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Tamer of Beasts, Tamer of Despots

By Liao Yiwu, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 24, 2015


My friend Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) has never been of a serious disposition; his mode of dress is, if anything, even less serious. One year on June 4th, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he was clad from the waist up in a suit and tie, and from the waist down in a pair of short trousers that made it look from afar as if he weren’t wearing any trousers at all. On that anniversary, he climbed into a blood donation truck parked in the city center, announced that he wished to donate blood, and offered up his neck. The nurse avoided the proffered neck and took his arm instead. As she inserted the syringe into his arm, Chen Yunfei said, “Today’s June 4th, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Did you know that?” Startled, the nurse missed the mark. “You must be possessed by vengeful ghosts,” Chen Yunfei joked. “You ought to call the police and tell them one of the ‘June 4th hooligans’ is at a blood donation site, disturbing the peace!” The nurse burst into tears. Young and inexperienced as she was, she really did call the police.

Chen Yunfei has described himself as a beast tamer, and the beast in question is the Chinese police force, a creature known to be more ruthless and more brutal than any beast on earth. As a result, Chen Yunfei has endured numerous beatings. He jokes that without a good beating, he finds it hard to sleep at night. The bruises covering his body, he said, would keep the memory of that “mining accident” alive: in 2007, on the anniversary of June 4th, he took advantage of the ignorance of the advertising staff at the Chengdu Evening News to place a small advertisement in that paper. It read simply, “We salute the staunch mothers of the June 4th victims!”[i] At a mere 14 character spaces, including exclamation point, and a cost of 45 yuan [less than $6 USD], it nonetheless caused great consternation in the ranks of the Chinese police force, not to mention the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

We met up for drinks, sometimes after Chen Yunfei had been interrogated and beaten. His lip was swollen, his face hideously crumpled, but as we drank together, I found it hard to express my sympathy. With anyone else – the families of the victims of June 4th, for instance – I could have risen to the occasion, acquitted myself as a man of letters by coming up with a few comforting words, a few fitting phrases. But no matter how tragic his situation, no matter how deep his psychological scars, those wounds that would never heal, when I looked at Chen Yunfei with his rakish ear-to-ear grin, my only response was mockery.

This time around, Chen Yunfei was arrested for travelling to Xinjin County on the outskirts of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to pay his respects at the grave of Wu Guofeng, a June 4th victim. On May 19, 2005, I interviewed Wu Guofeng’s parents: the interview was later included in my book Bullets and Opium.[ii] A young man just shy of twenty-one years of age, Wu Guofeng was an avid amateur photographer and university student who had received the top university entrance exam score in his hometown of Xinjin. In the early hours of June 4th, 1989, as he ventured onto the streets with his camera “to document history,” he was shot by troops patrolling a city under martial law—not shot dead, no, but kicked to the ground and stabbed to death with a bayonet. Seconds before he died, Wu Guofeng gripped the bayonet’s blade with both hands, his eyes staring wide as his executioner gave a mighty roar, plunged the bayonet deeper into his victim’s belly, and thrust upward, leaving a broad gash.

Chen Yunfei had read that story. For some time, he had intended to lay flowers at Wu Guofeng’s grave, and perhaps shed a few tears. He also wanted to call on Wu Guofeng’s parents, who suffer from ill health (his mother is prone to migraines, and his father recently had a kidney removed) and remain heartbroken at the loss of their beloved son. He said he wanted to visit them at home “to see whether the two old folks would accept this ‘beast tamer’ as a godson.” This March, a few months before the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chen Yunfei finally made the trip[iii]. The night before a planned commemoration, he found himself surrounded by over one hundred police officers. The charges against him: “incitement to subvert state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

“I always knew this day would come for him, but now that it has, I still feel scared for him,” I wrote in response to my friend Luo Xiaoxiao’s Facebook post. “Words fail me. Fuck…the times we live in.”

