Real-life stories, China from the bottom up
Buy the Book: You can now buy The Corpse Walker on Amazon.
On the margins
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Modern China has a history of elevating the carefully chosen everyman to hero, sometimes even mythic, status.
Think Wang Jinxi, better known as Iron Man Wang, the oil driller who became a symbol of proletarian perseverance in the fledgling People’s Republic after drilling the first well of the Daqing oil field in 1960. Or Lei Feng, the PLA soldier who became a role model for the masses after his death in 1962 aged 22 – the model citizen, loyal and devoted to Chairman Mao, whose selflessness was held as the example for all others to follow.
But what about ordinary people doing ordinary things? Where is the veneration of their deeds amongst the heroics attributed to official caricatures? Where is the voice of those on the margins of a society that, when once it aspired to provide equally for all, now runs ahead without them?
In Liao Yiwu’s (廖亦武) The Corpse Walker (中国底层访谈录), we are introduced to a public restroom cleaner and a human trafficker, a street singer and a professional mourner. We hear from a father whose son died in Tiananmen and a survivor of the Sichuan earthquake; a former Red Guard and a Falun Gong practitioner. In all, twenty-eight stories that aim to tell the tale of China’s forgotten voices. As the subtitle of Liao’s book says, this is China from the bottom up, and it doesn’t climb too high.
Liao Yiwu himself is a marginal figure. Had he included his own story in The Corpse Walker alongside those of whom he interviewed, it wouldn’t seem out of place. His experience of being The Dissident Writer, making a living as a street musician whilst surreptitiously publishing new work abroad, would sit quite comfortably with the stories of those whose voices the new China would rather not hear that comprise his book.
Imprisoned for four years in 1990 for distributing recordings of poems condemning the crackdown in Beijing six months earlier, Liao has effectively been silenced in his own country ever since. Indeed, many of the interviews that comprise The Corpse Walker are reconstructions of conversations from during his time in prison. Others are stories gathered from the streets of his home province of Sichuan, told by those with stories to tell, but without the voice to tell them.
In one such tale we hear a resident of Chengdu relating how, as a student in 1966, he joined a local Red Guard faction and set about putting Mao’s words into practice, denouncing rightists and driving his former school principal to suicide in the name of the revolution. The Cultural Revolution was the chance to “trample on those elite,” he says. A brutal payback for perceived injustice, legitimised by the words of Mao.
He bemoans the lack of spiritual aims of today’s youth. “Where are the Communist ideals and beliefs?” he asks. Yet he admits that while his generation wasted their younger days “plowing and planting” in the fields, it is those he once oppressed, the capitalists, that rule the world in which he lives. “During the Cultural Revolution, I remember that we felt invincible,” he says. “I would never have imagined that I could end up like this.
Then there is the toilet attendant who recites a limerick he found written on his restroom wall ‘commemorating’ Chairman Mao which laments the land of embezzlers and junkies, fake goods and laid off workers that he bequeathed. And the Buddhist monk whose temple, once a symbol of the “spiritual opium” Mao wanted crushed, now functions as a “cash cow” that local officials are more than happy to milk and then skim the cream off the top.
While each story in The Corpse Walker is a brief history in itself, the thread that connects them all is their standing within the larger drama of modern China to which they belong. From Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, up to Tiananmen and beyond, events that swept along all in their path pervade the lives and the stories glimpsed here. The Corpse Walker thus stands as a record of ordinary people dealing with the effects of that history and of their confrontation with a future, and indeed a present, far from the ideal in whose name such great upheavals took place.
As Philip Gourevitch, the man who introduced The Corpse Walker to Western readers in the Paris Review says of its author, “he is a medium for whole muzzled swathes of Chinese society that the Party would like to pretend do not exist.” Amongst that number, Liao Yiwu can count himself. His works are still banned in China and his journalistic endeavors continually interferred with and scuppered by the authorities. But as long as there is a history to which to bear witness, there will always be voices eager to speak. As long as there are writers with the courage of Liao Yiwu to listen, those voices will always, however unlikely, find the means to be heard.
Update: Liao Yiwu defied a ban from traveling out of China by walking across the Chinese-Vietnam border in 2011. He now resides in Berlin.
Buy the Book: You can now buy The Corpse Walker on Amazon. Check it out.
Related Post: See my review of Liao Yiwu’s God Is Dead to read the secret story of how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China.