» THE CORPSE WALKER: Conversations with China’s Lower Strata

by Brian Awehali

This is the first of several posts on LOUDCANARY about Liao Yiwu. To read my long-form profile of Liao, “Dangerous Words,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here. 

When we arrived by cab at the train station, as instructed, Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) met us in a black car driven by a friend and took us to a riverside tea house, where several of his friends were already drinking tea and eating fried Sichuan peppers. We talked for hours, then ate and drank for several more before the musical instruments came out…

Liao Yiwu’s primary importance lies not in what he says, but in the stories of countrymen he collects, which paint a vivid people’s history of China, a country eager, and engineered in many ways, to forget its past. Many college students do not know about the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, to take one prime example of this willful (and highly orchestrated) amnesiac tendency. In his work, Liao focuses on the diceng (底层)or “bottom rung of society,” a concept hated by both supporters of Mao’s “communist” revolution and the current PRC, as well as by many Chinese people for whom the concept of “face” (mianzi, or 面子) — looking good and having status and, in this case, not making China look bad to the laowai (老外, or foreigners) — is all-important. In an only theoretically classless society, people are reluctant to speak of beggars, thieves, drug addicts or those in poverty, even if their presence is glaringly obvious.

I plan to write more about my visits with Liao, and about his work, including Earthquake Insane Asylum (廖亦武), his book about the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake (Taiwan edition depicted to the right; it’s not available yet in English). But in this post I want to focus on The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom-Up. I read it before coming to China, and before I knew that Liao was in Chengdu and that I’d have the opportunity to meet with him. As I told him in our second meeting, it was The Corpse Walker, more than any other book, that made me love the Chinese people. I already understood the distinctions to be made between people and their governments, and between cultures and countries, but I didn’t understand the specifics of those distinctions in China.

The Corpse Walker contains outstanding and sometimes shockingly frank literary interviews with Chinese people displaced by political shifts in China; among them, a professional mourner, a smuggler of people, a beggar, a fortune teller, a thief, a homosexual, a sex trafficker, a landlord, and a member of Falun gong. Like the author himself, all of the individuals were either thrown into the bottom of society during the various political purges in the Mao era or have been caught in the tumultuous changes of today’s evolving Chinese society since Deng’s policy of reform and opening began in 1978. Most of the interviewees tell of being severely punished or in some cases ruined by political changes in China, and the candor with which many of these people describe the ruination and in some cases, torture they’ve suffered, is astonishing. Some accept their fate, while others have picked up the pieces and made new lives for themselves.

Liao spent many years in prison, and was banned from publishing in China and denied a formal livelihood for “Massacre,” a poem he wrote following the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989 and for publishing The Corpse Walker, thought it’s also true that the English language sales of the book are what purchased the home he currently lives in. He’s been denied visas to travel to other countries to speak and receive literary awards 13 times.

More soon. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt of one of the lighter interviews from The Corpse Walker, followed by a three-part BBC video interview with Liao Yiwu:


The Peasant Emperor

In 1985, a peasant named Zeng Yinglong declared his hometown in Sichuan Province an independent kingdom and proclaimed himself emperor. As a result, Zeng was charged with multiple counterrevolutionary crimes, including leading subversive activities against the local government. He was sentenced to death, but in consideration of his lack of education the court commuted his penalty to life imprisonment, and Zeng was assigned to a maximum-security prison in the northeastern part of Sichuan Province. Despite his rebellious spirit, he abided by the prison rules. He was an optimist by nature; the prison guards and his fellow inmates liked him and humored his wish to be addressed as an emperor.

I interviewed Zeng in 1998, a week after the Chinese New Year. This “son of heaven,” as we Chinese used to refer to our real emperors, was forty-eight years old at the time. He was going bald, but his narrow eyes still shone with authority and vigor. He wore an old pair of army boots and a short blue jacket over his blue prison uniform. After rolling up his sleeves, he talked virtually nonstop for two hours, issuing one “edict” after another.

LIAO YIWU: Are you the well-known emperor that people talk about in this jail?

ZENG YINGLONG: You should address me as “Your Majesty.”

LIAO: OK, Your Majesty. When did you assume your role as emperor?

ZENG: Your Majesty didn’t want to be emperor. It was his ten thousand subjects who crowned him. Let me tell you how it all got started. About ten years ago, a giant salamander climbed out of the river and hid inside a huge rock in the middle of the Wu River. This mysterious salamander could talk like a human being. Each night when the moon was out, the villagers heard it singing a ballad. The ballad went like this: “The fake dragon sinks, and the real dragon surfaces. On the south side of the river, peace and happiness reign.” Later on, the story of the singing salamander spread across the region. Even small children learned the ballad. A local feng shui master named Ma Xing became curious and decided to trace its source.

