A Hero of the China Underground

As a poet and chronicler of other people’s lives, Liao Yiwu is a singular figure among the generation of Chinese intellectuals who emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Unlike the leaders of Beijing’s student movement, people like Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, Liao had no part in organizing street demonstrations and has never explicitly engaged in political activism. Also unlike them, he never fled the country, a fact that has doubtless helped preserve him from becoming irrelevant within China, the fate of a great many émigré dissidents and authors. Moreover, Liao made his name not in Beijing but near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where on the night of the Tiananmen crackdown he composed “Massacre,” a long, impassioned epic poem of protest.

Although he was already known as a rising young poet, Liao was sure that a poem like “Massacre” was too controversial to be published, and so, ignoring friends’ warnings for his safety, he decided to recite it into a cassette recorder, along with his own ritualistic chanting and howling. He then gave copies of the recording to his friends and others in the literary world, who in turn made and distributed many more copies, resulting in the rapid circulation around the country of the poem’s powerful descriptions of violence:

Shoot, shoot and shoot…
I feel good and I feel high
Blow up that head
Burn up the hair and the skin
Let the brain erupt
Let the soul gush out
Splash on the bridge, the fence and the street
Splash toward the sky
Blood turned into stars and stars are running
Heaven and earth have turned upside down
Shiny helmets are like stars
Troops are running out of the moon
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot
Humans and stars are falling and running
Indistinguishable, which are humans and which are stars
Troops followed them into the cloud, into cracks on the ground…

The self-publication of “Massacre” would become doubly significant for Liao. Right away, he began dodging arrest by police eager to capture him. When they finally tracked him down the following February, he was boarding a bus for Beijing, having just produced an experimental film that he conceived as a defiant follow-up to “Massacre.” During his subsequent four years in prison, for the crime of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, Liao met eccentrics, outcasts, and politically disenfranchised characters, and the remarkable stories of these people’s lives transformed his interests as a writer.

“I began to be exposed to people from the ‘three religions and nine schools,’” he told me when I met him in 2008, using an old Chinese idiom meaning people from all walks of life. “I’d never been in touch with people like this before, people like a ‘peasant emperor,’ or infamous robbers, murderers, human traffickers, none of whom existed in my previous experience, and suddenly I had to spend my days and nights with them.” Fascinated by his fellow prisoners’ lives, he turned away from poetry and started a new vocation as an inventive writer of oral histories.

A primary obstacle for Liao was the reality of publishing in China: most Chinese writers still face a stark choice between self-censorship or silence. His Tiananmen poem, spread by word of mouth, pointed toward alternative forms of publication. Nowadays, his books are published on overseas Chinese websites that escape the censors’ control and that convey his texts to an underground inside China, where cheap, black-market copies are circulated and bought by thousands of readers.

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As with most of the twenty books Liao has written since he was released from prison in 1994, The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up has an unconventional form. His first book to be published in English, it is based on a series of extended interviews with characters who emerge only gradually and with little physical description, through an unvarying question-and-answer format. Owing to this method, and the increasing number of everyday people among his subjects, comparisons are often drawn between Liao and the late Studs Terkel, but the parallel, though obvious, is too facile.

Like Terkel, Liao is skilled at extracting the details of his characters’ lives and métiers. But while Terkel’s interviews can read like sociological case studies, Liao’s dialogues often seem more allegorical. Many of his characters are in extreme situations; readers will sometimes be unsure how literally their accounts can be taken. In one story, villagers practice cannibalism in order to survive. In another, a boastful man sells his own daughter into prostitution. One of Liao’s subjects cracks open safes as a hobby; another, a novelist, becomes a somnambulist as a form of release.

Liao’s writing can seem to have more affinity with the work of the late Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski, another journalist who sometimes took liberties with his occasionally dramatic material, using reimagined or rewritten dialogue, and often blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Liao’s writing is closer to political events than either Terkel’s or Kapus´cin´ski’s, however, and belongs to the literature of dissent, even if his dissent is always indirect.

