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The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

October 16, 2009

Again, on a quest to understand China from a different perspective (like when I read Factory Girls by Leslie Chang) , I happened upon The Corpse Walker in the Copenhagen airport on my way to Paris. I could not put this book down once I started reading it. This is the first book (or collection of essays) published abroad by the author, Liao Yiwu, who is blacklisted in China because of a poem he wrote condemning the violence at Tiananmen Square.  After having suffered severe torture during his four years in prison the author seems to be on a quest to continue to reveal the injustices in Chinese society. Unlike Factory Girls, which covers the lives of ordinary Chinese that are being changed and (hopefully) improved by the great economic expansion in China today, this book reveals to us the lives of those who have been shunned by the media and left behind by development. Using his talent for provocation and ability to avoid the authorities, Liao sought out the subjects of this book over 11 years. They include a mother whose son was killed at Tiananmen, a public toilet fee collector, an accused grave robber, a human traffiker and many others. The oral histories were so surreal and Kafka-esque , sometimes I could not even believe them (but having visited some very in-the-middle-of-nowhere villages in China I can see how they are all too real). A peasant woman is burned alive since villagers believe a dragon has taken over her soul; a man is serving life in prison for claiming rule  of his own “kingdom” – a hospital in rural Sichuan that he took by force in 1985;  and an old man reveals the ancient Chinese technique of how to make a corpse walk. Liao is a talented interviewer and always asks the questions you would want to ask yourself, providing his own insights and memories along the way. His own history as a prisoner and political rebel give him the ability to empathize with his subjects and have them open up to him in a way that I’m sure they would not do for most people.

The Corpse Walker includes 27 interviews specifically selected for Western readers and also provides historical commentary to bring you up-to-date on what the subjects are discussing if you aren’t familiar with modern Chinese history. The Chinese collection of these interviews (published in Taiwan) is several volumes long and I’m sure there would be interest for a translation!

If you want to read an excerpt from the book, The Paris Review was the original publisher of his interviews as a series and you can read the one with Grandpa Zhou, the public toilet fee collector here and the one with “Emperor” Zeng, the self-proclaimed ruler of his own kingdom here.

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