By Liao Yiwu, from For a Song and a Hundred Songs, out next month from New Harvest. Liao, who was born in China in 1958, spent four years in prison for writing dissident poetry after the Tiananmen Square massacre. God Is Red, a collection of Liao’s profiles of Christians in China, was published in 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Wenguang Huang.
In 1988, when the era of automobiles dawned in China, my older sister, Fei Fei, died in a freak car accident. She was thirty-seven years old.
It was the first time I had experienced the death of someone close to me. My grandpa had passed away earlier that year, but he had lived in a remote village and had never been part of my life. Mourning for him seemed merely a family obligation. But Fei Fei was my beloved sister; we were two melons from the same vine, and her death affected me profoundly.
I have written many heartbreaking essays and poems about it, deliberately avoiding the bloody and gruesome details of her final moments. Describing her death as a formless abstraction was more tolerable in my state of ravenous grief and possibly even less repugnant to the gentle, refined spirit of the deceased. But between truth and eternity, I chose to focus on another dimension. In the mystical world traversed by many romantic artists, Fei Fei’s spirit merged with nature, where it could soar, transformed. If Fei Fei had been looking down, she would have been embarrassed by the decorous phrases I heaped on her. She was an angelic being, I wrote, “bathed in rays of static light.”
When I first began secretly jotting down ideas for this memoir at Sichuan Provincial Prison No. 3 in 1993, I constantly returned to memories of Fei Fei — she was my imaginary first reader. Over the subsequent years, when the prospect of getting this book published was nil, writing for Fei Fei became my sole motivation to continue.
As the eldest child, Fei Fei toiled all her life. Ever since she was a little girl, her job had been to wash the family clothes by hand, kneading them against the ridges of a washboard. Incredibly, the hard work seemed to lift her spirits — she would burst into old movie tunes, singing lyrics I retained for many years. At night, she liked to regale me and our siblings with horror stories about dead bodies reanimating themselves in the morgue, or a grisly murder inside the city’s ancient bell tower. Often my sister’s stories would send us under a quilt with only our ears exposed.
In 1966, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Fei Fei left home to take up a job at a logging firm in the faraway Pingwu county, in northwest Sichuan. Before long, the whole country was engulfed in turmoil. Our family also fell apart under the attacks of the Red Guards. Our father, the son of a former landlord, taught Chinese literature at a high school in Yanting, a small city in northeast Sichuan. For this, he was labeled a counterrevolutionary. To protect us, our parents divorced, and we were placed in the sole custody of our mother, who packed our meager belongings and hurried us south, to the capital city of Chengdu. There, we took shelter with our aunt.
I had turned eight that year, and life was hard without my father. Soon after our arrival in Chengdu, my aunt’s neighbors reported on our supposed infractions. Accusing my mother of being the wife of an escaped landlord and living in the city without a permit, the authorities expelled us. Once again we had to pack and leave, and this time we found a home in a nearby suburb. We had no money to buy food. One day, a relative gave my mother a coupon that was good for one six-foot-long piece of cloth. My mother intended to sell the coupon on the black market in exchange for some food for the family, but she got caught by the Public Security Bureau. In those days, it was a serious offense to sell government-issued coupons. They detained her and then denounced her, along with other criminals, on the stage of the Sichuan Opera House, in front of thousands of people. Somehow, I was sheltered from the news initially, so I was devastated when many of my classmates informed me that they had seen the authorities parading my mother around the opera stage.
In Pingwu, Fei Fei was spared the family’s hardships and political troubles. In fact, she later said those years in Pingwu were the happiest of her life. By fabricating a politically suitable family history, she was even able to join a singing troupe responsible for propagating the thoughts of Chairman Mao; she won rave reviews for her portrayal of an underground Communist Party member masquerading as the proprietress of a tea shop, in the Beijing opera Shajiabang. My inventive sister soon became a minor celebrity. Even now, my mother keeps an old picture of a tall, slender Fei Fei in her tea-shop owner’s costume, posing onstage against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains.
