I met Travis Lee on a cool November morning in 2016. He was waiting for the library to open, and I noticed he was holding a book. I decided to ask him about it…
W: What are you reading?
T: The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu. I just finished it.
W: What’s it about?
T: This guy went around over the years interviewing people in China. This is a translation of some of his interviews.
W: What kinds of people?
T: The book’s subtitle is ‘Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom-Up’, and I guess you could say that’s true. These are all ordinary people. A lot of his interviews skew towards those who have been mistreated by the Chinese government.
W: Maybe it doesn’t skew; maybe it’s normal.
T: I’ve thought about that too. Of course, Liao Yiwu is a dissident writer. The introduction to this book makes that clear, with a good deal of mythologizing.
T: In the introduction, Wen Huang, the book’s translator, relates the story of Liao Yiwu’s birth: he was born when the Great Leap Forward was launched. During the famine, he nearly died from edema. According to Huang, Liao’s mother took him to an herbal doctor in the countryside who held him over a wok that contained boiling herbal water. The herbal steam miraculously restored him.
I like the use of the word ‘restore’ rather than ‘cure’. ‘Cure’ denotes serious weakness. Restore? Temporary weakness. Liao Yiwu wasn’t afflicted, not really, and the steam allowed him to return to his previously strong state. Pair it with ‘miraculously’, and a myth is born.
So, during a famine that killed 45 million people, we are to believe that Liao Yiwu was “miraculously restored”, a presumably divine act that would allow him to later live on the lam as a dissident writer, barely known in his own country. But there’s nothing “miraculous” about it; hydrotherapy is a well-known alternative treatment for swelling.
Throughout this book I had to wonder, is this true? Am I reading what people actually said?
Let me give you another example: The Human Trafficker. Now, according to the introduction, Liao gained these people’s trust. He interviewed this guy in prison and says that he could not take any recording equipment inside.
W: As you’d expect.
T: Right. He had to write up the interview from memory, but what is he remembering? What happened or what he wanted to happen? Take the ending. After the Human Trafficker expresses no remorse over conning young women into sexual slavery, Liao Yiwu claims he said this:
“If it were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off.”
I don’t doubt that Liao feels this way. But did he end the interview like that? Did it say it at all?
W: Does it matter?
T: It doesn’t ruin the book for me. It is interesting to contemplate though; what was lost or added?
W: You called him a “dissident writer”. Did he conduct these interviews illegally?
T: According to the introduction, most of his works are banned in China. Liao himself was arrested after Tiananmen Square for recording a poem dedicated to the victims of the massacre, among other things.
The introduction states that he has spent most of his career on the run.
W: Do you consider that more mythologizing?
T: Oh yes. He’s a renegade writer who was “miraculously restored” during one of the worst famines in history, remember? And now, the government fears him so much they will do anything to silence him.
W: It makes sense. From what I’ve, the CCP is quick to silence any dissent, however small.
T: True. Look at Liu Xiaobo. The Hong Kong booksellers. I don’t think he or his supporters are lying, but they are using it to craft a narrative. I don’t think anyone can deny that.
W: In his interviews, is Liao crafting a narrative?
T: When it comes to government reprisal, few in this book go unscathed. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The Tiananmen Father. Have you heard of the Tiananmen Mothers?
T: The Tiananmen Mothers are a group of friends, relatives and parents of the victims. They demand that the Party acknowledge the massacre, name the dead, compensate families of the victims and punish those responsible.
W: I hesitate to ask how their efforts are coming along.
T: Ding Zilin, the group’s founder, is under house arrest.
W: How about the Tiananmen Father?
T: He’s a Sichuanese man whose son was murdered in the protests. The government did not let him take his son’s body home for burial. They let him view it, before hastily burning it along with the other victims’ bodies.
It’s a moving interview. Let me tell you how he ends it:
“Our life is too hard right now. We live on two hundred yuan a month. We have to raise our granddaughter and support her education. She is our only hope. She is the only thing left after the loss of my two sons. Despite this, we don’t want to bother Professor Ding [leader of the Tiananmen Mothers]. It doesn’t matter if we live or die. Professor Ding has to live. She is the one who helps keep the issue alive. It’s been sixteen years since the June 4 massacre happened. Sooner or later, justice will be done. We probably won’t live long enough to see the day. Whatever happens, we can’t let the Communist Party get away with the bloody debt owed to families like mine.”
W: Next year will mark twenty-eight years. No acknowledgement seems to be forthcoming.
T: I lived in China for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. People were scared. Perhaps they still are. The thing is, the Party is in power. All they need to do is wait. Sooner or later, all those pesky eyewitnesses will die, leaving rumor and hearsay.
W: There are records too.
T: Records can be altered. Destroyed.
W: History is written by the winners.
T: There are no winners here. In 1989 everyone lost.
W: Were there other stories that caught your eye?
T: The interviews near the end were weak. Some of what the interviewees said, such as the prison stories. There are about three people who were sent to Chinese prison, and they were tortured and sexually assaulted by the other inmates.
W: Are you saying it didn’t happen?
T: I’m saying the events seem exaggerated, yes. “Needlessly dramatic”, might be the right words.
W: How do you know it didn’t happen?
T: I don’t, but I suspect they’re dramatizing.
W: You hope they are?
T: Yeah, sure.
W: You’ve talked about exaggeration. Was there anything in the book besides the Tiananmen Father that you didn’t doubt?
T: It’s not that I doubt every interview in the book. Only that some statements, from the interviewees and Liao Yiwu himself, seem farfetched. I mean, the Street Singer claims that his blind father drowned in a river. The Street Singer was supposed to be watching him, but why was a blind man swimming in the first place?
What doesn’t seem farfetched is what we know happened. Tales from the Anti-Rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution.
Liao Yiwu interviews a former Red Guard. He, the former Red Guard, has no remorse over what he did. They bullied, harassed, tortured and killed people, all in the name of Mao Zedong. If you want to see the power of a cult of personality, forget North Korea. Look at China, 1966 to about 1975. Mao Zedong knew he was on his way out, and he was determined to make his country pay.
W: You seem more inclined to believe people who were hurt by the government.
T: Even their stories don’t escape the narrative trap. The basic events…I mean, someone’s father was a landlord. They were persecuted. I’ll believe that before I believe that a leper’s wife was burned alive and no one did anything about it.
W: Some of the stories are more rooted in well-documented history, it seems. Did you enjoy the book overall?
T: I did. For all the questions it raises, it tells you a lot about China and the Chinese people.
This book is abridged, by the way.
W: How so?
T: Straight from the introduction: They selected twenty-seven stories that they felt were representative of his work and of interest to Western readers. I’m interested in reading the whole book, not what someone has decided would interest me.
W: That might explain the skewing towards people who’ve been mistreated by the government.
T: Perhaps. I want to read the whole book to find out.
W: Would you recommend The Corpse Walker to others?
T: Yes, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Read the introduction carefully. The translator’s acknowledgements too, where he treats you to this:
“Following his release from a Chinese prison, Liao Yiwu asked a blind fortune-teller to forecast his future. The fortune-teller felt around Liao’s face, inquired the date and time of his birth, and told Liao that his future would start to look promising because he would be assisted and blessed by several guiren, or noblemen.”
The translator than goes on to thank several people who helped bring the book to life. Without them, we wouldn’t have The Corpse Walker.
W: Seems that fortune-teller had a point.
T: I know, right? Who am I to doubt him?
The Corpse Walker is available on Amazon. Check out more of my reviews here.