For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey through a Chinese Prison



In June 1989, news of the Tiananmen Square protests and its bloody resolution reverberated throughout the world. A young poet named Liao Yiwu, who had until then led an apolitical bohemian existence, found his voice in that moment. Like the solitary man who stood firmly in front of a line of tanks, Liao proclaimed his outrage—and his words would be his weapon.

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In June 1989, news of the Tiananmen Square protests and its bloody resolution reverberated throughout the world. A young poet named Liao Yiwu, who had until then led an apolitical bohemian existence, found his voice in that moment. Like the solitary man who stood firmly in front of a line of tanks, Liao proclaimed his outrage—and his words would be his weapon.
For a Song and a Hundred Songs captures the four brutal years Liao spent in jail for writing the incendiary poem “Massacre.” Through the power and beauty of his prose, he reveals the bleak reality of crowded Chinese prisons—the harassment from guards and fellow prisoners, the torture, the conflicts among human beings in close confinement, and the boredom of everyday life. But even in his darkest hours, Liao manages to unearth the fundamental humanity in his cell mates: he writes of how they listen with rapt attention to each other’s stories of criminal endeavors gone wrong and of how one night, ravenous with hunger, they dream up an “imaginary feast,” with each inmate trying to one-up the next by describing a more elaborate dish.
In this important book, Liao presents a stark and devastating portrait of a nation in flux, exposing a side of China that outsiders rarely get to see. In the wake of 2011’s Arab Spring, the world has witnessed for a second time China’s crackdown on those citizens who would speak their mind, like artist Ai Weiwei and legal activist Chen Guangcheng. Liao stands squarely among them and gives voice to not only his own story, but to the stories of those individuals who can no longer speak for themselves. For a Song and a Hundred Songs bears witness to history and will forever change the way you view the rising superpower of China.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Exiled Chinese poet Liao (God Is Red) recounts in redolent prose his politicization and imprisonment in the wake of the 1989 government crackdown on the democracy movement centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Liao was leading a bohemian life amid a lively literary scene in Sichuan Province when news of Tiananmen provoked him to record and distribute his spontaneous protest poem, “Massacre.” He soon launched a film project, Requiem, with a handful of colleagues, most of whom were netted in the aftermath of his 1990 arrest, along with other artists. The bulk of the memoir concerns Liao’s four-year imprisonment at a series of facilities in the harrowing Chongqing prison system, in which he is usually the rare “’89er” among underprivileged and uneducated criminals. Liao fiercely struggles to maintain his dignity and merely endure, despite little information from his wife (pregnant at the time of his arrest) and family. As his case limps along, scenes of cruelty and degradation are juxtaposed with acts of compassion and moments of release, as in portraits of cellmates and episodes such as the marathon of forced singing that gives the book its title. This vivid and lyrical memoir, a future classic, should have wide appeal as a consummate insider account of Chinese state terror. Agent: Peter W. Bernstein, Bernstein Literary Agency. (June)
From the Publisher

"This vivid and lyrical memoir, a future classic, should have wide appeal as a consummate insider account of Chinese state terror." Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Liao’s work is an amazing testament to the people who are battling the Chinese police state."--Kirkus Reviews

"The sheer drama of Liao Yiwu’s odyssey—from poet to prisoner Number 099 to one of China’s most acclaimed writers-in-exile—is matched only by the journey that brought this book to publication. The memoir of his four years in prison is riveting, painful testimony—a vital new chapter in the story of China’s rise." --Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker

"Courageous and powerful. Unforgettable." --Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and co-author of Mao: the Unknown Story

"For a Song and a Hundred Songs opens our eyes….[it is] a book of tremendous literary force. The author’s linguistic prowess renders it disturbingly cold and invitingly warm, angry and charismatic at once."--Herta Muller, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature and author of The Hunger Angel

"One of the most original and remarkable Chinese writers of our time." -Philip Gourevitch

