Writer Liao Yiwu traveled to Beijing in December 2007 to receive the Freedom to Write Award given by the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) for his nonfiction works, which document the lives of some of the forgotten or ignored members of Chinese society. On the day before the award ceremony, members of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing took Liao away from his friend's house and interrogated him for over four hours before handing him over to the police, who escorted him back to his home in Sichuan province. After the event organizer and another award recipient were placed under house arrest, the ICPC was forced to cancel the ceremony. What follows is the acceptance speech Liao had planned to deliver there.
My birthday falls on June 16, which on the Chinese lunar calendar is an auspicious date. It was the date when Guan Yin, the bodhisattva who possessed the power to relieve the masses of their sufferings, became enlightened. Things didn’t quite turn out to be auspicious for me. I entered the world in the middle of a terrible famine, which was to claim the lives of millions nationwide between 1959 and 1962. My father would tell me how, at the age of one, my little body became swollen from lack of nutrition. I didn’t even have enough strength to cry. An herbal doctor in Niushikou, near the city of Chengdu, recommended that my parents hold me over a wok filled with boiling herbal water every morning and every evening. The steam eventually drained yellow liquid, drop by drop, from my body. Thanks to the doctor, I survived.
Hunger was my first teacher in life, following me during my entire childhood. Hunger stunted my growth, hampering my cognitive development. I was a slow kid. At the age of five, I still had problems walking. Many years later, the influence of hunger could still be felt all over in Testimonial, my memoir of life in prison. In this pigsty of a country, one has to have an iron stomach to be a prison eyewitness, who savors the body odor from his fellow inmates and chews on the rotten fermented memories through teeth, blood, and broken bones.
The Cultural Revolution started when I was attending elementary school. My father, a high-school teacher, was branded a counterrevolutionary scholar. Following his criminal conviction, my family fell apart. My mother took custody of me and my sister. We left our hometown, Yanting, and moved from place to place, undergoing countless random searches and interrogations for what the authorities called “migrating to the city without a residential permit.” When I was nine, my mother was accused of being an escaped landowner and living in the city without a permit. Members of the public security bureau took her away one night for detention and interrogation. Since then, this special Chinese terminology, “Hei-ren-hei-hu” or “Person and a family without a residential permit” has been engraved forever on my mind, becoming my second teacher in life. Perhaps in order to cleanse my inward shame at this status, I have allowed myself to sink deeper into this muddy hole of disgrace and have become acquainted with other “persons without permits.” Nowadays, scholars refer to us as “the silent majority.”