Always interested in alternative, local accounts of modern Chinese history, I much admire The corpse walker by Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 (English translation 2008, from originals published in 2002).
Subtitled Real-life stories, China from the bottom up, it contains over two dozen vignettes of lives neglected in the official history (subaltern studies, on which more soon). As the Foreword says, “hustlers and drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped”—but more than that, ordinary peasants, cadres, labourers, all kinds of people whose lives have been serially buffeted by the adversities of a capricious system. 
Their life stories are micro-histories shedding light on the abuses of Maoism (campaigns, famine) and the corruption and immorality of the reforms. The book makes salient reading for those interested not only in modern history, but in ritual and music.
Building on Liao’s early experience as a collector of folk music, the interviews (mostly based around Liao’s home of Chengdu) make valuable material for scholars of religion. Many folk ritual specialists appear—an elderly fengshui master, an ancient abbot, a mortician.
Supernatural beliefs also play a role in the distressing story of a leper and his wife, as well as that of a peasant who—in 1985!—declared himself emperor of an independent kingdom in his Sichuan hometown. The latter story, with rich historical antecedents, also relates to the birth-control policy.
Musicians also feature prominently, like ritual singers and wind players, a blind erhu player and a street pop singer. Visiting composer Wang Xilin, Liao learns of his tribulations under Maoism and more recently in trying to commemorate its victims. And he chats with a father who lost his son in the 1989 protests, as well as a fellow-inmate imprisoned (like Liao himself) in the aftermath.
The vignettes are also effective because they are genuine dialogues—Liao is very much a “participant observer“. He doesn’t merely ask questions, his own comments are perceptive too, sometimes disputing conservative views. Among several prison interviews is one with a trafficker, guilty of selling women from his home province of Sichuan to desperate men in Gansu. As he defends himself with a series of shocking justifications like “rebalancing the yin and yang“, Liao’s ability to empathize is thankfully limited.
This is just such a cast as the fieldworker meets in the course of documenting society, and the stories have much to tell us about both Maoist and reform eras.
So far I’ve only read it in translation, though some details make me curious to read the Chinese version. For instance, in the very opening vignette a shawm player who migrated from Henan to Sichuan also takes on the role of funeral wailing—a combination that I hadn’t heard of in either province. Again, his recollections make a salient history of ritual change.
The manuscript was smuggled out by exiled author Kang Zhengguo, whose own memoir Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China is an important ethnography of subaltern life in Shaanxi under Maoism and since.
Since going into exile himself, Liao Yiwu is prolific both in documenting his own former tribulations within the system and in speaking out on behalf of those still enduring discrimination in China (Twitter: @liaoyiwu1 ). For Ian Johnson’s 2011 interview, see here; for a 2016 interview, here. Note also Tiananmen: bullets and opium.
 Such collections of interviews have a noble history since the 1980s, such as Chinese lives (Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, 1987), China candid: the people on the People’s Republic (Sang Ye, 2006), China witness (Xinran, 2009), and Chinese characters: profiles of fast-changing lives in a fast-changing land (ed. Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, 2012). For scholarly discussion, see Guo Yuhua. For comparisons with the USSR under Stalin, see here.
8 thoughts on “The corpse walker”
This sounds like a fascinating book. Anything about Chinese history is going to have lots to say because the changes that have happened during and since Mao have been so huge. Thanks for sharing about this 🙂
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