Letters & Essays

Nineteen Days

Liao Yiwu

June 4, 1989 

 

A massacre took place in the capital city of the People’s Republic of China. The size of it shocked the world. Nobody knows precisely how many innocent people lost their lives. The government put the number of “collateral deaths” at two hundred or less. But many Chinese believe that it was more like three thousand innocent students and residents who were slain. 

I didn’t witness the killings in Tiananmen Square. I was home in Fuling, a small mountain town well known for its pickled and shredded turnips. When I heard the news, I was outraged. I composed an epic poem, “Massacre,” to commemorate the government’s brutality against its people. With the help of a visiting Canadian friend, I made a tape, chanting my poem into an old toothless tape recorder. My wife Axia was also present. 

       
June 4, 1990 

 

It was a sultry, gloomy day. I was locked up inside a detention center operated by the Chongqing Municipal Public Security Bureau. I had survived the initial blitz of constant interrogations, which had lasted twenty days. I was packed into a cell with several dozen common criminals. My head had gone bald on the top. Waves of lightning cut across the sky like giant saws. I muttered to myself: “Time flies. It’s been a year already.” 

A detainee who had been assigned to clean the hallway came in and hastily slipped me a tiny piece of folded-up paper. I unfolded it. It was a note from Liu Daheng: “Bearded Liao, I’m hungry. Could you scrounge a wheat bun and pass it on to me? It would be even better if you could get me two cigarettes.” Liu was in my crew. They arrested us while we were making a movie about the Tiananmen massacre. I don’t remember what I was able to get for him to eat. I think it was half of a cold bun that I had saved. 

       
June 4, 1991 

 

I lay stuck between two death-row inmates. Their shackles clanked loudly each time they turned their bodies. All night long, I floated in and out of bad dreams. 

It had been a bad year for prisoners. The flood in Anhui Province affected food supplies nationally. At the detention center in Chongqing, our food portions became smaller. Eventually, our daily meal was reduced to two pieces of sweet potato and some pumpkin or plain potato, which had been boiled to a gruel. We would close our eyes and stuff it into our throats. There was neither oil nor salt. The pumpkins were yellowish and the potatoes were white. Soon, the stuff would exit from the other end, undigested. We were hungry all the time. Two dozen detainees were crammed into a cell as small as thirty or forty feet square, so we didn’t have room to do anything else except sit side by side on a long wooden plank all day long. Our waists had thickened from malnutrition, as if we were corrupt government officials who had been wined and dined all the time. Each time we stood up, we wobbled, our legs shaking. 

       
June 4, 1992 

 

I lay half awake and half asleep, still stuck between two death-row inmates. I had gotten used to them. No matter how frequently they turned around with their clanking shackles, I slept as soundly as a pig. 

Several inmates had been released earlier for good behavior. My charges had been reduced. I was no longer charged with organizing a large-scale counterrevolutionary group. My crimes had been changed to “engaging in individual counterrevolutionary activities,” and the government had sentenced me to four years in jail. If I could deduct the time I had already served at the detention center, freedom seemed to be not too far away. 

I had attempted two suicides. The guards had punished me many times by tying both of my hands behind my back and leaving me in a dark cell for as long as twenty-three consecutive days. They prodded me with their electric batons. They also tortured me by poking my asshole with their batons while kicking and punching me. I was constantly on edge as death-row inmates were taken away to the execution ground. I looked like a ghost. 

       
June 4, 1993 

 

I was transferred from the No. 2 Sichuan Provincial Prison in the suburbs of Chongqing. I will serve out the rest of my sentence at the No. 3 Prison in Dazu County, in northern Sichuan Province. Tonight, a dozen convicted counterrevolutionaries gathered spontaneously in the courtyard, squatting down and silently watching the sky like those fabled frogs stuck at the bottom of a deep well. 

I was holding a flute in my hand. The crowd surrounded me, asking me to play a tune. I was still an amateur, though, and hadn’t yet mastered the instrument. I became really nervous in front of the crowd and played out a string of dissonant notes. 

Li Bifeng, an inmate, patted me on my shoulder and said: “Old Liao, I’m glad that you will be released soon.” Another inmate, Pu Yong, who died soon after his release, interrupted us: “We will all be released soon. I bet you that on the fifth anniversary, the verdict will be overturned and all of us, no matter what type of sentences we are serving, will be released.” 

