Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with ordinary Chinese, has been banned by the authorities for its provocative revelations about everyday life. In early July, amid a worsening atmosphere for artists and intellectuals critical of the Chinese government, Liao fled to Germany via a small border crossing to Vietnam in Yunnan province.
Liao first came to prominence in 1989 when he recorded an extended stream-of-consciousness protest poem called “Massacre” about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was subsequently arrested and spent four years in prison, where he met the series of outcasts and misfits who became the protagonists of his first book on China’s underclass. Written in the form of questions and answers, these stories became symbolic vignettes about people from a range of offbeat and unusual professions or situations. Some of them were translated in The Paris Review in 2005, and they were collected and expanded in the 2008 book The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.
Now, one of Liao’s other three books, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is about to be published in the United States in September. It tells the story of Christian persecution in the early Communist era, mostly in minority areas of Yunnan province. He has also written a memoir of his four years in prison that has just been published in Germany to wide acclaim. His fourth book, on China’s new underclass, has yet to be published.
I recently spoke with Liao at Berlin’s Literaturhaus, where he easily blended in amid the tourists and would-be hipsters. His head clean-shaven, he appears younger than his 53 years, a short, powerful man who often lapsed into a thick, Sichuanese dialect. He talked about his decision to flee, his new book, and how he plans to continue his work from afar.
Ian Johnson: The Chinese newspaper Global Times said Liao Yiwu is not in exile. It said you’re just on holiday and that nowadays it’s not so strange for Chinese to go abroad for extended stays. They say your decision to go to Germany has to do with marketing your books. Are you really in exile?
Liao Yiwu: I never said I wanted to go into exile or flee. It’s just because if I didn’t my books wouldn’t get published. I guess I won’t go back for a while. I’m doing publicity for the prison book now, then I’ll go to the US for my Christianity book. Then Taiwan for the Chinese edition of the prison book. Then back to Germany, where I have a one-year DAAD fellowship in Berlin. So when that’s all over, I’ll see if they haven’t forgotten me.
What did the authorities tell you?
They said, “two books of yours can’t be published overseas.” One is the prison book. The other is the God book. They said both are unacceptable. So I talked with them and asked why. They asked me to sign a paper [promising not to publish]. They said these were “illegal cultural products.” They said these two books disclosed secrets.
Is political repression more severe than it has been in the past?
Yes, especially the first half of the year. Ahhh, I don’t know. I think it’s the government’s own problem. That call for a Jasmine Revolution. They took it so seriously but it was just something someone posted on the Internet. It didn’t exist, but after it was posted they came by all the time, asking and asking. No one had heard of it! They’re nervous.
My writing is illegal…I don’t know. I’m just writing something and now have broken their law. I don’t want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren’t interested in me.
So why are they?
The prison book is pretty cruel. I was serving time in Chongqing. At one point they tortured me so much I smashed my head against the wall to try to kill myself. I passed out and then over the next few days the non-political prisoners came by and said, “Hey buddy, if you really want to kill yourself that’s a stupid way to do it. A better way is like this: you find a nail sticking out of the wall and smash your temple against it. It’s much more effective, believe us.” So this book is maybe more cruel than the others. The authorities said to me: “If you publish this book we’ll send you back to Chongqing.” There’s no way I’m going back there. That’s too terrifying. They said we don’t care about the Mao era. You can write about that. The 50s and 60s are okay.
But then the Christianity book should be okay. It’s mostly from that era.
Yes, but the religious question in China is so great that it’s also forbidden, especially the subject of Christianity. I didn’t consider this when I was writing it. Haha, if I had thought of that I wouldn’t have written it [laughs]. They say it’s illegal to publish it abroad. This is strange. It’s a secret if foreigners read it, but not if Chinese read it. So it’s a secret for Ian Johnson to read, but not for me [laughing].
Why did you write about Christians and not, say, Buddhists?
Me, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have a definite plan. I had this opportunity to meet the Christians and it moved me so I did it.