The Communist Party’s bestial nature has resurfaced, time and again. One after another, so many kind-hearted, conscientious, courageous and idealistic individuals – well-known names such Li Bifeng, Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, Chen Xi, Xu Zhiyong, Pu Zhiqiang, Guo Yushan, Gao Yu and many others, nearly one hundred in all – have been thrown into despot’s cage at the bidding of “Xi Dada”, whose animal lusts eclipse his basic human instincts.[iv] Now that you have been elevated to their ranks, Chen Yunfei – the beast tamer, thrown into the beast’s cage – will you be immune to the depredations I described in my book? Do you think those bestial police will hesitate to fuck you in the ass with their electric cattle prods?[v]

Gabriel García Márquez, who passed away recently, has been lionized by many a state-sanctioned Chinese writer. One of his anecdotes could serve as a metaphor for the situation Chen Yunfei finds himself in today: A certain dictator captured a rebel. Knowing that the rebel was a lion tamer by profession, the dictator obtained a male lion from the circus, locked it in a cage, and starved it for three days. When the lion was sufficiently mad with hunger, the dictator locked the rebel in a cage adjacent to the lion. Time and again, the lion hurled himself against the metal bars of his cage, trying to get at the captured rebel, who was forced to cower in the far corner of his separate cage, mere inches away from the hungry lion’s outstretched claws.

I fear for you, Chen Yunfei, but there is nothing else I can do. Please forgive my cowardice.

—May 8, 2015


廖亦武 (2)Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), author of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up (2002); God Is Red (2011); For a Song and a Hundred Songs (2013); and more books of Chinese life.







[i] When Chen Yunfei placed the ad, young staffers at the newspaper’s advertising department, unaware of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, asked what June 4th referred to. Chen Yunfei answered that it was simply the anniversary of a bad “mining accident” in which many people died. – The Translator

[ii] Liao Yiwu’s book of interviews and recollections about the June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was published simultaneously in Taiwan and Germany in October of 2012. The Chinese title is《子彈鴉片—天安門大屠殺生死故事》; the German title is Die Kugel und das Opium. – The Translator

[iii] Chen Yunfei has made this trip every year for many years. – The Editor.

[iv] The nickname “Xi Dada” refers to current Chinese President Xi Jinping. The jailed activists referred to are as follows:

Li Bifeng (b. 1964): Poet and activist. In Nov 2012, sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of “contract fraud,” in retaliation for, as the government believed, helping his friend Liao Yiwu flee to Germany. – The Translator

Liu Xianbin (b. 1968): Writer and activist. In March 2010, sentenced to 10 years on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” in retaliation for human rights articles he published on the Internet and in international media.

Chen Wei (b. 1969): Writer and activist. In Dec 2011, sentenced to 9 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” in retaliation for four essays he wrote and published online.

Chen Xi (b. 1954): Veteran human rights activist. In Dec. 2011, sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” in retaliation for dozens of essays he published on overseas Chinese websites.

Xu Zhiyong (b. 1973): Prominent civil rights advocate. In Jan. 2014, sentenced to 4 years in prison for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order,” in retaliation for his past activism.

Pu Zhiqiang (b. 1965): Prominent civil rights lawyer. Held without trial since May 2014. He was recently indicted for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Guo Yushan (b. 1977): Scholar and head of Beijing-based independent think tank Transition Institute. Held without trial since October of 2014 on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” in retaliation for his past activism and his role in helping civil rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng escape from house arrest and flee to the U.S. Guo Yushan’s defense lawyer has also been detained.

Gao Yu (b.1944): Veteran journalist. In April 2015, sentenced to 7 years in prison on charges of “leaking state secrets,” in retaliation for her hard-hitting reportage. – The Translator

[v] Liao Yiwu has described the cattle prod torture and other mistreatment during his incarceration in his 2013 memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison. – The Translator


Chinese original 廖亦武《独裁下的驯兽师》



Chinese Author, Artist, and Dissident Streaking in Stockholm, Sweden

Our Naked Declaration

December 10, 2013

Liao Yiwu and four others streaking in front of the Stockholm Concert Hall around 4:30 pm, local time, December 10, 2013, to call attention to the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the plight of his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest for four years, and Liu Xia's brother who has been sentenced to 11 years in jail on trumped up charges.

