth-tone linen pants, a nondescript t-shirt and navy blue flip-flops, and only a slight limp, some dental irregularities, and what appears to be scarring on his skull betray anything of his hardships. That first day, it is sunny in a way peculiar to Chengdu and the basin in which it’s situated: ambient light filters through natural and industrial layers of monochrome haze in a way that leaves everything shadowless, the position of the sun impossible to ascertain. Locals like to tell a joke about how when the sun shines in Chengdu, dogs bark. Many factories have moved away from the area in recent years, but pollution remains a grim reality here, as it is for much or urban China; any exposed surfaces not cleaned on a daily basis, including the weary leaves of plants, are coated with gray soot.
Pointing to the construction and pollution around us, Liao quotes his 89-year-old Japanese language translator: “Even if China achieves democracy in thirty years’ time, it will be democracy for nothing, because there won’t be a single clean river, a single unpolluted sky.” A 2010 article in Environment magazine reported that in the past 30 years, the death rate due to lung cancer increased by 465 percent and has become the most deadly cancer in China. Cancer, the number one cause of death in urban China, accounts for 25% of all deaths.
Liao said one reason why people don’t really care about ruining China is that the people who are doing it live in Beijing and have two passports, one Chinese and one Western, and once China is unlivable, will just move to the West.
In contrast to gloomy topic and the haze around us, Liao glows. The other writers with us—including the fellow prisoner who told Liao the story of the injured pigeon, above—carry themselves heavier, more carefully, and make admiring comments about Liao’s gregarious nature.
* * *
While in prison between 1990 and 1994, Liao wrote a long two-volume work, Surviving (banned in China and not yet available in English), and learned to play the traditional Chinese flute (the xiao, traditionally said to call the spirits of the dead) that would help to sustain him later as a street musician. He also began what would become the second stage of his literary career by interviewing and adapting the stories of the prisoners he found himself among. When a collection containing some of these interviews, Floating: Interviews with Marginal People, was published in 1999 under the pen name Lao Wei, it became a bestseller in China. The book presented stories of outcasts, outlaws, dissidents, members of the diceng, or lower rung, the uncounted and the officially invisible, and many others for whom the much promised prosperity of life in both Mao’s regime and the business-friendly new China had remained fictive. Soon after its fifth reprinting in three months’ time, the government banned the book, ordered all copies be confiscated and destroyed, and punished the publisher who’d printed it. That same year, another book Liao published in China, The Sinking of the Holy Temple—The Legacy of the Underground Poetry of China of the 1970s, made critic’s best lists, and was also banned and placed at the top of the Chinese Communist Party’s ten worst forbidden books list.
Liao was arrested yet again, and has been many times since, as he’s continued to gather thousands more oral histories. While being denied an official living as a writer in China, he’s adapted admirably, and during many leaner years, before several successful Hong Kong, Taiwan, and foreign language editions of his work were published, he supported himself primarily as a street musician.
Later, at his house, Liao sang and played a CD of his music, and then played and passed around a harp embedded in a cross section of bamboo, an enormous harmonica from Germany, a xiao, and a bronze Tibetan prayer bowl, which he ran a wooden mallet around until it sang high like a bell. We drank more baijiu, and I kept increasingly creative time on an abacus rhythm-maker Liao handed me.
During a break in the music, I asked Liao why he hasn’t given up, why he’s kept writing.
“Having gone through these sufferings has become part of my capital as a writer, and the experiences I shared with others and what I learned from other people has become my capital as a writer too,” Liao tells me. “I’ve learned that one can go through very difficult and troubling experiences that could put one into despair, but still be able to survive, and even beyond that, find there is a need, a necessity, to survive.”
Liao laughs again. “Of course, all these different stories are basically experiences that the Communist Party forced me and many Chinese to endure,” he says. “But if it wasn’t for the Communist Party, I wouldn’t be a writer, would I? Writing is my profession and how I make money. When I’m playing my music I forget there is a Communist Party, I forget that they have taken away some of my freedoms. None of that exists, and so during that time I am free.”
Liao’s work may be banned in his own country, but many volumes of his interviews have appeared in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where they have met with great critical and popular success. In 2009, a collection of many stories from marginal people affected by the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake entitled Earthquake Insane Asylum was published in Taiwan and Hong Kong. French and German editions also appeared in 2009, though the book has yet to appear in English.
