2009: Preface to Liao Yiwu’s “Earthquake Insane Asylum”

Rescuing the Real – Preface to Liao Yiwu’s Earthquake Insane Asylum

By Kang Zhengguo 康正果

地震瘋人院 [Earthquake Insane Asylum] by Liao Yiwu with the assistance of Xiao Jin

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States was experiencing rapid economic growth, monopolistic industrial trusts, local judicial abuses, and a growing disparity between rich and poor, all of which caused great public discontent with social injustice and corruption. Since free speechhas been a fundamental principle upon which the United founded, the press and publishing industry have always provided a forum for criticism.  A group of journalists launched a campaign to expose scandals, denounce corruption, and call for justice and conscience in response to those social ills that needed to be eliminated. In McClure’s Magazine journalists devoted a sensational series to fraud at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in the City of St. Louis.  In his documentary novel The Jungle Upton Sinclair exposed the profit-oriented nature of Chicago’s food processing industry with a plethora of horrifying facts. President Theodore Roosevelt initially seemed to take offense at such outrageous statements, borrowing from a character in Bunyan’s The Pilgrims’ Progress” who never looked up to the glory of God but only collected filth, he added the sarcastic term “muckraker” to the group of journalists and writers. The muckraker is a derisive term placed on a group of journalists and writers. But the journalists and writers stood up to the President’s harsh criticisms, first accepting them gladly, and then doing a good job of winning his support in their “muckraking” business. Later, prompted by the muckraker movement, the Roosevelt administration carried out radical reforms in judicial, administrative and economic policies, enacted [sic] the (1890) “Sherman Antitrust Act” to restrict the monopoly of large consortia and enacted the (1906) “Pure Food and Drug Act” to protect the interests of consumers.

    Theodore Roosevelt obviously had much more magnanimity than Mao and other Chinese Communist leaders. I looked at his speech against journalists’ muckraking, and while he was sarcastic, in his next speech he made a clear statement to the public that he strongly supported the practice of writers and journalists in the pulpit and in the books to attack the wrongdoers and their evil deeds in politics, business and social life, as long as the crimes they expose are absolutely true, they are doing something good for society. From this, we can see that the greatest vitality of a democratic society lies in the fact that its government not only dares to face the respective social reality, but also makes timely corrections and changes to the undesirable phenomena that appear in the process of social development. We can imagine that, no matter how fierce and sensational the scavenging movement was in the United States, if the president was not enlightened and the government did not take positive actions, it would be difficult to talk about any significant results.

   Contrary to the U.S. government’s positive response to civil criticism, the Chinese Communist Party has always relied on cover-ups to maintain its unpopular rule. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding, and for six decades, the party power government has never allowed the news media to publish any reports that reveal the truth. The Chinese Communist Party’s vulnerability to the truth is the result of a false situation, and its inability to reveal the truth is the same as the devil’s fear of the sunlight that shines in the cave of darkness. In Mainland China, journalists have to do what their superiors tell them to do, and not only are they not allowed to do the slightest American-style excrement, but they are also required to produce a lot of excrement at all times in order to cover up the truth. Over the past 60 years, the Chinese media have produced so many lies that it would be difficult to add up all the computers in the world to check them all. Even in the era of reform and opening up, which is said to be a time of “great progress,” writers and journalists who dared to openly excrete were still suppressed at every turn, from imprisonment to job loss. For example, Liao Yiwu, the author of the new book Earthquake Insane Asylum  《地震疯人院》, has been suppressed by the Chinese Communist regime’s muck-making machine for 20 years because he insisted on disclosing the covered-up truth to the public and telling the truth that was not allowed to be told. The reality in China is so dirty that if you want to take out the shit of the party and the government, their dictatorship will first reduce you to shit.

   Looking at Liao Yiwu’s published works, I have always had a vague feeling that he is instinctively sensitive to sudden horrible disasters (cataclysms) and has the strength to rise up against the wind. In the context of Western literary criticism, he seems to be one of those writers with an apocalyptic temperament. In his “Three Cities” series of poems published more than twenty years ago, he prophesied an apocalyptic disaster. The protagonist of the poem, Alafawei, is described as a hero who wreaks havoc in the tide of disaster, like a white whale growing up in the abyss of sewage, and the more he is drawn into the fishy vortex, the more powerful the destruction becomes.

