Dissident Chinese poet Liao Yiwu spoke about his escape this year from Chinese persecution and performed on Chinese flute Tuesday afternoon at a lecture hosted by Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
At the event, entitled “A Poet in Exile: A Dialogue with Liao Yiwu,” Liao recited his poem “Massacre,” the work for which he was imprisoned and tortured for over four years.
“I think it was really courageous of him to perform a chant that brings out haunting emotions for him—it was the piece that put him in jail,” said attendee Heejoon Choi ’15.
Liao’s reading of the piece, entitled “Massacre” and performed in howls and ritualistic Chinese chants, was notable given the contentious history of the poem. Communist authorities had detained Liao in China largely because he refused their demands that he not recite “Massacre” abroad, as the poem was inspired by the brutal government crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989. After applying for more than 15 exit visas, the former political prisoner finally left China, fleeing through Vietnam and eventually reaching Germany in July of this year.
“[Liao] was actually taken by the police in the middle of our phone conversation,” said moderator Rowena X. He of the department of East Asian Studies, describing communications with the poet earlier this year that culminated in yesterday’s dialogue. “He was told that there was no way he would be able to speak at Harvard.”
Liao made his precipitous escape to the West within the last few months and began a tour promoting his book “God is Red,” which tells the stories of persecuted Chinese Christians.
Even as Liao discussed Chinese repression, Tuesday’s dialogue was also punctuated by laughter, as the audience applauded his jokes at the expense of the Chinese government.
“I think I would rather be ruled by a pig than a Chinese leader like Mao [Zedong] or Deng [Xiaoping],” Liao said. “At least a pig makes a sound when it’s eating.”
The event itself focused on the work of Liao since 1989. A prominent state-sponsored poet in the 1980s, Liao fell from grace after an audio recording of “Massacre” came to light. He was arrested, along with his pregnant wife, and imprisoned for four years. Twice he attempted suicide.
But he survived and began to memorize the stories of his fellow prisoners.
“My head would be exploding from their stories, so I turned my head into a tape recorder,” Liao said. He added that these narratives became the foundation for his recent books, now banned in China, that recount the stories of everyday people.
“I’m not a writer, not a murderer,” he said. “I’m just a tape recorder of my era.”
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