CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


The Underside of China's Prosperous Age | China Heritage Quarterly

The Underside of China's Prosperous Age

A review-essay by Linda Jaivin

Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China
Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2011

An 800-word version of this review of the Sichuan-based writer Liao Yiwu's 廖亦武 The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China appeared in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald on 13 May 2011. I have expanded that short review at the invitation of China Heritage Quarterly.—LJ

Mencius 孟子 believed that people were essentially good, but that goodness needed to be nurtured by good governance and financial security. In bad times, he warned, people were likely to turn bad. Reading The Corpse Walker, a translated and annotated collection of interviews by Liao Yiwu with social outcasts, targets of political campaigns, criminals and others living on the margins of Chinese society, one hears of difficult times and finds much badness.

Fig.1 Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2011

One of the most morally challenged individuals profiled in The Corpse Walker (the Chinese term for this expression is gan shi ren 趕屍人) is 'The Human Trafficker', Qian Guibao 钱贵宝. In his conversation with Liao, Qian blithely defends rape and beatings as normal to male-female relations. He figures that only a whore would fall for his (fake) offer of restaurant work. So why not sell the woman into the slavery she deserves? Qian's main regret, it seems, is not having sold off his own daughters at a high enough price. Liao Yiwu double checks: 'You sent your daughters to a faraway place and married them off to strangers for money?' Qian replies: 'What do they know about happiness? My daughters are the children of a poor peasant. As long as their husbands have dicks, that's all I care. The more often women get laid, the prettier they look. Of course with some women, after they give birth to a couple of kids, their looks are gone forever.' To Liao's query about how he built up his business, Qian delivers the remarkable line: 'I realised that I could be pretty charming.'[1]

It would be unfair to blame such sociopathy on bad governance. One does wonder where the police were looking when women—and not a few women—disappeared from one place and turned up in another to be beaten, raped and forced into marriage, not necessarily in that order. But the law did eventually catch up with Qian. When Liao interviewed him, he was serving a life sentence.

Qian is not the only interviewee in this book who was either in prison or, like Liao himself, has experienced imprisonment. Some had committed serious crimes. Others were innocent victims of political campaigns or official corruption. The cumulative picture they paint of conditions in China's prisons, including the use by authorities of the most psychopathic and violent criminals to bully, subdue and punish others, is graphic.

Elsewhere in The Corpse Walker you can find depictions of famine-era cannibalism, further examples of interpersonal cruelty, and testimonies from people who, while not evil-doers themselves, seem to have as much capacity for empathy as a boot.

Thankfully, there is the odd glimpse of goodness in this wolf-eat-wolf world. One of Liao's most moving interviews is that with seventy-five-year old Feng Zhongci 冯中慈, a friend of the author's uncle. An up-and-coming young Party member in the 1950s, Feng sacrificed reputation, career and security for love. He is one of the few of Liao's interviewees who can claim, looking back, that he's 'pretty contented' with his life.[2] There is also Zheng Dajun 郑大军, 'The Retired Official', whose narrative of inspecting villages during the great famine of 1959-61 serves to remind the reader that 'the Chinese government' is not a monolith; even during the most repressive times, there have been cadres who've taken a lonely stand on the side of justice.

One of The Corpse Walkers' most devastatingly memorable chapters tells the story of Zhang Meizhi 张美芝. At the time of the Communist revolution, she belonged to a large and influential family of ethnic Yi landowners, and was the wife of the district chief. Land Reform activists seized her family's lands and executed her husband and brother. Militiamen forced her eyes open with their fingers so she would see them die. The suffering and brutalisation she and her family endured – the above is but a prologue—is so shocking it defies comprehension. Yet, as is clear from this interview, conducted when she was 84, she survived with dignity, integrity and generosity of spirit intact.

Zhang Meizhi is one of only three women chosen by Liao and his translator Wen Huang for this collection of twenty-seven abridged translations. Another is a believer in Falungong. Wen Huang writes in his introduction that the stories were chosen from the original pool of nearly sixty with consideration to what 'might be of interest to Western readers'. It is an odd and unfortunate decision then, to have chosen so few female voices—especially as the third mainly relates her husband's story. If there are many stories to tell about the plight of marginalised women in China, you won't find them here. But it is, perhaps, 'representative' (as Wen Huang also writes) in the sense that, as I've written elsewhere, what I call China's 'rogue intellectual scene' is male-dominated and often unthinkingly misogynistic, or at least not particularly interested in women's issues.[3]

Fig.2 Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker as a text exists in a number of different versions. A short, sanitised edition was published by the Yangtze Art and Literature Publishing House (Changjiang wenyi chubanshe 长江文艺出版社) in 2001 under the title Interviews with People from the Underclass of Chinese Society (Zhongguo diceng fangtanlu 中国底层访谈录) under Liao's pen name Lao Wei 老威. It immediately created a sensation. Following the publication of an interview with Liao in the Southern Weekend (Nanfang zhoubao 南方周报), the Ministry of Propaganda banned the book and initiated an investigation into the publisher.

