A Tribute to the Chinese Earthquake Victims

My friend Wen Huang — translator of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker and Xianhui Yang’s Woman from Shanghai — contacted me this morning about the article below that Liao Yiwu wrote in remembrance of the one year anniversary of the devastating Beichuan earthquake.

As referenced in passing in the piece below, Liao Yiwu is a poet and novelist, who spent four years in jail after publishing “Massacre,” an epic poem condemning the killings in Tiananmen Square. His book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, came out from Pantheon last April to great acclaim.

On May 12, 2008, a major earthquake struck Beichuan in Sichuan province, about 80 kilometers from where I live. It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed.

I don’t know if the dead are resting in peace, but those who survived continue to be tormented by the memory of death. Recently, there have been a lot of stories circulating on the internet about an increase in suicide rates in the disaster area. A widely reported case involved a 33-year-old resident in Beichuan who had lost his wife and son in the earthquake. He used to be an outgoing optimist, but on New Year’s Eve he was found in a pool of blood with his wrist slit. Luckily, his relatives discovered early and got him to the hospital in Mianyang city where the doctor was able to rescue him.

A Chinese psychologist categorized this incident as an example of “impulsive suicide” triggered by Chinese holidays. The doctor said that every festival or anniversary has the potential to cause an insurmountable amount of stress for survivors. That reminds me of two lines from a well-known Chinese poem: “A stranger in a foreign land I cast, I miss my family on festival days.”

Each time a disaster hits China, we all become refugees and strangers in our own land. The famines of 1959 and 1962 left thirty million dead. The Cultural Revolution caused the deaths of between two and seven million people. The devastating earthquake in Tangshan claimed the lives of 240,000 . . . We survivors struggle on, living meaningless lives like pigs and dogs. In the Mao era, the Party used to call on people to “wipe clean the blood stains on your face, bury the bodies of your comrades and move on . . .” According to Western standards of mental health, almost every Chinese person is suffering from some mental illness—such as post-traumatic stress disorder. We are all the descendants or contemporaries of various man-made and natural catastrophes.

I was caught in the middle of the earthquake one month after my book Corpse Walker was released in the United States. I rushed out of my house and survived. Suddenly, I found myself the center of attention from friends and the media. I talked non-stop about my experience and expressed my frustration and inability to help. Then, some friends overseas reminded me of my duty as a writer: “You need to go to the epicenter and record real history. The misfortune of a country is the fortune of historians. This is an opportunity and mission from heaven.” They were right. I felt like transforming myself from a lazy dog into a mechanical one. I dragged my girlfriend along and sniffed around the debris for months, interviewing survivors and listening to their stories. I kept what I had seen and heard in a journal every day. As summer turned into winter, I finally had the opportunity to compile my journal into a book called The Big Earthquake.

In January, news came from Australia that the Chinese version of The Big Earthquake won me an award from the Melbourne-based Qi’s Cultural Foundation. I immediately looked up the organization and realized that the award was set up in memory of a former Chinese political prisoner, Qi Zunzhou. Coincidentally, Mr. Qi was my alumni at the No. 2 Sichuan Provincial Prison, where I spent two years for writing and distributing my poem “Massacre” after the government’s crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement in 1989.

The prize came as a shock. It was encouragement from one political prisoner to another. I was touched and enticed, like a prisoner hearing the sound of keys outside his dark cell. I saw a ray of hope. Thus, based on the instructions from the award administrators, I carefully planned my trip.

As I began to marvel at the power of an invisible hand leading and guiding me in life, my phone rang. It was the local police calling to set up a meeting.

It was a sunny afternoon, right after Chinese New Year’s. Mr. Zeng, the local police chief showed up, looking weary and distracted. He officially conveyed to me the government decision to reject my application for a passport. When I asked for more explanation, he said: “You know what I mean.”

I nodded in response: “Of course. It’s going to be an eventful year—one year after the earthquake, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen student movement, the 10th anniversary of government’s crackdown on Falun Gong, and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Those milestones pose many potential headaches for the government. I know . . . but what does this have to do with my traveling abroad?”

Despite Mr. Zeng’s warning, I refused to give up. As public security officials in my hometown were busy handling the aftermath of the earthquake, I quickly changed my residential registration and obtained a new one at a small town nearby. With that new registration card, I was able to obtain a passport, which the public security bureau in Chengdu had denied me nine times.

