Bullets and Opium-Tiananmen thirty years later

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Part of my summer reading has been Liao Yiwu‘s Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Liao got in trouble after the Tiananmen massacre,1 spent time in prison, and then spent a number of years trying to get by in Chengdu before moving abroad. Like his previous Corpse Walker this is a book of interviews. Like Corpse Walker it is not something I am likely to assign in class, but it is a really good book.2

You will note that I say he got in trouble during the Democracy movement, not that he was part of it. He was part of it in some respects of course, but the focus of this book are his fellow thugs. These are the non-university students who got involved in the movement, and got tossed in jail for it. There is a clear class divide in this book between the university types (who were rather cold towards these working class supporters even in 1989) and the people in this book, who are not likely to turn up at Davos.

Some of these people have sold out. Liao tells the story of meeting with couple old friends.

At the time, my wife was editing a weekly entertainment magazine published by a Chengdu nightclub. She was afraid that my shaved head was too conspicuous, the sign of an inmate, so she bought me a wig and forced me to wear it. I once went to the club to pick her up because it was late and I was worried about her getting home safely. As soon as I entered the club, I ran into the two managers, one fat and the other skinny, both of them drunk, both old friends of mine who used to be poets. Together we had run an underground poetry zine that poked fun at the Party. Of course they were both more idealistic and patriotic than I was during the 1989 student protests, publicly reciting their anticorruption poems on cam­pus. The night of June Fourth found them in Tianfu Square in Chengdu, bringing food and water to the students who were skirmishing with the military police, and ferrying the injured to hospitals.


At the club they recognized me right away. The fat one seized my wig and cried out, “What’s this counterrevolutionary doing in disguise?” The thin one yelled, “A girl for the counterrevolutionary!” I broke out in a cold sweat. They both roared with laughter and pulled me into a private room for a drink.


Three hostesses came in and started up the karaoke machine. The fat man produced his wallet and gave them all 100-yuan tips as if he were handing out candy. “Do you still write poems?” asked the skinny man.
“I haven’t been able to. I guess I just don’t feel like it,” I said.
“Well, if you do ever feel like it, try changing your tune and writ­ing poems that sing the praises of nightclubs, Chengdu nightlife, sexy women, and spicy hot pot,” he advised. “We can print your poems under a pseudonym in our magazine, the one your wife edits.”
I was dumbfounded. “You guys used to be dirt-poor poets who couldn’t even afford a decent bottle of booze. Where did you find the money for this place? The rent alone must cost you hundreds of thou­sands of yuan per year.”
“Just take out a loan and you can spend all you want,” said the fat man. “There’s someone I know at the bank who will take the building and facil­ities as collateral. Unfortunately, the girls don’t count as collateral.”
“Being poor hasn’t been socialist since Deng Xiaoping touted eco­nomic reform on his famous tour of southern China back in 1992,” the thin man chimed in. “Protesting for democracy won’t get us any­where. Money will.” p. 12-13

While some are selling out, that is not really the theme of the book. Most of these are people who were left behind. They might be willing to sell out, but nobody is buying. After some years in prison doing hard labor (did you buy latex gloves in the 90’s? One of these people may have been blowing into them to check for leaks. Did you see Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower? The armor was made by prison labor.) they are dumped on the street to fend for themselves, and mostly not succeeding. Divorce, booze, lousy jobs and constant harassment are their lot. “It was all very well to be killed for what you believed in, but I had been condemned to eke out a miserable existence indefinitely”3 In Liao Yiwu’s own story he mentions erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation several times, and all of these men (they are all men) are having trouble with what seems to be the main goal of their lives, which is settling down with a wife and a job and having a family. They have not really given up on politics, in the sense that they have forgotten what happened or have forgiven anyone. Some of them continue to defy the authorities, subtly or not so subtly, and we get to see the Chinese justice system in action, as in the story of Chen Yunfei

Chen had read my account of Wu’s death in The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up and had long wanted to get to present a bouquet of flowers at Wu Guofeng’s grave. He wanted to meet Wu’s parents, one of whom suffered from migraines, while the other had lost a kidney, and see if they would take on the animal tamer as a kind of adopted son. But when the animal tamer got to Xinjin, he was surrounded and captured by over a hundred “police beasts.” His crime, long ago determined by the relevant organs, was incitement to overthrow the government and troublemaking.


