Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was a reluctant dissident.
A Chinese poet and storyteller nourished on Beat generation literature, he picked fights, drank to excess and despised politics.
“I have never taken an interest in mass movements or foreign imports such as democracy, freedom, human rights and love,” he declared as the student pro-democracy movement unfolded in Beijing in 1989. “If destruction is inevitable, let it be.”
Then came the Tiananmen crackdown. Liao was transformed. He composed and recorded a poem of fury and frustration called Massacre. He joined with friends to make a film called Requiem — to appease the souls of the dead.
He was arrested in 1990 as a counterrevolutionary and endured four years of beatings, torture, hunger and humiliations in a series of prisons. After being denied an exit permit 16 times and facing new threats of imprisonment for his writing, he slipped across the border into Vietnam in 2011 and made his way to Berlin, where he still lives.
Now Liao’s prison memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, has appeared in the West. Banned in China, it has been a bestseller and prizewinner in Germany, has won critical acclaim in a French-language edition and is being translated into Czech, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. An English-language version will be published by New Harvest in June. Liao will be in New York for the publication and is to give a lecture at the New York Public Library on June 13.
“I believe in history, in writing down history, so it doesn’t disappear or get angry with us,” he said in late March in an interview here, where he was participating in a literary festival. “I have had many dreams about people who have been dead a long time, but their souls are still among us.”
Dressed in sober black pants, a black shirt and an anorak, his head shaved, his skin unlined and unblemished, Liao, 54, wears his scars inside.
“My life is better now than it has ever been,” he said in Chinese through an interpreter. “But the Tiananmen massacre is part of my life. I can never escape it.”
Liao began his memoir in 1990 on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper his family smuggled into prison. He managed to sneak out his manuscript when he was released, but the police later confiscated it from his apartment; twice he had to reconstruct it from memory.
The title refers to an incident in prison when he broke the rules by singing; as punishment, he was ordered to sing 100 songs. When his voice gave out, he was tortured with electric shocks from a baton inserted into his anus.
“I felt like a duck whose feathers were being stripped,” he writes.
In the book he describes the rigid hierarchy the prisoners created for themselves. At the top was a chief with enforcers, a housekeeper and cabinet members; at the bottom were several groups of “slaves,” including “hot water thieves” who brought the upper classes hot water and gave massages; “laundry thieves,” who washed clothes and crushed fleas in the bedding; and young, handsome “entertainment thieves” who sang, danced and performed skits and sex acts with the leaders. As a political prisoner, Liao was fortunate to be placed in the “middle class,” a status that came with certain privileges — he could bring his meals back to the cell and eat at his own pace, for example — and that spared him some of the abuse suffered by the underclasses.