The Magazine

Chinese Lesson

The other side of life in the People's Republic.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By ELLEN BORK
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The Corpse Walker

Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

by Liao Yiwu

Translated by Wen Huang

Pantheon, 336 pp., $25

Last December, public security officials in Beijing picked up the writer Liao Yiwu to prevent him from attending an informal dinner where he was to receive an award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a small but staunch group of writers and intellectuals who defend freedom of expression inside the People's Republic.

In remarks he had intended to deliver, later published by the Paris Review, Liao paid tribute to "my enemies, my teachers." They were hunger, into which he was born during the famine which accompanied the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s; the lack of a residential permit, an instrument of totalitarian control, a status he first acquired when his father, a teacher, was arrested during the Cultural Revolution; homelessness while drifting around the country; and prison, where he spent four years for writing an epic poem, "Massacre," about the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

With bitter irony, Liao explained that he has repaid the "kindness" of his government by interviewing more than 300 victims of its persecution. One version of these interviews was banned in China. The Corpse Walker collects 27 of these encounters with a public latrine attendant, street musicians, a member of Falun Gong, crooks, a leper, political outcasts, a self-proclaimed emperor, and others. Transcripts of interviews might make for tedious reading, but these are not. Liao's style is unobtrusive and Wen Huang's editing, translation, and introductions enhance the material. The result is a set of authentic and engrossing stories.

Death and suffering at the hands of the regime suffuse The Corpse Walker. "The Tiananmen Father," whose own education was cut short by political campaigns, warns his son not to get involved in the democracy movement of 1989: "One minute, the Party seems to relax its political control. Once you let down your guard, they come out to get you." After the young man stops writing letters home, the family waits.

We were in a state of feverish fear, like ants crawling on a hot tin pan. .  .  . Initially, the government media called the student demonstrations a patriotic movement. Then, on April 26, the People's Daily carried an editorial, calling the movement a riot. Those bastards!

Informed that his son had been killed, the father goes to Beijing but is not allowed to take the body home. Students' cremations are expedited so the Party can cover up their deaths. To this day the regime classifies the protesters as counterrevolutionary criminals, refuses to account for the deaths, and keeps a dozen in jail nearly 20 years after the massacre. The father manages to take photographs of the body, which show several bullet wounds and a gash from a bayonet. When he tries to ensure the correct spelling of his son's name on the paperwork, the overworked crematorium clerk becomes agitated: "Just stop pestering me, OK? I haven't slept for two days. I don't even have time to take a shit. Don't worry, I won't mess up."

It is difficult, but not impossible, to resist being dehumanized by the party and its ideology. "The Rightist" cared for a woman whose father was a landlord and uncle a Nationalist official: "We used to hear phony stuff like 'So-and-so has been nurtured by the Party and the People.' What do the Party's breasts look like?" Forced to choose between love and a future in the party, he chooses love. Expelled from the party, he tracks down his beloved in remote Xinjiang and raises a family with her. "I have to say that right now I'm pretty contented," he tells Liao.

For some, however, the toll of the party's misrule is too monstrous. "The Retired Official" explains the disastrous planting methods and a cover-up that leads to massive starvation in the Great Leap Forward. Local officials assigned to prevent stealing of food in Sichuan spot smoke from a peasant's chimney: "We just boiled our three year old daughter," says the peasant. "It was better for us to sacrifice her to save the rest of the family. We just hope she would reincarnate into something else in the next life. It's too hard to be a human being."

The title comes from stories Liao has heard about "corpse walkers," people hired to return bodies to their home provinces for burial. Liao remained skeptical until an old family friend assured him the stories are true. In the 1950s, he tells Liao, "I was strolling along the village road when a bulky, black object suddenly passed me, sending a chill down my spine. The thing was covered with a huge inky-colored robe." A guide walked ahead with a lantern, strewing fake money to ease the way into the next world. Underneath the robe "there are two bodies: the corpse and a living person who carries the dead one on his back."

Does the corpse walker of the title represent the Chinese people, carrying the putrefying corpse of the Communist party, or the souls of its dead victims? It's not hard to see why the party has found an enemy in Liao. Unlike him, however, it does not see its enemies as teachers.

Ellen Bork works on human rights at Freedom House.