As a poet and chronicler of other people’s lives, Liao Yiwu is a singular figure among the generation of Chinese intellectuals who emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Unlike the leaders of Beijing’s student movement, people like Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, Liao had no part in organizing street demonstrations and has never explicitly engaged in political activism. Also unlike them, he never fled the country, a fact that has doubtless helped preserve him from becoming irrelevant within China, the fate of a great many émigré dissidents and authors. Moreover, Liao made his name not in Beijing but near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where on the night of the Tiananmen crackdown he composed “Massacre,” a long, impassioned epic poem of protest.
Although he was already known as a rising young poet, Liao was sure that a poem like “Massacre” was too controversial to be published, and so, ignoring friends’ warnings for his safety, he decided to recite it into a cassette recorder, along with his own ritualistic chanting and howling. He then gave copies of the recording to his friends and others in the literary world, who in turn made and distributed many more copies, resulting in the rapid circulation around the country of the poem’s powerful descriptions of violence:
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…
The self-publication of “Massacre” would become doubly significant for Liao. Right away, he began dodging arrest by police eager to capture him. When they finally tracked him down the following February, he was boarding a bus for Beijing, having just produced an experimental film that he conceived as a defiant follow-up to “Massacre.” During his subsequent four years in prison, for the crime of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, Liao met eccentrics, outcasts, and politically disenfranchised characters, and the remarkable stories of these people’s lives transformed his interests as a writer.
“I began to be exposed to people from the ‘three religions and nine schools,’” he told me when I met him in 2008, using an old Chinese idiom meaning people from all walks of life. “I’d never been in touch with people like this before, people like a ‘peasant emperor,’ or infamous robbers, murderers, human traffickers, none of whom existed in my …
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