After being denied permission by Chinese authorities to attend an upcoming literary festival in Cologne, writer Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) has written a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeking intervention. Liao is the author of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up and other books. He has been closely monitored by the Chinese government for many years and has been repeatedly denied permission to leave China. In fall 2009, Liao made headlines around the world when the Chinese government prohibited him from attending a symposium in Berlin, which was part of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Human Rights in China has translated Liao’s letter to Merkel, as well as a 2000 letter from Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) that Liao mentioned in his letter to Merkel.
Letter from Liao Yiwu to German Chancellor Angela Merkel
February 5, 2010
[Translation by Human Rights in China]
Dear Madam Merkel:
I send my regards from afar.
My name is Liao Yiwu; I am a writer from the bottom of Chinese society. Not long ago, the German edition of my book, Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser: Chinas Gesellschaft von unten [published in English under the title of The Corpse Walker], was published by [S.] Fischer Verlag. Owing to the high acclaim from readers and critics, it sold quite well, and [S.] Fischer Verlag now plans to publish another of my books in German, My Testimony [unofficial translation of 《我的证词》, Wo de zhengci], about prison life.
I’m writing this letter to you not only because you are the Chancellor of Germany, with considerable power to rally support when it comes to international affairs, but because you once lived in dictatorial East Germany, and perhaps you were trampled upon, humiliated, had your freedom restricted, and have some understanding of how I feel at this very moment. When the Berlin Wall fell you were 35 years old, I was 31 years old; that year the June Fourth massacre also happened; the night it happened I created and recited the long poem, “Massacre” [unofficial English translation of 《屠杀》, Tusha]. For this I was arrested and imprisoned for four years. In 1997, we founded the underground literary magazine The Intellectuals [unofficial English translation of 《知识分子》, Zhishifenzi]; in the inside front cover and inside back cover of the first issue we published two exciting photos: one was from 1970, of Willy Brandt, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, representing the German people, kneeling, admitting guilt, and repenting at the monument to the innocent victims of World War II, in Warsaw, Poland; the other photo was from November 9, 1989, when the people, ecstatic, broke through the Berlin Wall.
As individuals, perhaps we once had a shared history? Maybe I am destined to experience, sooner or later, what you experienced in the past? God really looks out for the Germans.
Because I have insisted on independent writing that bears witness, I have been strictly prohibited for many years from publishing one single word in my own country; furthermore, for many years, I have been strictly prohibited from going abroad. I have applied for a passport ten times. At the end of 2008, because of the chaos of the Sichuan earthquake, I unexpectedly obtained a passport, but I still could not leave the country.
I have had the experience of being detained at customs and sent back.
The most recent time was the international Frankfurt Book Fair. As the guest of honor, China sent more than 100 official writers, and a delegation of more than 1,000 people of all kinds, in order to make a strong showing in the “Olympics of culture.” But I, alone, was absent. [This happened] even though I had also received a formal invitation to be an honored guest at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt headquarters in Berlin, where a series of activities had been arranged for me, including reading from my works, giving talks, and performing music.
My absence—having been blocked by Chinese police—revealed by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, prompted an uproar in German society. Thanks to upstanding German readers, my book about the bottom of Chinese history has gone into reprint many times. But I couldn’t cheer up: after this many years, who would’ve thought that it is only through this kind of “hand-to-hand combat” method that I and my fellow writers of underground literature can make a breakthrough and be known in the West. Similarly, as in the case of my old friend, the literary critic Liu Xiaobo, can it be that only through the disaster of an 11-year prison term would Western political, business, intellectual, and Sinology circles be awoken from their beautiful dream of interests through complicity with a dominant dictatorial power?
We have a sense of linguistic beauty, historical shame, and artistic sanctity. We are not any worse than the writers promoted by the Chinese government who can do whatever they want in the West. Thus, right after my absence from the Frankfurt Book Fair and my receipt of a formal invitation from the lit.Cologne literary festival, I began communicating and negotiating with the police, time and again. I agreed to keep a low profile and avoid current politics as much as I could and instead focus only on literature, memories, and history. I had been stifled in the dirty and tortuous sewer for more than 50 years; I really needed to breathe and have a taste of freedom. Is it sweet? Sour? Or is it colorless and tasteless? My stench-filled Chinese lungs wouldn’t be unsuited for it, would they? Would I feel a sense of loss? I downloaded some images of Cologne and also a description:
Lit.Cologne hosts more than 60,000 guests each year and is currently Germany’s largest literature festival. When asked how lit.Cologne managed to break the record for literature festivals for eight years straight—and with one reading held at the Cologne stadium with an audience of 15,000 being included in the Guinness Book of World Records—the organizer, Mr. Koehler, replied, “Because the people of this city and region have a passion for literature.”
