English-language publication of dissident writer Liao’s “interviews with people from the bottom rung of society,” a 2001 bestseller in China until the government banned it.
Working with the author, translator Wen selected 27 pieces representative of the unabridged Chinese work that would interest Western readers, adding background information to clarify the political and historical references. The interviews cover a broad cross-section of Chinese society—the kind of people who never turn up in tourist literature, official press releases or the accounts of Western journalists focusing on a small number of dissidents. Officially unemployable after a four-year prison stint for protesting the suppression of the pro-democracy movement, poet, novelist and screenwriter Liao began talking to others at the bottom of the labor force. Some of the most illuminating chapters are devoted to people with jobs that are either peculiar (a performer of mournful music at funerals) or illegal (the former leader of a sex-trafficking ring). Liao never actually met a “corpse walker,” but a nonagenarian family friend told him stories about people who risked punishment for engaging in “business connected with tradition and superstition” by carrying dead bodies back to their hometowns to be buried in their native soil, as custom demanded. Many interviews reveal the horrors and/or stupidities of communism. A retired Party official saw the Great Leap Forward lead to famine and even cannibalism in a rural section of Sichuan province. Grandpa Zhou, who worked in a public restroom in the city of Chengdu, found waste disposal a perfectly respectable job, but the intellectuals and professors who were labeled counter-revolutionaries and forced to clean toilets during the Cultural Revolution did not. Many of them couldn’t take the loss of status, Zhou recalled, “and hanged themselves with their belts inside the toilet stalls.” Other chapters show political decrees provoking radical personal changes.
Mingles a scholar’s detachment with bemused sadness at the cruelties of a troubled and furious history.