Fei Fei’s fans in Pingwu could easily have filled an auditorium. Not surprisingly, she had many suitors and her love life was filled with drama. After she rejected the affections of one handsome young fellow, he committed suicide by swallowing several boxes of matches. In later years, Fei Fei fell deeply in love with a military officer. The army, however, disapproved of their union after finding out that our father was a “counterrevolutionary.” The relationship ended.
Three years after that, Fei Fei married a former colleague and relocated, giving birth to two girls. Though her own family demanded her full attention, she still found time to take care of her siblings and to help our parents. My elder brother had been sent to work in the countryside after high school, and during breaks he would travel hundreds of miles to stay with her. My younger sister and I also visited her often. She shared her food rations with us and bought us clothes with her savings.
During the Lunar New Year celebrations in 1988, Fei Fei and I sat around the charcoal stove, chatting and catching up until dawn. Life wasn’t too easy for her. She was planning a business trip to Pingwu to purchase some lumber on behalf of a company in Chengdu. With her commission from the deal, she intended to take Mom and Dad to Jiangxi province, where they had first met.
“It’s been so long since I had a vacation,” Fei Fei reflected.
A week later, I saw her off at the Chengdu train station. Passengers swarmed the check-in gate. Fei Fei took her bag from me, slung it over her shoulder. Before she was swept away by the wave of humans, she yelled back, “I’m going now! Bye!”
That was our final farewell. Each time I think about it, my throat feels like it is filled with stones.
As planned, Fei Fei traveled to Pingwu with a friend. She had taken the winding mountain path countless times, but on this occasion the minibus, with seven passengers on board, spun out of control. Careening down a ridge, it teetered perilously on the edge of a cliff with its front wheel jutting into the air. In the violent descent, Fei Fei was flung out of the bus. Her body flew through the air until it was impaled on a sharp tree limb that cut through her waist. When they reached her, she was soaked in blood. The driver was able to get the bus back onto the road, and as he sped to the hospital Fei Fei’s friend kept her awake by softly calling her name while urging the driver to go faster. She never reached the hospital. The moment before she died, Fei Fei pressed her lips to her friend’s ear, apparently trying to murmur something. Then she was gone.
I’ve always wondered: Did Fei Fei’s soul take the minibus to Jiangxi in search of the village where she was conceived?
Our parents met in Jiangxi in 1948. They never talked about how they fell in love, but over the years we managed to piece together a rough sketch from our maternal grandmother of how their life began.
My mother’s younger brother ran an itinerant Beijing opera troupe that performed in the provinces along the Yangtze River. They drifted into a small town in Jiangxi’s Panyang Lake region. Known for his quick temper, my uncle offended a local landlord, who, along with some hired thugs, beat him to death. My grandma hurried to the little town with my mother to bury my uncle. As the two women burned money in front of the new grave and bid farewell to the departed, a young teacher happened to pass by. He was touring the scenic area on his spring vacation. Thanks to their common accents, my future mother made my future father’s acquaintance. It was fate.
Before her death, my grandma entrusted my mother to the care of the young man. They were married and had four children; Fei Fei was the eldest and I the third. It was not, however, a tranquil domestic life. As far as I can remember, my parents’ marriage was marked by turbulence, and they spent much of their time together bickering and squabbling. My mother would say, “We never thought about whether we loved each other or not. We had to survive and raise a family.”
There were no photographs from the early years of our family life. Only one group picture survived, of my paternal grandmother, my father, my elder brother, and Fei Fei. We treated it like an excavated artifact. And when Fei Fei came of age, she filled the void by taking many rich and colorful pictures in those drab and monotonous years of the Cultural Revolution. She had a waist-high stack of albums filled with black-and-white snapshots chronicling every family milestone. Four decades after that accidental encounter between my mother and my father on a hilltop in Jiangxi, after our family had expanded into different parts of the country, Fei Fei was the first one to return to that cemetery.
