A Powerful Counterhistory of China

A Powerful Counterhistory of China

A collection of oral histories reveal a new understanding of the modern Chinese experience.


Master Deng Kuan, abbot of the Gu Temple, established in the Sui Dynasty sometime around the turn of the sixth century, was 103 when the writer Liao Yiwu met him while mountain climbing in Sichuan Province, in 2003. A tiny man with small, darting eyes and ears that were extremely hard of hearing, Deng had survived despite an irremediable fondness for his old pipe, which he relighted and puffed every few minutes as he spoke to Liao. A couple of pages into Liao’s account of their conversation in The Corpse Walker, one quickly grasps that surviving a fondness for tobacco was the very least of the old man’s exploits. We commonly think of monks as living quiet lives in retreat, and that indeed was Master Deng’s chosen path. Instead, and through no choice of his own, he ended up living a most eventful life in a country that one can credibly claim experienced the most brutal twentieth century of any place on earth.

When we recall China’s many traumas, what typically loom large are its long decades of political decay and warlordism, the civil war that pit Nationalists against Communists, and an invasion by Japan. This story line, of course, is even more indomitable in the officially sanctioned accounts of the century that exist in China, where even now serious research on things like the Cultural Revolution is still largely proscribed. For Master Deng, though, whose twentieth century was roughly split in two by the victory of Mao’s forces in 1949, the troubles of the pre-“liberation” period seem trivial in comparison with what would follow. “A couple of sentences are sufficient,” he tells Liao, dismissing the travails suffered in the early decades of his life.

Readers should be thankful that the old man dispensed with such radical economy in describing what followed. In his telling, as in the other twenty-six oral histories in Liao’s book, we are granted a robust new understanding of the modern Chinese experience. “Over the centuries, as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remained relatively intact,” Deng explains, giving his interviewer an understated introduction to the upheaval inflicted on his place of worship. “This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn’t get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.”

Soon after Mao’s victory, Deng was dragged out of his temple and stood up before a crowd, accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading “feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people’s minds.” People stepped forward to denounce him, and the crowd that gathered responded on cue, howling slogans like “Down with the evil landlord” and “Religion is spiritual poison.” Some spat on him. Others punched and kicked. “No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next,” Deng says. “Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us has ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.”

In this single incident, one already finds crystallized many of the signal features of the revolutionary era’s mass politics: flamboyant and typically baseless scapegoating, slogan-based campaigns aimed not just at inciting the fury of the masses but at channeling it against ever-shifting ideologically designated “enemies,” and vicious and often unrelenting sectarian attacks. By Master Deng’s reckoning, between 1952 and 1961 this meant he endured more than 300 “struggle sessions,” as these organized hazings were known in the revolution’s euphemistic terminology. In his area of Sichuan Province, he tells Liao, by 1961 “half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death.”

In 1978, a ban on religious teaching that dated from early in the revolution was lifted, and a few years later the rebuilding of the Gu Temple, and hundreds of others around China, got under way in earnest, aided by donations from people who had kept their faith in secret. No longer the target of punishing political campaigns, Master Deng has other worries: the designs of predatory local officials who see temples like his as cash cows or comfortable digs for their gambling parties. “A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their mah-jongg tables right inside the temple,” he says.

They played that gambling game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room and wanted to get a loan from me. I did “lend” some to them. You know they will never pay back…. The officials are so powerful, and can destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods.

With a little variation, the phrase “parent of all gods” entered the news during the recent crisis in Tibet, when the “autonomous region’s” party secretary declared that the Communist Party was the “real Buddha” for Tibetans.

In its standard telling abroad, the story of the China that Mao built is all neatly hewn sections paved with well-worn flagstone. Who hasn’t heard of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward? The well-read will also know the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s, during which the party went on a nationwide witch hunt for supposed liberals, reactionaries and capitalist roaders. Thus, the country lurches back and forth between famous moments of almost hallucinatory revolutionary madness and a semblance of normalcy about which we hear very little.

