"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

“Massacre” by Liao Yiwu
June 10, 2015, 8:32 am
Filed under: 6/4, arts & literature, Chinese history | Tags: , ,

Last week was the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which as many as 300-1,000 pro-democracy protesters were gunned down by the Chinese government. Many of them were students.

Because one does not talk about 6/4 in China, attempts to heal are stifled. In fact, many young people don’t even know about it, including about half of my students from last semester.

I’d like to share this spoken word poem, “Massacre”, a commemoration of the lives lost on 6-4 that got its author, Liao Yiwu, a cell in prison for four years. I first discovered it at Ai Wei Wei’s @Large exhibit, where it was being displayed. This is Liao’s performance at the New York Public Library from 2013.

And here is the English translation, as it appears in Liao’s book For a Song and a Hundred Songs:

Leap! Howl! Fly! Run!
Freedom feels so good!
Snuffing out freedom feels so good!
Power will be triumphant forever.
Will be passed down from generation to generation forever.
Freedom will also come back from the dead.
It will come back to life in generation after generation.
Like that dim light just before the dawn.
No. There’s no light.
At Utopia’s core there can never be light.
Our hearts are pitch black.
Black and scalding.
Like a corpse incinerator.
A trace of the phantoms of the burned dead.
We will exist.
The government that dominates us will exist.
Daylight comes quickly.
It feels so good.
The butchers are still ranting!
Children. Children, your bodies all cold.
Children, your hands grasping stones.
Let’s go home.
Brothers and sisters, your shattered bodies littering the earth.
Let’s go home.
We walk noiselessly.
Walk three feet above the ground.
All the time forward, there must be a place to rest.
There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot
be heard.
We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass.
A leaf.
Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy.
How much farther till we’re home?
We have no home.
Everyone knows.
Chinese people have no home.
Home is a comforting desire.
Let us die in this desire.
Let us die in freedom.
Righteousness. Equality. Universal love.
Peace, in these vague desires.
Stand on the horizon.
Attract more of the living to death!
It rains.
Don’t know if it is rain or transparent ashes.
Run quickly, Mummy!
Run quickly, son!
Run quickly, elder brother!
Run quickly, little brother!
The butchers will not let up.
An even more terrifying day is approaching.
GOOD! . . .
Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry

We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink.

In this historically unprecedented massacre only the spawn of dogs
can survive.


Political Prisoners @Large
April 3, 2015, 5:45 pm
Filed under: arts & literature, Asia abroad | Tags: ,

For those of you in or planning to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to check out @Large, Ai Wei Wei’s exhibit on Alcatraz. It closes on April 26th, so there are only a couple of weekends left to catch it!

We went a few months ago, on a characteristically misty day; with San Francisco beyond visibility, the claustrophobic sense of imprisonment loomed upon us. Within the drab, colorless prisons, you can walk among the vibrant Lego portraits and a beautifully intricate kite dragon.  There is something miraculous about the existence of this art. @Large is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Yet, as viewers, we are constantly aware of the presence of absence. In the peeling paint and water damage we sense the ghosts of the prisoners and the missing artist himself. The trick is not to rush through the exhibits. Time slows down in prison; put yourself in the shoes of political prisoners and surrender to the solitude of memory and desperation.

The best exhibit by far is Stay Tuned, a block of solitary cells big enough for just a stool, each containing a recording of a poem, song of speech about human rights from all over the world–the U.S. (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech), South Africa, Nigeria, Iran, Russia and, of course, China. It’s chilling, yet inspiring.

Warhol introduced the question: “Is it art?” But Ai Wei Wei’s work extends that question to: “Is it art or is it activism, and what’s the difference?” We all know Ai Wei Wei has serious beef with the Chinese government, but what I like about @Large is that it looks at human rights and the human spirit beyond China. Political oppression is a force wielded by individual nations but not bound to them; where there is power to be had there will be those who seek to abuse it, and there will also be those who will seek justice.

After finishing the exhibits, viewers are invited to write a postcard to one or more of a selection of political prisoners around the world.  Supposedly, the postcards would be sent to the facility in which they’re held; whether or not the postcards actually make it there, we’ll never know. Lipeng didn’t see much point in that, but I believe that slim possibilities are possibilities nonetheless, so we made a postcard anyway.  

We chose to write to Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for drafting Charter 08, a petition demanding gradual political change in China. He was detained in 2008 and isn’t expected to be released until at least 2019, if ever.

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: "Thank you for your service. Don't give up!"

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: “Your service is very important. Thank you. Don’t give up!”

Front of the postcard

Front of the postcard.

But after dropping Mr. Liu’s postcard in a bin filled with dozens of others, I found myself asking: Who will win the day? Ai Wei Wei’s life embodies the shifting, see-saw exchange of power between governments and people. He hasn’t given up–so that’s all I need to keep believing!

If you’re not in the Bay Area, or you just don’t have time to make it, I encourage you to go to the official website, where you can contemplate each exhibit from the comfort of your home.  Remote access lacks the experiential dimension of @Large, but that doesn’t make the work any less important.