Liao Yiwu

Overall Rating: 9
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Author: Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)
Title: Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser. Chinas Gesellschaft von unten. [The Corpse Walker. Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up.]
Time: 1990s
Destination: China
Length: several trips over the course of several years
Type: public transport (to meet up with interview partners)

Lost voices

The story: LYW is a Chinese writer and political activist who takes interest in the lives of the less fortunate around him. He meets up with different kinds of people all over the country and interviews them. He talks to those who clean toilets and to those who wash corpses, to gangsters, to prostitutes, to beggars, to monks and to many more. These interviews have been compiled and translated into a handful of languages, and I happened to get my hands on a German edition.

“traveling” to find the unlucky ones

Obviously, this is not a standard travelogue. You can’t expect a coherent story, and there won’t be many depictions of landscapes or of the author’s personal adventures either. But in spite of this, it still qualifies as a travel book in some way: 1) LYW is on a journey of sorts, in this case he moves around China to meet up with interview partners (much like Tuvia Tenenbom did in his book about Germany). 2) LYW tells us about the people he runs into, which is really what makes travel writing interesting in the first place.

And the interviews, while not easy to read (I can’t really say much about the style of the English or Chinese versions) are very interesting indeed. You could argue that they don’t properly reflect modern China, because they fail to include the millions of people who have been on the lucky side of everything, but I think that this would be missing the point. LYW was never out to paint a picture of Chinese society in general, instead he wanted to listen to the voices of the people who are so easily muted, the ones unlucky and the ones forgotten. And it is precisely this what makes this book so special.

Liao Yiwu – writer or political being?

Actually, I didn’t think I would end up liking this book at first. I was prejudiced: LYW is one of the so-called “dissident” writers of China, meaning that he has done prison time for political reasons and has now moved out of the country to pursue his career abroad. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I have noticed that many of these writers get misinterpreted, and it doesn’t help their writing at all.

Here’s what happens: if you’re a dissident writer, the people who are in favor of the Communist Party of China will condemn you, while many of the others will praise the hell out of you. After a while, nobody will be interested in your unique style of writing anymore. And ever so slowly, you will change from representing yourself to representing a bland of political views. This is when you start sounding cocky in interviews, and it is also when the stuff that you write has a tendency to turn into the same kind of rubbish that politically correct writers within the People’s Republic tend to produce. And even if your writing is still good, then the editing and the marketing will make sure to ruin it for your readers.

But this didn’t happen here. LYW lends a voice to the parts of Chinese society that gone silent for too long. Much of what these people have to say can be unsettling (like the conversation with the former Red Guard), but still, all political views aside, they are still very interesting voices, and they are just waiting to be heard.

And for this, the writer LYW should be thanked.


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