Read The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up Online
Authors: Liao Yiwu
Tags: #General, #Political Science, #Social Science, #Human Rights, #Censorship
The Corpse Walker
Introduction: The Voice of China's Social Outcasts by Wen Huang
The Neighborhood Committee Director
To hear a new voice is one of the great excitements that a book can offer—and through Liao Yiwu we hear more than two dozen original voices that have a great deal to say. Liao is at once an unflinching observer and recorder, a shoe-leather reporter and an artful storyteller, an oral historian and deft mimic, a folklorist and satirist. Above all, he is a medium for whole muzzled swathes of Chinese society that the Party would like to pretend do not exist: hustlers and 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—and every one of them speaks more honestly than the official chronicles of Chinese life that are put out by the state in the name of “the people.”
Liao was shaped as a writer by the harshest of experiences: he nearly starved to death as a child and his father was branded an enemy of the people; he was thrown in jail for writing poems that spoke truthfully about China's Communist Party and he was beaten in jail for refusing to shut up; and he discovered in jail the enormous value of listening to others like him whom the authorities wanted to keep forever unheard. So Liao writes with the courage of a man who knows loss and doesn't fear it. There is nothing to make him take notice like an official injunction against noticing, nothing to make him listen like official deafness, nothing that drives him to make us see than the blindness that Communist officialdom seeks to impose. But it is not merely defiance, and it is hardly political polemic, that drives the vitality of the stories in this collection. What makes Liao's encounters with his characters so powerful is the fact that he clearly delights in their humanity, however twisted its expression, and he shows his respect for his subjects in the most fundamental way: he lets them speak for themselves.
There is no question that Liao Yiwu is one of the most original and remarkable Chinese writers of our time. It is, however, truer to say that he is one of the most original and remarkable writers of our time, and that he is from China. Yes, his language is Chinese, his country and its people are his subject, and his stories originate from intensely local encounters. But even to someone who has never been to China, and who can know Liao's work only through Wen Huang's translations, these stories have an immediacy and an intimacy that crosses all boundaries and classifications. They belong to the great common inheritance of world literature.
Liao Yiwu is an original, but it seems a very good bet that writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Jack London, Nikolai Gogol and George Orwell, François Rabelais and Primo Levi would have recognized him at once as a brother in spirit and in letters. He is a ringmaster of the human circus, and his work serves as a powerful reminder—as vital and necessary in open societies lulled by their freedoms as it is in closed societies where telling truthful stories can be a crime—that it is not only in the visible and noisy wielders of power but equally in the marginalized, overlooked, and unheard that the history of our kind is most tellingly inscribed.
Introduction: The Voice of China's Social Outcasts
When the Chinese government tanks rolled into Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989, and brutally suppressed the students' pro-democracy movement, Liao Yiwu was home in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The news shocked him to the very core. Overnight, Liao composed a long poem, “Massacre,” that portrayed with stark imagery the killing of innocent students and residents as vividly as Picasso painted the Nazi bombing massacre in the town of Guernica.
Without any chance of having his poem published in China, Liao made an audiotape of himself reciting “Massacre,” using Chinese ritualistic chanting and howling to invoke the spirit of the dead. The tape recording was widely circulated via underground channels in China. 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 a 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.
That tape of “Massacre” as well as a movie he made with friends of its sequel, “Requiem,” caught the attention of the Chinese security police. In February 1990, as he was boarding a train to Beijing, police swooped down on him. Six of his poet and writer friends, as well as his pregnant wife, were also arrested simultaneously for their involvement in his movie project. As the ringleader, Liao received a four-year sentence.
Since then Liao has permanently been placed on the government blacklist. Most of his works are still banned in China, where he lives, as a street musician in a small town in southwestern Yunnan Province, under the watchful eyes of the public security bureau. He has been detained numerous times in the past for conducting “illegal interviews” and for exposing the dark side of Communist society in his documentary-style book
Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society
. The twenty-seven stories that appear in this book are translated and adapted from that collection as well as from his recent writings posted on overseas Chinese-language Web sites.
