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Liao Yiwu: Four Years a Prisoner

An interview with the exiled Chinese poet on writing from prison, false patriotism, and the responsibility of intellectuals

By Jiayang Fan

Liao Yiwu never set out to be a dissident. In fact, the young Sichuanese did not engage in politics at all until the fateful dawn of June 4, 1989, when he composed and performed his most famous poem, “Massacre,” commemorating the young lives lost during Tiananmen Square’s democracy protest. For this act, he would be condemned to four years in China’s gulag. The strict hierarchies Liao observed in the prison cell, it turns out, were not so unlike the tiered and repressive leadership on the other side of the bars. Retaining a poet’s perceptiveness, Liao, the prisoner, meticulously recorded the conditions of his daily existence as well as those of his fellow inmates, through which a remarkable portrait of modern China emerges. Recently, I spoke to Liao about his experience in Chongqing, where he was incarcerated, and the memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, he has written about the experience. The interview has been translated into English by Liz Carter.

Jiayang Fan: You’ve said that you wrote this book three times: the first two times you wrote it, the manuscript was confiscated. During that entire process did the book change at all? Did you feel that each time you rewrote it, it was a different experience?

Liao Yiwu: When the book was first confiscated, I experienced a kind of total devastation. At that time I was also put under unofficial house arrest for more than 20 days. I was scared. I didn’t know what they would do. But, fortunately, I’d written the draft in very tiny script, like an ant would. They probably needed a microscope to read it clearly. The second time, when it was confiscated again, I was a little more numb to the experience. And by the third time, I had a computer. With a computer, you can have a lot of back-ups. So my writing process took me from the age of da Vinci to the computer age. Each time that I was forced to start from the beginning, I thought, “Last time I wrote it better than this time!” But you know, that’s not necessarily the case. I always thought, “How is it that the more I write, the shorter it gets?” The first time, I wrote more than 300,000 characters. The second time, it was only 200,000. The third time, it dropped another 20,000 characters. I thought, “I’ve definitely forgotten a bunch of the details.” But there were also some surprises. For example, I’d think, “Oh I don’t think I included this example last time.” But it’s true with this as it is with women: always more beautiful in your memory.

From 1990 to 1994, when you were in prison, did you write any drafts of the book? You have recorded everything in such detail. It feels as if we experience each day with you as it was. You didn’t have paper or pen, so could you write any drafts? Or did you commit everything to memory and then write it all down later?

From the moment I was detained I only had one chance a month to write a letter. So I couldn’t write much, just some short poetry. Then I was sentenced and transferred to the re-education through labor prison. In the re-education through labor prison, I wrote some novels. After I got out, it was very strange because I’d been able to take out the drafts I’d written in prison. I’d hidden them early. But this draft, because I was writing it all the time, was discovered a lot. It was pretty much a joke.

I think the two years you were in prison—

Actually, I was in prison for four years.

Right, four years. After four years, it seems the conditions under which you operated got a little better—

A bit better than at the investigation center.

Yes, the detention center must have been a bit better.

Yes, much better because I was finally able to see many other political prisoners again, including those involved in the Tiananmen protests. They were all kept in the same place I was. There was also more space. Then, I disappeared to the re-education through labor camp.

Right, I read that, but at the holding area, was that two years?

Yes, altogether two years and eight months. Then I was at the re-education-through-labor prison. I underwent re-education through labor for over a year.

Re-education through labor…

So, generally speaking, when they inspect re-education through labor in China, they’re inspecting the re-education-through-labor prisons and farms. The Chinese government has also opened these up so that foreigners can see them. But they’re absolutely barred from visiting the detention center and “rehabilitation” centers. Those parts were and are the darkest.

I thought the part you wrote about the detention center was the most moving, when you wrote about being with murderers and petty thieves, all of those people from different parts of society than you. When I read your book, I felt that you really empathized with them. There were many stories about what they did before they were taken away or executed. If you had never been sent there, do you think you would have met these kinds of people?

No way. Not all in one place, and not so many. Everyone around me was a criminal. I could not have met them elsewhere. Before I went to prison, I was a very famous poet. I’d won many awards. I was surrounded by all of those modern writers, like now. I met with people in my profession. We’d talk about literature and other things. Even the most edgy people, the hooligans, were very romantic. I couldn’t have come into contact with those other people.

