Banned writer gives voice to China’s social outcasts
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 Knowing it would not be published, he made an audiotape of it.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