For a Song: Liao Yiwu’s Prison Memoir

By Nick HoldstockJune 4, 2013

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison by Liao Yiwu

THE CHINESE POET LIAO YIWU first came to the attention of English-speaking readers when several of his interviews appeared in The Paris Review in 2005. What was unusual was not just the choice of his interviewees — ­­most were marginal figures, from a toilet attendant to a self-proclaimed emperor to a professional mourner — but also Liao’s presence as an interlocutor. Though he let his subjects tell their stories, he was also candid with them. Liao told a former Red Guard that his actions during the Cultural Revolution “were really like the Nazis,” while his conversation with a human trafficker ends with Liao saying, “If I were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off.” But with most people Liao was humorous and compassionate, perhaps due to his experience of being in similarly precarious positions. Between 1990 and 1994 Liao was imprisoned for writing and performing poems (“Massacre” and “Requiem”) about the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. After his release he was subject to frequent harassment from the authorities, and his work was often destroyed. In 2011 he left China and sought asylum in Germany.

For a Song and a Hundred Songs is Liao’s memoir of his years in detention, which first appeared in Chinese in 2002 as Testimonials. For a Song is a revised and much shorter version of that book, and begins with a section about Liao’s life before he was arrested. Its powerful opening chapter gives a spare account of Liao’s difficult family history, beginning with his parents choosing to divorce to protect Liao and his sister Fei Fei after his father was labeled a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. His mother was also subsequently denounced, and Liao ended up dropping out of school. His summary of his movements during those years deserves a memoir in itself:

I would snatch free rides by chasing and jumping aboard trains, working as a child laborer, fabricating travel documents, trekking for days on circuitous mountain paths, and lodging in the huts of my poor relatives in the rural areas. After high school, I continued to travel around the country, first working as a cook, then a truck driver on the Sichuan-Tibet highway.

His sister Fei Fei fared better by joining “a singing troupe responsible for propagating the thoughts of Chairman Mao.” She became a minor celebrity and was courted by a young man who killed himself by swallowing matches after Fei Fei rejected him. Liao describes his sister’s death in a car accident in 1988 in a single, unflinching paragraph.

His portrayal of himself before his arrest is equally unsparing. In 1989 he and his wife were living in Fuling, in Sichuan province (the city Peter Hessler writes about in River Town). He presents himself as a Bukowskian figure, constantly having affairs, one of which leads to him being stabbed by the woman’s fiancé. His wife breaks her leg and he tries to leave the city; upon finding out that she was having an affair, he slaps her and writes that his “precious sanctuary has been stained.” He is unafraid of allowing himself to look bad. But Liao is less forthcoming about the fact that, though he was an avant-garde, underground poet, he was also a state-employed writer. He mentions it only in passing, and, when he describes himself as a “well-dressed hypocrite,” it is in reference to his sexual life. This might seem like a convenient elision, except that Liao is clear that he wasn’t interested in politics before 1989, borne out by his account of going to Beijing to attend an award ceremony just when the Tiananmen Square movement was beginning. After he fails to win any prizes he leaves the city in a fit of pique; when he sees one of the student leaders on TV he thinks, “What an evil troublemaker!”

Though the protests initially had little effect on Liao’s political consciousness, they affected many others in Fuling. Liao vividly describes the ways in which the student’s activities altered the texture of daily life. In addition to collection booths for student hunger strikers, “Strangers greeted each other warmly. Volunteers stepped up to keep order. As in other major cities, the pickpockets and burglars in Fuling declared a moratorium on their activities.”

