Confess Your Own Crimes and Report on Others

A poet who protested Tiananmen Square recalls his years in a Chinese prison.

Illustration by Jess Fink

In the early morning, a few hours after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square that the Chinese, to this day, officially term the “June 4th Incident,” a young writer named Liao Yiwu penned and performed a poem titled “Massacre, ” mourning the young lives lost. Liao neither participated in the student protests nor knew directly of its principal architects. After all, he was half a country away on the muddy banks of the Yangtze, the longest river in China. But in February 1990, he traveled to the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing to meet a friend who had agreed to record a performance of “Massacre.” For this counter-revolutionary activity, he would spend the next four years of his life behind bars—an experience he recounts in his jailhouse memoir, For a Song and a Hundred Songs. Picking up the work of a fellow Sichuanese, I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect. The memoir, the first two drafts of which were confiscated by police, is at once brutal and brutally funny. But until I read For a Song and a Hundred Songs, I never knew how easily our paths could have crossed on the university campus where he became a criminal and I was born.

I was named for the Yangtze River, and I knew the arched maroon gates of the Third Military Medical University before I could read the block characters spelling its name. For a long time, I believed that universities, or “big school,” as it is translated literally from the Chinese, only came in the “military medical” variety because they were the only ones— “the First Military Medical Big School,” “the Second Military Medical Big School”—my mother and her friends ever named.

Author Liao Yiwu.
Author Liao Yiwu.

Courtesy of Elisabeth Bernstein

Likewise, my understanding of our own military affiliation—both my parents worked and trained at the university—was unsubtle: Those who periodically sported green uniforms, which were all the adults I knew, connoted safety and sanctuary. Those who did not were “local,” and therefore liable to lead me astray. How differently Liao, the freewheeling liberal intellectual and proud “local,” must have viewed his captors—the same uncles I was instructed to trust if I ever found myself lost beyond the gates of our army compound.

Like much of the middle-aged population in today’s China, Liao was born in one of the worst famines in Chinese history, one that was entirely man-made. A full stomach might have been out of the question, but Liao’s schoolteacher father made sure to supply his son with a steady diet of ancient Chinese poetry and essays. For this reason, language never proved laborious for Liao. “Words poured out of me in buckets,” he writes of his early career. So, it seems, did a bristling bravado. At the height of the student protests, Liao confesses that it was the failure of his poetry “to vanquish the capital,” rather than frustration with politics, that produced his most enduring feelings of bitterness and cynicism.

Still, revolution does not elude the young poet. He repeats to himself the party anthem: “The blood which fills my chest has boiled over/ We must struggle for truth!” When he wrote of the “historically unprecedented massacre” in his poem—a massacre the communist government sought to erase from public memory—the truth he pursued bent perilously close to the state’s definition of treason.

Liao is a born observer. Without pen and paper, he mentally collects stories from convicts who converged like “dregs sinking to the bottom of a sewage pipe,” yet who re-create with uncanny accuracy “an exact replica of the state bureaucracy outside.” Inside prison, “those in power enjoyed unlimited privileges”; Liao describes, as an example, the allocation of a fundamental resource: “The chief could use scented napkins to wipe his butt, but slave thieves had to resort to using wrapping paper or old newspapers.”

Liao’s meticulous portrait of the societal microcosm between cell walls—replete with its cast of foreign ministers, chairmen, scholars, and counter-revolutionaries—reads like a hybrid of Swift and Orwell, the latter of whom Liao reads with surreal astonishment in prison. Corruption, nepotism, and ineptitude run rampant, while in-house political campaigns—titled “Confess Your Own Crimes and Report on Others”—systematically weaken any rebellious momentum the prisoners might build among themselves.

Ironically, what binds Liao and his handcuffed comrades, other than shared deprivations, is the cultural legacy and currency of communism. If stepping into the detention center is like walking into a foreign country, Maoisms—verses and phrases trademarked to the Great Chairman—seem like that country’s official tongue. On his first day of imprisonment, Liao defends his own personal dignity with a Maoism: “Chairman Mao used to say that people are the parents of the Party, not the other way around.” Later, Liao is humiliated and driven to the brink of suicide not by a beating but rather by the demeaning manner in which a prison officer appropriates that same Maoism: “A communist official is like your parent,” he barks. “When a child doesn’t behave himself in front of his parents, he deserves punishment!”

As a child, I was used to hearing these dictums. In 1990, as Liao experimented with the subversion of propaganda, my classmates and I—along with millions of first graders across China—were in the throes of its indoctrination. Just as plainly as one and one added up to two, we learned, communism commanded the world and criminals deserved incarceration. To hammer the message home, our first-grade class took several trips a year to the Zhajidong, a notorious nearby prison, where we were lectured on the menu of torture techniques the nationalists imposed upon our forefathers, the communist defenders.

Unbeknownst to me, Liao was only five minutes away, and on the receiving end of these menu items. “Damn, my life is over,” Liao mutters on his fateful ride to the Chongqing Municipal Public Security Bureau Investigation Center. In one respect, Liao was right. The life he knew as a relatively sheltered intellectual came to an end the moment he was stripped of clothing and dignity upon arrival. In another, his discovery of injustice and violence—which he had previously only conjured, as a cause, through the abstraction of poetry—became as real as the walls of his new hell.

During the four years chronicled in For a Song and a Hundred Songs, his own family disintegrates: A daughter is born, a wife is lost, a mother mourns her son’s reckless ambition. In the summer of 1992, as Liao conjured the face of his newborn daughter from behind prison bars, I was getting ready to see my own father, a Third Military Medical University graduate. In many respects, Liao and my father share a personal history. Both came of age in the Great Famine, love literature despite a relative lack of formal schooling, and admit addiction to the numbing effects of Sichuanese peppercorns. As luck would have it, my father had even studied for his GREs in the very same language lab where Liao was arrested.

Whereas Liao chose poetry and the artistic avant-garde, however, my father chose science and the army and, eventually, life in America. While Liao heard the rally cries of students in downtown Chongqing, my father was safely ensconced in a small dorm room an ocean away, puzzling out the events of his native land in a language he was still struggling to comprehend.

Four long years after my mother began her visa application, she was informed one day in early spring by university administrators—men from the same department as the ones that arrested Liao—that we had a chance of being processed after all. My mother, who’d lived like a widow (or worse, a divorcee) for years, was giddy with anticipation. This was a secret, of course, she told me behind closed doors. No one could know. No friends. No teachers. No classmates. As an extra precaution, my mother asked me to repeat after her a set of rehearsed answers if I were ever faced with an impromptu interrogation.

How long were we going to be abroad?

Two weeks, at most.

What is the purpose of our trip?

To see my father and bring him home to the Third Military Medical University.

What country did I love most?

This was a no-brainer. In first grade, I had already become a Young Pioneer. I was the head cadre of our grade and led the class every morning in the national anthem. The blood which filled my chest could be no less red than the billowing flag.

The Motherland, I told my mother. What other country was there?

For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu. Translated by Wenguang Huang. New Harvest.

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