The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker

The Corpse Walker is an oral history of Chinese people by a Chinese author. Twenty-seven people are included, interviewed in the 1990s and 2000s. Yiwu, a critic of the Chinese government, has been censored, harassed, and even imprisoned over the years. The interviewees he chooses are mostly outcasts or people who are marginal in one way or another, generally people who have suffered at the hands of the government.

Though the interviews are recent, the subject matter is more often from decades ago. I’d say at least 75% is about the first twenty years of Maoist rule, a period of great suffering, oppression, and often chaos that included the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist campaign, the devastating famine in the early 1960s, and the Cultural Revolution. Maybe 20% of what’s discussed involves events in China since then, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. No more than 5% is about pre-revolutionary China.

So I think it’s really more about keeping memories alive of the worst aspects of Communist rule, rather than about telling what China is like today.

It’s worth noting that the interviews are even farther from verbatim than in the typical oral history. In Studs Terkel’s books, for example, the interviews are significantly edited. But here the editing is apparently much more extensive. As explained in the translator’s introduction, “the interviews are literary as well as journalistic.” Often Yiwu conducted the interviews without a tape recorder, and sometimes without even taking notes. He subsequently reconstructed the conversations from memory, with apparently a healthy portion of creativity.

I wrote an oral history book myself, and of course one of the main decisions one must make is how much to alter the interview material. I chose to do very little editing. What ended up on the printed page in my book is at least 95% identical to the raw transcripts of the interviews. Where it differs it’s almost always a matter of cutting down on the “you knows,” “uhhs,” and general awkwardness that are so typical of spoken language but that slow a reader down. I didn’t change substance.

I decided what mattered most to me with the interviews was to accurately present what the interviewees said the way they said it. I didn’t want it to be about what I wanted them to have said, or what messages I wanted to convey to readers; I wanted it to be an accurate record.

I can understand and respect an author choosing instead to stray more from the verbatim, but it’s not an approach I prefer, as I think it opens the door to much greater manipulation by the author.

In the case of this book, a certain amount of author reconstruction like that was unavoidable because the interviews were sometimes conducted in a way that prevented them being recorded, for example conversations with fellow inmates in prison. To that extent I can’t really complain about it, but to the extent it was a matter of choice I’m not fully comfortable with it.

Anyway, whether it was unavoidable or not, and whether it was the correct editing choice or not, it’s important to keep in the back of your mind as a reader that really this is Yiwu’s partly fictionalized version of interviews he conducted, recounted the way he chooses for his own purposes.

Also, the interviews had been kicking around in other forms before this book—shorter or longer versions published in various periodicals, for instance.

Regardless of what I might think of the editing decisions, I found The Corpse Walker to be highly readable, consistently interesting, and often emotionally moving and sad.

The interviewees include plenty of oddballs and eccentrics, as well as more conventional underdogs and victims. They are mostly a sympathetic lot, and clearly Yiwu likes and respects most of them.

The “corpse walker” of the title is a reference to a bizarre custom that the author himself suspects may be apocryphal until he interviews someone who claims to be personally familiar with it.

Corpse walking is a sort of magician’s trick. In certain areas of rural China, when a person dies away from home, for religious reasons it is considered urgent to transport the body back to where the person was from. The corpse is made to appear to walk by itself, accompanied by a guide of sorts. In fact, there is a hidden accomplice carrying the body.

Death is one of the more frequent themes in the book. Another interviewee’s job is to wail at funerals, sometimes for hours and days at a time. As he describes it, it’s quite an art. You have to develop extreme stamina, and you have to have the kind of focus that a family member or someone legitimately grieving at the event is unlikely to have.

One of the minority of cases of an interviewee who is not presented sympathetically is the human trafficker who tricks women into forced marriages. He promises great job opportunities to young women just finishing their education, for instance, and then when they arrive at their destination they discover that all that is waiting for them is someone who paid for a bride, and who then abducts them, coerces them into a marriage, and basically holds them as a slave. He even sold his own daughters that way.

Yiwu typically follows the conventions of the oral history interviewer. He asks simple questions and then remains in the background, allowing the interviewee to speak. He keeps his comments to a minimum, addresses the interviewees with respect, and expresses gratitude for their cooperation. You’ll occasionally sense a bit of a playful smirk in how he interacts with some of the more eccentric characters, but mostly he’s detached.

Once in a while, though, he allows himself to express more emotion or moral indignation, as with the human trafficker, whom he multiple times insults. As appalling as the guy is, I actually experienced their exchange as comical at a certain level. The human trafficker is so bereft of any sign of conscience or self-doubt, and he’s so unfazed by anything Yiwu says, that Yiwu’s remarks—e.g., “If I were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment”—come across as utterly ineffectual sputtering.

While the book consists of stories of specific interesting and sometimes odd individuals, of course it’s primarily about the larger forces in recent Chinese history, especially the oppressive government.

That’s some scary stuff. I don’t know where Mao’s regime would rank in terms of total bloodshed and inhumanity, but it’s up there.

In the descriptions of those years, certainly there’s the corruption you’d expect, with the government officials enriching themselves at the expense of the people, but there’s a really high level of fanaticism too.

Ideologically I suppose the closest contemporary regime to what’s described here would be North Korea.

