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» DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

Three months after this was written Liao Yiwu was compelled to flee 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,
(translation by David Cowhig)

“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.”

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

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.

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» 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.

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