Liao Yiwu spent the early 1990s in prison for writing the poem Massacre, about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. His account of these four years will be published in English this summer as For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison, and was released in French this month under the title Dans l’empire des ténèbres (In the Empire of Darkness). From the AFP:
The book was a long time in the making and has come at huge personal cost. Faced with the threat of more prison if he had it published abroad, he decided to flee China in 2011, leaving his mother and others behind.
“They were watching my emails and they knew I was in touch with editors in Germany and Taiwan,” he said at the launch of For a Song and a Hundred Songs in Paris.
“They said I couldn’t publish the book, and if I did, they would put me in prison again, this time for at least 10 years … The German and Taiwan editors got worried about my safety and they pushed back the publication date.
“All in all, they pushed it back three times. The third time, I decided to escape.”
Liao discussed the book’s origins with Mariana Grépinet (article in French) at Paris Match:
This book almost never saw the light of day. Why is that?
I started writing it upon leaving prison. I’d formed the habit of scribbling poems in very small writing, because they only gave us pencil and paper for a couple of hours each month. The first time, it took a little over a year. I had over 300,000 characters! On April 4th, 1995, the police came and confiscated my manuscript. At that point, I wasn’t using a computer, I wrote it all by hand. So I had a choice: I could forget about it, or rewrite the whole thing. I spent two years rewriting it. That was a formidable memory exercise! And paradoxically, it helped a lot with the literary structure as well as my reports on the dregs of Chinese society: I was able to record everything down to the slightest details …. Then the police came back. I’d written even smaller so I could hide the pages more easily, but they stole it again anyway. The third time, I had a computer, a big one, and took the precaution of making extra copies. Of course, each version was different. Only the police could say which was best: they are my most loyal readers!
[…] You seem bitter ….
In China, the air, the blood, the milk, and even the values are polluted. If the west continues to import from China, it too will end up as one vast dustbin.
Fragments of Liao’s time in prison can be seen in Nineteen Days, his recollections of June 4ths from 1989 to 2009, translated by Wenguang Huang and published in The Paris Review:
June 4, 1993
I was transferred from the No. 2 Sichuan Provincial Prison in the suburbs of Chongqing. I will serve out the rest of my sentence at the No. 3 Prison in Dazu County, in northern Sichuan Province. Tonight, a dozen convicted counterrevolutionaries gathered spontaneously in the courtyard, squatting down and silently watching the sky like those fabled frogs stuck at the bottom of a deep well.
I was holding a flute in my hand. The crowd surrounded me, asking me to play a tune. I was still an amateur, though, and hadn’t yet mastered the instrument. I became really nervous in front of the crowd and played out a string of dissonant notes.
Li Bifeng, an inmate, patted me on my shoulder and said: “Old Liao, I’m glad that you will be released soon.” Another inmate, Pu Yong, who died soon after his release, interrupted us: “We will all be released soon. I bet you that on the fifth anniversary, the verdict will be overturned and all of us, no matter what type of sentences we are serving, will be released.”
In November, Li was sentenced to 12 years in prison for charges related to a property deal. According to Liao, the case was actually motivated by officials’ misplaced suspicions that Li had financed his escape to Germany.
See also Philip Gourevitch on Liao’s move to Germany at The New Yorker, and an interview with Ian Johnson at The New York Review of Books soon afterwards, via CDT.