   Soon after the publication of his poem “Massacre” 《大屠杀》 , the Tiananmen Massacre took place in Beijing, and Liao Yiwu, who had never known anything about realpolitik and had taken no interest in

Exiled Voices of China and Tibet: Liao Yiwu Performing “Massacre”

politics, suddenly had a strong poetic reaction to the catastrophe of the People’s Liberation Army shooting at the pedestrians and the tank tracks running over masses of people. He recited and recorded it himself, and made a tape for distribution. All that happened in Sichuan, far from the scene of the killings. The real disaster soon came upon him, and he spent four years in prison for the crime of counter-revolutionary writing. After the torture of the living hell in the prison, the poet’s imagination of the disaster in his mind was like a falcon falling into a pigsty, and his hard bones were beaten, and he developed a hard stomach as a poet during his forced swallowing of filth. In the book Testimony 《证词》, which records the inhumane treatment in the detention center, Liao Yiwu said: “The pig’s hair comes out of the pig. In order to understand a thing thoroughly and accurately, you have to bite on it like a fly, the buzzing sound is annoying, and you have to be wary of being knocked around. But you were born to do this dirty work, as if you were a doctor in ancient times, who knew the persistent diseases of the times by tasting human feces.” “The stomach of the witness, sometimes not through thought, but through teeth, blood, gnawing heads to lick and chew the human taste around, fashioning the rancid taste of memory fermenting outdated memories.” This is both cruel self-indulgence and tough regurgitation. To witness how far life and humanity are spoiled by “banal evil”, one has to reach into the clan with dirty hands and wash out the truth from the filth.

   This ability of acceptance and expression is crucial to Liao Yiwu’s writing orientation since his release from prison in 1994. Similarly, to accurately understand and appreciate the characteristics of his works, one should first recognize his ability of acceptance and expression. Liao Yiwu did not have the same good fortune as the American muckrakers, whether it was digging up the scandals of the powerful class or searching for the cunning of the big shots: that never happened to him. When Howard W. French, a New York Times reporter who interviewed the little emperor of Central Africa, repeatedly asked Liao why he didn’t write about the top officials of the Communist Party or the new rich today, but always circled around the freaks, the downtrodden, the lowly, Liao Yiwu told him about his experience of falling to the bottom of the social ladder as soon as he was released from prison. The bottom and the lowly is Liao Yiwu’s own living situation, the status and position that has been given to him ironically. He had almost no choice but to bury his head in the sand and write. As a result, he had to take on the forced choice as a mission to resist. With a bitter smile, he explained to Fu Haowen, “If I had had the kind of intelligence that would have enabled me to publicly interview senior officials, I would not have been in jail, let alone unlucky for so many years.”

   What Liao Yiwu did was in fact another kind of muckraking work. To complete his series of interviews, he went deep among the beggars, vagrant artists, petitioners, the unemployed, working farmers, Falun Gong practitioners, old landlords, old rightists, and other disadvantaged groups in China today, and unearthed from their poor existence, which was kicked into the gutter like dung, the poverty, bitterness, hopelessness, and grievances that the Communist Party and government deliberately concealed and refused to admit. Naturally, these words are neither warm nor beautiful nor pleasing. From beginning to end, if one reads between the lines, these stories only make the Party and the government feel that these tales have tarnished their “glorious” image.  Thus the Party and States see them as  dirty books that tarnish the present arrangements and so publishing them is  strictly prohibited on the China Mainland.

   The good thing is that today’s Chinese society has improved – not the CCP’s own progress, of course, but with the decline of the Party’s dictatorship, the cage has developed many loopholes – and what cannot be published in China can be sent abroad. The Internet police have been tightening up, but they can’t stop the Internet from spreading ideas. The blockade of the Mao Zedong era, when dogs were beaten behind closed doors and not even a single scream could be heard, is long gone. Liao Yiwu’s books were first published in three volumes Conversations with the People at the Lower Levels in Chinese Society《中国底层访谈录》 by Taipei’s Maitian, followed by Hong Kong’s Spiegel, which published his Testimony《证词》 and China’s Petition Village 《中国上访村》, and then by the American Correctional Foundation, which published two volumes of China’s Book of Wrongdoings 《中国冤案录》and two thick volumes of The Last Landlord   《最后的地主》 . All of these interview-based documentary works barely expose to overseas Chinese readers the barren face and blackened landscape of another world on the Chinese mainland.