“When I came to work on the earthquake, I was already used to that kind of working style, going around talking to people, and I thought it would be a good way to help people understand what happened. The official statistics were not accurate at all!” says Liao with some force. “In China, there is what’s called the ‘floating population,’ which would include people who are, say, migrant workers, people on business trips, prostitutes, tourists, anyone who wasn’t a permanently registered inhabitant of the area. And that can be a rather large portion of the population, so the official statistics are inaccurate. I wanted to write about these marginal people, who were not being covered by other people.”
Liao estimates that over 200,000 people died in the Sichuan earthquake. The official count was 80,000, with 20,000 categorized as “missing.” After the quake, many instances of shoddy construction were documented, particularly in the rubble of schools that collapsed on the students studying inside, and calls by aggrieved family members for accountability have met with stony silence or, in some cases, charges and imprisonment for “inciting subversion.” When another Chinese writer, Tan Zuoren, who had publicly supported the pro-democracy movement before, tried to investigate and write about shoddy Sichuan school construction, he was sentenced, in early 2010, to five years in prison.
“There are were some, like democratic activist Ai Weiwei (since imprisoned and released under close police supervision), who focused on the many students who died in the quake, but he wasn’t talking about marginal people, like, for example, the prostitute I talk about in the book, or the fellow who was together with the prostitute, who wouldn’t be telling so many people he was together with her when the earthquake came and she died…No one will be telling their stories, and they won’t be counted among the dead. So I wanted to write about them.”
* * *
In April of this year, another collection of Liao’s interviews, God is Red, detailing the fate of Christian missionaries and their congregations as religion was outlawed in China, will be published in English for the first time. An English-language companion to The Corpse Walker, collecting the new stories of younger people in China, is also in the works.
Our first visit winds down after more music, many more rounds of baijiu,and ever-looser talk. I would visit with Liao several more times over the next few months, playing music, eating, drinking tea and baijiu and talking constantly through several generous interpreters. After the clip below, of Liao playing his xiao, he howled along lustily with me (left) to the chorus of The Pixies’ “Caribou,” hands splayed up in antlers from his forehead; later he passionately recited in Chinese a long Dylan Thomas poem.
At one point he off-handedly compared the relationship between the Chinese (Han) government and Tibetans and other ethnic minorities to Indian resettlement policy in the 19th-century United States. He also commented on how disappointed the Chinese laiobaixing (literally “the hundred surnames,” or the common people of China) were when Obama came to China and said nothing about human rights violations or censorship, instead talking trade and weakly saying something about how Chinese should be free to Twitter.
The last time I interviewed Liao, we were sitting at a different riverside teahouse, but the backdrop was the same as it is in much of China today: ceaselessly busy yellow or orange construction cranes sporting red Communist Party flags, towering between countless green-scaffolded skyscrapers in varying stages of completion. I asked him rhetorically why he was intent on telling so many sad stories at a time when more people have risen from poverty in China than at any other time ever, anywhere, in history, when people are making more and more money, driving shiny new cars, and wearing the latest fashions.
“Well, you have to understand that the PRC has a 60-year history, and that the methods they’ve used to rule the country for the past thirty years are the same as the ones they used for the first thirty years…
For example, when I wanted to visit and speak with a Falun Gong practitioner several years ago, the police knocked on the door and said, ‘you cannot interview that person,’ and I had to flee out of a third-story window to avoid arrest.
To talk about the last thirty years, I compare it to the way people feed a pig. They treat it very nicely. They fatten up the pig. But you see, the Communists here still want to control people’s minds. They’re still very much against freedom of thought.
Certainly, we can talk of progress. We can talk about the second thirty years of the PRC being better than the first thirty. The big difference is that in these second thirty years you’re not starving to death.
And although the Communists are determined not to allow freedom of thought, it doesn’t always have the deadly consequences it had in the time of Mao. If we were having this interview during the time of Mao, they would certainly kill me. They don’t do that today, but China is still a totalitarian country.
But is has to adapt. Today there is the internet. There is Western pressure on China, and China, because of its need for economic development and trade, needs to be part of the world. It can’t just act the way it did in Mao’s time.”
