Excerpt: Liao Yiwu’s For a Song and a Hundred Songs

by    /  May 14, 2013  / 2 Comments

Below Sampsonia Way presents an excerpt from Liao Yiwu‘s new book, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, which won the German Book Trade’s Peace Prize last fall.

The following selection details Liao’s 1990 arrest and the CCP’s subsequent arrests of the poets, artists, and intellectuals in Liao’s circle of friends.

The Arrest

“Liao Yiwu!”

I vaguely heard someone calling my name as I was approaching the number 1 bus stop. Abruptly I stopped walking. Through the misty rain, I saw the hills of Chongqing, firm and voluptuous like a woman’s breasts.

“Liao Yiwu!”

The words became more distinct. Three shadowy figures floated toward me. As they moved closer, the shadows turned into plainclothes policemen in raincoats. I immediately turned around, only to find another man standing behind me. A pair of handcuffs dangled from inside one of his sleeves.

I focused my eyes and thought of running away. One man grabbed my wrist and slapped the handcuffs on me but failed to get the pushpin lock to work. While he was banging away at it with his fist, I jerked my hand upward, frantically trying to push him away. Another hand came around me from behind, clamping down on my neck and choking me.

  1. Liao Yiwu
  2. Liao Yiwu is a Chinese author, reporter, musician, and poet, now exiled in Germany.
  3. His new book, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison tells the story of his imprisonment for writing poetry and film-making. Selections from his book of interviews, The Corpse Walker were first published in The Paris Review.
  4. He has received numerous awards, including a Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant and a Freedom to Write Award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center.

My body felt like it was being covered with steel animal traps. Dizziness overcame me.

It took almost no time for the police to subdue me. They dragged me along in the mud like an eel and tossed me in the backseat of a midsize jeep. Two stereotypically muscular and grim-looking handlers sat with me, one on each side. The doors slammed shut. The two other policemen who had captured me were waving their fists outside and swearing at me through the window — one wiping blood from his nose and the other sucking on his broken index finger. Apparently, my resistance had injured and angered them. A curious crowd thronged around the car.

“How dare you resist arrest?” the big man sitting on my left screamed while twisting the sharp steel of the handcuffs into my wrist. By then, I was completely inured to pain.

A heavyset cop sitting in the front seat shouted excitedly into his radio, “Headquarters, Number One is captured! We are delivering him to Song Mountain.” I realized that they were taking me to the notorious investigation center on Song Mountain Road in Chongqing’s Shapingba district. The long row of police cars sped forward, lights flashing and sirens piercing the air. As always in times of stress, my mind flew quickly to literature, and my arrest reminded me of a scene from an old propaganda novel, Red Rock, about the underground Communist movement in the 1940s. In the story, a Kuomintang agent in Chongqing lured an underground Communist to a rendezvous. When the Communist arrived, agents tackled him from all sides. Unlike me, the Communist was fearless. He adjusted his handcuffed hands and calmly climbed into the police car. Compared to the fictional heroic martyr, I had behaved like a badly beaten dog.

The police car climbed up a hill. I took a quick glance outside and saw the entrance to the Sichuan Foreign Languages Institute where we had held the audition for my Requiem film. A cemetery for Communist martyrs sat not far away. Soon, we passed Zhajidong, a notorious prison where the Kuomintang had executed many Communists before their defeat in 1949. The prison had been turned into a museum to showcase the Kuomintang’s brutality. The horrors of history may have been featured in that nearby museum, but the new investigation center, where I was heading, was built for those accused of crimes against the new China.

“Damn!” I shuddered. “My life is over.”

The police car drove slowly on a narrow road that curved around a hill. Soon I could hear the pine forest moaning in the wind. The wind-screen wipers swung back and forth vigorously as the spring drizzle turned into a heavy rain. We were approaching our destination — the Chongqing Municipal Public Security Bureau Investigation Center, otherwise known as the Song Mountain Investigation Center.* The reality started to sink in. …


As I languished at the investigation center, the police closed in on my friends and supposed accomplices Big Glasses and Hippie Poet.

