Exiled writer Liao Yiwu was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on October 14, 2012. In its citation, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association praised Liao Yiwu as "a Chinese author who continues to wage an eloquent and fearless battle against political repression and who lends a clear and unmistakable voice to the downtrodden and disenfranchised of his country. In his prose and poetry, Liao Yiwu erects an evocative literary monument to those people living on the margins of Chinese society. The author, who has experienced first-hand the effects of prison, torture and repression, is an unwavering chronicler and observer who bears witness on behalf of the outcasts of modern China. . . . . As a Volksschriftsteller [people’s author] in the most comprehensive sense of the term, Liao Yiwu is an unrelenting advocate of human dignity, freedom and democracy." This is an edited version of his acceptance speech.
In the blink of an eye, twenty-three years have passed since the events of Tiannamen Square.
In June 1989, feeling that its power was at risk, the Communist Party mobilized 200,000 soldiers to massacre the city of Beijing. It seems just a heartbeat ago that, because of the dissemination of my poem “Massacre” after that night, I wandered into and back out of prison . . . I once encountered another old writer by the name of Liu Shahe, whom—in 1957, long before I was born—Mao Zedong had also suspected of “denigrating the Party,” declared an enemy, and thrown into prison because of a poem. He told me: the wounds that a stroke of fate like that inflicts upon you never heal. We are no longer poets; we have become witnesses of history. He quoted a story from the work of Zhuangzi—another witness of his times, like us:
Once upon a time, there was a state called Jia that was surrounded by the enemy. The attackers moved in closer and closer. Soon they had captured the capital, and all its inhabitants could do was flee from the murdering, pillaging hordes. Among the fleeing masses was an old hermit by the name of Lin Hui. He clutched an enormous, extremely valuable piece of jade to his chest. Suddenly, from the ruins at the edge of the city, the cry of a newborn arose. Terrified, the masses paused. But the troops were at their heels, the battle cries already ringing in their ears, and, panicked, they continued to run for their lives. Only Lin Hui stopped running and bent down to pick up the child. But the piece of jade at his chest was so big and heavy that there was no way he could carry the child without giving up the stone. He did not hesitate; he chose the child—to the surprise of everyone, who called him an idiot. How can you give up a treasure to saddle yourself with a lifetime of drudgery?, they asked him. Lin Hui answered: It is heaven’s will.
—Heaven’s will: that means preserving the truth for future generations. The rise and fall of states, and the division and reunification of territories, may be recorded in the chronicles of history—but heaven’s will outlasts all else. This true legacy of our history lies forgotten in the midst of ruins—crying helplessly like the newborn Zhuangzi wrote about—whenever rivers and mountains vanish, whenever a Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping calls for murder. It requires someone like the hermit Lin Hui who feels a sense of obligation toward tradition—someone willing to renounce all current and future profits to pick up and carry this child on his flight from death, someone willing to patiently raise and educate it until its intellect grows so sharp that it may become a guardian of memory, carrying on—in secrecy—the tradition of recording the truth.
I, too, carry on the tradition of remembering. I want to share my accounts of the victims of the massacre with humankind—in Chinese, English, or German—just as I want to share my thoughts regarding the breaking up of the Chinese empire. I don’t know how many more years it will take until I can return to the land of my beloved forefathers. Which is why I would like to pay them an early tribute here. In particular I’d like to honor the master Sima Qian, the most venerable of this group, who was castrated by the ruling powers because he embraced the truth—which, like a fragile orphan, sought shelter with him—during another period of sanctimoniousness, the Western Han Dynasty. His body was no longer able to procreate, but his soul defied this humiliation. His great historical work Shiji, the “Records of the Historian,” together with another great work, the I Ching by King Wen of Zhou, accompanied me on my flight from the Chinese dictatorship.
A dynasty that is so degenerate that it massacres children and tortures the truth—such a dynasty’s days are numbered. Yet the shrewd tyrant Deng Xiaoping resorted to a trick: in the spring of 1992, he made a historical trip to Shenzhen in the South, where he announced the opening of China to foreign investment and the global market in order to save his party from a political crisis. The suffering grew ever worse and the people ever more desensitized, while the Chinese economy increasingly flourished.
Throughout the world, people are convinced that China’s economic boom will necessarily bring with it political reforms, turning a dictatorship into a democracy. As a result, the countries that once imposed sanctions on China because of the Tiananmen massacre now want to be the first to shake hands and make deals with the executioners. Even though these very executioners are still detaining and killing people, new bloodstains are still being added to the old ones, and new atrocities are still being committed that make the old ones pale in comparison. In the process, simple people, who must live their lives between blood and atrocity, lose what little is left of decency.