Liao Yiwu and four others streaking in front of the Stockholm Concert Hall around 4:30 pm, local time, December 10, 2013, to call attention to the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the plight of his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest for four years, and Liu Xia’s brother who has been sentenced to 11 years in jail on trumped up charges.


We have come to Sweden to run in the nude, because it was here where Mo Yan, a defender of censorship and a senior Communist cadre, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

With our act, we want to remind this forgetful world that there is a staunch denouncer of censorship, a witness of the Tian’anmen Massacre in 1989, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who was sentenced to eleven years in prison for his writings and views, and he is now behind bars in China. His name is Liu Xiaobo.

With our act, we want to remind this forgetful world an outstanding artist named Liu Xia. She has no particular interest in politics, but just because she is the wife of Liu Xiaobo, she has been placed under house arrest since her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, 2010.

With our act, we want to remind this forgetful world that, in Beijing, the capital of China, there is an ordinary resident named Liu Hui, a man who is not politically inclined. But because he is the brother of Liu Xiaobo’s wife and he revealed bits of family information to the rest of the world, the Chinese authorities trumped up “financial charges” against him and sentenced him also to eleven years in prison.

With our act, we want to remind this forgetful world that the persecution against Liu Xiaobo and his family is still ongoing and has never relented, and Liu Xia is on the verge of a mental collapse. According to Chinese law, she should not be a prisoner just because her husband is a prisoner. She has to breathe free air to heal her trauma.

We have come here to run in the nude, because while such horrible persecution-by-association has been carried out, the Chinese Communist Party has mobilized its propaganda apparatus, now draped in the award from the Swedish Academy, to challenge the universal values of the human race as never before. Since the winter of 2012, well over a hundred Chinese citizens have become the newest prisoners of conscience and been locked up in jails across China, and 122 Tibetans have self-immolated in one last protest against the Chinese suppression.

In a world all too surreal, Liu Xia cried out, “Both Mo Yan and Liu Xiaobo are Nobel Laureates, why are they treated so differently?”

Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), author, former political prisoner;

Bei Ling (贝岭), poet, former editor of an underground magazine, deported from China in 2000;

Wang Yiliang (王一梁), author, former literary criminal;

Meng Huang (孟煌), artist, who mailed an empty chair to Liu Xiaobo in prison, and doesn’t know the whereabouts of the chair. In 2012 he again mailed an empty chair, this time to the Swedish Academy, hoping that Mo Yan would take the chair back to Liu Xiaobo. He didn’t get his wish;

Wang Juntao (王军涛), scholar, former political prisoner.

Related reading:

The Passing of Havel, the Passing of Me — speech on the opening ceremony of Book World Prague, by  Liao Yiwu


(Translation by


God is Red – Book review

Liao Yiwu’s book, God Is Red, is one of the best I have ever read.

Liao Yiwu’s work concerning Tian’anmen Square cost him 4-years in prison. His work with the currently imprisoned Nobel prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, caused further restrictions on his freedom in China and led to regular visits from the police. He was told that the publishing of God is Red would be considered a criminal offense. On July 2nd, 2011, he crossed the border into Vietnam, knowing that he would have to sacrifice his connection with his homeland in order to tell the stories of the people who lived there.

It started a few years earlier while Liao was working on other projects. He met a number of Chinese Christians and became interested in their various histories. Even though he was not a Christian himself, Liao became intrigued by the parallels he saw between the past repression of religious peoples in the 60’s and the ongoing human rights abuses in the present.Through his contacts he met believers in rural Yunnan, Beijing, and Chengdu, and the resulting book exposes past abuses and uncovers incredible stories of faith, strength, and integrity.

Liao’s style is somewhat unique; he interviews 18 Chinese Christians, and then adds his own short introduction of the person and tacks on follow-up information. This approach allows him to give a voice to those who may otherwise not be heard, and helps coax stories from those who would otherwise remain silent (Liao used the same method in his highly praised book, The Corpse Walker).