Soon after I left Big Glasses’ apartment the morning of my arrest, he had gotten up and dragged Hippie Poet along to his job at the movie theater. The two of them, hungover and chain-smoking cigarettes, crossed the street and approached the theater. Several well-dressed undercover agents were waiting for them at the top of the stairs. The police politely shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with my friends, but quickly stunned them by suggesting they be escorted to the police car.

Meanwhile, Big Glasses’ wife, Xiao Min, had dropped by the apartment on a short break from work at a nearby department store. Dismayed at the apartment’s disarray from the previous night, she opened the door to air out the smoke and rolled up her sleeves to give the place a thorough cleaning. Unexpectedly, a friend showed up at the door. Xiao Min invited him in and they had barely sat down when they heard a loud commotion outside the building.

Sensing that something was wrong, Xiao Min reacted quickly. She scooped up a pile of audio and video tapes from a rack under their hi-fi set, including an audio recording of [Liao’s poem] “Massacre,” and stuffed them into the friend’s pockets and bag. She and the friend left the apartment. The police were already approaching along the narrow corridor. Xiao Min and the friend nervously turned sideways to make way. Fortunately, the police didn’t recognize them. Moments later, they broke into Big Glasses’ apartment and ransacked the place.

Like a lucky fish that had escaped the fishermen’s net, Xiao Min ran to the post office, where she sent a telegram to alert A Xia about my arrest with a coded message saying “Yiwu is dying of an illness.”

Upon receiving the telegram, my wife knew that I was in political trouble. She ran over to an old friend, seeking his advice, but he was equally unsure of what to do. A Xia decided to act on her own. Before police arrived at our apartment, she burned the letters that could have been used as evidence against me and secretly transferred a small bag of my manuscripts, including the original Requiem draft, to another friend’s house. Within hours, police detained A Xia and confiscated the rest of my writings and personal possessions including books, paintings, a camera, tape recorders, and all of my remaining cash. The night after police raided my apartment, looters arrived.

A Xia was detained for forty days. Upon coming home after her release, she faced a bare room, and did not know if the police or robbers had emptied it.

On the day of my arrest, Xiao Min also raced over to the language lab at the Military Medical University, where we had shot Requiem, and ran up the stairs to the fifth floor looking for Chen Dong and the technician, who had stayed lodged in a studio. Chen Dong was bending over a sink in the bathroom brushing his teeth. “Something terrible has happened,” Xiao Min informed him, but she had barely finished speaking when undercover agents began banging on the door. She darted into the ladies’ room across the hall and witnessed the arrest of Chen Dong and the technician through a crack in the door.

After they were taken away, Xiao Min watched from an upstairs window. My two friends stood in front of the police car, each carrying a stack of Requiem videotapes, which the police had found at the lab. Chen Dong had his long hair down like a woman, toothpaste foam still in the corners of his mouth.

Long after the police had gone, Xiao Min remained paralyzed with fear. She sat in front of the empty language lab building, her knees shaking. She couldn’t figure out how the police had managed to find
out where everyone was. None of our friends knew that she was three months pregnant at the time. Fortunately, in one fleeting moment, God’s invisible hand had shielded her and the unborn baby from danger.

While Xiao Min was fortunate and evaded capture, the police arrested my friend Zhong a week later. It was late at night and he was home writing a novel. When he stepped out for a quick bathroom break — most houses did not have indoor plumbing — he noticed shadows moving outside his yard. “What the hell are you doing there?” he barked. Suddenly, beams of flash lights shot at him and Zhong soon felt a gun pressed against his waist. A squad of ten armed officers had been sent to apprehend a writer who was a victim of polio. Inside Zhong’s house, police turned everything upside down. His valuable and exquisitely packaged books were trampled and littered on the floor. The head of the police squad even barged into Zhong’s bedroom and tried to take his wife’s lingerie. She told him off, calling him a pig.

