21 February 2012

Review: The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China by Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China by Liao Yiwu book coverI learned more about China from reading Liao Yiwu's The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China than I'd previously learned in a lifetime.

The book comprises twenty-seven true life interviews with Chinese citizens from all walks of life and Liao Yiwu has been imprisoned for 4 years for writing the truth and recording oral history.  In fact, he is legally unable to leave China to promote his book or attend international literary festivals. 

His collection takes its name from an old practice in China of 'walking a corpse'.  When a person died far from home, the family would hire a corpse walker to transport the corpse home if they could afford to.  

The corpse was covered with a huge dark robe including a hood covering the face.  The 'corpse walker' walked ahead giving verbal commands to the corpse whilst holding a white paper lantern and tossing fake money every now and again to 'buy their way into the other world'.  It appeared to anyone passing them on the road that the corpse was walking, however the secret was that there was a second corpse walker underneath and the corpse was actually tied to his back.  Fascinating!

The author interviewed many interesting people including the following: 
Author Liao Yiwu

  • The professional mourner
  • The human trafficker
  • The public toilet manager
  • The leper
  • The rightist
  • The former landowner
  • The mortician
  • The former red guard
  • The Tiananmen father
  • The Falun Gong practitioner
  • The blind erhu player
  • The street singer
  • The migrant worker
  • The survivor
It was from reading these interviews and personal accounts that I learned about the Cultural Revolution in China, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Chinese Famine in detail.  I was also able to understand how each related to the other and put the political pieces together.  I was incredibly shocked to learn of the millions of Chinese who lost their lives in the Chinese Famine in the early '60s (approx 20-40 million people!) and to read of the cannibalism going on; families in rural areas killing their daughters to feed their families.  Just unthinkable!

It was only in reading their individual stories that I realised just how ignorant I had been about the real China.  It also highlighted to me how effective the Chinese Government has been in keeping the West in the dark and how thankful I am to author Liao Yiwu for taking the risks he has in getting them to us in the West.

It wasn't all doom and gloom though.  There were some uplifting and inspiring stories too, stories of incredible strength, forgiveness and spiritual endurance.

The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China is an incredible book written by a fearless author who was imprisoned for his work and beliefs.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

My rating = *****

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