I received the news of Fei Fei’s death by telegram in Fuling, a city in the mountains of eastern Sichuan province where I was poet in residence at a municipal institute. Tucking the telegram into my breast pocket, I left my tearful wife, A Xia. For the next two nights I traveled, first by boat, then by train, to my sister’s home in Mianyang, more than 600 miles away. As the train approached Mianyang, I began to realize how much I dreaded seeing her body in the morgue after days of seeing her in my mind’s eye as I remembered her.
When I reached her home, the house had already been cleaned out. Stacks of black mourning sheets lay piled up in a corner. Outside, on the balcony, scraps of half-burned paper wreaths danced up and down in the evening wind. Relatives stood around stoically like pieces of old furniture in the living room. An urn stood on a table at the center of the room.
“What took you so long?” my younger sister, Xiao Fei, snarled.
“We waited three days for you,” said my brother-in-law. “With the weather so warm, we had to act fast.”
I reached into my pocket to get the telegram and checked the date. Somehow, it had sat for two days before being transmitted. Tears flooded down my cheeks. I had missed the funeral but been spared the sight of my sister’s corpse. The realization hit me: Fei Fei’s spirit must have intervened. I put on a black armband and retreated to the balcony. At dusk, claps of thunder echoed around us. The earth vibrated like a stage on the verge of collapsing. I left my sister’s home and pushed my way through the thick curtain of rain. Streetlights blinked like the eyes of ghosts. Cars swam in the water like sea animals. The vendors’ makeshift shelters bent in the wind. I waded in the water and kept going, too afraid to stop, afraid that I would be drowned in sadness.
I sought out a poet friend. We sat at a nearby restaurant, drenched from the rain, and drank. In an attempt to distract me from the family tragedy, my friend brought up the perennial topic of literature. Very soon, we were bantering loudly about the future of avant-garde poetry in China. The argument helped my appetite, but the mouth that did the talking and eating seemed to belong to someone else. A stern voice inside me said it was time to grieve, but it was eclipsed by the beautiful, serene night after a heavy rain. I rejected grief, preferring instead the image of Fei Fei beaming at me with her perfect white teeth and dimpled cheeks. How could my sister, this gentle breeze, have been mangled by the violence of a car accident?
The stare of a young woman seated nearby seared my cheeks. I craved a healthy body glowing with animalistic desire; the burning passion could certainly dry my wet skin. I needed to bury my head in her breasts and hide myself inside that familiar childhood shelter to return to the illusions Fei Fei’s death had shattered.
Half an hour later, I followed her to her door. The stranger turned out to be a newlywed, and her husband was away on a business trip. Silently, we kissed each other in the darkness before fumbling our way to the bed. In her house, we quickly turned into two hungry wolves, as if trying to tear out each other’s intestines and lungs. She moaned with pleasure and, at the height of her passion, bit me as if I were a piece of bamboo shoot, leaving bruises on my neck and back. My mourning outfit lay strewn on the floor. The trees rustled outside, their shadows flickered on the window. It sounded to me as though Fei Fei were sighing in disappointment and anger. I had stained the memories of my sister.
In the decade following Fei Fei’s death, guilt over that sexual escapade in the immediate aftermath of her funeral haunted me, but when I was with my poet friends, I fell back into my old ways. It was a time when the old had given way and a new era was still waiting to be defined. Under Mao, ordinary citizens had been subjected to detention and jail sentences for premarital sex and adultery. With the death of Mao, old, puritanical values were gradually evaporating, especially in the world of literature. Young poets contended not only for recognition of their genre-defying works but also over the number of women they had slept with. A well-known society for avant-garde poets was practically a smoke-filled sex club, where orgies and swinging were common.
I never fully joined this epicurean poetry society, but I led the life of a well-dressed hypocrite, a poet who portrayed himself as a positive role model but all the while breathed in women as if I were breathing air, seeking shelter and warmth in random sex. I had turned into a ghost. As we are well aware, in Chinese culture ghosts possess no heart and never need to repent.