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Even today in China, whoever speaks the truth or sympathizes with victims of government repression puts their existence if not their life at risk. Then the only escape is exile, provided one manages to leave the country. Before poet Liao Yiwu resorted to this step, in July of 2011, not only had he documented many years of injustice suffered by countless Chinese citizens since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic, but also experienced despotism and torture first-hand as a political prisoner.

Unfavourable omens overshadowed Liao Yiwu’s life from the start. Born 1958 in the province of Szechuan, as a small child he nearly died during the great famine. When he was eight years old, his father, a university professor, was branded an enemy of the people, and although his parents separated to protect their son, he would continue to grow up in poverty. Prior to this, he received a valuable gift destined to have a lasting effect on him: “Lucky for me – when I was only three and could hardly speak properly – my father, wisely thinking ahead, took my education in his own hands and, for a whole year, insisted that I learn to read and be able to recite classical poetry and prose by heart.” During the 1980s, after years of learning and travelling as a cook and truck driver, Liao Yiwu, who also studied Western poetry, developed into one of his country’s most renowned and bravest poets. His work was published both underground and in highly respected literary journals. In 1987, he was blacklisted due to his unwelcome criticism. But it was the crushing of the democratic uprising on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, which turned him – and others – into an active opponent of the regime. Immediately following this harrowing event, he wrote the poem “Massacre”. Since it was impossible to print, Liao taped his reading of the poem, and had it circulated throughout China. Abroad too, the poem famously exposed everything the authorities by all means wanted kept secret: “Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed / Armoured assassins are swimming in blood / Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked / Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl / Boot owners don’t even tremble / Robots without hearts never tremble / Their brain is programmed with one process / A flawed command / Represent the nation to dismember the constitution / Represent the constitution to slaughter justice.” Afterwards, Liao Yiwu planned to shoot a film about June Fourth, but was arrested in February of 1990 and sentenced to four years imprisonment, charged with “distributing counter-revolutionary propaganda”. This sentence was nearly served to the end.

It’s a wonder that Liao Yiwu survived this term of imprisonment at all, when one reads his latest book published in Germany, “For a Song and a Hundred Songs. An Eyewitness Report About Life in Chinese Prisons”. The brutality of the guards and inmates, cruel forms of torture, and systematic dehumanizing practices surpass anything imaginable. Liao Yiwu speaks of all this as soberly as a chronicler, but with the engaging, visual intensity of a poet. This increases the explosiveness inherent in the document. Since Chinese authorities did everything possible to hinder its publication, as well as confiscate the manuscript several times, Liao Yiwu was forced to produce a second and third version before the report could finally be published in Germany and Taiwan in 2011. For some time now, he has not been allowed to publish in the People’s Republic of China. Following his 1994 release from prison, he remained politically persecuted and the residency permit for his domicile was revoked. He eked out an existence by working as a street musician and doing odd jobs. His outsider status brought him in contact with many others living on the fringe of society because of their political unpopularity, and he documented their fate making use of the oral history method. His “Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up”, published in Germany as “Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser. Chinas Gesellschaft von unten”, offers a lively impression of the diversity of the individuals pushed to the edge in extremely different ways. Whether about Falun Gong sympathizers abused in a mental hospital; a serial jail breaker shortly before his execution; an elderly, former property owner; a modern, young woman working in a bar, a loyal Communist party member made a dissident by the massacre of June Fourth, or about the parents of a promising student also a victim of the massacre: Liao Yiwu used the patience of a saint to make these people open up, after which he distilled the essence of the collected interviews, and wrote down the proceedings in a way that gives readers the sensation of eavesdropping.

On his arrival in Germany, Liao Yiwu was welcomed by many illustrious friends, supporters, and admirers. Among these was Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller, survivor of a different Communist dictatorship, who praised the poet and his work by saying: “‘For a Song and a Hundred Songs” opened our eyes. Like in the book preceding it, ‘Interviews with the Lower Strata of Chinese Society’ takes us below the glazed surface of the nouveau riche, power-hungry empire. A country whose prison and camp management is modelled after the Gulag is not a modern country, but rather a Maoist relic camouflaged as an economic miracle. Its people pay the price for this with incapacitation and repression. These facts are one thing. The tremendous literary strength of this book is another. Through Liao’s language prowess it becomes bitter cold or warm to the touch, wrathful or charismatic.” It becomes as charismatic as its creator, who even in exile will continue to serve as the mouthpiece for the oppressed.

Text: Patricia Klobusiczky / English translation: Karl Johnson

Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser. Chinas Gesellschaft von unten. (Interviews with the Lower Strata of Chinese Society). Translated from Chinese by Hans Peter Hoffmann and Brigitte Höhenrieder. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2009 Für ein Lied und hundert Lieder. Ein Zeugenbericht aus chinesischen Gefängnissen. (For a Song and a Hundred Songs. An Eyewitness Report About Life in Chinese Prisons). Translated from Chinese by Hans Peter Hoffmann. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011 Massaker: Frühe Gedichte (Massacre: Early Poems). Translated from Chinese by Hans Peter Hoffmann. hochroth Verlag, Berlin, 2011
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