Banned writer gives voice to China’s so­cial out­casts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rowan Callick

LUO Tian­wang, a hered­i­tary feng shui mas­ter in his 70s, re­calls in this re­mark­able book how in the early 1950s, ‘‘ one dark and over­cast af­ter­noon, I was strolling along the vil­lage road when a bulky, black ob­ject sud­denly passed me, send­ing a chill down my spine’’.

The ‘‘ ob­ject’’ was cov­ered with a dark robe and from time to time ‘‘ a leather shoe poked out be­low’’. ‘‘ Just then,’’ Luo con­tin­ues, ‘‘ my friend Piggy scur­ried up to me and whis­pered in my ear: That’s a corpse.’’

Luo is an old fam­ily friend of one of China’s most rou­tinely banned writers, Liao Yiwu, who was to have spo­ken at the re­cent Syd­ney Writers Fes­ti­val but failed to ob­tain an exit visa. That was noth­ing new for Liao, born in 1958, who has also been a busk­ing flautist, a poet, cook, truck driver and re­porter, and who lives in Chengdu, the cap­i­tal of Sichuan prov­ince. Last Septem­ber he was al­lowed to fly to the Ber­lin Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, but only af­ter 14 suc­ces­sive re­fusals.

At least he has — for now — avoided the present fates of No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Liu Xiaobo, jailed for 11 years, and artist Ai Wei­wei, held since April 3 in an un­known lo­ca­tion by an un­known pub­lic se­cu­rity agency, pos­si­bly charged with tax eva­sion. But Liao knows what they are go­ing through. In June 1989, in the wake of the Tianan­men Square protests, he wrote a long poem, Mas­sacre. Know­ing it would not be pub­lished, he made an au­dio­tape of it. In Fe­bru­ary 1990 he was ar­rested and jailed for four years.

The Corpse Walker is a slice of oral his­tory, pop­u­lated by peo­ple Liao calls ‘‘ so­cial out­casts’’. A few are friends, such as Luo, but most are peo­ple he has in­ter­viewed dur­ing his in­ces­sant trav­els across China.

Luo ex­plains that the corpse he en­coun­tered as a young boy was at­tached to the back of a man, who held a white pa­per lan­tern to light the way to eter­nity. Chinese na­tional high­ways in the old days were mere rut­ted dirt roads, and when a trav­el­ling busi­ness­man died sud­denly it was es­sen­tial he be brought home or he would be­come a home­less ghost. So if the fam­ily could af­ford it, they hired pro­fes­sional corpse walk­ers.

Af­ter ‘‘ Lib­er­a­tion’’ in 1949, Luo says, ‘‘ Chair­man Mao told us to smash all [such]

Liao Yiwu, who was jailed for four years

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