Then what about this experience had the deepest impact on you?

I write about prison a little differently from other people. Most others might describe it as a harsher experience than I do. They would write about harsher sentences. But I wrote about real people in prison and their tricks for getting by.

Those tricks and the system they work in—how do these change a person?

For example, I wrote about a man named Wang Er. Wang Er—if he was going to take another prisoner’s things, he wouldn’t just take them. We ate meat once a week, right? The oil from it was also scarce there. So if he was going to take your meat, he wouldn’t openly steal it. He would say, “Let’s be one big family. I’ll be the father. That’s your mother. You’re the big brother, you’re the second oldest, and you’re the third oldest. Let’s all of us eat family style!” Then everyone would put all of their meat together. Once the meat was all in one bowl, he would say, in accordance with Chinese traditions, “You should respect your elders. I am old. I won’t be eating more than a couple days. Let me eat a bit more,” and so on and so forth. In the end he ate all the good stuff. If there was a little oil left, he’d say, “This is your mother. It wasn’t easy for her to give birth to you. She needs this oil. If she hadn’t fed you all…” Then he would take the leftover oil and give it to an inmate who was in good with him. The one who was the ‘mother’ would eat it. Then so on, by age. He’d steal the meat in this really funny way.

I read that chapter. It was really funny. But I think your book is different from most prison autobiographies. Sometimes the book made me feel like crying. But sometimes it really made me want to laugh because you’ve described this dark world in a way that you can clearly understand. This sense of humor—did you develop it while detained or as you were writing? Were you able to be so relaxed in prison?

When I was writing poetry, I preferred romantic writing. Back then I wasn’t even very good at making jokes. That’s because when I was young, I thought it was cooler not to laugh. But in prison, when I looked back on this, it was like watching dramas in my mind over and over to a boiling point. I felt I was among these characters. On the surface it appeared humorous, but in truth it was very cruel. For example, there was one man who couldn’t urinate or defecate in front of others. When he came in to the bathroom, everyone would surround him and watch him. The harder it was for him to go, the happier everyone got.

Right, right—

Yes. Then I gave him pants to wear on his head. At the time, standing there, I was laughing just as hard. I thought it was very funny, too. But thinking back, I wonder, “How was I so heartless?” It was a very cruel thing to do.

One other thing I like about this book is that you didn’t hide anything that you considered a personal weakness. In books, especially in China, we read about heroes like Lei Feng. Everyone only wants to write about their strengths, how they defeat their enemies, how they overcame obstacles. But the most moving thing about this book, I think, is that you don’t hide any of your fears or conflicting feelings. Why were you so honest in your writing?

When I was writing this book, I felt I should record these things, that they should be written down. At that time I didn’t know what would become of it. I didn’t see any future. When I got out of prison, China was in its darkest hour because no one would acknowledge you. You were totally cast off. At that time police went to the zoo where I had gone to sell pants. I said, “I can’t even sell these pants.” They said, “You go make some money, and we’ll give you backing. If you can’t sell pants, I’ll take you to the underground market. Ten yuan per pair.” I objected at first. I said “It’s hard to sell,” and he said, “If that’s the case, give me a call.” We argued, drank, and fought. I said, “I can’t sell pants!” In the end, he took me to the police station to sleep it off and said, “Fine.” He got me out the next day.

At that time, the only people who came looking for me were the police. In Chengdu, you felt that you were so quickly abandoned and forgotten. It’s likely that that generation of people had totally forgotten. Then you began to remember. You remembered, remembered, remembered. You felt you had to write it all down. As for what the future held, it was hard to say. This book came many years after the poetry. If I hadn’t been presented with some very unlikely opportunities, if it hadn’t been translated into English by Huang Wenguang, I didn’t expect even those dark things I wrote to have any effect.

You just wanted to record them?

I just created this kind of style. I just recorded them, wrote them down. Also, during the writing process, I took note of how other political prisoners were writing and some of the books published by those in exile. I wondered, ‘Why are the books they’ve written so different from mine? How are they so sad and despairing?’

It was a totally different way of going about it.

Right. A different format entirely for a novel. Later on, I became wary of this format because it was a fake, empty kind of thing. I’ve noticed that for many writers who have come out of China, like Ma Jian, their writing is very politicized. They have not hidden their dissatisfaction with China’s government at all.

