World Books: Poet Liao Yiwu — Memories of the Tiananmen Square “Massacre”
June 3rd marks the 20th anniversary of the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen student movement. To mark the occasion, excerpts from “Massacre,” an epic poem about the violence that landed the writer in jail.
Reported by Bill Marx
When the Chinese government tanks rolled into the capital city of Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989 and brutally suppressed the students’ pro-democracy movement, Liao Yiwu was home in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The news shocked him to the very core. Overnight, Liao composed a long poem,” Massacre,” which portrayed, with stark imagery, the killing of innocent students and residents as vividly as Picasso depicted the Nazi massacre in the town of Guernica.
Without any chance of having his poem published in China, Liao made an audiotape of himself reciting “Massacre,” using Chinese ritualistic chanting and howling to invoke the spirit of the dead. The tape recording was widely circulated via underground channels in China. In another poem written at that time, he described his sense of frustration at being unable to fight back.
You were born with the soul of an assassin,
But at time of action,
You are at loss, doing nothing.
You have no sword to draw,
Your body a sheath rusted,
Your hands shaking,
Your bones rotten,
Your near-sighted eyes cannot do the shooting.
That tape of “Massacre” as well as a movie he made with friends of its sequel, “Requiem” caught the attention of the Chinese security police. In February 1990, as he was boarding a train to Beijing, police swooped down on him. Six of his poet and writer friends, as well as his pregnant wife, were also arrested simultaneously for their involvement in his movie project. As the ringleader, Liao received a four-year sentence.
Liao’s imprisonment in 1990 became a defining chapter in his life. Ostracized and depressed during his four-year incarceration, he rebelled against prison rules, only to be subjected to abusive punishment: He was prodded by electric batons, tied up, handcuffed and forced to stand in the hot summer sun for hours. One time, his hands were tied behind his back for twenty three days in solitary confinement until abscess covered his armpits. He suffered several mental collapses and attempted suicide twice. He was known among the inmates as “the big lunatic.”
In 1994, following international pressure, Liao was released fifty days before completing his prison term (The Chinese government claimed he was being rewarded for good behavior.) He returned home to find that his wife had left him, taking their child. His city residential registration was canceled, rendering him unemployable and subject to expulsion to the countryside. His former literary friends avoided him in fear. His only possession was a flute, which he had learned to play in jail. Liao walked through the noisy streets in his native city of Chengdu, and began his life anew as a street musician.
To make a living, Liao picked up odd jobs in restaurants, nightclubs, tea houses and bookstores. But his life at the bottom broadened the scope of his intended book about the socially marginalized people that he had befriended. The conversations with his prison inmates and people on the street gave rise to “Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society.”
Among the 60 interviews selected for his book were a professional mourner, a human smuggler, a murderer, a beggar, a fortune teller, a burglar, a dissident, a homosexual, a whoremaster, a former landlord, a school teacher and a Falun gong practitioner. Like the author himself, all of the individuals were either thrown into the bottom of society during the various political purges in the Mao era or have been caught in the tumultuous changes of today’s evolving Chinese society.
The interviews are literary as well as journalistic – reconstruction rather than transcription of his conversations. Because the interviews required extra sensitivity and patience, he occasionally eschewed the usual tools of a tape recorder or a notebook. Whether he was in prison or on the street, Liao always spent a considerable amount of time with his subjects, trying to gain their trust before conducting any interviews. For one story, it could take three to four conversations on different occasions. For example, he interviewed a mortician seven times and then incorporated all his conversations into one piece.
In 2001, the Yangzi Publishing House published a sanitized and shortened version of the book and it immediately became a best seller. Yu Jie, a well-known independent literary critic in Beijing called the book “a sociologist’s investigative report, which can serve as an historical record of contemporary China.”
For the first time after the Communist takeover in 1949, Liao introduced the word di-ceng, or “bottom rung of society” to the country. The notion is anathema to supporters of Mao’s Communist movement, which strives to create an egalitarian society free of prostitutes, beggars, Triad gangsters, and drug abusers.
In the summer of 2004, three interviews from Liao’s book – the professional mourner, the human smuggler and the public restroom manager – appeared for the first time in English in the “Paris Review,” its inaugural issue under its new editor, Philip Gourevitch.
Following the “Paris Review” debut, Pantheon selected 27 stories in 2008 and published them under the title “The Corpse Walker, Real-Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up.”
Meanwhile, Liao continues to publish interviews, essays and poems on overseas Chinese websites and his works have become popular among young readers in mainland China. “I am trying to overcome, little by little, the fear that’s been inflicted on me,” he says. “By doing so, I try to preserve my sanity and inner freedom.”
Excerpts from “Massacre” (translated by Wen Huang)
Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989
A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice
Represent the mothers to suffocate the children
Represent children to sodomize the fathers
Represent the wives to murder the husbands
Represent the citizens to bomb the city
Open fire, open fire, open fire
Shoot women, students and children
Shoot workers, teachers and venders
Riddle them with bullets
Aiming at those angry faces, shocking faces, contorted faces, despondent faces and tranquil faces
Shoot with abandon
The fleeting beauty of those faces moving toward you like tidal waves
The eternal beauty of those faces heading toward heaven and hell
The beauty of turning humans into beasts
The beauty of seducing, raping and trampling on your fellow citizens
Wipe out the flowers, forest, school campuses, love, and the pure air
Shoot, shoot and shoot…
I feel good and I feel high
Blow up that head
Burn up the hair and the skin
Let the brain erupt
Let the soul gush out
Splash on the bridge, the fence and the street
Splash toward the sky
Blood turned into stars and stars are running
Heaven and earth have turned upside down
Shiny helmets are like stars
Troops are running out of the moon
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot
Humans and stars are falling and running
Indistinguishable, which are humans and which are stars
Troops followed them into the cloud, into cracks on the ground…
We live under bright sunlight
But we have lost our eyesight
We find ourselves on a street, so wide
But no one can take a stride
We stand in a crowd, supposed to be loud
But people open their mouth without sound
We are tortured with thirst
But everyone refuses water.
This unprecedented massacre
Survivors are those bastards.