For the next month, I lived in a state of constant worry. First, I submitted my visa application at the Australian consulate and went there for an interview. Seeing the hesitation on the consul’s face, I declared loudly: “I won’t use this award opportunity to escape to your country and claim what many of my pathetic fellow countrymen have done—political asylum. I’m not a swindler. I’m a writer who thrives on the tales of people living at the bottom rung of society. I’m rooted here despite the fact I hate it. The air in Australia is fresher but I can’t live on fresh air alone.”

The tone of my voice carried such confidence. Deep down, I experienced gnawing pain. It’s been a hard life as a writer. During the past two decades, I have interviewed more than 300 different people at the bottom of society and chronicled their lives caught in the tumultuous political campaigns and disasters. So far, none of my books has been allowed to see the light of the day in China. It’s only thanks to the internet that I’m able to find space for my writings.

After much “begging,” I was granted a visa. I then consulted with a group of nerdy intellectual friends, whose detailed analyses led to one conclusion: Brother, don’t act recklessly. We are living in a big country ruled by a powerful totalitarian government. Don’t even wander close to the immigration checkpoints at major airports. You could get yourself into trouble.

I emphasized the fact that I had legal documents—a passport and visa. My response triggered loud laughter: “Old Liao, you are over 50 years old, yet you still haven’t grown up. Your longing for freedom have blindsided you to the point that you don’t even see the reality.” Even my lawyer reminded me to cling to my passport if the guard stops me: “Don’t let them snatch it away.”

I was determined and came up with an elaborate plan. Together, my companion and I packed up a big package and boarded the train from Chengdu to Nanning, Guangxi province. I rushed over to the China-Vietnam border. I wiped out any traces of my escape by turning off my cell phone and closing my email accounts. The only thing I didn’t do was to have plastic surgery. On my way there, a smirk constantly appeared on my face—I would finally outsmart the Party—there is no way that they would know that I try to sneak out to Australia through Vietnam.

Looking back, it shouldn’t surprise me that I got caught at the immigration check point. As my girlfriend and I joined the crowd and moved with the line, an officer spotted me and asked me to step out. I put down my travel bag, which stood as tall as me, and handed over my passport.

“Is this your first time to travel abroad? Where is your domestic ID card?” he asked sternly.

I pulled it out of my wallet and presented it to him.

The officer took the information and with the clicking of his keyboard, he entered it into the computer. He then raised his head and looked at me solemnly: “There’s a problem. Could you wait inside this office for a few minutes?”

“Do you want to check my luggage?” I asked with feigned innocence.

“Yes,” he said. Then, four policemen followed me into an office nearby. They didn’t search me at all. They simply detained me for more than two hours while they checked with higher authorities. Finally, they produced a written report for me: Liao Yiwu, based on Article 8 of the Chinese Immigration Regulation, you have been barred from leaving the country.

I didn’t argue with them. Cold sweat streamed down my face.

I still wouldn’t give up so easily. After leaving the immigration office, I walked over to a border village. I scouted the border line—a huge muddy pool with several wooden stakes lined up in the middle. It would be equally challenging to cross over from there.

I returned to the bus station and got on a bus to Yunnan province. About twelve hours later, I arrived at Mengzi. Another five or six hours later, I found myself at Hekou County. I could see Vietnam from across the river. As I passed the immigration office, I encountered the same treatment. The power of the computer networks! Like a Chinese saying goes: The net of heaven stretches far and wide, coarse mesh letting nothing through.

I spent two weeks traversing back and forth for thousands of miles. My plan failed miserably. I returned to my hometown, exhausted. Yet, it was a beautiful dream of freedom. When I wake up, I’m still here.

While writing the book about the earthquake, my mind had reached a point of saturation. For quite some time, I was reluctant to talk about the book and revisit the purgatory scenes of death and pain. However, when news of the award came, I thought I could use the opportunity to see the ocean on the other side of the hemisphere and breathe some fresh air. Maybe the temporary freedom would help ease my jangled nerves. Now, I have to stay—the dream is certainly beyond my reach.

Each time I ran into some obstacles in life, I would blame it on fate. Considering the fact that I survived the devastating earthquake while so many people have died, I don’t have a single reason to complain. Therefore, I want to dedicate this award, as tribute to the earthquake victims, as a ceremony to mourn for the masses that have been neglected, tortured and slaughtered, as a chronicle that records the battles between the masses and the corrupted officials and between memory and forgetfulness.

Many years later, this award will make people remember my book, remembering a shameful chapter in contemporary Chinese history.

May 12, 2009, Chengdu, Sichuan province

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