Thursday, June 19, 2008

Little Troubles In Big China

I just finished reading The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu. This collection of interviews with Chinese from the bottom heap of society, onto which Liao Yiwu had been flung by his government for being a dissident writer, is such a compelling read that despite coming home at eleven PM on average I barely managed to put it down each night, resulting in my getting about 4 hours of sleep a night for three nights.

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

The most compelling, and depressing, thing about The Corpse Walker is that each of these harrowing, Kafkaesque tales is true. Each interview reveals a litany of problems which may seem like small or distant problems individually (oddly, particularly to those interviewed), but which add up to a portrait of a society that badly needs real reform, not just an Olympian whitewash. Their little troubles add up to a big problem for Chinese society. Many of the interviewees have resigned themselves to matter-of-fact remembrances of various individual incidents which, to comfortable westerners such as myself, would seem crushing in their own right. Death and privation are discussed and written about in a tone that may seem disturbingly perfunctory to Westerners, but for these people who have experienced so much misery, resignation seems to be the only coping mechanism many of them have left. Most of those who ultimately succumb at all to any admission of their despair, frustration and anger only do so after recounting long stories of repeated abuse, and lives wasted by The Party on misguided ideological crusades.

Liao's status as a pariah gave him first hand access to other, usually less politically motivated pariahs in Chinese society. He has given these people their voice, and it is not always one which will find sympathetic ears in the West. It seems that his purpose in writing this book was both to give ordinary Chinese who aren't participating in the "economic miracle" a platform, and at the same time to put the lie to the global claims that China is a reformed, modern society whose leadership is worthy of praise, even coddling. The picture of China from Mr. Liao's view is quite different. Perhaps tales of The Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap Forward with their utterly devastating effects seem like relics of the past, but in this book you will hear not only of the impact those policies had at the time, but the legacies that still exist in China today. People destroyed by those policies are being forgotten all over again, and at the same time the government still detains people like Mr. Liao. The policies may be somewhat less brutal since Mao, but the underlying theories remain the same: power for the powerful, a dab of hope for those who toe the line, and little left for anyone else.

Human Rights Watch has this to say about the author's backgroud: "Liao Yiwu (China), poet, novelist, film scriptwriter, has been arrested repeatedly over the past fourteen years. He was first arrested in March 1990 while working on a movie about the government´s persecution of persons involved in the June 4th Movement. Over the next four years, he was frequently confined to detention centers and prisons where he was subjected to abusive treatment, once being handcuffed for twenty-three consecutive days causing abscesses in his armpits. He tried to commit suicide twice. In October 1995, police searched his home, confiscated his writings, and held him under house arrest for twenty days. In September 1998, he was arrested because he compiled The Underground Poems of the Seventies in China. The book´s publishers were dismissed from their posts. In January 2001, the publisher of his latest book, Voice From the Lowest Rung of the Society, was ordered to recall copies that were already in the stores. Voice From the Lowest Rung of the Society was then published in Taiwan. In December 2002, Liao Yiwu was detained again after he posted his writings on the Internet and signed a petition to the 16th Party Congress."

Given his status, Mr. Liao had insider access to prisoners (political and otherwise), beggars, and others in Chinese society that had he not fallen from grace with his government, he would probably have never even noticed. The stories he relays are of desperate people trampled by the marche of progress as their country become prosperous either without them, or worse, at their expense. China, in the eyes of Mr. Liao and many of the people he interviews, is a place where life is cheap. The survivors of The Cultural Revolution are a "wasted" generation, malnurtured and discarded. Poor and dissident Chinese of today are little better off. Liao is not always sympathetic to his interviewees, and his stating so often leads to even more revealing responses -- particularly in the cases of unrepentant abusers such as the Human Trafficker who defends the practices of kidnapping and rape, and the former Red Guard who defends torture, murder and the annihilation of China's historical treasures.

The Corpse Walker is a fascinating look at a country that has garnered a lot of attention lately. While you may not find the picture of China that Mr. Liao paints to be very appealing, it is one of the realities of his society and without people like him to remind the world of this fact, there will never be any hope of changing the reality of China to better conform to the public relations image. The only disappointing thing about the book is that there are two other volumes as yet untranslated, a deficiency I hope will be rectified in the not-too-distant future.


Anonymous said...

I found an AP article, talking about this writer, Liao Yiwu...Didn't realize he actually lives near the epicenter of the earthquake...

By the way, after reading your post, I ordered Corpse Walker from amazon..Thanks for the recommendation...

Here is the AP article..

Writer Liao captures pain of earthquake
By Cara Anna
The Associated Press
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.12.2008
advertisementJIEZI, China — The people Liao Yiwu interviews exist on the fringe of Chinese society, and more than a few live closely with death. The mortician. The grave robber. The professional mourner.
All were from Sichuan province, the writer's home and the center of China's devastating May 12 earthquake. A month ago, it knocked Liao to one knee in his apartment compound. He struggled upright and started running; his home and family survived.
Now Liao is wandering the disaster zone, looking for its stories.
Liao's writings, mostly banned in China but published in the West, often show those left behind by the country's economic rise. His new collection will focus on how the quake, which killed more than 69,000 people, is upending lives.
"These deaths are going to change China, and Chinese history," Liao, 50, said in a recent interview.
Many Chinese have focused on their country's economic success, taking pride in its emerging global power and status. Now, Liao said, they'll be more concerned with their own pain and destinies.
The Chinese government disapproves of the way Liao brings people from the country's darker corners — the political prisoner, the public toilet manager, the leper — and publishes their stories. Some of the interviews have appeared in The Paris Review. A collection in English — "The Corpse Walker" (Pantheon, $25) — was published in the United States this year.
"He's remarkable, sort of the Studs Terkel of China," said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, referring to the American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian. The center, which is the U.S. office of the international literary and human rights organization, learned about Liao after receiving a submission from the writer's U.S.-based translator and then tipped off Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch.
"Above all, he is a medium for whole muzzled swathes of Chinese society that the (Communist) Party would like to pretend do not exist," Gourevitch wrote in the book's foreword.
In the quake zone, Liao found a woman whose daughter's body was recovered from the most notorious of the many collapsed schools, Juyuan Middle School. The girl was found after parents had begged local officials to keep digging.
"The woman was sobbing and incoherent," Liao said. "I just left the tape recorder on. Even if I can't reach her again, this is the most memorable one."
Of the growing public anger over the dozens of collapsed schools, Liao said: "This is a weak group fighting a gigantic government institution. They know they can fight, but they won't get anywhere."
Closer to the epicenter, a man told Liao how he woke from a nap and leapt clear of his collapsing building. Another man explained how he dug the bodies of five dead relatives from the rubble.
"Maybe it was cruel, but I asked him what he was thinking as he dug them out, and he said, 'I didn't think of anything,'" Liao said.
Liao and his work have been under government scrutiny ever since he publicly mourned those killed when the military crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square 19 years ago. At the time, as one of China's most popular young poets, he recorded himself wailing, chanting and reading his poem about the killings, "Massacre."
The tape became popular, passing from person to person underground. But a four-year prison term followed.
While in prison, Liao started doing the interviews that would define his new work. Since his release, Liao has moved from place to place, taking odd jobs and doing more than 300 interviews with others in the world of low pay and uncertain pasts.
Liao's stories merge his outsider's voice with those of his subjects. He often visits a person several times and listens — sometimes without notebook or tape recorder. He then condenses hours of conversation into a single story.
When asked to describe what he does, Liao took a pen and wrote it down: "Memory keeper