Liao has acknowledged that he has sometimes strayed from the literal quotation of his subjects, but he is coy about how much, saying only that he has occasionally worked without a tape recorder and reconstructed people’s stories after hearing them. He does this, he has said, not only in the interest of storytelling, but as a means of evading censorship and protecting his subjects. In China, it is still largely impossible to publish either candid accounts of the persecution of people who are seen as enemies of the state or historical accounts of the enormous human costs of such upheavals as the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Movement, and the Cultural Revolution, as well as many lesser-known campaigns.

Liao’s methods have made him one of the most important contributors to the growing literature in China that attempts to recover history. Much of this work aims at restoring memories of the country’s violent, politically blighted past, while trying to evade the restrictions on publication. “According to Chinese tradition, our history is all about emperors, kings, generals, and chancellors,” Liao told me as we spent several days together traveling through the countryside in Sichuan province in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic 2008 earthquake that killed 70,000 people. “There is no history at all of the little people, other than folk history or anecdotal biographies here and there.” He added, “My task is to recover this memory, to try to describe the truth of these times.”

Another example of this genre is Xianhui Yang’s Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp, which was published in English in 2009 and translated by Wen Huang, who also translated “Massacre” and The Corpse Walker. This collection of stories records the experience of political prisoners starving in a forced labor camp between 1957 and 1960. Some of the stories were actually published in China in 2000, but only because they were labeled as fiction in the journal Shanghai Literature. Yang has also changed the biographical details of many of the people whose stories he tells to protect them from harassment by the authorities. “I hope to be remembered as a writer who speaks truth,” Yang told China’s News Weekly Magazine in 2009. “In the past, there weren’t too many Chinese writers who dared to speak the truth. I’m sure there will be more in the future. The path to truth will gradually be cleared.”

Liao faces much tougher restrictions. Calling his work fiction is not enough to allow it to be published in China; his association with the Tiananmen protest movement and his refusal to limit himself to material from the distant past stand against him. “As soon as they see my name, editors run the other way,” he told me. “It’s been that way for seven or eight years already, because I am banned.”

Liao’s tales alternate between harsh personal histories of persecution and seemingly lighter accounts of simple people: a public toilet attendant, a street musician, a man with delusions who believes that he is a king. In both kinds of stories, there is an unmistakable moral undertone, and yet Liao’s stories are rarely explicitly political.

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One of his subjects is Wang Xilin, a classical music composer whose concerts were canceled in 2000 after he gave a speech in which he said: “The biggest event in the twentieth century is the fact that Communism has been painstakingly pursued and then relentlessly abandoned by mankind.” Liao’s story opens with Wang asking himself this question:

Nowadays, when I look at people walking on the street, I keep thinking to myself: Have they ever persecuted or tortured others? Have they ever betrayed their comrades and trampled on the bodies of others to advance their own political career? How many parents are being haunted by their blood-tainted hands?

Wang’s troubles began in 1962, during Mao’s Socialist Education Campaign, when he responded to a call for staff members in government agencies to criticize their directors. Wang was a member of an orchestra at the time, assigned to it as a composer, and he questioned the Party’s new, revolutionary policies on music, which he described as “restrictive, shortsighted, and detrimental to the development of Chinese symphonic music.”

What followed were fourteen years of persecution: he was “detained, interrogated, beaten, humiliated, trampled, and abandoned.” “Several days passed and nothing happened,” Wang tells Liao. “Then, a rumor started to circulate, saying that I was the ringleader of a counterrevolutionary clique within the orchestra. I tried to find out more from my coworkers, but people shunned me like a disease.” Only Wang’s trusted friend Zhang Haibo, the orchestra’s first flutist, stuck by him.

Finally, the orchestra director accused Wang of betraying the masses, but promised that the Party would embrace him if he openly admitted his mistakes. “During the next several days, I wrote day and night nonstop. It was ten times more intense than composing my music,” Wang says. He then made a tearful confession before an audience of more than one hundred people that lasted two and a half hours. Instead of a pardon, his performance drew a loud and angry denunciation from the audience for being insufficiently contrite. Later, Wang was summoned again by the director, who, in a fatherly tone, reminded the musician of the great sacrifices that peasants and the Party had made to provide him with an education. “We want you to describe in detail every conversation or meeting you have had with other people,” the director says. “Honesty will get you leniency.”

