The Prison Notebooks

The brilliant and disquieting non-fiction of Liao Yiwu

The writer Liao Yiwu underwent a transformation in prison from self-obsessed poet to inventive chronicler of the lives of others. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES
01 October, 2013

A QUIP FROM ANOTHER ERA, usually attributed to Aldous Huxley, defined an intellectual as someone—presumably a man—who discovers there are more interesting things in life than women. Reading the exiled Chinese poet and writer Liao Yiwu suggests a less sexist corollary to this badly dated notion: the best writers are artists who have learnt that other people are more interesting than themselves.

Liao, the author of a famous poem of dissent that circulated underground after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, began his writing life as a self-obsessed poet of uncertain quality, and underwent a prison conversion to become a talented and inventive chronicler of the lives of others. His work exhibits the wandering spirit of one of his early heroes, Jack Kerouac, and some of the style of John Dos Passos and Studs Terkel, who drew on the techniques of journalism to capture lives through interviews. One also finds pungent notes of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer of errant political and social observations who, like Liao, was part old-fashioned reporter, part fabulist. But these comparisons are only very approximate, because Liao’s work is so original that it is hard to pigeonhole except in the most generic way, as brilliant literary non-fiction.

In books like The Soccer War, whose title story is about a military conflict between two Central American states sparked by a football match, and The Emperor, a work full of shadows and whispers about palace intrigue during the slow-motion demise of the late Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, Kapuscinski took historical events and heightened them through vivid acts of license-taking re-imagination. In Liao’s best books, like The Corpse Walker, a collection of 27 interviews that bore the subtitle “Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up”, he doesn’t wander the world as Kapuscinski did. Instead he wanders the landscape of his own country, paying little heed to current events, and ferreting out the stories of people who are trying to piece their lives together after the shattering of the Cultural Revolution and the equally radical decades of high-growth state capitalism that followed.

Liao’s unwavering subject is man-made calamity under authoritarianism. His characters are alternately mournful, deeply dazed or simply lost. Liao, too, takes artistic license, heightening the absurdity of their lives by processing his characters’ words through his own hyperbolic imagination and profane tongue.

I was able to witness Liao’s process as a writer when I met him in his hometown, Chengdu, in China’s western Sichuan province, right after the catastrophic 2008 earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people. I had flown in from Shanghai, where I lived, and spent several days riding through the devastated countryside with Liao and his girlfriend and assistant, Jin Qin. Together we hiked through mountainous regions where destroyed roads allowed no passage and interviewed stricken residents of villages who camped outside amid the rubble of their crumbled homes.

Liao was born in 1958, the year that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, whose famine killed as many as 40 million people and stands out as the greatest man-made disaster of modern times. This seemed to have somehow marked him as an author who would instinctively look for the hand of the state in any catastrophe. In Sichuan that deadly summer, his relentless focus was on the collapse of some 7,000 cheaply built schools, whose flattening by the temblor entombed thousands of students; the stories he gathered were published in Chinese in Hong Kong under the title Chronicles of the Big Earthquake.

Liao, a short man with a shiny, shaved head and impish smile, was always relaxed, even laid-back, in conversation, but when he began an interview, his manner shifted to a kind of locked intensity as he generated a torrent of questions. Early on, though, I noticed that he frequently declined to use a tape recorder, and often took no notes at all. When I asked him about this, he told me, with a little sign of defensiveness, “I do my best to reconstruct what people tell me, but it is not 100 percent their own words. That is not the only way to produce the truth.”

IN HIS NEWEST BOOK,For a Song and a Hundred Songs, Liao has taken up what is for him an unaccustomed form—autobiography—and because the bulk of his story takes place in Chinese prisons, this book is not hard to classify at all. It is very much a prison memoir, and one that both the author and publishers wish to position as a successor to the literature of the Soviet Gulag, a desire made evident by the inclusion of a foreword by the Romanian Nobel laureate Herta Müller.

It is not clear that this is necessary. Even when the parallels more or less hold, what is most delightful about Liao’s voice, in this memoir as much as in his non-fiction, is its sheer originality, including a surprising detachment from political engagement for someone who is often branded with the “dissident” label.

For a prison memoir, Liao takes his time putting himself behind bars. First we must explore briefly his early life, as the son of a stern schoolteacher and mother, who were both harshly persecuted as “class enemies” during his childhood in the Cultural Revolution. Liao invokes the hardships of the period, writing that he was undernourished and left stunted, perhaps even slightly mentally impaired, as a result. For all that, his father forced him to memorise classical Chinese literature in great volume, an experience that seemed to him like a meaningless chore.

With his secondary schooling interrupted, he became a truant of sorts, and a self-searching drifter, eventually driving long-haul trucks from his native Sichuan province back and forth to Tibet. Somehow, from this experience, Liao emerged as an attention-drawing poet of some promise in western China. From there, his story fast-forwards to his dissolute early married life, in which he takes callous advantage of his young wife, who dutifully transcribes piles of his work while the writer drinks heavily and carouses at will amid a moving feast of artsy pals and hangers-on.