Liao was born in 1958, in the year of the dog. It was also the year that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, a campaign aimed at industrializing China's backward peasant economy. The forced collectivization of agriculture and the blind mobilization of the whole country to adopt primitive ways of producing iron and steel led to a famine in 1960 that claimed the lives of some thirty million people.
During the famine, he suffered from edema and was dying. Out of desperation, Liao's mother carried him to the countryside, where an herbal doctor “held me over a wok that contained boiling herbal water.” The herbal steam miraculously restored him.
In 1966, Liao's family was deeply affected when his father, a schoolteacher, was branded a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. His parents filed for divorce to protect their children from the father's pariah status. Life was hard without his father. Among his childhood memories, there is one he still recalls vividly: “A relative gave my mother a government-issued coupon that was good for two-meters of cloth. But, when mother sold it on the black market to buy food for us, she got 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.”
After high school, Liao traveled around the country, working as a cook, and then as a truck driver on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. In his spare time he read previously banned Western poets, from Keats to Baudelaire. He also began to compose his own poems and to publish in literary magazines.
Throughout the 1980s, Liao became one of the most popular new poets in China and contributed regularly to influential literary magazines as well as to underground publications that published contemporary Western-style poems considered by the government to be “spiritual pollution.” In the spring of 1989, two prominent magazines took advantage of the temporary political thaw and carried Liao's long poems “The Yellow City” and “Idol.” In the poems he used allegorical allusions to criticize what he called a system paralyzed and eaten away by a collective leukemia. He claimed that the emergence of Mao was the symptom of this incurable cancer. Alarmed by the poems' bold anti-Communist messages, police searched Liao's home and subjected him to thorough interrogations, depositions, and short-term detention. The magazine publishers were also disciplined; one magazine was ordered to shut down.
Liao's imprisonment in 1990 for his condemnation of the government crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement the previous year was a defining chapter in his life. Ostracized and depressed during his four-year incarceration, he rebelled against prison rules, only to be subjected to abusive punishment: prodded by electric batons, tied up, handcuffed, and forced to stand in the hot summer sun for hours. At one point, his hands were tied behind his back for twenty-three days in solitary confinement until abscesses covered his armpits. He suffered several mental collapses and attempted suicide twice. He was known among the inmates as “the big lunatic.”
In 1994, following international pressure, Liao was released fifty days before completing his prison term. (The Chinese government claimed he was being rewarded for good behavior.) He returned home to find that his wife had left him, taking their child. His city residential registration was cancelled, rendering him unemployable and subject to expulsion to the countryside. His former literary friends avoided him in fear. His only possession was a flute, which he had learned to play in jail. Liao walked through the noisy streets in his native city of Chengdu and began his life anew as a street musician.
Liao did not give up his literary pursuits. In 1998, he compiled the volume
The Fall of the Holy Temple
, an anthology of underground poems of the 1970s, which includes works by, or made references to, numerous Chinese dissidents. One of China's vice premiers personally ordered an investigation into the book, calling it a “premeditated attempt to overthrow the government, and is supported by powerful anti-China groups.” He was detained again and the publisher was prohibited from releasing any new books for one year.
As the Chinese government tightened its noose on his publishing career, Liao sank further to the bottom, picking up odd jobs in restaurants, nightclubs, teahouses, and bookstores. But his life at the bottom broadened the scope of his intended book about the socially marginalized people that he had befriended. The conversations with his prison inmates and people on the street gave rise to
Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society.
Among the sixty interviews selected for his book were those of a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a murderer, a beggar, a fortuneteller, a burglar, a dissident, a homosexual, a whoremaster, a former landlord, a schoolteacher, and a Falun Gong practitioner. Like the author himself, all of the individuals were either thrown to the bottom of society during the various political purges in the Maoist era or landed there as a result of the tumultuous changes of today's evolving Chinese society.
