March 13, 2008
Liao Yiwu has a knack for capturing stories from everyday people in China that manage to be both poetic and funny. I first encountered Yiwu's work via the Paris Review in this story about a peasant who in 1985 declared himself emperor of Sichuan province.
Yiwu has recently released a book titled The Corpse Walker which is a collection of interviews of people in the bottom rungs of Chinese society-morticians, lepers, professional mourners, etc. This short excerpt of an interview with a mortician is a good example of his writing:
"Beauty doesn't last. It's bound to be destroyed. So many kind, good-looking people die each day. I work on their bodies, hoping to temporarily preserve and enhance their beauty before they are gone forever. I don't want to lose anyone anymore. The scariest part of life is not death but the loss that comes with death. My former boss died at the beginning of this year. He was not even seventy. I did the makeup for him. This guy had one hobby when he was alive. He collected wedding invitations when he was young, and when he turned fifty, he began to collect obituaries. His whole room was filled with his collections. He used to say that all obituaries sounded the same and that we Chinese people lack imagination in the use of language. He wanted his own obituary to be unique, so he began to compose it when he was still alive. He printed hundreds of copies and stored them in a drawer with his bank statements and his will. After he died, his friends showed one to Old Wang, the new Party secretary at the funeral home. Old Wang, who was going to preside over the memorial service, read it aloud to several people during rehearsal. Nobody could understand what the obituary was about. It was so archaic, it sounded like haiku. I didn't know half of the characters. It was handwritten. He must have read it hundreds of times before he died, hoping those would be the last words he left for the world. But the new Party secretary didn't think the obituary reflected the revolutionary spirit of the new era. So he composed a new one filled with modern political jargon, in a style that our past director had despised. Oh well, what can you do? This is China. You don't have much control when you are alive. When you die, you won't have control over your obituary either. "