Spending time in jail is no fun anywhere, but each society has its own cultural refinements of misery. The sadistic imagination of Chinese prison authorities, though hardly unique, is often remarkable. But so is that of the inmates themselves, who form their own hierarchies, their own prisons within prisons.At the Chongqing Municipal Public Security Bureau Investigation Center, for example, also known as the Song Mountain Investigation Center, the cell bosses devised an exotic menu of torments.
A few samples:SICHUAN-STYLE SMOKED DUCK: The enforcer burns the inmate's pubic hair, pulls back his foreskin and blackens the head of the penis with fire.
Or:NOODLES IN A CLEAR BROTH: Strings of toilet papers are soaked in a bowl of urine, and the inmate is forced to eat the toilet paper and drink the urine.
Or:TURTLE SHELL AND PORK SKIN SOUP: The enforcer smacks the inmate's knee caps until they are bruised and swollen like turtle shells. Walking is impossible.
There are other tortures, too, meted out in a more improvised manner. Liao Yiwu, in his extraordinary prison memoir, "For a Song and a Hundred Songs" (translated from the Chinese by Wenguang Huang; New Harvest), describes the case of a schizophrenic woodcutter who had axed his own wife, because she was so emaciated that he took her for a bundle of wood. The cell boss spikes the woodcutter's broth with a laxative, and then refuses to let him use the communal toilet bucket, with the result that the desperate man shits all over a fellow-inmate. As a punishment for this disgusting transgression, his face is smashed into a basin. The guards, assuming that he has tried to commit suicide, a prison offense, then work him over with a stun baton.Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 to study the country’s prison system, and ended up writing "Democracy in America." Observing the Chinese prison system from the inside, from 1990 to 1994, as. a "counterrevolutionary" inmate, Liao Yiwu tells us a great deal about Chinese society, both traditional and Communist, including the impact of revolutionary rhetoric, forced denunciations and public confessions, and, as times have changed since Mao's misrule, criminal forms of capitalism. He ends his account by saying that "China remains a prison of the mind: prosperity without liberty."
Liao was incarcerated for writing a poem, "Massacre"-a long stream of- consciousness memorial to the thousands of people who were killed on June 4, 1989, when the pro-democracy movement was crushed throughout China. The poem, in its English translation by Michael Day, begins as follows:And another sort of massacre takes place at utopia's core The Prime Minister catches cold, the people must cough; martial law declared again and again. The toothless machinery of the state rolls towards those who have the courage to resist the sickness.
Liao was not a political activist, or, strictly speaking, a dissident, and his resistance had a spontaneous quality. Politics didn't interest him much, even during the nineteen-eighties, when many young Chinese thought of little else. He led a rather dissolute life, wandering from place to place as a "well-dressed hypocrite, a poet who portrayed himself as a positive role model but all the while breathed in women like I was breathing air, seeking shelter and warmth in random sex." Like many Chinese who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Liao was more or less self-educated in literature, although he received a grounding in the Chinese classics from his father, a schoolteacher. His memoir is sprinkled with the names of Western writers- Orwell, Kundera, Proust-some of whose works penetrated even the prison walls in Chongqing. Among them, amazingly, was Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." In Liao's words, "On the page was an imaginary prison, while all around me was the real thing."
Unlike his friend Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Prize-winning critic and a writer with strong political convictions, Liao never wished to stick his neck out. He describes himself as an artist who simply wanted to be free to write in anyway he liked. As recently as 2011, he told the journalist Ian Johnson, "I don't want to break their laws. I am not interested in them and wish they weren't interested in me." But, in 1989, he put himself "on a self-destructive path" by performing his poem in bars and dance clubs, howling and chanting in the traditional manner of Chinese mourning. A recording of the poem was distributed informally, and a film, entitled "Requiem," was made of his recitation by a group of sympathetic artists and friends. None, according to Liao, could be classified as "dissidents" or "democracy fighters." But they were all arrested, their work confiscated, and thus "the Public Security Bureau destroyed a vibrant underground literary community in Sichuan."Liao's time in prison didn't turn him into an activist, either. He was approached at one point by a fellow- "89er," who planned to start an organization of political prisoners. Liao refused to take part, and explained the reason for his having written "Massacre" in the first place. He "was compelled to protest," he said, because "the state ideology conflicted violently with the poet's right of free expression." To this, he added in his memoir, "I never intended to be a hero, but in a country where insanity ruled, I had to take a stand. 'Massacre' was my art and my art was my protest." Several famous dissidents have written vividly about their prison experiences. Wei Jingsheng' s "The Courage to Stand Alone'' is an account of eighteen years spent in prisons after he helped lead the Democracy Wall movement, in the nineteen-seventies. Harry Wu's "Bitter Winds" describes his ordeal in forced-labor camps in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Their heroic stories bear a strong political message of standing up to dictatorship. Liao is a literary man, and this actually makes his prison memoir even more compelling. For one thing, he is ruthlessly candid about his weaknesses, and his fears. There is nothing especially heroic about him. Watching the guards in combat training on his first day in prison, he "shuddered like a nervous rat." Forced to sing songs over and over again with a parched throat in the freezing cold to entertain the guards, he is beaten with an electric baton. When he cannot go on any longer, he is stripped and wrestled to the ground: "I could feel the baton on my butthole, but I refused to surrender. The tip of the baton entered me. I screamed and then whimpered in pain like a dog." Liao tried to commit suicide twice, once by bashing his head against the wall. This elicited ridicule from his cellmates, who accused him of playacting, something they thought typical of a bookish poet. If he had really wanted to smash his skull, he should have made sure to use the wall edge.