Most of the crackdown on my friends took place in Chongqing, but the authorities also spread their tentacles to other cities in Sichuan, detaining and questioning those who were either my friends or who had distributed my “Massacre” tape. Understandably, the breadth of the investigation caused jitters among writers and poets around the country.

Shi Guanghua, a contemporary poet, was a widely revered figure in China’s literary community. His open support of my poems also aroused police suspicion. Before undercover agents came to get him,
Shi was attending a public poetry critique hosted by Star magazine in Leshan Mountain, not far from the place where the famed giant statue of Buddha sits. More than two hundred aspiring poets filled a hotel conference room to hear his lectures. The students were eager and the sessions intense. Each day, lively discussions continued late into the night. Little did the impassioned crowd know, however, that plainclothes policemen loitered in the hallway, waiting to snatch Shi without arousing any notice. Finally, an opportunity came. When Shi sauntered out of the room for some fresh air, they swooped. The poet, known for his eloquence and quick wit, was rendered speechless. He got into a brief scuffle and lost his slippers as he was dragged away.

The hotel’s reception hall sat almost empty. A clerk lay dozing off to the soothing sound of the Yangtze River nearby. Nobody was aware that the star of the seminar had been abducted. He walked down the stairs barefoot, his hair unkempt and his face smeared with dirt. The police placed a newspaper over his handcuffs to cover them.

As the agents wiped their sweaty brows and smiled triumphantly at each other, an unexpected interloper headed their way. An eminent poetry critic, who had returned from an evening of drinking with friends, greeted Shi. Intoxicated, the poetry critic slurred, “Ah, you still have guests at this late hour!”

Shi didn’t answer, and his steely looking captors pressed his head down. The critic was startled. As he turned sideways against the wall to let Shi and his “guests” pass, Shi suddenly raised his elbow, hitting the critic on the chest. The newspapers covering Shi’s hands flew off and the glittering handcuffs were on full display.

Thinking that his friend was being kidnapped, the critic awoke from his drunkenness and started yelling for help. All of a sudden, doors flung open and people poured out into the corridor as fast as the vomit from a drunkard’s mouth. The police found themselves surrounded by an angry crowd. A poet who worked for the army had a gun, and made it clear he was ready to use it on the agents.

The two sides pushed and shoved, and the confrontation escalated. When an official with the Sichuan Writers’ Association showed up to mediate, the undercover agent flashed the arrest warrant falsely claiming that Shi had been implicated in a case involving the distribution of pornography. A teenage girl at the conference, however, was outraged at the false charge, so she seized her hero’s leg and wouldn’t let go. The drama continued for nearly an hour, until after midnight. In the end, after relentless efforts by the seminar organizers, the crowd grudgingly cleared a path and allowed the police to leave with Shi. They swarmed around him like he was a movie star, trying to shake his hand and bid him farewell. Shi was detained for a month for interrogation by police in his district. Fortunately, he was released after investigators found no evidence that he was directly involved in my case.

In the eyes of the police, every poet that had befriended me in the past was a suspect, even though none was what people would call a “dissident” or “democracy fighter.” Even now, I don’t know how many people were rounded up for questioning and how many of their manuscripts and books were taken. With their broad, senseless apprehension of poets and writers along with their countless volumes of work, the Public Security Bureau destroyed a vibrant underground literary community in Sichuan.

* In China, an investigation center, also known as “custody and repatriation center,” is run by the Public Security Bureau and the Civil Affairs Department to detain and investigate those who have violated administrative rules and regulations (homeless people, thieves, or migrants without city permits) or those investigated by the court. In the 1990s, the law stipulated that a person should not be held for more than forty-five days, but authorities seldom followed the rules.

Excerpted from FOR A SONG AND A HUNDRED SONGS: A Poet’s Journey Through A Chinese Prison by Liao Yiwu, copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

2 Comments on "Excerpt: Liao Yiwu’s For a Song and a Hundred Songs"

  1. محمود الروش June 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm ·

    محمود الروش

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