   In recent years, Liao Yiwu’s unique muckraking writings have been gaining attention in Europe and the United States. Translator Huang Wen selected twenty-seven of his published interviews, translated them into English, and compiled a collection under the title The Corpse Walker  (from the title of the collection, “The Corpse Witness, Luo Tianwang”)  〈赶尸目击者罗天王〉,  which was published last year by Random House’s Pantheon Books. Naturally, the book was much more popular in a country with a penchant for excrement than in the light-hearted Taiwanese book market. Liao Yiwu was able to buy a small apartment near Chengdu after receiving a royalty far greater than the total amount he had ever received in China, thus bringing his twenty years of hardship to an end. He and his partner, Ms. Jin, were happy to decorate their new house and wanted to create their own piano platform for a few days of peace and tranquility with Wenjun.

   Unfortunately, the Wenchuan earthquake suddenly occurred. The nightmare that Liao Yiwu had painted in his poems more than twenty years ago now came to reality with a loud bang, shaking the new buildings in his residential district to the east and west, scaring the residents of the building to go home and sleep for many days. As mentioned above, Liao Yiwu’s nerves and literary thoughts seem to have some kind of isomorphic connection with the elements of disaster, and the outbreak of the earthquake immediately presented a scene of “the earth having an epileptic fit” in front of his eyes. The general hysterical atmosphere of the climate and environment immediately infected his emotions and his hands and feet, and he went deep into the earthquake-stricken areas and started a new interview. From May 12 of last year, he began to keep his diary of the earthquake and kept it until July 18. During those two months of travel, he searched and photographed, and now he has a new book entitled Earthquake Insane Asylum.

   Although Liao Yiwu, who admires Ryszard Kapuscinski, does not have the historical awareness and global vision of the Polish official journalist, he has the appetite to eat rotten meat and the perseverance to go through the garbage pile – which reminds me of the English word scavenger scavenger. His diary and photographs preserve for us the closed despair and death from Yingxiu to Beichuan (see Camus’ The Plague), the naked fear and anxiety of Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, and outside the widely publicized Chinese Central Television footage of Premier Wen Jiabao shedding tears and Secretary Hu Jintao sending condolences, Liao Yiwu’s book does salvage for us a story that has been officially falsified, disguised, and performed throughout. Liao Yiwu’s book does rescue the earth’s devastation and human ulcers that have been buried alive by official falsifications, falsifications and various disaster relief performances.

   There are two aspects of disaster relief: the obligation of the government and the volunteers in the civil society to do their best to save the lives of the people in the disaster area, to stop the expansion and spread of the disaster, and to minimize and restore the damage caused by the disaster. However, the news media has another rescue mission. In today’s global information technology, journalists always have to be the first to announce the situation at the disaster site to the outside world through audio, video and text overviews. From the Southeast Asian Tsunami to the hurricane in New Orleans, journalists have the responsibility to report the real situation to the world, no matter which part of the earth has been chosen by the horrible disaster. Truthful, detailed, timely, everything is the purpose itself. What is the extent of the casualty damage? How well is the government and society doing in response to the disaster? Are the vulnerable being attended to? Is it a natural disaster or a man-made disaster? How much of the natural disaster was a man-made disaster? The reporting of all these situations will facilitate the relief efforts and enlist help from the outside world, and at the same time, it will also serve to monitor the actions of the government in the disaster area from the side, so that all the activities happening in the disaster area will be focused on the attention of the whole world.

   But in Communist China, these international norms have never worked. In 1976, the world knew about the massive earthquake in Tangshan, China, but it was not until decades later that the world learned of the 240,000 people who died in the disaster. From 1959 to 1961, as the Great Leap Forward and communalization caused famine throughout China’s countryside, the Chinese were told only lightly that there had been three years of “natural disasters”. It was only decades later that word gradually spread that more than 30 million people had died of starvation in those three years. Many, many more natural disasters caused by man-made disasters or man-made disasters added to natural disasters have been covered up for 60 years, and not only are the media not allowed to report the truth, but they also create big lies, and even turn every disaster suffered by the people into the government’s merit of disaster relief. What does Chairman Mao always mean by “turning bad things into good things”? It is to smelt the people’s disaster into the glory of the party.