As histories go, this manner of relating the Chinese experience amounts to a way of averting one’s eyes from something that may seem too hard to comprehend. It also encourages a kind of blurry forgetting, a storing away of things on a high, musty shelf that has been officially encouraged by China’s leaders, who are most keen to manage this story because they have the most to lose from a more vigorous and thorough telling. This is the ultimate sense of the famous posthumous verdict by Deng Xiaoping, who judged that Mao had been 70 percent “correct” and 30 percent wrong. Yes, Mao’s errors, like the 30 million or more deaths from starvation caused by the crash industrialization of the Great Leap Forward, were doozies, but by and large he kept the country on the right path, avers Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s past has also benefited from studious airbrushing to avoid mussing up the standard portrait of him as a kindly, strong and nearly infallible second father to the nation. His enthusiastic role in violently suppressing “rightists” in the late 1950s has been placed out of bounds by the gatekeepers who determine which subjects can be researched and which cannot.

Master Deng’s life, and almost every other oral history in Liao Yiwu’s new book, appropriately subtitled Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up, gives the lie to this entire vision, making this a deeply subversive book. I do not mean the reader should expect a tract or treatise on Chinese politics. Instead, Liao casts aside the official “facts” of events and replaces them with “memories”–with the resulting contrast between the censored record and interior consciousness revealing a post-1949 China that has never stopped being a traumatic place. At their root, all of Liao’s “real-life” stories share something fundamental: a fantastic, dreamy and nightmarish quality. Read alone, many of them invite questions of believability, especially for people without the benefit of familiarity with China. None have the feeling of pure artifice, but as with much of the writing of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, with whom Liao shares more than a passing likeness, each provokes a moment’s thought about its relationship to the truth.

The 49-year-old Liao was born in Sichuan Province just as China’s mad dash to become an economic superpower, the Great Leap Forward, was getting under way. At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, his late father, a small landlord, was jailed as a “class enemy.” In fact, the family had been targeted for persecution since 1959 when his mother, a music teacher, was fired from her primary school job for “bourgeois thinking.” After being caught trading ration coupons for food, Liao’s mother ran away with her son and a younger sister to Chengdu, Sichuan’s big provincial capital, where they lived a precarious life without a residence permit. Liao left home two years later, at age 10, hoping to find his father and eventually making a living through a succession of small hard-knock jobs, hauling rocks or rolling cigarettes. In the early 1970s, his father was released from jail and allowed to teach at a rural middle school. Schools had been closed throughout the country amid the political chaos, and Liao, already in his early teens, went to primary school in the same town where his father worked.

In 1982 Liao’s first poem, “Dawn,” appeared in Xing Xing, an influential poetry journal, winning him wide attention. By 1988 Liao had just turned 30, and his poems had already won him a national reputation, along with twenty poetry prizes and awards. When the Chinese army violently put down the student-led protests at Tiananmen Square, Liao wrote an epic poem, which he titled “Massacre.” Knowing it could not be published in the country, he recorded it on cassette, giving a tape to a friend and allowing it to be copied and passed along from person to person. Word of the poem spread fast, leading to the author’s arrest, and in March 1990 Liao was imprisoned and spent the next four years locked up.

If the author’s sensitivity for injustice, a consistent focus of his writing, springs from the treatment of his parents that he witnessed as a child, much of his technique, including a finely honed sense of voice and dialogue, was forged in prison, where he shared cells with hardened criminals, eccentrics and outcasts from China’s socialist order. In The Corpse Walker Liao’s interviews are presented in standard question-and-answer format, a method that would seem to leave little room for style, but the effect of reading them is almost akin to that of reading the work of a skilled short-story writer, one with a talent for getting out of the way and letting the yarn unravel, as if all on its own. Part of this stems, undoubtedly, from what might be called remarkable people skills–the ability to sidle up to someone and get a sympathetic current flowing, without the subject ever the wiser that he is being pumped.

