2 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by P. T. Smith on For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu, from New Harvest.

Straying for a moment from fiction and poetry reviews, we asked Patrick to contribute re this translated memoir from poet Liao Yiwu, who—let’s just keep it simple—has been through a hell of a lot and then some. Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review.

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.

Fpr the rest of the review, go here.

2 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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.”

20 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From Publishing Perspectives:

In honor of his “eloquent and fearless battle against political repression,” the German Publishers and Booksellers Association has awarded its prestigious 2012 Peace Prize to Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who walked out on his native country and landed in Germany a year and a half ago to pursue what he calls “freedom to write and publish.”

“In his prose and poetry, Liao Yiwu erects an evocative literary monument to those people living on the margins of Chinese society,” says the statement issued by the association’s board of trustees. “The author, who has experienced first-hand the effects of prison, torture and repression, is an unwavering chronicler and observer who bears witness on behalf of the outcasts of modern China.”

A native of Sichuan, China, Liao Yiwu is a poet, musician, novelist and documentarian. He has authored Corpse Walker, God is Red, For a Song and A Hundred Songs and Bullets and Opium, all of which have been translated into multiple languages including English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish and Polish.

In the Corpse Walker, for which the Peace Prize was given, Liao has recorded his interviews with 27 Chinese living at the bottom rungs of society, from a grave robber and a leper, to a professional mourner paid to wail at funerals, and a human trafficker. Liao’s research took 11 years, and his final product is a stunning series of portraits of a generation and class of individuals ignored in history books and unacknowledged in the accounts of the Communist China.

And congrats by proxy to Wen Huang, who both wrote this piece for Publishing Perspectives, and translated The Corpse Walker into English.

12 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liao Yiwu, author of The Corpse Walker and one of China’s “most exciting and most censored writers” is making his first U.S. appearance tomorrow night.

In and of itself, this is pretty cool—The Corpse Walker is a damn fine book, and he’s going to be appearing with Philip Gourevitch and Salman Rushdie—but the event has been made even more memorable since Liao Yiwu escaped from China to German this summer.

Here’s an email he sent out back in April:

Friends: I originally planned to leave for the United States on April 4 in order to make a publicity tour for my book God is Red which will be published in English translation by Harper Collins and for my book The Corpse Walker which was published by Random House. Unexpectedly, on March 28th, the police issued an order forbidding me to leave China. I had originally planned to travel to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington and other cities and to give lectures, readings and musical performances at Harvard, Yale and other universities as well as participate in the New York Literary Festival where I was to make a speech and perform, and to have a dialogue with writers from around the world on the theme “Contemporary Writer and Bearing Witness to History”. Now all this has been canceled. My new book is also going to be published in Australia. My plan to travel from the United States to Australia has also been canceled. Ever since my return from Germany last year, I have been closely monitored. The police have “invited me to drink tea” many times. My writing has been repeatedly interrupted. I have once again been forbidden to travel abroad for national security reasons. Over the last ten or so years I have strived to get the right to travel abroad 16 times. I succeeded once and failed 15 times. Thank you all for your concern for me over the years. Liao Yiwu

So if you’re in the NY area, you should definitely check this out. It’s taking place tomorrow, September 13th at 8pm at the Tishman Auditorium at the New School (66 W. 12th St., between 5th and 6th Aves). Tickets are $20 or $15 for PEN Members and students. More information—including a link to buy tickets—is available here.

4 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liao Yiwu is the author of “The Corpse Walkers: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.” On June 4, 1989, Liao composed a poem, “Massacre,” that condemned the government’s brutal crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. He distributed underground and for which he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. The following, which profiles one of Liao’s inmates, is taken from his prison memoir, “Testimonial.”

Wei Yang is a native of Dujiangyan in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. His head looks disproportionately large and he speaks with a thick accent as if he had a disproportionately large tongue. While in jail, he seldom talked and was anti-social. Beneath that loner’s appearance, he possessed the agility of a squirrel, smart and alert. He moved swiftly and mysteriously.

Yang came from a poor family. Before his arrest in 1989, he was in his teens, attending a local vocational school. Like most self-absorbed teenagers, he seldom paid any attention to politics or current affairs. However, the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4 outraged him and turned him into an activist. Out of the blue, he fabricated an organization called “The China Democratic Alliance,” claiming that CDA was a longstanding pro-democracy organization overseas. Yang designed and printed a dozen CDA posters, urging people in Sichauan to stand up against the brutal regime, avenge the death of innocent students in Beijing and overthrow the central government. He boldly pasted the posters prominently at public venues. To add authenticity to his creation, he even made up a name at the bottom of the poster—“the Sichuan branch of the China Democratic Alliance.” The sudden appearance of those counterrevolutionary posters with explicit anti-government messages shocked authorities in Sichuan. Local officials escalated the case into a top national emergency and requested assistance from both the provincial and central governments. Top experts gathered in Sichuan to share information and conduct joint investigations. More than one hundred policemen were mobilized and ordered to solve the case quickly before “this counterrevolutionary organization” could create more damage.

