The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

Copyright The New York Review of Books
The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up
by Liao Yiwu, translated from the Chinese with an introduction by Wen Huang, and with a foreword by Philip Gourevitch
Anchor, 328 pp., $15.95 (paper)
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.
s 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.
ne 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.
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