Traveling through Kham, in what’s called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), I had the considerable pleasure of staying in Lhagong. Chinese people will tell you it’s named Tagong, but re-naming is just one strategy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Approaching this “stupa” on the edge of town during a clear moment in an otherwise rainy day, I couldn’t decide which idea held more magic for me: that this was a giant fortification full of monks and nuns who, not fearing death, were more than a match for any earthly army or floodtide of settlers, or an immense palace full of exquisitely beautiful people of belief, happily lashing their souls to some great transcendent hum.
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.”