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.
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.
From the first time he’s tortured in the detention center (which he compares with the way a woman forced into prostitution might feel on her first night on the job), to the end of his time in prison when he takes flute lessons from the prison’s oldest inmate (“Sima,” a former Buddhist monk who may have been a member of a religious cult), Liao’s strength is in his observation and curiosity about what’s going on around him. And despite his own suffering, he can’t help but keep his eyes open.
Through those eyes we meet Dead Chang, a prisoner on death row for smuggling heroin. He wants to borrow Liao’s atlas so that he can memorize routes across China to haunt after he dies. We also meet “Little,” a 19-year-old on death row for robbing and kidnapping, whom the other inmates treat with tender solicitude after he wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and in tears, ready to commit suicide. “Scholar Yang clutched Little to his bosom, wiping the blood off his forehead. Dark Skin also dragged his shackled feet over to console his friend. ‘My good brother, take it easy,’ said Dark Skin. ‘Our fate is predetermined and you were not meant to live long in this world. Once the gunshot is fired, you won’t feel or know a thing.’ ”
Later, Little opines: “ ‘It’s funny that I didn’t have a good life until now,’ he sighed. ‘Now that I’m going to die, so many people take care of me. I don’t have to worry about food and clothes. When I was outside, I begged on the street and robbed people because nobody would offer me a job.’ "
Although there are some seriously disturbing scenes in this book (words like "brutal" or “torture” or “bleak” are hardly adequate) it comes across as honest, detailed and real, rather than gratuitous. And speaking of details: Liao’s love for language and imagery are tangible throughout the book. Take, for example, this winter work scene:
“A few squares of sunlight filtered through the tiny window into the cell. Inmates dropped their packets and thrust themselves into the sunlit areas, their pale shaved heads glittering. Since there was not enough sunlight for everyone, fistfights broke out. The chief towered over all of us. He stood on tiptoe and stretched his neck, putting his head right inside two precious squares of sunlight. Meanwhile, he balled up his fists and was ready to punch anyone who dared to challenge him.”
Unfortunately, the author is light on analysis. What are we, the reader, to do with this new view? Still, even without his insight spelled out, we are left with a stirring memoir that highlights the lives of those from the bottom rungs of society. That alone is powerfully thought-provoking, particularly given the increasingly important role that China plays in today's world.
Jenna Fisher is the Monitor's Asia editor.