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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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» ART & FREEDOMS: Half a Day with Chinese People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

by Brian Awehali

[This is a continuation of my post, “The Corpse Walker: Liao Yiwu’s Notes from China’s UnderclassTo read my long-form profile of Liao, “Drift to Live,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here.]

Excerpts from “Massacre” (by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wen Huang)

Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice…

Liao Yiwu, 2010. Photo by Brian Awehali

[Earlier this year] we joined Liao and two writer friends he’d shared imprisonment with for tea. Liao was sturdy and bald, his skin ruddy with black rimmed glasses, wore flowing linen pants and navy flip flops which displayed several blackened toenails, and he walked with a limp. I’ll call the other two PB and RG: PB, who said he had eaten much more bitterness in his life than Liao and suffered much more greatly than him, had a typical black bowl cut, glasses, pasty white skin and a shirt tucked into a belt that said “Playboy” on it over the bunny icon. He said that he wrote about his stories of being in prison every day, and that altogether he had been in for seven years. The other one, RG, who said that it was hard to describe what he writes about, had longer hair down to his ears, was pudgy with rimless glasses and wore a plaid shirt. Of the three, RG smiled the most and spoke the least.

We talked about things like Twitter in China. You can say a lot more in 120 Chinese characters than you can in 120 English characters, and Twitter is used for more overtly political purposes in China, to get around the Great Firewall, and less for inane things about where someone’s eating or what someone’s wearing. We also talked about the difficulties of publishing in China. PB had written many stories about his prison experiences, but was resigned to just sharing them with friends and family because he didn’t think he would ever find a publisher; Liao is only published by overseas presses.

At one point Liao said that Chinese view the government as the police. When I asked about Chinese anarchists, Liao replied that all smart Chinese were anarchists (“no government people”) because the government just took their money and land and enforced rules and laws. They were just the police, and didn’t care if the people were hungry or not. I asked about this because I was just then reading Yale Agrarian Studies professor James C. Scott’s excellent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland East Asia, which details how between 80 and 100 million people in East Asia fled the Han Chinese state and took to the hills (“shatter zones”) to be self-determining over the past few centuries. This includes Tibetans, the Wa, the Kachin, the Lahu and a staggering range of other East Asian “hill peoples.” I’m not positive, but given our linguistic challenges, Liao was probably characterizing “smart Chinese” as more anti-authoritarian than anarchist, but was nonetheless making a deeper point about power than can be got at by conceiving of things in terms of so-called “capitalism” or “communism.”

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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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