"Reading Liao Yiwu's memoir transported me to his world, in a very visceral way. Liao guides us through harrowing scenes, but the narrative is frequently punctuated by poetic moments when art and truth transcend the horrors." -- Alison Klayman, director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Library Journal
Following Beijing's 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, award-winning Chinese poet Liao (The Corpse Walker; God Is Red) wrote the poem "Massacre," which expressed his anger and frustration toward political oppression. He then gathered his friends to create and distribute the film Requiem, a tribute to those who died in the uprising. Branded a counterrevolutionary, Liao was quickly arrested and imprisoned for four years in a series of Chongqing prisons. This memoir tells the story of his incarceration, the hierarchy among prisoners, and the torture from the guards. As an "89er," Liao fared better than the less-educated prisoners; nonetheless, he paid a heavy price for speaking out against the government. Reminiscent of Jung Chang's Wild Swans in its outspokenness, this book offers a frightening reminder of China's human rights abuses. VERDICT Liao has succeeded in writing a sensitive and lyrical account focusing on both the cruelty and the heartwarming experiences of his prison years. Recommended for readers wishing to know more about prominent figures of China's historic 1989 uprising.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Kirkus Reviews
In this third translation of Liao's work (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red), Wenguang Huang renders a lively, vernacular, fluent sense of the poet's angry depiction of being abruptly apprended by police in 1990 while making a protest film after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. A somewhat listless poet, at the time living in Fuling, whose family had been uprooted during the Cultural Revolution (involving the horribly traumatic death of the author's older sister in a bus accident), Liao was radicalized by the government's barbarous treatment of the student demonstrators in 1989, when he penned the incendiary poem "Massacre." A harsh and arbitrary detention ensued over two months at the Song Mountain center, where he was brutally initiated into the hierarchical system of the inmates, such as the "menu" of "dishes" meted out as sadistic punishment among the prisoners--e.g., "Stewed Pig's Nose," in which "the enforcer squeezes the inmate's lips between chopsticks until they swell up"; or "Barbequed Pig's Chin," when "the enforcer delivers a blow to the unsuspecting inmate's chin from below, crushing his teeth together." Educated and considered "intellectual," however, the author seems to have skirted the worst of the treatment, likely due to the fact that he was literate and able to help others write letters and read. Yet he was also recalcitrant and refused to sign a confession, prolonging his incarceration. Fighting lice, the brutality of the "enforcers," horrific deprivation of privacy and basic human needs, suicidal urges and the deep contemplation of death, the author survived by the sheer goodwill and kindness of others, such as the aged Buddhist monk who taught him to play the flute. Liao's work is an amazing testament to the people who are battling the Chinese police state. A rare eyewitness account by a Chinese dissident who managed to flee to the West to gain his freedom and tell his story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547892634
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Pages: 404
  • Sales rank: 969,322
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Liao Yiwu is a writer, musician, and poet from Sichuan, China. He is a critic of the Chinese regime, for which he has been imprisoned, and the majority of his writings are banned in China. Liao is the author of The Corpse Walker and God Is Red . He has received numerous awards for his work, including the prestigious 2012 Peace Prize awarded by the German Book Trade and the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 2011 for the publication of his memoir in Germany.

Wenguang Huang is a writer, journalist, and translator whose articles and translations have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia , Chicago Tribune , The Paris Review , Asia Literary Review , and The Christian Science Monitor . He also translated Liao’s The Corpse Walker . In 2007, Huang received a PEN Translation Fund grant. Born in China, he currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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Read an Excerpt


I have written this book three times, thanks to the relentless obstructions of the Chinese security police.
   I first started writing it on the backs of envelopes and on scraps of paper that my family smuggled into the prison where I was serving a four-year sentence from 1990 to 1994 for writing and distributing a poem that condemned the infamous, bloody government crackdown on the 1989 student prodemocracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
   Even after my release in 1994, the police continued to monitor and harass me. On October 10, 1995, police raided my apartment in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, confiscating the handwritten manuscript of For a Song and a Hundred Songs. As a punishment for what they called “attacking the government’s penitentiary system” with my writings, I was placed under house arrest for twenty days.
   I started on my book again from scratch. It took me three years to finish a new version, which was seized in 2001, along with my other unpublished literary works. This time, the police also absconded with my computer.
   Writers like to wax poetic and brag about their works in an attempt to secure a berth in the history of literature. Unfortunately, I no longer possess many physical products of my years of toil. Instead, I have become an author who writes for the pleasure of the police. Most of my past memories—the manuscripts that I have painstakingly created about my life, and my poems—are now locked away at the Public Security Bureau. In a grimly humorous twist, the police used to peruse my writings more meticulously than even the most conscientious editors.
   Chinese career spies have amazing memories. A director of a local public security branch could memorize many of my poems and imbue them with more complicated ideas than I had originally intended. So in a sense, my writing found a way to the minds and lips of at least one eager audience.
   Indeed, the police proved to have an insatiable need for more of my work. So after each successive raid, I dug more holes like a rat, and I hid my manuscripts in deeper and deeper crevices across the city, in the homes of family and friends. My furtive efforts to conceal my work called to mind those of the Nobelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose handwritten manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago had famously faced similar threats from the KGB. The only way to preserve his writings was to get them published.
   In early 2011, after this book was finally smuggled out of China and scheduled to be published in Taiwan and in Germany, I again met resistance from the Chinese authorities. My police minders, who were occasionally stationed outside my apartment during the height of the Arab Spring, invited me out for “tea.” In a nearby teahouse, they asked me to sign an agreement canceling publication. “Your memoir tarnishes the reputation of our country and harms our national interest,” said a police officer who had read the confiscated manuscript.
   “Why can’t you write books about harmless romances, and we can get them published here and make you rich?” the officer added in a matter-of-fact way.
   When I politely declined, the officer issued me a warning:If I disobeyed, they would either prosecute me or have me “disappear for quite a while,” just as they had done with other writers and artists such as Ai Weiwei and Ran Yunfei.
   I never signed the agreement and opted, instead, to leave my homeland of China. With the help of intrepid friends, I crossed into Vietnam and safely landed in Germany, just in time to promote the release of this chronicle of my life, which was twenty years in the making.
   In China, the government continues to erase and distort the collective memory of the country to suit its all-encompassing political agenda. However, an individual’s memory, with its psychic encoding and indelible scars of oppression, will forever hide a deeply etched record in blood and intellect. Its imprint, like history, can never be erased.

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