A Hundred Songs: Liao Yiwu Visits U.S.

At The Wall Street Journal, Sofia McFarland and Liao Yiwu discuss Liao’s memoir of his four-year imprisonment following the 1989 June 4th crackdown, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison.

“There are many stories that are still vivid in my mind,” he said. “I slept between two death-row inmates, and they kept telling me stories. I said, ‘I don’t want to hear your stories.’ But they said, ‘You have to listen to our stories because tomorrow or the day after we could be executed.’ So I just listened to their stories.”

Writing the memoir has dominated his time since his release, not least because he had to write the book three times. The first two manuscripts were confiscated by the police, who he says harassed him throughout the process. “Sometimes fear is like a drug,” he said. “The more fearful you are the more compelled you are to do it.”

[…] Mr. Liao doesn’t hold out hope of wider political reform, or freedom of speech, in China. Does he wish he had been born somewhere else? “When I was a little boy my father asked me to read ancient Chinese texts. I always wished I could have been born in ancient China.”

[…] The melancholy tone of his flute Thursday night at the New York Public Library offset the great bursts of fury and fear during his recital of “Massacre”—performed using Chinese ritualistic chanting and howling. After the recital, Mr. Liao looked entirely drained, but he revived during a conversation with the library’s Paul Holdengräber, especially after some shots of Chinese baijiu on the table in front of him. [Source]

Liao claims that the book’s rewriting helped with its literary structure, but that “only the police could say which was best: they are my most loyal readers!” On prospects for reform, he has previously commented that “I have no interest in what China will become. My suggestion would be that China crumbles into dozens of little countries so that it would no longer be the terrible menace it is now.”

See more on Liao and his flight into exile via CDT, and reviews of For a Song … from Nick Holdstock at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kit Gillet at South China Morning Post, and Jiayang Fan at Slate:

Liao is a born observer. Without pen and paper, he mentally collects stories from convicts who converged like “dregs sinking to the bottom of a sewage pipe,” yet who re-create with uncanny accuracy “an exact replica of the state bureaucracy outside.” Inside prison, “those in power enjoyed unlimited privileges”; Liao describes, as an example, the allocation of a fundamental resource: “The chief could use scented napkins to wipe his butt, but slave thieves had to resort to using wrapping paper or old newspapers.”

Liao’s meticulous portrait of the societal microcosm between cell walls—replete with its cast of foreign ministers, chairmen, scholars, and counter-revolutionaries—reads like a hybrid of Swift and Orwell, the latter of whom Liao reads with surreal astonishment in prison. Corruption, nepotism, and ineptitude run rampant, while in-house political campaigns—titled “Confess Your Own Crimes and Report on Others”—systematically weaken any rebellious momentum the prisoners might build among themselves. [Source]