Dear Madam Merkel:
I send my regards from afar.
My name is Liao Yiwu; I am a writer from the bottom of Chinese society. Not long ago, the German edition of my book, Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser: Chinas Gesellschaft von unten [published in English under the title of The Corpse Walker], was published by [S.] Fischer Verlag. Owing to the high acclaim from readers and critics, it sold quite well, and [S.] Fischer Verlag now plans to publish another of my books in German, My Testimony [unofficial translation of 《我的证词》, Wo de zhengci], about prison life.
I’m writing this letter to you not only because you are the Chancellor of Germany, with considerable power to rally support when it comes to international affairs, but because you once lived in dictatorial East Germany, and perhaps you were trampled upon, humiliated, had your freedom restricted, and have some understanding of how I feel at this very moment. When the Berlin Wall fell you were 35 years old, I was 31 years old; that year the June Fourth massacre also happened; the night it happened I created and recited the long poem, “Massacre” [unofficial English translation of 《屠杀》, Tusha]. For this I was arrested and imprisoned for four years. In 1997, we founded the underground literary magazine The Intellectuals [unofficial English translation of 《知识分子》, Zhishifenzi]; in the inside front cover and inside back cover of the first issue we published two exciting photos: one was from 1970, of Willy Brandt, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, representing the German people, kneeling, admitting guilt, and repenting at the monument to the innocent victims of World War II, in Warsaw, Poland; the other photo was from November 9, 1989, when the people, ecstatic, broke through the Berlin Wall.
As individuals, perhaps we once had a shared history? Maybe I am destined to experience, sooner or later, what you experienced in the past? God really looks out for the Germans.
Because I have insisted on independent writing that bears witness, I have been strictly prohibited for many years from publishing one single word in my own country; furthermore, for many years, I have been strictly prohibited from going abroad. I have applied for a passport ten times. At the end of 2008, because of the chaos of the Sichuan earthquake, I unexpectedly obtained a passport, but I still could not leave the country.
I have had the experience of being detained at customs and sent back.
The most recent time was the international Frankfurt Book Fair. As the guest of honor, China sent more than 100 official writers, and a delegation of more than 1,000 people of all kinds, in order to make a strong showing in the “Olympics of culture.” But I, alone, was absent. [This happened] even though I had also received a formal invitation to be an honored guest at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt headquarters in Berlin, where a series of activities had been arranged for me, including reading from my works, giving talks, and performing music.
My absence—having been blocked by Chinese police—revealed by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, prompted an uproar in German society. Thanks to upstanding German readers, my book about the bottom of Chinese history has gone into reprint many times. But I couldn’t cheer up: after this many years, who would’ve thought that it is only through this kind of “hand-to-hand combat” method that I and my fellow writers of underground literature can make a breakthrough and be known in the West. Similarly, as in the case of my old friend, the literary critic Liu Xiaobo, can it be that only through the disaster of an 11-year prison term would Western political, business, intellectual, and Sinology circles be awoken from their beautiful dream of interests through complicity with a dominant dictatorial power?
We have a sense of linguistic beauty, historical shame, and artistic sanctity. We are not any worse than the writers promoted by the Chinese government who can do whatever they want in the West. Thus, right after my absence from the Frankfurt Book Fair and my receipt of a formal invitation from the lit.Cologne literary festival, I began communicating and negotiating with the police, time and again. I agreed to keep a low profile and avoid current politics as much as I could and instead focus only on literature, memories, and history. I had been stifled in the dirty and tortuous sewer for more than 50 years; I really needed to breathe and have a taste of freedom. Is it sweet? Sour? Or is it colorless and tasteless? My stench-filled Chinese lungs wouldn’t be unsuited for it, would they? Would I feel a sense of loss? I downloaded some images of Cologne and also a description:
Lit.Cologne hosts more than 60,000 guests each year and is currently Germany’s largest literature festival. When asked how lit.Cologne managed to break the record for literature festivals for eight years straight—and with one reading held at the Cologne stadium with an audience of 15,000 being included in the Guinness Book of World Records—the organizer, Mr. Koehler, replied, “Because the people of this city and region have a passion for literature.”