       
June 4, 1994 

 

I was a free man. I was released three months earlier for what the prison authorities called “good behavior.” 

My wife, Axia, had divorced me, and left with our child. Police revoked my registration card in Fuling. I moved in with my ailing parents in Chengdu. Beginning the night of June 3, police appeared in front of our house and took turns guarding me. They didn’t leave until June 5. 

In the afternoon, my new girlfriend, Song Yu, traveled all the way from Mianyang city to spend time with me on that special day. A student activist and candidate member of the Communist Party, she had turned eighteen that year. Her bold visit shocked the police stationed outside the house, but they let her in. That evening, we lit a candle and paid tribute to the victims of Tiananmen. Then we immersed ourselves in the sweetness of our newly found love. 

When the student protest began in 1989, Song Yu was only thirteen. She grew up in a small town and said she couldn’t grasp the full meaning of my life story. But seeing that I have gone through so much suffering, she said she would love me and accompany me through the rest of my life. 

       
June 4, 1995 

 

I spent the anniversary inside a guest house affiliated with the Chengdu Municipal Public Security Bureau. Several weeks before, I had participated in several petition drives initiated by my friend, Liu Xiaobo, a writer in Beijing. He had circulated a petition letter entitled “Draw Lessons from the Blood.” All the signers had been snatched up by police. Some were under house arrest. I was invited to stay at the guest house. Despite the fact that I was never considered a VIP dissident, they had me share a room with two policemen. It was comical: One was fat and the other was lanky and tall. The fat one slept quietly while the thin one snored thunderously all night long. 

       
June 4, 1996 

 

The police temporarily expelled Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia from Beijing for fear that they might talk with foreign reporters or stir up trouble during the anniversary. Liu sought refuge in Chengdu, and we spent the day together. Liu bought some nice clothes for Song Yu, now the new wife of this starving writer. He said it was his first time buying clothes for a friend’s wife. Seeing how pretty and wonderful Song Yu was, he began to worry that this idiot called Liao Yiwu wouldn’t be able to keep her for long. Not long afterward, Liu was arrested and put in jail again. 

       
June 4, 1997 

 

I was struggling to find a job to support myself. On that day, a policewoman invited me to have tea at a local teahouse. She was there to monitor me, making sure that I didn’t cause any trouble on the anniversary. During our awkward conversation, I learned that she and I happened to have been born on the same day of the same month of the same year. 

       
June 4, 1998 

 

I was under house arrest again. I had written an open letter to President Bill Clinton, protesting his visit to China during the memorial month of June. At least the house arrest forced me to keep up with my writing. I had no choice: there wasn’t any other way to occupy myself. 

       
June 4, 1999 

 

I accepted an interview request from Radio Free Asia, which is based in Washington, DC, and read my poem “Massacre” on the air. 

       
June 4, 2000 

 

I cannot recall where I was and what I was doing. 

       
June 4, 2001 

 

Where was I? Again, I don’t remember. 

       
June 4, 2002 

 

I spent most of my day inside an intensive-care unit taking care of my father, who was dying of lung cancer. A school teacher all his life, he was branded a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. He filed for divorce to protect his children. Later, he and my mother moved back in together. 

The previous week, I recorded a new version of “Massacre,” which was distributed underground. I was very busy and my father’s condition drove me to the point of despair. I didn’t even realize it was the anniversary. Inside the oncology department, people died and were wheeled out every couple of days. The deaths occurred more frequently at night. A cart from the morgue would rise slowly to the top floor through a special elevator, gliding quietly through the corridor and then into the ICU. The loud, grief-stricken screams, like sudden explosions of deeply buried landmines, echoed in the long corridor. I would immediately shut the door and hold my father’s hands, which were hanging limp by the bedside. I felt so helpless. 

       
June 4, 2003 

 

I was agonized with pain. My wife Song Yu and I were on the verge of breaking up. She said she could no longer handle my vagabond life. She was tired and craved a normal, secure life. After ten years, she was ending our relationship. After leaving me a letter at home, she went into hiding. 

I went into exile in a small town in the southwestern province of Yunnan. I spent the evening with a new girlfriend at a bar where a group of out-of-town drunkards were hanging out. Out of the blue, a stranger in the crowd yelled: “Does anyone know what day it is?” People shook their heads. One person said: “Who gives a fuck what day it is. Just enjoy the day!” I felt as though an electric shock had singed my scalp. I blurted out: “It’s June 4.” Everybody looked at me strangely. My new girlfriend, under the influence of beer, said: “Liao was a well-known poet in the eighties. He wrote a wonderful poem called ‘Massacre.’” Everybody applauded me, pouring more beer in my mug and urging me to read my poem. I went on the stage and jumped up and down, chanting and performing the poem. I hadn’t realized that this old, faded poem could still bring so many people to tears. 