Misery and shamelessness are interdependent. They determine our past, present, and future. After the Tiananmen massacre, the bloody oppression continued—against the families of the victims of the massacre, against Qigong groups, Falun Gong, the China Democratic League, objectors, dispossessed farmers, the unemployed, lawyers, underground churches, dissidents, the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, signatories of Charter 08, supporters of the Jasmine Revolution, Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians… The cases continue to pile up and tyranny endures at a high level. Your hands may tremble the first time you murder someone, but the more you kill, the more you feel obliged to keep killing and the more nimbly you swing your sword—and with every death blow the balance sheets of the economy only get stronger and stronger. One could say that without the Tiananmen massacre, there wouldn’t have been reform policies—which taught us to love money rather than our country. Without the sinister machinations of corrupt speculators the cities wouldn’t have expanded so rapidly, there would be no vacant properties, no civil servants who fled or were chased away because of shoddy construction projects, and no miserable profiteers.
The executioners are prevailing because the entire country has become their slave. The country is shocked to the core by indiscriminate pillaging and devastation. And foreign investors are told: Welcome, do come in—come and build factories here, make deals, build high-rises and establish networks; as long as you don’t put your finger in the wound by bringing up human rights, you can do and make whatever you like. You may have laws and public opinion where you’re from, but here you can wallow in the mud with us. Come and pollute our rivers and air, poison our food and groundwater; come and help yourself to our cheap laborers and make them toil night and day on the assembly line like machines. The more you ensure that the Chinese develop physical and psychological cancers, the higher your profits will be. The best business opportunities await you here, in the world’s biggest garbage dump.
Under the guise of free trade, Western consortia make common cause with the executioners, piling up more and more dirt. The influence of this value system of dirt, which places profit ahead of everything else, is getting out of hand around the world. Those in China with money and connections simply leave behind their battered and poisoned country and go abroad to savor the sun, liberty, equality, and fraternity in a clean environment. Perhaps they even join a church, to ask Jesus—nailed to the cross by other dictators in history—to forgive them for their sins.
More and more Chinese people will discover that there is neither justice nor equality even in the democratic West; and that there, too, greedy functionaries and other profiteers act shamelessly, in keeping with the motto “to the victor go the spoils.” And it won’t be long before they will all be following this example and, in a not too distant future, every corner of the world will be full of Chinese swindlers eager to leave their homeland at any cost.
This empire’s value system has long since collapsed in on itself, and the only thing still holding it together is the profit incentive. At the same time, these vile chains of profit are so far-reaching and intertwined that the free world of economic globalization is bound to become hopelessly entangled in them.
Yet, ever since that night twenty-three years ago that turned into a bloodbath, the fate of this empire has been sealed: it must break apart. The list of the massacre’s victims will stand as an epochal lesson. The recently deceased Václav Havel once spoke of the power of the powerless. The only thing left to China’s frustrated powerless under changing dictators is the oral transmission of the truth—and that, too, is very much in keeping with our tradition. When the first Emperor of Qin had the Great Wall built, with no concern for the fact that workers were dying in the process, the powerless seized on the parable “Young Meng Jiang Weeps at the Great Wall,”* which has been passed down to the present, to curse him for all time. The Great Wall may continue to be a popular tourist destination, but in the story of Meng Jiang it has long since collapsed under the weight of the young woman’s tears.
This inhuman empire with bloody hands, at the root of so much suffering in the world, this infinitely large pile of garbage must break apart. So that no more innocent children die, it must break apart. So that no new mother blamelessly loses her child, it must break apart. So that China’s helpless and homeless migrant workers no longer need to toil as the world’s slaves, it must break apart. So that we may finally return to the home of our ancestors and watch over their legacy and graves in the future, it must break apart. This empire must break apart, for the sake of peace and the peace of mind of all humanity.
*“Young Meng Jiang Weeps at the Great Wall” is a folktale that has been passed down for two thousand years. Meng Jiang was a beautiful young peasant woman who lived during the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. On her wedding night, her husband, Fan Qiliang, was abducted by the emperor’s henchmen and forcibly recruited to help build the Great Wall. According to legend, Meng Jiang searched for him for ten years in order to bring him something warm to wear, only to discover that he had long since died of the agonies of his labors. She cried for many days and nights, until the wall caved in beneath her tears and the corpse of her dead husband emerged from the collapsed section.
By arrangement with Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels. Translation © 2012 by Siobhan O'Leary and Sophie Schlondorff. All rights reserved.