Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2011

The Corpse Walker (2003), by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang

The Corpse Walker

Did you know that Confucius was once a professional mourner, paid to put on a good show at funerals? No? Neither did I until I started reading this collection of stories from Liao Yiwu, a dissident author, oral historian and poet from Sichuan Province in China who was due to visit Australia in May, but as of yesterday (May 9th) has been refused permission to travel by the authorities.

Some time very soon indeed, China’s economic output is going to exceed America’s.  In my lifetime and yours, they will become more powerful economically and in time, also militarily.  Let’s hope it becomes only ‘interesting’ (and not scary) to see what happens when the balance of power shifts from the West to the East, and from a democracy to a totalitarian state.  Certainly there will be ‘adjustments’ to be made.  All of us need to start a belated education about China…

Liao Yiwu, 2010 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Liaw Yiwu, who earns his living as a musician, has a growing international profile since the publication of The Corpse Walker, a collection of interviews with the underclass in China.  The authorities don’t like this because officially, of course, there is no underclass in (a-hem) ‘egalitarian’ Chinese society.  They imprisoned Yiwu for four years after his poem ‘Massacre’ appeared in the wake of  the pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square and they’re keeping a close watch on his activities.

The tragedy of this man’s brave struggle to be heard is magnified when one considers that there must thousands like him – maybe hundreds of thousands, perhaps more in a country as a populous as China – poets and novelists and journalists denied the freedom of speech that we so carelessly take for granted here in the West.  (I am writing this not long after That Wedding which so absurdly consumed the media space to the exclusion of all else in my country as elsewhere).

However, the thing that strikes me most about this collection beyond Yiwu’s exposure of repression is his depiction of ignorance and superstition.  It’s probably not politically correct to say so but I find it amazing that educated Chinese people seem to give credence to astrology (whereas most Westerners regard it as a harmless joke), and they also believe in feng shui, as if the colour of one’s house or its street number or the orientation of their sofas and chairs could actually influence their lives.  Most strange of all is their support for an unregulated system of medicine which encourages the cruel harvesting of animal body parts even from endangered animals – when quite clearly the rise in the Chinese population in the 19th century is linked to the arrival there of Western medicine based on science.

But the superstitions in the stories that Yiwu tells are even more bizarre than this.  A village believes that a man can contract leprosy by accidentally killing a snake, and they justify burning his wife alive because she is possessed by an evil  dragon. Superstitious beliefs about the spirits of the dead give rise to the ‘profession’ of corpse walkers, men who literally walk a body for miles and miles so that it can be buried in the right place.  If this collection is anything to go by, China has a long way to go with educating its peasants.

What these stories also show – and this is probably why the Chinese security forces want to still Yiwu’s voice – is the extent to which acquiescence to authority figures is the norm even when to obey is clearly stupid.  The outcasts Yiwu interviews are rarities because they think for themselves and they buck against the imposition of authority in various ways.

The most amusing story (in a black humour kind of way) is with Zeng Yinglong, who in 1985 declared himself emperor, made various ‘subversive’ proclamations and was promptly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.  We in Australia also have self-proclaimed royalty in the form of  our very own Prince Leonard who (along with Princess Shirley, and Princes Wayne and Ian) has since 1972 ruled the Hutt River Principality – but the Australian Government has wisely chosen to ignore the secession and these days it is a bit of a tourist attraction. The Chinese , however, take a dim view of Emperor Zeng and have so far deprived him of his liberty for ten years.

However  it is hard to tell from the tone of Yiwu’s ‘interview’ whether the man is nutty as a fruitcake or perhaps amusing himself by lording it over his interviewer as a way of making the best of things in gaol.  For while Yiwu generally lets his informants speak for themselves, presenting his stories as ‘interviews’ allows him to be an obtrusive narrator and make what appears to be his own sometimes judgemental position overt.   Here and there he admonishes his subjects in a rather authoritarian way, and sometimes they argue back.  But I am not sure whose voice this is:  Yiwu’s own? An ironic portrayal of the voice of Chinese authority? An attempt to placate the authorities by portraying their perspective in some of the stories? Or possibly even a message to the authorities that allowing its subjects to ‘answer back’ isn’t such a risky thing for them to do?