   After the Sichuan earthquake, the government of Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao government continued to do its usual tricks, trying to monopolize disaster relief single-handedly. This is because the earthquake itself had a serious human-caused component. Whether or not the local government suppressed or concealed warnings, it is clear that the decision makers in the party and government institutions were responsible for triggering the earthquake, just by knowing the existence of the Longshan Fault and carrying out the construction of the Third Front (三線建設) of China’s defense industry in China’s interior and building dams there. Not to mention the death and injury of the schoolchildren crushed under the collapsed school building, while the government office building is more robust and designed to be more earthquake resistant than other civilian buildings. Portaying the natural disaster a sudden blow, bad governance could not withstand public scrutiny. Frightened officials are naturally worried about the influx of reporters into the disaster area to report the real situation. They worried even more about strangers who were lying bare their bottoms and pulling out their shit. Therefore, they promptly deployed personnel to set up defensive lines facing all unofficial relief organizations and individual spontaneous relief actions. These relief efforts ran up against obstacles everywhere. Thus the fragile nerves of the Communist Party thus foolishly doing a series of things that weakened the effectiveness of disaster relief.

 Liao Yiwu’s chronicle of the earthquake leads our reading to the adventure of sneaking into the disaster area several times to take live pictures and the tense journey of how to muddle through along the way. In order to save the blocked reality, he had to take the risk of going into the enemy-occupied area for intelligence. Therefore, he brought along capable assistants, and all kinds of equipment.  Combining improvisation and skills at making contacts he documented everything he saw,  every encounter to trouble, and had him stand up for. His assistants helped him bluff their way through official roadblocks, something they were much better at doing than Liao Yiwu who personified the marginalized.  Liao himself was quick as a bird, his hand cupped mini-recorder, shoulder digital camera, under the scenario, moving to “click, click” taking pictures and recording people’s voice. This, coupled with the long drive in a private car with a pass, added a dramatic touch to their very suspicious trip to the disaster area. This is the wedge that today’s marketization and high technology have driven into this society all tied into knots loosened strict controls. When the authorities stiffened up,  private forces slowly pushed through using lubrication. What the legitimate journalists can’t do, the fringe figures  slip in and take care of business.

   This is indeed an absolutely necessary alternative way to rescue. Look: the sobbing mother kept crying “my daughter” for hours; there was a woman named Gong Tianxiu, who sawed off her own leg,

Prayer at Beichuan Three Months After the Earthquake

which was crushed under a broken wall, and crawled out of the rubble in order to survive; there was a despicable party official named Tan Li, who pretended to greet the victims, and the crowd shouted to him at him in unison: “Give out mother f’n hammers!” …… Another was old man Zheng, he was the first to enter Beichuan, he said to Liao Yiwu: “In the rubble just a few steps, the legs will be held by the hands reaching out from the ground, uncle save me! Uncle help me! Uncle save me! Brother help me! There was nothing we could do. All they could do was him a bottle of water, take off a piece of clothing, all they could do were to give a few words of comfort. They are really painful anxiously, and said no to let go of the hand, it gritted his teeth, whether I get of here alive or not, it makes no difference whether I hold the hand of the executioner!”. Originally, I had been holding the camera, but after only a few minutes, I could not take any pictures.” All these scenes and facts belong to the reporter’s camera, photography, recording, transcript to try to salvage the object, but without Liao Yiwu and his two companions to intervene in the spontaneous salvage work of the people, the cries, the bloody scenes, the embarrassment of those damned officials being spit on by the public all this would have been lost forever in the oblivion as if no one had paid them any attention.  The truth about the Great Chinese Famine and the Tangshan Earthquake were not rescued from oblivion.  Countless truths were officially concealed forever like so many buried corpses. A death toll of 30 million or 240,000 is, after all, only a number.  The lack of a live and factual record naturally weakens the witnessing to the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party. But during last year’s Sichuan earthquake relief effort, the Communist authorities’ blockade and cover-up were clearly stretched to the limit. People from all sides went into the disaster area and started their own rescue efforts.  Many, many dedicated people did what Liao Yiwu and his companions did. If you read this new book by Liao Yiwu, you can get a glimpse of the whole picture and complete the real rescue of the truth as you gain in your personal understanding of just what happened there. 

