Liao’s recent book, God is Red, is another collection of interviews, this time with elderly Chinese Christians whose faith has brought them into conflict with the state. Published to an eager audience in the West, God is Red will be supported with author tours and book signings not previously possible, since in July 2011 – after seventeen unsuccessful attempts to leave China – Liao Yiwu secretly emigrated to Germany.
Given his reputation as a political dissident, it would be fair to imagine Liao Yiwu as a terribly earnest person. If he is this, it doesn’t come across in a first meeting – at least not in the conversation my friend Suna Xie and I had with him in Sydney last week. More than anything, Liao made us laugh with his dry irreverence, and a tendency to see life as a series of terrific stories. Even the sinister seemed darkly amusing in Liao’s hands, as if life were a perverse comedy choreographed by money and power. Read on …
Christen Cornell: I’ve read you saying that you’re not actually interested in politics, you’re only interested in your stories. You weren't misquoted, were you?
Liao Yiwu: I was never a pro-active person in the past, not like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei who actively make political statements. I was more of a passive person.
In the years after I came out of prison I had no way to make a living. I had to find a way to get by, so I started to play music for small change. I played in bars for two years or more – pop, folk, love songs, easy listening. There’d usually be a few set songs that the boss would get you to play and then the rest was up to the audience and their requests. I played the Chinese flute, the xiao, and sometimes sang. Sometimes I used the xiao to turn folk into rock and roll.
I remember some pretty funny things from that time. Like during the wee hours, maybe 3am or 4am, there would usually be some people left in the bar: depressed people, those with broken hearts, alcoholics with no home to go to. They’d all hang around the bar, drinking, drinking, drinking … And that was when I’d usually start to make some money. The bar would be almost empty – just two or three sad sacks with their drinks – but the sound of the xiao was so melancholy it made these people think of their boyfriend or whoever … They’d call you over to play and I’d put on a real show of sympathising with them. In those days a song might normally get 10 kuai, but at that hour I could get 30 kuai! [laughs]
This was in the 1990s, after I got out of prison. In Chengdu, mostly, sometimes Beijing. I was just floating around, spending my time with people on the fringes of society. If I made enough money one night I might not work for the next two or three; I’d only go back to play again when I’d run out of money. In those days I was just living in the moment, never thinking about my next step. I never saved any money. Eventually, though, I decided I should pick up my old professional writing again, that I should publish and sell some books. All I knew was the stories of these underground people, and the people I had met in prison, so I started to recall them and write them down.
It was around this time that I started to get involved with politics. A lot of people when they come out of prison decide that they want to start afresh, but I wasn’t like that. After I came out of prison I was just floating. I was friends with Liu Xiaobo. We were extremely old friends – in the 1980s we worked together on some literature projects. He used to write literature, I wrote poetry. These days his wife is also writing poetry … but we all knew each other from that time.
So I was writing, and I was playing music, but at the same time Liu Xiaobo was constantly asking me to sign his various petitions, and I signed them out of friendship. He’d send me these petitions by fax and I’d sign them and send them back. The faxes were so blurry sometimes I didn’t even know what I was signing! The police would come asking whether or not I’d done these things. [laughs] And each time they’d detain me for 10-20 days.
They’d take me to a guesthouse and ask what I’d been involved in, but most of the time I couldn’t remember. [laughs] They’d often pull out the petitions I’d signed and read them out to me, like an official proclamation. [laughs]
Suna Xie: So have you always felt that your main drive was not political?
LYW: My performance last night … other people probably think it was political, but I don’t see it like that at all. I just see it as common sense. I was only saying what everybody already knows. As far as I’m concerned common sense shouldn’t be considered political.
If you are afraid to say something then that is political, or you find it difficult to explain something, it might be because it has some political dimension or there’s some kind of pressure on you. And if you find yourself in that situation then you’re not a pure artist. A real artist says what he feels.
When I first started writing about these marginal people it never occurred to me that it would become a problem. I was just writing about suffering and shamelessness, the suffering and shamelessness of Chinese people.
When The Corpse Walker was published, it did very well. It was published in more than forty countries – everyone made a big a big fuss and thought it was amazing that someone was writing these stories down. Not long after though: disaster! [laughs] It came from every angle. The government apparatus came bearing down on me, someone who’d never really even thought about politics. Without my ever meaning them to, the stories I’d been working on had become a political act.
CC: Do you see yourself as a kind of oral historian?
LYW: I see myself as a tape recorder of contemporary history. My head is like an old-fashioned tape recorder. Some of the old recordings, I erase; some I keep. I’ve written about so many different kinds of people at the bottom of Chinese society: those who’ve been wronged by the court system and are appealing their cases; those affected by the Tiananmen Massacre; people in underground religions; landlords who suffered during land reform. I’ve written about all these different kinds of people. I’ve written out more than 300 stories, so my head has turned into a recording device.
Of course, I think a lot about how to retell the stories I’ve heard. If you’re a tape recorder you have to let these people speak for the whole afternoon, but most of what they say is not important. It’s up to you to isolate their main meaning, to find their essence – the value in their story. This is the job of a writer. If you have three people working on the one story it will be unreadable. I'd say I'm a ‘documentary writer’.
CC: Your next book, God is Red, is about Christianity in China. Where did that interest come from?
LYW: It began when I met a doctor who was working in the remote areas of Yunnan, moving from village to village. This man had originally been the vice-director of a hospital in the city. Later, he’d gone for a promotion and had been told that if he wanted to become the actual hospital director he’d have to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Until that point the hospital hadn’t known the doctor was a Christian, but when they asked him to join the Party he refused. He said: I already have my faith. I have faith in God, so I can’t have a second faith in the Party.
After this he left the hospital and moved to the countryside to treat people there. This man was an amazing person. The first time I met him was in a very basic room where he was giving an old lady cataract surgery. These two people were holding two torches, and that’s how they were working. Almost in darkness, using torches to conduct cataract surgery!
Later, he told me that he knew a lot of Christians who had been wronged, and asked if I wanted to go with him to meet some of these people and hear their stories. Of course I was interested, so I went with him. I interviewed many elderly Christians, heard many stories, and their stories were extremely moving. The people in these stories weren’t like those in conventional Christian church groups. Some of these Christians had been killed for their beliefs, some had been imprisoned for years.
There was this one man called Wang Zeming, he was considered to be the most compassionate, to have the greatest faith of all Christians of the last century. He’d been officially recognised in a church in some English city. His story was during the Cultural Revolution; he’d been told to dance the patriotic ‘Mao Dance’ but he’d refused. He said, publicly, there is no way that I can dance the Mao Dance, and there is no way I can declare my loyalty to Mao, because I already have faith in God. He said that publicly.
Of course he was immediately arrested, and for four years they tried to change his views. They tried to brainwash him, but they couldn’t do it. In the end they asked him: Are you going to change your views? Will you declare your faith in Mao? And again, he said: I believe in God, so I can’t believe in Mao. They took him to a denunciation meeting where there were more than a million people. And shot him dead.
SX: So your interest in these Christians came from an interest in their spirit, their strength …
LYW: I think that faith is an incredibly powerful thing, regardless of what religion you find it in. I'm not Christian but I'm interested in belief, especially the kind you find in very common people, in poor people. I think this is an extraordinary thing. At first I was thinking that if faith was this powerful it could inspire and motivate so many people, but later I became extremely disappointed in other Christians, in Christian groups in the cities and elsewhere. They were already a long way from the original essence of their religion. I discussed this in America too, the corruption of church institutions. They’ve turned God into something for their own purposes.
The churches of the countryside and the cities are totally different. Those in the countryside are very poor, and the people in them too. For them, religion is an essential part of their daily lives, it brings them together and inspires compassion. I think that religion is purest in the most remote places. These people only have God, nothing else. That is a real faith. The Christians in the city are different.
CC: What’s your next book going to be – do you know?
LYW: It’ll be about the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square. The title is going to be 六四我们的证实：中国大屠杀受害者寻访录 [rough translation: The Proof of Tiananmen Square: stories from the victims of China’s Massacre].
I’ve been working on this book for years already. I just have to finish the final part by April next year. The world is changing so fast these days, people forget things just as quickly. It’s already been twenty years since 4 June, 1989 – more than a whole generation. The people who experienced Tiananmen will always remember, but those who weren’t there probably don't even know about it.
CC: How will you continue your work of interviewing Chinese people, collecting their stories, if you’re not living in China in future?
LYW: Already the raw material I have on my computer would take a lifetime to write out. There are so many stories to write. I could write until my hands were broken. For example, all the corrupt Chinese officials who emigrate to America – to Los Angeles and San Fransisco … They cheat and steal their way out of the country, and a book about this would make a real impact I think. Then there are those young, glamourous girls you see in the States; they’ve never worked, you wonder how they got the money to be there. There has to be a story behind that. [laughs] Then there are the people who use the excuse of being Falun Gong practitioners to emigrate. There are plenty of stories in Chinese emigration, and more.
For documentary writers like me, the stories are endless.