Yang was quick on his feet. Upon hearing that police were on his trail, he picked up two big albums of stamps and ran. He remained on the lam for half a year, wandering around in ten different southern metropolises. “I started collecting stamps as a child,” he said to me after he got caught and landed in my cell. “Each time I arrived at a city, I would hang out at the stamp market for a couple of hours. The money I got from stamp transaction would last me for a few days.”

Yang’s case, which alarmed the central government and gained national notoriety, remained unresolved for months. When the real culprit was finally caught, the fatigued police were shocked, disappointed and depressed to see the “menacing” counter-revolutionary that they had pursued for half a year was merely an innocent looking teenager with a pair of big round eyes. What made them feel more insulted was the fact that Yang had no overseas connection, as he had claimed in the poster. He had no clue as to what a democratic alliance meant. When asked to cough up the names of the key members of the CDA in Sichuan, he admitted: “I, myself, hold the titles of chairman, deputy chairman, publicity manager and secretary.”

The public security bureau and the court staff realized that they had been duped. Out of anger, they had him beaten up and thrown into a detention center. Several days later, indictment papers came. Then, they put him on trial. “I took lots of mental notes and was prepared to engage in a debate with the judge about the student movement in Tianamen,” Yang recollected. “They didn’t take me to a courtroom. Instead, I was led into a small office. The paper with the verdict had already been prepared and lay on a desk. Once I walked in, the judge picked up the paper, handed it to me and told me to move my ass out of the way. When I refused to leave, he grabbed a document folder with both hands and began to hit me hard on the head. Then he yelled: ‘Get the hell out of here.’”

The judge charged him with counterrevolutionary demagoguery and sentenced him to three years in jail.

He was barely twenty years old. Initially, the authorities put him in charge of a warehouse for the prison factory. While nobody was looking, he slipped notes into the goat skin gloves that prisoner had produced for export. On the notes, he reminded people that the products were made in prison and urged customers to boycott the manufacturer. As a consequence, the merchandize, valued at about two million yuan (US$300,000), was returned from Hong Kong. The prison authorities launched an investigation and easily uncovered the hidden traitor. In retaliation, the prison guards hung him upside down from the ceiling for several days.

Subsequently, they assigned Yang to clean the factory workshops. He buddied up with a convicted murderer from Henan province, who was over six feet tall. Yang followed him everywhere. The two constantly got into quarrels. When that happened, Yang would tilt his head backward and stare at his companion with anger. He resembled more like a tiny mouse protesting against a big evil cat.

One time, all the political prisoners staged a hunger strike, but the guards enticed the common criminals to sabotage the efforts. The political prisoners found themselves surrounded by a group of hostile convicted criminals, which far outnumbered them. The big cat from Henan spotted Yang, the mouse, swooped on him with his big claws and then grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Yang was swung high up in the air, his legs kicking like an astronaut inside a space shuttle. The big cat still wouldn’t let him down. People from both camps burst out laughing. For many years, the scene haunted me and kept occurring in my dreams. I would see him being held up in the air by an invisible hand, struggling to get down. When I woke up, I would always find my own legs kicking.

In the spring of 1993, Yang served out his sentence and was allowed to go home. He became a laborer, pedaling a tricycle to transport beer for small restaurants along the Yangtse River. Once he had earned enough money to take care of his basic needs, he became restless. He traversed the country twice. He was a true friend. While in Guizhou, he encountered a former inmate and brought him back to Sichuan. Yang offered his place to that friend for a long time. One day, my phone rang. I picked it up and nobody was there. As I was puzzling over the anonymous phone call, my door bell rang. It was Yang—he had just called me on his cell phone outside.

Yang looked weary and his face was covered with dirt. It turned out that he had just gotten off a long ride on a slow train from the coastal city of Shenzhen. He had come directly from the train station to pay tribute. “I’ve gotten gifts for you. These gifts have been smuggled in from Hong Kong. Two copies of Beijing Spring, a popular magazine published by dissident writers in the West and a book, _The Disasters of China’s Leftists._” Then, Yang flashed a 100 Hong Kong dollar bill with Queen Elizabeth’s head printed on it in front of my eyes: “Have you seen it before?”

