Even though Liu Xia is under house arrest, she is finding ways to make her voice heard.

Ms Liu is married to Nobel Peace Prize winner and political dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence. Even though she has never been charged with a crime, Ms Liu is also serving a concurrent sentence of sorts: she has been forcibly confined to her small Beijing apartment for the past three years.

A new video, smuggled out of Ms Liu’s Beijing apartment, shows her sitting at a small desk, surrounded by books. After reading two of her own poems, Ms Liu triumphantly signals to the camera and smiles.

That smile is likely a rare expression of happiness. Ms Liu’s friends report she is severely depressed, following years of involuntary isolation. In December, a close friend relayed Liu Xia’s urgent requests to see an independent doctor, read her husband’s letters and be allowed to earn money by selling her art works.

“Whenever Liu Xia goes out, her schedule is set by the police,” explains Ms Liu’s friend, Bei Ling. Mr Bei is president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, a branch of PEN International, the global writers’ association organising the New York event.

“She has no freedom to choose which doctor she can see, and she has no access to internet or phone. She is seriously depressed with coronary heart disease. Now there are worries that she has been refusing to eat, and started to smoke heavily and drink lots of coffee, tea or even liquor. She even has lost interest in writing letters to her husband, because we know that her letters will only go to the police and the government.”

‘Happy to depressed’

“Liu Xia is allowed to see Liu Xiaobo in prison, which is 500km [210 miles] away, once a month with police escort, and each visit is only half an hour,” Mr Bei said.

“She is also allowed to see her parents and elder brother once a week. Her younger brother has been sentenced to 11 years in prison.”

Even though Liu Xiaobo is confined to a prison north of Beijing, Liu Xiaobo’s condition is more stable, Mr Bei says, “especially after he won the Nobel Peace Prize”.

“He got a microwave after he won the prize, and last June, he got a solar-heated shower. Now he has access to a garden to plant vegetables, but he can only use it when the weather is good.”

In contrast, Ms Liu’s request for the police to allow her to walk in a park once a day was rejected. The authorities would not be able to prevent bystanders from approaching Ms Liu, she was told.

“Before her house arrest began, Liu Xia was a very pure and apolitical person. She would never actively participate in any political movement,” Bei Ling said.

“She is purely a writer, and a self-studied photographer and painter. She hasn’t changed much, but after years of her husband being kept in prison, she’s changed from being happy to being depressed.”

Mr Bei keeps in touch with Ms Liu through her family, though he’s reluctant to disclose more details, or explain when and how Ms Liu’s poetry video was shot.

The new video of Ms Liu’s poetry reading was recorded for an event held in New York City on 14 January, honouring Ms Liu’s work and calling for her freedom.

“After she heard about our poem-reading event pleading to give back freedom to her, she recorded two poems of her own in the video in mid-December,” Bei Ling explains.

Is it a tree?
It’s me, alone.
Is it a winter tree?
It’s always like this, all year round.
Where are the leaves?
The leaves are farther away.
Why draw a tree?
I like how it stands.
Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand.
Is there anyone with you?
There are birds.
I don’t see any.
Listen to the sound of fluttering wings.
Wouldn’t it be nice to draw birds on the tree?
I’m too old to see, blind.
Perhaps you don’t know how to draw a bird at all?
You’re right. I don’t know how.
You’re an old stubborn tree.
I am.

Before going to drink with my old brother
I will unplug my telephone
Coming back drunk
I always could not help phoning a friend
After drinking I might look ugly
and sound piercing
Waking up
I then realized
Nobody would like
To listen to nonsense from a drunk
The friend’s voices from the phone
Became strange and distanced
After such a night after drinking
I would love Raymond Carver
For two drunks
To write useless poems face to face
Feeling neither shamed nor embarrassed
I will always, always remind myself
Before getting drunk
Unplug the telephone