Reading: Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System

I was very excited when Liao Yiwu’s For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System was published last year, then it turned out it was in German, and I had to wait until a couple of weeks ago for the translation to arrive. It was naturally completely worth the wait.

Liao Yiwu became for me the most important biographer and writer on China – Chinese or otherwise – when I read The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up in 2008. His next, God is Red: The Secret Story of how Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, I ordered as soon as I heard about it, despite the theme being something I’m not so interested in. Not quite as brilliant as the former, but there is no one writing on China like him.

And finally this one, an auto-biography. In 1989 Liao was a poet in Sichuan, doing what so many heterosexual male writers and artists have done: drinking, fucking, writing, not especially political nor especially self-reflected. Then June 4th happened. Whatever change that caused for him, politicising him, or at least causing an inarticulate anger which poured out in his poetry, it was the Chinese government that created Liao as the writer he now is.

The former two works, writings of his wanderings post-prison years touch upon those four years; it is this, written in prison, confiscated, rewritten, confiscated again, pieced together from memory in the years after that documents that time in its entirety. It’s brutal.

The first part, Liao before prison in the weeks leading up to his arrest, the Tiananmen Massacre, the poem he wrote in response, also his life is of a person who interests me not so much. Married and careless in his relationship, probably not a little misogynist even, Liao’s writing on himself from the distance separated by his prison years also seems to suggest he finds his former self not as admirable, important, honourable as he presumed himself to be in 1989.

And then prison. When I lived in Guangzhou, there was a prison around the corner, perhaps an investigation or detention centre like he spent two years in. One day a bus pulled out, bars on the windows, full of prisoners. I saw a man sitting towards the back who somehow had obtained a syringe and was openly preparing to shoot up. Whatever this place was like inside in my imagination or from what I’ve read elsewhere, I can now only imagine it as like the places Liao was consigned to.

A menu of famous Chinese dishes and delicacies run for four pages. These are not to be eaten as such, more handed out as beatings, humiliations, torture. Liao as a poet, intellectual, counterrevolutionary often escapes the worst, sometimes receives even heavier punishment, nonetheless is neither lower class nor upper class in the prisoner hierarchy. After four years he is released. Little is said here on the years after, so reading this first then The Corpse Walker would probably be a good combination.

Liao escaped China in 2011 via Vietnam and through his publisher’s help came to live in Berlin. Returning is for the moment not a possibility, which also means these three works are something of a trilogy, unless he has a pile of notes from his wanderings that can be turned into subsequent books. So, read it. There is no other writer I know of who writes on China as Liao Yiwu does – poetry and documentary – the real China, the one that is a dictatorship built on the corpses of tens of millions.

Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs

吴皓 hao wu released

Read all about it on Free Hao Wu.

China: Wu Hao released

Filed under: About Hao Wu, News, Nina’s blog — Feng @ 1:05 pm

Following nearly five months in prison, blogger, documentary maker and American permanent resident Wu Hao has been released, as noted in a July 11 post on his sister Nina’s blog:

刚刚得到家里电话, 被告知皓子出来了.谢谢大家的关心,但他需要清静一阵子.

Just got a call at home and informed that Wu Hao is out. Thank you everyone for your concern, but he needs some silence for now. If there is any new information it will be posted on this blog.

Set up soon after her little brother’s arrest by Chinese authorities, Nina’s blog has served as the centerpoint in the campaign to have Hao released. English translations of each of her posts recounted the hostility Nina received in repeated unsuccesful attempts to gain any information on her brother’s whereabouts. Frustrated and fearing how the news would affect her parents’ health, in late May she wrote that her brother had been denied access to a lawyer.

Support was strong across the blogsphere, with hundreds of fellow bloggers posting on Nina and Hao’s story, as well as putting up Free Hao Wu tags. Support was there from some mainstream media, with the Wall Street Journal chipping in just a week ago, and a piece written in The Washington Post by Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon coinciding with Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to America:

“Hao turned 34 this week. He personifies a generation of urban Chinese who have flourished thanks to the Communist Party’s embrace of market-style capitalism and greater cultural openness. He got his MBA from the University of Michigan and worked for EarthLink before returning to China to pursue his dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker. He and his sister, Nina Wu, who works in finance and lives a comfortable middle-class life in Shanghai, have enjoyed freedoms of expression, travel, lifestyle and career choice that their parents could never have dreamed of. They are proof of how U.S. economic engagement with China has been overwhelmingly good for many Chinese.”

Several members of the U.S. Congress wrote letters of concern on Hao’s behalf. We are also grateful for some diplomacy – both quiet and open – conducted elsewhere. Late last week free speech group Reporters Without Borders announced a successful lobbying attempt aimed at the European Parliament, which ratified a resolution on freedom of expression on the internet. Included in the resolution is a list of nine imprisoned bloggers and cyberdissidents, including Hao.

