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For a Song and a Hundred Songs

Poet Liao Yiwu's account of four years spent in a Chinese prison is raw and disturbing yet also a deeply human and essential read.

By Staff editor / July 3, 2013

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey Through a Chinese Prison, by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang, New Harvest, 400 pages

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The Chinese equivalent of a beatnik, poet Liao Yiwu was known to drink hard, get into fights, and seek out adventures, staying up late into the night with his artist friends to contemplate life. And that’s all he cared to do.

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It was late spring of 1989. Many Chinese were obsessed with politics and growing frustrated with government corruption, but Liao avoided political discussions. Even when students began taking to the streets demanding democracy, Liao said he wasn’t interested.

But something snapped inside him upon hearing the news well past midnight on a sleepless June 4, that government troops would crack down on the tens of thousands of student protesters who had for almost two months come to lodge their peaceful protest across China, including in Tiananmen Square.

As the reality of what was happening hit him, as hundreds if not thousands of students were killed, Liao picked up a tape recorder, pressed record, and spoke two words into it: "I protest." It was the moment that changed the trajectory of his life, he says. That night, Liao recorded a poem called “Massacre,” which the Chinese government would build a case around, calling it “a counterrevolutionary activity.” His poem would land him in prison for four years of torture, starvation, and brutality.

“For once in my life I decided to head down a heroic path,” he writes.  It was a path that he is quick to admit he “advanced with great fear, scampering at times like a rat with no place to hide.”

Raw and unapologetic, Liao’s memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs chronicles his time in prison, providing a rare firsthand account of everything from the roles prisoners take on for each other (brutalizers, lovers, caretakers, performers) to the tender acts of some guards (at one point when Liao is handcuffed and has a runny nose, one guard takes the time to wipe his face for him with a clean cloth) to the way the Chinese system of governance is replicated within the prison.

“In my cell, which was no bigger than two hundred and twenty square feet for eighteen men, the rulers had created an exact replica of the state bureaucracy outside. The leaders’ powers were clearly delineated. Leaders and cellmates alike carefully observed the rules and moved cautiously within the hierarchy. If someone accidentally strayed from the path, he risked losing everything. Those in power enjoyed unlimited privileges; the hierarchy even governed the usage of toilet paper.”

But as Liao is moved from cell to cell, he also sees how that was tested. “The more leaders you have, the bigger the burden on the rest of the inmates,” one cell leader tells him. Another time, he is transferred into a cell that is a special project where hierarchy is missing altogether. “The new and old are treated equally,” he is told.

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