Ma led a group of villagers to the bank of the Wu River one day, and sure enough, when evening fell, the lizard started to sing. Ma and the other villagers jumped on a boat and followed the sound to the rock, where they saw the salamander. It wasn’t afraid at all but simply wagged its tail, as if showing off for the crowd. Ma picked up a wooden stick and prodded its mouth open. Guess what he pulled out? A three-inch-long yellow silk ribbon. The ballad was written on the ribbon. Ma looked up and saw the full moon high in the sky. With his face toward heaven and his eyes closed, he began chanting like a monk. Holding the yellow ribbon above his head, he knelt on the ground and kowtowed three times. After he stood up, he turned to his fellow villagers and said that he had just communicated with the spirit in heaven and had officially accepted divine instructions from above.

At that time, Your Majesty didn’t know anything about that legendary singing salamander. Your Majesty was on the run from the law. The local officials had implemented the one-child policy, and they severely punished anyone who tried to disobey. They would go around the village with doctors, and if a woman was found to be pregnant with her second child, she would be forced to pay a heavy fine and sent to an abortion clinic. Your Majesty had two daughters but very much wanted to have a son to carry on the family name. To escape punishment, Your Majesty joined other villagers and secretly moved with his pregnant wife to another province. Your Majesty ended up in the northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang, where he worked at a construction site. With God’s blessing, Your Majesty did have a son, who was named Yan-ze, meaning “continued benevolence.”

LIAO: What does your son have to do with the singing lizard?

ZENG: Well, if you remember the ballad, it says “Zhen-sheng-long,” or “real dragon surfaces.” This sounds like my name, Zeng Yinglong. Moreover, the ballad says that south of the river, happiness and peace reign. I was living in Henan Province, which means “south of the river.”

A couple of days after his encounter with the salamander, Ma gathered together a group of peasants. They walked hundreds of kilometers to Henan to meet with Your Majesty and beg him to come home and be their master. Ma and his followers presented Your Majesty with a dragon robe, and they knelt down and chanted, Ten thousand years to the emperor. Your Majesty couldn’t turn his back on the will of his subjects and he certainly couldn’t disobey the will of heaven. So Your Majesty returned to his hometown as the people’s emperor, established a new dynasty, and selected 1985 as year one of his reign.

LIAO: What was the name of your dynasty?

ZENG: It was called Dayou, which means “we share everything.” After Your Majesty was crowned, he promulgated the first imperial edict: we farm the land together, share wealth, and can bear as many children as we wish. The edict was greeted with great excitement by my subjects.

LIAO: How large was Your Majesty’s kingdom?

ZENG: Your Majesty only ruled three counties near the borders of Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces. Niu Daquan, my chief of staff, organized a special committee soon after the dynasty was founded, with the task of measuring every inch of my kingdom for the drafting of a map. We then delivered the map to the capital, Beijing.

LIAO: Allow me to be frank with you. According to the court document, you reenacted an ancient story mentioned in Records of the Grand Historian, written by the famous historian Sima Qian. In that tale, Chen Sheng, a peasant rebel in the Qin Dynasty, tried to rally public support against the Qin emperor and justify his claim to the throne by inserting a yellow ribbon inside a fish. The cooks “accidentally” discovered the fish and the ribbon, which said “King Chen Sheng.” Believing it was a message from God, many people joined Chen’s uprising, which eventually led to the downfall of the Qin Dynasty. It’s hard to believe that after two thousand years, the ancient trick still worked. Did the local villagers really believe the yellow ribbon was a manifestation from God?

ZENG: Shut up. It’s awfully rude of you to talk to Your Majesty this way. Your Majesty knows that you are a journalist in disguise and have been sent from the hostile kingdom of China. You have attempted to conspire with prison authorities to lure me into giving you incriminating evidence. Your Majesty refutes all your slanderous remarks…

Read the rest of this interview on The Paris Review site.

Also: “Nineteen Days” Liao Yiwu’s recounting of nineteen years of June 4ths, the anniversaries of the Tiananmen Massacre.

hardTALK w Liao Yiwu

Stephen Sackur (an annoying interviewer who says things like “you were imprisoned for four years, under harsh conditions… you seem angry.”) talks to Liao Yiwu, writer and musician, about his time in prison and his work depicting China’s underclass (BBC) Parts 1-3:


3 thoughts on “» THE CORPSE WALKER: Conversations with China’s Lower Strata

  1. Pingback: Power, Music & Art with Liao Yiwu « LOUDCANARY

  2. Pingback: SO YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND CHINA… « adventures across asia

  3. Pingback: Liao Yiwu « Writing as Provocation

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