A more solemn note arises early in the book, when Liao describes the death of his beloved older sister, who was killed in 1988 in a minibus accident on a mountainous road in Sichuan. “Careening down a ridge, [the bus] teetered perilously on the edge of a cliff with its front wheel jutting into the air,” Liao writes. “In the violent descent, Fei Fei was flung out of the bus. Her body flew through the air until it impaled on a sharp tree limb that cut through her waist. When they reached her, she was soaked in blood.”

Here, the author reveals two important qualities that will come to permeate the memoir. The first is a sense of “ravenous grief”—initially over the loss of family, and later over the loss of nearly everything else that matters to him, including his dignity, which he struggles mightily to preserve while in prison—as perhaps the final redeeming quality to life.

The other element one first notes in the car accident is the cinematic quality to Liao’s mind, in which almost everything worth describing has a heightened, almost extreme quality to it. As with his literary non-fiction, where he acknowledges having often taken authorial license, this pushes anecdotes to the edge of literal believability.

Travelling from another part of the province, Liao arrived too late to attend his sister’s funeral, and then found himself unable to properly mourn. He found avant-garde artist friends to hang out and drink with instead, and ended up having sex on the evening of his arrival with a newlywed woman whose husband was away on a business trip. “We quickly turned into two hungry wolves, as if trying to tear out each other’s intestines and lungs,” he writes.

The outbreak of massive student protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 imposes itself as a fateful inflection point for Liao. Many forget that the demonstrations, and the state’s response to them, unfolded slowly before culminating in the massacre of an indeterminate number of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people on the night of 3 June. Liao followed the events from his home in Fuling, a modest city in Sichuan, made famous by Peter Hessler’s powerfully evocative 2006 memoir of life there as an English teacher, River Town. Initially, Liao was unmoved, perhaps unwilling to credit historical significance to something he had been unable to witness or participate in himself. He mostly followed the events indirectly, via updates from the BBC translated for him by a visiting Canadian friend.

On television, though, he happened to see the final public appearance of Zhao Ziyang, the doomed moderate Communist Party general secretary, who used a bullhorn to make a tearful plea to students at the square, urging them to disband before it was too late. Zhao would soon be placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Liao flipped the channel. He writes:

Now the sad and helpless face [of Zhao] morphed into the face of an agitated student leader who raised her fist in the air, calling on those innocent lambs to continue to wage their war against the jackals.

“If she were the premier of China, she would be more ruthless than Li Peng [a notorious hardliner],” I thought. “What an evil troublemaker!”

I switched the TV off and murmured to myself, “It doesn’t matter if the revolution succeeds or not, I wouldn’t benefit either way.” I dug out a half-finished poem and began writing. The night was long. The bloodthirsty moon sported a wolf’s beard. I could hear the echoes of heaven’s howling.

Two weeks later, the events at Tiananmen reached their brutal culmination, as reinforcement troops called in from the countryside were ordered into action, breaking through the barricades of the protesters and firing indiscriminately into the crowds. Word first reached Liao via his Canadian friend. “‘Those bastards,’ I mumbled and turned on the TV. The two anchors, the best at the China Central Television Station, took turns reading an announcement in a solemn and mournful tone—the Party would resolutely crack down on the counterrevolutionary riot in Tiananmen Square… There was no mention of casualties.”

Liao writes that he went to bed, but couldn’t sleep: “The bloody crackdown in Beijing was a turning point in history and also in my own life. For once in my life, I decided to head down a heroic path, one on which I advanced with great fear, scampering at times like a rat with no place to hide.” The result was an epic protest poem that he worked on through the night, roaring, “whatever came to my mind” into a tape recorder. The life of the dissolute poet had suddenly acquired an air of consequence:

And another sort of massacre takes place at utopia’s core

The prime minister catches cold, the people must cough; martial law declared

again and again

The toothless machinery of the state rolls towards those who have the courage to resist the sickness.

Unarmed thugs fall by the thousands; iron-clad professional killers swim in a sea of

Blood, set tires beneath tightly closed windows, wipe their army-regulation boots with the skirts of dead maidens.

In a moment of characteristic grandiosity, Liao made three copies of his recording, and proclaimed them “sparks of fire”. If they didn’t exactly set the prairie ablaze, the poem nonetheless achieved wide circulation clandestinely, first in the form of painstakingly copied cassettes, and eventually as a photocopied text, building an underground following for Liao. Emboldened by his success, he soon abandoned his pregnant wife to travel to Chongqing to make what was intended to be an avant-garde film based on more of his protest poetry. There would be much partying first, though, with a band of merry pranksters who turned casting calls and nights out on the town into drunken orgies. Amid the foolishness, Liao had no clue that the authorities were closing in on him. As he set off one day for Beijing, he was arrested by a team of plainclothes police, who bundled him off to an interrogation centre where he began four years of incarceration.

