Letters & Essays

My Enemies, My Teachers

Liao Yiwu

Writer Liao Yiwu traveled to Beijing in December 2007 to receive the Freedom to Write Award given by the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) for his nonfiction works, which document the lives of some of the forgotten or ignored members of Chinese society. On the day before the award ceremony, members of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing took Liao away from his friend's house and interrogated him for over four hours before handing him over to the police, who escorted him back to his home in Sichuan province. After the event organizer and another award recipient were placed under house arrest, the ICPC was forced to cancel the ceremony. What follows is the acceptance speech Liao had planned to deliver there.

 

My birthday falls on June 16, which on the Chinese lunar calendar is an auspicious date. It was the date when Guan Yin, the bodhisattva who possessed the power to relieve the masses of their sufferings, became enlightened. Things didn’t quite turn out to be auspicious for me. I entered the world in the middle of a terrible famine, which was to claim the lives of millions nationwide between 1959 and 1962. My father would tell me how, at the age of one, my little body became swollen from lack of nutrition. I didn’t even have enough strength to cry. An herbal doctor in Niushikou, near the city of Chengdu, recommended that my parents hold me over a wok filled with boiling herbal water every morning and every evening. The steam eventually drained yellow liquid, drop by drop, from my body. Thanks to the doctor, I survived.

Hunger was my first teacher in life, following me during my entire childhood. Hunger stunted my growth, hampering my cognitive development. I was a slow kid. At the age of five, I still had problems walking. Many years later, the influence of hunger could still be felt all over in Testimonial, my memoir of life in prison. In this pigsty of a country, one has to have an iron stomach to be a prison eyewitness, who savors the body odor from his fellow inmates and chews on the rotten fermented memories through teeth, blood, and broken bones.

The Cultural Revolution started when I was attending elementary school. My father, a high-school teacher, was branded a counterrevolutionary scholar. Following his criminal conviction, my family fell apart. My mother took custody of me and my sister. We left our hometown, Yanting, and moved from place to place, undergoing countless random searches and interrogations for what the authorities called “migrating to the city without a residential permit.” When I was nine, my mother was accused of being an escaped landowner and living in the city without a permit. Members of the public security bureau took her away one night for detention and interrogation. Since then, this special Chinese terminology, “Hei-ren-hei-hu” or “Person and a family without a residential permit” has been engraved forever on my mind, becoming my second teacher in life. Perhaps in order to cleanse my inward shame at this status, I have allowed myself to sink deeper into this muddy hole of disgrace and have become acquainted with other “persons without permits.” Nowadays, scholars refer to us as “the silent majority.”

I wrote a book called Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society, which scraped the raw nerves of Chinese authorities and some in the press. In the book’s introduction I wrote, “This book is private and scarred. At the same time, it is self-mockery and self-abuse. In a certain sense, Interviews is a book of shame and disgrace. Thanks to shame and disgrace, I’m able to live a healthy busy life like a cockroach. Shame is an appropriate key to understanding this book . . . it will make us feel ashamed and let the future generation feel ashamed for us.”

My third teacher is homelessness. I used to drift intermittently between the cities of Chengdu and Yanting. I would snatch free rides by chasing and climbing running trains, eating at others’ expense, working as a child laborer, fabricating travel documents, trekking for days on circuitous mountain paths, and lodging in the huts of my poor relatives in the rural areas. Fortunately, I never begged or stole, but I never had the opportunity to receive a solid education. Upon recommendation from the local writers’ association, the authorities waived my miserable test scores and admitted me to a writers’ class at Wuhan University. However, bad habits and the unruly nomadic lifestyle to which I had grown accustomed in my earlier years didn’t serve me well, and I ended up getting expelled.

In my youthful days, in the 1980s, I wandered around the country, from north to south. I followed the steps of modern literary figures in the West, composing poems, performing poetry readings, fighting in gangs, running underground literary magazines, and engaging in promiscuous sexual relations with women. My experiences left dense and chaotic marks on my future works and life.

In 1989, when the killing took place in Tiananmen Square, I composed the epic poem “Massacre.” I screamed in protest against my permanent homeless status, and was arrested and tortured by the police.

When I hunched over beside a toilet bowl in my prison cell, trying to catch fleas in my undershirt; when I was handcuffed, with hands behind my back for twenty-three days; when I twice attempted suicide, only to be derided by fellow inmates; when I was locked up with generations of counterrevolutionaries and saw how they were buried alive in the dark cells of prison; when I was convicted for the crime of composing poems without the opportunity to defend myself, my deep love for this land did, in the words of the patriotic poet Ai Qing, “make my soul cry.” I guess I loved this land to the point of dizziness.

Thanks to prison, I have completed the initial two of five volumes of Continue to Live, my autobiographical novel. Thanks to prison, I have learned to play the flute, employing its music to call on the spirits of the ancient masters and console myself with philosophy. Thanks to prison, I had the opportunity to live in close quarters with murderers, counterrevolutionaries, human traffickers, peasant emperors, robbers, and swindlers.

Prison is my final teacher. Despite the fact that I was let out many years ago, I’m still stuck in an invisible prison. Escaping from prison is a constant theme in my dreams. When I wake up, my legs spasm terribly. In my dream I scream, “I don’t want to be Chinese.” I have no alternative but to sleep on this bed called China. I’m good at offering advice and helping others design ways to defect. As for myself, since I harbor strange ideas, engage in wild behavior, and move in and out of police detentions, I have been denied passport applications nine times. If this country loves me so much, does she have to worry that wild dogs like me would never return if I were to be let off my leash? The police officer that arrested me years ago has now become chief of the customs and immigration office in my Sichuan province. Maybe his refusal to grant me a passport shows that he still has feelings for me. My only option is to write and continue to write. Life without writing is a life of emptiness, boredom, floating, amnesia, and chronic suicide; at the same time, writing requires me to endure endless disasters and sufferings.

Another several years have gone by. I have churned out volume after volume of stories of injustice in China. I keep telling myself: Your efforts are in vain. Don’t do it anymore. Why don’t you want to live a healthy, normal life? Don’t you want a home of your own? Even a wild dog has its own cave. But writing is my destiny. Some invisible force from above pushes me forward. I cannot quit it.

At this moment, when I’m about to receive this special honor, I can feel the warmth, like sunshine on a cold winter day, come over my shoulder. The warmth comes from my enemies and friends who have accompanied me throughout my life. I’m grateful to hunger, my first teacher. Today, I no longer face the threat of starvation. But my sense of starving for freedom is stronger than my physical craving for food.

I want to thank my second teacher, “a person without a residential permit,” because I have been such a person for more than twenty years. My temporary residential card has been checked and my apartment has been searched countless times. I have turned the sense of helplessness and humiliation into fodder for my writing. I have learned to identify with those living in the bottom of society.

My third teacher is homelessness. Thanks to you, I have not been able to live under a permanent roof for many years. I wear the same clothes for months; my socks and shoes stink. I still hang out with younger street people and the situation is hopeless. But this is my life, much better than the lives of those landlords whom I trekked hundreds of miles of mountainous paths to visit and interview. Those landlords had never left their villages, but they still couldn’t escape the fate of being tortured and then slaughtered like pigs.

I want to thank my fourth teacher, prison. After spending half of my life reforming myself, I have met the authority’s requirements. I have become what the Party calls “a new person with high morals, well-developed mental capability, and healthy physique.” To repay this kindness to our government, I have interviewed more than three hundred victims of persecution under this system. I have written millions of words in the past decade in order to record their stories. Because of my works, I have been given the 2007 Freedom to Write Award.

I can’t help crying because I feel very satisfied.

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