China's rapid economic growth and rise as a global power have profoundly transformed its society. They have also changed how the world views China. In the minds of many Chinese and foreigners, cities like Shanghai and Beijing have become marvels of futuristic planning and material wealth. Those who watch this summer's Olympics on TV may find the Bird's Nest Stadium, the "Water Cube" National Aquatics Center and Beijing's other cutting-edge architectural wonders as riveting as the athletics.
Of course, such images of modernity and riches do not capture all of society. Some have been left behind economically or socially. Some still suffer the wounds of Maoist era political persecution. Others are criminal or insane. Others simply live quietly. In China, as elsewhere, the voices of the marginalized are often absent from the public realm and their concerns ignored.
In "The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up," Liao Yiwu redresses this injustice by giving readers access to the intriguing, decidedly off-beat stories of 27 people from the bottom rungs of society, including an unjustly accused man tortured by fellow jail cellmates, an infamous safe cracker on Death Row and a blind street musician. Most, like Liao, are from Sichuan, the grand inland province in China's southwest, an economic powerhouse that is home to urban affluence and rural poverty alike. Their voices reveal lives physically and experientially distant from the glittering surface affluence and comforts of Beijing and Shanghai.
Grandpa Zhou, an elderly public-restroom manager upbraids those who mar bathroom walls with crude limericks and drawings and decries the lost harmony of the pre-1970s, when many houses didn't have indoor plumbing. Public bathrooms were essential social spots, and families used chamber pots at night:
"In the old days, every morning, families used to dump their chamber pots into the public restrooms or wait for the human-waste truck. Those trucks were more punctual than public buses . . . [P]eople chatted and caught up with each other over the day's gossip."
Societal changes, including the ubiquity of plumbing in newer houses and the end of Maoism, mean he and his work are now demeaned.
Que Yao, a street singer, tells of how he stole a Bible, read it and began to write original hymns while dreaming of attending divinity school. Yet as a high school dropout, there was no chance for him to pass the National College Entrance Exam. Clergy were also less than encouraging. Upon showing a young minister his compositions he was told:
"We have many beautiful hymns already written by grand masters. Your job is not to compose, but to learn."
Que says he refused to give up:
"I cleared my throat and sang a hymn that I had just written. But he wasn't impressed."
He fared no better with the police, who arrested him for disturbing the peace by attracting a large crowd at a street concert. His detention led to a sentence of 2 years of re-education by labor, and a farm accident cost him his left eye.
Having weathered these travails, he emerged from prison emboldened to remake his art in an avant-garde mode and incorporated street sounds into his performance. Having been born to blind funeral musicians, his disability struck him as fate, leading him back "to the days when I was a four-year-old boy, leading a group of blind musicians to a funeral gig." Now he sometimes performs on his late father's zither with blind folk music masters, his father's idols. After one performance, he says:
"I went to my father's tomb. I felt that I had finally done something that would make him proud."
Zhou and Que are representative of the book's subjects: Socially downtrodden, they are victimized in ways large and small by happenstance or injustice. Their plight, as in the case of a woman from the Yi ethnic group whose husband, brother and son were killed during land reform and related campaigns during the 1950s, and whose family suffered decades of ostracism as a result, is sometimes Job-like.
Through his choice of subjects and pointed interviewing, Liao clearly aims to call attention to the prevalence of suffering and injustice, whether due to Maoist political violence or the social inequities of today. The collective effect of this woe at times threatens to overwhelm the book and transform it into a screed. Some may therefore wish to savor it over several sittings. On balance, the integrity of Liao's interviewees, the drama of their stories, and the give and take of their interaction with him make for a compelling and enlightening read.
Argumentative and cranky, demanding and indulgent, Liao is a gifted interlocutor; his sympathetic listening and artful questioning shape the book's interviews into memorable revelations of unheralded lives. Prolific composer Wang Xilin, who discusses his travails during the early 1960s and the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) as a "Rightist" due to his family's former landlord status and his own suspect artistic ideology, is the one exception. (In 1963 Wang argued that the Communist Party's policy of privileging the use of folk tunes to create revolutionary music would harm the development of Chinese symphonic music. This made him a target for public political-struggle sessions.)
In addition to its literary and social merits, "The Corpse Walker" is significant for being the first extended collection of Liao's work in English. (Five chapters were previously published in The Paris Review.) Liao is one of China's best-known dissident writers. He initially came to prominence in the 1980s as a poet. His accomplished verse, published variously by official presses and in underground publications, won him ardent admirers and a host of watchful critics within the state security apparatus. These official readers imprisoned him for publishing poetry decrying the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Liao's plight made him well-known to the international literary community, whose campaign against his imprisonment caused him to be released in 1994, a month and a half before the end of his 4-year sentence.
Since then Liao has written frankly and attracted public and official notice. He has increasingly turned to interviews to capture the variety of social experience and investigate life at the margins. American readers are likely to view him as a Chinese Studs Turkel, a rather apt comparison. Yet Liao's reportage draws from a long-established Chinese tradition of populist investigative literature that, since the early 20th Century, has tried to inform and mold public opinion in the pursuit of social justice.
"The Corpse Walker" echoes landmarks like the Chinese and later U.S. best-seller "Chinese Lives: An Oral History of Contemporary China" (1987), which provided a kaleidoscopic picture of the bitterness of the Cultural Revolution giving way to optimism born of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. Liao's eye, however, is more jaundiced, and his sensibilities are more clearly those of a muckraker. Most recently, in the aftermath of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, Liao has published on-line several interviews with survivors from some hard-hit areas to document their experience and survival and testify to their plight and fortitude.