As chaos erupted across China on June 4 1989, Liao Yiwu turned to the only thing that made sense to him in a country in chaos: poetry. Hundreds of miles away from the unfolding events in Tiananmen Square Mr Liao composed Massacre, a howling poem of outrage and disgust that he swiftly recorded and distributed to foreign and domestic literary agents. The self-professed womaniser and “well-dressed hypocrite” became a liability to the state overnight. Eight months later, Liao was imprisoned. His experiences have been documented in his recently translated memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, which was published in 2011.
What emerges is the story of a man who is above all an artist. Liao maintains even now, after five years in prison, after constant hardship, and after the trauma of fleeing his home country to live in Germany, that he is not a political man – he is a poet who simply wishes to observe and recreate the world around him. In a 2011 conversation with journalist Ian Johnson, Liao insisted as much: “I don’t want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren’t interested in me” and in his memoir he is clear – “I never intended to be a hero”. It is his supreme literary ethic, however, that makes his work among the most provocative in China. Unlike the work of most Chinese dissidents, there is nothing polemical or heroic about Liao’s work. His prose and poetry are works of pure observation, his tone is almost journalistic and what exists within them is the true profundity of daily life. His most famous work, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up, published in 2002, was a collection of interviews with the lowest classes of Chinese life. They are strikingly removed from their subjects, exist without judgment and seek only to reveal the simple realities of his subjects’ lives and humanity.
Just as Wordsworth gave British peasants inner selves to reflect their democratic humanity, Liao Yiwu gives voices to the people and events that the Chinese Government wish to forget. “China remains a prison of the mind: prosperity without liberty,” he writes, “This is our brave new world.” But as an artist who captures the intricacies of his world, what does a life of exile in Germany mean for his work? He is now away from China and away from his raison d’ecriture, which is perhaps exactly where the Chinese Government wants him to be.
Liao has made a life for himself in Berlin now, among a community of Chinese expats in similar situations. He has declined to learn any western language and seems optimistic that he will return to China one day. This though, is improbable; China is liberalising, but it is a slow process and given his resolve to resist silence, he is unlikely to be left alone for long. His world has paradoxically become very small. At home in China, he is seen as a sell out for leaving and without a physical presence there to continue circulating his work and working within his artistic community, his work is being forgotten.
Liao exists now in an artistic limbo – physically free but creatively caged. He has attained the status of ‘dissident’ that the West holds in such high regard, but without the potential for affecting domestic change, and without the potential for continuing to write truly honest accounts of his world, where does that leave him? Only time will tell where his artistic future lies.