In its way it’s more chaotic more often than I picture most dictatorships. It’s like periodically Mao and the leadership would encourage certain elements not yet tainted by power to rise up—peasants, students, the lowest level workers, etc.—and then there would be mayhem that no one could fully control as anyone with much of anything in the way of wealth, power, education, etc. could be targeted as insufficiently ideologically pure.

So some of it was the usual top-down oppression and some was mob rule. A fair amount of it did seem to be sincere in a peculiar way. Like I say, in addition to the usual greed and power grabbing, there was plenty of fanaticism. Many of the people doing the worst things were utterly convinced they were creating a better world.

In a sense, though, that’s not unusual. The majority of military people throughout history, for example, have caused incalculable death and destruction with no pangs of conscience at all. Whatever country they were fighting for, they always somehow were on the side of justified defense against the bad guys, and had little choice but to obliterate human beings with swords, guns, and bombs.

Still, this is a different kind of fanaticism, a less familiar kind. I don’t know that it’s really worse than the more routine rationalizations that accompany mass violence, but it stands out more.

Torture was routine during those years in China. There are numerous instances detailed in the book that just make you shake your head at what people are capable of.

Famine killed millions. It’s not clear it was intentional in the same way that Stalin’s famine was, but even if it was more from incompetence, stupidity, refusing to admit mistakes, concern that improving the situation might alter the power structure in undesirable ways, or whatever, that doesn’t make the people any less dead. It doesn’t change the fact that the situation was so bad for so long that cannibalism became common in some areas.

One could argue that there’s a bias to the book, in that the injustice, the violence, the atrocities seem to all or almost all come from the Communist side. It’s as if almost everyone attacked by mobs and such in the Anti-Rightist campaign, the Cultural Revolution, etc. were just innocent folks minding their own business. The angry rhetoric of the Communist Party and the mobs about religious leaders using superstition to exploit people, and rich property owners having gained their wealth illegitimately and using it to oppress the poor are treated as self-evidently absurd propaganda.

You wouldn’t think from reading this book that the Nationalists who were overthrown were ever guilty of oppression or atrocities, or that China was ever under threat from foreigners, or that anyone or anything the Communists were fighting against deserved to be opposed. It’s like the Communists are just this insane, irrational, evil force, confiscating property from the people it rightfully belongs to, stamping out unobjectionable ideas, etc.

On the other hand, my reaction when I read about violence and atrocities like this is not to assume that the cause in question is unjust, but to become further entrenched in my conviction that no cause, however just or unjust, warrants behaving like this.

The abominable behavior of the Maoists doesn’t prove that their opponents were right or were all or mostly good people. The problem with the fanatics is not that they were mistaken in thinking they were combating evil, but in thinking that it’s justified to combat evil with evil.

In 1984, Winston Smith is asked if he truly opposes the Big Brother regime, if he’s so certain and so firm in his opposition to it that he would do whatever it takes to defeat it, including, for instance, throwing acid in the face of a child. He passionately replies that he absolutely is that committed to the struggle.

So are a lot of people in the real world, to both just and unjust struggles (or struggles that are a mix of just and unjust, which they pretty much all are). The Chinese Communists and plenty of the people opposed to them crossed that same line that Smith did. They did, and do, plenty of horrific things with the conviction that you have to do things like that as a necessary evil when the forces you’re fighting against are as powerful and as evil as they are.

I refuse to be like Smith. I won’t do the things the people in this book describe, regardless of how much I believe in a cause. I’m very much an “ends don’t justify the means” guy.

So I probably like the Chinese Communists even less now than before I read this book, but it’s not like that leads me to the conclusion that those who had the most wealth and power in pre-Communist China were the good guys, or that the American right wingers who most bitterly opposed the Chinese Communists before and after they came to power were the good guys.

I agree with some of the ends the Chinese Communists had and disagree with some, and regard the means they used to pursue them as utterly unacceptable, and I’d say largely the same thing about their opponents.

As I say, the bulk of the book has to do with the upheavals and oppression during the time of Mao, but there is some material here and there that’s more about contemporary China. And really contemporary China is not painted in all that favorable a way, which is perhaps not surprising since it is the current regime, after all, that has imprisoned and otherwise harassed the author.

But it’s interesting that it’s not just a matter of the current regime being treated as still evil insofar as it resembles Mao’s regime, and improved insofar as it has become more capitalist and moved more toward the West.

I can’t say the people interviewed “miss” the old days—God, how could they?—but there are some remarks made here and there to indicate that there were certain things about it that they miss. They mostly oppose the ideological fanaticism for all the brutality and suffering it gave rise to, yet at the same time have a certain respect for the sincerity and purity of it, to where they’re inclined to compare the present era unfavorably to it in some respects.

It’s like, “Yeah, people did terrible things back then when they were so fiercely committed to correcting injustices and making the world a better place and thought they had to ‘break a few eggs’ to do so, but people today only care about themselves and are obsessed with making as much money as possible.”

On the whole, The Corpse Walker is an interesting and worthwhile book, and I agree that what it documents is worth documenting, that the stories it tells must not disappear down the memory hole (just to make another 1984 reference), but I’m not without misgivings about it, and I don’t think I react to it quite the way most readers would, and probably not the way the author intended.

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