One year later, the original interviews were published in full in Chinese in Taiwan, where a journal edited by fellow dissident mainland poets gave it an award.[4] Many of the interviews are available on the Internet on various websites.[5]

The first contemporary oral histories produced in China were those of Zhang Xinxin 张欣辛 and Sang Ye 桑晔, produced in the early 1980s under the collective title Beijing Man (Beijingren 北京人) and translated in 1987 as Chinese Lives with a preface by Studs Terkel. Sang Ye, now an Australian citizen, has gone on to become post-Mao China's preeminent oral historian. Sang Ye's style is to remove his own questions to create a seamless personal narrative by the interviewee; Liao includes the questions with a result more like a conversation. There are other differences: following Chinese Lives, Sang Ye began using a tape recorder so as to accurately present the voices of his subjects. Liao Yiwu, who sometimes speaks with people in circumstances where this would be impossible, tends to reconstruct the discussion from memory. As a final note of comparison, Sang Ye's oral histories, some of which I've translated (and published in the virtual pages of the present e-journal), encompass stories from every nook and rung of Chinese society; the result is one with more shades of light and grey than one finds in The Corpse Walker.

If Liao focuses on the dark side, it may be because he has lived there for much of his life. As an infant, he nearly starved to death in great famine of 1959-61. His family also suffered when his father was persecuted as a 'counter-revolutionary'. By the 1980s, Liao had become a well-regarded figure on the unofficial poetry scene. His own first, devastating experience of incarceration was for his anguished underground poem 'Massacre', written in response to the violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Beijing and his native Chengdu in June 1989.[6] He suffered mental breakdown as a result. The authorities also cancelled his urban residence permit. Since then he has survived largely as a street musician. He's been detained since and while he was at liberty at the time of writing, as he told reporters,[7] the government had refused sixteen out of seventeen of his requests to travel overseas, most recently to visit the US and then Australia as part of the 2011 Sydney Writers' Festival.

A signatory to imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo's Charter 08, Liao has made it his mission, as he told a German reporter, '…to write and document the sufferings of people living at the bottom rung of society' whatever the consequences.[8] In 2002, he received a literary award from the Independent Chinese PEN Centre; the following year Human Rights Watch awarded him their Hellman-Hammett Grant. The Chinese government, not surprisingly, is not a fan. Declaring Liao's work 'illegal', officials have warned him against publishing it abroad.

Liao's US-based English translator Wen Huang is clearly devoted to Liao Yiwu and the cause of putting his work before a wider readership. He spent two years collaborating with Liao on this translation, at times forced to communicate with the author via coded messages or through mutual friends.

Yet compared with the textured and sure-footed Chinese original, the English translation stumbles, inelegant and flat, denuded of wit and character. Syntactical oddities such as: 'My little soft hand hurt so much' may possess a cockeyed charm. They don't, however, reflect the natural diction of the original. Nor does the almost universal application of American English of a certain register ('guy', 'puke') do justice to the diverse voices in Chinese. And what about the impossible phrase 'between the penholder'?[9] It never stops. I had the sensation while reading The Corpse Walker of constantly having to swat away the translation in order to focus on the content of the book.

Some people are able to attain phenomenal literary ability in a second language—Joseph Conrad testifies to that, as do contemporary Chinese writers in English such as Ha Jin, Li Yiyun and Fan Wu, and Dai Sijie in French. And there's no question that Wen Huang, who has contributed articles to The Wall Street Journal Asia, The Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review, The South China Morning Post, and The Christian Science Monitor among other prominent publications, is more than competent writing in English. Yet The Corpse Walker is evidence that it remains a good rule of thumb that literary translation, at least, be done into one's mother tongue. Stronger guidance on the part of the original publisher in the US, Random House, whose editors worked with Wen Huang on the book, would have helped as well.