— Free Hao Wu

吴皓 hao wu
吴皓 hao wu

释放吴皓 free hao wu

I started reading Feng 37 a few weeks ago for his endless translations of contemporary Chinese poetry, and being another Guangzhou blogger, he pretty quickly became one of those blogs I’d hope had something new for me to read every day. Early last week, I got an email from him about another blogger who wrote Beijing or Bust, 吴皓 Hao Wu, also on my avalanche of rss feeds, but I didn’t really know much about him, like he’s a documentary filmmaker, and the North East Asia Editor for Global Voices Online among other things.

He’s not writing there at the moment, and if you’re outside China, you can read why at Free Haowu, which you probably can’t even access with anonymous proxies in China, though the mirror hosted here is still open. I don’t usually write about political prisoners, so many other China bloggers do, and I usually don’t think I can add anything, and there’s just so many getting hauled in all the time, I’d have to change my blog name to “supernaut … i whore for dissident of the day”, but one of my closest friends is a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker like Hao Wu, and I keep thinking it’s only a quirk of geography and arbitrary politics that separates the two.

The reason for Hao’s detention is unknown. One of the possibilities is that the authorities who detained Hao want to use him and his video footage to prosecute members of China’s underground Churches. Hao is an extremely principled individual, who his friends and family believe will resist such a plan. Therefore, we are very concerned about his mental and physical well-being.

— RConversation

吴皓 hao wu
吴皓 hao wu

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中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry

The authors of the book 中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry on the appalling lives and working conditions of China’s peasants have won the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The book is currently banned in China, though easily available through the usual black-market outlets across the country, and the authors are currently spending much time in a courtroom defending themselves against one of the odious, corrupt parochial cadres who are the reason the book was written in the first place. The 50 000 euros they have won is about 515 000 rmb, more than what the average peasant would earn in a lifetime.

The first prize, worth 50,000 euro, was given to the Chinese authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao for their unprecedented and controversial book Survey of Chinese Peasants, (People’s Literature Publication Company, Beijing 2003, Chinese). The explosive text is the first thorough investigation into the economic, social and political conditions of the approximately 900 million Chinese peasants, which are almost unknown in the West. It describes the problems of despotism, of arbitrariness, of corruption, of violence which sometimes extends to murder, and lawlessness, along with unjust taxation, from which a large part of the rural population suffers. The book also shows how China’s enforced industrialisation is built largely upon the impoverishment of the Chinese peasantry. This book, compiled with immense courage despite enormous personal risk, swiftly became a best-seller in China. Several million copies were sold before the book was withdrawn from sale in governmental bookshops following an official directive, and now it is only obtainable in pirate form.

中国农民调查 An Investigation of China's Peasantry
中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry

stainless steel mouse

I’d heard about the stainless steel mouse for a while now, but didn’t know any details beyond she’s been arrested and imprisoned for “cyber-dissidence”. International Herald Tribune interviewed her a couple of days ago, which brings the personal reality of repression in China out in ways that standardised reporting of it fail to do. The whole article exposes how easy it is to fall foul of China’s censors, and is an especially good read at the moment with the increased censorship of on-line liberties during the current Hu/Wen/Jiang factional battle.

The restaurant in the fashionable Qianhai district is almost empty, courtesy of the afternoon rains, though a small young woman is sitting on an upstairs sofa, slightly uncomfortable in her chic surroundings. With her oval glasses, shy demeanor and slightly hunched posture, Liu Di looks like a bookworm.

What she does not look like is a threat to anything, certainly not the Chinese government. Yet the government has already imprisoned her for a year. And in recent months, during sensitive dates on the political calendar, officials have posted security officers outside the Beijing apartment she shares with her grandmother.

“They think I’m a dangerous figure,” said Liu, 23, giggling slightly at the thought as she picked at a Thai rice dish.

It is Liu’s other identity that has made her a target of the Communist Party. In the cyberspace of China’s burgeoning Internet, she is Stainless Steel Mouse, an online dissident whose incarceration over her writings attracted international attention from human rights groups that demanded, and eventually helped win, her release.

internet under surveillance

Reporters Sans Frontiers recently released their report Internet Under Surveillance, which includes a country-by-country analysis of “Obstacles to the free flow of information online”.

With a total of 61 Internet users in detention at the start of May 2004, China is the world’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents. It is also the country where the technology for e-mail interception and Internet censorship is most developed. What’s more, the authorities recently decided to tighten the vice and roll back the few gains made by Internet users in recent years.