Liao describes the government’s violent response to the Tiananmen protests as a “turning point” in his life that made him decide “to head down a heroic path” — his recording of the poem “Massacre” is portrayed as something of a Pauline conversion. Whilst this is undeniably a dramatic moment, it also feels somewhat overstated, not least because Liao had already published two poems (“The Yellow City” and “Idol”) critical of the regime earlier that year. For a Song doesn’t mention their publication, or that they had led to Liao being detained and interrogated. The book is similarly vague about other details leading up to Liao’s arrest in 1990; when Liao writes that “he could sense that trouble was waiting for me ahead” there isn’t sufficient context for this presentiment to have the intended impact. Yet when the actual arrest occurs, it is nonetheless cinematically powerful. On a March day misty with rain Liao was walking towards a bus stop when he heard someone calling his name.:

The words became more distinct. Three shadowy figures floated toward me. As they moved closer, the shadows turned into plainclothes policeman 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.


Liao was taken to the Song Mountain Investigation Center, where he was held and interrogated for two months, before being moved to a detention center. He was accused of slandering Communist leaders, criticizing their decisions, and collaborating with foreign spies. On arrival he was beaten, stripped, and had his hair shaved off (the kind of procedures Erving Goffman calls “the mortification of self”). He was then taken to his cell where he saw:

two rows of cellmates with their legs crossed and their heads held high. Their shaved heads glittering under the light accentuated their sinister looks. In unison, they thundered, “Thief. Kill, kill, kill.”

They told Liao to “order a dish” from a menu of painful, humiliating punishments with deceptively innocent titles such as “Two Mandarin Ducks Playing in Water” and “Flowers Dangling from Children’s Mouths.” The first involved two inmates playing with each other’s genitals; in the second, a person had to try to use their lips to remove a chopstick or blade of grass that had been inserted into their anus. Liao only avoids punishment by being literally saved by the bell for dinner.

These sadistic games can be seen as a response to the monotony of prison life. Liao is very good at describing the ways the inmates tried to stave off boredom. Though there is frequent cruelty and violence, they also stage variety shows and performances, including a mock funeral at which Liao delivers a eulogy that brilliantly apes and subverts the communist rhetoric of memorial. It concludes with Liao satirically bestowing a series of titles on the “deceased”:

I confer posthumously on him the titles of Chairman of the Mountain City Pick- Pockets Association, Honorary Chairman of the Communist Party Central Committee, and Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China.

Unsurprisingly, the inmates also tell the stories of how they came to be arrested. Liao relates these in the same matter-of-fact fashion as he does in The Corpse Walker, even down to chapter headings such as “The Wife Killer,” “The Epileptic,” and “The Woodcutter.” The latter’s tale is a remarkable piece of Grand Guignol:

The psychotic man, whose family name was Zeng, was a woodcutter in a village deep in the mountains. All his life, he knew nothing except how to hew logs, a skill at which he had become expert. One day, for no reason, he slashed his wife’s head in two like a piece of wood. According to the story, blood splashed out of her skull and scalded his eyes. After his wife died, the cold-blooded murderer carried her body several miles to the police station. “My wife was too thin and she looked like a bundle of wooden sticks,” he reportedly exclaimed. “When I see wood, I want to chop it.”

Liao also offers detailed portraits of the prison officers. He pays tribute to those who showed him kindness, such as an escorting officer who stops him from being hit and the director of the center who later tells him, “No matter what crimes they are charging you with, you need to take care of yourself.” However, this humane treatment is primarily motivated by Liao’s status as an intellectual; when he goes on hunger strike, the director tells him that if he had been a regular prisoner the guards would have got his cellmates to force feed him.

One of the most interesting aspects of For a Song is the way it presents the Chinese penal system as a dark reflection of the divisions in Chinese society. Liao presents a typology of the different social roles within his cell: prisoners assigned to cleaning at the lower levels, in the middle, a group of elderly or political prisoners who were mostly left alone, and an elite class composed of the chief of the cell and his allies. One chief boasts: “Ruling the country would be no problem […] It’s more or less the same.” The prisons run regular political operations; just as on the outside, the government holds anti-corruption drives, inside there are “Confess your own crimes” and “Crack down on prison bullies” campaigns. The prisoners are also subject to the worst economic injustices that exist on the outside; Liao and his fellow inmates had to perform unpaid labor, the profits from which were split among the prison officers.

