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.)
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .