Liao Yiwu’s prison memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs, reviewed.

The Prisoner and the Communist Daughter

The Prisoner and the Communist Daughter

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 9:00 AM

Confess Your Own Crimes and Report on Others

A poet who protested Tiananmen Square recalls his years in a Chinese prison.

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As a child, I was used to hearing these dictums. In 1990, as Liao experimented with the subversion of propaganda, my classmates and I—along with millions of first graders across China—were in the throes of its indoctrination. Just as plainly as one and one added up to two, we learned, communism commanded the world and criminals deserved incarceration. To hammer the message home, our first-grade class took several trips a year to the Zhajidong, a notorious nearby prison, where we were lectured on the menu of torture techniques the nationalists imposed upon our forefathers, the communist defenders.

Unbeknownst to me, Liao was only five minutes away, and on the receiving end of these menu items. “Damn, my life is over,” Liao mutters on his fateful ride to the Chongqing Municipal Public Security Bureau Investigation Center. In one respect, Liao was right. The life he knew as a relatively sheltered intellectual came to an end the moment he was stripped of clothing and dignity upon arrival. In another, his discovery of injustice and violence—which he had previously only conjured, as a cause, through the abstraction of poetry—became as real as the walls of his new hell.

During the four years chronicled in For a Song and a Hundred Songs, his own family disintegrates: A daughter is born, a wife is lost, a mother mourns her son’s reckless ambition. In the summer of 1992, as Liao conjured the face of his newborn daughter from behind prison bars, I was getting ready to see my own father, a Third Military Medical University graduate. In many respects, Liao and my father share a personal history. Both came of age in the Great Famine, love literature despite a relative lack of formal schooling, and admit addiction to the numbing effects of Sichuanese peppercorns. As luck would have it, my father had even studied for his GREs in the very same language lab where Liao was arrested.


Whereas Liao chose poetry and the artistic avant-garde, however, my father chose science and the army and, eventually, life in America. While Liao heard the rally cries of students in downtown Chongqing, my father was safely ensconced in a small dorm room an ocean away, puzzling out the events of his native land in a language he was still struggling to comprehend.

Four long years after my mother began her visa application, she was informed one day in early spring by university administrators—men from the same department as the ones that arrested Liao—that we had a chance of being processed after all. My mother, who’d lived like a widow (or worse, a divorcee) for years, was giddy with anticipation. This was a secret, of course, she told me behind closed doors. No one could know. No friends. No teachers. No classmates. As an extra precaution, my mother asked me to repeat after her a set of rehearsed answers if I were ever faced with an impromptu interrogation.

How long were we going to be abroad?

Two weeks, at most.

What is the purpose of our trip?

To see my father and bring him home to the Third Military Medical University.

What country did I love most?

This was a no-brainer. In first grade, I had already become a Young Pioneer. I was the head cadre of our grade and led the class every morning in the national anthem. The blood which filled my chest could be no less red than the billowing flag.

The Motherland, I told my mother. What other country was there?


For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu. Translated by Wenguang Huang. New Harvest.