SUCH WAS LIAO’S NAIVETÉ that he is shocked to learn, upon arriving in prison, that writers are treated no differently than common criminals. He protests that he is not a thief, only to learn that in the parlance of jail, everyone is called a thief; the word serves as a sort of reverse honorific. There are “hot water thieves” who supply cups of hot drinking water to the upper-class prisoners, “floor thieves” who sweep the floor multiple times a day and shine the shoes of their superiors, and even “entertainment thieves”, who sing and dance and provide sexual services. “In my cell, which was no bigger than two hundred and twenty square feet for eighteen men, the rulers had created an exact replica of the state bureaucracy outside,” he writes. “The leaders’ powers were clearly delineated. Leaders and cellmates alike carefully observed the rules and moved cautiously within the hierarchy. If someone accidentally strayed from the path, he risked losing everything. Those in power enjoyed unlimited privileges; the hierarchy even governed the usage of toilet paper, much as in outside society: The chief could use scented napkins to wipe his butt, but the slave thieves had to resort to using wrapping paper or old newspapers.”

Guards inside a Chinese jail. Liao went to prison for four years for his works of dissent after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. ED JONES / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

The rough process of coming to terms with this new world is punctuated, meanwhile, by interrogations, which become affirmatory even as they mark him as a recalcitrant inmate, ensuring even rougher punishment. Liao clings stubbornly to statutory rights that go largely unobserved, and takes visible pleasure in toying with the succession of men sent to question him.

In one early session, he affects a reverential voice to invoke the name of the “senior leader” of his supposedly subversive band, Ma Bufang.

“Ma Bufang? That name sounds familiar,” says the interrogator.

Liao describes him as a very well connected editor in the capital, who will see to it that Requiem—the avant-garde film he made in Chongqing—gets broadcast on national television.

“It suddenly dawned on the monkey that I was playing a joke on him. Ma Bufang was a well-known Chinese warlord at the beginning of the twentieth century.

‘You liar,’ the monkey banged his fist on the desk and stood up. ‘Liao Yiwu, we represent the people. We are not to be screwed around with.’”

During a subsequent run-in, a frustrated officer fixes Liao and pronounces, most aptly, “chicanery seems to be your speciality.” But it would be wrong to suggest a lack of seriousness or moral clarity in Liao’s vocation. He was never a crusading human rights figure, and admits to even refusing to go on hunger strike in solidarity with other inmates who had been branded as “counterrevolutionaries”, for their supposed association with Tiananmen. “Greedy as a pig, I ate every last grain of rice, chewed every shred of meat, and even licked the bowl.”

Nonetheless, he steadfastly played the role of moral burr and conscientious objector. “I’m an individualist, with many incorrigible habits,” he told a more politically militant fellow prisoner. “I was compelled to protest and put myself on a self-destructive path because the state ideology conflicted with the poet’s right of free expression. In all honesty, I could not accept a murderous government that carried out a bloodbath and covered it up. I’m in jail now and I have no regrets. As for forming an organization, I lack interest and experience.”

Liao went into prison completely self-absorbed, overly impressed with his own talents as a poet, and even more so with the social station that he felt such a calling should provide him. During the process of being shuffled through a series of prisons, though, a conversion steadily begins to take hold, as he begins training his minute focus and often enough, his empathy toward other characters. In this fashion, the gulag became the midwife of a very estimable writer, someone able to establish real rapport with selected fellow inmates for the intrinsic interest of their own tragic and absurd lives. For a Song and a Hundred Songs therefore steadily becomes less his own story, and more and more the story of the people he lived with behind bars, who are sketched vividly and with affection.

Readers of Liao’s other books, particularly The Corpse Walker, will recognise the style, and indeed some of the characters, whom he reintroduces here. There is a safe cracker so motivated by the challenge of cracking a lock that he forgets to get away, a cross-eyed robber who accidentally bludgeoned his masked partner in crime, and the man so opposed to China’s one-child policy that he declared his village an independent kingdom, free from government rule, only to have troops sent to arrest him on subversion charges.

When Liao first hears of this last case from another prisoner, even his elastic credulity is stretched. “I swear it’s true,” the inmate says. “You’ll meet him some day. He wrote his letter to the Chinese president with a ballpoint pen and called it his ‘holy edict’. He brazenly addressed President Jiang Zemin as his ‘loyal minister.’”

As I rode with Liao through the disaster zones of Sichuan, I asked him about the purpose of what had by then become an almost obsessive collection of personal stories and oral histories. He answered by invoking Sima Qian, a second-century BC scholar regarded as the father of Chinese historiography—and, more to the point, a scribe who broke with the longstanding tradition of limiting history to dynastic accounts.

“According to Chinese tradition, our history is all about emperors, kings, generals and chancellors,” Liao told me. “There is no history at all of the little people, other than folk history or anecdotal biographies here and there.” Later, in the same conversation, he added, “Chinese people’s brains are always being washed, and no memory survives. What we are concerned with is survival. My task is to recover this memory, to try to describe the truth of these times.”

Two years ago, when I met Liao again in a dark restaurant in Berlin, where he now resides after having been forced into exile, I broached what I thought might be a delicate topic: Chinese writers in exile haven’t had much success remaining relevant back home, or even staying in touch with their society. How would someone like him, whose work was so rooted in reporting, avoid that fate? “I have enough material to write 50 more books,” he boasted. “For me, the hard problem is being quiet.”