Liao describes very precisely what it is like to be in constant fear, to live in a cramped cell with so many other men that there is barely room to lie down, and to be starved of proper food, and sex. One ravenous inmate caught a rat, skinned it alive, and ate it raw. Another stuffed his mouth from a bucket of slop. Sex goes on, but in a debased form. A prisoner almost burned his bed down by masturbating to a cigarette lighter that, when lit, showed a picture of a naked woman. And one man got carried away with lust at the sight of a soap-opera star on TV. Liao saw men crowd around a window, the cell boss hoisted onto the shoulders of his slaves, as they jacked off while trying to catch a glimpse of a female outside. A young man was raped by the cell boss, fell in love with him, and was dismissed with a smack in the face when the boss became impotent.One of the less creditable reasons we read prison memoirs such as this one with horrified fascination is that the torments of others can have a lurid pornographic appeal. But what makes Liao’ s work so riveting is his gift for observation. Despite his own suffering, he is endlessly curious about others, their characters, their stories, and how they cope with the' terrors of prison life. His encounters with other prisoners are skillfully transformed into short stories. Since some of these men are facing execution, the stories are often about dealing with imminent death. A heroin smuggler nicknamed Dead Chang wants to borrow Liao's atlas in preparation for his next life as a wandering ghost. Dead Chang got lost too many times in his present life, and wishes to visit his favorite haunts after he is dispatched with a bullet to the neck. Being told by this condemned man that they might meet again in the next world, Liao finds that his "limbs were quivering." Dead Chang asks him whether he is O.K., and "let out a sinister laugh. The deep crease between his eyebrows seemed to have opened up like a mouth, ready to swallow me."
Some of the prisoners were featured in another remarkable book by Liao, first published in Taiwan as ''Interviews with People from the Bottom Rungs of Society'' (2001), and in the U.S. as "The Corpse Walker'' (2008). Among them is an illiterate peasant who declared his native village to be an independent monarchy, with himself as the emperor. For this act of counterrevolutionary subversion, he was locked up for life. What fascinates Liao about this "peasant emperor'' is that his fantasies are derived from Chinese classics. One of his claims is that a yellow ribbon bearing his imperial name was discovered inside a fish. When Liao points out that this ruse was used by a peasant rebel two thousand years ago to trick people into following him, the emperor tells him to shut up: "It's awfully rude of you to talk to Your Majesty this way. Your Majesty knows that you are a journalist in disguise and have been sent from the hostile kingdom of China. You have attempted to conspire with the prison authorities to lure me into giving you incriminating evidence."Literature can serve as an escape, as when Liao drifts into memories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years ofSolitude." He identifies in particular with one of the characters, Colonel Buendia, who loses his mind after being tied to a chestnut tree for many years. Like the Colonel, Liao retreats into his own mind. At other times, literary works illustrate the most primitive aspects of prison existence. Liao recalls Milan Kundera's definition, in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," of totalitarian kitsch as "the absolute denial of shit." Liao writes that he cannot raise human feces to a higher level of metaphor: "In this ordinary memoir of mine, shit is shit. I keep mentioning it because I almost drowned in it." This is quite literally true; as a newcomer in a cell, or if he had lost favor with one of the cell bosses, he would have to sleep with his face next to the toilet bucket.
And yet he can't resist using shit metaphorically, as in his statement that he is living "in the shitty pigsty called China." Sickness, too, is elevated to metaphor: “If China were a patient suffering from colon cancer, the city of Chongqing would be the filthy terminus of the colon, a diseased anus." Prison is frequently described in his book as a prison within the giant prison of a diseased Chinese society, a grotesque mirror of the political institutions and rhetoric of the People's Republic of China.The language of Maoism, now almost as ingrained in Chinese life as Confucian maxims once were, and often used in a similar way, crops up again and again in prison conversations. Inmates sometimes use Mao’s dictums sarcastically, as when the unfortunate woodcutter, after having imbibed the laxative, is prevented from getting to the toilet bucket: 'Without discipline and rules," they taunt him, "revolution will not succeed." Sometimes Mao is quoted in earnest. A cell boss who is sympathetic to Liao warns him against cultivating the friendship of a fellow-intellectual: "Don't be too bookish .... Remember what Chairman Mao said about class struggles-never let your guard down against your class enemy."