How was it interviewing these Christians? You’re not a Christian, right?
It’s like this. I was in Yunnan trying to interview the last landlords of China, the ones who were persecuted in the early communist years. I met some people who told me about these Christians. I went to meet them. It was a really poor place. Unbelievably poor. No electricity, no roads, no telephone. We walked four or five hours to get to one village. But I thought this was so unbelievable. You’d get to a village and there’d be a church. Westerners had been there before, a century earlier, and built these churches. It was remarkable. They worked in these villages until 1949 when the Communists took over. The foreigners were expelled and a lot of the Christians killed. The stories are unbelievably cruel. In one case the father was executed and left on the side of the road. The family wasn’t allowed to pick up the corpse. When I heard this I cried.
What will you do in Germany? Your sources of information, your interviews—it’s all back in China.
There are too many stories about China! People say, “you won’t have anything to write about here,” but the problem is I can’t write them all. There are too many.
How do you work? Did you record the interviews?
In some of the other books, no. But in this case God is Red) I did. But when I write down their answers I try to make it sound as good as possible. I’m a writer so I want to use all my skill to write their stories.
How about the prison book? How did you remember all that?
I had a copy of [the classic Chinese novel] Romance of the Three Kingdoms and made tiny notes that I put in the book. It was really difficult, but in this way I was able to recover a lot of memories. These books are different. God is Red was difficult because I had to walk a lot of roads and eat a lot of bitterness, but I was glad to be able to write it. They were moving stories. But the prison book was difficult to write. It was painful.
And the fourth book is finished?
Yes, on the new underclass: some of them are unemployed, others simply don’t fit into society. But I’ve got more. I have seven or eight books I can write. I have a lot of material on me. I don’t lack material.
But from now on you can’t interview anyone, since you no longer live in China.
I’m already 53 years old. I’ve lived through a lot. The 1980s were a golden age for Chinese thought and literature. Then came 1989. Then came the reforms and the economic growth. No one thought the Communists would be so tough and strong. It’s caused all these waves of immigration. After they took over there was a big wave of immigration as people fled. Then after 1989 there was another wave of about 100,000 who left. Now there’s a new wave of people leaving, even though the economy is so good. At least among many artistic people it’s like this. You can’t do anything meaningful in China. If you return you have three choices: flee, sit in prison or shut up. I had to flee. Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei weren’t able to flee but I was. It’s probably because I interviewed a lot of these underclass people so I understand how the police think. That allowed me to figure a way out. I have contacts in the underground.
Can you get used to living abroad? You don’t speak German or English.
Sure, communication is never a problem. I like Berlin. East Berlin has a lot of underground bars that remind me of China. There’s one street there with a lot of prostitutes. I’ve been there many times to observe and watch how different German prostitutes are from Chinese prostitutes. The Germans are more polite. If you don’t want to, they leave you alone. In China, several will fight over you.
Some people ask why you publish so much overseas.
I’d like to publish in China but since 2001 I haven’t been able to. In the 1990s it was difficult but then after 2001 nothing at all. There is a lot of illegal, underground publishing. Most is related to sex. A friend told me I’ve got some good news for you: your book on the underclass is competing with the sex books! That was funny. But the two books coming this year are the ones I most value. They are the most personal and have moved me the most.
Do you still have relatives back home?
Yes, my mother, brother and sister.
Did you tell them ahead of time that you were leaving?
No, you cannot. I was the only one who knew.
Can they understand?
[Sighs] Slowly they’ll understand. For example, if I’m arrested they have to deliver food to me in prison—it’s a burden for them [laughing]. All those trips to the prison [laughs]. I’ve spared them those trips …
Does your mother understand what you do, your writing?
She does, but she wishes I wasn’t mixed up in politics. But I’m not. I’m not interested in politics. I’m not like Liu Xiaobo. I didn’t write a Charter 08. I did sign it. The police asked me why I signed it and I said I don’t know, I just felt like it.
You seem to have a knack for finding sensitive issues.
Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t really mean to but somehow it happens.