Friday, May 8, 2009

China Revealed

Some books need to be read in big gulps. Others must be read in small doses. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu definitely fits into the small dose category . Why? Because Liao's stories, oral histories he compiled between 1993 and 2006, are so powerful that I needed time to absorb them.

Liao's life is itself a powerful story. Born in 1958, the year Mao began the Great Leap Forward, he nearly died in the famine that resulted from this disastrous campaign. His father, a schoolteacher, was denounced as a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution, and his mother, caught selling a government coupon on the black market in order to buy food, was paraded as a common criminal in front of thousands of people in his community. Liao became a popular poet during the 80's, despite that fact that his poems obliquely criticized Mao and the Communist regime. But after he wrote the long poem “Massacre” to condemn the Tiananmen Square killings he was imprisoned for four years, during which time he was frequently tortured and he twice attempted suicide. Following his release he was reduced to the life of a street musician.

In prison he had begun interviewing his fellow inmates, and he continued these interviews with the people he encountered in his life in the streets. The book consists of twenty-seven of these conversations with the “bottom rung”. Some of the stories, like “The Professional Mourner”, ”The Corpse Walker”, and “The Public Restroom Manager”, are fascinating because they explore aspects of Chinese life not seen by most westerners. In some stories Liao is clearly sympathetic, as in the heartbreaking “The Tiananmen Father” where he interviews a father whose son was killed. In others, like “The Former Red Guard”, where his subject clearly relishes his “pure and innocent” memories of beating his teachers, Liao is clearly repulsed. But for me the most striking part of these stories is how often the story's subjects have endured terrible ordeals – starvation, public humiliation, imprisonment, torture - often for no reason other than their profession or the fact that they owned land, and yet they tell their stories with dignity and stoic resignation.

It's easy to see why the Chinese government has tried to suppress these stories. They reveal the ugly underbelly of the Communist Party's success stories, which in reality killed millions of people and caused tremendous human suffering. Liao Yiwu's courage to speak the truth is awe-inspiring.

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