I asked Liao to speculate on China’s political future, and he chuckled. “Well, things are getting difficult for the Communist Party.” (The numbers of mass incidents, where large numbers of Chinese people are in direct, sometimes violent confrontation with the government, have been steadily increasing in recent years) ”But…” Liao shakes his head. “In terms of democracy coming to China, I am pessimistic.” Liao explains that as he’s interviewed many marginal people in China, he’s seen how many are more concerned with things like food and shelter and self-interest than they are with the progress of society or the nation.
“Many Chinese people, from top officials down, basically have these same self-interested concerns… So with that reality, it’s hard to see how China will be moving forward to democracy. There are just so few people who are interested. Then there’s the environmental devastation, misuse and poor management of resources, and the toll taken on the human soul by this system of government and thought control. Imagine that in maybe 20 years, with the environment so badly messed up, with people so disastrously educated, that even if China could become democratic, there might not be the cultural basis for real democracy. The land would be too polluted, and the people will have polluted themselves as well.”
Despite such pessimism, Liao is a friend and vocal supporter of 2010 Nobel recipient Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist who drafted and gathered supporters for Charter 08, a manifesto calling for specific democratic reforms to China’s government, for which he was imprisoned and sentenced to eleven years in prison for “suspicion of inciting the subversion of state power.”
How was it, I asked Liao, that he could speak critically, and publicly support “subversives” like Liu Xiaobo, without facing the same consequences? Where was the line for public intellectuals like himself?
“In the case of Liu Xiaobo, he had for many years been writing articles that were critical of the Communist system,” Liao explains. “But after he drafted and pushed forward Charter 08 they arrested him. [The charter] is something to replace the current system of government, and that is something the government cannot accept. That’s the line you can’t cross. You can criticize, but you can’t change.”
* * *
Liao’s energy and ox-like obstinacy seemed to be paying off in 2010, even winning over at least some of his government adversaries. After thirteen prior attempts to leave the country to attend literary events or to receive awards, the Chinese government granted Liao permission to attend the Berlin and Hamburg literary festival this past September. Before he left, he reported that one of the officials assigned to keep watch on him texted him good wishes and called his trip “a hard-earned opportunity.” The official also reportedly urged Liao to speak well of China’s modern progress.
I don’t know if Liao honored the official’s request, but in Hamburg, Liao was in high form: he spoke, sang, drank and played a mournful song on his flute before he sat down and cried while the audience applauded him for almost ten minutes.
* * *
Liao Yiwu was scheduled to visit the United States for the first time this year, to attend several literary festivals and to share some of his Chinese people’s histories in person. However, reacting to the wave of popular revolt in the Middle East and North Africa, the Chinese government has ensured that the so-called “Arab Spring” will produce no similar changes in China; a number of outspoken authors and and critics of the government who had lately been granted a sort of limited freedom of speech have disappeared into Chinese jails in 2011, and there are serious concerns about their health and well-being. If it’s spring in the Middle East, it’s definitely winter in China.
On April 1st, Liao’s supporters received an email from him.
“Friends,” it began (in translation), “I originally planned to leave for the United States on April 4th in order to make a publicity tour for my new book, God is Red, and for my [other] book, The Corpse Walker. Unexpectedly, on March 28th, the police issued an order forbidding me to leave China.”
Liao had planned to visit San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington and several other cities, to give lectures, readings and musical performances. [Liao was subsequently denied permission to visit Australia in May 2011.]
“Ever since my return from Germany last year, I have been closely monitored. The police have ‘invited me to drink tea,’ (a euphemism for being interrogated) many times, and once again I have been forbidden to travel abroad for national security reasons. Over the last ten or so years I have strived to get the right to travel abroad sixteen times. I succeeded once and failed fifteen times.”
Liao remains free, in a sense. He is closely watched, but still manages to travel throughout Sichuan province and beyond to conduct interviews. The government hasn’t deemed it necessary to disappear him into a prison, and ever more foreign editions of his books are just now reaching an audience eager to read unfiltered testimonials from the people of China. Most of his countrymen and women are forbidden to read these, their stories, but foreign editions have helped pay for the home Liao lives in. That, together with the international exposure he’s received, has given Liao a certain precarious measure of stability and protection.
For now, his dauntless effort to find and tell truthful stories about the people of his country continues.
* * *
Copyright Brian Awehali (2012)
Earlier, shorter versions of this profile appeared in April 2011, in The Progressive, (“China’s Underground Historian”) and on Counterpunch (“Drift to Live: A Profile of China’s Most-Censored People’s Historian”).