One safely assumes, too, that many of the interviews are reconstructions of conversations, and far from strictly literal transcriptions. This allows the author to control their pace and to stamp them, albeit judiciously, with his own style. There is much more to the effort, though. To pull together work like this one must be a tireless researcher and interviewer. If it is true that most people have an interesting story, even those who are not aware of it, Liao’s characters, at once regular and extraordinary, are not the product of a random cull. Some of his subjects resulted from prolonged wanderings in a particular area. Some have been introduced to him by friends, typically other writers. And some of the most striking pieces, finally, are reconstructions of conversations he had with fellow prison inmates.

As to what one should make of the result, Liao is a kind of pointillist, bravely doing what one writer can to fill in the vast blank spaces that constitute China’s modern artistic and social record. Since the revolution, Beijing has been obsessed with few things more than controlling China’s story, which runs the gamut from rewriting history to censorship of the news and exercising tight control over publishing to arresting, monitoring or outright “banning” writers who stray too far within, or often from, the official fold.

Liao has faced all these repressive measures. In its first edition, in September 1999, 30,000 copies of the book were printed by a medium-sized Beijing publishing house. The book was reprinted five times over the first few months, then was suddenly banned. Two years later, a large Chinese house published an expanded version under a new title, but it too was quickly banned. Liao’s other twenty-odd works were mostly published overseas in Chinese or self-published

through foreign websites. The government will not issue him a passport, preventing him from traveling abroad, and he has been reduced to the status of a nonperson by China’s domestic media, which amounts to a ban. Still, in a testament to his persistence and the ways of change in China, where the government, despite its best efforts, can no longer control everything, he is widely read within the country, his books published in black market underground editions.

Liao secures a small measure of safety, perhaps, in collecting the words of others, instead of describing Chinese society himself. Yet given the invisibility of nearly all but the sanctioned stories within China, out of the voices of Liao’s would-be ordinary folks emerges a powerful counterhistory, whose authenticity derives in no small part from his chosen stylistic format.

As such, Liao’s tales are not suited for reading in isolation, an experience that risks leaving the reader merely charmed or enchanted by the seeming whimsy at work in the choice of many of the subjects, and indeed in the facts of their lives: a safecracker who escapes from prison by swimming through a cesspool, hides in a morgue to escape arrest and later takes refuge in an army bus; a peasant who fancies himself emperor; and the “corpse walkers” of the title, who face mob justice for their role in carrying out an obscure rite for the deceased wife of a former Nationalist officer.

Read four or five of these interviews, though–there is little chance of stopping there–and something powerful begins to happen. Doubts about the plausibility of this or that detail begin to morph into doubts of an altogether different kind, ones that seem close to the heart of the author’s project. And these big new doubts go to the very nature of the China that we think we have known.

Through Liao’s characters, the reader familiar with the standard histories comes away with a feeling that the high-water marks of supposed madness are exaggerated, in the sense that what has passed for more “normal” times emerge as far crazier than is generally allowed for. The new new China, meanwhile, the booming post-reform China of seemingly unending high-speed growth, also comes across as a place of unrelenting trauma and even craziness. Yes, this China is qualitatively different from the Maoist China of old–and certainly less violent–but it is just as disorienting, just as hard to fully come to terms with, for the Chinese and for foreigners.

