Much is made by liberal—and, unfortunately, even some conservative—criminal justice critics who drag out the ‘mass incarceration’ concept to indict America’s prison system for imprisoning more people per 100,000 than even nations like China; but the details of the treatment received by prisoners in Chinese prisons, as noted in this book review from the New York Times, make a mockery of that attempt.
“Unlike the Russian acronym “gulag,” the Chinese word “laogai” has not been incorporated into English, although the system of “reform through labor” that it describes functions on a far larger scale than the Soviet camps did and continues to thrive. So even if Liao Yiwu’s memoir of his time as a prisoner in that system were a dry recitation of statistics, it would be performing a necessary service.
“But Mr. Liao is a poet — he was, in fact, jailed because two poems he wrote in reaction to the massacre of unarmed students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 offended the Communist Party — with a poet’s observant eye and soaring imagination. As a result, “For a Song and a Hundred Songs” is a compelling and harrowing read, full of details about the laogai system and stuffed with portraits of those subjected to it, from politically naïve and idealistic students and Christians to murderers, rapists, thieves and embezzlers.
“Mr. Liao, who is now 54 and living in Berlin, makes clear that until his incarceration he had no interest in politics and was something of a bohemian, wastrel and womanizer. “I was influenced by the American Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and fantasized about aimless wandering,” he writes, a fascination that led both to a penchant for one-night stands and a job as a truck driver on the Sichuan-Tibet highway.
“But the Tiananmen Square massacre galvanized him, and trouble for which he was unprepared soon followed. Arriving at his first detention center, he is shocked and apprehensive when handed a booklet that lists “108 Rare Delicacies,” a menu of torture “dishes” that are “cooked” for recalcitrant prisoners. In “Noodles in a Clear Broth,” for example, “strings of toilet paper are soaked in a bowl of urine, and the inmate is forced to eat the toilet paper and drink the urine.”
“The title of Mr. Liao’s book derives from a later act of highly personalized torture, one not included on that menu. After a particularly sadistic guard caught him singing quietly to himself without authorization, Mr. Liao was ordered to sing 100 songs as punishment; when his voice gave out before he could fulfill that quota, the guard sodomized him with an electric baton.
“I screamed and whimpered in pain like a dog,” Mr. Liao recalled. “The electric current coursed through my flesh and burst out from my neck. I felt like a duck whose feathers were being stripped.” To spite his tormentor, Mr. Liao somehow summoned enough strength to sing a Communist Party anthem.”