Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2013

For a Song and a Hundred Songs (2011), by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang

For a Song and a Hundred SongsIt’s not easy to read a prison memoir like this one: For a Song and a Hundred Songs, A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison by Liao Yiwu is a confronting book and it took me a while to get through it.  It’s a bit like reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – one can’t just scamper through it, because each chapter is a catalyst for all kinds of reflections about the power of the state …

Liao Yiwu is the author  of The Corpse Walker which I reviewed some time ago when Yiwu was about to visit Australia as the guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  Until the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, he had been an apolitical, somewhat bohemian poet, unknown to the west.  However, the murder of the protestors by the Red Army provoked his poem ‘Massacre’ and Yiwu rose to prominence as a dissident.  He spent four years in prison for his temerity in challenging the Chinese government, and For a Song and a Hundred Songs, is his memoir of that time.  (He is now resident in Germany, and free to write whatever he likes).

Australia, like the rest of the world, does a lot of business with China.  We export our minerals, and they sell us all kinds of consumer goods.   In 2003 the Howard government in an historic first for Australia-Chinese relations, invited Chinese President Hu Jintao to address a joint meeting of the Australian Parliament.  It is on the record that the only objections came from the minor parties in the Senate, on the grounds that our parliament ought not host a representative of a government with such an appalling human rights record.

Senator for Tasmania, Brian Harradine, the longest-serving independent federal parliamentarian in Australia’s history, advanced the following position:

The proposal is to allow President Hu, who is a dictator—he is not elected and certainly not democratic—to address the democratically elected parliament of this country in the chamber. I take the view that, if we accept this, it will set a very bad precedent indeed and will reflect on the elected chambers.

Greens Senator for Tasmania, Bob Brown, who identified President Hu as ‘a dictator who has blood on his hands’, concurred with Senator Harradine and argued that in offering the podium to the Chinese President, the Parliament had become a supplicant to ‘a rich and powerful trading nation’.

Parliament of Australia Library monographs, Chapter 3, Within China’s Orbit

Well, that was ten years ago now, and today China is even more powerful, but (perhaps I am naïve) in the wake of Yiwu’s book, I like to think that if there were a similar proposal today, that opposition would be more widespread – and thus more effective.

Because Yiwu makes it clear that he and other political prisoners were treated less heinously because of international pressure.  It is when you read of his sufferings that you realise that Australia and other western democracies can and should use their influence to agitate for human rights in China, because there are prisoners still suffering terribly.  And it’s not just 1989 dissidents: Yiwu tells us about a man who had been imprisoned since 1949:

Old Yang was a piece of antiquity at No. 3 Prison.  He had been a respected reporter for a large military newspaper under Nationalist rule.  After the Communist takeover in 1949, old Yang was labelled a historical counterrevolutionary and received life imprisonment.  In the early 1980s, the court granted him parole and he returned to his home village in northern Sichuan, where he was asked to teach at a village school.  In the summer of 1983, during a political campaign to maintain law and order and crack down on criminal activities, village officials targeted Old Yang.  They falsely accused him of raping a young student and he was sent back to prison.

By the time I met him he was approaching seventy and spent the better part of his life behind bars.  (p. 361)

Because the ’89ers as political prisoners were treated slightly better than others were, there was dissension in the gaol, and Old Yang stood up for them when regular criminals started a riot and then ganged up to blame it on the ’89ers.  His actions saved them from the appalling ‘dark cell’ punishment, and Yiwu’s sense of gratitude is palpable:

In a few years, most of the ’89ers gained freedom, but Old Yang is forever buried there.  As his memory dims and fades with time, I hope that my writing will serve as a record of this anonymous soul who once sparked a small flame of justice in a totalitarian prison. (p. 362).

The book covers the brief period of freedom before Yiwu’s arrest, the period of pre-trial detention lasting two years, the farcical trial and then the years in gaol.  Although human rights activists applied pressure and the British Prime Minister John Major tried to intervene, time and again Yiwu is told not to bother trying to use the courts in his own defence, and even his own lawyer admits defeat:

My lawyer put on his reading glasses and perused my confession.  Frowning, he sighed and said, ‘Why don’t you admit guilt?   Do you still stick with the view that it is wrong for the government to lock you up?  Remember, in a political case, the government will never admit wrongdoing.  You have to take the blame.’  (p. 305

As the years of his imprisonment go by, Yiwu does his best to stay out of trouble, and pressured by other inmates to resist, he compares the struggle of the individual to ‘a tiny ant facing a gigantic meat grinder’ (p. 313).

Apart from the horror of being imprisoned merely because the Chinese government suppresses freedom of expression, the bleak reality of overcrowded prisons makes for grim reading.  Some of the brutality dished out to and by the prisoners is revolting, designed to be deliberately degrading.  Prisoners on death row are shackled so that they cannot attend to their own bodily functions and must rely on the not always forthcoming goodwill of fellow-prisoners to assist them.   Torture and beatings are routine.  Unsanitary conditions and poor medical care makes the spread of disease inevitable, and in a scene reminiscent of Papillon, Henri Charrière’s 1969 memoir of escape from a penal colony in French Guiana, there is even flooding in the cells.  The most horrific of all is punishment in the ‘dark cells’, underground spaces devoid of any light – and so small that the prisoner can only sit, crawl or lie.  Two-to-three weeks of this was common, but some prisoners were interred in these cells until they could no longer walk or see, and some of them lost their wits.  That any government should oversee treatment like this in the 21st century beggars belief.

Yiwu’s style is earthy and frank.  It is painfully honest, recording how sometimes his own response to the brutality was to be occasionally weak, cruel, self-serving, or violent.  But although he also records the savagery of other prisoners he shows too that there are poignant moments of tenderness and that the spark of humanity is never extinguished.

Saddest of all is Yiwu’s comment that China doesn’t have a Gorbachev to effect a transition to democracy, and the Chinese government is wary of political reform in case it leads to chaos.  The tragedy of Iraq, Syria and Egypt is that the civil wars there are used by governments like China’s to repress any movement towards reform.

The book includes an introduction by 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Herta Muller.

Author: Liao Yiwu
Title: For a Song and a Hundred Songs, A poet’s Journey through a Chinese prison
Translated by Wenguang Huang
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013, first published 2011
ISBN: 9781922079213
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Fishpond: For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison


  1. This sounds interesting, though very hard hitting, Lisa.

    I suspect this kind of treatment of prisoners doesn’t just happen in China — it must surely be rife in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America? — but we are hearing more about it in China (and North Korea) thanks to books like this.

    Westerners always hold up democracy as the answer to other country’s problems, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution — just look at what’s happened after the Arab Spring, for instance.


    • Absolutely, Kim, the news from Syria today is just dreadful
      I’ve been reading Waiting for an Angel by Nigerian author Helon Habila, and that’s about life in prison too – it’s so grim that I’ve put it aside for a bit and am not reading it at night…


  2. […] Liao Yiwu spares his readers nothing in recounting the horrors of a Chinese prison in For A  Song and a […]


  3. […] Explosion Chronicles (2013) and it never ceases to surprise me that he escapes censorship, whereas Liao Yiwu had to seek asylum in […]


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