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