Liao Yiwu’s Persistent Voice
The Chinese writer Liao Yiwu is a best-seller in Germany. So it’s absurd for the Chinese government to imagine it can prevent him from being heard there. But yesterday morning, Chinese authorities dragged Liao off a plane in Chengdu, where he lives, as he was preparing to fly off to Cologne to attend a literary festival. He was detained and questioned for three hours, then sent home, where he remains under house arrest.
This is an all too familiar condition for Liao, who has been in and out of jail for his fearless insistence on speaking freely for himself and for many of his countrymen since the late 1980s, when he was locked away for four years for reciting his poem “Massacre.” In prison, Liao’s defiance of authority earned him endless beatings, and with them the baffled respect of his fellow inmates, who lovingly nicknamed him the Big Idiot for his stubborn unwillingness to shut up. Last year, on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Liao wrote a piece for the Paris Review called “Nineteen Days”—in which he recorded how he had spent every June 4th since 1989. Too many of them were spent being detained or hassled by the authorities.
Far from muzzling Liao, imprisonment has led him to much of his best writing. He took a liking to the criminals with whom he found himself captive, and after his release he began conducting a series of interviews with Chinese outcasts and outlaws—the sort of poor, marginal, tradition-bound folk that Maoist doctrine pretends has been eradicated by Communism. His collections of these interviews were spectacularly popular in China, before the censors caught wind of them and suppressed them. I had the good luck to publish the first of them in English in the Paris Review five years ago, including the masterpiece “The Public Toilet Manager,” which I had the honor to read aloud at a reading organized by the PEN American Center in 2008, “Bringing Down the Great Firewall of China: Silenced Writers Speak.”
Last year, a splendid collection of Liao’s interviews, translated by Wen Huang, was brought out by Pantheon under the title “The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.” This is the book that became a bestseller in Germany. In a prefatory note to that volume, I wrote:
Liao Yiwu is an original, but it seems a very good bet that writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Jack London, Nikolai Gogol and George Orwell, Francois Rabelais and Primo Levi would have recognized him at once as a brother in spirit and in letters. He is a ringmaster of the human circus, and his work serves as a powerful reminder—as vital and necessary in open societies lulled by their freedoms as it is in closed societies where telling truthful stories can be a crime—that it is not only in the visible and noisy wielders of power but equally in the marginalized, over-looked, and unheard that the history of our kind is most tellingly inscribed.
Liao’s latest arrest reminds us of that, too. When he got home from questioning after being pulled from the plane yesterday, he sent out an e-mail, saying:
Words alone cannot express my outrage. I never considered myself to be a political dissident. I had no interest in politics or in drafting any political manifestos, but my friend Liu Xiaobo was right when he said, “To gain and preserve your freedom and dignity, there is no other way except to fight.”
I will continue to write, document, and broadcast the stories of people living at the bottom rung of society, despite the fact that my stories won’t please the Communist Party of China. I have the responsibility to make people understand the true spirit of the Chinese, which will outlast the rule of the totalitarian government.
Note: Liao has also written an open letter to his readers in Germany, translated into English by Human Rights in China. In February, he wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking her assistance.