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Liao Yiwu Howls Against the Chinese Government, Offers Memories of Prison

July 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
After the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, poet Liao Yiwu responded in anger and sadness with a powerful poem that become popular among activists. But his verse led to his imprisonment. Jeffrey Brown talks to the poet about his work and time in prison, recounted in his new memoir, "For a Song and a Hundred Songs."
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Liao Yiwu was in his early 30s when he learned to play the flute, a prisoner who’d been beaten and tortured after his arrest in 1990.. It was a fellow inmate, an 84-year-old monk, who showed him that music could be a kind of salvation.

LIAO YIWU, author of “For a Song and a Hundred Songs” (through translator): I was transferred to another prison, and there I met a man who would become my mentor. He told me, you will never have freedom if you don’t have freedom in your mind. So he taught me how to play the flute.

JEFFREY BROWN: Liao, today one of China’s leading dissident writers, recounts his prison life in a new English-language memoir called “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.”

When did you decide that you wanted to write about this experience?

LIAO YIWU (through translator): If I didn’t write down the story, then it would be as if it never happened. I needed to write it down, so that I wouldn’t be forgotten like a stray dog.

JEFFREY BROWN: Growing up in Sichuan province during the Cultural Revolution, Liao received little formal education. He learned traditional Chinese poetry from his father and found his own way to the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose work was passed around secretly.

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LIAO YIWU (through translator): I just admired him and his generation. I wanted to imitate the writing of this so-called lost generation. But I wasn’t interested in politics at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: That changed on June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government ordered soldiers into Tiananmen Square to put an end to pro-democracy protests. Hundreds of students were killed in the gunfire.

LIAO YIWU (through translator): The Tiananmen massacre changed my life and my thinking. I heard about it through the radio and I was despaired. I was afraid. I felt helpless, so I just shouted out these lines.

Leap! Howl! Fly! Run! Freedom feels so good. Snuffing out freedom feels so good. Power will be triumphant forever, will be passed down from generation to generation forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Liao’s response, a poem titled “Massacre,” was a long, angry howl against the government.

LIAO YIWU (through translator): Freedom will also come back from the dead. It will come back to life in generation after generation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Liao recently performed “Massacre” as the featured guest at a forum hosted by the City of Asylum Pittsburgh, an organization that supports politically persecuted writers.

In the year after Tiananmen, the poem became popular among Chinese activists, and Liao was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. It was there he began listening to and then telling the stories of people at the bottom rungs of the social ladder: petty thieves and others he met in jail, and, later, sweepers, scavengers, public restroom attendants, and many others in a China we rarely hear about.

He published some of those conversations in a book called “The Corpse Walker.”

LIAO YIWU (through translator): I was with people who live in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. I identify myself with them.

We are a deserted group of people, but we are the majority. The so-called elite don’t care about us, but we are the mainstream of society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even after Liao was released from prison, Chinese officials continued to watch, harass and deny him visas to travel and speak abroad.

Tienchi Martin-Liao, a close friend, is the editor of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, which helps publish writers in and out of the country. She says the Chinese government feels threatened by Liao’s portrayal of life in China.

TIENCHI MARTIN-LIAO, Independent Chinese PEN Center: If it’s just a novel or it’s a fictive short story, it’s OK. But he writes in a reportage style. And if people read it, they know it’s the truth. It’s not imagination.

So it’s just the first time that someone has described the real situation inside a Sichuan prison. And no other writer has ever described the situation so close to the reality. And the local authority doesn’t like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Liao eventually fled China, sneaking out through Vietnam and settling in Germany, where he lives today. But he continues to write and tell his country’s story.

LIAO YIWU (through translator): The young people don’t even know what happened in 1989. They first find out when they go abroad to Western countries. But, sometimes, then they don’t even believe it. The Communist Party has tried to eliminate parts of history. That is bad for the younger generation.

If they don’t have this historical consciousness, they will just focus on getting material goods. We have to work on that, so everybody knows what happened.

TIENCHI MARTIN-LIAO: People find ways to express themselves, and it can be read. There is no way to block everything. The government, they try to control — control the whole situation. But I think it is a fight that they are going to lose.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Liao told us his own experience makes him more pessimistic about the potential for change, and he doubts he will ever return to his homeland.