Often in China a phone call wakes me: a voice from the provinces wondering how things are in the capital. Is the weather fine? How’s work? Did the puppy smuggler pass through, toting his squirming sack? Have you heard about that lumberjack who impregnated the extraterrestrial? Or the woman whose teacher was visited by a raccoon spirit in her dreams? My neighbors look different after I hear these tales. I wonder what secrets the jolly vegetable seller harbors, and what led the disabled news vendor to resettle on my street. In China, learning such secrets requires time, empathy and the suspension of disbelief.
The Chinese writer Liao Yiwu displays all three in his interviews with the sorts of individuals who are often ignored beyond their immediate community — the busker, the public latrine attendant, the neighborhood cadre, the migrant worker. Twenty-seven of these conversations are collected in “The Corpse Walkers: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up,” an industrious, well-crafted recording of oral histories, almost all from the southwestern province of Sichuan. The site of a devastating earthquake last May, Sichuan is an area of extremes: mountains and plains, industry and farms, the newly rich and the perpetually poor. Its continuum of orthodoxy slides between animism, Taoism, Maoist atheism and the quasi capitalism of its favorite son, Deng Xiaoping.
The market economy, not political dictate, is now the force that changes the lives of Liao’s subjects — unlike those in Feng Jicai’s “Voices From the Whirlwind,” an oral history of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the members of that generation have since found lucrative, or at least comfortable, niches in the new China, but others have been sidelined by layoffs or a porous pension system. “During the Cultural Revolution,” one middle-aged former Red Guard tells Liao, “we felt we were invincible and aspired to save the whole world with Communism. I would never have imagined that I could end up like this half a century later. I can’t even save myself.”
All of the people Liao interviewed for The Corpse Walker were from Sichuan Province; he attempted to track them down, with mixed results, after the devastating earthquake in May.
In December, 2007, Liao Yiwu and other writers were prevented from attending the awards ceremony for the Freedom to Write Award, given by the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Read an excerpt of Liao’s award speech “My Enemies, My Teachers” here.
Read a review of The Corpse Walker from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Watch a BBC HardTalk interview with Liao Yiwu.