Wang compiled a list of one hundred “incidents” where he and his coworkers had said things that were critical of the Party, including his only remaining friend, the flutist. “The meeting became very tense,” Wang relates of his second confession.

Initially, people held their breath, waiting to hear who would be the next to be implicated. It was like I had one hundred grenades hanging around my mouth. Each time I uttered an item, I could hear an explosion in the audience. Soon the volume of their responses got louder and louder. One woman suffered a nervous breakdown right there.

Wang’s brother and sister also suffered. The brother, a doctor, had starved to death during the famine of the Great Leap Forward in 1960, and his sister, a local government official, was labeled a “rightist” and consigned to a labor camp, where she went insane.

Wang went on to make many such confessions. Their broader impact, though, would only unfold over years, as others emulated him by “spying on each other, trying to collect damaging material to destroy one another.” It would be hard to find a better account of such betrayals and the ways they were used by the regime during this era. As Liao recounts:

The emotional ups and downs of the campaign took a heavy toll on my mental health. I started to lose control of myself at several public meetings. The daytime denunciation meetings extended into my dreams. I would scream in my sleep. When I was awake, I would draw the curtain and became afraid of sunlight. I was in constant fear of getting arrested. Each morning, when the loudspeaker in the courtyard started blasting the famous revolutionary song, “Chairman Mao Is Our Savior,” I would jump out of bed, shaking with fear. This paranoia has haunted me for twenty-some years.

* * *

One of Liao’s apparently less political accounts, titled “The Public Restroom Manager,” is about “Grandpa Zhou,” a man in his seventies who now manages a public bathroom in Chengdu and has cleaned toilets all his life. It quickly becomes clear that there are deeper currents running through Liao’s story. The author writes that “one night last year, I summoned up enough courage to get over my concerns about losing my social status as an intellectual, and started a conversation with him [Grandpa Zhou].” He thus mixes casual self-deprecation with a barb directed at China’s intellectuals—aloof, snobbish, self-interested.

Here as elsewhere Liao quickly establishes rapport with a subject, briefly suggests his character, and ends the story with an abrupt shift in mood. We soon learn that the public restroom attendant’s toilets are next to the teashop run by Liao’s mother. Up until the moment of their encounter, though, Grandpa Zhou had merely been a “nodding acquaintance.” When Liao invites Zhou for tea, he is initially rebuffed; Grandpa Zhou insists he is “only a public restroom guard,” and therefore not worthy of attention from strangers. To this, though, Liao has ready a disarming reply. “In this world, there are rich people and poor people, aristocrats and common folks,” he says. “But when it comes to the call of nature, everyone’s equal. Even the emperor has to take a shit.”

The humble restroom manager can be seen as one of the many millions whom younger Chinese today often refer to as the “lost generation.” These are people in their late fifties or older who were too old, too poor, or too set in their ways to reinvent themselves for the abrupt arrival of the reform era, at the end of the 1970s, with the advent of the cash economy and little or nothing by way of a safety net. “If I had been born ten years later,” Zhou says, “I would never have thought to make a living in the restroom business.”

At the heart of the old man’s story is a parable about the sharp decline of contemporary morals. When an angry young man pursued a woman into the female restroom and was ordered by Zhou to leave her alone, the man pulled out a knife and threatened to slash her. Zhou then doused the man with a plastic container full of urine and later was angrily rebuked by the woman, who turned out to be the man’s girlfriend. “So what if he killed me?” she shouts. “It had nothing to do with you. You’re the stinking public restroom manager.”

After this insult Zhou recalls that Mao himself had met with a restroom cleaner, a “model worker” who was named to the National People’s Congress. But he suddenly remembers a darker side of that regimented age. “In those days, without a marriage certificate, a woman would never have the guts to go to the hospital for an abortion,” Zhou says.

Premarital sex was considered extremely shameful. If her company found out, the woman’s career would be ruined. The stigma would stay with her the rest of her life. As a result, many girls would secretly procure medicine and the public toilet was like an abortion clinic, a dumping ground for dead fetuses. Some girls took the wrong medicine and died. In China, life is cheap.

