For a Song and a Hundred Songs, by Liao Yiwu Published by: Text, $32.99
In 1990 the Chinese poet Liao Yiwu was arrested as a counterrevolutionary for his anti-government activities, notably for writing the poem Massacre, an anguished tirade against the Tiennanmen Square demonstration and for his involvement in the underground film Requiem, a celebration of those who died on June 4 1989.
What is surprising is that up till then, Liao Yiwu had been almost apolitical. A hard-drinking, free-loving bohemian, he scarcely thought about human rights and freedom of expression. Yet the brutality of the government crackdown on the students’ democratic right to protest in Tiennanmen Square opened his eyes. Massacre is a poem of horror, passion, anger and desperation, containing lines such as:
“In the name of mothers, throttle children!// In the name of children, sodomise fathers!// In the names of wives, murder husbands!//In the name of urbanites, blow up cities!// Open fire! Fire!”
The four years Liao Yiwu spent in prison are documented in a remarkable memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs. After his release, Liao Yiwu was repeatedly denied an exit visa and endured many “persuasive” visits from the authorities, ordering him to stop writing. The manuscript was confiscated again and again, forcing him to start afresh each time. Nevertheless, Liao Yiwu managed to escape first to Vietnam, and from there to Germany, where he now lives.
For a Song and a Hundred Songs has been superbly translated into English by Wenguang Huang. Banned in China, it was first published in Germany, where Liao was awarded the German Book Trade’s 2012 Peace Prize. As Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller writes in her insightful preface, the memoir’s publication in the West has many parallels with the struggles endured before the release of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago and the works of Solzhenitsyn. Its very existence is the triumph of the human spirit over extraordinary odds.
For a Song and a Hundred Songs is a superhuman feat of memory. Pencil and paper were only allowed in the cell for two hours each month and Liao Yiwu began writing his memoir on the backs of envelopes his family smuggled into him. Yet he re-imagines events, dialogues and emotions with crystal clarity. He endures beatings, electric shocks, dehumanisation and humiliation. He is surrounded by thieves and murderers, as well as political prisoners like himself. He confronts corrupt guards, and sadistic officers. His most vivid and saddest memory is that of a failed suicide attempt when he almost gives way to despair and throws himself against a wall, only to realise, on coming to, that he must confront his dead-end existence once more.
Without a trace of self-pity or sensationalism, Liao Yiwu describes the boredom of overcrowded prison life, its strict hierarchy with lower class “laundry thieves” who do the washing and kill the fleas and lice and effeminate “entertainment thieves” who are forced to perform sex acts with their leaders. As an intellectual and a member of the middle class, Liao Yiwu was able to escape such treatment, yet even he was soon introduced to the terrifying prison “menu” of torture “dishes” which included “Noodles in a Clear Broth” (strings of toilet paper are soaked in a bowl of urine and the inmate is forced to eat the paper and drink the urine). A comparatively painless torture compared to other horrors, including Liao Yiwu’s forced singing of Party songs for hours on end, resulting in painful, swollen vocal chords and losing his voice completely – and the title of his memoir.
Inmates argue, fight, philosophise, manipulate and torment others but in all of them Liao Yiwu reveals an individual personality and voice. His writing switches from the sarcastic to the reflective, from the descriptive to the immediacy of quick-fire dialogue. His interactions with prisoners on death row, who are nicknamed “The Living Dead” are especially poignant, as he recalls their desperate wish to live.
You can’t read this memoir without thinking about the face China presents to the rest of the world. It is impossible to reconcile China’s inexhaustible rise as an economic superpower with its appalling human rights record. Prosperity comes at a terrible human cost. For a Song and a Hundred Songs’s greatest achievement is that it preserves Liao Yiwu’s memory, however much the Chinese government wishes to distort and destroy the country’s collective memory to further its political agenda.
Read it: To experience a devastating account of China’s prison system and one man’s battle to survive.