The interviews are literary as well as journalistic—reconstructions rather than transcriptions of his encounters with his subjects. Because the interviews required extra sensitivity and patience, he sometimes eschewed the usual tools of a tape recorder and a notebook. Whether he was in prison or on the street, Liao always spent a considerable amount of time with his subjects, trying to gain their trust before conducting any interviews. For one story, it might require three to four conversations on different occasions. For example, he interviewed a mortician seven times and then incorporated all his conversations into one piece.
In 2001, the Yangtse Publishing House published a sanitized and shortened version of the book and it immediately became a best seller. Yu Jie, a well-known independent literary critic in Beijing, called the book “a sociologist's investigative report, which can serve as a historical record of contemporary China.” Another independent critic, Ren Bumei, observed in an interview with Radio Free Asia: “All the individuals 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.”
For the first time after the Communist takeover in 1949, Liao introduced the word
, or “bottom rung of society” to the country. The notion is anathema to supporters of Mao's Communist movement, which is supposed to create an egalitarian society free of prostitutes, beggars, triad gangsters, and drug abusers. As expected, the Propaganda Department and the China News and Publishing Administration ordered all of Liao's books off the shelves, punished his editor at the publishing house, and fired all 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 smuggled the complete manuscript out of the country. With Kang's help, the Taiwan-based Rye Field Publishing Company released an unabridged version of
Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society
in three volumes
In the same year, Liao received a literary award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and in 2003 he received a Hellman-Hammett Grant, an annual award given by Human Rights Watch in recognition of writers who show courage in the face of political persecution.
I first heard of Liao back in June 2001 when I was contracted by Radio Free Asia to translate an interview he taped with the station, not long after the book was banned in China. The interview piqued my interest in the author.
Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society
reminds me of Studs Terkel's book
in which Terkel collected interviews with Americans from all walks of life, ranging from a waitress and a telephone operator to a baseball player and a musician, who talked about their jobs and lives in America.
was translated into Chinese in the 1980s, with the title
Americans Talk About Lives in America.
As a college student in China, I read both the English and Chinese versions (my teacher chose the English version of
as a textbook for colloquial American English).
introduced me, and many other Chinese, to the real America and the lives of ordinary Americans, about which I didn't know much before. Similarly, I believe the true-life stories in Liao's book will serve the same purpose for Western readers, helping them understand China from the perspective of ordinary Chinese.
Starting in 2002, I made numerous attempts to contact Liao through his friends in China. The search turned out to be an arduous task because as a dissident writer, he had to move constantly to dodge police harassment. One time he had to jump from a third-story window and run away from Chengdu to escape arrest after he had interviewed a member of an outlawed religious group.
One day in early 2004, I received an e-mail from a friend who was a former visiting scholar at Harvard University. She happened to know Liao pretty well and managed to track him down after she returned to Beijing from the United States. In her e-mail, I learned that Liao had agreed to my proposal of translating his works into English and he had also provided his cell-phone number. I checked the area code and it was from a small town somewhere near the Chinese border with Myanmar.
The two-hour conversation marked the beginning of our partnership. Over the next two years, Liao and I collaborated on the translations through e-mails and telephone calls. Sometimes we talked in our mutually understood codes or through our mutual friends if we believed our conversation was being tapped.
In the summer of 2005, three interviews from Liao's book—the professional mourner, the human trafficker, and the public restroom manager—appeared for the first time in English in
The Paris Review
, in the inaugural issue under its new editor, Philip Gourevitch.
Following the successful
debut, Liao and I selected twenty-seven stories that we feel are both representative of his work and might be of interest to Western readers. We also restructured and shortened the narratives, adding background information to help readers who are not familiar with the political and historical references mentioned in the interviews. As suggested in the title, we hope the book will offer Western readers a glimpse of contemporary China from the bottom up.
Meanwhile, Liao continues to break Chinese government censorship laws by publishing his works on overseas Chinese-language Web sites despite repeated police harassment. In December 2007, Liao was detained and interrogated for more than four hours when he traveled to Beijing to receive the Freedom to Write Award given by the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He is not intimidated. With the help of a Chinese lawyer, he is now suing the government for violating his human rights. “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.”