In the early morning, a few hours after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square that the Chinese, to this day, officially term the “June 4th Incident,” a young writer named Liao Yiwu penned and performed a poem titled “Massacre, ” mourning the young lives lost. Liao neither participated in the student protests nor knew directly of its principal architects. After all, he was half a country away on the muddy banks of the Yangtze, the longest river in China. But in February 1990, he traveled to the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing to meet a friend who had agreed to record a performance of “Massacre.” For this counter-revolutionary activity, he would spend the next four years of his life behind bars—an experience he recounts in his jailhouse memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs. Picking up the work of a fellow Sichuanese, I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect. The memoir, the first two drafts of which were confiscated by police, is at once brutal and brutally funny. But until I read For a Song and a Hundred Songs, I never knew how easily our paths could have crossed on the university campus where he became a criminal and I was born.
I was named for the Yangtze River, and I knew the arched maroon gates of the Third Military Medical University before I could read the block characters spelling its name. For a long time, I believed that universities, or “big school,” as it is translated literally from the Chinese, only came in the “military medical” variety because they were the only ones— “the First Military Medical Big School,” “the Second Military Medical Big School”—my mother and her friends ever named.
Likewise, my understanding of our own military affiliation—both my parents worked and trained at the university—was unsubtle: Those who periodically sported green uniforms, which were all the adults I knew, connoted safety and sanctuary. Those who did not were “local,” and therefore liable to lead me astray. How differently Liao, the freewheeling liberal intellectual and proud “local,” must have viewed his captors—the same uncles I was instructed to trust if I ever found myself lost beyond the gates of our army compound.
Like much of the middle-aged population in today’s China, Liao was born in one of the worst famines in Chinese history, one that was entirely man-made. A full stomach might have been out of the question, but Liao’s schoolteacher father made sure to supply his son with a steady diet of ancient Chinese poetry and essays. For this reason, language never proved laborious for Liao. “Words poured out of me in buckets,” he writes of his early career. So, it seems, did a bristling bravado. At the height of the student protests, Liao confesses that it was the failure of his poetry “to vanquish the capital,” rather than frustration with politics, that produced his most enduring feelings of bitterness and cynicism.
Still, revolution does not elude the young poet. He repeats to himself the party anthem: “The blood which fills my chest has boiled over/ We must struggle for truth!” When he wrote of the “historically unprecedented massacre” in his poem—a massacre the communist government sought to erase from public memory—the truth he pursued bent perilously close to the state’s definition of treason.
Liao is a born observer. Without pen and paper, he mentally collects stories from convicts who converged like “dregs sinking to the bottom of a sewage pipe,” yet who re-create with uncanny accuracy “an exact replica of the state bureaucracy outside.” Inside prison, “those in power enjoyed unlimited privileges”; Liao describes, as an example, the allocation of a fundamental resource: “The chief could use scented napkins to wipe his butt, but slave thieves had to resort to using wrapping paper or old newspapers.”
Liao’s meticulous portrait of the societal microcosm between cell walls—replete with its cast of foreign ministers, chairmen, scholars, and counter-revolutionaries—reads like a hybrid of Swift and Orwell, the latter of whom Liao reads with surreal astonishment in prison. Corruption, nepotism, and ineptitude run rampant, while in-house political campaigns—titled “Confess Your Own Crimes and Report on Others”—systematically weaken any rebellious momentum the prisoners might build among themselves.
Ironically, what binds Liao and his handcuffed comrades, other than shared deprivations, is the cultural legacy and currency of communism. If stepping into the detention center is like walking into a foreign country, Maoisms—verses and phrases trademarked to the Great Chairman—seem like that country’s official tongue. On his first day of imprisonment, Liao defends his own personal dignity with a Maoism: “Chairman Mao used to say that people are the parents of the Party, not the other way around.” Later, Liao is humiliated and driven to the brink of suicide not by a beating but rather by the demeaning manner in which a prison officer appropriates that same Maoism: “A communist official is like your parent,” he barks. “When a child doesn’t behave himself in front of his parents, he deserves punishment!”