The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

by Liao Yiwu

translated from the Chinese with an introduction by Wen Huang

Published by Pantheon

331 pages, 2008






Stories from the Bottom Rung

Reviewed by Diane Leach

In Philip Gourevitch’s introduction, American readers unfamiliar with Chinese writer Liao Yiwu learn of his endless suffering under Chinese rule. During Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Liao, then an infant, nearly starved to death. His early experiences shaped a fiercely dissident heart: after 1989’s Tiananmen massacre, he penned “Massacre,” a poem leading to his arrest, imprisonment and torture. His “freedom,” if it can be called so, is highly provisional. His writings are banned in China, his life scrutinized by the authorities. He moves frequently, furtively, earning a living as a street musician, his writing smuggled out of the country.

Translator Wen Huang met Liao through a mutual friend in 2002. Over the next two years, they translated The Corpse Walker via e-mail and telephone, often heavily coded to elude the authorities. 

The Corpse Walker is comprised of 27 stories of Chinese life told by those living “on the bottom rung.”  The notion of a “bottom rung” is anathema to Communist Chinese, who insist everyone lives prosperously thanks to the Party.  Liao, who collected these tales orally over several years, demonstrates this is far from the case. We hear from 27 people, including a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a public restroom attendant, a composer, a teacher and a retired party official.  Their stories are a near-identical recitation of horrors: starvation, arrests, beatings, denunciations by neighbors, friends, and relatives at the endless “speak bitterness” meetings held by party officials. We hear about the famine that left people killing their youngest daughters and eating them, correctly observing that the children would have starved anyway. We hear from the mortuary worker who prepared many bodies for cremation, bodies missing chunks of flesh consumed by villagers so crazed with hunger they were willing eat of deceased neighbors. We hear from the retired party official, who witnessed peasants eating white clay, falling ill, and ingesting tung oil as a curative. We read of wholesale destruction of temples and ancient religious statuary. 

Liao intends to inform as well as sicken us. He succeeds, but at a cost, for the book ultimately collapses beneath the weight of its message.

This is partly due to the translation.  Huang writes of aiming for a colloquial English which he hopes will engage American readers. But that English is vulgar and often awkward. When Liao interviews a 103-year-old abbot, the man informs him that:

Unfortunately, I’m only lucid half the time. Some days, I’m so out of it that I have no idea where I am, what day it is, and who is standing beside me.

Another man, a former landowner paraded before his village as traitor, beaten and deprived of his property, described his present situation thus:

I’m turning eighty-nine this year.  I’ve long become tired of life...The upcoming good fortune (he believes he has restored the family’s Feng Shui) should not fall on an old fart like me.

A man visiting his fiancé’s stepmother says of her piano playing:

The tune became rottenly bourgeois, with so much tenderness, elegance, and sadness, as if it had been a woman’s whisper and sigh on a quiet starlit night.

Everyone speaks so. The effect is both distracting (would a man devoted to religious life call himself “out of it?” Would so many of the elderly in this book call themselves “old farts?”  How can a tune be “rottenly bourgeois” like a woman’s whisper? Without knowledge of Chinese, it’s impossible to say.) and dulling. Only the Tiananmen Father, whose beloved son was shot in the square for taking photographs, comes across as an individual. As for the 26 others, their uniform horror story takes on a sameness that has the terribly Pavlovian effect of numbing the reader  So in addition to suffering through a book with a strong message but a weak structure, you feel guilty for your boredom. It’s newspaper battle fatigue of the worst sort.

The solution is not to ignore the book; instead, do what one wishes the editors had: cut by reading selectively. Try to overlook the book’s technical failures and read parts of The Corpse Walker. Read “The Mortician,” a man utterly disconnected from his job until a little girl is brought in for him to make up; read “the Former Red Guard” and understand Abu Ghraib; read “the Tiananmen Father” and recall the photograph of the young man attempting to halt a tank with his outstretched hand; read “The Falun Gong Practitioner” and wonder about the place of religion in oppressive society. 

Read, and remember, as I guiltily did, how lucky we are to have access to all manner of books, which we still have the right to read freely, our bellies full, not with clay, (or worse) but meat and vegetables. And give Liao Yiwu endless credit for his refusal to capitulate to his oppressors. | April 2008


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.