Mon, Apr 15, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Dreams of the dead

Chinese poet Liao Yiwu spent four years in prison after he criticized the Chinese government for the Tiananmen Square Massacre. His new memoir details the torture and abusive punishment he endured

By Elaine Sciolino  /  NYTimes News Service, BRUSSELS


Early on the chief gave him a long menu of “dishes” of torture, to choose what to be served if he disobeyed an order. Among them were “Sichuan-style smoked duck” (the enforcer burns the inmate’s pubic hair and penis tip); “noodles in a clear broth” (the inmate eats a soup of toilet paper and urine); and “naked sculpture” (the inmate stands naked and strikes different poses ordered by the chief).

Liao’s most terrible prison memory was not of torture, deprivation or even watching fellow inmates sent for execution. It was of a failed suicide attempt. Handcuffed, bound with ropes and subjected to electric shocks, he decided to kill himself. He hurled his body forward, hitting his head into a wall.

“All the prisoners accused me of faking it, of being a good actor,” he said during the interview. “Nobody believed I wanted to die. I was angry — terribly, terribly angry. Nobody cared.”

Along the way, Liao learned survival skills. A fellow prisoner taught him to stand on his head as a form of exercise and relaxation. Another, a Buddhist monk in his 80s, taught him to play the xiao (簫), an ancient, flutelike instrument. Another made writing pens from bits of bamboo and wood. Another, a Bible-reading inmate, looked out for him and gave him wisdom.


Even now, he experiences a recurring nightmare.

“I am flying and I see people on the ground with guns and knives running after me,” he said. “But I am a bird without legs, and when I can’t fly anymore, I fall to the ground. The people come nearer and nearer, and as soon as they are about to attack, I wake up filled with terror.”

For Liao, the awarding of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature to Mo Yan (莫言) was a travesty.

“Imagine you’ve had a massacre perpetrated by the Communist Party in your country, and someone gives a prize to a state poet,” he said. “Have you seen anything so shocking?”

He sees his mission as a storyteller of human suffering, not as a reformer striving for change in what he calls the “foul pigsty” that is China.

“I have no interest in what China will become,” he said. “My suggestion would be that China crumbles into dozens of little countries so that it would no longer be the terrible menace it is now.”


For now Liao, best known in the West for a collection of stories about China’s downtrodden called The Corpse Walker, is enjoying his international celebrity. For a Song and a Hundred Songs won the German Book Trade’s Peace Prize last fall. During a recent visit to Paris he gave 30 interviews to journalists and sang and played a Tibetan singing bowl at the Palais de Tokyo.

He is also at work on his next book, a history of his extended family. He writes in long spurts at night in a modest garden apartment he owns in the comfortable West-end neighborhood of Berlin. It is furnished with a bed, a table, a cooking pot and a teakettle.

He confesses that he took German lessons for three months but gave them up and that he spends much of his spare time socializing with other Chinese exiles.

He keeps in touch with his mother and others in China through Skype. Divorced from his Chinese wife, he has spent less than two months with his daughter, who is now in her 20s.

This story has been viewed 2074 times.

Comments will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned.

TOP top