» RABBIT, NUN & POWERS IN TIBET

Photo Essayby Brian Awehali

Rabbit, Nun and Powers in Tibet

Tibetan nun and rabbit, alongside Han Chinese roadbloack heading into Tibet. Photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

There’s really only one highway going from southwest China to Tibet, and it’s long, uneven, often blocked or jammed by convoys of military vehicles or commercial trucks, and subject to periodic closures… Continue reading

» ENGINEERING WONDERS OF DUJIANGYAN: Irrigation & Secret Detention

Photo Essayby Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park shishi, or Imperial Guardian Lion (石獅), photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park shishi, or Imperial Guardian Lion (石獅), photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan is a system of irrigation channels largely responsible for the renowned fertility of the Chengdu basin, in southwestern China. This elaborate engineering wonder, built about 2300 years ago, and still in use today, is what makes Sichuan province the most productive agricultural area in China. Most contemporary dams use a big wall to block water, adversely impacting the natural flow of fish and other marine life, but the ancient Dujiangyan irrigation works lets water and fish continue to flow.

I have no idea how old the statue above is (2300 years?), but the colossal millipede nestled in this gargoyle’s ear looks old and big enough to be from an entirely different geologic era.

Dujiangyan is also home to another old and elaborate example of Chinese engineering: the Dujiangyan Detention Facility, one of many outposts in the sprawling Chinese police state. Literally countless dissidents, political activists and otherwise problematically outspoken people have been detained, tortured and interrogated at these facilities.

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park signage, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park signage, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

A lot of even modestly well-informed Westerners don’t know about the full scope of China’s police state, it’s laogai prisons or its contemporary forced labor practices. One reason for this ignorance is simply that the Chinese government works very hard to control news and information about its internal security apparatus, but another reason surely has to do with just the sheer size of the apparatus.

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» CHINESE PIGEON RACING & CONFINEMENT IN CHENGDU

by Brian Awehali

Kitebird at People's Park, Chengdu, (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Kitebird flown at People’s Park, Chengdu in 2010. – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Seemingly querulous racing pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian AwehaliPhoto Essay“I’m very worried,” said Mr. C., our interpreter and guide, as our driver pulled into the courtyard. His eyes were wet. “Only two of my pigeons have returned from the race two days ago.”

Mr. C., a thin man with a sweet face, had arranged through a friend for us to make a weekend visit to a Chengdu suburb for a tour of a pigeon racing club and one racer’s private coop.

“How many pigeons did you release?” I asked.

“Ten,” he said mournfully. As we piled out of the sedan into a courtyard, he ran ahead.

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Orderly pigeons in a Chengdu rooftop coop – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

The owner of this private coop, who was meeting us inside, was the editor of a newspaper, and also a prominent local member of the Communist Party. Most officials of any substantial-sized business in China probably are, and one might consider it an occupational hazard.

Ah, sweet release:

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengu pigeon racing club - (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

Photo-of-a-photo on the wall of a suburban Chengdu pigeon racing club – (c) 2012, Brian Awehali

» GOLDEN HOUR THOUGHTS IN LHAGONG, KHAM, TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Golden Hour Thoughts in Lhagong, TibetTraveling 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.

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» APPROXIMATE DEMOLITION IN CHINA

by Brian Awehali

Approximate Demolition in Chengdu, by Brian Awehali

THE CHINESE ARE VERY SECRETIVE ABOUT THINGS WHEN THEY GO WRONG. You can’t just go online or read a paper to find out what happened with this gloriously wrong-looking demolition in Chengdu. I heard that one or several people were injured by debris, for example, but there seemed to be no way to confirm or disprove this. The site was fenced and there were multiple sentries posted throughout the day to keep people out, so this was taken at around 4am, while carefully avoiding the tents of full-time on-site workers, and using only the ambient light of Chengdu that reflects nicely off the ever-present canopy of mostly industrial smog.

Chaotic Demolition, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, at 4am

» PEOPLE’S HISTORIAN LIAO YIWU (廖亦武) LEAVES CHINA

Liao Yiwu in Wenjiang, July 2010. Photo (c) Brian Awehali


JULY 2011 | After repeatedly being threatened with imprisonment if he chose to continue publishing his “illegal work” in foreign countries, Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) has fled to asylum in Germany
. In the weeks and months following the outbreak of popular revolt in the Arab world, the Chinese government’s repression of critical voices intensified, and Liao had been warned that he would be arrested if he chose to publish the German edition of his forthcoming memoir, Testimonials: The Witness of the 4th of June.

Philip Gourevitch has written a typically solid piece for the New Yorker detailing Liao’s “escape” from China and the reason his work is important enough to be threatening to China’s leadership. The piece includes the following quote from Liao about his status as a political “refugee”:

“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.”

May this be so. When I had the opportunity to meet and interview Liao several times in 2010, I was deeply inspired by his willingness to take enormous risks in service of truth-telling, free thought, and art. Interested readers can check out the lengthy profile I did of Liao following these interviews, “Dangerous Words,” which appeared originally on Counterpunch, then in expanded form here on LOUDCANARY.

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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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