Liao himself reveals a long-standing fascination with public bathrooms. He claims to have first learned about sexual intercourse from bathroom graffiti, whose limericks would eventually lead him toward poetry. Zhou reproaches him for his vulgarity, but acknowledges having seen a long, funny graffito just the day before:

Chairman Mao, Chairman Mao, if you rise from your grave you will see embezzlers [all around you]. Chairman Mao, if you look to your right, hookers and druggies at your side. Chairman Mao, if you look to your left, fake goods are what you get. Chairman Mao, if you look behind your back, laid-off workers are deep in debt. Chairman Mao, if you look down, extramarital affairs are common. Chairman Mao, Chairman Mao, close your eyes, out of sight, out of mind. People want their iron rice bowls back.

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To hear Liao’s own life story, it is odd to think that he could have had success as a poet before he was sent to prison. Certainly few fifty-year-old Chinese could have grown up more immersed in the tumult of their times. “I was seven or eight when the Cultural Revolution began” in 1966, he told me.

My father was arrested. My mother escaped to Chengdu from the small town in Sichuan where we lived. I became a drifter, with no accommodation, sneaking into cars a lot. Basically I had no primary school education. My mother was a music teacher, but she was criticized for her bourgeois ideology, and because she liked dressing up.

His mother was shouted down and threatened in public—”struggled against”—during what were known as “eat bitter sessions.”

Liao’s father came from a small, rural landlord’s family, meaning, “You worked hard, and lived frugally.” Speaking of his grandfather, Liao said, “He even pulled a plow to give his cattle a break. Finally, he saved some money and bought a house and a piece of land. Then the Communist Party came in 1949 and his suffering began.” The Party used arbitrary standards to distinguish between peasants and landlords, a status that instantly identified people as class enemies. In some places it was enough to own 3.3 acres. The label sealed the fates of entire families, as chillingly illustrated in the chapter of The Corpse Walker about a former landowner who talks of his wife and children:

The most important thing [was] that we [were] both alive. We [had] a future ahead of us. I told her not to commit suicide or do anything stupid. Since my children were all grown-ups, I told them they could either sever their ties with us or they could leave for faraway places. It was up to them.

As a village teacher, Liao’s father was constantly “struggled against” in the 1950s; and Liao, faced with much the same dilemma, fended for himself in odd jobs, hauling stones from a riverbed, working in a cigarette factory, and later driving trucks back and forth to Tibet. It was during the long trips to Tibet that he began composing poems, writing during rest stops. “A classmate saw them one day and said, ‘I didn’t know you could write poetry.’ We had no idea how big the world was back then, and on the spur of the moment we decided to send some poems to editors.” Soon he was being published in Xing Xing, a prestigious literary journal.

Liao’s poetry won him a place at Wuhan University, in central China. “I had no education then, which is why I failed many times to enter college. But I was kicked out after one semester, because I enrolled in only one course, contemporary literature, and I fell asleep in class.” He still sounds sheepish, almost defensive about his education. Before we had dinner with some Sichuan writers and thinkers, he made a point of telling me that he was one of the province’s least erudite intellectuals.

Liao is deeply interested in victims of arbitrary persecution, people in whose shattered lives his own existence finds reflection and meaning; he writes, to name only a few, of a village teacher, a “rightist,” the father of a slain Tiananmen protester, a “counter-revolutionary.” Liao himself continues to be subject to harassment by the authorities, who object to his growing international renown. In the fall of 2009, he was prohibited from attending a conference in Berlin at the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in February Chinese authorities denied him permission to attend this year’s Cologne literary festival.

In 2008, at the end of a long day spent together interviewing parents whose children were lost in schools that collapsed during the earthquake in Sichuan, Liao took me to an old-fashioned tea house by the banks of the Jiang An River in a nearby city. Parent after parent broke down as they told Liao about the children they lost in the earthquake and the failure of the government to help find them. The government has its own story, its own “face” to protect, Liao said. The government spokesmen say that “unity of will” is paramount, and the accounts of sufferings of individuals must not be allowed to damage it. “But from my point of view there are bones beneath those ruins, and cries, endless cries in my tape recorder. The best I can do is record these bits and pieces, and hear the cries.”