I also learned that I would be reading my works, performing music, and having discussions and dialogues with many important Western writers during the festival. Especially interesting among them is Herta Müller, the 2009 Nobel laureate in Literature who also experienced humiliation for the sake of survival under an authoritarian regime. Reading her works is like reading the psychological history of modern China. I would like to ask her about the “method of retelling,” the feeling of “crossing borders and fleeing for the first time,” and whether being eavesdropped and secretly spied upon made her unable to write. Does writing freely or writing under eavesdropping excite more varied passions?
I will also mention the German film The Lives of Others. Can the mournful “Sonata for a Good Man” in that movie really move the old special agent in the basement? Just as, more than ten years ago, a wayward police chief named Cao Jian came to my house quietly in the middle of the night to listen to me play the bamboo flute?
However, the regime has not changed its color because of this. Consequently, the day before yesterday, February 3, 2010, the police called to inform me that I am not allowed to leave the country. I asked him, “Why?” The police officer said “The ban from above has not been lifted.’ I asked him, “Who is above?” The police officer said they cannot tell me. I asked them, “Is ‘above’ in Sichuan or in Beijing?” The police officer hesitated a moment, and said, “In Beijing.”
I shut my mouth. I know my country wishes that I will shut my mouth forever like the people at the bottom of society in my book, who have been deprived, trampled upon, and violated, but cannot make a sound—or if they do, no one will listen. Even if people did listen, everyone would advise that you resign to fate and follow the unspoken rule of “Everyone is shameless, so why can’t you be shameless too?” Yes, yes, my country hopes that I will be like the vast majority of state-supported writers, who have been deprived, trampled upon, and violated in their thoughts and bodies, who still strive to forget, still express gratitude numbly, and say that this is necessary to look good. Just like a prostitute, after being violated by a client—as long as the client pays up, and says a few words of consolation like, “The market will be bigger in the future and the sales will be better”—would say thank you, and would say that this is necessary to look good.
I write this letter to you, Madam Merkel, for the sake of the little that remains of my hopes and dignity after being violated. I implore that you pay close attention to my being blocked from coming to your country, and implore that the German government under your leadership use its diplomatic channels and influence, so that I will not repeat my absence from the Frankfurt Book Fair, this time from lit.Cologne. Literature cannot be again dishonored by might.
The thousands upon thousands of German readers who purchased my book, Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser: Chinas Gesellschaft von unten, are looking forward to my appearance in Cologne as scheduled at the festival’s invitation; [S.] Fischer Verlag, which is preparing My Testimony, my second book in German, is still looking forward to sharing the experience of writing under suppression and being published freely. And I am looking forward to studying democracy and learning how to laugh and cry healthily, no longer having to sneak around.
Thus, regardless of whether or not the police department prohibits me, I shall go to the German Embassy to apply for a visa, and then purchase a plane ticket, and cross the borders accordingly, to make my final push in the dash to Cologne. Even if they intercept me at customs as they have forewarned me, I could not let down my German readers, nor the German media who have continued to support me.
If my wish comes true, I would not do anything to harm my motherland, aside from speaking the truth. I also would not exploit the influence of “banned literature” to seek political asylum. I would return to China by every possible means. Because the land of my writing is here and the ears for my music are here, among the hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese. It is unimaginable that a writer would be able to do anything once he has left the place of his mother tongue. Though as an old friend, Liu Xiaobo, wrote me in a letter ten years ago: Compared to this clever world, you and I are but fools. We are only fit to ride the Ship of Fools like those in ancient Europe, drifting in the open seas; whatever land we hit first will be our home.
Thank you very much for reading this letter.
I hope that I will receive your assistance.
I would surmise that the views of the organizers of lit.Cologne, [S.] Fischer Verlag, and the dear German readers and media would be more or less the same as mine.