The hierarchy among inmates was far from static. Shifting alliances, as well as outright resistance, frequently disrupted the power balance. In some cells, Liao was protected; in others, he was persecuted. Though often uneasy with the status (and sometimes privileges) accorded to him as an intellectual, there are also moments when he accepts them. This is not to his discredit; in most of these instances the main motivation seems to have been friendship. Nonetheless, there is often an implied self-critique when Liao relates these episodes, especially when he writes about the execution of two death row inmates who had done his quota of work:

My two friends who had generously picked up my workload were taken away. The last rays of sunset sprayed the courtyard with blood and gold. Our cellmates sat there quietly, watching the two walk to their last stop in life’s journey toward death. I stood up to clean up their legacy — piles of nicely glued and folded packets for painkillers. I spent half an hour placing them neatly inside big cardboard boxes. With the work they had accomplished, I would be able to stay idle and read my books for another week.


Liao survived those four years in prison through stubbornness and a level of bravado that won a grudging respect from the guards and his fellow inmates. Though this defiance was also punished — the book’s title refers to Liao being forced to sing while being tortured with an electric baton — there’s an appealing recklessness to the way Liao responds to authority. When he sees that one of his interrogators has a bad knee, he asks if the man has arthritis. When his interrogator confirms this, Liao laughs then says, “I don’t think it’s arthritis. It’s bone cancer.”

As for the source of Liao’s resistance, For A Song suggests it is more than a matter of principle: when, after two years in captivity, Liao is finally brought to trial, he pleads guilty to the charges against him, knowing that the verdict is a foregone conclusion (and perhaps also bearing in mind a friend’s advice that “only a lunatic clings to a set rule”). Liao addresses this aspect of his character late in the book:

As a child growing up, I would imagine retaliating against the bullies or my enemies after they hurt me. In later years, my enemies in each phase of life had faded away. Time was my best revenge. I no longer had to encounter those bullies, who had slapped me on the face in broad daylight or forced me to paste big character posters on the walls condemning my father as a counterrevolutionary.

This feels like a psychological shortcut and would have benefited from being included earlier in the narrative. There’s an equally pat piece of psychology at the beginning of the book, when Liao sleeps with a woman after the death of his sister. He describes his need “to bury my head in her breasts and hide myself inside that familiar childhood shelter to escape the illusions that Fei Fei’s death had shattered.”

It’s possible that both of these passages may have suffered in translation, and although the prose is mostly readable, at times its imagery seems forced:

The Yangtze and Wu rivers joined together outside the city, emitting loud copulating noises.

The night was long. The bloodthirsty moon sported a wolf’s beard. I could hear the echoes of heaven’s howling.

There are also far too many animal-based similes, some of them used repeatedly: within the space of four pages, Liao describes himself as being “like a badly beaten dog,” “like a puppy,” and “like a dog.” This may read better in Chinese but in English this repetition yields diminishing returns.

For a Song also struggles slightly in terms of its narrative arc, specifically in terms of its attempts to shape Liao’s life into a conventional tale of triumph over adversity. Though there can be no doubt of both Liao’s suffering and his powers of resistance, at the end of the book the narrative voice descends into platitudes such as “True freedom lies in the heart” (which is then repeated in the next paragraph). It’s unfortunate that the book ends on this somewhat false note, perhaps the result of an editor encouraging Liao to close the book with some piece of Paulo Coelho–esque wisdom. Earlier in the book Liao offers a far better description of how freedom, or its surrogate, can be found while in captivity:

I closed my eyes and the world morphed into a colossal buzzing fly that I couldn’t chase away. The chirping crickets outside heightened my sense of loneliness. Under an oval blue sky, I sank to the bottom of the sea and snuggled against the belly of a giant fish.


Nick Holdstock is the author of The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town On the Edge. His fiction and journalism has appeared in the London Review of Books, n+1, and The Southern Review.

LARB Contributor

Nick Holdstock is the author of The Casualties, a novel out from St. Martin’s Press, and two books of nonfiction — China’s Forgotten People and The Tree That Bleeds.



LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!