For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey through a Chinese Prison

With two previous versions confiscated by Chinese authorities before being published in Germany in 2011, and coming now into English with an introduction by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, Liao Yiwu’s memoir of years spent in a human rights–violating Chinese prison comes with immediate political and social creditials; For a Song and a Hundred Songs is a book that you, the educated, enlightened reader “should” read, to learn more about that culturally relevant Other. Yet, with the author’s honesty, poetical eye and ear, and dedication to his own personal sense of China, it becomes something so much more interesting.

Opening with a brief account of his older sister’s life and her tragic death in a bus accident, Liao Yiwu makes it clear that this work is a personal endeavor, calling her his “first imaginary reader.” He begins before the student protests, outside of them, marking change in China by the era of automobiles instead of with any political changes. It soon becomes clear that Yiwu did not intend to be a political poet, in fact had no interest in the process or aims of such poetry. This attitude remains recognizable in him even today. On a number of occasions, he finds bitter, humored satisfaction in knowing that his most loyal readers are policemen reading his writing, looking for threatening political messages, trying to decipher hidden means to object to, an effort which in the end serves as the authorities imbuing the work with a threatening power that was not there till they found it.

The poem that lands him in jail (“The Massacre,” published at the end of the book in an English translation by one of Yiwu’s most driven counterrevolutionary friends, Michael Day), comes as the memoir itself does: not from political or cultural goals, but from a consistent attempt to recognize humanity in both compassion and cruelty. He is unflinching in showing that compassion and cruelty are a package deal of being human. Before his arrest, he portrays himself as a selfish, distant husband, capable of violence against his wife and others. In prison, at times he plays himself the monkish hero, at other times a brute, other times simply casually mean; guards can be kind and reasonable, they also torture prisoners for fun; prisoners protect, care for, and even love each other, they also humiliate, beat, and rape each other (of all the seemingly never-ending stomach-churning difficult passages to read, the “menu” of torture and humiliation options that inmates serve each other is one of the most difficult, emphasized by its bare-bones telling). Early on, Yiwu tells us that he “never intended to be a hero, but in a country where insanity ruled, I had to take a stand. ‘Massacre’ was my art and my art was my protest.” Notably, this, one of his strongest statements on the poem, comes after showing not the insanity of those in power, but the cruelty and insanity the average, “brave and fearless” small-town Chinese are capable of.

This ability to see complexities keeps For a Song and a Hundred Songs an interesting read in other ways. There is a freshness in the book, even toward the end of his time in prison when tales seem to become redundant (which is a humbling, embarrassing complaint as a reader when the writer lived through these horrific conditions for years). There is no absolute way of things in Yiwu’s world—after Yiwu states his poem is his “only reason to live,” one of his fellow inmates tells him: “Only a lunatic clings to a set rule.” Yiwu never sees completeness in the totalitarian state. The state can admit fault, but deny ever doing so later; guards can be brutal rulers, but be undermined by clever prisoners, prisoners rule each other, but their leaders can fall from power. The inmates on death row, with the clearest, nearest end, are often the ones who manage to hold onto power most tightly.

The prose moves between straightforward, no-nonsense accounting of fact and event, which makes for a quick, page-turning reading (helped along by the many brief chapters, a decision made by the translator, presumably to help the simple-minded American, so normally incapable of reading long chapters), and a neat, keen attention to all details. These details come in two basic types: those which exist in baseness, the layout of a cell, exactly how two prisoners handcuffed together make it through their days, the smells that one sleeps with when their bed is next to a toilet, or the barely-sustaining food they are fed; and in the poetic, kissing of a car window in a gesture toward a nearby butterfly, the prisoners’ attention to a dove that visits them in the prison yard, Yiwu’s learning to play the flute and listening to his teacher play from cells away. All of his details give the memoir its strongest life. It is easy to read historical fiction about Tiananmen Square and the protests, but when he tells of pickpockets and burglars posting notices announcing moratoriums on their work in support of the protests, you can live with the story instead of educating yourself about the events. The hardships of prison life can be easily documented, but moments like Yiwu sharing his inspiration to put toothpaste in his anus to cool off in a cruel heat, and the strive against other hardships has brightness. This isn’t to say that the prose is continually grounded; Yiwu’s poetics allow him to move past the plainness that can be associated with memoir, as when people become animals continually throughout the book (late in the book, I chose a random chapter and counted: five animal associations in little over four pages). He takes freedom in movement, like when a prisoner digging in garbage for food begins “thin as a monkey” before fully becoming a monkey, only to then begin to transform into a worm: “The hungry monkey jumped up and wiggled his way into the crowd like a worm.” There are times when the writing simply moves the story forward, and there are times when the aspirations of aesthetics or twists of sight don’t reach their aims and fall dead, but never enough to turn one away.

Wenguans Huang’s translation of For a Song and a Hundred Songs brings a new voice and story to a larger tradition. Numerous references to Solzehnitsyn, Orwell, and Kundera are made. They are part of a conversation in which Yiwu would be a silent participant were it not for his freedom in Germany and Huang’s translation in English. Yiwu writes as a Chinese man under a totalitarian rule, and he makes this perspective clear, though quietly insisting on presenting a version of China that he has faith in and loves, as when he embarrasses an interrogator by claiming to have been on his way to meet Ma Bufang, who the interrogator eventually remembers as a Chinese warlord from the twentieth century; or when, at the end of the book, Yiwu learns to play the flute on a hollow bamboo stick from an illiterate monk. Yiwu’s China is not only the government, or the development of capitalist system, but as a poet who “dream[s] of the dead,” it is the past and the future, but also the complex, heroic, and selfish individual he portrays himself to be.

If asked what I learned about China in reading Yiwu’s memoir, my answer is simple: the expression isn’t “two peas in a pod,” but rather “two melons from the same vine.”

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