I’ve read about a dozen China prison memoirs over the years, and nothing has affected me the way Liao Yiwu’s prison diary has, with its detailed and graphic descriptions of prison life. I attribute the impact of this book to Liao’s skills as a poet, his writer’s nose for detail, and his willingness to listen to the colorful, but sad, stories of his fellow inmates.
In only a few countries in the world would a human being go to jail—and suffer so immensely—for writing a poem or making a movie. China is one such country, where artists are feared and must be suppressed before they pose a threat to the ruling party.
Liao holds nothing back, not even events that make him look like the young poet as a despicable man. He has a sexual liaison with a strange woman while attending the funeral of his beloved sister, his mourning clothes scattered on the floor. He gets stabbed by a jealous fiancée after being caught having an affair with a graduate student. When angered by his wife he thinks nothing about smacking her hard in the face. And when he fails to win a prize for his poetry at the First Contemporary Poetry Awards in Beijing, he attacks Bei Dao, a well-known poet and the organizer of the event, for “hijacking poetry.”
Possessed by wanderlust, he brings his wife home from the hospital with a broken leg, and then says he has to leave home that evening on a business trip, ignoring her sobs. He really just wants to wander around with his artist friends. That evening, he jumps on a boat in his river town home of Fuling, Sichuan province, and heads out in search of “new literary and sexual targets” 1that will stimulate his thinking.
When the 1989 protests break out, he is defiantly indifferent, preferring to concentrate on his poetry. Liao later does take an interest in the brutally suppressed Democracy Movement, and he writes a poem titled “Massacre” about the bloody crackdown, and an audio recording flies around China. Later, he and some artist friends decide to make a movie based on another one of his poems called “Requiem.” Surprisingly, they are oblivious to the danger they face. The ill-conceived project is comical, and could be the subject of a movie itself. It results in Liao, Big Teeth, the Hippie Poet, and others being sent to prison. Even A Xia, who is several months pregnant, and who had no role in the film-making, spends some 40 days in prison just for being married to Liao.
The psychological pressure of being imprisoned is all-suffocating, and Liao describes it in such excruciating detail that the reader vicariously shares Liao’s fright. The inmates live a physical and mental nightmare, caught between the violence meted out by both prison guards and fellow inmates. Some of the inmates are part of a prison hierarchy that includes the Red Hairs, convicted criminals who have completed their sentences, but stay on in prisons to work as aids to the public security officers, often dishing out brutal beatings to recalcitrant prisoners. Beneath them are the chiefs, inmates appointed to monitor other prisoners in the cell and to enforce the rules. Then there are the “thieves,” as prisoners were referred to. At the bottom of the pecking pile are the “slave thieves,” who are forced to do all of the menial jobs for the “upper class” of the prison.
Liao describes a special “menu” at the Song Mountain Investigation Center in Chongqing, titled Song Mountain’s One Hundred and Eight Rare Herbs, which lists dozens of delicacies, which in reality are euphemisms for various forms of sadistic torture.
“Pig elbow braised in herbs” is described as “getting off to a flying Red start.” The enforcer pokes the inmate’s back with an elbow over and over again until the back is covered with bruises. Liao describes the dish as being typically served during the initiation ceremony for newly-arrived inmates.
“Tofu fried on both sides” involves two enforcers pummeling the inmate on his chest and back. Liao says that while he was held at the Song Mountain facility several people died from tasting this “dish.”2
And then there’s “noodles in a clear broth”: Strands of toilet paper are soaked in a bowl of urine, and then the prisoner is forced to eat the toilet paper and drink the urine. When he gets into trouble once, Liao is sent to dark cell 372, which has a musty low ceiling and stone bed. The air is rancid, squealing rats run around freely, and Liao’s entire body is attacked by bugs. He’s fed a single bowl of rotten rice twice a day. This is known as a prison within a prison.3
Police frequently resort to the use of physical beatings and the dreaded electric batons that are used on all parts of one’s body. On one occasion, Liao is beaten so badly with an electric baton that he rolls on the ground in agony. “I could feel the baton on my butthole, but I refused to surrender. The tip of the baton entered me. I screamed and then whimpered in pain like a dog.”4
“The electric current coursed through my flesh and burst out from my neck. I felt like a duck whose feathers were being stripped.”5
He clenches his teeth and finds the strength to belt out a famous revolutionary song:
The East wind is blowing, the war drums are beating. In our world today, who is afraid of whom? The Chinese people are not afraid of the American imperialists. Rather, the American imperialists are afraid of the Chinese people.
The surprised prison guard is at first stunned, but then bursts into laughter, saying: “Okay, I’m afraid of you.”