Do you think that you, as a Chinese writer, must take a stance on China’s government? Or do you think, as someone who writes literature, you do not necessarily need to have anything to do with politics?

The difference between myself and the dictatorship is a difference of aesthetics. I am a person who writes stories. The further removed from politics and power I am, the better. Unfortunately, they feel that a person who tells stories is guilty of subversion of state power. Furthermore, I didn’t want to express any political ideas in my writing. Like I just mentioned, political views can show up in a different way. Political correctness, in a book, is like standing on the side of reason, but one of the most basic things about being an intellectual is this: you must have doubt and you must ask questions, even for your own writing, yourself, your weaknesses. You have to keep that skepticism. Many writers, while describing politics or the Chinese Communist Party, stop asking questions of and being skeptical toward themselves. I think this is far removed from that sort of thing.

That may be the reason I appreciated this book so much, because many politicized novels, when read, are no longer stories, just political messages authors are trying to get across. An idea, or…

Right, an idea. Of course, authors have their political opinions. Well, just write up a press release and be done with it. Don’t mix it up with the books or stories you write. You can just release a separate press release. If that’s your prerogative then you don’t need to write stories.

Lately some foreigners have been saying that leaders like Xi Jinping are using patriotism to get people to stop being critical of the Communist Party. Nationalism has been used by the Communist Party as a distraction from a lot of discontent that citizens might feel. And the concept of nationalism in China has evolved in China over the course of the last two decades. What are your thoughts on the uses of nationalism?

The most patriotic I’ve seen Chinese people be was in 1989. That was the height of Chinese patriotism. And it was true patriotism. It reached a boiling point. But because they were too patriotic, the Communist Party answered them with bullets. From that point, when they killed over 3,000 people and imprisoned countless others, every Chinese person came to understand that this country cannot be loved. That’s why patriotism has decreased. I think since that point, all patriotism has been fake because every person understands that the Communist Party is not good. So we should be skeptical of its “patriotism.” Take Saddam Hussein, for example. He was once elected with 100% of the vote. Not a single vote was against him. So he took out a gun and shot 100 bullets into the air to celebrate, to express his happiness. That’s patriotism, too. Patriotism is too scary.

In the beginning of the book, you wrote that in a talk with Michael Day, a Canadian friend and one of the first foreigners you became close to in China, he really wanted you to participate in the protests at Tiananmen.


And then you asked, “Do you think you love China more than me?” That line really stayed with me.

That guy is more Chinese than I am.

But do you think that’s really a love of China, or just that you and he, as a Westerner and a Chinese person, have different ways of expressing yourselves?

It’s likely he had fallen in love with Chinese poetry that had been written by some people in the 1980s. That was his emotional state. And I expect he had a good life working in China for a while in the ‘80s. He fell in love with that time in his life. But I think China and ancient China are two totally different things. Today’s China is a dictatorship. A dictatorship—that’s my public opinion. They should be thought of as two independent countries. It’s enough just to love the land of your birth, that patch of earth. In truth, in this book, I wasn’t very familiar with Michael Day at the time. Later I got to know him better. At the time we didn’t talk about this country, whether it was a dictatorship or the country as it is spoken of in books. Back then we were just too young. He was just a young guy. I was just a young guy. There’s no way we could have come to any real conclusions.

Do you think you would like to return to China to live there? Or do you think you’ve left for good?

I already live in China, because every day I read from the I Ching and the Records of the Grand Historian. I feel that I’m living in China.

You do not feel that you have to live on Chinese soil?

I live in the world of China’s ancient philosophical and historical texts. For example, I read Zhuangzi, the great Chinese philosopher who wrote about the disappearance of nature. It made me think of my own teacher. In that time, I was clearly living in China. But this China is not like that terrible one. Upon reflection, it was truly something special.

As for those born in the ‘80s, college graduates, if they really love China and want to change China, what do you think they can do? What can they do to actually affect concrete changes in China?

I think those born in the 1980s, to a certain extent, are braver than my generation because they didn’t experience the Tiananmen Massacre. I’ve recently seen some people opposing factories for environmental reasons. In Chengdu and Kunming, most of the people involved were born in the ‘80s. The way they faced off with the police in the streets brought me right back to 1989. I think each generation has this kind of spirit. They’ve been put in a very tough spot. The Communist Party has stolen most of the resources and left very little for those born in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For example, a huge number of people compete for a single job opening. People have become so cold natured.

