Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Gulag, Chinese Style

Book Review: For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu

This year marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Tienanmen Square protests. It seems a very long time ago that the newscasts showed the images of unarmed Chinese students facing armed soldiers, of a solitary man facing down a line of tanks.

In truth, it has been a a very long time - an entire generation has grown up without first-hand knowledge of the events of May and June 1989.

The simple fact that so many people are unaware of or have forgotten these events make a work like For a Song and a Hundred Songs critically important. In the effort to make China (and it's 1.3 billion potential customers) a business partner, the world has turned a blind eye to the political abuses of the recent past, and the present. Liao Yiwu has crafted a work that forces one to look beyond the facade of business as usual, into the lives of the dissidents and political prisoners whose crime was one of ideas.

Much of Hundred Songs is reminiscent of another tale of political prisoners: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Like the prisoners in the Soviet labor camps, Chinese dissidents were held without benefit of trial for vaguely defined crimes like 'hooliganism', or of being 'counter-revolutionaries' Just as in the Gulag, political prisoners are held side-by-side with violent criminals and were often victimized by them. Like Shukov in Ivan Denisovich, Liao Yiwu struggles to maintain his sense of individuality in a system whose sole purpose is to erase it. Toward the end of his imprisonment, when a friend questions his indifference, Yiwu replies "I feel like I have no past". Surviving day-to-day crowds out considerations of both the future and the past.

Hundred Songs gives us much to think about, both in terms of our relations with China, and with the freedoms that we take for granted as Americans. In light of recent events in the United States, perhaps this needs to be considered a cautionary tale. As Liao Yiwu says, "true freedom lies in the heart". Whether as Americans or citizens of the world, we forget that at our own peril.

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