It certainly seems odd that no editor picked up on some of the more blatant errors. Liao Yiwu interviewed Zeng Yinglong 曾应龙, a Sichuan peasant who in 1985 declared himself emperor of an independent kingdom centred on his home village and encompassing three counties. The armed rebellion he led included an attack on a hospital that resulted in several deaths. As a result, Zeng was sentenced to life imprisonment. Liao interviewed Zeng in prison, where he found fellow inmates and guards humoured Zeng by calling him 'Your Majesty', and Zeng asks Liao to do the same. In the Chinese original, the 'Peasant Emperor' then refers to himself as zhen 朕, the Chinese equivalent of the royal 'We'. Yet Wen Huang has the man calling himself 'Your Majesty', adding a fresh layer of bizarreness to the soi-disant Emperor's already disordered personality.[10]

A more serious issue raised by the translation of The Corpse Walker concerns the translator's unflagged insertions into the text. Some are merely irritating, like the addition of 'legendary' to Pangu in the phrase 'since the legendary Pangu created the world' (zicong Pangu wang kai tiandi 自从盘古王开天地). The reader easily intuits the false note: the speaker is not educated, the phrase 'from the time Pangu created the world' is a natural mode of expression, and the person he's addressing shares a similar cultural background. It's hard to imagine him adding the qualifier 'legendary'—just as it's hard to imagine a readership that, taking in the phrase 'since Pangu created the world' would not intuitively understand that Pangu was a figure of legend.

When this sort of annotation appears too often, and I'd argue it does here, it raises questions in the reader's mind about whether he or she is reading a fair representation of the original voice or voices of Liao's work.[11]

To cite another, somewhat more egregious example, on page 276, in a chapter called 'The Street Singer', the interviewee, Que Yao 雀跃 (note that this second character is usually read 'Yue'), remarks on the death of Mao's once close comrade-in-arms Lin Biao 林彪: 'Do you remember that? Who knows how he died.' Que Yao was born in 1969; he'd have been two at the time of Lin Biao's death. While Que appears well-versed in the politics of the time surrounding his birth, it seemed unlikely to me that he'd say 'remember that?' So I checked, and discovered he hadn't. What's more, while conspiracy theories abound about Lin Biao's death,[12] in the original Chinese, Que Yao in fact refers to Lin Biao's death as having occurred in a plane crash near Öndörkhaan in Mongolia—the standard story, in other words – without injecting any note of doubt.[13] Is the scepticism, then, that of the translator? If so, it would be more properly expressed in a foot- or endnote.

A translation is a double pact of trust, between the translator and author—particularly when the author doesn't know the language of the translation—and between the translator and reader as well.

The more I compared the originals with the translations, the more I noticed signs of what appeared to be a political agenda. That Liao Yiwu might share this agenda is irrelevant—the reader needs to have faith that the text has not been manipulated for non-literary ends in the process of translation.

Returning to Que Yao, on page 282, the singer relates how at one point in his life he sought instruction in the Christian faith. He tells Liao that he was told to 'discuss my passion with the local church belonging to the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement. In China, the Party has created its own “Catholic” and “Protestant” churches in every city. They are called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement, which is Protestant.'

My antennae were twitching once again—why would a mainland Chinese have to explain this fact of life to another mainland Chinese unless the second had lived in a cave, or been raised by wolves? Liao responds: 'Yes, I'm aware of it. It's strange that the Chinese Catholic church does not listen to the Vatican, but to the atheist Communist Party.'

Que goes on: 'It was understandable. Since nobody in China believes in Communism anymore, our leaders fear foreign religions could threaten the Party's rule. Let's not get into a political debate about it. Anyway, I followed his instructions and went back to Yichang. I sought help from an official of the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement. He said he could offer me the opportunity to volunteer in his church, but I had to get official approval from the Yunyang county government. I asked if the church could issue an invitation letter, but he said he couldn't. So the road to God was blocked. My passion for religion was officially over.'

To which Liao says, 'If you really had a passion for God, why didn't you join the hundreds of underground churches…'

Que replies, 'The government has banned the underground churches. Many people have been arrested. It's too risky.'

Liao then asks, 'What happened after your spiritual pursuit ran into obstacles?'

I had arrived at what I had begun to think of as a 'Google point' in the text. Searching out the original online, I found that this is what Que Yao said, in full, up through the point where Liao Yiwu asked what happened next:


In other words,

'He told me to go back to where I'd come from and work out some arrangement with the Three-Self Patriotic Church there. So, although I was disappointed, I followed his suggestion and went to the church in Yichang, in Hubei Province, not far from my home, where I asked the minister for help. The minister was extremely sympathetic towards me. He agreed that I could serve as a volunteer in his parish for a few years and gain experience with the Lord. But he said that it would be very hard to get my residence permit transferred, and that I'd have to work that out myself. I asked him if the church could provide a document of proof for me. He said that couldn't be done. And so the road to faith was blocked, and from that time forward, I kept my distance from all religions.

Liao responds, simply, '接下来呢?'— 'And then?'

So, Wen Huang was indeed responsible for the clunky insertion about the organisation of the church in China into the dialogue. But more alarming, unless the Chinese text I found is incomplete, he also appears to have put highly politicised questions and statements into Liao Yiwu's mouth. Moreover, the mention of the minister being sympathetic was excised completely.