In this globalizing world the pressure rises and rises, but when I see how they react, I’m deeply moved because the generation that experienced Tiananmen became very cynical. Either that or very afraid. They know how powerful the Communist Party is. Back then my dad told me, “The Communist Party is very powerful,” and I didn’t believe him. I went ahead and showed up for the massacre. I was very angry. But once I’d been through prison I knew it was very powerful. Many people are even more cynical than I am. But the post-80s generation is largely free of this. They’re repeating the relationship between my father and me. The older generation tells them, “The Communist Party is very powerful,” and the post-80s generation doesn’t believe it at all. They’re still willing to fight for their rights and their environment. That’s what I’ve seen.

And in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, they know a bit about the history of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Every year, especially last year, there’s the memorial in Victoria Park. A majority of the attendees are those born in the ‘80s. Their desire for knowledge about history is there. Although the Communist Party has cut them off from it for so many years, some outstanding people from their generation have made the effort to study that history.

Now that we have the Internet and Weibo, information can be transmitted much more quickly. Do you think that because of this, the younger generation can—

Because of this, it’s difficult for the Communist Party to control. Take the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, for example. People of my generation or even older generations, like Wei Jinsheng’s, couldn’t have done that. From the very beginning, the Jasmine Revolution site was said to be run by a few people who were born in the ‘80s. Some people were overseas and some were in China. They began to use “loose gatherings.” They’d decide on a place and then we would go there immediately. Then they would transmit a bunch of information about fake gatherings. The Communist Party saw that and thought there were so many people opposing them. They were very scared. So they mobilized the entire country’s forces. Things were very tense that year. I came out for those, and it really was too tense. They even used some criminal measures to suppress a fake Internet revolution. That’s what the post-80s generation did. It was really impressive.

My final question is about some pressure Western countries have exerted upon China with regards to human rights issues. Do you think this pressure on human rights issues has any meaning? Or do you think, as the government would say, foreign countries have no right to talk about human rights in China? Do you think pressure from the West is meaningful or harmful?

Western countries are founded upon human rights. I’ve often said that China has experienced such a long history of dictatorship and been so oppressed by the Communist Party. It’s a great misfortune. If there were no other countries on this planet to pay attention, it would be misfortune piled upon misfortune. When Westerners talk about Hitler and Stalin, everyone knows they’re demons and how many people they killed. But when we speak about Mao Zedong and later rulers like Deng Xiaoping, foreign China scholars often seem to evaluate them differently. It’s because the dictatorship is still around. In the west, they had the 1968 protests, and many of the protesters were big fans of Mao. When Obama first took office, he put a picture of Mao on a Christmas card. Someone took a picture of it and uploaded it on China’s Internet. This really shook the Chinese Internet, that Obama didn’t even realize this. It was just a simple action of his. He used a picture of Mao in a Christmas gift. He didn’t think it was a big deal. But this was really too provocative for Chinese people.

It creates a double standard. I think politicians should be a bit more careful in these small matters, including Mo Yan. He said of Chairman Mao not long ago, “Mao Zedong was a great historical figure.” If Mo Yan had no connections to the West, people would just say that what he said was bullshit. But because he won the Nobel Prize, he has that label. It was a big deal. If there were no double standards for this, there would just be an understanding: Mao Zedong would be thought of the same as Stalin and Hitler, an evil despot who killed people. But Mao Zedong is understood in a more complicated framework. People are clearer on Hitler and Stalin.

Do you think that Western countries should put additional pressure on China?

They should understand China’s history better, understand what really happened and not just naively go about things in yet another negative way. I mean the negative phenomenon of “correct politics.” A congressperson goes to China and says, “I went to China and spoke about human rights!” Talking about human rights is just talking about human rights, nothing more. Nobody’s going to pay you any attention. You have to have a deep understanding of China’s history and present state. This ties into the responsibility of intellectuals. These articles have been written and Western politicians and others don’t understand them. If you remind them more often, from this perspective, if you publish more of these books about prison or books like the one Huang Wenguang wrote about Bo Xilai—these books seem to be really important. These politicians shouldn’t spend all their time just making statements and playing golf. They should make time to read some books even if it’s just one or two a year. Like books about prison in China. Maybe if they read just one or two—it wouldn’t be so terrible.

I think if they should read one or two, this book should be one of them.