'THE POLICE had started to remind me of the anniversary in May. They came to see me frequently, telling me to be “low key” and not to do anything subversive. On the afternoon of June 1, public security officers invited me to their office and interrogated me. They had heard that I had written an article called “Nineteen Days”. They wanted to know what my motives were.’
That postscript to the piece Liao Yiwu wrote for the summer 2009 issue of The Paris Review underscores the uneasy relationship the poet, novelist and screenwriter has with the powers that be in China since he composed his poem ‘Massacre’, which portrayed with stark imagery the night that People’s Liberation Army tanks rolled into Beijing on June 3, 1989 and the killings that followed; his was as vivid a depiction as Picasso’s of the bombing of Guernica by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War.
Liao knew his poem would never be published in China, so he recorded it on audiotape, using Chinese ritualistic chanting and howling to invoke the spirits of the dead. Copied and passed on, his words were everywhere.
We live under bright sunlight,
But we have lost our eyesight.
We find ourselves on a street, so wide.
But no one can take a stride.
We stand in a crowd, supposed to be loud.
But people open their mouths without sound.
We are tortured with thirst,
But everyone refuses water.
The tape of ‘Massacre’, as well as a film he made with friends of its sequel, ‘Requiem’, did not go unnoticed by China’s security police and, in February 1990, as Liao was boarding a train to Beijing, he and six others, including his pregnant wife, were arrested. Liao was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
In another poem written at that time, he described his sense of frustration at being unable to fight back.
You were born with the soul of an assassin,
But at time of action,
You are at a loss, doing nothing.
You have no sword to draw,
Your body a sheath rusted,
Your hands shaking,
Your bones rotten,
Your near-sighted eyes cannot do the shooting.
Much of Liao’s work is banned in China and he is forbidden to publish. He lives in Chengdu and is watched by the Public Security Bureau. He has been detained numerous times, for giving ‘illegal interviews’ and for exposing the dark side of China’s Communist society in his book Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society.
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Liao was born in 1958, the year that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, a campaign aimed at industrialising China’s backward peasant economy. The forced collectivisation of agriculture and the blind mobilisation of the entire country to produce iron and steel led to a famine in 1960 – some thirty million people died. Liao, then aged three, barely survived.
In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Liao’s father, a school teacher, was accused of being a counter-revolutionary. His parents divorced to protect their children. Life without father was hard and often brutal. When his mother tried to sell some cloth on the black market to buy food, he recalls, she was caught by the police ‘and was paraded, along with other criminals, on the stage of the Sichuan Opera House in front of thousands of people.
‘After several of my classmates who had seen my mother told me about it, I was devastated.’
Liao completed high school and went travelling around the country, working as a cook, and then as a truck driver on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. He read western poets, from Keats to Baudelaire, and began to compose his own poetry. By the 1980s, he had become one of the most popular new poets in China and contributed regularly to influential literary magazines. His work also appeared in ‘underground’ publications that carried contemporary western-style poems deemed by the authorities to be ‘spiritual pollution’.
In the spring of 1989, two prominent magazines published ‘The Yellow City’ and ‘Idol’, in which Liao used allegory to criticise a paralysed system that was being eaten away by a collective leukaemia. He considered Mao to be a symptom of this cancer. The poems were deemed to be anti-Communist and police searched Liao’s home. He was repeatedly detained and interrogated. One of the magazines was closed, the other disciplined.
Liao’s imprisonment in 1990 for condemning what happened in and around Tiananmen Square was a defining chapter in his life. Ostracised and depressed during his four-year incarceration, he rebelled against prison rules. Punishment included torture with electric batons and being forced to stand in the hot summer sun for hours. On one occasion in solitary confinement his hands were tied behind his back for twenty-three days. By the end of this punishment, abscesses covered his armpits. He suffered several mental collapses and twice attempted suicide. But he refused to be cowed, and he became known among the inmates as ‘the big lunatic’.
In response to international pressure, Liao was released in 1994 for ‘good behaviour’ with fifty days left to serve out his sentence. He returned home to find that his wife had left him, taking their child. He was also unemployed, his city residential registration having been cancelled. His former literary friends avoided him. His only possession now was a flute, which he had learned to play while in prison. Liao became a musician on the noisy streets of Chengdu.
