China's memory keeper
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 July 2008)

Now and then the newspapers carry stories about sudden, shattering riots in remote Chinese towns, such as Weng'an in the southern province of Guizhou.

That was where, in June, an enraged mob of 30,000 burned down the police station and the county government building. The rioters believed that police were covering up the rape and murder of a schoolgirl. For allowing this breach of order, Beijing fired four local officials, including the police chief. On Wednesday, the state's China News Weekly ran a startling story about the chief's defence: He claimed that people don't respect authority because criminals have corrupted his force.

About the same time, the report of an autopsy on the girl's body showed that four doctors decided she died by drowning, was not attacked and was a virgin. Her father and aunt witnessed the autopsy.

While the China News Weekly report was exceptional, the story from Weng'an was not otherwise remarkable. According to Agence France-Presse, every year brings tens of thousands of local uprisings, normally extinguished by the army.

The rioters are usually peasants -- the largest category among the 1.3 billion Chinese, the most deprived and the least understood.

Increasingly, they are showing signs of anger. In this Olympic summer, as China passes another symbolic marker on the road to big-power status, the peasants are the equivalent of a national unconscious, a volatile element that might suddenly erupt.

Liao Yiwu, a poet and journalist, has made it his business to give them a voice. The Corpse Walker: China from the Bottom Up (Pantheon), his collection of 27 interviews gathered in his home territory of Sichuan in the southwest, portrays people stunned by poverty and often obsessed by the catastrophes of the national past -- the Great Leap Forward in 1958-1962, the Cultural Revolution of 1967-1976 and the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989. When Liao's subjects think about the past they count the relatives murdered or brutalized. Official China, anxious to forget unpleasant history, considers Liao a serious nuisance and persistently harasses him. (I wrote about him here in 2005 when the Paris Review carried three of his pieces.)

His subjects are street musicians and criminals, morticians and schoolteachers, a Buddhist priest, a former Red Guard. He has a taste for the exotic and the grotesque. Sometimes he sets politics aside and concentrates on working lives. When he meets a professional mourner, for instance, he asks how the man can wail and howl over a stranger's death.

The mourner's reply makes him sound like a jazz musician: "My teacher forced me to learn how to wail and chant. Having a solid foundation in the basics enables a performer to improvise." Liao: "How long can you wail? What was your record?" Mourner: "Two days and two nights."

His subjects often surprise Liao as well as the reader. He interviewed a renowned safecracker who had been sentenced to death for his repeated crimes. Having thought it over, the safecracker said he had been wrong to do nothing useful for others with the money he stole. Therefore he was content to die. He was executed soon after Liao talked to him.

The corpse walker in the title refers to a job even stranger than professional mourner. If someone dies when they are far from home, the family can hire a team, two men collectively called a corpse walker, to bring the body back. One man walks in front, carrying a lantern. The other follows, carrying the body on his back, both the carrier and the corpse hidden in a black cloak. "Corpse walking is a practice from the old society," Liao is told. "It is now considered superstitious and illegal." Walkers train for years to develop the necessary strength.

Liao was born 50 years ago, into the middle of a national crisis. An infant during the famine that followed Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, he almost died of malnutrition. Before he was 10 years old, the Cultural Revolution began and his family was wrecked when the Red Guards attacked his schoolteacher father. In 1990, Liao's writing on the Tiananmen massacre was punished by a four-year prison term. While in jail, he twice tried to commit suicide.

Liao was at home in Sichuan when the earthquake hit on May 12. He was shaken but not hurt. Soon he was wandering through the damaged towns where 69,000 people died, looking for evocative stories that reveal the peculiar and intimate truths of oral history. He plans to make them the subject of his next book.

In The Corpse Walker, Liao tells us about an ethnic group, the Yi, who had the bad luck to be successful farmers in the pre-Mao era. He visits a woman in a Yunnan village who once lived in a big, traditional courtyard house. He asks when she last lived there.

"In the early 1950s. The newly founded Poor Peasants Revolutionary Committee forced us to move into a cowshed." They arrested her husband and brother, both of whom were shot without trial while she watched and a crowd cheered, "Death to our class enemy." They kept her in a detention centre and brought her out for public meetings, where she had to wear a sign, "Wife of the Evil Landlord." Meanwhile, her two-year-old daughter, neglected at home, died of starvation. In all, she lost 10 family members in the 1950s.

Liao interviewed a composer who remarked that his memories of the Red Guards still pursue him. Looking at people walking on the street, he often thinks: "Have they persecuted or tortured?"

Elsewhere in the book, Liao interviews a former Red Guard who doesn't mind admitting that he enjoyed tormenting "the elites." The Guards were freelancers, uncontrolled by the state, allowed to beat up anyone they considered counterrevolutionaries.

Along with other Red Guards, he dragged his school principal, Mr. Bai, before a mass meeting. "Each time the audience shouted revolutionary slogans, another Red Guard and I would kick Mr. Bai." Mr. Bai was a communist but an old-fashioned kind of communist: The students complained that he forced them to learn Western science and technology. The principal committed suicide by drowning himself in a well.

Looking back from middle age (he now works in a human resources department) the old Red Guard recalls his past with approval. "It was glorious. I couldn't get enough of it. I still cherish those memories. We were so pure and innocent."

Recently, when a reporter asked Liao Yiwu to describe what he does, he took a pen and wrote: "Memory keeper." In his hands, that's a noble profession.

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