   February 25, 2009

(Rescuing the Truth – Preface to Liao Yiwu’s Earthquake Madhouse Full Text Ends Blog



   这一接受能力和表达能力的练就,对廖亦武自一九九四年出狱至今的写作取向至关重要,同样,要准确地理解和欣赏他那些作品的特征,也应对他接受和表达的能力先有所认识。廖亦武没有碰上美国掏粪者那样的好机运,无论是挖权势阶层的丑闻,还是搜罗大人物的猫腻,从来都与他无缘。当采访过中非洲小皇帝的《纽约时报》记者傅好文(Howard W. French)一再追问廖何以不写中共高官或当今的新富,而始终在畸零人、落魄者、卑贱的一群中兜圈子时,廖亦武向傅讲了他一出狱即堕入社会底层的经历。底层和卑贱就是廖亦武本人的生存境况,是业已铁定给他的身份和地位,他一直在挣扎摆脱,但他的处境一如他书中所写的那些人物,不管干什么事都像踩进泥坑,且大有越陷越深之势。除了埋头苦写,他几乎别无选择。结果,他只好把被迫的选择作为抗拒的使命承担下来。他苦笑着向傅好文解释说:“如果我有公开采访高官的智力,就不会坐牢,更不会倒霉这么多年了。”
   近年来,廖亦武独特的掏粪文字在欧美也逐渐引起重视,翻译家黄文便从他已出版的访谈录中选出二十七篇,译成英文,汇编一集,以The Corpse Walker(取自该集所收的篇名〈赶尸目击者罗天王〉)为名,在去年由兰登书屋的Pantheon Books出版。书出在具有掏粪爱好的国家,自然比在轻松文字泛滥的台湾书市上要受欢迎多了。廖亦武得了一笔远比他以往所得中文稿酬的总数还要丰厚的版税,因此才得以在成都附近买到一套小小的公寓,至此,二十年累累若丧家之犬的颠沛生活总算可告一段落。他与他再次找回的伴侣小金女士欢快地装修起新屋,很想营造个他们自己的琴台,好过几天相如伴文君的安宁日子。

   这的确是绝对必要的另一种抢救。你看:那个泣血的母亲不断哭嚎着“我的么女哦”,已连续哭嚎了几个小时;还有一个名叫龚天秀的妇女,为了活命,她自己锯断了被压在断壁下的残腿,血淋淋爬出了废墟;有一个可鄙的党官名叫谭力,他装模作样地向灾民问好,群众向他齐声大吼:“好你妈个锤子” ……另有一位老郑,他第一时间进入北川,他对廖亦武如是说: “在废墟里随便走几步,腿就会被地底伸出的手给抱住,叔叔救我!伯伯救我!哥哥救我!没得法哟。只能递瓶水,脱件衣裳,安慰两句话而已。也有实在痛急了,好说歹说都不松手的,就咬咬牙,活生生地掰开,跟刽子手没差别。本来嘛,我还扛着摄像机,可是才几分钟,我就拍不下去了。”所有这些现场和实情都属于记者的摄像、拍照、录音、笔录要尽力抢救的对象,但若无廖亦武与他的两个同伴介入民间自发的抢救工作,那哭嚎的声音,那血淋淋的场景,那狗官被民众唾弃的尴尬,就永远地消失在无人关注的遗忘中了。三年大饥荒和唐山大地震被禁绝了这样的抢救,因而无数的真实都被官方像埋掉尸首一样永远地隐瞒灭迹了。三千万或二十四万的死亡数字毕竟只是数字,缺少了现场和实情的记录,自然就削弱了对中共罪行的见证。但在去年的四川地震救灾过程中,中共当局的封锁与掩盖已明显地捉襟见肘了。四面八方的人员都进入了灾区,都展开了各自抢救实况的工作,有很多很多有心人,都做了类似廖亦武和他的同伴所做的事情。你读了廖亦武这部新书,即可窥一斑而知全豹,以你个人的知晓完成了对真实的抢救。

(抢救真实——序廖亦武《地震疯人院》 全文完博讯ww

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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