In 1998, he compiled an anthology of underground poems of the 1970s; The Fall of the Holy Temple included or made references to numerous Chinese dissidents. One of China’s vice-premiers ordered an investigation into the book, calling it a ‘premeditated attempt to overthrow the government, and … supported by powerful anti-China groups’. Liao was again detained and his publisher in China was forbidden to release any new books for one year.
Unable to find anyone willing to publish his work, and unable to secure steady employment, Liao struggled to survive, picking up odd jobs in restaurants, nightclubs, teahouses and bookstores, and learning first hand what life is like for the socially marginalised in China. He turned his experiences in prison and on the streets into a book, Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society. In it, he told the stories of sixty people, among them a professional mourner, a murderer, a beggar, a fortune teller, a thief, a dissident, a homosexual, a pimp, a former landlord and a school teacher. Like the author himself, all were cast out of mainstream society during the various political purges of the Mao era or were products of the tumultuous generational changes sweeping China.
In 2001, the Yangzi Publishing House published a ‘sanitised’ version of the book and it became a best-seller. The independent Beijing literary critic Yu Jie called it ‘an historical record of contemporary China’. Another independent critic, Ren Momei, told Radio Free Asia, ‘All the characters depicted in the book have one thing in common – they have all been deprived of their right to speak out. This book is a loud condemnation of the deprivation of their rights to speak and an excellent portrayal of this group of unique individuals.’
Liao introduced the character di-ceng, meaning ‘bottom rung of society’, to the national vocabulary. The Department of Propaganda and the China News and Publishing Administration ordered all of Liao’s books off the shelves, punished the editor at the publishing house, and fired key staff at a popular Chinese weekly, The Southern Weekend, which had carried an interview with Liao and featured his book.
In 2002, Kang Zhengguo, a writer and lecturer at Yale University, met Liao in China and, with Kang’s help, the Taiwan-based Rye Field Publishing Company released Interviews in three volumes.
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I first heard of Liao in June 2001 when I was asked to translate an interview he gave to Radio Free Asia not long after his book was banned in China. I read his book and it reminded me of Studs Terkel’s Working, which had been translated into Chinese in the 1980s. Working introduced me and many other Chinese to the real America and lives of ordinary Americans, about whom I knew very little. I believe Liao’s book serves the same purpose for western readers and helps them to understand China from the perspective of the ordinary Chinese.
It took me nearly two years to track down Liao, who was constantly on the move to avoid police harassment. I was told that one time, in Chengdu, he had to jump from a second-storey window to escape arrest after interviewing a member of an outlawed religious group.
In early 2004, I received an email from a friend, a former visiting scholar at Harvard. She said Liao had agreed to let me translate his work into English and gave me a mobile phone number to call. The area code was for somewhere near the China-Burma border.
Our first conversation lasted two hours, and over time we developed a system of collaboration that involved ‘coded’ conversations via email and telephone, and ‘drops’ by mutual friends.
In September 2005, the first issue of The Paris Review under new editor Philip Gourevitch included three interviews from our initial translation of Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society.
Buoyed by its reception, we stepped up our work on The Corpse Walker – Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up (Random House, 2008), a selection of twenty-seven stories we hoped would be both representative of Liao’s work and of interest to western readers. The book, and here I quote the paperback blurb, which I rather like, ranges from ‘hustlers to drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste and with the wasting of humans, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals’.
In May 2008, Liao went to earthquake-hit Sichuan, where he spent several months interviewing those who lived in the disaster zone, recording their fight to expose corrupt officials and seek justice. The stories gave rise to Chronicles of the Big Earthquake, published in Chinese in Hong Kong earlier this year.
Liao continues to write and his interviews, essays and poems are published on Chinese lauguage websites. He has been honoured by the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and Human Rights Watch. Barred from leaving China, he continues to be harassed by the police and subjected to short-term detention.
Recalling recently his prison days, Liao wrote:
Squatting like a dog, crawling,
The unwritten prison rules forbid
My back from straightening
Dynasty after dynasty, Chinese intellectuals
Spineless, never dared to stand up, back stretching.
How many times have our assholes been prodded,
By dynasties and regimes
Five thousand years, our spirit castrated
That procreates like ants
Produces no real men.
I’m the only man
With the ability to procreate
But this lone virgin
Violated, meeting the same fate.
Cover me with darkness
Send me my fig leaf to cover my humiliation.
‘I am trying to overcome, little by little, the fear that’s been inflicted on me,’ he says. ‘By doing so, I try to preserve my sanity and inner freedom.’