In another instance, Liao has his hands shackled behind him for 24 days, during which time the crude handcuffs cut into his wrists, which soon emit an odious brown pus that make his arms puff up like an injured weight lifter.
He tries to commit suicide twice by butting his head against a wall, but his failure only results in taunts from fellow prisoners who think he was play acting, a bookish man who didn’t really have the guts to kill himself.
The book includes rich conversations Liao had with kidnappers, robbers, drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and prison officials. He introduces the Foreign Minister, so named because he negotiates with the guards on behalf of other prisoners; Chairman Chen, the cell monitor; Monk Sima, a defrocked monk who allegedly got into trouble for joining a sect, and who taught Liao how to play the flute; and Perverted Liu, Dwarf Li, and Iron Palm, whose names are self-explanatory. Liao himself is affectionately known as both The Counter-Revolutionary and The Poet.
Mu Ming, a talented artist, writes ditties and stages entertainment programs for the members of his cell. There’s an infamous gambler who has already served several prison sentences, and who is also an avid reader. Dead Zhang, a member of the “death squad” (a euphemism for people on death row), suddenly breaks out into Sichuan opera arias just days before he’s to be executed. Wu Er, aka the Chairman, has a penchant for sounding like a virtuous man with his many quotes from Chairman Mao, seemingly forgetting that his own failure to be virtuous is what landed him in prison.
At times, Liao surprises the reader with his ability to fight back. He can be as vicious as the meanest of his fellow prisoners when he feels he’s been pushed too far. In one instance, he sinks his teeth in the finger of a guard trying to hold him down, and in another instance, he furiously throws himself into a gaggle of inmates who have offended him. He explains that years of living with thieves, murderers, and rapists had transformed him.
At other times, he’s more than ready to swallow his pride. “Sometimes one has to jettison one’s dignity to survive,” he explains.6
Inmates are barely fed enough to survive, and hunger is a never-ending obsession.
One day, several prisoners in Liao’s cell are all discussing how hungry they are, when one suggests they have a contest to see who can describe the most alluring dishes. The cell mates are soon salivating over each dish, almost forgetting their empty stomachs. Liao wins the contest by describing the slop bucket in the old imperial kitchen.
While reading The Romance of the Eastern Zhou Empire, Liao comes across a passage about lavish state banquets. “Many times I felt tempted to tear out the passages describing roasted beef and lamb and chew the pages in my mouth,” he writes.7
One prisoner was so hungry that he licked the bottom of a bowl of glue, while another captured a rat, skinned it, tore it apart, and ate it raw like a wild animal.
The men are also starved for sex, and Liao recounts vivid and lurid details of group masturbation, rape, homosexual behavior, and the abuse of “slave boys,” who are forced to satisfy the sexual needs of inmate leaders.
Broken down by his prison experience, Liao begins to lose touch with reality. He hallucinates about Hu Feng, a late prominent contemporary Chinese poet, who had also been a prisoner here for more than 20 years. Liao tells of seeing Hu Feng in a dream, and wonders if the soul of that great poet has attached itself to his own body. He’s further convinced of this later when an old cellmate tells him that Hu Feng used to sleep in the same exact spot that Liao now sleeps.
After Wang Er is executed, bowls on a rack begin to rattle one night, which make Liao’s teeth chatter louder than the bowls. “Wang Er, is that you who has snuck back from the other world and come to see me?” asks a frightened Liao.8 He begs Wang Er to leave him alone.
The account tells numerous stories of prisoners engaging in the cruelest behavior against their fellow cell mates, including terrible beatings, abuse, and psychological pressure.
But just as soon, the inmates, and some officers, can treat each other in very kind ways.
In one instance, Liao and Chairman Chen chip in to buy cigarettes and canned meat for two men who are on death row. Liao does their chores for them—washes their laundry and changes bandages around their ankles that have been cut deeply and are infected from the shackles that remain on 24 hours a day.
After Liao is brutally beaten by the guards and has his hands shackled behind him, Old Xie feeds him like a baby. His face has been beaten so badly that chewing food is painful.
“Feeding me was as labor intensive as blacksmithing,” says Liao, adding that one meal often took 90 minutes because of the difficulty he had chewing.9
When Liao is sent to solitary confinement in a dank and dark cell, his fellow 1989 “counterrevolutionaries” go on a hunger strike to protect him. And when he’s finally released, they pile food on his bed that each inmate saved from their own limited daily rations.
Respected by some prisoners for his scholarliness, Liao is sometimes given time to read, while others willingly take on his work load. The books come from the well-stocked prison library and one wonders if the warden knows the kind of subversive materials that are on the shelves.