After being locked up for two years, Chen’s animal taming case was taken up in court. The prosecutor read the indictment. When Chen’s law­yer argued that he wasn’t guilty, the judge constantly yelled and inter­rupted him. People from his home village, who had gathered outside the courtroom to support him, were put one by one into a mobile animal cage. When the time came for the animal tamer to make his final statement, the judge glanced at his watch and told him that he had one minute.


Chen took a deep breath and started reading his statement. “Dear lawyer and swindlers of the prosecution: I have been tortured for over two years now. I feel like the legendary Monkey King who was thrown in the furnace for concocting the pills of immortality. It felt so good in there. The prosecution, the beatings, the wearing of leg irons that I have gone through are like math problems: the more difficult they are, the more interesting they get, and the more significant they become. I want to thank the swindlers of the prosecution again for making me the man I am today. Thank you for making me into a household name for spread­ing propaganda throughout the whole world on behalf of the cause of freedom of speech and opposing dictatorship and tyranny. It satisfies my vanity, though in reality I am not so good or brave as a person- ”


“Shut up!” roared the prosecutor.
“I always warn officials wandering near my prison door, for their own good: Ahead is a great abyss; retreat from it, repent, and be saved, or they will destroy you in the end-and they always do. People on the Internet ridicule me, saying that I am the black crow prophesying doom. Whoever I mention ends up going to jail … ”
“Shut up!” yelled the judge, the prosecutor, and the court stenogra­pher all together.

“Swindlers, stop before it’s too late … ”
“Seal his mouth! Son of a bitch!” they shouted, and the court bec­ame a combat zone as the roars of lions vied with the growls of tigers. The police rushed forward, but the animal tamer dodged them. The police swung their clubs and hit the face of the accused. Blood splat­tered in all directions, but he kept on reading his statement: “Lord, please forgive me . . . and forgive the swindlers of the prosecution because they know not what they do. I say this prayer in the name of Jesus, the son of our Heavenly Father … ”
They pushed the animal tamer to the ground. Once again his lips swelled up like a pig’s snout. The judge wiped the sweat from his face and sentenced Chen to four years in prison. Chen said he refused to ac­cept the sentence, swearing to appeal because it was too light. p.161

The state continues to persecute them, but for most of them their only sentence is to be poor and lack connections in contemporary China. Liao Yiwu is not happy with the direction China is going.

The Chinese people have become slaves waiting and willing to he plundered and trampled. And the Party said to Westerners: Come on over, build factories, set up businesses, construct tall buildings, and design computer networks. As long as you don’t talk about human rights or pick political scabs, you can do whatever you want. In your own country there are all those laws to obey and public opinion to worry about. You aren’t free to do as you like. You should come here and work with us. Come to our country and get dirty with us. Please go ahead and mess up our rivers, skies, food, and underground water resources to your heart’s desire. Come use our cheap labor. Make our people work day and night. Reduce them to nothing more than machines on the assembly line. By the time most people in China come down with different kinds of cancers in their bodies, minds, and characters because of all the pollution, you will have made even more money in this, the world’s biggest junkyard, where there will always be more business op­portunities than anywhere else.


In the name of free trade, many Western companies conspired with the butchers. They created a junkyard. Their profits-first “garbage system of values” became ever more influential. The Chinese people all knew that the butchers had the money and had their escape routes ready-that they would, in the end, abandon their scarred and battered motherland. They would all emigrate to the West to enjoy that pure land and its sunlight, its liberty, equality, fraternity. They might even join a church there and ask that same Jesus, who was nailed to a cross in ancient times by tyrants, to atone for their crimes. p.9

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the book is that he and his subjects almost seems like time travelers, still talking about democracy in China in 2019.


  1. I suppose as an American it is my patriotic duty to call it a riot, like our president does, but I think massacre fits better 

  2. It does not really work for me as a classroom book because the focus (like Corpse Walker) is on people at the absolute bottom of society. This makes it less representative than I would like for a classroom book for any of the things I teach. It might work well for a Contemporary China class 

  3. p.17  

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