Perhaps Liao Yiwu and he decided on this together. Maybe they determined that Liao could go several steps further in the English version than in the Chinese original. We aren't told. Yet it raises questions about the interviews' authenticity and alerts us to the extent of the translator's interventions. This intervention seems to assume either that non-Chinese readers are incapable of understanding reserve, subtlety or ambiguity or that if they are not shouted at, they will not hear the message that China is under a dictatorship.

As a translator myself, I'd never argue for literalness. I'm all for creative re-invention and a degree of subtle annotation. I also understand the need to take into account that certain expressions that have self-evident meaning within their cultural context may need some creative explication in translation. But unless Wen Huang was working from different Chinese texts than those which I've read, I struggle to see how changes such as those discussed above can be justified, especially as they damage The Corpse Walker's credibility as oral history. Whether Liao Yiwu was complicit or not, he ultimately suffers from this. As if he hasn't suffered enough.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2011, p.27.

[2] The Corpse Walker, p.120.

[3] See my comments on both Han Han and Liu Xiaobo in the essay 'A Nobel Affair', published in The Monthly, December/January 2010, available online at: In a letter written by Liao that is discussed in the following footnote, there is a line that reads: 'You can be as individualistic as you like and more so, you can be money-grasping, fuck women, and engage in literary plotting in order to establish your 'place in history', you can do whatever you like so long as you don't get mixed up in marginal worlds' (Ni jin keyi gerenhua,geng gerenhua, jin keyi gao qian, gao nüren, gao wenxue yinmou zhengde 'lishi diwei', zhi yao ni bu yu zhoubian shijie juezai yikuai jiu xing 你尽可以个人化、更个人化,尽可以搞钱、搞女人、搞文学阴谋争得 “历史地位”,只要你不与周边世界搅在一块就行). What interests me here is the assumption that the reader, the 'player', the 'you' of the sentence, is male. It would have been just as easy to use a phrase that signified 'fuck around' in a non-gender specific way, for example—luangao, 乱搞. That said, the issue is hardly confined to China: see recent discussions of views on women writers expressed by V.S. Naipaul and Christopher Hitchens, for example, as summed up in The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 2011, online at:

[4] The Tendency Literary Prize (Qinxiang wenxue jiang《倾向》文学奖). In a letter written to the editors of Tendency, Bei Ling 贝岭 and Meng Lang 孟浪 in 2000, Liao Yiwu proclaims (other) mainland poets to be 'spiritually dead': 'Spiritually, the poets have all died off. Another way of putting it is to say that today's poets could be likened to a certain type of conspirator. At the same time, the essays written by some scholars, in their detestation of injustice and current mores, are close to poetry' (Cong jingshen shang, shiren quan siguangle, huozheshuo xianzaide shiren xiangdang yu mouzhong chengdu shangde yinmoujia. Daoshi yixie xuerende wenzhang xiede fenshijisu, jiejin yu shi 从精神上,诗人全死光了,或者说现在的诗人相当于某种程度上的阴谋家。倒是 一些学人的文章写得愤世嫉俗,接近于诗). The letter also gives popular poets such as fellow Sichuanese Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 a spray and chastens Bei Ling for maintaining an old feud with fellow poet-in-exile Bei Dao 北岛. It voices contempt for Sinologists to whose work Liao, not knowing a foreign language, would surely only have limited access. It declares those poets who write from an aesthetic, as opposed to social or political motivation to be 'living on another planet' (zai lingwai yige xingqiu shang 在另外一个星球上). He does like Vaclav Havel, however. For the fascinating insight that it offers into both Liao's relationship with the editors of Tendency and Liao's own concerns, the letter is worth reading in full:

[5] All fifty-seven were originally accessible from the website of the Independent Chinese Pen Centre but while the index of titles is still up on the site, my attempts to download individual chapters resulted in error messages.

[6] Geremie Barmé and I included a translation of the poem by John Minford in New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices under the title The Howl and attributed it to 'Anonymous', as the recording had been smuggled out of China and while we were aware of its authorship, it had not been previously made public. See Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.100-103.

[7] 作家廖亦武第16次禁止出境, 10 May 2011. See:

[8] Quoted on p.xiv of The Corpse Walker in the introduction by translator Wen Huang, who also gives a brief history of Liao Yiwu's life and his work.

[9] The Corpse Walker, p.66. One needs to think back into Chinese, and Chinese traditional culture to make sense of this, as it seems to be referencing the humps or rises of a brush-holder, between which one can rest one's brushes.

[10] For the original, see:

[11] The Corpse Walker, p.7. The Chinese original can be found at:

[12] Perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory was that presented in Yao Ming-le's 1983 The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao. Yao contended that Lin and his family were blown up in the family car by Mao's people in the Western Hills of Beijing.