Liao particularly likes George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Reading the book was like walking through a gallery where there was no difference between art and life,” he writes. “On the page was an imaginary prison, while all around me there was the real thing.” He concludes by writing that “George Orwell’s prescience about the future of totalitarianism shocked me.”10
A prison officer, who had written some poetry in college, urges Liao not to provoke the other prison officers, saying they are “just as crazy as the inmates.”11
Liao engages the kind officer in a discussion.
“Officer Cao, do you know the famous line from the Bible that could fit my situation,” he asks.12
“If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek,” Cao responds without hesitation, before adding: “Too bad God is not Chinese.”13
Life often becomes absurd.
After learning that his request for the commutation of his death sentence has been turned down, Wang Er tells his cellmates to organize a big memorial service before his execution, so he can enjoy it while still alive. He asks to be accorded the same memorial service as a senior Communist leader. A Funeral Preparation Committee is established, as the Party did for Mao, and Liao volunteers to write the eulogy and telegrams of condolences. Wang Er puts on a white shirt and a pair of navy blue trousers, and another prisoner draws a funeral portrait of the “deceased.” When a cell mate starts reading the eulogy too quickly, Wang rises from his funeral bier and coaches the speaker, telling him “Try to imitate the voice of TV anchor Zhao Zhongxiang.”14 Mock senior Communist officials all pay their respects to the “martyr’s body” and to his crying widow, a young peasant boy with two bowls stuck in his shirt to resemble breasts. The ceremony ends with a powerful rendition of the “Internationale,” and all the inmates bow three times before Wang’s body.15
When the heat becomes almost unbearable one day, Liao comes up with the bright idea of squirting toothpaste up his anus, and others follow his lead.
“I took off my trousers and urged everyone to follow my example--squeezing toothpaste into my anus,” he writes. “A shocking chill shot up my spine and neck, and reached the back of my head.” Within a few minutes more than 20 inmates had followed his example.
The chief does the same, and holds it in as he compliments Liao: “You educated folks are never short of crazy ideas.”16
However, the toothpaste soon loses its cooling effect and the innovators begin suffering severe itching.
In the book, Liao makes frequent references to human feces in everyday prison life. There are many stories about prisoners having their heads shoved into a full toilet bucket, and of others being forced to sleep next to it. He points to the Czech writer Milan Kundera, who in The Unbearable Lightness of Being famously defined totalitarian kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit.” Liao laments that he’s incapable of “elevating human feces to a higher level and imbuing it with political, historical, and religious meaning.”
“In this ordinary memoir of mine, shit is shit. I keep mentioning it because I almost drowned in it.”17
Liao’s release from prison is not a pleasant experience. When Liao returned home after spending four years in prison, his wife demands a divorce—not surprising as he was never a model husband. Possibly worse is that his small daughter, frightened by his shaved head, calls him a “bald criminal.”18 Unable to come up with the hefty lump sum divorce settlement demanded by A Xia, she kicks him out of their house. As he walks out the door, his 4-year-old daughter spits at him. His wife refuses to let Liao see his own daughter even after he earns royalties for a book he’s written and begins to pay child support. By the time this book was published, his daughter had already turned 22 and he’d spent very little time with her. His old friends, frightened by political suppression and preoccupied with the desire to make money in an increasingly materialistic China, abandon him. And the police are always close behind wherever he goes.
On a cold winter evening, the despondent Liao pays a visit to Liu Shahe, a poet who had been persecuted by Chairman Mao during the anti-rightist campaign in 1958. Liu urges Liao to abandon poetry and to become a “witness to history.”19
“You have a clumsy tongue, but God has bestowed a sharp pen upon you.”20
“Many have suffered injustices,” continues Liu, “but only a few have crawled out of jail still clearheaded enough to remember and record what they have seen.”21
The authorities were adamant that this book would not see print, and seized his manuscript twice. But despite their vigilance, Liao wrote it a third time, completely from memory, and from scratch, and friends smuggled it out of China. The publisher was afraid to publish the book for fear it would land the writer back in prison, and so they sat on the manuscript until Liao slipped out of China on July 6, 2011, making his way across the Chinese border to Vietnam and onward to Germany.
The book was finally published in 2012, once the poet was free from retaliation by the Chinese government. The writing was a cathartic experience for Liao, winning back some of his lost self-esteem.
“These words, which I have shared with you, the reader, form the most sincere and truthful expression of what I have seen and learned,” Liao writes at the conclusion of this moving book. “Passing it on has given me a sense of dignity.”22
Paul Mooney, an American freelance journalist, reported on China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from 1985-2012. At various times, he has been on staff at Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the South China Morning Post. He now writes about China from his base in Berkeley, California.