Three months after this was written, Liao Yiwu escaped China and sought asylum in Germany. He has also since released a vivid memoir of his years in detention, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.
interview and photos by Brian Awehali
“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several friends at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”
When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a PRC 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 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its fractious apparatus.
Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the PRC, a roughly thirty year war was declared on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of China: 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.
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.
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 today, speaking freely with me. 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 gray “Great Pro-Am Longboard Classic” t-shirt and navy blue flip-flops. 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 of 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 the gloomy topic and the haze around us, Liao glows. The other writers with us 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, or xiao, 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 detained and held under house arrest many times since, yet he’s continued to gather 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 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 critical 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.”
* * *
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. He howled along lustily with me to the chorus of The Pixies’ “Caribou,” hands splayed up in antlers from his forehead; later he passionately recited a long Dylan Thomas poem in Chinese.
At another 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 “tweet.”
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 Germany, where he would seek asylum roughly a year later, 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.
* 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”).