The elderly in this book spend their time contemplating a past that is too mean and grotesque to digest properly. At one point Zhang Meizhi, the 84-year-old widow of a former local official in southern China who was executed, along with Zhang’s brother, in front of her during the 1952 Land Reform campaign, tells Liao, “I’m trying to make peace with the past.” If the summary executions for having been declared a class enemy were not enough, the tongues of the two men were cut out for use in traditional medicine. Zhang was then locked up for forty days, during which time her 2-year-old daughter starved to death. As the persecution of these so-called rich peasants continued, Zhang’s eldest son fled the village, taking refuge in an underground vegetable cellar next to a cultivated field, where he stayed in secret for two years. Eventually he was discovered, and a younger brother who fed him surreptitiously was shot dead by the police. The fugitive son was given a life sentence for antirevolutionary crimes, which was commuted only after thirty years in prison. “I grew up in a family with generations of educated people,” Zhang tells Liao. “We had a glorious family history. I used to keep a record of my family history. The Poor Peasants Revolutionary Committee dug it out and burned it. My house was so thoroughly searched that there was no place for a mouse to hide.”

The rootless younger people who figure in this book, meanwhile, spend their time trying to find a footing in a world stripped of the normal bearings. There is the migrant worker from Sichuan Province, whose life reads like a précis of China’s new “masses,” those hundreds of millions of commoditized laborers who drift anonymously into the cities, hoping to catch a break. Zhao Er has toiled as a farmer, in a wildcat coal mine, as a construction worker and a restaurant hand, and has slept in a plastic tent in Chengdu owned by an enterprising woman who barks on the sidewalk at dusk each day to pile in as many short-stay “tenants” as she can.

“In the wintertime, when bodies are crammed in together, you get pretty warm,” Zhao says. “Sometimes it’s so warm that you sweat simply by blowing a fart.” Later he recounts the tale of a woman he knew from his village who masquerades as a shoeshine lady to cover for her real trade, prostitution. “I don’t blame those poor women. Luckily my wife had three kids, otherwise, she would also be turned into a whore.”

One cannot read Liao’s book and not be impressed by how many people survive by lying, often confessing to imaginary charges or reciting accusations back to one’s accuser, accepting them as one’s own. This is brought to particularly vivid life by the story of Tian Zhiguang, a “grave robber,” or at least someone who has been arrested for supposedly robbing graves. “From the unexpected discovery of fortune to our sudden arrest, everything happened so fast,” Tian said, explaining how the discovery of antique gold coins buried beneath his house led to his arrest on a false pretense. Police dismissed his explanation with a laugh and carted him off to jail, where the inmates initially took Tian for the leader of a grave-robbing “triad,” or gang, and treated him with respect. Weeks later, when they learned he was an ordinary inmate, he was given a belated initiation, which consisted of vicious beatings while being forced to hoist a fully laden prison cell chamber pot on his head. This causes Liao, the author, to remark with bemusement, “I guess prisoners are getting more creative when it comes to torturing people.”

Two weeks after his initiation, Tian is offered a chance at redemption through the detention center’s “Confession Leads to Leniency” campaign. Three hundred inmates from nine cells are called into the courtyard to appear before local police and Communist Party leaders, who repeat over and over that “confessions will lead to reduced sentences.” Later, the bullying overlord among the inmates urges him to recant. “Those officials out there are all liars. Under normal circumstances, they trick you into confessing, promising you the reward of a reduced sentence. Once you tell everything, they never keep their promise. You probably end up with a bullet in your head. However, this campaign is different. The media has written about it. If those officials renege on their promises, they will lose face and credibility.”

Throughout his ordeal, Tian has remained scrupulous, and he responds by saying what he has told the authorities from the start: “I don’t really have anything to confess.” The boss of the cellblock, sensing a chance to win points, orders his underlings to rough up Tian in order to change his mind. “The cell was like a classroom and every ‘student’ was asked to write a paper,” Tian relates. “Your confession needs to be sensational,” the boss tells them. “Don’t try to simplify and whitewash. The more serious your crimes are, the better it makes me look.”

Old Master Deng has a wonderfully pithy explanation for the toll that this kind of behavior has on a society–a toll that remains in China today, thick with rampant distrust and unmoored by the erosion of values one encounters at so many turns here. As Deng has said, “There’s a Chinese saying. When a snake bites a human being there is an antidote. But when a human being bites a fellow human being, there is no hope.”

Ad Policy