My eyes sparkled at the sight of money. I examined and squeezed the one hundred dollar bill, feigning great interest. Then, I complimented him sarcastically: “You are very much in tune with the mood of this country, money, money, money.” His face blushed, looking like a Red Delicious apple.

Later, I was told that Yang had decided to reform himself, shutting himself away and reading banned books on promoting democracy in China. He also developed a passion for Chinese and foreign detective stories. Yang made tremendous progress both in his possession of knowledge and gadgets – he was well versed in Chinese politics and equipped himself with a beeper, a fax machine and cell phone.

Inspired by ideas from the many detective novels he had read, he launched an underground pro-democracy movement and learned how to contend with his enemies. After undertaking hundreds of scientific experiments, he acquired a new skill for writing secret notes with a special ink. The notes will remain invisible until you soak the paper in clear water for a few minutes (This special ink, mentioned in several revolutionary novels, was said to be invented by the subversive underground Chinese Communists who engaged in activities to sabotage the ruling Nationalist government in the 1940s).

Somehow, Yang managed to get connected with a dissident at a human rights organization in the US and communicated with him regularly. He enlisted my help in obtaining letters from imprisoned political dissidents and disseminated their information to the international community. We were both caught and locked behind bars for more than twenty days. The latest arrest made Yang more paranoid. “The police are omnipresent, like the bugs in your stomach. You feel their presence when you eat, and when you fart and shit.”

He further improved his spying techniques and always complained that other dissidents wouldn’t be able to appreciate his efforts. One time, while visiting me at home, he bypassed me to present a pot of flowers to my father, who wasso touched that he carefully tended the flowers, giving it water and fertilizer. Little did I know that a secret note was hidden at the bottom of the pot. It was a letter to warn me of a possible police search. Two months later, after Yang mentioned the letter, I dashed over to the pot and dug up the note. It was mainly decomposed with a couple of worms squirming over it.

If the “Chinese Democratic Alliance” was a mere figment of his imagination in 1989, he made it reality eight years later. When dissident Wang Youcai and his friends established the “China Democratic Party” in the summer of 1998, Yang and his friends responded and formed the Sichuan branch. Police soon got wind of their political endeavors. Two leading members, Liu Xianbin and She Wanbao were arrested and immediately sentenced to ten years behind bars. Yang also found himself surrounded by plainclothes police who were stationed outside his apartment. He felt like a turtle in a vat. Calmly, Yang stepped out of his apartment, carrying a bucket of ashes downstairs and pretended to dump garbage. As police closed in on him, he tossed the bucket in the air. The dust blinded his captors and Yang ran away.

Like a nervous deer chased by a predator, Yang went up north, attempted to cross over to Russia through Jiamusi city, but that failed miserably. He had no alternative but returned to Sichuan, staying at different places and playing hide and seek with police. Not long afterward, he forged an identity card and joined a tour group for Thailand. Immediately upon arriving in Bangkok, he claimed to be horny and insisted on visiting the red light district. He got into a taxi and recklessly directed the driver to the American Embassy in Thailand. Sweaty and stinky, he stepped into the American territory and cried like a baby. He said he had finally tasted freedom.

In the winter of 1998, I received a fax from Yang, saying that he had been kicked out of the American Embassy and found himself on the streets. Since Thailand is well-known for its Buddhist charity, I later heard tales of Yang being picked up by a group of monks. He earned a living as a temple cleaner. Out of sympathy and friendship, I contacted friends in the West, seeking assistance for Yang. Political asylum turned out to be more complicated than I had expected.

Four years later, the dissident friend at the US-based human rights organization informed me that Yang’s political asylum status had been confirmed and he would soon be transferred to a United Nations refugee camp. He would be given US$200 per month to cover his housing and food. “The money can barely feed his stomach,” says the friend. “But it’s better than nothing. I’m trying to locate a country that will accept him, but it’s very difficult. We have to jump all sorts of hurdles. He has to do a lot to prove himself.”

I felt so bad for Yang, but knowing his past ingenuity, I knew that he would somehow survive.

One day in July of 2004, a writer friend invited me out for tea and shared with me the news that Yang had arrived in Canada.

“He has a new phone now and tried to call you many times and said he couldn’t get through?” said my friend.

“Really? I’m sure he will call again,” I said.

(Special thanks to Wen Huang for sending us this translation of Liao Yiwu’s piece. Very appropriate for today, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or June Fourth Incident.)

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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. [. . . ]


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