The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wen Huang (Pantheon, 2008)
With a title like The Corpse Walker, you might expect this to be a frightening book. And you would be correct. But there's not a zombie in sight.
We are so Euro-centric. We repeatedly hold up Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany as the epitome of evil. If pressed, we might acknowledge Joseph Stalin, but Russia is more distant, foreign, and unknown than Germany. Compared with Mao Zedong's China, however ... well, you can read more about that in this article on democide.
The Lord of the Flies meets 1984. Liao Yiwu's book is must reading for anyone who still hangs on to the idea that unfettered human nature is basically good, or that the acquisition of power is not one of the most deadly, corrupting circumstances ever.
Although Liao Yiwu is still an outlawed writer on the run from the Chinese government, you won't find many complaints about present-day China in this collection of interviews; it may not be safe to criticize the Communist government of the past, but it's a whole lot safer than criticizing the Communist government of the present. However, the view of Chinese history through the eyes of the survivors of the past sixty years may be crucial to understanding the Chinese of today.
Take a puppy, abuse him, kick him, mistreat him—he'll revert to feral carnivore. Take his litter brother, pet him, talk to him, let him sleep with you, but train him—he's a happy, well-behaved house pet. Take another from that same litter, pet him on even days and kick him on odd days. You'll have him so confused that he'll be ruined for either role; he can't survive as a wild animal and he doesn't understand what is expected of a pet. Pretty soon he won't eat, he won't sleep, he can't control his functions; he just cowers and shivers. — Robert Heinlein
Humans aren't puppies, and the Chinese people aren't cowering and shivering. But without a doubt they have had too much of being petted on even days and kicked on odd days. But kicked a whole lot more than petted. Perhaps this (almost certainly apocryphal) story of Stalin is more appropriate:
On his deathbed, Stalin summoned two likely successors to his side, to test which one of the two had a better knack for ruling the country. He ordered two birds to be brought in, and presented one bird to each of the two candidates. He then instructed each of them to make sure that the bird did not fly away. The first candidate, terrified that the bird would fly free, squeezed the poor creature so tightly that when he opened his palm, the bird was dead. Seeing the disapproving look on Stalin's face and being afraid to repeat his rival's mistake, the second candidate loosened his grip so much that the bird freed himself and flew away.
Stalin looked at both of them scornfully. "Bring me a bird!' he thundered. They did. Stalin took the bird by its legs and slowly, one by one, he plucked each feather of this poor creature from its tiny little body. Then he opened his palm. The bird lay there naked, helpless, and shivering. Stalin looked up, smiled gently, and said, "You see, this little bird is thankful for the human warmth of my palm."
I fear that those who prescribe free-market capitalism as the secret to democratizing China are as wrong as those who believe a severely abused child can be healed merely by placing him in a loving home. China has a lot of healing to do. To be fair, many of the injuries were inflicted before Mao came to power; he only made them infinitely worse by taking away what little stability the country had. If the life of a peasant had been grinding misery, it was not improved by mass starvation. If the country had been controlled by rival gangs of thugs, it was not made safer by a government of thugs. If the traditions that ruled Chinese society had been onerous and discriminatory, destroying those traditions left the Chinese with no history, no foundation, no moral compass.
We joined the Communist revolution so we could live a better life, have enough to eat, marry a beautiful woman, and raise a family. This basic concept was totally distorted in the Mao era. All we talked about were the abstract ideas such as the Party and the People. Private lives were considered something disgraceful. You can't marry the Party or the People, can you? We used to hear phony stuff like "So-and-so has been nurtured by the Party and the People." What do the Party's breasts look like?
But I am giving you the entirely false impression that The Corpse Walker is about politics. It's not. It's about people. Ordinary people, who have had extraordinary things happen to them. Some are uniquely Chinese; some could be from anywhere. Meet the Human Trafficker, whose entry into the trade began with selling his own daughters—"What do they know about happiness? My daughters are the children of a poor peasant. As long as their husbands have dicks, that's all I care." The next time you eat vegetables, think about the Public Restroom Manager and how Chinese fields are fertilized. Fear the unrepentant Former Red Guard—"Ï was born into a family of blue-collar workers. The Cultural Revolution offered me the opportunity to finally trample on those elite. It was glorious. I couldn't get enough of it." See the 20th century through the eyes of a 103-year-old Buddhist abbot. Meet survivors who endured unthinkable tortures. Marvel at how resilient is the human spirit, and tremble at how quickly ordinary people learn to commit extraordinary evil.
A book's impact depends heavily on its translator, and Wen Huang is clearly fluent in English. Perhaps too fluent, or at least too familiar with slang and other informal language, which gives the dialogue an occasional jarring note. Profanity from the mouth of the human trafficker is unpleasant to read, but he is an unpleasant person and his words less shocking than his attitudes. But for higher-class, otherwise articulate, elders to use phrases like "an old fart," "making the big bucks," and "I was so grossed out" is incongruous and detracts somewhat from the stories.
You're still wondering about the title, aren't you? It comes from the practice of returning the dead to their hometowns by literally walking them from place to place. It is by no means the most macabre of the stories. I could have said, "The Lord of the Flies meets 1984 meets the Donner Party."