Liao Yiwu in Tainan

“My father made me stand on a table when I was small, and recite ancient classical Chinese. I could only climb down after I was able to recite the whole thing by heart. I was only 3 or four years old, maybe. I hated my father.” This is how 廖亦武 Liao Yiwu began to talk to the students and teachers of 國立成功大學 National Ch’engkung University in 台南 Tainan, after he played a wooden flute, a very basic instrument he had learned in prison. Very basic sounds, mute and suppressed at times. Loss and regret. No uplifting fable. “I am not going to tell you very much about the time when I went into prison. You would have no way to understand everything. I was like any young person. I didn’t want to listen to anybody from older generations. And I had gone through 文革 the Cultural Revolution, when my parents couldn’t take care of me. For me, classical Chinese belonged into the rubbish bin, along with many other things. My father was 84 years old when he died”, Liao Yiwu said. Or was it 88 years? Only a few hours of dialogue and open exchange between father and son, in all those years.
Dialogue and open exchange. Between 四川 Sichuan and 台南 Tainan. Between Taiwan and China. Between languages and experiences. Feeling lost, between clashing dialects, conflicting histories. Feeling rooted, at the bottom of society.

On the podium, scholars of 台灣閩南語文學 Taiwanese literature sat along with Liao Yiwu. They spoke in Taiwanese. One professor recited a poem by a high school student. Before Dawn, or something like that. About the massacre from 1947, February 28th. I didn’t understand the words. But you could understand the feeling. The answer is very simple, he said, when a 客家 Hakka student asked what she should do, because the words and songs of her grandmother would die with her. There were too few people who could still speak with her in 客家話 Hakka, she was afraid her mother tongue, her grandmother’s words would become extinct. The answer is very simple, the professor said very gently. He spoke mostly in Taiwanese, so I didn’t understand it all. But he said you just have to study, you can even major in Hakka now. It’s not easy, but there is a common effort.

It was very simple, Liao Yiwu said, when people asked him how he fled from China. I went to 雲南 Yunnan province, bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet. I had made lots of interviews there many years before, with people at the bottom of society. You turn off your mobile. You could also bring extra mobile phones. You get lost in small towns. And then one day I was across the border in 越南 Vietnam, very wobbly on my legs. There was a small train, like in China at the beginning of the 1980s. I knew such trains from drifting around China when I was young. In Vietnam, I was afraid of a lot of things, getting on the train, of simple things to eat. But I could communicate by writing numbers on a piece of paper. 500, wrote the innkeeper. 100, I wrote below. And so on. Finally I was in 河內 Hanoi, in a simple inn. And then I went on-line and contacted my friends and family in China. When I got on the plane to Poland, I was still afraid. The year before, military police in full military gear had come and taken me out of the plane in 成都 Chengdu. But then I realized, although this was a Socialist country, I was in the capital of another country, not in China. And the plane took off.

The lecture hall was full. I sat on the floor in the aisles, like many others. It was a very welcoming atmosphere. “We have a few books to give away for students asking questions in the second part of the lecture.” What is 流浪 liulang? What is 流亡 liuwang? What is 旅行 lüxing? These three words sound rather similar in Chinese. This was another professor speaking. He had studied in Russia. He was from a Taiwanese faculty in 台中 Taichung, but at this occasion, to clarify this question, he spoke in Mandarin. What is drifting about? What is exile? What is traveling? When you are drifting around, you don’t know where you are coming from, and you don’t know where you’re going. When you are going into exile, you know where you are coming from, but you don’t know where you are going, where they will let you stay. When you are traveling, you know where you come from, and you know where you’re going. Very simple differences. But what about us here in Taiwan? 我們是否知道自己從哪裡來,到哪裡去? Do we know where we are coming from, and where we are going? In the 1960s and 1970s, many writers and intellectuals in Taiwan were in prison. It was very hard, but you knew what you were fighting for. Just like the writers and lawyers in China, they know they are fighting for freedom. Now in Taiwan we are very free, in comparison. But we can still be marginalized.

One of the professors was my landlord from 1988 to 1990 in Taipei. He is the chairman of the Taiwanese PEN. In 1988 he was a doctoral candidate in history, and a stage decorator. We hadn’t seen each other or heard from each other for 22 years.

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一条回应 to “Liao Yiwu in Tainan”

  1. Poetry and music « 中国大好き Says:

    […] in January and February 2012. I was fortunate to witness two of his performances in Taipei and Tainan. It was exciting to witness how fast people in Taiwan were able to connect with Liao Yiwu. In […]


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