The Chinese authorities use a clever mix of propaganda, disinformation and repression to stifle online free expression. Initial hopes that the Internet would develop into an unfettered media and help liberalize China have been dashed. What has happened in China has shattered generally accepted ideas. The Internet can indeed become a propaganda media. On its own, it will not suffice to support the emergence of democracy in any significant way. And it can be totally controlled by a government that equips itself to do so.

Indeed, the way the Chinese government has sabotaged online dissent offers a model for dictatorships around the world. Cuba and North Korea stifled online dissent by limiting the Internet’s development. The Chinese government unfortunately proved that the Internet can be developed and sterilized at the same time.


I wasn’t going to blog about this at all, especially because so many other people have done so and are able to say so much more than me. On Saturday night though, I was with my good friend Paul having drinks at his house with a couple of others, talking about art. The conversation moved from the stultifying nature of alot of art in Australia at the moment to how art can cause the kind of outrage and shock disproportionate to effect. How is it that works of art like Ken Park, Jake and Dinos Chapman, even Britney Spears acheive so much more attention than say the daily inexorable mundane deaths of miners in China, which is something really worth getting outraged at. So Tiananmen Square got mentioned and the whole deal of people not actually dying in the square but that the surrounding streets was where the massacre took place. They had read the articles in the paper on Saturday and said, “Well what about the stones in the square that had to be replaced because of bullet marks?”, which reminded me that even intelligent people who genuinely care are only able to experience an approximate truth unless a big effort is made. With the Communist Party amidst more pernicious revisionism of the whole thing, and the daily media too lazy to explain what the catchy title “Tiananmen Square Massacre” really means, rather than write about it, I thought I’d just link to everything I’ve read in the last week.

Living in China have a list of links to blogs and newspaper articles.

Brainysmurf – I’m Beat also has written about it a few times.

Glutter in Hong Kong has devoted much of the last week to the massacre.

Peking Duck also has a couple of entries from people who were there.

Daii Tou Laam has this piece about William Hinton, author of author of The Great Reversal: The Privitization of China – 1978-1989.

Recently I found a very poor quality video of the tankman, standing in front of the line of tanks, dancing around as the driver tried to go around instead of making paté out of him, climbing onto the tank, it’s much more real to me than the photo which has become a brand, however powerful its symbolism. For me though this photo is the one that reminds me the Chinese government is both absolutely insane and utterly corrupt, and brings the massacre to a human scale.

In 2000 in Melbourne I was a cyclist in the S-11 anti-globalisation protests. The bike couriers kept the whole thing coherent while it stretched across 1/2 of Southbank, provided communications, and much more, and were there when the riot police did their charge. I read that the couriers in Beijing were the ones who pulled people who had been shot out and took them to hospital, and were the first to be targeted because in the pre-digital era of only fifteen years ago they were the number one line of communication. While the rest of the world sees the man and the tank, I want to remember people on bicycles.

June 04 1989
June 04 1989

Reporters Sans Frontiers China Annual Report 2004

Reporters Sans Frontiers China Annual Report 2004

Reporters Sans Frontiers have released their Annual Report on China. The major event of the past 12 months was the change of power to the 第四代 disidai – The Fourth Generation headed by President Hu Jintao. In spite of high hopes this would usher in a more open era of social and political liberties, there has been little evidence of a government prepared t relinquish its absolute control of the population, as evidenced by the worsening press freedom.

“2003 was the year of the corruption of the Chinese media,” said Liu Feng, editor in chief of the weekly Zhongguo Xinwen Zhoukan. He said the Chinese media, dominated by the party, had no choice but to obey the wishes of top officials and to let themselves be corrupted. Bribes are commonplace in the profession, in particular to organise reporting or an article, to attend a press conference. In October, four journalists working for the Xinhua news agency in central Shanxi province were punished for acepting money the previous year from the owner of a mine where there had been a serious accident. The journalists did not report the news.

Although the Beijing government promised that journalists covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be able to work freely, foreign and special correspondents remained tightly controlled. The Chinese communist party refuses to allow them to freely investigate dissidence, underground religious movements, corruption, Aids in Hunan province, strikes, the plight of North Korean refugees, natural catastrophes or Tibetan or Uighur separatism. The battle of the airwaves hotted up in 2003 between the Chinese government and international radio stations broadcasting in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan. In Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, several campaigns were launched to counter separatism condemned as “terrorism”.

The lengthy report gives details on all 23 reporters currently in prison, those who were arrested, physically attacked, threatened, and harassment and obstruction. Also covered are the major stories including the cover-up of SARS last year, the Nanfang Zhuomo newspaper issue, and suppression of internet dissidents.