I also learned that I would be reading my works, performing music, and having discussions and dialogues with many important Western writers during the festival. Especially interesting among them is Herta Müller, the 2009 Nobel laureate in Literature who also experienced humiliation for the sake of survival under an authoritarian regime. Reading her works is like reading the psychological history of modern China. I would like to ask her about the “method of retelling,” the feeling of “crossing borders and fleeing for the first time,” and whether being eavesdropped and secretly spied upon made her unable to write. Does writing freely or writing under eavesdropping excite more varied passions?
I will also mention the German film The Lives of Others. Can the mournful “Sonata for a Good Man” in that movie really move the old special agent in the basement? Just as, more than ten years ago, a wayward police chief named Cao Jian came to my house quietly in the middle of the night to listen to me play the bamboo flute?
However, the regime has not changed its color because of this. Consequently, the day before yesterday, February 3, 2010, the police called to inform me that I am not allowed to leave the country. I asked him, “Why?” The police officer said “The ban from above has not been lifted.’ I asked him, “Who is above?” The police officer said they cannot tell me. I asked them, “Is ‘above’ in Sichuan or in Beijing?” The police officer hesitated a moment, and said, “In Beijing.”
I shut my mouth. I know my country wishes that I will shut my mouth forever like the people at the bottom of society in my book, who have been deprived, trampled upon, and violated, but cannot make a sound—or if they do, no one will listen. Even if people did listen, everyone would advise that you resign to fate and follow the unspoken rule of “Everyone is shameless, so why can’t you be shameless too?” Yes, yes, my country hopes that I will be like the vast majority of state-supported writers, who have been deprived, trampled upon, and violated in their thoughts and bodies, who still strive to forget, still express gratitude numbly, and say that this is necessary to look good. Just like a prostitute, after being violated by a client—as long as the client pays up, and says a few words of consolation like, “The market will be bigger in the future and the sales will be better”—would say thank you, and would say that this is necessary to look good.
I write this letter to you, Madam Merkel, for the sake of the little that remains of my hopes and dignity after being violated. I implore that you pay close attention to my being blocked from coming to your country, and implore that the German government under your leadership use its diplomatic channels and influence, so that I will not repeat my absence from the Frankfurt Book Fair, this time from lit.Cologne. Literature cannot be again dishonored by might.
The thousands upon thousands of German readers who purchased my book, Fräulein Hallo und der Bauernkaiser: Chinas Gesellschaft von unten, are looking forward to my appearance in Cologne as scheduled at the festival’s invitation; [S.] Fischer Verlag, which is preparing My Testimony, my second book in German, is still looking forward to sharing the experience of writing under suppression and being published freely. And I am looking forward to studying democracy and learning how to laugh and cry healthily, no longer having to sneak around.
Thus, regardless of whether or not the police department prohibits me, I shall go to the German Embassy to apply for a visa, and then purchase a plane ticket, and cross the borders accordingly, to make my final push in the dash to Cologne. Even if they intercept me at customs as they have forewarned me, I could not let down my German readers, nor the German media who have continued to support me.
If my wish comes true, I would not do anything to harm my motherland, aside from speaking the truth. I also would not exploit the influence of “banned literature” to seek political asylum. I would return to China by every possible means. Because the land of my writing is here and the ears for my music are here, among the hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese. It is unimaginable that a writer would be able to do anything once he has left the place of his mother tongue. Though as an old friend, Liu Xiaobo, wrote me in a letter ten years ago: Compared to this clever world, you and I are but fools. We are only fit to ride the Ship of Fools like those in ancient Europe, drifting in the open seas; whatever land we hit first will be our home.
Thank you very much for reading this letter.
I hope that I will receive your assistance.
I would surmise that the views of the organizers of lit.Cologne, [S.] Fischer Verlag, and the dear German readers and media would be more or less the same as mine.
Author, poet, and writer
February 5, 2010
From my home in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China