Author, poet, and writer
February 5, 2010
From my home in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China
Letter from Liu Xiaobo to Liao Yiwu
January 13, 2000
[Translation by Human Rights in China]
Dear Beardie or Baldie:
I’ve been reading your My Testimony [unofficial translation of 《证词》, Zhengci] day and night. Liu Xia read it very fast; I read it much more slowly. Between reading it ten lines at a time and spending time to understand each word, I’m sure you can tell who cares about you more. Next time, even if you’re dense, you should know with whom you should be frank, and with whom you should be vague.
Compared to your four years in prison, my three imprisonments cannot be considered real disasters. The first time, I was in a single-prisoner cell in Qincheng; except for the deathly silence, I was much better off than you were in terms of daily life. The second time, during the eight months in a large compound at the foot of Xiang Mountain, the treatment was even better: aside from freedom, I had everything. The third time was in the Dalian Correctional Institution and it was also something else. As an entitled prisoner, it’s difficult for me to face what you have been through to the point that I can’t even claim that those three entries and releases were imprisonments. The truth is, in this inhuman place, resistance is our only course of action in preserving our dignity. Thus, being imprisoned is an essential part of a person’s dignity and is nothing to brag about. What should be feared is not imprisonment but what happens afterwards when you think you can make society pay back its blood debt to you and live by your principles.
I always knew that after June Fourth, there were too many of those arrested who received more severe sentences than well-known figures like myself. The vile prison conditions are difficult for ordinary people to imagine. But this was only a feeling I had until reading your Testimony. Testimony has allowed me to feel the pulse of the real victims of the June Fourth tragedy. Words cannot describe my shame; therefore, I will live the rest of my life for the souls of those nameless victims. Everything shall pass, but the blood and tears of the innocent will be stones in my heart forever. They are heavy and cold, and their corners and edges sharp. “Requiem” [unofficial translation of 《安魂》, An hun] is quite a poem. It’s even better than “Massacre” [unofficial translation of 《屠杀》, Tusha].
In Testimony, you have many criticisms for those around you, but sometimes it’s hard to separate those from complaints. I think perhaps you didn’t have enough distance [from the prison experience] and that your pen was still surrounded by your personal pain; this is something that you need to think about carefully. Being true to life is an unattainable task but our words must have the inner strength to strive infinitely closer to it.ôôô²¦ô²
Compared to others under the Communist black curtain, we cannot call ourselves real men. Through the great tragedies of all these years, we still don’t have a righteous giant like [Václav] Havel. In order for everyone to have the right to be selfish, there has to be a righteous giant who will sacrifice selflessly. In order to obtain “passive freedoms” (freedom from the arbitrary oppression by those in power), there has to be a will for active resistance. In history, nothing is fated. The appearance of a martyr will completely change a nation’s soul and raise the spiritual quality of the people. But Gandhi was by chance, Havel was by chance; two thousand years ago, a peasant’s boy born in the manger was even more by chance. Human progress relies on the chance birth of these individuals. One cannot count on the collective conscience of the masses but only on the great individual conscience to consolidate the weak masses. In particular, our nation needs this righteous giant; the appeal of a role model is infinite; a symbol can rouse an abundance of moral resources. For example, Fang Lizhi’s ability to walk out of the U.S. Embassy, or Zhao Ziyang’s ability to actively resist after stepping down, or so-and-so refusing to go abroad. A very important reason for the silence and amnesia after June Fourth is that we did not have a righteous giant who stepped forward.
It is possible to imagine people’s kindness and steadfastness but it is impossible to imagine people’s evil and cowardice. Every time a great tragedy occurs, I am always shocked by people’s evil and cowardice. However, I am calm when facing the lack of kindness and steadfastness. The beauty of written language is that, in the dark, it shines a light on truth; and beauty is the focal point of truth. Noise and glamour only hide the truth. Compared to this clever world, you and I are but fools. We are only fit to ride the Ship of Fools like those in ancient Europe, drifting in the open seas; whatever land we hit first will be our home. We live by the feeling of heartache still left in life. Heartache is a symptom of extreme blindness but also of extreme clarity. Blindness, because when everyone is numb, you still ignore the current situation and cry out in pain; clarity, because when everyone has forgotten, you still remember the bloody knife. I once wrote a poem to Liu Xia, “an ant’s cries have stopped your footsteps.”
I have never met your sister, Feifei, but your pen has already made me fall in love with her type of woman. Dancing with deceased souls or the defeated is the dance of life. If possible, when you go to her grave to pay respect, give her some flowers on my behalf.