Book review: For a Song and a Hundred Songs, by Liao Yiwu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:19pm

For a Song and a Hundred Songs

by Liao Yiwu

(translated by Huang Wenguang)

New Harvest

In 2011 Chinese author, poet and dissident Liao Yiwu slipped across a small border crossing into northern Vietnam, fleeing a country that had long repressed and imprisoned him for his protest writing.

At the time his latest manuscript, a memoir of the four years he spent behind bars - from 1990 to 1994 - had just been smuggled out of China.

The book recounts the awakening of Liao's need to speak out, and the four years of physical and mental punishment, humiliation and degradation he endured because of it.

Following the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Liao - at the time an apolitical, womanising poet who just days before had told a colleague that: "If destruction is inevitable, let it be" - felt unable to remain silent. As the truth of what happened in and around the square really hit, Liao picked up a tape recorder, pressed play and announced: "I protest".

What followed was Massacre, a stream-of-consciousness protest poem written to appease the souls of the dead.

The poem spread across artistic circles on the mainland via tape recordings and, after Liao and some friends tried to make an ill-advised protest film, he was arrested in 1990 as a counterrevolutionary and thrown into a series of packed cells filled with murderers, thieves and career criminals.

On his first night, curled up in the fetal position after being stripped, searched and probed with chopsticks, he imagines that "a young woman forced into prostitution might feel the same way on her first night with a customer".

What follows is four years of suffering as Liao struggles to accept his place in the prison hierarchy, attempts suicide, is regularly beaten for resisting guards, and watches as other prisoners are forced to undergo abusive initiation rites.

The strength of For a Song and a Hundred Songs is in Liao's ability to recreate the people who inhabited the crammed prison cells alongside him for those four years, people on the far edge of society.

With a few simple descriptions each character is brought to startling life, from the violent inmate enforcers to the power-hungry cell bosses, prison guards who secretly agree about the bloody crackdown, and the other political prisoners, one of whom slips notes into the gloves they make for export, informing customers that what they hold was made in a Chinese prison and imploring them to boycott the manufacturer.

Perhaps the strongest relationships Liao forms are with the steady stream of death row inmates who are housed with the general population, shackled to the walls naked, before going to meet their fate. In a moment of kindness several of these men start performing Liao's assigned work, thereby allowing him time to read.

Liao doesn't attempt to hide his flaws. Early on he describes ending up in hospital after being stabbed by the fiancé of a woman he was having an affair with, and in prison he simply refuses to join a hunger strike organised by the other political dissidents.

More bitterness is to follow after his release. His wife divorces him and his daughter, who was born while he was behind bars, spurns him.

His fellow poets who worked on the attempted film abandoned the arts and became businessmen. Liao describes them as "flush with cash but personally bitter and lost"; a comment on the way he thinks that Chinese society has developed since the failed attempts at opening dialogue in 1989.

For all its political implications, this is not a book about dissidents but rather a powerful, beautifully written memoir describing the lives and personalities of those living near the bottom of an unforgiving society.

One of the strongest China books of the past few years.