Quite apart from Maoist sentiments, it is the Chinese system of government that is replicated inside the prison. This owes something to Leninist Party organization, but a great deal to more traditional practices as well. When Liao first enters the Song Mountain Investigation Center, his cell boss explains how things work. He likens the cell hierarchy to the Politburo and the Central Military Commission, whose members are above the common people. They can do anything they please. But, to maintain order, they must impose absolute unity in the cell. The first sign of rebellion will be crushed without mercy. However, the boss says, echoing centuries of Confucian doctrine, the rulers cannot be too harsh: 'We need to let the people beneath us feel that we are like their parents." When Liao objects, quoting Chairman Mao's saying that the people are the parents of the Party, the boss shows a better understanding of Chinese reality: 'That's goddamned nonsense! If a thief here wishes to have a nice filling meal, it's up to me to decide."Not surprisingly, the prison authorities also model their methods on common practices in the People's Republic. The use of political campaigns, for example. Inmates at the Investigation Center were forced to take part in an annual campaign called "Confess Your Own Crimes and Report on Others." Formal rallies were held in the courtyard, just as in Maoist times, with much chanting of political slogans and long speeches made by police and prison officials. Many hours were devoted to writing confessions and denunciations. Cell bosses were encouraged to pick the juiciest items from their menu of torments for those whose keenness to confess or tell on others was judged to be inadequate.
This tactic, too, is a toxic combination of tradition and modern innovation. Ritual confession was always part of Confucian justice. Being forced to report on others, though hardly unknown in the past, is a totalitarian refinement designed to break all trust among people, so that their only loyalty will be to the Party. Liao writes that confess-and-report campaigns were so rough that several people died under torture. When things threatened to get seriously out of hand, however, the authorities would call a halt to the proceedings, and, in the usual Maoist fashion, turn the tables on the perpetrators by starting another campaign, this time one called "Crack Down on Prison Bullies." The very people who had been encouraged to "break'' recalcitrant prisoners were now broken in turn.But, of course, China has moved on since Mao's decades of terror. When Liao was in prison, China's door had already been open to business with the capitalist world for more than ten years. Economic reforms began in the early nineteen-eighties, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. In 1992, Deng called for even faster economic growth. As a result, in Liao’s words, "prison personnel never missed a beat and were quick to take advantage of the free labor to fatten their wallets."
Free labor is a polite phrase for slavery.Each prisoner was required to spend at least ten hours a day putting together medicine packets, while being subjected to political exhortations from loudspeakers - the usual Chinese Communist mixture of ideological bullying and economic exploitation. Liao remarks that this type of repetitive manual work had already been abandoned by local factories. But prison authorities could make tidy profits by whipping the incarcerated slaves into reaching quotas of up to three thousand packets a day. Inmates who tried to escape or who resisted the prison regimen would be beaten up or thrown into "dark cells" that were just big enough to crawl into and lie down. "After a year or so," Liao writes, "the dark-cell-dweller's skin turned pale, his bones fragile, and his hair white as frost. The skin became so transparent that one could see the blue veins."
Liao mentions a few moments of respite. There were instances of kindness from cell bosses who favored him, sometimes for being a poet; respect for the written word is not dead in China. A Buddhist monk taught him to play the flute. And, once in a while, conditions improved a little because of foreign pressure on China to do .better on human rights. This should make those of us who had given up all hope of influencing official Chinese behavior from the outside a little less cynical.Meanwhile, Liao tried to keep his memories of what he had heard and seen in prison by scribbling tiny notes in a copy of the classic Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." On January 31, 1994, he was freed. But, in his account, his release was only the beginning of a different type of ordeal, perhaps more bitter in its way. Troublemakers and dissidents are rarely popular in oppressive societies. They cause problems for others by provoking reprisals, and they make the majority of people who refuse to rebel feel uneasy about their conformity. Liao dreaded going home for the New Year and other family celebrations, because he knew that he would be criticized. His wife decided to divorce him-perhaps not surprising, as Liao never claims to have been a devoted husband. Worse was his abandonment by old friends. After four years of jail, he writes, "I was no more than a pile of dog shit to my fellow writers." This rejection might suggest a peculiarly Chinese form of callousness, but it actually has more to do with how China is now run. After the failed rebellion of 1989, the Communist government made a clever deal with the educated classes: if members of the urban elite would stay out of politics, they would have the freedom to enrich themselves. "Our whole country was suddenly busy making money, which was a corrosive acid that dissolved political dissent," Liao writes. "The same people who used to march fearlessly in the street for democracy now have become 'apolitical' in the current era of rampant materialism- Communist style." Several of his former artistic comrades had become businessmen.
In such circumstances, the normal human tendency to shun troublemakers is strengthened by the irrepressible consciousness of having made a shabby deal. Liao's keenest readers, as is so often the case with people living under dictatorship, were the officials who were paid to censor his words. Reduced to life as an educated vagabond, sometimes playing his flute in the streets to survive, and terrified of being sent to jail again, Liao managed to cross the border into Vietnam; from there, he made his way to Germany, where he now lives. And so it is that this immensely gifted Chinese writer performs his poetic acts of mourning for the entertainment of audiences in Berlin and New York-an exotic "dissident'' abroad, his voice to be heard everywhere except where it is most needed.