The chapter called ‘The Human Trafficker’, for example,  is a reconstruction of a conversation rather than a verbatim record, in this case because the authorities wouldn’t let Yiwu take materials to record it into the gaol.  The plaintive voice of this loathsome man complaining that city people don’t understand how hard it is for rural men to get wives because of the One Child Policy is punctuated by Yiwu’s expressions of distaste for what he does. In fact, he castigates his informant, sneering at him for being ugly and telling him that if he were the judge who’d imprisoned him, he would have cut off his tongue in punishment.   (This is in marked contrast to the tone in ‘The Abbot’ where he responds to the Buddhist monk with expressions of sympathy as the man tells of  denunciations and beatings and the destruction of an ancient monastery, in the years when the Chinese government was trying to suppress religious belief).

It is chastening to read stories which recall in painful detail the years of Mao’s most disastrous edicts.  For example, The Retired Official records the impact of the The Great Leap Forward in the 1950s when China attempted to make a rapid transition from an agrarian economy to an industrialised state, causing a catastrophic famine.  Yiwu puts a human face on this by revealing that in some small villages there was cannibalism of small children, mainly girls, and all the while the sloganeering went on and the lies about how the program was all a great success went on as well.  Yiwu’s official ponders the extraordinary acquiescence of the peasants in their own tragedy:

Looking back, you have to admit that Chinese peasants are the most kind and obedient. They never thought of rebelling against those who had brought them so much suffering.  I bet the idea had never occurred to them. (p132)

I haven’t quite finished reading the collection, but I wanted to post this review today to bring attention to Yiwu’s plight.   This is an important book, and I hope that it acts as a catalyst for further pressure on the Chinese government to ease the restrictions on Yiwu and other writers too.  Contact Melbourne PEN, Sydney PEN or International PEN if you want to help*.

Author: Liao Yiwu
Title: The Corpse Walker, and Other True Tales of Life in China
Translated from the Chinese by Wenguang Huang
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656514
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing.

Fishpond The Corpse Walker

*PEN campaigns do make a difference.  My focus as a member of Melbourne PEN is Africa, and in the last couple of months, three African journalists arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured have been released thanks to a worldwide community of writers putting pressure on the governments that were responsible.  It only takes 10-15 minutes to write a letter, and the evidence is that the treatment of dissidents improves from the day the authorities become aware that the international community is watching.   A letter can mean the cessation of beatings or torture, improved food, or medical treatment even if it doesn’t bring immediate release from imprisonment.  In Yiwu’s case, it was PEN International that successfully campaigned for him to be allowed to visit a literary festival in Germany.


  1. Lisa, you need only to read any of China’s history to realise that nothing has changed in a thousand years in China. When you get to the third or fourth dynasty, you begin to think, “I have read this before”. A change in name doesn’t mean a change in policy. Basically, a new dynasty comes along, new broom sweeps clean, Civil Service exams are strictly enforced. THEN gradually corruption starts to creep in. Corruption is a way of life in China. The biggest sin of all is BEING CAUGHT. I watched a trial on tv news. The men were in tears and oh so sorry. But only because they had been caught. The shame of it.
    By the way, their military power is up there with the US. They have the advantage of great numbers of Cannon Fodder. The Chinese don’t hold human life in very high esteem.
    Now I loved my time in China and Chinese films are some of my favourites but to live safely and happily there you have to ignore a lot.


    • Hi Sheila, it’s lovely to meet you here on my blog! (Sheila and I have been friends for – what? more then 30 years now…)
      I haven’t been to China yet. Every time I make tentative plans to go they do something like this and I decide: No, they’re not getting my tourist dollar. (That’s quite different to you teaching there, IMO, because there is value in foreigners bringing a wider perspective to the Chinese people they meet in the course of their work).
      While of course living or working there means one must be circumspect to a greater or lesser extent, China it too big and powerful for those of us outside the country to ignore its human rights abuses. Is the situation analogous to the rise of Germany in the 1930s? I don’t know, but I think that it’s probably in the global interest to make a stand for the values we believe in. Loudly, and often.


  2. […] more about Liao Yiwu: This entry was posted in international […]


  3. […]   Richard Pratt’s Mistresses »Corpse WalkerI found Liao Yiwus “The Corpse Walker”to be one of the most fascinating books I have recently read on China. Yiwu chronicles the […]


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