       
June 4, 2005 

 

I was traveling in Yunnan, wandering around and conducting interviews with people for a series of books about victims of injustice in China. 

       
June 4, 2006 

 

I was in Yunnan, packing for my trip to Hunan Province, trying to track down Yu Zhijian, who was arrested in 1989 for tossing eggs filled with paint at the Chairman’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. 

       
June 4, 2007 

 

During the past two weeks, my mother contacted me repeatedly, urging me to come back to Chengdu and help her move back into our old house. She had left our house the year my father died. After living in different places, she was eager to come back. I obliged. After we finished unpacking, I sat in my father’s room. Nothing had changed. I sat in my father’s old chair, staring at a wall while my mother was nagging and yelling in the kitchen. My mind reeled. I felt as though I had reached old age. Aside from the fact that I didn’t smoke, I couldn’t tell the difference between me and my father. Who was it that occupied this body of mine, me or my father? 

My friend Liu Xiaobo e-mailed me, “ordering” me to write an article to commemorate the eighteenth anniversary of Tiananmen. I declined, with the lame excuse that my surroundings weren’t suitable for any kind of creative effort. In reality, I lacked the motivation, and the courage. But Liu wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily. He e-mailed me back right away: “How dare you?” 

I had to come up with something. But my innocence and passion had slowly been worn away. Memories of what had happened to me were gradually fading. People had become more jaded and cynical, many taking refuge in their comfortable nests. A drunkard once muttered to me at a bar: “The dead are silent and the living struggle with futility.” 

       
June 4, 2008 

 

I continued to interview victims of the May 12 earthquake that hitWenchuan County, about seventy kilometers away from Chengdu. About sixty-nine thousand people were killed, and the survivors were struggling. The only thing I could do was record the survivors’ stories, their pains, frustrations, and anger. In the morning, I talked with a group of victims who had managed to leave the mountainous region of Qingcheng and had come to Chengdu. They had set up tents behind the city’s western gate. They looked weary and distracted. In the afternoon, two friends mentioned the anniversary and I couldn’t help sighing: Nineteen years! 

Three years after the massacre, I was in jail. Five years later, police were stationed in front of my house. Seven years later, there were sporadic memorial activities organized by individuals or small groups—petition letters, candlelight vigils, the burning of paper money to appease the dead, poetry readings, and hunger strikes. On the tenth anniversary, I repeated my poem “Massacre” for an overseas radio station by chanting and yelling into my telephone receiver. Then things started to change for me. I don’t want to be like a second-class actor, waiting for this special occasion year after year so I can summon all my strength and put on full costume for a show. I’m getting old and my passion is fading. 

I remembered the story of Sun Jinxuan, a poet who died of lung cancer in late 2002. On June 4 that year, he woke up with pain. He called a dozen of his friends, most of whom were poets, writers, and celebrities. The first thing he asked on the phone was: “Do you know what day it is?” The majority of them answered: “It is Duanwu Festival, the time when people eat sticky rice wrapped up in bamboo leaves.” Some thought Sun was losing his memory, and explained that the Duanwu Festival was meant to commemorate a patriotic poet named Qu Yuan. Believe it or not, I was the only one who correctly pointed out the anniversary. Sun felt embarrassed and outraged by the answers of his friends. He yelled loudly on the phone, announcing that he intended to stage a one-person demonstration on the street. His slogan would be: “Killings, killings. No memories, no memories.” Since he was at the very end of his life and was too sick to even get up from his bed, he ordered me to show up at his hospital in thirty minutes to help him with his last wish. I hesitated for a moment and then hung up the phone. What if he dropped dead on the street? I would be blamed for murdering him, wouldn’t I? 

 


Postscript: June 4, 2009 

 

The police had started to remind me of the anniversary in May. They came to see me frequently, telling me to be “low-key” and not to do anything subversive. On the afternoon of June 1, public security officers invited me to their office and interrogated me. They had heard that I had written an article called “Nineteen Days.” They wanted to know what my motives were. 

—Translated from Chinese by Wenguang Huang

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