The majority of this book focuses on the question “How did Christianity (and Christians) survive the Cultural Revolution?” Many of the interviewees knew other believers who were executed by blood thirsty mobs and government officials trying to fill execution quotas. They endured harsh physical labor and public scorn for a God they had only recently come to know. Whether or not you are religious, I think it would be hard not to admire the integrity of these early Christians. I found inspiration every time I opened this book.

The story of the Blind Musician in Chengdu was one that stuck out in particular to me. As a child, this individual slowly lost his sight and the Chinese doctors were unable to diagnose the problem. His parents and grandparents became convinced that it was simply his destiny, but a missionary doctor prescribed the child a medicine that started to restore his sight. Unfortunately for the boy, the Communists had just ordered the foreigners to leave the country, and the boy’s sight faded once again to complete darkness. His vision was never restored, but he never forgot the healing the missionary had brought.

One of the minor stories that appears throughout the book that I think is important to highlight, is that many of the mission cemeteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. From other sources, I know that the large mission cemetery in Nanjing was also desecrated during this time (one of the hospital’s founders was buried there). It is painful and embarrassing for the local gov’t to tell foreign families, whose relatives sacrificed much of their lives for the poor of China, that we do not know what happened to the remains of their loved ones.  Sadly, the gov’t continues to allow these resting places to be plundered and destroyed, but foreign churches are struggling to protect these memories.

The only thing I would have liked to have seen in this book would be accounts from members of the churches that joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. As it stands, the book gives the impression that the groups that didn’t join suffered disproportionately compared to other Christians in China, or that those who joined did it out of cowardice and fear. I know from Chinese friends, that all Christians shared in misfortune during the Cultural Revolution. To the Red Guard it didn’t matter which church you went to, you believed in something mightier than Chairman Mao.

I highly recommend God Is Red ($12.99 Kindle, $16.25 hardcover) not only for those interested in the continuing story of Christianity in China, but also for those interested in learning, from a variety of sources, more about one of modern China’s darkest periods. (I’ve also given this book as a gift, and urged friends and visitors to read this prior to visiting me).

Top China Stories 9/11-9/17

The top story this week was the fallout surrounding Li Yang’s abuse of his wife. Li is the head of “Crazy English” which is probably the best known English learning program in China. Last week pictures were post on Weibo by his wife that documented the abuse, and begged him to stop hitting her in front of their children. This was a shock to Li who said, “I hit her sometimes, but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.” Adam Minter wrote an excellent piece for Bloomberg with a closer look at this case, and what it says about domestic abuse in China.

The biggest lesson from this article is that China does not have laws that actually protect women and children from domestic abuse, something I covered in an earlier post

Several activists who were detained during the failed “Jasmine revolution” revealed that they had suffered various forms of torture while they were being held by authorities. Many of them were forced to make taped confessions, which they fear will be used against them in future cases, while others were injected with unknown substances, or interrogated about their sex lives. These conditions made it easier to understand why gov’t critic, Liao Yiwu, chose to escape from China. His piece in the New York Times echoes these revelations. He says, “I had no intention of going back to prison. I was also unwilling to be treated as a “symbol of freedom” by people outside the tall prison walls.”

Another important story this week came from Barbra Demick, who reported on how China limited the celebration of Ramadan in Xinjiang, by forcing Muslim students to eat during fasting times . Local governments know that riots and protests are far more costly for their careers than human right’s abuses. In situations like this the national gov’t usually remains silent, and local leaders try to guess what action they should take to maintain stability. A leaked propaganda document hints where this idea may have come from as it states that the goal of the Party is still to “weaken the roots of religion.”

In “Hutong Economics” Evan Osnos captures one of the looming problems in China, the poor construction of millions of new buildings. Which is a question that frequently crosses my mind because I live in a 20 year old building, that looks 50+ years old. Several of my friends also live in “new” apartments that are already facing serious problems, which is also the case in Ordos where Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera noticed that despite having hundreds of buildings, it lacks a single functioning supermarket.

Finally I would highly recommend watching this TED talk with Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth? In this talk Yasheng compares China and India to highlight that the often mentioned “benefits” of a dictatorship, may not actually be the key to China’s growth. His clear discussion of a variety of economic factors help make it clear that China is succeeding despite its authoritarian gov’t, not because of it.